This Century, the Last by Kristine Langley Mahler
Past, present, and future converge on an unseasonably warm October day in Cloquet, Minnesota, the setting for Kristine Langley Mahler’s creative nonfiction flash, “This Century, the Last.” The reader is immediately caught up in the weather, “hot, dry, windy, hazy,” the residents’ familiarity with past fires on such days, “farmers running to stamp the fires out” along the river, and the sensory details of this massive fire, which starts in a shed filled with pulpwood and spirals out of control. “This west-end neighborhood can feel the heat like a red plaid blanket.”
Mahler builds suspense through pacing and imagery as the fire takes off, “already swollen into God’s foot” before Cloquet notices what’s happening, assuming a cosmic scale as “boards from the lumber piles lift hundreds of feet into the air, plucked up by the devil’s red fingernail.” The rapid spread of the flames is felt in the beautiful acoustic resonance of “the fire rushes into the ravine,” the crackle and sizzle of the flames in “Cloquet coughs,” trains that “spit sparks,” and the effect of the fire as survivors struggle to breathe, “choking on the ash in the air.”
By skillfully orchestrating verb tenses, Mahler demonstrates the joy of a perfect hinge, whereby the reader is grounded and yet unsettled as the flash swings open to reveal the title’s significance. Be sure to read Mahler’s author’s note about the October day when she conceived of the flash, and the surprising “twist partway through the piece.”
Everyone is coughing behind a mask. The papers warn that the only way to avoid the sweeping sickness is to limit contact, but kids are still playing together in the streets because October in Cloquet, Minnesota is rarely this warm. It’s hot, dry, windy, hazy.
Out here, everyone’s used to the fires of autumn. The valuable lumber was chopped down decades ago, scrap popple and stump cordage left behind for the fools who tried to farm. Trains spit sparks as they lumbered past and fires cleansed the allotments along the river, the farmers running to stamp the fires out. But this time, the embers fall into a shed full of pulpwood at milepost 62, and when someone notices the plume of smoke rising, the fire has already swollen into God’s foot.
The fire inflates for two days, fed by a strong, dry wind. A woman steps onto her front porch and hollers, her voice carrying through her neighbors’ open windows. This west-end neighborhood can feel the heat like a red plaid blanket. My twenty-seven-year-old great-grandmother stuffs her babies into a buggy and runs to the depot.
My great-grandfather lingers behind, staring at the flames rolling over the tops of the trees behind the Weyerhaeuser house. The fire rushes into the ravine where lumber is piled. He starts toward the inferno—a company man—before his neighbor grabs him by the elbow, the town is sure to go—and reroutes them by pointing to the future.
At the depot, families climb into boxcars bound for towns out of the fire’s assumed path. From the safety of the rails, my great-grandfather watches boards from the lumber piles lift hundreds of feet into the air, plucked up by the devil’s red fingernail, spinning until they descend onto another part of town and start another blaze. The fire races through this timber-built town, gulping every single one of the houses constructed from the local white pine men had cut and hauled themselves. The wood has been perfectly aged.
Once the survivors arrive in Duluth, choking on the ash in the air, masked nurses help the elderly to beds in makeshift hospitals, trying to keep everyone distant. They’re in the middle of a pandemic, after all. But there is nowhere to go, coughing behind masks, sitting on the edge of Red Cross cots crammed together, waiting as the fire scrapes their town down to the bone of the earth. Photographers hawk over the remains before the survivors return, capturing black matchstick trunks and chimney trees, bricks like bark.
The Weyerhaeuser house will be rebuilt, though the company itself dissolves into the paper mill where my great-uncles and great-aunts will work, those little children saved by my great-grandmother, her skirts swaying as she ran. The ravine behind the house will fill in with hundred-year-old white pine, drying with the shortened seasons, heat building and crackling in the trunks. When Cloquet coughs again, my third cousins will pause their play in the streets, masks pulled down beneath their chins to sniff the air.
KRISTINE LANGLEY MAHLER is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Author of Curing Season (WVU Press, 2022) and recipient of a 2021 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council. Kristine’s work was named Notable in Best American Essays 2021 and 2019 and is published in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Speculative Nonfiction, among others. She is the director of Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at kristinelangleymahler.com or @suburbanprairie.
Featured image by Ylvers courtesy of Pixabay