Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fire in the Village


The cry rose up from the heart of the village.  In a place where every roof was constructed out of thatched leaves, and every wall was woven of coconut fronds, uncontained fire was a deadly thing.  Countless open cook fires and smokey 'mosquito' fires dotted the village, kerosene lanterns illuminated us by night, and we kids often played 'flick the match' as we walked through the houses (hold a match, sulfur side down, on the striking strip.  Flick with your finger and watch as it goes spinning away, a little flame somersaulting through the air).  And yet, there hadn't been a threat of fire to the village since we'd arrived.

But now, hungry flames were licking at the shaggy brown roof of a nearby hut.  They were just at the bottom, where the long, thin pandanas leaves hung in so many points off the low eves of the hut.  The fire was quickly gaining speed, leaping with increasing voracity up the roof's steep slope.  A few minutes more, and the entire hut would be ablaze.  And then the flames would go racing from roof to roof, turning the entire village into a merry bonfire of destruction.

Men and women materialized out of nowhere, buckets in hand.  By this point, we'd been at Luniaua for several years, and this was the first fire I'd witnessed there.  Even so, the villagers mobilized as if they did fire drills every day of their lives.  In the time span it took me to get out my front door and positioned in the yard for a better view, there had formed a long human chain from the lagoon to the burning house.  The villagers passed bucket after bucket of seawater, dousing the fire, wetting the surrounding leaves and soaking the neighboring roofs.

And as quick as that, it was done.  Almost before it had begun, the fire was put put out.  Vanquished.  Only a few square feet of the roof had been taken by the flames.

Everyone stood around long enough to gossip over the start of the fire (a teenager taking a burning coal from the house's fire to the cooking hut), and share a roll-your-own cigarette.  Then, the crowd dissipated back into the village, each returning to his or her previous task.  And I was left thanking God for the villagers' community mindset, which allowed them to meld so quickly together as a unified, solid force in the time of need.

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