Issue No. 11, Winter 2014

The Fire People
Rebecca Harrison

One still dusk, Yasamine huddled at her window, peering out at the desert and stars. Far away, a mountain loomed into the sky. Twilight had hushed the town. As she listened to the night winds, her grandmother’s calls drifted up through the floorboards. Yasamine rushed downstairs, curled up under the lamplight and listened to her grandmother’s stories. Every day her grandmother told her tales of the desert. This evening, she said that the night winds were made by the wings of giant birds. She said the birds were the colour of night and must fly forever to stay unseen. Yasamine closed her eyes as her grandmother told of the birds’ endless flight over mountains and cities, plains and seas. When her mother came to hurry her to bed, she found her slumbering. Later, her father carried her to her room while she dreamed of falling feathers vast as rivers.

As dawn lit the town, Yasamine woke. She lay listening to footsteps and whispers in the streets below and then hurried to help her mother with the day’s chores, setting the table while her mother swept the floor. Her family settled into breakfast and chatter, and Yasamine watched her grandmother for hints of stories. When her father left for meetings with merchants, Yasamine followed her mother into the family workshop to tidy for the weavers soon to arrive. In the workshop, rugs draped and gleamed, and the air smelled of weaving and sunlight. Yasamine ran her fingers over glinting patterns and then wound twine while her mother dusted the five looms. When the room was neat and bright, the weavers knocked on the door. Yasamine squeezed in a corner and watched her mother bustle tea and study stitches.

All morning, Yasamine plucked silk from the tiles and sunbeams, while the weavers gossiped and toiled. At noon, she shuffled to the kitchen and crushed spices as her grandmother muttered recipes. Yasamine begged and sighed for stories until her grandmother told her of a desert king who wished to travel all the kingdoms of the world without stepping from the sand. She said his subjects carried a vast slice of desert for him to walk upon while they marched over meadows. The tale lulled Yasamine into a daydream and she dawdled at her tasks. Suddenly, her mother flustered into the room, clapped her to help and pulled her to the workshop. Yasamine watched the merchant swagger about the rugs and sunlight while her father paraded the patterns. She tidied the twine, then spied the merchant’s son, Davood, in a corner and crept to his side.

Davood was Yasamine’s best friend. Together, they played in the merchant’s gardens, roaming between walls and blooms, sitting in shadows as Yasamine whispered her grandmother’s stories. Once, when the noon swelled, they had named statues and waited for them to wake at sunset. They had sighed in sadness when twilight had sunk upon still stone. Other days, they wandered the halls and corridors of the merchant’s grand house, seeking treasure behind marble and silk. They hid in dusks and spied on banquets, huddling silent against laughter and song. Yasamine told secrets to gilded paintings and Davood hunted lost passageways. They slumped in archways and guessed at the world beyond the desert.

This day, they watched while their fathers bartered. Coins were counted and rugs were folded above the weavers’ hush. Yasamine’s grandmother carried a dish of sweets into the workshop and the air swayed with spice and rose. Yasamine and Davood saw the dish passed round the room. As the adults bargained and joked, they crept to the sweets and softly munched, then grasped and sipped honeyed drinks. The merchant shook hands with Yasamine’s father, summoned Davood, and strode through the door into the street. Yasamine’s parents clasped hands and Yasamine’s grandmother swept the sweet dish to the weavers. The day dwindled while Yasamine’s mother nattered, the weavers piled rugs, and Yasamine and her grandmother washed away syrup and lavender from the dishes.

When the evening came, Yasamine curled beside her grandmother and settled under another story. Her grandmother told her that blind creatures clung to the stars, only spying their glow dimly in the dark. She said the stars were moved about by the creatures’ lost and sightless wanderings. Yasamine listened as her grandmother told of a lone creature dragging a star to the night’s edge.

But what she really longed to hear about was the fire people. They were her favourite of her grandmother’s tales. They were made from flame and ember and spoke in hisses and crackles. They made the desert glow and left glass footprints upon the sand. Deep past the dunes, they dwelled in a glass palace made from sand melted by their touch. Some nights, Yasamine peered through windows trying to see fire people lighting the gloom. When travelling merchants came to the workshop, she hoped for stories of the fire people, but they talked only of dunes and journeys and the great mountain topped with airless snow. Sometimes, as she walked around the rooms, she imagined glass and sand beneath her steps.

When Yasamine’s grandmother had finished her tale, Yasamine kissed her goodnight and drifted to bed. But she didn’t dream of lost creatures crossing the sky: she dreamed of following glass footprints beneath the stars.

The following dawn, a glass footprint was seen on the sands. Word of it murmured along alleyways and paths, until Yasamine heard rumours wafting in the streets below her window. When she tip-toed downstairs, her father sat her still and spoke of old hoaxes. As the day stretched, she lingered at doorways listening for news while daydreaming of deserts that had melted to glass. While her parents dined on spice and grain, Yasamine begged to see the glass footprint, but her father shook his head. That evening, her grandmother’s storytelling was halted and Yasamine wandered between curtains and shadows until her mother sent her to bed.

The rumours wilted as days went by, but Yasamine still wavered outside doors listening for whispers. When her parents paced the workshop out of sight, her grandmother gathered her from corners and told stories in pieces. Then, one night, a fire person was glimpsed upon a far dune. Yasamine woke to murmurs beneath her window. As she pressed her face to the glass, she imagined peering out from a desert palace cooled by the wings of giant birds. All morning, daydreams spilled over her as she and her mother gathered silk and polished silver, dried herbs and brushed cloth. Each time Yasamine spoke of the fire person on the dune, her mother shushed her ramblings.

Days passed. The streets trembled with more tales of sightings. The town slowed as people turned towards the desert and watched for flames. On the day of Davood’s birthday, Yasamine was sent to stay at his house. Davood’s father was rich, and the house was one of gold and tapestry. In the halls, marble reached to shadows. Yasamine and Davood spent the day in the gardens. They settled under an archway, and in gasps and smiles told each other the scraps of stories they’d overheard. They wandered amongst statues and blossom while they whispered and planned. They walked beside the wall nearest the desert, listening for the hisses and crackles of the fire people’s words. When the sun sank, a servant ushered Yasamine to her room. Wrapped in silk and shadows, she lay listening to the darkness until Davood tapped on her door.

Yasamine followed Davood through passageways and gloom. After trudging up many steps, Davood reached for a small window and climbed out onto the roof. Yasamine pulled herself through behind him and clung to the tiles. They peered at dunes and stars past the town’s edge. In the distance, the mountain reached into the moonlight. Yasamine shivered under the night winds. Hours passed as they stared hard at desert corners. Then Yasamine saw a distant glow light the dark sands. She gripped Davood’s arm as glow steadied into flame and ember. They watched the fire walk across the desert until it disappeared beyond a dune.

For days, Yasamine drifted about her home and chores, clutching the sighting as her secret. But soon the fire people were glimpsed every night. The dunes glowed with their flames, and glass footprints patterned the sands. One morning, as the market began to bustle, a fire person walked into the town. The crowd hushed and stared. But the market stalls singed and the ground burned, and the fire stepped back into the desert. Word of the scorched stalls was muttered along pathways, until all work stilled. By noon, the townspeople hovered at doors, watching the sands.

That night, Yasamine fell asleep at her window, gazing at fire that paced distant dunes. She spent the morning squeezed beside her grandmother, while her mother scrubbed dishes until the china scratched. In the market, sellers bartered slowly, staring past their customers. That day, fire people walked through a far corner of the town. In the temple, the air was cool with prayer. But flames spilled up the walls, the door crumbled as ash, and fire strode inside the gloom while the worshippers fled. Soon the fire people were seen every day, all through the town. Where mansions stretched heavy with jewels, fire people walked the gardens into charcoal. Where shacks pressed close, the fire people walked until the walls were smoke. The townspeople cowered together and shut their eyes to the embers. Yasamine’s parents clutched her close in their hushed workshop.

Every dawn, sun mingled with smoke and ash dusted the rooftops. The town sweltered under embers. Davood’s garden burned and his father sent him to stay with Yasamine’s family. Yasamine’s mother watched alleyways for flames while Davood and Yasamine sat with Yasamine’s grandmother. Each afternoon, Yasamine’s father went to meetings about the fire people. In the evenings, Yasamine and Davood watched out the windows at the desert dusk until her mother pulled them to her side and closed the blinds. Fire people crowded the sands. Their words crackled above the wind.

Every day, Yasamine woke before dawn and gazed at the fire people wandering the dunes. Below her window, fire watchers patrolled the streets of the singed town. Lookouts waited through nights at the town’s edge. Yasamine and Davood lingered outside her parents’ door, listening as her father spoke of the townspeople’s failed plans. Her parents said that no one knew why the fire people walked the town: sometimes in burning pathways they stood still and gazed around as if looking for something beneath the flames. When they roamed, they seemed to search. Yasamine wondered if the glass palace had shattered, and now homeless, they would walk the world to ash. Davood guessed that the desert was shrinking and that they were seeking new sands beyond the town.

One evening, as Yasamine and Davood huddled under lamplight, she said they should find the glass palace. That night, they waited until the house and streets were hushed, and then crept out the door. They walked between soot and moonlight, winding through passageways by burned walls and empty rooms. They hid in doorways when fire watchers passed. As they moved, Yasamine wondered if the fire people might walk the seas into steam. And she imagined the world with oceans dried into deserts. Davood gasped as they reached the town’s edge: the sands glimmered with footprints. Yasamine stared up at the stars and remembered her grandmother’s story of the lost creatures’ blind journeys.

Together, Yasamine and Davood stepped into the desert. Night winds chilled the sands. Davood crouched beside a footprint and touched the glass. Yasamine gazed across the dunes: a glow warmed the horizon. Faraway, the mountain towered under the night. They began their walk, stopping to stare at fire people striding in a distant corner of the night. They followed the footprints below the stars. The town vanished behind them and sands filled their sight. As Yasamine’s feet ached, she thought of the night birds’ endless gliding. Davood said the dunes looked like waves and the desert like it was moving as a slow sea. They walked onwards, as the desert sloped, and began to climb up a steep dune. Embers smudged the stars beyond the ridge.

They stared from the top of the dune: across the desert, the glow of the glass palace stained the night. Chill winds tangled with heat. Footprints glinted in clusters. They trudged forward as firelight warmed their path. Far away, the glass palace twisted and loomed in shimmering shapes. They dragged their shadows over the lit sands. Yasamine pointed at great holes in the palace walls. Davood whispered that maybe the glass was always melting and that, every night, the fire people had to build the palace over again. Yasamine murmured that, no, the holes were there because fire needed air.

They walked on through the desert. Firelight smothered the sky and embers spilled over the stars. Heat billowed across the sands. The air blazed with the crackles and hisses of the fire people’s words. Yasamine and Davood stared as they neared the palace. Within glass walls, fire people walked through air which twisted and splintered into sparks. As the sand scorched their steps, Yasamine gazed up at the burning sky and wished for the wing beats of giant birds to cool their path. They halted close to the palace and stared into the flames glittering through the glass.

Yasamine looked across the palace: a giant archway reached into the glass. Davood reached out and touched the shimmering wall. Beyond the looming side, flames moved in the palace deeps. Yasamine and Davood stepped inside the archway. Yasamine felt they were entering a cave of glass and fire. They shuffled inside the palace and gazed out. Davood whispered that the desert looked as if had melted into the walls. They walked through a passageway towering with firelight, trailing their shadows in the glass. Their path circled and rippled, and Yasamine watched for handprints in the walls.

They gasped as the passageway widened into a cavern of gleam and ember. Firelight spiralled through glass stalactites. They cowered as a fire person walked past, leaving footprints of molten glass. They crept deeper into the palace, alongside the walls and corners, stilling whenever fire people went by. They paused beneath holes in the glass, and tried to glimpse stars past the sparks. Night leaked between gaps in the fire’s glow. They shuffled by walls singed with light and crevices twisted with embers. Glass thinned into gnarled pillars. Yasamine wondered, if she spoke, would her words crackle and hiss?

They walked through passageways and caves toward the centre of the palace. As they stepped under an archway, Davood gasped. A fire person knelt in a corner of the cavern. Yasamine grabbed Davood’s arm as the fire plunged its hands through the glass floor, scooping up sand which quivered over the flames into glass and light. The air shook as the fire stood and sank a hand into the cavern’s side. The wall gaped and flowed. Glass pooled by the fiery feet. The light trembled as the fire turned. Yasamine and Davood jolted as eyes of spark and flame glared across the shimmering heat.

They felt the cavern stretch under the fire person’s stare. The glass pillars swayed with firelight. Yasamine and Davood inched backwards until pressed against the wall.  The fire took a step forward and began to speak. The air strained under hisses and crackles which shaped into words from Yasamine and Davood’s own language.

“Who are you?” the fire snarled. “Why are you here?” The voice blazed against the walls. Yasamine and Davood cowered as its eyes flared. Yasamine tried to speak, murmuring into the heat.

“We came from the town at the desert’s edge,” she said. The fire hissed. “The streets are burning.” Yasamine looked away from the fire to the molten footprints. “People are hurt.” Her words stumbled. “Why won’t you leave the town alone?” Her voice sank under the simmering light.

“I rule this desert,” the fire sparked. “My people always stayed on the sands, away from men. But our lives are short. Yours are long.” He paused and watched as they quivered. “I want to live many years. I sent my people to the village to search for the secret of your long lives. I will make them walk over the world until they find it. They will walk until the cities and valleys turn to smoke. The oceans will boil. Deserts will reach over sea beds where more of my people will form. They will walk until the world is ash.” The air bristled with his words. He plunged his hand into a glass pillar which cracked and spilled upon the ground. Yasamine quaked as she imagined the planet as soot and sky. She thought of her grandmother’s tales of the world beyond the desert and pictured the fire people walking through it, burning towns and hills. She saw the night lit with embers and mountains below flames. The king of the fire people hissed. Yasamine looked up, glimpsing the mountain through a gap in the glass. Stars lit its airless peak.

“I know the secret,” she whispered.

“Tell me,” the king growled. Embers bristled in his eyes.

“It’s the mountain. My people used to live short lives, but then one man climbed to the top of the mountain, and now we live for many years.” Her words hovered between the pillars and sparks. The king turned to look at the mountain. Yasamine thought of her grandmother. “The desert was once a great forest with trees as high as hilltops, but then an endless wind came and went through it until only sand was left,” she said. “The wind raged for centuries, but got caught in a hollow at the top of the mountain, and it’s still there now. If you step inside and breathe it you get a bit of its endless life.” The king reached into the glass: the wall shivered and poured. The gaping hole dripped light.

“Show me,” he hissed as he walked through the hole. Yasamine and Davood followed him as he tore chasms in the walls of passageways and caverns. Glass rippled with flames as they stepped from the palace. The king stared at the mountain: moonlight drifted down the slopes. He began striding across the desert, sand glinting as glass under his steps. Yasamine and Davood followed him through the sparks and night winds.

At the foot of the mountain, they gazed upwards at snow and stars.

“The hollow’s at the top,” Yasamine said, starting to walk on the slope. The king quickly marched ahead, with Yasamine and Davood scurrying behind. Chill stone sizzled at his steps. Night clung to the mountain. Darkness sank on firelight. The king strode onwards, past steeps and ravines. Yasamine and Davood paused to look back at the palace: glass and embers lit the distant sands. They shuddered as the king turned and blazed, snarling at them to point the way. Yasamine and Davood struggled over jagged edges and gripped at sharp rocks. Davood murmured at her not to look down. The king moved faster through the moonlight, flames smarting the night winds.

They looked up at the peak towering far above. Night smudged around the sharp heights as dawn tinted the snow. The king paused under the winds, rocks sparking at his grasp. He halted as Yasamine and Davood clambered ahead, and then followed as Yasamine led the way.  She shivered as the sky chilled the air. The desert stretched deep below their sight. The slopes tilted as they reached higher climbs. Yasamine and Davood gasped and slowed in the thin air, and the king began to dim and cool. Daylight softened the stars and stilled the winds. The king hissed and crackled as the peak came closer, his burning words vanishing in the high mountain air.

“We’re nearly there,” Yasamine gasped out, pointing at a corner of the mountain top. She faltered as her grip weakened and Davood slumped at her side. They huddled on a ledge and stared as the king went on without a look back.

The king climbed on toward the peak, his fading flames singeing the light. Rocks simmered at his weakened touch. Yasamine and Davood clung together, and she whispered that the hollow was just her story. They watched as the king scaled the jagged reaches. He clambered further until snow steamed under his feet. His firelight stuttered in the thinning air. His flames began to dim and flicker as he neared the mountain top. His embers cooling, he dragged himself over the rocks, seeking the hollow in the stone. Yasamine gasped as the king began to curl and shrink. He hissed and crackled, trying to crawl while his sparks spluttered and faded. He was still searching for the endless wind when he was turned to a patch of soot.

“He’s gone,” Yasamine whispered to Davood, as they gazed up at the snow and soot. A hush clung to the mountain top. They looked out across the still desert toward their town, and then began to climb down the slopes.

Rebecca Harrison writes fairy tales, hunts bluebells, and can be summoned by a cake signal in the sky. Her stories have also been published in Axolotl Magazine, Wild: A Quarterly, Quail Bell Magazine, The Story Shack, and The Teacup Trail.