At first, there was only blackness. An air, thick with ash and dust, silted itself through the throat of Holland like a bone caught in the jugular. No one could blink or move or speak. For with their eyes open, the world was darker than with their eyes closed. Then a fire, piercing, raging heat, rushed through the heart of town, spreading like plague and consuming the soul of all it could touch. Pieces of cracked wood began to cannibalize one another as their comrades kindled their inner most desires for destruction. Roofs gave into their sloth and slid down on the families they were designated to protect, trapping the souls of 1871 to keep them from ever rising above their falling structures. The roads themselves carried the hellish inferno as the only pathway into and through the streets as the oxidated gluttony melted what was miles of construction into bare ashen acid.
With that fire came the screams, sirens and police sirens singing in disharmony; one to call those to their sleep in the expanding lake of flames and another to call out to the lakes that might rescue, the heavens above that might bring down a torrent, a drizzle, something other than the crisp October winds that otherwise gave pride to the ongoing rush of flames that cackled at their own success and the subsequent failure of humanity. The screams that cried out for rescue, safety, shelter, displacing the layers of falling smoke with an outreaching arm of residency and community only to be met with the broken hand of anguish as more got lost in the flames. “No one, unless he has been an eye-witness to such a scene, can conceive its terror or awfulness…
The entire territory covered by the fire was mowed as clean as with a reaper; there was not a fencepost or a sidewalk plank and hardly the stump of a shade tree to designate the old lines… The grounds at Hope College, somewhat isolated as they were, seemed to be the only spot where one could escape with his life” (Gerret Van Schelven). Indeed, the college itself seemed singularly blessed as the only circle of protection starved against the complete retreat to The Black Lake Macatawa’s mummifying sands and desolate waves. For the rest caught in the flames, it was nothing but empty words and curses as the sky grew darker.
Cries for something to respond, some great change to happen, echoed through the air in a cacophony of coughs as lungs filled with debris, but the winds spread the fires further, faster, canonizing the death of all that fell below them. The winds had long heard Holland’s cries: the cries of the weary, the broken, and the dead. The cries that could only be purified or purged with fire. Sometimes, when Holland still cries from its sin, you can hear the winds once more. A late blizzard in May, an early thunderstorm in August, warnings that what once was can happen again and that fire can return to the heart of Holland.
If you listen to the whispers just when the wind rises, you can still hear the police sirens falling into the flames. But if you hear nothing at all, if the wind passes through you and all it leaves behind is the chill of the forgone, then you can hear the sirens calling for the next fire. The greatest fire of what is to come.