Controlled Burn

by Julie Sellers

The ranchers in the Flint Hills called it a controlled burn, insinuating that with sufficient intention they could master the elements. But Rebecca knew better—an unexpected change of the wind, a jumped fireguard, the barest instant of carelessness, and the ravenous pasture fires set in the region each spring could reduce such smugness to nothing but ashes. Her earliest memory was of fire; her earliest loss was to fire; fire had forged her, for better or worse, into the person she was.

Each year, the cattlemen of the Flight Hills use the controlled burning of their pastures to rid the land of invasive species and to encourage the new growth of the tallgrass prairie grazed by the region's cattle. These prescribed burns have long been a part of life in the Flint Hills. Native Americans used similar methods to improve grazing for bison, and records indicate that local ranchers have been setting spring fires for over 150 years.

Rebecca stared at the screen. "Not much of a start," she mumbled with a sigh, wondering again at her abysmal luck. How could it be that her editor, the quirky N. Richard White, a man so completely unaware of the natural world that he had spent decades in New York without even so much as visiting Central Park, would decide that their travel magazine should run an article on pasture burn viewing in the Flint Hills? And of course, he had tapped her for the story.

"How come you've never told me about these fires, Dorothy?" he'd asked, dropping a newspaper clipping in front of her. He had appeared unannounced at the French café on the Lower East Side to interrupt her Sunday morning ritual of a café au lait, croissant, and a good book.

"Isn't that reference to The Wizard of Oz a little tired by now?"

N. Richard ignored her. "I want to know more about these controlled burns that tourists are paying big bucks to watch."

The nausea hit her instantly. "Where did you get this clipping?"

He waved off her question. "Inconsequential. What is important is that our competitors haven't beaten us on this. Look what it says here." He tapped the clipping enthusiastically. "'People are coming from as far away as the East and West Coasts for a chance to see the awesome sight of the flames' dance across the prairie.' See, this guy retired and bought some land in Kansas and turned an old farmhouse into an Airbnb. He lets people come and watch his fires, and they can even help set one."

"Fabulous," she said drily.

"Your sarcasm is not lost on me, but I choose to ignore it, so we can get straight to the point."

"Which is?"

"You'll be going and staying there and writing the story. You can take advantage of the proximity to visit your family, since you never seem to get there on your own."

Rebecca's stomach churned. She pushed the plate with her half-eaten croissant away. "Why me?"

"You're done with that?"

She nodded. "My acid reflux is kicking in."

N. Richard approached the pastry with gusto, exhilarated as he always was when on the scent of a story. "Because you're the Kansas farm girl. You know all about this stuff. You're perfect! Unless…" he stopped to wipe a crumb from his mouth; "there's some good reason you shouldn't?"

Rebecca opened her mouth. She had plenty of good reasons: her strained relationship with her father, her controlling older sister, her brother's death so many years ago, and the horror that accosted her every time she smelled smoke. She wanted to tell him, to explain all of it in minute detail so that he would truly understand what he was asking of her. But the words turned to smoke in her mouth. N. Richard was right: she was a Kansas farm girl, and no amount of life in the Big Apple had made her overcome the Midwestern reserve ingrained in her being.

"No," she said quietly, at last, digging through her purse for an antacid. "There's no reason."

And that, she recognized with a sigh, was how she now came to find herself on a plane headed for Kansas City and toward an uncomfortable past.

* * *

Rebecca took the Turnpike as far as Emporia, and then followed Highway 50 into the heart of the Flint Hills. She felt the tightness in her shoulders relax as her eyes took in the familiar scenes of rolling hills, endless horizons, and the first signs of springtime. She had such a love-hate relationship with that region: it had been both her prison, where her family never gave up the good fight to mold her into what they deemed appropriate, and her freedom, where her photojournalist's eye had first learned to see what others overlooked.

As she drove, she remembered so many unbearable and endless Sunday afternoons bouncing down county roads. "Let's go for a drive," her father would say, as if it were the height of entertainment. The family would load into their car and spend hours meandering through the countryside "checking the crops" or "checking the cattle," which Rebecca interpreted as spying on everyone else's business and always finding it lacking.

Even then, Rebecca had been a daydreamer, and her imagination carried her up, far away, and to distant points as her parents and older sister, Mae, did their "checking." Their comments on how small the heads of wheat looked on the Higgins' north 80, or how little weight the Alexandres' cattle seemed to be putting on were a background drone as her mind roamed elsewhere. Her parents thought her distracted or maybe even a little simple, but Mae, fourteen years older, asserted vocally and often that these were actually symptoms of not caring about the family livelihood. It was part of an essential myth Mae had propagated for as long as Rebecca could remember, and, she often believed, before she had even been born. Her older sister had actively excluded her, never giving her a chance to be a part of that way of life.

She was several miles outside of Emporia when she saw the first wisp of smoke. Her hands went cold and a damp sweat covered her forehead. Her stomach roiled as she crested a hill and a line of fire stretching across the prairie greeted her. Instantly, she was transported back in time, to the child of three and the neighbors’ fire that had gotten out of control. She felt herself looking up at the hill behind the family farmhouse and seeing that great, roaring wall of ravenous flames peek over the top and crawl greedily down towards the creek.

"We'd best start moving out," Uncle Pete said. He'd been sent to get them while her father, fourteen-year-old brother Justin, the neighbors, and the fire departments of three surrounding towns battled the blaze. "Looks like it might take the house."

Stoically, without so much as a hint of emotion, her mother had loaded her into Uncle Pete's truck with Mae dutifully following, and they drove away. She remembered crying, feeling terrified that her home would burn, that her kittens wouldn't make it out of the barn. And she remembered the resounding slap her mother had given her. She stared in shock; her little cheek burned.

"None of that. Be a big girl like your sister."

Rebecca had choked down her tears and curled herself into a ball, edging as close to Uncle Pete as she could.

It was her first whole memory, though once, when she'd mentioned it, her family scoffed at the idea that she could recall anything from age three; they certainly couldn’t. But she did, and she remembered it in the same vivid colors and images that she had lived it. Though the fire had stopped short of jumping the creek and the house had been saved, the near miss caused her nightmares for months. She would pull the covers over her head, huddle into a tiny ball, and cry silent tears that wracked her body so no one else would hear. One night, when the dream was especially clear, a small sob escaped her mouth. Within moments, she heard the door to her room open. Without a word, Justin came in and lay on the floor beside her bed. "Still having that bad dream, Sis?" he whispered.

"I was trying not to cry," she said, choking on the words.

"It's OK. I won't tell."

It was all he'd ever said, but her brother had accompanied her many a night until the dreams left her.

Rebecca shook the haze of memories from her mind. To her right, the land stretched, charred as far as the eye could see. Soon, from beneath that scorched destruction, the prairie would be resurrected in tiny sprigs of grass pushing their way up to redeem the hills. She checked her directions; she wasn't far from her destination. She breathed in slowly and fully. She needed to shed the skin of the frightened child and assume the professional veneer of a photojournalist—"all the way from New York City," as the locals would say.

* * *

"Now, there are several different ways to start a fire," Louis Frost explained to his guests that evening. Rebecca had arrived mid-afternoon, just in time to get settled and interview Frost before joining the other guests for dinner at the long table in the farmhouse turned Airbnb. Frost had done his research, and his business was thriving. He knew what he was talking about, she realized. He explained how the Native American practice of lighting a ball of grass and dragging it across the prairie was still used by some, whereas others lit a wad of grass and then spread the flames with a pitchfork or rake. Finally, he held up a firestick, a piece of pipe sealed on one end, filled with gasoline, and capped with a plug with a hole to allow the gas to drip out as it was drug from a fire along the line to be burned. Rebecca shuddered.

"Here, we'll be using these rakes to spread the fire," Frost said, as he began to hand out the tools. Rebecca declined with a weak smile, holding up her camera.

In the next hours, Rebecca photographed the burning, wielding her camera like some fireproof shield against the past. She caught the first spark, the flaming wad of grass, the smoke surrounding the ranch hands and guests as they spread the blaze. As the flames snaked across the prairie, she captured that infinitesimal moment when the line between them and the sunset blurred, the whole prairie awash in light. Then, as the flames burned low, she took her last shot of the fire with a full moon above. Occupied, she worked mechanically, not thinking, never remembering, only looking with her artist's eye.

That night, after a shower to wash away the smell of smoke, she tumbled exhausted into bed. And then, she began to dream.

She was a child of four again, and the butterfly caught her attention. It was the first she'd seen that spring. Mae had set her out of the stroller and wandered off to try to do something more important than babysit. Giggling, Rebecca followed the fluttering wings as they zigzagged across the pasture. It had been a year since the fire had gotten out of control, and now, she rarely dreamed of the flames.

Suddenly, the insect flitted high on the air, up and away from the grass. Rebecca stood, disappointed, and watched it go. Then, she began to smell the smoke. She glanced around, only to find that she had wandered a long distance from the stroller and that the fire was suddenly much closer. Fear gripped her, but she heard the harsh sound of a revved motor. Her brother appeared out of the smoke on the four-wheeler, racing between her and the flames.

This time, he would make it, her subconscious told her. This time there would be no accident. This time …

Rebecca awoke in a cold sweat, just before the crash.

* * *

The next day, Rebecca rose tired and disoriented, as she always did after the nightmare. Her stomach burned, but she chased her antacids with two strong cups of coffee anyway. What she wouldn't give for a dose of that awful brew the curandero gave her when she had heartburn in the Peace Corps. It was truly wretched, but no one could deny its effectiveness. The first time she'd gone to see him, the withered old man who looked to be at least one hundred had poked and prodded her before looking down her throat. "You carry much fire," he pronounced.

"Excuse me?"

"Much fire. Drink this."

She had, and in the three years she lived in the remote rural village, she'd swallowed the concoction many times without asking what was in it. The curandero had always welcomed her, never bothering to learn her name, just calling her "the Fire Child" instead.

Rebecca stepped out on the wide porch to wait for the other guests. The morning had dawned clear and still, and only a gentle breeze carried the soft scent of springtime mixed with the pungent smell of recently burned pasture. She glanced at her watch; she might as well call. She had already informed her father of her assignment in her perfunctory Sunday evening phone call. Per usual, her father had talked about everything—a neighbor's auction, who had died recently, which pastures were due to be burned this year—and nothing, all at the same time. And just like always, Rebecca could hear Mae's impatient sniffs and comments as she stood behind him and listened to the whole conversation.

Mae always had a knack for making her feel like an interloper, as if the family had been fine until Rebecca came along eleven years after her brother. Once, at a church picnic, Rebecca had overheard the new pastor's wife inquire in polite conversation with Mae about her sister. Of course, Mae didn't mention Justin or his death, and upon hearing the age difference between the two girls, the innocent woman commented of Rebecca, "Ah, an after-thought child."

Without hesitating for an instant, Mae responded, "No, a mistake."

Rebecca felt the tears burn her eyes and catch in her throat, but by then she'd been schooled that strong people didn't show emotion. There were certain things "we just don't talk about," her mother had said. She wandered off by herself, concentrating all her thoughts, all her focus on the horizon. It was a game she'd devised to help force down all she felt, so she might not fail her family's expectations. She found that if she concentrated on that distant point, striving to see beyond it, she could calm herself, lose herself in the unfettered expanse of the prairie.

It was in this state that Uncle Pete found her. He sat by her cross-legged, leaned his elbows on his knees, and propped his head in his hands. "What's the matter?"

Rebecca pulled her gaze from the horizon. Uncle Pete was wearing two different colored socks with the faded overalls he’d patched himself. Everyone said her father's younger brother was "different"—he said odd things and liked to sing and play his guitar, and just look at the way he dressed! But Rebecca loved him. "Was I a mistake?"

"Of course not!" Uncle Pete looked at her as if he wanted to say more, but he didn't. "Of course not."

Rebecca had only nodded. Even at that young age she felt the weight of the silences of the people around her. Mae was her mother's favorite, and Justin was the coveted son to carry on the family name and farming tradition. And then, years later, she'd come along to interrupt their perfect family. No more needed to be said.

Her father answered the phone at last.

"Morning, Dad. Just calling to let you know that I'll be finishing up my assignment, and I'll come for a visit tomorrow."

Sniff. There was Mae, right on cue.

"Oh, OK. Great."

"This isn't a bed and breakfast," Mae interjected in the background.

Rebecca pretended she hadn't heard. "I'll have to leave early tomorrow evening. I have a late flight."

"I hope she doesn't expect to be entertained. We have to burn tomorrow." Mae again.

Rebecca's father coughed. "OK. Well, we'll see you then. Bye."

"Bye."

Rebecca's temples throbbed. Her older sister was such a study in contradictions. Rebecca had always wondered how no one else seemed to recognize the sheer irony of Mae's chosen profession. Mae had studied home economics not because of any particular vocation, but at her mother's suggestion so that she could be a county home ec agent. Yet for all her claims of being raised to run a farmhouse, Mae was a terrible cook, a worse seamstress, and she positively loathed children—all of which were essential for her job. After graduation, Mae landed a position in a sparsely populated county in western Kansas. She worked there for ten years, returning every weekend she was free to visit her parents. All that time she waited hopefully for the agent to retire in her home county so she could move back, but it never happened. With their mother's unexpected death from an aneurism, Mae saw her chance. She quit her job, loaded up her belongings, and came back—"To take care of Papa."

By then, Rebecca had won a scholarship to study photojournalism out of state. When she arrived for her mother's funeral, Mae had already begun rearranging the furniture and staking claim to the house. Rebecca rarely gave her sister the chance to complain about causing more work. She took summer classes, found summer jobs, did winter break internships, and when the job market was weak after she graduated, she fled to the Peace Corps. On those rare occasions her conscience had gotten the better of her and she'd visited, she's stayed with Uncle Pete. She hadn't been back since his death three years before.

Rebecca knew it was cowardly of her to stay away, yet she couldn't bring herself to go back for a helping of humiliation. She had never felt aggressively disliked by her parents, to be sure; but she had never felt particularly loved or understood either. Her mother had held up Mae as the ideal daughter, and her father blamed her for Justin's death. He never said anything—heaven forbid anyone in their family ever say what they really felt—but Mae had relayed his feelings, and their mother forbade anyone to ever speak of it. There had always been something there between them, the smoldering embers of everything they'd never said.

* * *

Rebecca arrived just in time to see her father and sister leaving to burn the upper pasture. Although she dreaded the thought of accompanying them, she refused to bow to Mae's attempts to exclude her by telling her to wait in the house. Instead, she pasted a tight smile on her face, commenting that it would be another opportunity for more photos. She turned her rental around and followed them.

The wind was down, and the day was sunny and dry with only a few clouds—perfect for burning. While Rebecca's father discussed plans with four neighbors who'd come to help, Mae stood and nodded her approval. Rebecca waited at a slight distance, remembering her old game of trying to see beyond the distant horizon.

"… and Rebecca here is back all the way from New York City to take some pictures and write an article for an important travel magazine." Her father's comment drew her from her reverie. A normal person would think that was a compliment, she thought, instead of an excuse for her not helping.

Mae scowled. "Just stay out of the way. You don't understand any of this."

Fury roared through her veins. As if she wanted any part of it! As if this place, these fires hadn't caused her nightmares for decades! A thousand hot retorts were on her tongue, but before she could form one of them, her sister had waddled off, trying to keep up with the men on her short, impressively fat legs.

The men first burned a fireguard along the back and sides of the pasture. One stayed with a four-wheeler and small water tank to monitor them, and the rest set to their work. They lit a fire, and Rebecca’s father drug the firestick out across the prairie. The flames crackled and licked at the dry grass, tasting it slowly at first. Soon, they grew and the fire sped quickly to devour the grass, pushed across the prairie by the headwind that had begun to come up. Rebecca worked mechanically making pictures as the men monitored the fire in the increasing wind. She had just stopped at her rental for water when a shout broke through the roar of the flames. "Get that truck over here!" Rebecca heard her father call to Mae, and she realized the fire had jumped one of the sidelines into the ditch.

Mae ran as fast as her size allowed toward what had been Uncle Pete's old pick-up, now fully equipped with a water tank. Rebecca heard her sister crank the engine; it stalled; she tried again, screaming obscenities and pounding the steering wheel. Across the pasture, Rebecca saw the errant flames speed towards her father. Without thinking, she dashed to the truck.

"Move over!" she shouted, opening the door. Mae stared. "Move over, now!" She shoved Mae with a strength born of adrenaline and jumped into the driver's seat. Uncle Pete had taught her to drive in this very truck, and she knew all its eccentricities. The engine roared to life, she grabbed the stick and coaxed it into gear, then took off across the prairie. She looked constantly right and left, terrified that someone would appear out of the smoke with no time for her to react. Silently, she willed, "No accidents this time! Not again!"

She brought the old truck to a lurching halt. Instantly, her father and the neighbors were scrambling for the hose; they aimed a steady stream on the blaze. Rebecca jumped out of the truck and grabbed a gunnysack from the back, beating the smaller flames as the men fought the larger ones and Mae stood in shock. In what seemed like hours but was truly only minutes, the danger was averted. As the other men monitored the fire, Rebecca's father turned towards her, his face dark.

"What were you thinking? You could've been seriously burned!" he shouted.

Mae interrupted before she could answer. "You don't know anything about our way of life." Mae scowled, still sulking about her earlier failure to start the truck. "You're never here!"

Something inside of Rebecca snapped. Her nerves were still rattled from the near miss that day, and all the years of silence, of inaudible accusations, and swallowed guilt had reached their boiling point. She turned on her sister, and the words erupted out of her.

"I'm never here because you drove me away! From the day I was born, you have done everything in your power to make me feel like I don't belong!" Mae's fat jaw hung open.

"Rebecca …" Her father spoke in the stern voice he'd use with her as a child.

"And you," Rebecca turned to him. "You can stop blaming me for Justin's death. I didn't kill him!"

No one said a word. The wind blew inexorably across the prairie, and in the distance, a meadowlark sang.

"I know," her father said at last, slowly, trying to force down his emotions. "You’ve always blamed me, and you’re right. I'm the one who didn't see him. I'm the one who hit him with the truck. And today, when I saw you with that gunnysack …"

"But I never blamed you! You blamed me!”

"No, of course not! You were just a little girl," her father continued. "You didn't know any better when you climbed out of the stroller and went exploring. And no one knew that fire would jump and head towards you."

Rebecca shook her head. "But I didn't climb out." Her father looked confused. "Mae set me out." Rebecca enunciated every word. "I know; I remember." His eyes showed doubt. "You were wearing that blue striped shirt, jeans with a patch, and a pair of black cowboy boots. You had on a green seed cap with a tiny tear above the left ear."

Her father gave a slight nod. He believed her.

Mae's face registered first shock, then guilt. "Don't listen to her!" she screamed, rushing to try to cover her father's ears with her pudgy hands, but he shoved her away. Mae turned to Rebecca. "I told you never to talk about this!" She lunged for Rebecca, who sidestepped her and watched her sprawl on the ground.

"Enough!" Rebecca's father ordered. "Pick yourself up and get in the truck." Still sobbing, Mae glared but obeyed.

Rebecca and her father stood on the edge of the burned prairie and stared at each other, both questioning all the other family truths they’d thought they knew, neither knowing what to say nor how to begin to say it. Finally, Rebecca exhaled a deep breath. "I need to leave. I have a plane to catch." She'd have to hurry, or she might not make it. She held out her hand, so her father could shake it as he always did and keep the safe distance he preferred.

He took her hand and nodded. Then, without warning, he wrapped her in a tight embrace. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice cracking.

Rebecca bit her lip. "Me, too."

She looked up at her father to see her own soul mirrored on his dry, work-worn face, her own hopes and fears echoed in his silence. He placed a calloused hand on her shoulder. "Have a safe flight. And … don't be such a stranger, hear? Come visit more often."

Rebecca gave a hesitant smile. It was a start. "I’ll try."

She walked slowly to her car and climbed in. The cool breeze of early evening still carried the smell of smoke, but she barely noticed. With one last glance across the prairie, she turned towards the horizon and set out.

About the Author

Julie Sellers

Julie A. Sellers is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Benedictine College, and she is also a Federally Certified Court Interpreter (English/Spanish). A native of Kansas, Julie has travelled extensively in Latin America and Spain. Julie published her poem "Yellow Butterflies" in Kansas Time + Place (2017), and her story, "Controlled Burn," was selected as the Short Story and Overall Prose winner of the 2017 Kansas Voices Writing Contest. Her third academic book, The Modern Bachateros: 27 Interviews (McFarland. 2017), received the Kansas Authors Club 2018 It Looks Like A Million Book Award.