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Authors: Fred Stenson

Who by Fire

BOOK: Who by Fire
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ALSO BY FRED STENSON

FICTION

The Great Karoo
Lightning
The Trade
Teeth
Working Without a Laugh Track
Last One Home
Lonesome Hero

NON-FICTION

Thing Feigned or Imagined
The Last Stack
RCMP: The March West
Story of Calgary
Waste to Wealth
Rocky Mountain House

Copyright © 2014 Fred Stenson

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher—or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.

Doubleday Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Stenson, Fred, 1951-, author
   Who by fire / Fred Stenson.

ISBN 978-0-385-66879-8

eBook ISBN 978-0-385-66880-4

   I. Title.

PS8587.T45W46 2014 C            813′.54            C2014-903137-8
                                                                        C2014-903138-6

Who by Fire
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover image: Cover images: (landscape) Shahriar Erfanian, 41 Stories/Getty Images;
(scratches) © Milosluz |
Dreamstime.com

Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited,
a Penguin Random House company

Visit Random House of Canada Limited’s website:
www.randomhouse.ca

v3.1

To my sisters, Marie Gray and Lois Johnston,

and in memory of our parents, Ida and Ted Stenson

who will die at his predestined time and who before his time;

who by water and who by fire

Unetaneh Tokef, from the liturgy of the Days of Awe

PART ONE

So bright was the light outside his window that the frost on the stippled wall was glinting. This he saw as he came awake. A deep rumble from outside had woken him, and a humming in his bedspring. He reached above his head and touched a metal flower in the bedstead. It buzzed against his finger
.

He slid from under the heavy tick. His feet found the hooked rug. Through his window he could see along the snow to the top of the church hill, could see the cross on the steeple that his mother’s father had placed there on a windy day long ago. He wondered what could make a light at night brighter than a moon, and a sound that made a house shake. God, he supposed
.

The boy heard voices. The younger of his sisters was crying and the older one scolding from their bedroom across the hall. Between his and their room was a grate in the floor to bring up heat. His father’s growl and his mother’s higher voice rose through it
.

He went to the stairs and crept down. Through the door frame at the foot, he saw the shadow of his father cross the window. His father was wearing winter underwear, and the boy could see the comical lump at the back: the poop-flap hanging by its button
.

He did not announce himself but followed. He stopped in the kitchen while his father shoved his feet into gumboots in the porch. With no more
clothes than that, his father opened the door and stepped into the freezing night
.

The boy copied his father exactly. Bare feet into cold boots. He left the house and went down the shovelled cut to where the trucks were parked and beyond to where his father stood, his face a moving yellow
.

Above the driveway hill, a fire leapt and twisted, like the fire in the Bible that burns without wood, or the fire that comes out of the rubbed lantern in
Illustrated Folk Tales of the World.
A genie set free after a thousand years. The boy could smell hard-boiled eggs. His eyes stung. His stomach filled with pressure
.

His father set his big hand like a collar on the boy’s neck, turned him, and pushed him toward the house. The boy ran ahead to where the door was open and his mother’s nightgown glowed. She took him and held him to her hot flannel shape. When the door closed behind them, she asked, “What?”

“Sulphur plant,” his father said. “Goddamn thing’s upset again.”

Teacups rattled in their saucers in his mother’s china cabinet. The linoleum floor sizzled through his socks. A wall cracked
.

The boy was embarrassed that his father’s words for this were so small. The roaring genie eating the darkness needed more. The boy could not say it either, but someone should
.

1

Ryder Farm, 1960

RUMOUR HAD IT
there was going to be a gas plant, what some called a sulphur plant. The story had been around since the first crews came five years earlier, shooting seismic lines and drilling wildcat wells in the foothills. Ella first heard of the gas plant’s actual location on a supply trip to town in summer. While Mildred rang up Ella’s groceries at the Co-op, she asked, “Is it true the gas plant is going to be by your place?”

Ella said she had not heard anything like that.

“I did,” Mildred said. “Near Ryders’ and Bauers’. That’s what I heard.”

On the drive home, their youngest, Billy, sat in his usual spot on the front seat, tucked against his mother’s side. The girls, Jeannie and Donna, were in the back, taking turns with a movie magazine they had pooled their allowances to buy. Billy had a
Classics Illustrated Robinson Crusoe
comic, but Ella could tell by the way he was leafing back and forth that he was losing interest. He would soon regret not having bought the one about Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in Hawaii, and then he would cry. He was only five.

In fact, Ella started crying before her son did. The car was leaving the flat that contained the town of Haultain when the tears came.

“It’s only a garage door,” Tom said. She knew what he was thinking: that she was crying because of what had happened at her parents’ place. They had stopped there for a minute to drop off groceries and Ella’s parents insisted everyone come in for coffee and cake. Billy stayed outside and nobody noticed him climb into the car. He liked to sit behind the wheel pretending to drive. His father had told him to
never
touch the green button under the dash. Billy pushed the button, and the car had lurched into the garage door.

The car only went a foot before the transmission held. Still, it hit the door hard enough to crack it. Tom went racing out, and Ella followed. She could already see that Billy was fine, but she did not trust Tom’s temper. Before she could stop him, he had grabbed Billy’s arm and pulled him from the car. Ella caught her husband’s sleeve and told him to let go. She had read that it was possible to pull a child’s arm right out of the shoulder socket.

Tom dropped Billy’s arm like a live coal and gave the boy a scolding.

“It’s not the garage door,” Ella said now. “It’s the gas plant.”

“Oh, hell,” said Tom. “That Mildred likes to pass on bad news. She makes up half of it. How the hell would she know where the plant’s going to be?”

“Those girls hear things. They hear everything.”

“That doesn’t mean what they hear is true.”

“The way she put it. Ryders’ and Bauers’. If she’d said it was near Ryders’ place, that could mean farther away, but Ryders’ and Bauers’ means right at our place.”

“Oh, for chrissake.” Tom turned toward her and was not even looking at the road. As always he had a roll-your-own in the corner of his mouth. Ash fell and Ella grabbed at it. Billy flinched away.

“That company’s not stupid. It’s not going to set a plant on top of two families.”

“You don’t
know
that, Tom.”

“Okay, I don’t. But there’s no sense crying about what you don’t know either.”

But the gas plant site was at Ryders’ and Bauers’. Three weeks after that day at the Co-op, a stream of caterpillar tractors entered the field across from Ryders’ driveway, followed by dirt haulers that Tom called yukes. The cats and yukes scraped off a big area—down to the clay—in the middle of Bauers’ hayfield. Ella had been born in this house, had looked at that field all her life, and now it was nothing but a black and tan surface around which yellow machines crawled, carving and filling.

“That’s less than a half mile from our house,” Tom said as they stood watching. His voice was strained and peculiar. The whole family had walked to the top of the driveway hill, the wind in their faces.

“The stuff from the plant will blow right at us,” said Ella, and Tom’s look suggested he would like to argue but couldn’t.

Not long after the machines showed up, Dora and Curt came over to the Ryders’ house. They were good friends, had been neighbours forever. Both families had three children, almost matched in age and sex. When Billy saw the Bauers’ car, he expected Petey to be in it. When Petey was not there, Billy went into a sulk, and Ella sent him outside to play with the dog.

Curt and Tom went to the living room, while Dora and Ella sat at the kitchen table. The women could hear the men, and the first thing Curt said was, “I should have told you before I signed.”

Dora turned to face Ella. “The company man who came to the house said the site was on our land. We thought we could say no if we wanted, but that’s not true. Since the government owns the
mineral rights, they’d already approved it. We didn’t really have a choice, except to sell part of the land or all of it.” Dora paused, sat up straighter. “And you know, Ella, their offer was better than what land goes for around here. I can’t speak for Curt, but I think we might have argued harder if it had been a normal price.”

BOOK: Who by Fire
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