(inspired by, and only a few words changed from, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart)
No Sh*t! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The wildfire mop-up had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Surely, the chronic smoke dimmed my vision and the chainsaws deafened my hearing. Above all was the sense of smell acute. I smelled all things in the heaven and in the earth. I smelled many things from hell. How then am I mad? There I was! Observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old wildfire. It had never wronged me. It had never given me an insult. For the overtime I had no desire. I think it was the smell from the deep rotting root hole! Yes, it was this! One of the root holes smell resembled that of a dead smouldering vulture — a pale blue vapor with a dumpster odor to it. Whenever I smelled it my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to bury the old root hole, and thus rid myself of the smell forever.
Now, this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight, with what dissimulation, I went to work! I was never kinder to the old root hole than during the whole day before I buried it. And every few hours I returned to the smouldering root hole and observed it oh, so gently! And then, when I had burrowed out an opening sufficient for my head, I put in my headlamp deep in so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my hand. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly, very, very slowly, so that I might not burn my fingers. It took me an hour to place my whole arm within the opening so far that I could determine its heat. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this? And then when my hand was deep in the room hole I turned on my headlamp cautiously — oh, so cautiously — cautiously (so I would not attract attention), I pointed it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the smouldering ember of the rotting root. And this I did for seven long hours, but I found the ember never extinguished, and so it was impossible to do other work, for it was not the old root hole who vexed me but this Evil Ember. And during the morning, when the day broke, I went boldly back to the rest of the fire crew and spoke courageously to them, calling them names in a hearty tone, and inquiring how many smokes they had put out. So you see they would have been a very profound old firefighters, indeed, to suspect that every hour, almost twelve, I worked that single root hole.
Upon returning to the root hole I was more than usually cautious in extending my hand down the root hole. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before had I felt the extent of my own powers, of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was feeling the sides of the root hole little by little, and the ember not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea, and perhaps the ember heard me, for it flared suddenly as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back — but no. The root hole was as black as pitch with the thick darkness (for the root hole penetrated nearly a ton of earth), and so I knew that it could not feel the fresh air of the opening, and I kept pushing down it steadily, steadily.
I had my head in and was about to turn on my headlamp when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old ember flared up in its bed of ash, as if crying out, “Who’s there?”
I kept quite still and did nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not feel the ember lie down. It was still glowing up in its ash bed, smouldering; just as I have done hour after hour hearkening to the death watches on the fire.
Presently, I smelt a slight odor, and I knew it was the odor of mortal terror. It was not an odor of pain or of grief — oh, no! It was the low stifled smell that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the smell well. Many an hour, and at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own nose, deepening, with its dreadful stench, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old ember felt, and pitied it, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that it had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise when it had turned in its ash bed. Its smouldering had been ever since glowing upon it. It had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. It had been smouldering to itself, “It is nothing but the wind in the root hole chimney, it is only a mouse crossing the root floor,” or, “It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes it has been trying to comfort itself with these suppositions; but it had found all in vain. ALL IN VAIN, because Death in approaching it had stalked with his black shadow before him and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused it to feel, although it neither saw nor heard, to feel the presence of my hand within the root hole.
When I had waited a long time very patiently without smelling it smoulder down, I resolved to turn on a little — a very, very little dim light on my headlamp. So I turned it on — you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily — until at length a single dim ray like the thread of the spider shot out from the headlamp and fell upon the vulture ember.
It was smouldering, wide, wide smoulder, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness — all a dull blue smoke with a hideous odor over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones, but I could see nothing else of the old ash bed, for I had directed the ray as if by instinct precisely upon the damned ember.
And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses? now, I say, there came to my nose a low, dull, quick odor, such as a smouldering rotten vulture makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that stench well too. It was the stench of the old ember’s rotting root. It increased my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the headlamp motionless. I tried how steadily I could to maintain the ray upon the ember. Meantime the hellish stench of the ember increased. It grew putrid and vile, and fouler and stinkier, every instant. The old hotspot’s terror must have been extreme! It grew malodorous, I say, it reeked every moment! — do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old wildfire, so strange a smell as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the stench grew greater, greater! I thought the ember must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me — the ember would be smelled by another firefighter! The old ember’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the root hole and leaped up. It flared once — once only. In an instant, I dragged ashes out of the hole and pulled the heavy dirt over them. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But for many minutes the smell vapored on with a muffled stench. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be smelled through the smoke. At length it ceased. The old ember was dead. I removed some soil and examined the corpse. Yes, it was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heat and held it there many minutes. There was no incalescence. It was stone dead. Its stench would trouble me no more.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the ashes. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence.
I took up three shovelsful of soil and filled the root hole, and deposited ashes between the scantlings. I then replaced the topsoil so cleverly so cunningly, that no human eye — not even the crew leaders’ — could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to spread out — no stain of any kind — no heat-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that.
When I had made an end of these labours, it was four o’clock — still dark as midnight. As my wristwatch bell sounded the hour, there came a shouting across the fire. I answered back with a light heart, — for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as overhead on the fire. A shriek had been heard by a neighbouring firefighter on the mop up crew during the night; suspicion of needed assistance had been aroused; information had been lodged with the crew boss, and they (the officers) had been nearby and deputed to search the area.
I smiled, — for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was of my own in a dreamy frustration. The old root hole ember, I mentioned, was now absent. I took my visitors all over the area. I bade them search — search well. I led them, at length, to the root hole. I showed them my mop-up work, the vicinity tilled and disturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I bade them to sit here, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own feet upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the root hole ember.
The officers were satisfied. My MANNER had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a stinging in my nose; but still they sat, and still chatted. The smell became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness — until, at length, I found that the smell was NOT within my nose.
No doubt I now grew VERY pale; but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the stench increased — and what could I do? It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK ODOR — MUCH SUCH A STENCH AS A PUTRID SMOULDING VULTURE MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers smelled it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the odor steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the odor steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the ground to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the odor steadily increased. O God! what COULD I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the shovel upon which I had been leaning, and grated it upon the char, but the odor arose over all and continually increased. It grew stinkier — malodorous — fouler! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they smelled it not? Almighty God! — no, no? They smelled! — they suspected! — they KNEW! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again — hark! smellier! putrid! HOT SPOT! LIVE EMBER! — BURIED! NOT PUT OUT! READY TO IGNITE A REBURN!! “Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the ground! — here, here! — it is the Evil Ember smouldering in its hideous root hole!” END.