The Moyea Valley Fire, Denis Johnson

When, in the summer of 1920, Robert Grainier came back from a job in the Robinson Gorge with four hundred dollars in his pocket, riding in a passenger car as far as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and then in a wagon up the Panhandle, a fire was consuming the Moyea Valley. He rode through a steadily thickening haze of wood smoke into Bonners Ferry and found the little town crowded with residents from along the Moyea River who no longer had any homes.

Grainier searched for his wife and daughter among the folks sheltering in town. Many had nothing to do now but move on, destitute. Nobody had word of his family.

He searched among the crowd of some one hundred or so people camping at the fairgrounds among tiny collections of the remnants of their worldly possessions, random things, dolls and mirrors and bridles, all waterlogged. These had managed to wade down the river and through the conflagration and out the southern side of it. Others, who’d headed north and tried to outrun the flames, had not been heard of since. Grainier questioned everyone, but got no news of his wife and daughter, and he grew increasingly frantic as he witnessed the refugees’ strange happiness at having got out alive and their apparent disinterest in the fate of anyone who might have failed to.

The northbound Spokane International was stopped in Bonners and wouldn’t move on until the fire was down and a good rain had soaked the Panhandle. Grainier walked the twenty miles out along the Moyea River Road toward his home with a handkerchief tied over his nose and mouth to strain the smoke, stopping to wet it often in the river, passing through a silvery snow of ash. Nothing here was burning. The fi re had started on the river’s east side not far above the village of Meadow Creek and worked north, crossed the river at a narrow gorge bridged by flaming mammoth spruce trees as they fell, and devoured the valley. Meadow Creek was deserted. He stopped at the railroad platform and drank water from the barrel there and went quickly on without resting. Soon he was passing through a forest of charred, gigantic spears that only a few days past had been evergreens. The world was gray, white, black, and acrid, without a single live animal or plant, no longer burning and yet still full of the warmth and life of the fire. So much ash, so much choking smoke— it was clear to him miles before he reached his home that nothing could be left of it, but he went on anyway, weeping for his wife and daughter, calling, “Kate! Gladys!” over and over. He turned off the road to look in on the homesite of the Andersens, the first one past Meadow Creek. At first he couldn’t tell even where the cabin had stood. Their acreage looked like the rest of the valley, burned and silent except for the collective hiss of the very last remnants of combustion. He found their cookstove mounding out of a tall drift of ashes where its iron legs had buckled in the heat. A few of the biggest stones from the chimney lay strewn nearby. Ash had buried the rest.

The farther north he hiked, the louder came the reports of cracking logs and the hiss of burning, until every charred tree around him still gave off smoke. He rounded a bend to hear the roar of the conflagration and see the fire a half mile ahead like a black-and-red curtain dropped from a night sky. Even from this distance the heat of it stopped him. He collapsed to his knees, sat in the warm ashes through which he’d been wading, and wept.

Ten days later, when the Spokane International was running again, Grainier rode it up into Creston, B.C., and back south again the evening of the same day through the valley that had been his home. The blaze had climbed to the ridges either side of the valley and stalled halfway down the other side of the mountains, according to the reports Grainier had listened to intently. It had gutted the valley along its entire length like a campfire in a ditch. All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking— the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.

The news in Creston was terrible. No escapees from the Moyea Valley fire had appeared there.

Grainier stayed at his cousin’s home for several weeks, not good for much, sickened by his natural grief and confused by the situation. He understood that he’d lost his wife and little girl, but sometimes the idea stormed over him, positively stormed into his thoughts like an irresistible army, that Gladys and Kate had escaped the fire and that he should look for them everywhere in the world until he found them. Nightmares woke him every night: Gladys came out of the black landscape onto their homesite, dressed in smoking rags and carrying their daughter, and found nothing there, and stood crying in the waste.

In September, thirty days after the fi re, Grainier rented a pair of horses and a wagon and set out up the river road carting a heap of supplies, intending to put up shelter on his acre and wait all winter for his family to return. Some might have called it an ill-considered plan, but the experiment had the effect of bringing him to his senses. As soon as he entered the remains he felt his heart’s sorrow blackened and purified, as if it were an actual lump of matter from which all the hopeful, crazy thinking was burning away. He drove through a layer of ash deep enough, in some places, that he couldn’t make out the roadbed any better than if he’d driven through winter snows. Only the fastest animals and those with wings could have escaped this feasting fi re.

After traveling through the waste for several miles, scarcely able to breathe for the reek of it, he quit and turned around and went back to live in town.

Not long after the start of autumn, businessmen from Spokane raised a hotel at the little railroad camp of Meadow Creek. By spring a few dispossessed families had returned to start again in the Moyea Valley. Grainier hadn’t thought he’d try it himself, but in May he camped alongside the river, fishing for speckled trout and hunting for a rare and very flavorful mushroom the Canadians called morel, which sprang up on ground disturbed by fire. Progressing north for several days, Grainier found himself within a shout of his old home and climbed the draw by which he and Gladys had habitually found their way to and from the water.

He marveled at how many shoots and fl owers had sprouted already from the general death.

He climbed to their cabin site and saw no hint, no sign at all of his former life, only a patch of dark ground surrounded by the black spikes of spruce. The cabin was cinders, burned so completely that its ashes had mixed in with a common layer all about and then been tamped down by the snows and washed and dissolved by the thaw.

He found the woodstove lying on its side with its legs curled up under it like a beetle’s. He righted it and pried at the handle. The hinges broke away and the door came off. Inside sat a chunk of birch, barely charred. “Gladys!” he said out loud. Everything he’d loved lying ashes around him, but here this thing she’d touched and held.

He poked through the caked mud around the grounds and found almost nothing he could recognize. He scuff ed along through the ashes and kicked up one of the spikes he’d used in building the cabin’s walls, but couldn’t find any others.

He saw no sign of their Bible, either. If the Lord had failed to protect even the book of his own Word, this proved to Grainier that here had come a fi re stronger than God. Come June or July this clearing would be grassy and green. Already foot-tall jack pine sprouted from the ashes, dozens of them. He thought of poor little Kate and talked to himself again out loud: “She never even growed up to a sprout.”

Grainier thought he must be very nearly the only creature in this sterile region. But standing in his old homesite, talking out loud, he heard himself answered by wolves on the peaks in the distance, these answered in turn by others, until the whole valley was singing. There were birds about, too, not foraging, maybe, but lighting to rest briefly as they headed across the burn.

Gladys, or her spirit, was near. A feeling overcame him that something belonging to her and the baby, to both of them, lay around here to be claimed. What thing? He believed it might be the chocolates Gladys had bought in a red box, chocolates cupped in white paper. A crazy thought, but he didn’t bother to argue with it. Once every week, she and the tyke had sucked one chocolate apiece. Suddenly he could see those white cups scattered all around him. When he looked directly at any one of them, it disappeared.

Toward dark, as Grainier lay by the river in a blanket, his eye caught on a quick thing up above, fl ying along the river. He looked and saw his wife Gladys’s white bonnet sailing past overhead. Just sailing past.

He stayed on for weeks in this camp, waiting, wanting many more such visions as that of the bonnet, and the chocolates—as many as wanted to come to him; and he figured as long as he saw impossible things in this place, and liked them, he might as well be in the habit of talking to himself, too. Many times each day he found himself deflating on a gigantic sigh and saying, “A pretty mean circumstance!” He thought he’d better be up and doing things so as not to sigh quite as much.

Sometimes he thought about Kate, the pretty little tyke, but not frequently. Hers was not such a sad story. She’d hardly been awake, much less alive.

He lived through the summer off dried morel mushrooms and fresh trout cooked up together in butter he bought at the store in Meadow Creek. After a while a dog came along, a little red-haired female. The dog stayed with him, and he stopped talking to himself because he was ashamed to have the animal catch him at it. He bought a canvas tarp and some rope in Meadow Creek, and later he bought a nanny goat and walked her back to his camp, the dog wary and following this newcomer at a distance. He picketed the nanny near his lean-to.

He spent several days along the creek in gorges where the burn wasn’t so bad, collecting willow whips from which he wove a crate about two yards square and half as tall. He and the dog walked to Meadow Creek and he bought four hens, also a rooster to keep them in line, and carted them home in a grain sack and cooped them up in the crate. He let them out for a day or two every now and then, penning them frequently so the hens wouldn’t lay in secret places, not that there were many places in this destruction even to hide an egg.

The little red dog lived on goat’s milk and fish heads and, Grainier supposed, whatever she could catch. She served as decent company when she cared to, but tended to wander for days at a time.

Because the ground was too bare for grazing, he raised his goat on the same laying mash he fed the chickens. This got to be expensive. Following the first frost in September he butchered the goat and jerked most of its meat.

After the second frost of the season, he started strangling and stewing the fowls one by one over the course of a couple of weeks, until he and the dog had eaten them all, the rooster, too. Then he left for Meadow Creek. He had grown no garden and built no structure other than his lean-to.

As he got ready to depart, he discussed the future with his dog. “To keep a dog in town it ain’t my nature,” he told the animal. “But you seem to me elderly, and I don’t think an elderly old dog can make the winter by your lonely up around these hills.” He told her he would pay an extra nickel to bring her aboard the train a dozen miles into Bonners Ferry. But this must not have suited her. On the day he gathered his few things to hike down to the platform at Meadow Creek, the little red dog was nowhere to be found, and he left without her.

The abbreviated job a year earlier at Robinson Gorge had given him money enough to last through the winter in Bonners Ferry, but in order to stretch it Grainier worked for twenty cents an hour for a man named Williams who’d contracted with Great Northern to sell them one thousand cords of fi rewood for two dollars and seventy-five cents each. The steady daylong exertions kept him and seven other men warm through the days, even as the winter turned into the coldest seen in many years. The Kootenai River froze hard enough that one day they watched, from the lot where wagons brought them logs of birch and larch to be sawn and split, a herd of two hundred cattle being driven across the river on the ice. They moved onto the blank white surface and churned up a snowy fog that first lost them in itself, then took in all the world north of the riverbank, and finally rose high enough to hide the sun and sky.

Late that March Grainier returned to his homesite in the Moyea Valley, this time hauling a wagonload of supplies.

Animals had returned to what was left of the forest. As Grainier drove along in the wagon behind a wide, slow, sand-colored mare, clusters of orange butterflies exploded off the blackish purple piles of bear sign and winked and fluttered magically like leaves without trees. More bears than people traveled the muddy road, leaving tracks straight up and down the middle of it; later in the summer they would forage in the low patches of huckleberry he already saw coming back on the blackened hillsides.

At his old campsite by the river he raised his canvas lean-to and went about chopping down fi ve dozen burned spruce, none of them bigger around than his own hat size, acting on the generally acknowledged theory that one man working alone could handle a house log about the circumference of his own head. With the rented horse he got the timber decked in his clearing, then had to return the outfit to the stables in Bonners Ferry and hop the train back to Meadow Creek.

It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when he got back to his old home—now his new home—that he noticed what his labors had prevented his seeing: It was full-on spring, sunny and beautiful, and the Moyea Valley showed a lot of green against the dark of the burn. The ground about was healing. Fireweed and jack pine stood up about thigh high. A mustard-tinted fog of pine pollen drifted through the valley when the wind came up. If he didn’t yank this crop of new ones, his clearing would return to forest.

He built his cabin about eighteen by eighteen, laying out lines, making a foundation of stones in a ditch knee-deep to get down below the frost line, scribing and hewing the logs to keep each one flush against the next, hacking notches, getting his back under the higher ones to lift them into place. In a month he’d raised four walls nearly eight feet in height. The windows and roof he left for later, when he could get some milled lumber. He tossed his canvas over the east end to keep the rain out. No peeling had been required, because the fire had managed that for him. He’d heard that fire-killed trees lasted best, but the cabin stank. He burned heaps of jack pine needles in the middle of the dirt floor, trying to change the odor’s character, and he felt after a while that he’d succeeded.

In early June the red dog appeared, took up residence in a corner, and whelped a brood of four pups that appeared quite wolfish.

Down at the Meadow Creek store he spoke about this development with a Kootenai Indian named Bob. Kootenai Bob was a steady man who had always refused liquor and worked frequently at jobs in town, just as Grainier did, and they’d known each other for many years. Kootenai Bob said that if the dog’s pups had come out wolfish, that would be quite strange. The Kootenais had it that only one pair in a wolf den ever made pups— that you couldn’t get any of the he-wolves to mate except one, the chief of the wolf tribe. And the she-wolf he chose to bear his litters was the only bitch in the pack who ever came in heat. “And so I tell you,” Bob said, “that therefore your wandering dog wouldn’t drop a litter of wolves.” But what if she’d encountered the wolf pack at just the moment she was coming into heat, Grainier wanted to know—might the king wolf have mounted her then, just for the newness of the experience? “Then perhaps, perhaps,” Bob said. “Might be. Might be you’ve got yourself some dog-of-wolf. Might be you’ve started your own pack, Robert.”

Three of the pups wandered off immediately as the little dog weaned them, but one, a discoordinated male, stayed around and was tolerated by its mother. Grainier felt sure this dog was got of a wolf, but it never even whimpered in reply when the packs in the distance, some as far away as the Selkirks on the British Columbia side, sang at dusk. The creature needed to be taught its nature, Grainier felt. One evening he got down beside it and howled. The little pup only sat on its rump with an inch of pink tongue jutting stupidly from its closed mouth. “You’re not growing in the direction of your own nature, which is to howl when the others do,” he told the mongrel. He stood up straight himself and howled long and sorrowfully over the gorge, and over the low quiet river he could hardly see across this close to nightfall . . . Nothing from the pup. But often, thereafter, when Grainier heard the wolves at dusk, he laid his head back and howled for all he was worth, because it did him good. It flushed out something heavy that tended to collect in his heart, and after an evening’s program with his choir of British Columbian wolves he felt warm and buoyant.

This story is drawn from Denis Johnson’s delicate and heartbreaking novella, Train Dreams, first published in its entirety in The Paris Review and shortly to appear in book form from FSG.

Up in the trees ourselves, we are reminded of two other great fictional parables of men and logging, Sometimes a Great Notion and Out Stealing Horses.


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