Back to Stories

The Fire

by Phyllis Martens

Part 3

The windows of the Dunsmore house were cracking. The men came down from the roof. "It's gonna go," they said. Their faces were black, holes had burned through their coats. The fire chief ran into the house shouting "Everybody out! We can't save it!" A few minutes later the already smoking wall next to the store burst into flames.

There was an open space between Dunsmore's and the bank at the corner. The bank, solid stone and brick, did not seem likely to catch fire; anyway, the wind was in the other direction. The frame buildings across the street--Hiebert and Franz, Woodruff's Sam Balzer's drug store--were in some danger, however. Men had gone up on the roofs and were busy stamping out sparks and wetting down the shingles with buckets of water handed up. Ashes floated down on the washing machines, stoves, sewing machines and shoes jumbled together in the street.

Slowly the fire burned itself out. The walls of flame shrank, sank, became glowing pits. People stirred, walked slowly through the blackened melting snow to their houses across town, drove silently home to their farms.

Anna's doll, one of the few items saved from the fire

Helena found Johann standing among his stoves together with Heppner and Dick. Heppner was blaming the whole thing on Schroeder. Dick was raging against the fire department for not keeping the hydrant in working order. Johann said nothing.

Helena asked about the Dunsmores. Dick said they had gone off with a relative to Windom. "Al--where's Al?" she asked suddenly. Heppner shouted to a group of men just leaving--one of them said Al had left some time ago.

Helena took Johann's arm. "Let's go," she said. It was three o'clock in the morning.

Johann said nothing on the walk to Tante Auna's. When the old aunt let them in, exclaiming "It's too bad, it's too bad," he spoke not a word but sat down near the stove with his head in his hands. Tante Auna hung up his ruined coat and handed him hot coffee. He drank it, set down the cup and sat as before.

Helena, having gone into the other rooms to count the children to make sure Al had returned, came back into the kitchen. "The insurance will pay for some of it, at least," she told Johann.

"I let the insurance go in January," he said.

The women stared at him. "Let it go? But why...?"

"I thought we didn't need it," he said. There was a long silence.

Worried at seeing him so despondent, Helena went over to him. "Be glad it's gone!" she said firmly. Johann looked at her. "Zie froh daut et foht es. Be glad it's gone," she repeated. "You can build again. Now go to bed."

Helena's sleep was troubled. She kept waking up, having dreamt she was in a place of gloom and fiery coals looking for one of the children lost in the black smoke, but she could not remember which child it was. Every time she woke up she went to count the children to make sure they were all there.

In the grey dawn she awoke to find Johann dressed, quietly putting on his shoes. "Wait, I'll come with you," she said.

It was very early. Already a few people were out shoveling off their walks. Johann and Helena hurried along, not wanting to speak to anyone.

They turned the corner and saw the great black pit where their store had been. Charred timbers lay across each other at crazy angles. Underneath here and there the ashes glowed red. Wisps of smoke floated into the morning air. Part of their chimney still stood, a ruin against the sky. The alley was a nightmarish tangle of blackened brick and wire. To the east, beyond the trees and roofs, the day was dawning fresh and clear. It was Sunday morning.

Johann poked among his stoves a little while, glanced at the piles of shoes in the snow,then turned away, and they went back to Tante Auna's.

Later that day when Woodruff opened his place briefly to get something, he found on his counter Helena's six loaves of bread and the family Bible. How they got there, nobody knew. Helena took it as a promise: something to sustain the body and something for the soul.

Many years later Anna, now married with children of her own, said that Helena and even the girls were not altogether sorry about the loss, because now they were back among the ordinary working people. The struggle to live up to the standards of the aristocracy--the Hieberts, Janzens, Bargens and Ewerts--was over, for a while at any rate. Anna herself liked the ordinary people better--she felt more comfortable with them. Helena did not tell Johann this, however. Her duty was to encourage Johann so that he would find the strength to rebuild his store.

(A historical note is in order: in 1983 the Woodruff building burned down in a very similar fire that destroyed half a block of buildings, including Hiebert and Franz.)