A bit of plausible fantasy by Kate Rauner
I was ridiculously pleased with myself and grinned like a fool. Our volunteer fire department had wanted an official Smokey sign for years, and I’d badgered the Forest Service district office into donating one.
Our chief smiled and clapped me on the shoulder as we admired the new fire danger sign, a half-pie of colored wedges arching from low to extreme. But Smokey was the star. Cut from a heavy metal sheet and brightly painted on both sides, he stood six feet tall.
The ranger who’d delivered the sign shoved his hands into his pockets and tsk-tsked. “I hope your sign lasts. People steal Smokeys, and this one’s hard to miss.”
The ranger’s words left me fretful all day. There’s no way to guard a roadside sign.
I was still worrying when I went out to the barn where a pile of sun-bleached bones caught my eye. I keep things my dog brings home from the forest. I had two vertebra, a rib, and most of a deer’s skull. The muzzle had splintered away, but the brain case and eye sockets were intact. I rubbed my palms on my jeans, thinking, until a flutter started in my stomach.
I had an idea.
I selected a few feathers dropped by the water trough–shiny, black raven feathers. In the house, I rummaged through drawers for an old string of beads. They were only plastic, but a rich, mottled blue.
Now that I had a plan, the notion that Smokey could be gone churned my stomach, so I drove straight to the station with my supplies.
Smokey stared at me as I pulled in, smiling and holding his shovel.
I looped the beads through the skull’s eyes, stuffed feathers halfway in, and tied the whole mess around Smokey’s feet.
I wasn’t sure anyone would understand my threat, so in the station shop I dug out brass disks and the letter punches we used to make tags. I stamped one disk
There are no such things as curses, but a lot of people are superstitious. If I didn’t scare thieves away, at least I might give them a sleepless night.
My cheeks warmed as I walked back to Smokey. I felt silly and checked up and down the road to be sure I was alone before wiring the tag to the beads. Set down in the grass, only a thief would see my curse. And the guys of course, before the next meeting, when they walked out to admire Smokey. I laughed at their good-natured teasing. When you fight fire with people, you become friends.
Our year’s fire calls progressed as usual. A few roadside burns when cars pulled off into the tall grass, one idiot burning trash–which is illegal anyway–on a windy day, and lightning starts from thunderstorms. But whenever I passed him, Smokey brightened my day. On my way to town, I’d sing along with the radio.
Then it happened.
It was during the break between summer lightning and the chimney fire season. I arrived for our monthly meeting to find Smokey gone.
The guys swore and shook their heads, but I was beyond angry. So frustrated I could cry. Some low-life scum stole Smokey and got away with it. Every time I drove by, my back stiffened and I flipped the radio off. I would have cheerfully bashed the thief’s head in, and I’m usually a peaceful soul.
A surprise came in mid-winter. When I walked in for our meeting, Smokey leaned against the classroom wall.
I joined the guys examining scuffs and scratches to his paint. “Where was he?”
“Laying on the ground when I got here,” our chief said. “With this note taped to the door.”
I’m very sorry I took the bear. I’ll never steal anything again. Please remove the curse.
Our chief shrugged. “It was probably some dumb kid. Ah, you can let him go, can’t you?”
“There’re no such thing as a curse.” I crossed my arms tightly and shifted back on one foot. “Besides, whoever took Smokey deserves a guilty conscience.”
We canceled the meeting in favor of fabricating new brackets and bolting Smokey to the fire danger sign.
Another surprise waited at the next month’s meeting. The guys watched as our chief handed me an envelope. “Take a look.”
Scrawled on the outside was a message.
Please, please lift the curse.
Inside was cash. I counted twenty-dollar bills onto the table. “Two hundred forty dollars.”
Furrows creased the chief’s forehead. “I guess it’s yours.”
I sucked in a deep breath and huffed it out. “Heck, no. This is a donation to the department.”
“Whoever stole Smokey has paid for the crime, don’t you think?”
“There’s nothing I can do about it.” I looked around for support, but the guys seemed tense. A few of them moved away to examine wall posters yellowed with age.
What was their problem? “There’re no such thing as a curse.” I waved the stack of bills. “This isn’t my fault.”
Our chief slid into a chair and rifled through his notes. No one sat next to me at the meeting.
Dreams of the guys backing away woke me several times that night, so the next day I drove to town and wandered Walmart’s crafts section, looking for something to remove a curse. I found packages of long white feathers, from a turkey I suppose. And a skein of white yarn embedded with silvery sparkles. At home, I braided lengths of yarn into a rope and wove in the feathers.
A new brass tag completed my efforts. I stamped it
I felt even sillier than before as I looped the feathers around Smokey’s shoulders, and the back of my neck tingled when a car passed, but I wanted everyone to see the glittering rope.
There were no more notes taped to the station door and no more envelopes of cash. Everyone continued to be very polite to me, which isn’t really a bad thing. People sit next to me at meetings, too. So when one of the guys asked for a charm to hang on his chicken coop, to keep coyotes away, it seemed mean-spirited to say no.
So I’m the fire station witch. That’s how it happened.