I saw a lot of fires when I was a cop in Detroit. I was supposed to help secure the scene and then get the hell out of the way, but sometimes I'd stick around and watch the firefighters doing their work. I saw some real battles, but when they were done, the building would always still be standing. That was the thing that got to me. The windows would be blown out, and maybe there'd be a big hole in the roof, but the building would still be there.
Years later, I watched a Lake Superior storm taking down a boathouse. When the storm let up, there was nothing left but a concrete slab, covered with sand. It wasn't surprising. Anyone who lives up here knows that water is stronger than fire. Water wins that one going away. But at least water cleans up after itself. It does the job all the way. When water destroys, it makes everything look new. It can even be beautiful.
Fire doesn't do that. When a fire is done, what's left is only half destroyed. It is charred and brittle. It is obscene. There is nothing so ugly in all the world as what a fire leaves behind, covered in ashes and smoke and a smell you'll think about every day for the rest of your life.
That's why I had to start rebuilding the cabin. Maybe I was fooling myself, but it was something I had to do. Even though the days were getting shorter. Even though the pine trees were bending in the cold October wind. No man in his right mind would have started rebuilding then. So of course I did.
I had already taken away most of the old wood, those logs that would have lasted another three hundred years if they hadn't burned. I had hauled them away along with the pipes burned black and the bed frames twisted by the heat. There was nothing now but the stone foundation, stripped of the wooden floor, and the chimney, the last thing my father had made with his bare hands before he died. I knew that the snow would come, and it would cover the black stains on the ground, and the chimney would stand alone in the cold silence like a grave marker. I wasn't going to let that happen.
The rebuilding didn't start well. The man who said he'd be there on Monday with my white pine logs rolled up on Wednesday morning, acting like he had nothing to apologize for. He had one of those long flatbeds with the crane on it, with enough lifting power to set every last log down as gently as a tea cup. But it took him all morning to clear the truck, and he damn near knocked over the chimney in the process. Then he stood around for a while, trying to tell me about his own cabin down in Traverse City. "The cabins I passed on the way in," he finally said. "You built those?"
"My father did."
"Looks like you had a big one here," he said. He hitched his pants up as he looked around the clearing. "What happened, did it burn down?"
"Hell of a thing," he said. "You gotta be careful with those wood stoves."
"I can't argue with that."
"Looks like you learned the hard way."
I let a few seconds tick by. "It wasn't a wood stove," I finally said. "Somebody burned it down."
"You're shittin' me."
"This gentleman and I, we had a little disagreement."
It took a moment for that one to sink in. "Are you shittin' me, man? You gotta be shittin' me."
"You don't have to believe it."
"I suppose you're gonna rebuild this all by yourself, too."
"I'm gonna try."
"Seriously, where's all your help at?"
"If I need help, I'll get it."
"It's October," he said. "You're not thinking of starting this now, are you?"
"I'd have to be crazy, you mean."
"Is what I'm saying, yeah. Unless you're just shittin' me some more."
"Well, I appreciate your concern," I said. "And I appreciate you bringing up my logs. You were only two days late. Have a good trip back home."
From Blood Is The Sky by Steve Hamilton. Copyright © 2003 Steve Hamilton, published by St Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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