Burning the Stubble by Steven John

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We both go down on one knee in the perimeter of the field that grills under the August sun. You take an oily rag from your trouser pocket and, in a single jerk, tear it in two. You press both halves of the rag into the inch of tractor diesel I’ve carried from the barn in an empty paint tin. Whilst the rags soak, you stand and slide a cigarette from behind your ear. I stand with you, take a lighter from my pocket, offer up a tooth of flame. You draw in deep lungfuls then exhale slowly upwards into the baked air. The blue smoke drifts over the velvet of cut straw. You’re feeling the wind direction on your face, watching the path of cigarette smoke. We’ve ploughed a firebreak on the east side. By the time the flames reach the break they’ll be at a gallop, white hot, licking out twelve feet horizontal to the ground like a stampede of dragons.

Without the break, the east hedge would be charred sticks in the time it takes to fry a rasher of bacon. You flick-arc your cigarette end into the stubble and nod. I pull the rags from the diesel, ball them up, spear them onto our pitchforks and light them. When our hands feel the heat we stride off in opposite directions, trailing a riptide of fire that submerses everything.

With the tsunami of flame already half a furlong down, we meet back in the middle. I look up at two giant white birds converging on the mirage of heat.

‘Glider pilots scan the sky for smoke’, you say. ‘Flying into it pushes them up a thousand feet. Like taking a lift to the top floor.’

Of course you’ve done that. Flown a glider. There’s nothing you haven’t done. You’ve told me the stories.

Skied in the Arctic Circle with your snot turned to ice, ballooned over pyramids drunk on champagne, sailed a yacht across the channel, basked in the winners enclosure with your own racehorse.

‘He’s not a bloody farmer, he’s a playboy,’ my father said when I told him I’d got a summer job on your farm.

‘He won’t teach you anything about the land. Drinking beer and chasing skirt more like,’ he says.

It’s true you’re not like any other farmer in the village. You demolished the old farmhouse and built an upside-down bachelor pad in its place; king-size waterbeds downstairs and floor to ceiling smoked glass east and west, upstairs. You say the rising and setting sun is the only clock a man needs.

Back at what you still call the farmhouse, you open beers and climb the open staircase to turn on the sauna.

You strip naked. Drop your smoky clothes on the carpet for the Filipino maid to launder. The crack of your arse spreads itself over the burgundy leather of your armchair. Apart from the leather suite, a television and the retro magazine rack over-stuffed with your horse-racing newspapers, there’s no other furniture.

I open sliding doors onto the balcony that overlooks your acres. The smoke from the torched field rises like a tornado into the early evening sky, funnelling into the amber clouds. I watch the black flecks of burnt, glowing straw massing like a swarm of fireflies, spiralling up the vortex of heat.

‘Why don’t you phone home and tell them that you’re staying here tonight,’ you call out. ‘We have to be up early tomorrow to burn the others. Rain forecast day after.’

I can hear horse racing commentary from the television. When the little red light goes out on the sauna’s thermostat, you’ll expect me to strip off and join you. I didn’t like being naked in the school changing rooms with boys my own age. I’m the type who puts my shirt on before pulling off my trunks. I re-enter the sitting room and pick the telephone off the floor.

‘I’m staying at Dave’s tonight. We have to be up early tomorrow…. Of course it’s alright, he asked me to.’

‘She worries now Dad’s gone,’ I say.

You open more beers and take yours towards the sauna room.  ‘You need plenty of fluid inside you to sweat back out.’

I take off my clothes and put my jeans up to my nose, remember bonfires with my Dad. That was my job whilst he trimmed the hedges. I fold my clothes neatly on the sofa.

You’re hunched over a Dick Francis paperback in your usual spot by the burner. I step up to the higher level and lie on my back. When the sweat starts to run you’ll begin scraping your hands over your groin, flicking the wet onto the glowing coals. I’ll lie here listening to the spit and hiss.

After cool showers and more beer you drive us at reckless speed through the country lanes in your open topped car. The smoke from the field is all around us. Other cars have their headlights on. My mother will have taken the washing in, closed the bedroom windows, even locked the doors with me not coming home.

‘Farmers burning every damn thing in sight again,’ is what she says.

We arrive at the pub you part own. You order us rare steaks and red wine.

‘You’ve done a good job today,’ you say.

It doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything apart from light rags and fags. You know everyone. Everyone wants to know you. I feel the reflected glory. You take the piss out of the lads at the bar.

‘Propping it up all day have we? Make room for the workers,’ you say. They lap it up.

‘Dave’s in. Dave’s buying. He’s the man’

‘Are you going to the races tomorrow, Dave?’

‘Got any winners for us losers, Dave?’

You let me drive home. You say I haven’t got a license to lose. Above the balcony, bats flit through the smoke of the joint we pass between us. A fox yelps in the spinney, hunts its prey. A breeze ripples embered lines over the ashen field, forks of red lightning flattened into the soil, shallow orange wavelets lapping over footprints.

We drink whiskey until the carpet starts to sway. I’m in an armchair boat on a choppy sea. I can see your lips moving but can’t hear. I wake when I feel your rough hands under the duvet, exploring me. You’re naked again, kneeling next to the bed you dropped me into. You look down at what you want me to see.

At dawn, from the balcony, I see the black heart of the land. Wisps of smoke rise ghostlike from six feet under, meld with the mist that sulks in the ditches. The fertile soil is scorched, cremated, rendered down for a different crop.


Steven John

Steven John’s writing has appeared in Burningword, Bending Genres, Spelk, Fictive Dream, EllipsisZine, Ghost Parachute and Best Microfiction 2019. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record seven times and has been nominated for BIFFY 2019. He lives in The Cotswolds, England. Steven is Fiction & Special Features Editor at New Flash Fiction Review.

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