When he died Liam was disappointed to discover there was no heaven or hell. In the brief period after death but while the desire of life persisted he realised he could have done more with his life. Achieved more, sure, but also, well, all the good things too. Pleasure. For if there was no heaven, to desire, or hell, to be afraid of, he could have lived a life more selfish.
He could not claim to have spent too many Sundays at church, or wasted too much of his warm breath saying grace before a meal, and he certainly didn’t believe in the fires of hell, but nonetheless he did behave a little bit, just in case. So it was disappointment when he knew for sure there was no heaven and there was no hell.
The feeling didn’t last long for consciousness only fleetingly survives beyond the body, and even if it did it would soon realise that desires from a human life were of no relevance anymore. But there was a moment. A moment that perhaps served to ease the transition.
Sometimes you might see a similar thing in the eyes of a newborn. Those arriving at the other end of life. That wise and knowing look full to the brim with the nature of things, the knowledge of where we come from and what we are made of, a look that fades as those eyes take in light and with the breathing of air and the intrusion of noise and smell and the clutter of all the other living senses. A mother knows this nature. She might feel it even before she knows the pregnancy for some of it might spill over inside her at the very beginning to then be forgotten with the immediacy of nausea and strange cravings and then the pressure and kicks of the growing little one. But it remains at our core. We are of earth, water, air or fire.
Liam was not earth like his father who would stand in the backyard and run soil through his fingers, fold a handful tight in his fist and watch it crumble. His father was never happier than when scratching the surface to seed out some new life or when bringing home fruits of the soil for the table. At the beach, while his mother and sister gazed at the ocean his father would sit, wriggle his fingers into the sand as if intertwining them with the earth, or if it was late and the shadows long, he might climb up at the headland and sit with his palms down next to him on the rocks. Communing with the earth. But Liam was not like that.
Neither was he air. On a still day his sister could stand motionless in the sunshine and her long hair would float and shift and wave so you couldn’t quite tell where she ended and the air began. Or as if a private breeze blew just for her, as if the air and her were lovers who constantly caressed and touched. He knew she could see the wind. While their mother gazed at the ocean and counted the swells, and their father stood feet buried in the sand beside them, only pretending interest in surfing, Natalie felt the wind and watched the clouds and dreamt of flying.
Sometimes on the way home from school Liam’s mother would stop in the car in the park on the hill overlooking town beach. Natalie would run in the wind while he and his mother sheltered next to the car. From far off at the blue horizon waves marched to the shore, smashing themselves on the point or crying white foam in the bay as the east wind whipped their tops. Crying not of pain or suffering but of pleasure, for the water tore itself to pieces and lay itself open along the beach with the devotion of a lover, and hissed a song of arrival as it percolated deeper into the sand than his father’s fingers could ever go.
Their mother loved this view. On windless days she would park and gaze at the breakers while they played on the grassy slopes. It was the best she could do in a busy life where surfing had to be postponed for the day to day needs of raising children. Natalie loved the wind and would run around and then as if by magic the afternoon breeze began and she would find endless fun in the touch of it. Liam could never relax and play there as his mother wished, for below lay the ocean and the ocean terrified him. Ships were anchored in the bay and far out where the sky touched the sea a lone ship was steaming. Soon it would disappear and Liam believed it would fall off the edge. The ocean was more fatal that a desert. Across it lay certain death.
Years later, when he was older and his parents had died and Natalie had moved to the city, Liam would remember this scene. The sharp edge between things had blunted with time and he would gaze from the fire tower at the ocean of treetops that stretched like a weary green storm-tossed sea, and he would wonder of his mother surfing such waves or his sister kiteboarding upon invisible currents of air, swooping between trees or rising to tickle the clouds, while below his father toiled the soil and waited for the caress of water to raise these very trees. Somehow they were all linked, his mother and father nourishing the trees that rose to massage the breeze and he was there too with the trees the link between them all and for some reason it reminded him of playing on the sloping lawn above the ocean all those years ago.
He tried to understand where his own family belonged in this vision. Julie. The kids, grown now. He wondered what scene they would remember at the end of their lives. They were like earth and fire, he knew this without knowing how except that just as he gazed below he knew that all the trees of the forest were for his grandchildren. His mother and father and his sister and wife and he too, all interwoven through the trees. Trees that were not solid, or that something about them was invisible, an essence, a dream. Trees were the solid dream that connected the soil and the water and the air and the fire.
But not a dream, not a fantasy dream. They were real. They were the very real stuff that connected between the nature of things. His children, his grandchildren, his great grandchildren, and so on forever, they were of the same stuff too. Flesh was of the same stuff. All the plants, all the animals, the trees, they were the things that joined the essence of life together, filled between and around, above and below, and all the concerns of this physical life were meaningless. The very essence of life ran through and around all that.
His mind would often wander on the long slow days on firewatch. He could let it drift then shake himself awake. As teenagers Natalie would spend the day kiteboarding and in the evenings he would stoke the campfire and gaze into its seductive glow. Hours would pass. He had forgotten, but now he remembered a moment, a hot moment and at the end a warm dark tunnel, the pressure, a fire, the sweet sharp smell of smoke and ash, then the fire waved at him like a friend, a farewell wave, as if to say ‘I’ll see you all too soon, just a human lifetime and we will meet again’. And it blew him the kiss of air and was gone. Or the life in it was gone but it still burned in the hearth and warmed his mother’s bedroom and his father put more wood on it with the straight armed action Liam would grow to know so well, the same action he used to till the soil while watched by the baby when mother took the morning off to go surfing. For now, Mother and baby stayed warm. His mother had known, had perhaps heard the fire greeting him into this world. Of course she had forgotten over time as the distractions of a life came and went.
It was only at the end he recalled that scene from too early in his life for him to have reasonably known it during his lifetime. And he remembered it first for the way it began, with a slow awareness of something happening, that something in the air was different, something interesting or frightening and heralding great change. Then, suddenly, the realisation that whatever this was it involved him and a moment of panic before acceptance, of knowing that this is what is supposed to happen. What began as a terrifying ordeal had ended, surprisingly and suddenly, as a caress. A welcome. The friendly wave of the fire.
Liam was on duty in the firetower. The day was hot but not as hot as it might get later in the summer. The east wind was blowing. Early in the day it kept him cool in the tower but as the day stretched on and the wind dried it brought the unmistakable smell of smoke. Liam caught it long before there was any visible sign and he leant against the rail watching in the direction of it. He didn’t call it in. He didn’t mind allowing the fire some short moment of life and the fire teams were good, they would control it.
Soon he saw the smoke, a threadline wisp far on the other side of the river that curled into the air as if in some pale mimic of the winding valley, then thicker at the bottom and straighter as the fire got hotter, then suddenly dark, black, explosive into the sap of trees and he could see the flames, orange and alive, licking their way away from him, upslope and against the wind, and he knew that what he couldn’t see was the fire sprinting through the grasses and shrubs, sprinting towards him with the wind behind, the fire coming so fast that it was ahead in the grass long before the trees it passed realised something was upon them. When they erupted and threw grenades of fire he did not see the death of tree but felt the glorious acceptance of fire, as if the tree only lived for that exploding moment. And the fire was running directly to him.
Still he did not call it in. He was fascinated. Fire had always fascinated him but today, somehow he began to think of the friendship of fire and wind and how he had always had a special bond with his sister, of how his mother and father had loved with the love that earth has for water, and how his first wife was water too, like his mother, and that marriage had not lasted and no wonder, but Julie, like Natalie, was wind and she had born him children of earth and fire and even as the fire got closer, the moment before he panicked, he was still thinking about the temperament of people and later, not much later, just about the time he knew there was no heaven or hell he realised that this moment before he died was just a trickle backwards of the afterlife the same as long ago at his birth the evermore had seen him into his mother’s bedroom with a firesmile. He knew there was no heaven or hell and the fires of hell were just one of the four elements of life and that he himself was fire and that there was nothing to be afraid of.