The Allegory of Fire
A great demand for power had overcome the earth.
The coal mines were depleted, nuclear sources had been decommissioned into obscurity, the natural gas tapped dry, the oil fields tangled in litigation or burning pillars of flame from the bombs of forgotten wars, and the sun could not charge and the wind could not churn enough electricity to power the planet’s major cities, let alone the suburbs.
At night, from space, the once firefly bright spectacle of residual light from the world’s largest cities had faded and flickered into mere sparkles. Electricity, once thought to be a crowning achievement of humankind, was becoming cost prohibitive.
Amid this plight a man of indomitable means took it upon himself to purchase the last great forest of old growth trees. Heretofore the man had been considered of the most independent caste. Independently healthy, wealthy and wise, bearing the fruits of society and economy he parleyed his interests into what would in this dire time be his last great investment.
He left his skyscraper penthouse in the busiest city in the world and moved into the country, just him and his wife and their four-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, Jack.
The vast forest would become his hermitage, a place to live out the remainder of his life in peace and quiet, away from the ills of civilization and bothers of industry, and build a nice fire and relax.
His first task was to survey the land and select a proper homestead. He chose a high point on a ridge, a veritable watershed from whence he could further survey his plot and keep watch on the horizon for the coming days, and enjoy the twilights of his waning years.
He set up temporary camp in a meadow below the ridgeline and made a place comfortable for his wife to tend while he was out working. Daytime he split between hunting, gathering and chopping wood on the ridgeline to build a cabin. Having once been a boy of the leisure class, he found small game and fish skillfully enough, foraging for mushrooms and other wild comestibles among the weeds and duff. Nights, he and the wife slept the sound sleep of an ancient weary tribe.
On the ridgeline, he chose a spot high and dry, flat and sturdy, and cut away the trees. Servants stacked the wood to one side and dug a foundation deep enough for a mansion of a log cabin. The blueprint beheld three wings, four granite fireplaces the size of rooms themselves, not to mention the fireplaces in the bedrooms, twenty bedrooms, twenty-four baths, a dining hall and a kitchen to feed hosts of guests. A gold roof was tacked into place so that at the height of the day the peaks would glimmer in the sun. He left the south wall of the building exposed, so that it might absorb heat during cold winters. And he built an expansive veranda on the west side of the north wing in the care of a towering stand of trees, so that he could endure hot summer afternoons in the shade there.
Yes, the cabin would be his crowning achievement, the chimneys being its jeweled peaks, a place to lodge and entertain his remaining allies among the wealthy refugees of the world’s energy crisis.
The exclusiveness of the man’s getaway made it all the more precious.
The early years of his self-imposed exile were the most famous. With the ridgeline cleared and the cabin built, the seemingly endless access road was busy with traffic, and notable people from every facet of his previous life came to see the quixotic adventure he had undertaken.
Gas stations were set up as outposts at hundred-mile intervals along the narrow highway to accommodate poorly planning guests along the journey into the forest stronghold. All manner of accommodations were made to entertain them upon their arrival, because they had come so far and under such duress. When wild game and forage were not plentiful, the man simply shipped in tons of food. After the wine cellar was ransacked by partygoers, a vintner and craft brewer were hired to keep the thirsty sated.
Truckloads of wood, everything from ash to pine and oak to cherry, was harvested from the property during the first few winters to keep the fireplaces roaring. A warm guest was a happy one.
At first they showed only due reverence for the man who had provided such a noteworthy escape from the dreadfulness the cities had become. An expectant wonder developed around his conversations, as one and all waited with baited breath for the day when he would reveal the plan for his timberland. Eventually, the respectful attitude shifted into a quiet awe, for they were painstakingly hiding the bewilderment overcoming their minds. Finally at the crest of a legendary binge, with all eyes on the party concerned, one of his most profitable business associates put the burning question to him.
“Just how long do you intend to keep this bounty for yourself?” To which the man replied, “It is not mine to keep but ours to share; all I have to do is lay it bare,” and he gestured haughtily through a floor to ceiling window that overlooked a valley below, teeming with wildlife and healthy timber.
When questioned further, the man explained frankly that he meant to never make any money on the timber, but live in hedonism until the bounty was gone or the world ended, whichever came first, and those who cared to join him were welcome.
The anecdote passed along the man’s associates like a virus, weakening their desire be seen among the revelers at his table. The man’s once flawless investment savvy was gone. And since rhyming in casual speech was not normal for a man of his position, his sanity was said to be naught but ash and coals.
Over the next few years, high society fell out of his retinue like hairs off an old man’s head, and what remained grew brittle and grey. His wife estranged from him, sleeping in a wing to herself, and taking frequent and costly vacations outside the forest. Jack, now middle-aged and wise to the woods, noticed the man’s change also, and began to spend more time ranging the property, which week to week, axe to axe, and chop to chop, receded drastically from the cabin’s front door, alone.
In their absences, the man kept the home fires burning. Instead of growing disillusioned from the dream of living out his days in the wild, he threw himself and his resources into the business of lumber cutting with ever growing fervor.
The last human visitor to see the man was a trust president who had come with his executive assistant and driver to observe the clear cut empire.
Nearly every stick and log of the forest was lain to waste, a calamity of misdirected resources, and dusted white. The streams were gutters of mud from eroded dales and the hills were sliding down every gulch and ravine. The gas stations were empty, cars broken down in ditches. Tree stumps charred like matchsticks, ashen stone and leafy underbrush, the evidence of dead wildfires, stood out over vast tracts of land, a testament to seasons of mismanagement.
A day into the drive, the president set his assistant to the task of photographing the man’s servants cutting into what might have been the final harvest, the last stand of a thousand or so acres of trees. Photos taken, the car crept away, the servants staring after them, the downcast hostages of a failed endeavor. Now, a thicker coating of white dust highlighted the world around them.
Within sight of the cabin, the trust president saw the ridgeline puffing mightily with the smoke of four chimneys, and ash fell through the sky like a light snow, but not a glint of gold from the roof or bustle of commotion from visitors.
Atop the ridge, the president gazed off in every direction. From the tips of his toes to the farthest horizon, the ground was stripped bare. Where once stood the greatest old forest left on earth was only a naked wasteland, at the center of which stood a mighty log castle covered in a blizzard of ash. The grandeur of the gilded roof had been tarnished by years of burning with no upkeep, and the surrounding forest floor was buried in soot within a half mile.
“What a pity,” he said, which the assistant jotted down onto a notepad. A door creaked open behind him and he turned, expecting to see his host for the last time. There stood a man worked sore, covered in sawdust and soot, missing teeth and limping badly, hair awry and beard worse.
“Herman, it’s been so long,” said the man. “I suppose you’re here about the money. Please, do come in. It’s just so cold outside I can’t stand it. The servants will be along shortly with another load of wood. I’ll stoke a fire and start dinner.”
He followed the man inside. Every room, floor to ceiling, was stacked with wood, and every fireplace burning brightly. When he asked the man where his wife was, the man only shrugged. When he asked about the dog, the man grew upset and marched to the fire and threw another log on, taking a broken axe handle and moving a few coals around.
His family had abandoned him, and the servants were only hanging on to the dim hope for back pay, and because none of them had a place elsewhere in the world, they were bound to the man until the end.
This is a transcript of the final conversation between the man and the trust president:
Man: Hand me that log, would you?
TP: You know, there’s more to life than fire.
Man: But if I don’t keep the fires stoked, it’ll get cold. And if it gets cold the wife will complain.
TP: But hasn’t your wife left you, and a long time ago at that?
Man: (shrugs, minutes pass in silence)
TP: Well, we may be in a crisis, but there’s more wood out there beyond your forest (sic). Don’t you remember?
Man: I have plenty of wood stored here to last the season.
TP: What then? The servants are starved thin, and you look worse. You have no timber left for next season. Your legacy has been squandered on this…this foolishness! A wealth that took centuries to accrue has gone up in smoke! What do you have to say for yourself?
Man: (shrugs) Hand me another log, would you?
TP: (incomprehensible swearing) …At least, for God’s sake, why? Why all this, for nothing? Why degrade yourself, your legacy, and your landscape, for this, these fires?
Man: (staring into open hearth) It’s fire, plain and simple. Fire. To keep us warm and light the darkness. To cook our food and keep our enemies at bay. It’s the greatest invention of prehistoric man, and it’s all mine to do with as I please. Someone has to keep a proper fire going, someone who knows fire and knows how to make one and stoke one. The fires of Pitney’s Ridge are legendary, the greatest fires left on earth. They will burn as long as a fire still burns in me.
Satellites recorded what looked like a small volcano erupting from the ridge, a fire intense as doom.
When the servant-loggers wandered into the nearest town like zombies, begging for food and water, mumbling about the man’s fire and wailing in anguish, federal law enforcement officials arranged a team of field officers to make the journey into the wasteland to investigate. Fire investigators, too. The chief servant, the foreman of the logging crew, rode along with the lead investigator. The press was close behind.
“Old Man just went unaccountable,” said the foreman, gazing off through the window of the federal car. “Couldn’t figure it. Last I saw of him was three months ago, a month before the cabin caught.”
“Caught?” asked the lead investigator.
“Whole thing, up in flame. Figure the man burnt up inside. Ain’t seen him. Had a habit of getting fires to roar and taking a nap in the shade on the veranda afternoons. Coulda licked outta one of the fire places and set the walls up, or one of his wood stacks indoors. Told him not to keep stacks indoors. He said they was handy that way.”
Off the trail where the car sped along, a weedy green layer had begun to grow up through the stumps and pillage. It would seem the forest might recover, but it would take generations. They found on the ridge nothing but a smoldering mound of ash. Around them and down the side of the valley, more of the same.
“You’re sure none of your people saw him any closer to the day the fire started?” The investigator pressed the foreman.
“Yes sir, I am sure. We’d been out on the job. Three weeks out before we saw smoke, more smoke than usual, and knew something was wrong.”
The investigators dug through the ash and found nothing but axe heads and hinges, nails, plumbing and the cremains of stainless steel kitchen appliances.
“Figure if he was in there, ain’t nothing left. You ever see anything like it?” The foreman asked the investigator.
“No, sir. Never has been.”
The investigation found nothing, revealed nothing. There had been a fire where the man once lived, but everything was gone.
With the man and his fortune out of the equation, the servants were eventually released, registered as refugees with the government, and given temporary housing with a charity organization until social services could find something more permanent.
The energy crisis still strangled the world’s economies, and even more of the wealthy were being reduced to humble stations. The poor had begun to live in camps, and organize into underground tribes to barter for resources.
The best the servants could hope for, in the short term, was a place to keep warm at night, maybe a hot meal.