“Wake up, son,” came his father’s voice in a firm whisper. He shook the boy and pulled the covers back.
The boy looked up and noticed that it was still very dark in the room, and his father’s face was unclear, partially for the fact that he was half-asleep.
“What is it?” mumbled the boy as he sat up and rubbed his eyes with his thumbs.
“We’ve gotta go check the fires,” replied his father. “Come on. Get your boots on.”
The boy had no idea what checking fires meant, but he had to admit, it did sound interesting, if only for the fact that it meant he could be awake at night, not to mention that anything with fire sounded exciting. He rolled his legs over the edge of the bed and slowly leaned his body forward, trying to grab his boots without leaving the comfortable cushion of the bed. He pulled at one by the string and inched it over to himself, and then he did the same with the other, pulling it over sideways in the process. He pulled the laces out far and slowly crossed them over, lacing them in the hooks with his left eye closed and his tongue barely peering out of his mouth.
“Come on,” said his father, who had stepped out of the room for a moment. Even in the middle of the night he was in a rush.
They climbed into their truck and began the eleven minute drive to their farm, at least, the boy assumed that was where they were going based on the direction his father went through town. The town was very different at night. Everything was empty, but lights remained on in many stores. The boy noted that there was only one remaining fast-food restaurant still open, and the majority of cars he saw out were there. About halfway there, he thought about what their intention for being out was. They were checking fires. The boy thought about it for a moment, wondering what that could mean.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he thought.
Then, he remembered. That day, they had spent their time building fires in one of the tobacco barns. Those had to be the fires his father was talking about. It was the first time he had helped his father do it, which must have been why he had never checked them before either. Unlike the rest of the work that went with raising tobacco, the boy found building fires to be bearable, and maybe even a little interesting. Everything else was done out in the open field, and often it was hard to see how much work had been finished. Building fires, however, was different. For one, it was done later in the year when it was cooler, and being in the barn and out of the sun helped in that regard as well. Secondly, the work was different. Everything else had something to do with the tobacco plants themselves, which meant touching every single one. Building fires was construction work and consisted of stacking slabs of wood in long rows and covering them with sawdust. Not to mention it was all for the purpose of starting fires. To the boy, that was much more exciting than chopping out weeds or spraying sucker oil on the plants while walking at a snail’s pace.
As they came near to the barn, which was not visible from the road, they turned into the long dirt path that led to it. It was across a rather large field and just behind the first layer of trees that became woods. Even in the dark he could see the smoke lifting off the edges of the roof. He opened his nostrils and welcomed the pleasant aroma of smoke lathered in a dry rub of hickory.
He had never been inside of the barn when the fires were burning, though he figured the smell must’ve been the same as it was on the outside, if not better. It was not. As the smoke came out of the barn, it dissolved into the open air and the aroma remained on the wind. On the inside, however, there was nothing but smoke. The smoke was so thick that it burned the boy’s eyes and his father carried a long flashlight to help navigate his way through. The boy waited in the corner so that he could turn and escape into the open air of the entrance, but he remained inside so that he could watch his father. He pulled his shirt up over his nose and squinted his eyes while covering them with his hands. His father disappeared into the smoke and he watched for the dim yellow line of the flashlight. There were several small fires scattered across the barn where they had left openings in the sawdust. The boy thought several times of giving up and stepping back outside, for the smoke was nearly unbearable, but his father had warned him not to let too much of the smoke out and too much cold air in. Afraid he would do both, he decided to stay inside, but he huddled deeper into the corner.
When his father reappeared, they stepped back out of the barn and were met by the cold, clean air. Breathing in the cold had never felt so welcoming and refreshing. They climbed into the truck and pulled away from the barn in the woods. The boy looked back through the mirror and once again saw the smoke peeling out of the roof.
“How did that man’s barn burn down?” asked the boy.
“What man?” replied his father.
“The man you were talking to the other day. I thought I heard him say his barn burnt down.”
His father sat for a minute, but did not speak.
“Oh,” he said. “I know who you’re talking about now.” He paused and cleared his throat, and then he remained silent for a rather long period of time as was his usual way. The boy looked at him and wondered if he had forgotten the question. “Um,” he started, but waited a few more moments before he began. “Well, he was firing it same as what we’re doing.” He stopped and looked as if he wouldn’t continue. The boy waited and wondered if he should urge him on. “Do you remember how I was showing you to clear out anything around the posts?”
“Yes,” said the boy.
“Well I would imagine it had something to do with that,” his father replied. “Maybe he didn’t clear out around every post and one of them caught fire. I don’t know. Hard to say. It could’ve been any number of things.”
“Have you ever had one burn down?”asked the boy.
“Yep,” his father replied. The boy expected him to elaborate, but he didn’t.
The boy looked back through the mirror and watched as the smoke dissolved into the darkness. He knew nothing of financial ruin and what it would feel like if the barn were to burn down and take with it a large portion of their crop. He only knew of the work he had done that summer. His boyhood that he had hoped would be filled with adventure had become filled with labor, and monotonous labor at that. He watched the smoke carefully and didn’t look away until it had disappeared from his sight. The thought of trading adventure for work, only for it to all be in vain, paralyzed him, and he watched as the fate of his will slipped out of his control.