One afternoon, a firefighter arrived by automated sledge in a small community on the edge of the tundra. He was used to skies that were less wide and less forlornly blue.
The small, one-story houses, which were nearly identical with their gently-angled roofs and square-pillared porches, clustered together as if for warmth. As he approached them, the firefighter saw just how tightly packed together they were, and also that they were covered in long, brownish-black hair.
The widower, whose back room he’d be living in, came out to meet him and led him through the narrow spaces between buildings. They had to go sideways through the cascades of hair, which smelled like icy rain. With all the rubbing against the hair-walls, by the time they got to the widower’s house, the firefighter’s own hair was standing up on his arms and his scalp felt like ants were walking all over it.
“Touch the doorframe,” said the widower and he demonstrated as he went in. “Ground yourself.”
Static stung the firefighter’s fingertips. The doorframe was metal; everything else inside the house looked to be wood or stone. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something move. On a tiny shelf built into the door stood a little pressed-metal figure of a cow, a cow wearing a stack of colorful hats.
“Door-toy,” said the widower. “Local custom. Everybody’s got one.”
The widower didn’t clarify. The firefighter learned his host wasn’t much for explanations, wasn’t much for conversation in general, although he was congenial enough to share a house with. The whole community was largely the same: welcoming, but reserved.
But every house had a different door-toy, a splash of color and whimsy before you passed through to the sedate tundra colors within.
One had a woman who passed a ball from her right hand to her left. Sometimes it was a red ball; other times, blue. The trick was that she had several arms and most of them were hidden behind her back most of the time.
The firefighter had no idea why he’d been assigned to this place. As he learned his way around, he discovered how little the community needed him. The houses were built from fossilized whale bones dug out of a prehistoric sea-creature burial ground a few miles away and were furnished with very little that was flammable. If one did manage to catch fire, the outside fur would keep any conflagration from spreading house to house.
Still, he visited every home, inspected every centimeter for hazards. But he didn’t find anything and all the checkboxes on all the forms he’d brought from the city remained unchecked.
To give himself something to do, he filled his notebook with descriptions of door-toys. Every time he stepped into a house, someone would say “Clear the zap!” the way people back home would have shouted “Ghost-proof!” after a sneeze.
The toys were made out of scraps of colored foil, with a few carefully balanced pieces of metal barely thicker than the foil set to tip back and forth on tiny fulcrums or twirl around bits of wire. The static you discharged powered the lights and movement. Each door-toy could make half a dozen different movements, depending on the charge you gave it. Only on the coldest, driest days would the firefighter see the full expression of a toy’s potential movements. He sometimes concocted follow-up inspections to give himself an excuse to visit a door-toy he was particularly curious about.
Next to the doorframe in another house was a seal that balanced a bear on her nose. The bear held a rooster on their paw, and the rooster had a curled-up armadillo on the point of his beak. They all turned at different speeds and sometimes in different directions from each other.
Each house had a similar open arrangement of rooms, with similarly sparsely carpeted wooden floors. Once you were inside and had released your static, you wouldn’t pick up much of an additional charge inside the house. Which was good, since the tundra-edge neighborhood was known for doing some of the finest handmade micro-electric piecework this side of the fault zone.
If he came by and interrupted someone at a delicate point in their crafting, the firefighter would wait. He’d watch as the homeowner sat, on a stool in their kitchen or a settee in their parlor, and moved their hands in the air. He watched while the remote gloves turned those motions into smaller, finer motions within a golden wirework cage and delicate pincers pulled, tied off, soldered, trimmed.
They packed the finished pieces in insulated boxes made of layered glass and wood and took them out to the rail-sledge to be sent down the tracks to the city.
Some days, the firefighter thought of shipping himself back too.
The door-toy in another house had a man who twirled around the edge of a soup bowl, sometimes doing a handstand on the spoon handle, and there was a shrimp who popped out of the soup and tried to grab the dancing man’s leg but never succeeded.
The days were cool and the nights were frigid, but the sun moved slowly at these latitudes at this time of year and the days stretched far longer than the nights.
The firefighter wandered out to the cliffs where the skeletons of ancient six-legged whales jutted from the tarry clay. A garden of skulls and tusks and vertebrae. An oddly peaceful place.
Coming back, the cluster of houses built from those bones looked like a herd of some new creatures, too freshly evolved to know yet what they were.
“What good are you?” the widower asked that night when he was tired and his eyes hurt from too many hours of circuit-work and he was less reserved than usual. “You weren’t here when she needed saving, and you certainly can’t do anything now.”
Another toy looked like it was just a person in a cloak, until you touched the doorframe and the cloak billowed as if in a strong wind. As it flapped out, the cloak showed the pockets in its lining and out of these pockets, tiny people sometimes peered.
On his evening round one night, the firefighter sidled through a particularly tight passage between houses, the smell of dryness and house-hair filling his nose, when he happened to look up. The slot of sky between the buildings shimmer-danced with purple and green and blue.
He stopped a few minutes to watch.
The polar aurora was a more aesthetic version of the electricity that lifted the wall-hair to brush against his face as he went.
“It’s still there, even when we can’t see it,” said the widower, who had come up behind him unheard. “Even when the sun’s bright and you think the aurora’s not there, it is. Still moving, still changing colors even though it’s all hidden by daylight.”
One door had a pair of winged women fighting with swords, and every move they made was perfectly synchronized so neither one ever got hit. Every thrust was matched by a parry; every parry. by a thrust. Their wings twitched in time to their combat. On a single charge, you heard three or four little electrical snaps as they exchanged blows and then combat was suspended until the next time someone touched the door post.
The firefighter took to fishing. In the evenings that looked to him like mid-afternoons, he’d come back carrying dinner, enough for himself and the widower and a few of their neighbors.
There was a fish-maze within an hour’s walk—clear cold water in channels that had been cut into the riverside rock to take the water on an elaborate detour before returning it to the flow. The firefighter followed the twists, hopped over the turns, cleared the occasional snag that blocked the current. He’d drop a line into the channel just ahead of a clutch of salmon, pull them out one by one.
He’d become useful while thinking he was just killing time, and started wondering how they’d gotten along before him. Had the widower’s spouse played a similar role?
No one in the community talked about her much. No one told him what had happened, which felt to him like a blind spot, like a place in a burning building where the smoke had grown too thick to see where the fire was or wasn’t. A thing he couldn’t prepare for. A box missing from his checklists.
There was a tiger that roared with its mouth so wide open that you could see a smaller tiger on its tongue, and an even smaller tiger on that tiger’s tongue when it roared, and a tiny tiger just visible on the third tiger’s tongue. Presumably, it too was roaring, although it was hard to see for certain.
The houses all had porches that were roofed and carpeted with more of that long-haired fur.
There were times when the house seemed too small and, in spite of the firefighter’s gratitude for the widower’s having lent him a room, and in spite of the knowledge that the man had abruptly lost his life companion, the man’s melancholy was still stifling.
The firefighter would go out then and pace on the porch then until the carpet hair rose up and wafted around his shins like seaweed underwater and a mirror-image vortex in the roof hair followed him back and forth up above.
When he went inside again, his fingertips would sting for a good two minutes after the zap and the hats on the cow would spin around at least eight times.
A house became available and the community offered it to the firefighter. One of the village artisans presented him with his own door-toy on move-in day.
It was a house, which burst into flames, with fire jumping from its fur-lined windows, and then a six-legged whale scurried out from behind the burning building and slapped with its tail so that some of the flames went away.
Once he had a house and the community was a place he lived and not just a place he worked, he saw things everywhere that needed doing. Not just keeping the fish-maze clear and making sure everyone had enough protein in their diet. There was also finding whale bones of the proper shape when houses needed repairs, making sure the sledge rails were clear all the way to the next settlement, combing out the house-hair when it got matted and started losing its insulating properties, and generally making sure everyone visited everyone and no one was alone for longer than they should be. The widower helped him with this last task, and it seemed to do them both good.
The firefighter realized he might never face another uncontrolled conflagration, but he started to think of time and entropy as their own kind of fire, a fire that burned slowly and was obscured by the daylight of life.
He never managed to build up a strong enough charge to see if the whale on his door-toy ever put the whole fire out. But he watched, each time he came inside, and each time the widower or one of his other neighbors visited, in case he might one day see the last flame disappear.