Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Fire-fighter (10/05/06)
TITLE: Smoke and Shadows
By Jan Ackerson
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Once, in the far away past, fire fighter was a noble term. They were brave men and women then—racing toward danger in their screaming red vehicles—who conquered flames, who breathed life into the newly lifeless. Fire fighter—the two short words with their fricative alliteration have been stolen now by bands of bullies with an altogether different agenda. As gunfighters used guns, so the Fire Fighters have chosen fire as their weapon—burning, burning, ever burning.
Evidence of the Fire Fighters’ work can be found nearly everywhere by the careful observer. Look—that charred and ashy pile of rubble—sift through the ash and you may deduce what has been burned. A leather binding. A snippet of text. A tattered ribbon. And see over there, that smoldering ruin—if you listen carefully, you may hear the echoes of its terrified inhabitants.
And so we who worship the Light huddle in the darkness. We evangelize with the furtive passing of scraps of paper on which are scrawled a few words of hope. As the words pass from hand to hand, we listen for the scratch of phosphorus on sandpaper—we lift our heads for the acrid odor of sulfur borne on the breeze. We are always prepared to dart back into the shadows.
Our hearts sing loudly the songs that our lips cannot. We gather tightly in twos and threes and hum fragments of tunes, rich in meaning but with a poverty of melody. Five or six notes only are enough to lift our spirits toward the Light. Yet there are those among us who have barely escaped such gatherings with the kiss of flame on their feet. The Fire Fighters are ruthless in their pursuit.
Perhaps the picture that I paint is unnecessarily bleak. There is a quiet beauty to our life, despite our veil of secrecy. We are Light-bearers, but our Light is unlike the hot and hungry light of the Fire Fighters. Our Light is seen in the touch of fingertips, as sacred syllables pass from person to person, and in the narrow space between a barely breathed affirmation and an ear inclined to capture the whispered words.
And our numbers are growing. When the Fire Fighters’ reign of terror began, some Believers were lost. Many flew off into eternal Light, but there were a few whose fear overcame their faith, and who fled into darkness. Yet we continue to find ways, like those noble workers of old, to conquer the flames, to breathe Life into the nearly lifeless. There are signals—a flick of a finger, a nod of a head, a simple shape drawn on a sooty surface. Eyes find eyes, a meeting place is chosen, and another Believer’s birth reduces the darkness.
You, my reader in the future—you have read my musings, but I am long gone now, enjoying eternity in the City of Light. Did I walk into that city through the flames, or did I awaken there after a peaceful slumber? Reader, you will never know the rest of my story, but something happened today which may, I think, determine the length of my shadowy existence.
I was walking toward my apartment when a man crossed my path, letting a scrap of paper drift from his fingers toward my feet. I had seen him before, but not among the company of the faithful—he was, I believed, a minor public official with some small measure of authority. Glancing about, I stooped to pick up the note, which contained an address, a time, and two crossed lines.
The symbol was unmistakable, and my heart quickened. He is a searcher, I thought, and if I can bring him into the Light, he may use his influence to suppress the Fire Fighters. I met him at the appointed time and place, and I listened to his whispered story—a story of emptiness and desperation, recently relieved by a glimmer of hope. I showed him the Light and he embraced it, and then he embraced me, his new brother.
The smell of smoke clung to his hair.
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