Sunday 4 April 2021

The Burning Hills - Short Story by Daniel Tarker

The Burning Hills

The crow watched the hills surrounding the town of Lauper Lake burn. It perched on the top of an oak tree next to the lake the town was named after. The crow did not know how long the hills had been burning. It knew there was a time before the fires, and then there was the time after the fires. They made the sky glow red at sunset. And at night, the crow could see a line of flames wrapping around the hills on the outskirts of town, enclosing the enclave in a ring of fire.

The crow flew down to a lower branch of the tree to look for food. It saw three women walking on the concrete path around the lake. They all wore plastic masks over their faces. There was a time before the masks, and a time after. The crow recognized the women. They walked around the lake often. He had no animosity toward them. Their voices were muffled, so he only heard fragments of their voices as they passed.

“Sometimes I still wonder…”

“Wonder about what?”

“The fire.”

“What about it?”

            “How it really started?”

            “The newspaper said lightening.”

            “I’m skeptical.”

            “I it was heard arsonists.”

            “Arsonists? Who said?”

            “Some people at the café. Someone said the arsonists are jealous of us.”

            “Well, I heard some vagrants tried to burn some trash at their campsite and the fire got out of control.”

            “I just hope the smoke doesn’t blow our way and stop the concert at the gazebo tonight.”

            The crow didn’t know what their words meant. It didn’t care. It watched the women walk into the distance until it couldn’t hear their conversation any longer. It then took flight to look for food. It wasn’t concerned about what started the fire, but it did not enjoy all the smoke in the air. There was so much of it that sometimes the sun glowed red and the afternoon sky looked as dark as charcoal.

The crow landed on a trash can and began pecking a partially eaten turkey sandwich hanging out of a paper bag. Two old men sat on a bench beside the trashcan. One wore black glasses and held a walking stick. The other drank from a flask and had yellowish eyes. Neither wore the plastic masks. They both labored to breathe.

            “Do you think she’ll come this year,” asked the man with the walking stick.

            “I sure hope so,” said the man with the flask.

            “Do you think the fires will scare her off?”

            “I sure hope not.”

            “Do you think we’ll survive if she doesn’t - ?”

            No response.

            “Do you think…?”

            “I sure hope so,” the man with the flask said angrily, cutting the man with the cane off. He took a swig from his flask but doubled over with a heavy cough before he could swallow, spraying his pants and shoes with vodka.

            “Goddamn smoke,” he said, wiping his face. “Why can’t they just get that fire out already?”

            “I heard someone say they’re stoking the fires with the dead,” the man with the cane said. “They’re using our bodies as kindling to keep the fire going. Using our own flesh to burn us out of our homes.”

            “I wouldn’t be surprised,” the man with yellowish eyes said. And then he took another swig from his flask. He closed his eyes and smiled as the vodka went down.

            The crow carried a slice of turkey from the sandwich over to a park bench by the playground. A young mother sat on a blanket in the grass next to the swing set.  Her two children sat with her, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Their plastic masks hung down around their necks while they ate. A dog with golden hair sat by the children, watching what they did with their sandwiches with great intensity. The dog had a mask too, but the mother had taken it off and set it in the grass so it could drink some water from a plastic bowl.

            “The woman lives in the lake, under the water, and she only comes out once a year,” the mother explained. “And she goes over to that gazebo over there – do you see that gazebo?” The mother pointed across the way to a white gazebo near the water. The children looked in the direction she pointed toward. The dog’s gaze remained locked on the sandwiches. “She stands in the gazebo and sings the most beautiful music. Her voice is like…” The mother paused to find the right words to communicate the experience with an analogy her children would understand. “Her voice makes you feel like you do when you’re snuggled under a blanket on a rainy day with a cup of hot chocolate.”

The two children smiled and nodded with enthusiasm. “I can’t wait,” said the boy. “I love her already,” said the girl.

“You will love her,” said the mother. “You can go to the concert feeling so sad and blue, but her voice – it washes all that away It’s like getting the warmest and most bubbly bubble bath in the world.”

            “But how does the woman live under the water all year, mommy,” the girl asked, looking over at the lake. “How does she breathe under the water?” Suddenly, noticing the girl was distracted, the dog lunged at her sandwich and devoured it in one bite. The little girl cried out, startling the crow, driving it off into the air before it heard the answer to the girl’s question – not that it was interested in the response.

            The crow flew to the gazebo and landed on the roof. In the distance, it could see the orange light of the fires in the hills, the smoke wafting up into the sky. An airplane flew overhead, dropping a liquid substance over the flames.

            The crow looked down at the clearing in front of the gazebo. Two people were carrying folding chairs from a truck and arranging them into rows. One was a man with a missing arm who had to carry each chair one at a time. The other was an old but robust woman who carried two chairs at a time. They both wore plastic masks.

            “I’m nervous,” the one-armed man said.

            The old woman ignored him. She finished a row with her two chairs and started walking back to the truck to get more.  

            “They say all the ash from the fires is hurting the lake,” the one-armed man said, struggling to unfold his chair to start a new row.  “They say it is poisoning the water and killing the fish.” After much effort, he unfolded his chair and carefully set it on the grass. “I think it’s true, too,” he continued. “I was over by the pier yesterday. And I saw a dozen trout floating belly-up.”

            By this time the old woman had returned with two more chairs and began to add them to the row he had begun assembling. Her expression was stern, and her movements purposeful. The one-armed man approached her with the caution of a dog who has been kicked too many times. 

            “What if…,” he stammered. “What if she doesn’t come? What if she’s been poisoned by all the ash in the water? What…What if she’s…?”

            Without a moment’s hesitation, the old woman reached her arm back and swung, slapping the one-armed man across the face, causing him to stumble backwards into a row of chairs, knocking several over as he tripped over them and fell to the ground. He looked up at the old woman with surprise holding his one hand against his cheek.

            “Blasphemer,” the old woman said, marching back to the truck to get more chairs.

            The crow called out. The one-armed man looked up at it. The expression of his eyes revealed a mix of embarrassment and terror. He started to pull himself back to his feet as the crow flew off.

            A silver haired woman was tossing stale bread by the pier. The crow flew down, snatched up a piece, and took it to a small puddle of water by the lake to moisten it. The sun was setting, and the sky was beginning to turn a vibrant red. Two men began to light gas lanterns on the pier to illuminate it while others arranged torches on the shore to create a pathway from the pier to the gazebo.

            “Do you remember last year,” asked one of the men on the pier. “Her songs were so wonderful last year.”

            “Oh, yeah,” the other replied. “I was in a bad way. Didn’t know if I’d make it another year. I thought might just –.” He stopped himself. He didn’t want the words to bring back the memories of his dark thoughts. Instead, he said, “But that voice, that voice of hers. It changed everything.”

            “I know,” said the other man. “It’s been a bad year – for all of us. Can’t wait for tonight. I need tonight.”

            People began to gather on the shore by the entrance to the pier. They were all pensive. Anticipatory. The two men who lit the lanterns on the pier stood at the end watching the water.

            The crow flew up to a tree branch to get away from the crowd. It let out a loud caw. Several people looked up menacingly at the crow. A boy threw a rock at it. The crow cried out and quickly flew to another tree.

            “It’s a bad omen,” someone in the crowd whispered. “A bad omen.”

            As the sun set, the waters on the lake turned dark red, reflecting the red clouds in the sky and the circle of flames surrounding the town. People waited in silence. Some checked their watches. Others closed their eyes and breathed slowly to calm their nerves. The men at the end of the pier continued to watch the water intensely. One of them looked back at the crowd, indicating with his expression that nothing was happening yet. The people in the crowd began to glance at one another nervously.

            The crow spotted a rat crawling on the railing of the pier. It swooped down and snatched it up, carrying it to another tree. The crowd erupted in gasps.

            “A bad omen,” someone called out. “We got to get that crow away.”

            One of the men at the end of the pier turned toward the crowd and waved his hand up and down asking for them to be silent. His expression indicated something was happening. The crowd did as he instructed, though several continued to stare menacingly at the crow.

            Suddenly, they heard splashing in the water. The men at the end of the pier crouched down and extended their hands downward. Slowly, they helped a woman climb from the water onto the pier. Her long red hair fell limply on her shoulders. Her pale, naked body seem to reflect the vivid red hues of the setting sun. She walked down the pier and was met at the end by two women with a handmade, emerald robe. She stopped between them and let them drape it over her body. Afterward, she began to walk along the torch lit pathway to the gazebo. The crowd followed behind forming a quiet and reverent processional.

            The body of the rat the crow was eating slipped from its grip and fell to the ground. The crow followed it down and continued its meal standing in the dirt and leaves. It was now dark. There were no stars in the sky because of the smoke from the fires. The only light came from the torches lighting the path to the gazebo. The only sounds – some crickets – and the distant voice of a woman singing – deep and rhythmic and alluring.  

            The crow flew to a tree near the gazebo. The people in the town sat in the chairs in front of it. The woman from the lake stood on the gazebo, dressed in her emerald robe, singing. A serenity enveloped the audience. It was like the sound of her voice soothed all the pain they had accumulated in their minds and bodies over the year. But as warm and tranquil as the woman from the lake sounded, she began to struggle to share her song with the townspeople. There were moments when her voice and words were strong and crystalline. And then there were other moments when she began to cough, forcing her to stop singing so she could compose herself and gather her strength. This created great discomfort among the people watching her. Whispers of concern rippled through the crowd. But as soon as the woman began to sing again, their anxiety seemed to abate. They sat quietly and listened, smiling and nodding their heads, closing their eyes to let her voice carry them from their troubles and their pain and eventually themselves.

            The crow flew to the gazebo. As soon as it landed on the roof, the woman began to cough more violently. She stumbled around the stage, hacking repeatedly until she finally reached a crescendo - coughing out a cloud of ash that rained down on the floor of the gazebo. It sounded like a handful of sand scattered on the wood planks. Then she looked out at the crowd with a great sadness in her eyes and crumpled to the ground.

Gasps and cries erupted from the crowd. The old woman who had set up the chairs rushed up onto the gazebo to help the woman from the lake. She knelt down beside the woman’s body and began to gently examine it. After a moment, she looked out at the crowd. Tears welled in her eyes.  She shook her head to indicate there was nothing to be done.

            “It’s a bad omen,” someone cried out as the crowd burst into a chorus of sobs. “It’s the crow. The crow brought a bad omen.”

            The one-armed man who had helped set-up the chairs began to scream. “It’s the fires. I knew it. It’s the fires!”

            “They’re poisoning us by burning our dead in those fires,” the old man with the cane screamed.

            The woman from the park held her children close as they trembled in her arms, begging her for an explanation about what was happening. But she did not have an answer for them.

            The crow let out a screech as people rushed onto the gazebo to try and save the woman from the lake.

            One of the men who had greeted her at the end of the pier stood up, pulled a handgun from his pocket, and pointed it at the crow. The gunshot that rang out cut through the cacophony of the crowd. The crow tried to spread its wings and fly away, but it felt something hot and sharp enter its body, and then everything dissolved into darkness and silence.


Daniel Tarker is a Seattle based writer and educator. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and a Doctorate in Higher Education Leadership from Oregon State University. His plays have been produced by 14/48, Pacific Play Company, Seattle Playwrights Collective, Actors Theatre Santa Cruz, The Western Stage, Phoenix Theatre, and Spokane Radio Theatre.  He has also published his research on leadership in multiple academic publications.

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