kazuo robinson – strange fire

There was once a small town, called “Town”, in reference to its simple and humble nature. Some among the residents of Town thought the place in fact not simple and humble but rather bustling and significant, and after arguing their minority position at what they thought to be inappositely named “town halls” for seven years, they were able to force a begrudging compromise, the renaming of “Town” as “Townsville”. There was besides these irritating municipal matters only one thing the people of Townsville were concerned with, the easing of all concern, which they called happiness. This was defined in the particular according to the needs of each particular person, with the maximum to be achieved for the collective as the aggregate of all the particulars. Townsville had made great progress in this area, by virtue of a local invention. The inventor’s name could not be pointed to upon the trunks of the many family trees put forward by the young green leaves of each, because the whole question of credit or indeed patent had not been deemed important when the first rush of discovery was felt. This invention was rather clever, still often called “very technological, very technological” by the elders of Townsville. It was neither component nor machine, instead a cunning process of seven steps. It entailed gathering insects and mashing them together into a paste, drying the mixture in the sun upon great wooden boards, grinding it down into a fine black dust (which came to be called “bug dust”), placing the dust in pots and pans to burn in the hearth in each home, mixing the burnt bug dust with water to form another paste, and applying that paste topically to the body, specifically to that area of the body from which concern issued, be it the arms, for fatigue from the day’s labors, or the head, for mental torpor or existential problems, or the heart, for heartbreak. That fourth step, the burning of the bug dust in cookware, came to be called “evening fire”, a scene for which the family was obliged to sit in repose as one of them ministered to the fire. The smell produced by this ritual was very unpleasant. Two members of one particular family, the two younger brothers among the McClarens, found it almost intolerable, unlike their patient, faithful, and in any wise anosmatic elder siblings and parents. So the McClaren household’s evening fire was often disturbed by the conspiratorial muttering of these two brothers, which when it became too distracting would draw an irate hush or two from Mrs. McClaren. One week in midsummer, the two brothers, Henry and Frederick, were charged with handling the bug mixture on the allotted wooden board which had been delivered to the McClaren house. They were supposed to scrape the portion into a large bucket, mash it into the fine bug dust, and deliver the bucket to the position by the hearth, ready for the evening. On the first day of this week, they put into effect their long conceived plan. They had secretly been gathering and drying blackberries from the otherwise neglected tree at the end of the McClarens’ little lane. These they placed in the bucket and mashed, producing a facsimile of the black dust speckled with white. The McClarens’ allowance of bug mixture was that day buried in the backyard. The evening fire passed without incident, at least as far as the other McClarens were concerned. The dried blackberry dust did produce its own odor, but only Henry and Frederick noticed. Mr. McClaren mixed the counterfeit bug dust with water using a great glass jar, as was his family’s particular custom, before doling out each member’s personal supply into smaller jars. By morning it was proved as effective a salve as that which had been prepared using true bug dust (a racoon-like Mr. McClaren remarked that his eyelids had ceased to spasm). The performance was repeated the next afternoon, Henry and Frederick again entrusted with the delivering the bug dust in the bucket, and again substituting the dried blackberry dust. Later, the “evening fire” burned as usual. The family, as before, would never have suspected anything, unless a neighbor of theirs, who might with apologies be called a very nosy neighbor, had not in passing the McClarens’ remarked to himself upon the odd smell issuing from that house. The neighbor was carrying a sack of bug dust, a surplus to be delivered to an especially ailing aunt, which he placed down on the doormat before he knocked on the door. Mrs. McClaren answered, and after some preliminary pleasantries he remarked to her that theirs was a strange fire which burned out of his view beyond the doorway. With stern questioning Mr. and Mrs. McClaren forced from Henry and Frederick the truth of those boys’ designs, and satisfied as to their guilt, cast them out of the house. Living for a few days out in the street, Henry and Frederick found that the scandal quickly went general, and that they were effectively expelled from Townsville. The people of Townsville were none too pleased to have heard of their deceit. They soon left on fast feet with light traveling bags upon their shoulders, to seek some other town, village, or otherwise classified human settlement.

Kazuo lives in New York. He can be reached at @rudedaubings and writes about fiction at kazuorobinson.substack.com