Before my son appeared, my wife and I would attend gatherings of the Society for Creative Anachronism; like many men, the idea of getting into sword fights without any chance of being bisected appealed to me, and like many women, my wife was willing to endure hours of sitting around bored while a husband does something he thinks is fun. I exaggerate for comedic effect, of course, but the more distant and fight-intensive events were a bit of a trial for her. The main benefit of those long jaunts for her was to be closed up alone in a car with the man she loves very much for hours on end while the only thing he was distracted by was not running into any wildlife or other cars. We had a fair amount of fun on these trips.
Because the trips were long, and because we often had to wait until one or the other finished work before starting, it was not uncommon for us to travel after night had fallen. On the night I write of, this was definitely the case; even with the brief nights one gets in our part of the world close to the summer solstice, we were still a couple of hours short of the encampment when darkness fell.
We were driving west through some fairly empty landscape, although hardly deserted. Saskatchewan is farming country, in the North American sense of the word, which means there’s almost always some visible presence of humanity between towns, even if it’s somewhat distant– usually the yard-light of a farm house. However, the bit we were going through was the southern edge of a biome dubbed “aspen parkland,” which in practice meant there were some trees. Trees are a little exotic for we who grew up in the rolling grasslands, and they have a way of blocking the view of distant horizons. Thus, it could happen that those yard-lights might not be easily visible, rendering the moonless night that much darker.
It was a pleasantly warm night, and the road was arrow-straight, another common feature of Saskatchewan. Some people grow fatigued at long leagues of driving when the only thing done to the steering wheel is tiny corrections to hold the lane. I guess I do, too, because on long drives my wife and I would play games to help me not drift into a stupor. Our favourite, and the one we were playing that night, was for one of us to name an actor or director, requiring the other to name a movie connected to that person. The first had to bring forth a new person also associated with the film, prompting a different film, until someone was caught repeating.
My wife and I are very well-suited to each other– “Leo G. Carroll” leads to “Tarantula” to “Clint Eastwood” then “Unforgiven” and on to unlikely things like “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” and “Paul Leni.” James Hong is our Get Out of Jail Free card.
Saskatchewan is reputed to be very, very flat. This is not the case. It rolls, like a snapshot of ocean on a fine day. Most of the south is quite Pacific, long low rolls that hardly get noticed, but the part we were in was a little bit more Atlantic. One of the declivities was so steep that we lost sight of the distant hints of farms in front of us for a short time. This wasn’t troubling, because we were seasoned travellers, well used to such vast terrain features, but when we resumed the heights, there was something unexpected directly to our front.
It was a bright ball of orange light. It was not large, probably a little smaller than the absent moon in the visual field, and it was definitely well off in the distance. It was unsteady, too, giving a definite sense of open flames rather than a contained lamp. This was a startling apparition, but accountable. Saskatchewan’s resources include oil. On occasion, one sees a flare from a well.
But I said to my wife, for fun, “Uh-oh. They’ve come for us.”
We laughed together, and went on with our game.
Ten minutes later, the fireball was still in front of us. Exactly where it was when we first saw it. An unusually tall flare-pipe, perhaps. I did a little mental calculation, and realized that since we first saw it, we had travelled fifteen kilometers. Here, mental resources failed me; how tall does something have to be for it to have been visible from the ground at a distance of fifteen kilometers, anyway?
But that was not the right question. It was more than fifteen kilometers, because we were not right under it. This brought up another point; it had not grown in apparent size, as one would expect from any object drawing nearer. It was still smaller than a dime at arm’s-length. It was also still the same apparent height above the horizon, as far as I could tell the horizon on an inky night with a bright fireball messing up my night-vision– about twice its own diameter.
“What…” I said, into what I realized was a long gap in the game, and my wife said, “I have no idea.”
“I hope it’s not an airplane,” I said. It was an unlikely prospect. Even a robust plane couldn’t burn for… almost fifteen minutes, by that time. A child of the 1970s, I had followed UFO reports and their regular debunking, and I started pondering candidates. I knew what Venus looks like, and even if I didn’t, it surely would not be so far above the horizon so long after sunset. Swamp gas, maybe… but only if swamp gas races ahead of an observer, in a distinctly non-swampy setting.
We discussed the phenomenon, my wife and I. Our interest in movies inclines toward horror, so we have planned our zombie apocalypse response, contemplated solutions to vampires in the neighbourhood, and generally laid the groundwork for not being hapless victims of unreal events. This one was problematic, though. It was not a ghost as we understand such things. It was not one of the Universal monsters (like a plane, a mummy could never burn for so long). It was not a flying saucer… as such, although it was both unidentified and aloft, so “UFO” could be hung on it. While we talked, I reduced speed somewhat. There was no one in the rear-view, and I noted with forced jocularity how long it had been since there was oncoming traffic.
Twenty minutes had passed since the thing first appeared. Not less than thirty kilometers of unwavering travel directly toward it, and still no change in apparent altitude or dimension. It was not threatening, for all that it appeared to be a mass of orange flames, because it was definitely keeping its distance… but it was quite unnerving. The discussion of solutions included turning around and driving away from it, but the speculation attached to that grew dire. Like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, we might find that peril only began to function when we took official notice of it– slowing the car might cause it to rocket at us, or we might find that it was a beneficent light whose feeble rays were keeping something truly awful at bay in the shadows of the stands of trees to either side of the road. The lesser evil seemed to be “keep going.”
And then we descended into another deeper roll in the landscape, losing sight of our mystery for the first time since its advent. “Be funny if it disappeared, huh?” said my wife. There was a nervous tremor in her voice. There would have been in mine too, if I did any more than nod. Anticipation of what we might face at the top of the slope we were mounting kept me quiet.
Gone. Ahead were some lights, a town we fully expected to be passing through, and no sign whatever that a huge flaming something had been hanging in the air. The road carried on, ruler straight, carrying us past the south edge of the small town, and on, unbending for another ten minutes when it did a small s-curve to pass more conveniently through the tiny valley cut by a little creek before resuming on essentially the same second of latitude. No sign by the side of the road, before that bend or for a long time after, of any device which might emit a flame, and at the bend, trees and river, no more than nature.
This being a piece of non-fiction, I have no satisfactory narrative conclusion. We returned by the same road two days later, passing through the same area as the sun stood directly overhead, and still nothing that would explain what we saw offered itself. We saw a mysterious ball of fire for a while, and then we didn’t. It did us no harm, and if it did harm to others we never heard of it.
But it remains a point of inexplicability in our lives. This is a tiny blessing, for it gives us both something to ponder, something to which so far as we know we are the only witnesses. It is also, in a very small way, a curse because we are forever told humans need closure and a mystery without solution remains unclosed.
“The Fire Over Yonder” ©2018 Dirck de Lint