No one knew when the stork had arrived. At first, it stood on the pier, its back to the town, looking out at the horizon; it appeared to be consumed or at least distracted by the sea from which it came. The pier itself was covered by kelp and long, narrow mussels, their dark shells lacquered by the constant saltwater wash, bivalves clamped tight like the eyes of children feigning sleep. The stork’s legs were thin but seemed stable all the same, sturdy like the wooden frame of the pier it stood on, and there was some soft-spoken consonance between its white feathers and the clouds, its black tail and the mussels below, its sense of poise and the serenity of the sea at which it gazed.
The children in the town saw the stork first. One told another until they all knew. None of them had ever seen one before. They were astonished by its size; it was much larger than the gulls to which they were accustomed. The gulls, for their part, didn’t seem to notice. They went on as before, patrolling the shoreline, strutting around and preening themselves, flapping their wings when the children got too close. Occasionally they took to the air, circling above to drop bivalves onto the rocks, or to announce, in effect, the return of fishermen who had with them the scraps and entrails of gutted fish.
The children didn’t chase the stork or throw rocks at it, as they sometimes did with the gulls. Instead they approached it cautiously, in awe, and sat down beside it. It held its feathers up at first, like shrugged shoulders, but then seemed to find itself at ease. One of the children reached out to touch it, and when the stork didn’t protest, others did the same. They were surprised by its feathers, which they expected to be soft, but which were oily and toughened. They asked its name, where it came from.
Eventually, the stork flapped its wings and took off. It flew around the town, where the adults saw it for the first time. Holding their shovels and kitchen knives, they paused to note its size, pointing it out to neighbors—to anyone passing by—before returning to work. Some followed it back to the pier, where it landed again, and where it again faced out at the sea. The children feigned ignorance, smiling at one another.
After the stork arrived, a fire broke out in the town square, but it wasn’t a regular fire. It was a knee-height blue fire that burned without growing or moving or getting hot. It just flickered, devouring only air, remaining cool and emitting no smoke. The children, who were constantly running around, chasing each other and anything that passed them by, were again the first to see. They approached it and looked at it; they ran their hands through it and felt the tingle of its cool burn, which was uncomfortable but not unbearable. They jumped and skipped through the flames, taking turns and laughing.
The town tried to put the fire out but couldn’t. They tried everything—saltwater, freshwater, blankets, handfuls of dirt and sand, urine, spit, swears and prayers. The fire only sizzled in response, as if annoyed but not threatened. They decided to let it be. Don’t look at it, don’t touch it, and don’t get near it. The people went about their business, the work of fishermen and hunters and farmers, butchers and tailors; the preacher talked to God and talked to the people and talked to himself and talked to God again, while people confessed to him and to their neighbors and gossiped amongst themselves, as they had always done. But still, when walking by, people couldn’t help but see the fire from the corner of their eyes.
Then there were more fires. In living rooms, the corners of bedrooms, in the stores, all around the town—small fires that ate nothing and burned cool and didn’t grow in size. At first there was excitement. Here was something different, like the stork, and people reveled in discussing what it might mean, what it might say about what they had with each other and with God. And yet they treated the fires almost like an obscenity, something that should not be seen but could not be ignored. The men worried about the women, and the women worried about the children.
One day the gulls all died. They were scattered across the beach, lifeless bodies on the sand, bobbing in the water with no wounds, no obvious cause of death. On that day the fires seemed larger, or perhaps fiercer. Theories emerged. Some were shared in whispers—the plague, a curse, a coming. One of the town’s paupers, a bearded man who had long been ignored, now seemed louder in his preaching, or perhaps his stirring seemed more relevant. It is through fire; there you have it. He is here. He is here! Holy Hallelujah. Peace, He only gave us Peace. It was we—it was we to whom He gave His love. There you have it. Peace through Him. Peace through fire! Behind the man, a banner for one of the town saloons flapped loudly in the wind.
The Doctor, respected as a man of science, studied the dead gulls. He plucked their feathers and extended their naked pinkish wings, searching for clues. He cut open their chests and pried them apart as though entering a room divided by curtains, paying careful attention to the positioning of the organs, what he called their arrangement, before pulling them out with his instruments, examining them one by one until there was nothing left but the liver, which he examined with particular care. People stood behind him, watching for clues in his reactions. With bloodied hands he explained to the town that his hepatoscopy had revealed nothing at all and, in fact, by any measurement except for the fact of death, these were healthy gulls.
The town intensified its efforts to put out the fires, but still nothing worked. The fires persisted, rising buoyant above anything people threw on them. The town then tried to overwhelm what appeared to be the smallest fire. They gathered buckets of saltwater and stood around it. Wait, the priest said. Let us pray. And so the men, who had circled this fire to defeat it, were now on their knees leaning before it, their hands together and their necks curved downward in prayer. Amen.
Then they stood and charged. Each man dumped his bucket and darted away. The fire hissed and sizzled, and the air flashed with explosions of steam that, unlike the fire, were hot, capable of burning. The site was soon covered in steam as thick as fog. When it began to clear, the priest said, Let us see God’s will, and he stepped forward, apprehensively, with the men behind him. The air was still foggy, still hot and moist. The priest used his hands to clear the remaining steam, and when he did they could see it there, the fire burning just as before. One of the men ran to the fire and stomped on it in a rage that did no good, came to no avail.
Two more revelations came to be. The first was that the mussels were no longer on the pier; they had died or let go. The pier, instead of seeming cleaner, seemed barren, almost foreign, except for one thing, which was the second revelation: the stork was still alive, still facing the sea, untroubled by the fires that lived or the gulls and mussels that didn’t.
Things changed. The wind seemed to blow harder and with greater persistence, even ripping some of the banners off the stores. The ocean, which before had a calming presence, seemed to be rippling—the work of violent unseen forces that stirred beneath the surface. The older fishermen spoke of creatures in the depths, creatures rumored to seek shallower waters during times of storm. People began to look inward, simmering in memories of their mistakes—times they had lied or stolen, minor slights, excessive gossiping, the coveting of each other. They spun the self-criticism until its soft threads had hardened into pits that would wake them in the nights and lead their attention back to the flames quivering in the corners of their homes. The blue color, though shared in some form by the sea and sky and the eyes of their children, seemed sinister in its flicker. They sought comfort outside of their homes, on walks at night—walking past each other in a town lit by the white of moonlight and the blue of little fires.
To the children, the coming of the stork and the fires was no more remarkable than the conflagration of colors that passed through the green of leaves in the autumn and sent them twirling in the wind. They went on as before, and saw the fires as yet another thing to discover. They sat, sometimes, in circles around the fires and passed their hands through them, laughing at the tingling sensation that did not burn but caused them to pull their hands away. They sang songs and took turns jumping over the fires. They grew tired but not bored. They experimented with the fires, putting sticks and leaves in the flames and watching these things shrivel without ever burning. They put foods in the fires, making crisps of strawberries and apricots and apples they brought from home. They saw in the reactions of adults—their parents and neighbors, who slapped away the crisps, who chased the children away from the flames—a certain significance in these fires, and so more and more the children saw the world in the light of flame.
This was cause for alarm in the town, for now the children were in danger of that which they did not understand. Feeling that something must be done, the people gathered in the temple. It was raining outside, pouring heavily, and everyone was wet. Inside, there were no fires but the light of candles and lanterns. The wooden frame of the temple had darkened with the rain while water dripped down from the cracks. Beyond the walls of the temple, the fires sizzled and snapped, as though the temple were surrounded by snakes hissing in the rain.
The usual pleasantries had been replaced entirely with talk of the fires—how the fires changed, what the fires changed. The priest had spent the morning praying and preparing his thoughts, carefully adjusting his words. He had the town’s attention, in these times more than ever, a fact he understood with the gravitas of a man drawn earnestly to divinity. He surmised, and he spoke to the people:
It is only natural that we meet here. These are fires in this realm but not of this realm. Had we no guidance, we would be within our rights—quite within them—to be confused. But we are not without guidance. We have seen, not with our eyes, but in our shared experience as the Children of God, the fire that burns but does not burn. The Book speaks to it . . .
—at this point the priest put on his glasses to read from the Book—
“and the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”
These, he continued, are the fires, my people, through which God speaks.
The priest looked on, and the people looked on. Finally, someone broke the silence: “Well what’s He saying?”
Again a silence. The priest began to answer, The Word of God does not always come through the word of mouth; we must—
And then someone yelled what many had been thinking—the stork! We didn’t have any of this before the stork. Others were quick to agree. There were no fires before the stork, they reasoned. All the gulls are dead, they noted, but not the stork. It’s not like the gulls. That smile. That look in its eyes. It knows something, it has always known something. It brought this, it’s watching everything unfold without even turning to see. What does it eat? It never eats. It lives like the fires.
They all went outside, where the rain was coming to a stop. One of the fishermen departed and soon returned with a rifle and, after some conferring, headed toward the pier, followed by a group of men. The rest of the town stayed behind, scattering to find the children, to keep them busy and if need be to hold them back. They knew the children loved the stork. They knew that children don’t understand these things.
It took just one shot, which was heard across the town and beyond; miles away, a group of deer in a meadow looked up in alarm, if for only a moment, before they put their heads back down into the grass. The men walked over to retrieve the bird.
It’s a big thing, isn’t it?
Yeah, I guess so.
They held it upside down by its thin legs so that its wings were outspread and hanging down, and in that moment the wings seemed like the pulled-out pockets of a man with nothing. They decided to toss the stork into the sea so that the children would not see it. One of the men heaved the lifeless clump of feathers onto his boat. It landed with the kind of thud that could almost be felt, even moments later, like the cracking of one’s sternum. Another of the men joined him, and the two rowed away from the pier. They rowed and rowed until it seemed far enough.
Should we say something?
What can you say about a bird?
They tied a pouch of rocks to one of the stork’s legs and tossed it into the ocean. When it splashed, its head tilted up toward the men, as if to face them one last time; its wings extended upward as the rocks pulled its leg down, so that if it flapped once—if it could have flapped once—it would have pulled itself up toward the surface. But it didn’t; it just descended. The men watched and thought they saw the stork smile, as though content, as though touching something timeless in its passing, before disappearing into the depths.
They rowed back. The wind was on their backs. It pushed into them and through them and they felt like freer souls. Back at the shore the villagers were all waiting. When their comrades returned, they all—the children included—took off their clothes and swam in the water. The sun was shining.
The fires did not go away, but thereafter the town accepted them, saw in their blue flames something greater, proof that they were all characters of a world still in its becoming. And perhaps, all things told, it was a good thing, these fires. Certainly later generations would say so.
The town learned to use the fires. The people dried cod, venison, and fruit; they used the fires to dry their clothes and to toughen leather, which they traded along the roads and from which the town grew wealthy. They threw water on the fires to make steam—steam to cook vegetables, explosions of steam for effect at the local theater.
The gulls returned, first spotted out at sea but eventually perambulating among the rocks again; occasionally they would dip their heads into the water and emerge with bivalves, which they again dropped from the skies. And every year, the people swam together and waded together on the day (or the approximate day) on which the stork was killed; in the water they asked its forgiveness, and on land—in the form of drawings and jewelry, and on the designs of their pots and plates—they admired its shape.
When the children asked why the stork had been killed, the parents told them that the work of man could be forgiven but not undone, and that truth, though elusive and passing in life, could endure in the cement of death. The parents repeated these things until the children did, and in this way language came to do what language couldn’t. But even then, for generations the children dreamed of a bird much bigger than the gulls, a bird that stood on the pier, that they could sit with and touch, and they told the story of this bird over fires as they dried strawberries and apples and apricots, just as the children before them, and those before them, had done.