When they worked in the yard, Patrick called his father Barrett. “No airs among Christians and colleagues,” Barrett said, fitting the buckskin gloves to Patrick’s wrists with lobster bands. Breakfast had been a stick of jerky each and, for Barrett, a cup of coffee. It was a five-hour job and they wanted the fires lit by ten.
Patrick was responsible for clearing a half-acre beside the edge of the boglands. The pines there were brittle. Branches had collapsed from freeze or snow and had shattered against the ground. Gathering those shards was a job better suited to Patrick’s small hands and pliable back.
Barrett covered the hillside sloping from the house to the pond, where there were several rotted oak trunks requiring a man’s strength. They might have brought the truck around and used the tow, but that was more trouble than the job was worth. With one or two powerful jerks, the trunks could be sidelong and then rolled downhill toward the water.
Patrick had eased his mother’s shame by announcing that nothing pleased him better than a bath in the pond.
By nine they had stacks built four feet, the highest Barrett’s fire license allowed. Despite the chill, the pace had them sweating. There was a small window for brush burns. They must start no sooner than ten, but be down to a smolder by two. If the wind blew more than ten knots or the surrounding foliage was in full bloom, no burning was permitted. The license was good for only one fire per day, but this rule alone Barrett flouted. Because they burned beside a pond, certain dangers had already been mitigated.
“Get as dirty as you like,” Barrett said. They’d stopped to drink from the hose and to wring dew from their socks. “You can take a tub in the pond after we’re done, get good and clean.”
It was regarded as a treat. When the previous summer’s blackout revealed that Barrett kept his family on an electric well pump rather than pay the town for water, Patrick had eased his mother’s shame by announcing that nothing pleased him better than a bath in the pond. But now it was March, and even the water from the hose was stinging cold. Patrick looked warily toward the pond, which had been frozen only a month earlier.
“I’ll toss you the soap from the deck,” Barrett said. “Think I can reach?”
Patrick was curious to see if his father could manage it. The soap was a coarse orange ball, the kind they handed out on the docks for hands stained with fish slick and mechanics’ grease. It was the only type of soap they’d used since Patrick’s mother and sister had left for Portugal. A fresh bar was the size and weight of a baseball, and Patrick figured that from deck to pond was the distance between a modest fly ball and home plate.
“Tough morning, but it’ll feel fine to watch the blaze go,” Barrett said. “We’ve set some strong ones, springs past. No one could say we didn’t. And I know you’re a bit down about your mum—you two were close, of course—but a good spring cleaning always brings out the spirit in you. You’ll acknowledge that, I expect. Jesus, do you remember stopping my poor heart, jumping over the flames like a little pagan? What was that, two springs ago?”
“Four. We were reading a book about a boy on a mountain. In Mrs. Fernandes’s class. I don’t remember the name.”
“A book,” Barrett scoffed. “I respect the word, written, spoken, and Gospel, but that was fire that got into you, not a book. Jesus, it was a sight.”
Barrett’s voice was different when he worked. He spoke in a higher pitch, with a trace of the accent he had mostly shed and with a budding cheer, as though he were about to sing. To Patrick’s ear, it was pleasant, but unfamiliar. He’d been told that his father was a welcome hand on any crew, and Patrick gauged that with Barrett likely to earn a summer berth for something long and far offshore, his mother and sister would return. They’d come home by June at the latest.
“Let’s have back at it,” Barrett said. “Another hour and a half at most and we’ll be ready. How’s it looking by the bogs?”
“That’ll be a fine swim, at that pace. Just the thing to decompress the back after a morning’s stoop.”
The work was messier the closer Patrick moved toward the bog. Thawing cranberries laced the air with a sour rot that seemed out of place on a spring morning. Deer had nibbled on the berries and crushed some underfoot, and his glove tips were stained crimson. He smeared an open berry across his temple and planned to spook Barrett the next trip down to the fire stacks.
But he found Barrett loafing and preoccupied, his chin resting on the handle of a steel rake.
“We just broke, Barrett. We need to be ready for ten or we’ll never burn through.”
“Would you look at that?” Barrett said, not noticing the streak on Patrick’s forehead.
At Barrett’s feet, wet and tangled in bulrush, was a lifeless heron. The bird’s neck, which was nearly two feet long and should have bore two inverted arches, had atrophied and was coated in sand.
Patrick could recall uncovering squirrels, possum, and even a small fisher cat in past spring cleans, but never anything so large as a heron.
“He wasn’t old at all.” Barrett brushed the plumage with the blunt side of his rake. “He must have gone fishing too early, before the ice truly broke. Likely he’s been out there all this time and only washed up now.” A mile down the bogs, the heron had been swarming over the brooks for weeks, anticipating the salters that would make their way from bay to freshwater.
Patrick could recall uncovering squirrels, possum, and even a small fisher cat in past spring cleans, but never anything so large as a heron. Its wings were folded over like a shroud, but if spread they would have spanned the whole of Patrick.
“Will it burn, Barrett?”
“Course it will. Anything’ll burn, just about. We’ll have four flames good and hot, and one of ‘em’ll be the fitting thing for him—to do him justice, if that’s your qualm.”
Patrick felt a warm breeze coming over the pond, blowing from the southeast and tasting of salt. “We ought to start soon. If we wait for ten, the wind might pick up too much.”
Barrett ran his rake once more over the bird’s top feathers, which would have once been blue, but in death were gray and almost transparent.
“Probably you’re right. Let’s pick our poison—better to begin a bit early than to be caught with a late blaze. Laws will you tell what to do, friend, but they aren’t about making things easy. Do you think we can manage one more barrow each?”
Patrick nodded and wiped the cranberry from his face. On the final run he broke the branches into twigs and packed his haul tight with an armful of dried leaves for kindling.
Barrett fetched the gasoline from the shed and handed the canister to Patrick, who swung it solemnly, allowing only a trickle, so that the fires wouldn’t rise higher than the license allowed, and wouldn’t choke them with vapors. Each had a book of matches, and Patrick circled the stacks once, then chose which he’d light. Barrett watched respectfully and took the other.
As the fires built strength, the smoke carried downstream. The herons took the disturbance for a mark of food and came flocking toward the pond. They circled overhead, spiraling without effort, rising and falling with the wind currents, and chortling amongst themselves.
“Where do you stand on this?” Barrett asked. “Still appropriate to perform the rites in their presence? Better or worse?”
“Better.” With the inside of his shoe, Patrick nudged the carcass onto Barrett’s rake. They chose the fire nearer the shoreline for a pyre.
“He must have been overanxious for the fish,” Barrett said, as he carried the body. “Dunked himself after something, thinking it was only slush and he’d come out again, then hit his head or lost himself. One cold night and he’d have been trapped under. Just when you think it’s spring in these parts, it’s winter.”
Barrett laid the bird down at the edge of the fire, on a small shelf of branches. The flame hurried once over the body, then retreated back to the pine, which caught it cleanly, whistled from the heat, and popped into an ashy nothing.
“Dammit,” Barrett muttered. He jostled the body free of a splinter and forced it deeper into the center of the stack. “Indecent for the thing to heat up without burning. Sets us up as torturers.”
As Barrett fretted, a heron touched down at the pond’s center and glided toward the bed of lily pads near the fires. A few yards from shore, the bird lowered its legs, thin and hard, into the muck and arched its neck over the water. After a moment’s quiet, its skull snapped viciously down, pounding through the surface.
“There it is,” Barrett said. The fire had taken the carcass, and as it burned the smoke went thick and white and a bitter rot cut through the festive pine smell. “More fat on him than we thought. Supports my theory that negligence, not starvation, felled him.”
The trout came loose, dangling first by the gills and then falling onto the wet rocks. It flailed toward the water, but the bird stabbed it twice more, then lost patience and took it whole into its beak. Looking up toward the sky, it swallowed.
Patrick nodded, but turned back to watch the live heron, which was repeating the first violent gesture. It thrashed about as if in a fit and sent ripples across the still lake surface and a mist into the air. Finally the bird came up with a fish speared through, a rainbow trout no bigger than Patrick’s hand.
“Look at that, would you,” Barrett said. “A fine eulogy he’s provided for his friend. Hasn’t he? That’s justice for a fisherman.”
The trout was pierced clean, but lived and fought. The bird walked toward shore and began to jerk its head down again, trying to dash the fish on the rocks. The tail of the fish doubled over and covered the tip of the heron’s beak, then snapped back with such force that the bird staggered.
The trout came loose, dangling first by the gills and then falling onto the wet rocks. It flailed toward the water, but the bird stabbed it twice more, then lost patience and took it whole into its beak. Looking up toward the sky, it swallowed. With each gulp, the bird’s food traveled only an inch downward. In its narrow, quivering throat, the outline of the fish, which still struggled, was distinct. The heron leapt out of the water and came crashing down into the muck. At the moment of impact, the bird swung down its wings and swallowed viciously. The fish finally slid down through its gullet.
“Christ on a cross,” Barrett said. “That didn’t go easy. Nothing simple about that mechanism.”
The breeze shifted and the white smoke from the pyre blew toward the pond. Patrick held his ground before the oncoming cloud, and Barrett patted him on the back.
If the live bird detected anything unpleasant or blasphemous in the smoke, it showed no concern. Standing tall and spreading its wings to gauge the wind, the heron exposed its underside to the shore. In its belly, there was the outline of the fish, still moving, a monstrous fetus.
“Fucking hell,” Barrett said. “Can’t a goddamned thing go easy? Christ.” His voice was a wrought baritone, free of accent, melody, and false cheer. He took a step toward the water as he shouted and the bird flew abruptly off, lifting into the air with a single flap.
Patrick gasped and breathed in the cloud. The smoke rushed into his chest and left a sweet, charred coating on his tongue. He retreated from the shore, coughing as he ran. Barrett, white and desperate, started after him, but fumbled in a mud slick and fell to one knee.
The smoke trailed Patrick to the base of the hill. He paused behind an oak sapling but it was too small to shield him and the smoke poured through and filled his eyes and nose. He pulled his shirt over his face. Through the damp cotton, he could make out the bend of the fires. He ran in the opposite direction, but the winds shifted and the smoke kept after him. Finally, he followed the hill’s slope, which propelled him toward the pond. His legs kept moving as he passed the pyre, passed Barrett, and crashed through the lily pads into the cold water.
When finally Patrick came up for air, the breeze had calmed and the smoke rose high and carried again downstream, toward the brook and the flock of heron. He treaded water and waited for his eyes to flush. He made out Barrett’s figure scurrying up the hill. He felt the murky weeds brush his toes and realized that he had not swum out past the ledge. Barrett reappeared on the deck, waving at the pond. It wasn’t as far as Patrick had thought. The trees obstructed and made it a difficult toss, but it might be managed.
Barrett took a long step back, then crow-hopped toward the railing. An orange speck flew from his hand and passed untouched through the thin spring canopy. It sailed easily over the clearing, the bonfires looking small and foolish, like skipped cutoff men, the shortstop on the grass and the second baseman at his bag, waving helplessly as the ball passed overhead. Patrick squatted beneath the surface and dove backward through the cold water, reaching against the drag for the spot where the soap would come plunging down.
Dwyer Murphy is a New York based writer. This story is his first published fiction. He is currently at work on a novel.