Keep Watch
                 Fiction by Alex Myers

      On top of the mountain behind our house was a fire tower, its
spindly legs rising above the trees.  In the evening, the sun would
glint off its metal roof: a sharp proclamation of existence that
quickly passed.  Within, everyone knew, was a lone fire watcher,
always on the lookout for that telltale wisp of smoke.
      Despite the fire tower, every autumn my mother would burn leaves
without a permit.  First she would strip all the vegetables from her
garden, lining up the rows of green tomatoes on the kitchen windowsills.  
Then my brother and I would rake the lawn.  We started with the side
lawn, where the two thick birches dropped yellow leaves that quickly
turned to brown and the sugar maples shed breathtaking orange
leaves—leaves I sometimes felt guilty raking, they were so beautiful.  
We gathered up big piles, which we raked onto old bed sheets and
bundled up.  With the sheet sacks on our backs, we rustled our way
to the bare garden plot, looking like autumnal Father Christmases, the
bulging sacks ridiculously light.
      The smoke curled up, thick and white.  It always seemed sluggish
and reluctant to rise at first. My mother tended the flames as my
brother and I dragged more sheet-sacks of leaves.  Up, up, the smoke
would rise, a pillar in the sky, a defiant declaration.
      Eventually, at some point well before all the leaves were gathered
and burned, the Fire Marshal would bump down our driveway in his
red Crown Victoria.  My mother would wait by her smoldering pile of
evidence for him to approach.
      “Ma’am,” he’d intone, “do you have a permit to burn these leaves?”
      “No, I do not,” she’d reply, dry as the autumn air.
      A sigh, perhaps, as he withdrew his citation book from his shirt
pocket, the mumbled exchange as he took her information and delivered
a lecture on fire safety before he handed her the ticket and turned to
go.  My brother and I, embarrassed to be accomplices, stood quietly
with our rakes.  The fire was doused and my mother worked patiently,
turning the ashes of the leaves into the garden's soil, while my
brother and I hauled the rest of the leaves into a pile behind the
woodshed.
      It was not hard to get a permit to burn leaves.  One simply had
to call the fire department of our small town, tell them what day you
intended to burn, and assure them that you would tend to the fire.
The other houses around us burned their leaves without getting a
citation—surely it was not so difficult.
      There came an autumn when my brother had enough.  Perhaps
he was tired of standing, embarrassed by his mother’s guilt, as the fire
marshal ticketed her, year after year.  Or perhaps he had finally
reached the stage when he questioned everything my mother did,
doubted her authority in every matter.
      Whatever the case, it was a crisp autumn day that she asked us to
rake the lawn.  She stood with an armful of zucchini and summer
squash, a surprised look on her face as my brother half yelled, half
pleaded with her to call, to get a permit.
      “You’ll get caught.  You always get caught,” he shouted.  “They
can see the smoke—just look!”  His finger pointed to the outline of
the fire tower, its peaked roof distant but discernable above the
shaggy tops of the pine trees.  
      My mother frowned.  “They don’t see anything,” she said.  “It’s
the neighbor who calls.  He’s never liked me.”
      My brother shook his head, looked at the mountain, its slope
green with hemlock and spruce. Around us, leaves fluttered in the air.
      Wordlessly, my mother carried the vegetables inside. My brother
turned, not towards the barn to get a rake, but towards the mountain.
His glance swept over me briefly, swept me up beside him.
      We walked.  Through the orchard behind our house, where yellow
jackets swarmed on fallen apples, through a field freshly hayed.  I
wondered if they could see us walking towards them in the tower, if
they knew who we were, why we were coming.  The hems of our pants
got soaked by a marshy field, and then we were among the evergreens
at the base of the mountain.  I heard my brother breathe steadily, loudly,
as the slope grew steeper.  Through the woods, I could hear the sound
of running water, a stream I could not see.  I jogged a bit to keep up
with his longer strides.  Beneath our feet, the ground was strewn with
orange needles.
      Abruptly, we hit the ridgeline, not the rocky summit of a rugged
peak, but the tree-lined top of a lesser mountain.  In a small clearing,
the four legs of the fire tower stood, splayed and rusty.  The weeds
grew thick; my pants brushed against some burrs as we waded
across the clearing.  My brother reached the ladder that rose between
the legs.  He did not look up as he climbed, resolutely gripping each
rung.  My eyes fixed on him, rising up, above the tree tops.  He
reached the trap door at the center of the tower, raised his fist and
knocked hollowly, a booming sound that went unanswered.  I heard him
knock again, unnecessarily.  I stepped back to examine the tower; the
windows were boarded up, unseeing.  I turned my gaze from my brother
as he began to descend, saw that the road to the tower, which snaked
its way up the other side of the mountain, was barred by a metal gate.
      There was no one here.  There hadn’t been anyone here for a long
time.  As my brother walked towards me, I saw that the palms of his
hands were stained with rust where he had gripped the unused rungs.  I
couldn’t meet his gaze.  We descended the mountain silently.  When we
were out of the trees, we could see a column of smoke rising from
across the fields, guiding us home.     




                     ____________________________


Alex Myers has published fiction in a number of online venues,
including
Fiction Weekly, Johnny America, Word Riot, and Boston
Literary Magazine
, as well as placing as a finalist in Glimmer Train’s
February 2008 short fiction competition.  Myers teaches English in
Rhode Island where, in addition to writing, he enjoys playing tuba and
training for triathlons.


On “Keep Watch”:   
“Keep Watch” came to me from an amalgam of childhood
experiences.  I grew up in rural Maine, and my family used to burn
leaves in the backyard—a process I always loved as a kid.  Also,
at some point in my childhood, I hiked up a nearby mountain that
had a fire tower on top.  I was terrified of going up the ladder to
the tower, but my mother coaxed me up, and the ranger in the
tower gave me a “Smokey the Bear” comic for my efforts.


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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 3, Number 2
(Fall 2008)

Copyright © 2008
by Leah Browning, Editor.  

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Valley Review
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