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Monkey Paw Fire One

This is a personal tribute to all the women and men who face up wildfires every day in USA.
Exclusive From Spain (2019) Josep Serra, Pau Costa Foundation Art & Fire Series

When he tried to dive out of the way, the colossal careening stump stabbed a giant hole into his fireline pack and jerked him five feet into the air. His neck rubbered and slung his hard hat twenty feet starboard while his heels snapped together like a German soldier in an old war movie. It centrifuged him on high and mopped him like a dishrag across the wildfire. After a few seconds, the flaming, fire-hardened root-wad hurled Conrad away and launched itself towards other firefighters below. This was fury and it was fun. Only his heels hurt from their violent collision. He couldn’t wait to tell Mackenzie.

Conrad savored those immediate memories as he stood in line to trade in his torn fireline pack at the fire camp commissary. He looked around and noticed Dicky, his crew’s great embarrassment, yacking it up with overhead. Dicky performed his tedious, goofball twit routine. Conrad hated Dicky’s fawning over overhead. It’s so infuriating for proud ground pounders. Conrad also noticed in the background members from other crews snickering and pointing to Dicky. When they recognized that Conrad wore the same hard hat as Dicky, they smirked at him too. Conrad got his replacement firepack and scurried away from their schadenfreude smiles.

Conrad, still stinging from his embarrassment and loss of pride, thought about all of the ways he disliked Dicky as he bolted up the fireline back towards his crew.  “Richard Privileged Alabaster the Third,” or something like that, Dicky had ceremoniously pronounced his name on the fire training’s first day. Then, because the crowd instantly guffawed and he was unsure of who were the Alpha or Beta dogs, he quickly volunteered his nickname “Dicky.”

Dicky was an odd cluster of cognitive dissonance. Mackenzie, Conrad’s crew boss, described him as an aggrieved power-monger, who looks for opportunities to suck up and punch down. Mackenzie also thought that if Dicky were ever in command, he would be a feckless, sadistic bully. Mackenzie and Conrad often discussed Dicky’s sour effects on their crew. But Mackenzie didn’t want to export their crew’s problems. She wanted her crew to pull together, with strengths compensating weaknesses. She knew Dicky resented her command and popularity, probably due to her gender. But Mackenzie thought of everyone as redeemable. Patience and empathy would find a way. Mackenzie routinely told Conrad she admired his knack of leading through strength and grace. So she directed Conrad to find a way to integrate Dicky amid the crew’s stalwarts.

Because Conrad stood as a designated male authority, Dicky always sycophantically tried to placate Conrad. And Conrad often found it hard to conceal his irritation over Dicky’s behavior, especially when Dicky coyly and frequently tried to weedle a boon of kinship by offering water by using the annoying juvenile phrase, “Hey, guy, do you want some wa-wa?” But Conrad also detected that behind his back, Dicky lusted for revenge.

At twilight, Conrad had returned to his crew at the top of the fire. He had slammed his personal gear into his new, used pack as he ruminated over the embarrassment that Dicky inflicted in the dreadful fire camp. Fumbling through the pack, Conrad discovered a small, string-bound bundle hidden away in a crevice. He unfurled it. It was a eerie, mummified animal’s paw. In the wrapping paper was a note that read, “Whoever finds this Monkey Paw shall have three wishes granted. Be careful of what you wish for! For this cursed Monkey Paw may grant wishes in the most morbid ways.” Conrad chuckled and assumed it anonymous spoofing by another crew. On a whim, Conrad wished that Dicky would … no longer be on his crew.

Later, through the darkness, Conrad could see the headlamps of his crew below and he knew they continued to efficiently mop up glowing coals and hotspots in the calm, cooling night air. Then he saw a straight and strong headlamp moving up the line. He instantly recognized Mackenzie’s silhouette. She easily navigated the undulating terrain with skill and finesse. Conrad appreciated everything about Mackenzie, her wisdom, generosity, good humor, strength, and courage. He remained fast friends with her husband, even though that dude was a Hella-puke.

When she arrived, she said, “Conrad, I don’t know if you’ve heard, they’ve made Dicky a sector boss and now he heads our sector. See that headlamp, opposite those three, way down below? I’m sure that’s him. He is, no doubt, lording his new overhead position over everyone on our crew.”

They sat down and observed the scene below. The headlight movement and noise of the chainsaw told them that Dicky ordered others to do unnecessary, demeaning, and even dangerous things entirely because he could. Mackenzie narrated, “Just for spite, he’s ordered them to fall that habitat snag that we saved by raking away debris.  He hates light-hand-on-the-land tactics and loves vengeful, dominating fire suppression.”

“Well, what can we do? It just proves what I suspected. This fire management team is full of idiots,”  Conrad complained. Then he handed Mackenzie the monkey paw and said, “Anyway, look what I found in my replacement pack. Here’s the note that says it grants three wishes. What a creepy prank, huh?” Mackenzie held the monkey paw and read the note. “Well,” she said, absentmindedly, “if I got a wish, I’d wish that Dicky’s foolish incompetence would get him removed from his sector boss position.” Mackenzie wrapped up the monkey paw in the note and tossed it back on top of Conrad’s pack. “But you know,” she said, “these good ol’ boys instantly recognize one of their own and they protect each other. It takes something extremely serious for them to get rid of one of their clan.”

Suddenly, a warm breeze slowly flowed down the mountain. It grew more robust and rousted this sleeping fire. Spot fires leapt awake outside the fireline. Mackenzie and Conrad scrambled to work. The wind grew stronger. Flying embers and fire brands spawned more spot fires.

A sudden, chilling realization swept over Conrad. He related to Mackenzie that he thought the monkey paw distorted their benign wishes into something more sinister. These now cursed wishes had transformed into tragic and morbid consequences. Conrad explained that he had held the monkey paw and naively wished that Dicky was simply off their crew. Now Dicky was no longer on their crew by becoming sector boss. Conrad pointed out that Mackenzie had just held the monkey paw and distractedly wished that something would happen to demonstrate Dicky’s foolish incompetence. And then the warm wind came rousing the fire and seeding new spot fires. But sleepy fires can become dangerous. Conrad spoke of his fear that they could become part of a malicious curse. Something really bad could happen to them. Mackenzie scoffed and argued that she wasn’t superstitious. But as the wind grew fiercer and they had to work faster and harder, she conceded that maybe there was something to this old monkey paw curse. Then they saw Dicky’s headlamp slowly climbing up the fireline towards them.

As they frantically worked the spot fires and stressed over the arrival of Sector Boss Dicky, Mackenzie told Conrad that she felt that Conrad’s and her reflexive sense of justice, equality, empathy, empowerment, responsibility, and protection for those whom Dicky deemed “unworthy” had really roiled Dicky. “And, oh,” she said, “Dicky will wreak his revenge now.” As she became more exhausted during the frenzied work, Mackenzie became increasingly agitated and began to narrate the advance of Sector Boss Dicky. “He’s 200 yards away now,” she says, “I can feel his wrath and unrequited vengeance.”

During this cold, dead night, the fire rose into a heated menace. A slow, wind-driven gyration coiled floating embers into mystic demons. Tree boughs swayed and caught fire. Subalpine fir torched and transformed into gigantic Roman candles. Over the fire’s roaring crescendo, Mackenzie confessed that she feared her cursed wish will, afterall, cause Dicky to be removed for foolish incompetence. But his incompetence will involve his attempt to take revenge on them by ordering them to do something extremely foolish that leads to their lethal injury.

The fiery gyre coagulated into a tightening whirl. The fire vortex now sounded like a jet engine. “He is 50 yards away now,” Mackensie narrated, “his unslaked thirst will swallow us.”

Just as Dicky appeared close by to them, Conrad grabbed the monkey paw, squeezed it, closed his eyes, and concentrated on repeating an inaudible mantra.

Suddenly, a burning tree slammed down where Dicky stood. Noise, dust, and smoke extinguished the headlamp and permeated the scene. Suddenly, it was quiet. The wind abated. All of the menacing flames quickly shrank into tuffly little smokes. Mackenzie shot a horrified look at Conrad that asked, “How could you wish for such an appalling thing?”

But then his headlamp snapped on and Dicky stepped out of the settling dust. “Hey, guys,” Dicky said, “do want some wa-wa?”

Makenzie casts an even more aghast look at Conrad. “I wished him back to the same old familiar Dicky,” Conrad quietly explained. Mackenzie laughed and whispered, “Yes, my unfinished Dicky project is indeed cursed and morbid.” She shouted to Dicky, “Hey Dicky! There’s a small spot fire to your left. Go over and check it out. Line it or control it. But don’t forget to use M.I.S.T. techniques.” Dicky trudged off, grumbling.

Mackenzie turned back to Conrad, grabbed the monkey’s paw out of his hand and flung it into the fire as far as she could throw. They both contemplated the dying fire for awhile. At last Conrad said, “You know, a firefighter doesn’t have to follow an incompetent, foolish order that may imperil her life. She can say ‘no’.”

Mackenzie glanced menacingly at Conrad. “OK,” she said, “I forgot situational awareness for a moment.” Then she hefted on her fireline pack, and bored her eyes into him. “Conrad, are you sure there’s only three wishes?” “Yes, only three. And you have to be holding the monkey paw.” Mackenzie commanded, “Fine. Then I wish that you go over and supervise Dicky with strength and grace.”