Montag stared intently at the river, which seemed to glow in the evening sun. The world was ablaze with the pastel orange and red of the sunset while a gentle breeze came to blow it out. He sighed as he turned away from the river toward the fire which crackled as sparks from the flames flitted upward toward the now darkened sky with its incandescent moon and stars.
The small boy smiled at Montag earnestly and asked,
“ Father, can you tell us the story?”
The girl next to him nodded, “Yes, father. Please do.”
Montag smiled warmly, glanced at the sky without thought then after a long pause, returned his gaze to the fire.
“ In my youth, I had been a fireman for quite some time. I loved my work. I had never given thought to how burning books could affect anyone until ten years ago when I met a young woman. Her name was Clarisse McClellan. Curious and innocent. She was almost child-like yet very mature for her seventeen years, and so very full of hope,” Montag continued, inhaling the acrid smell of smoke,“ She questioned me, but her questions were unlike any I had ever heard before. They were contemplative and always gave me much to consider. She talked of the past when people were simpler, when they did not always have to be busy and were not on the brink of nuclear war.”
Although they had heard Montag speak of Clarisse and the past numerous times before, the boy and girl were intrigued and leaned forward in anticipation.
“She used to walk with me to work each day. We talked about, well, many things. It was nice to have someone to talk to, because of course Mildred never spoke to me much,” Montag said.
“Mildred?” the girl asked, as if on cue.
“My wife,” he muttered, “before I came to live here with the book people.”
There was a brief silence. An unseen orchestra of crickets played. The fire hissed as the boy threw another piece of dry grass upon it.
“Mildred always talked to the parlor family, electronic beings, nothing but circuits and microchips. Being part of the parlor family consumed her. It was all she ever thought of. She seemed happy, but really was not of that I am sure. I remember one night when she had taken too many sleeping pills, and I had to call for help. Two men, complete strangers, put the snake in her in order to get all the bad blood out, put the good in,” Montag said.
“Was she alright?” the girl asked.
“Of course. She was fine. She could not even remember what had happened. I did, and I will never forget it,” he answered.
The girl nodded to show she understood.
“Mildred hardly took notice of me. She only talked to the parlor family, watched programs, or had the seashell in her ear. Work was my only solace. One night at the firehouse, my captain, Captain Beatty, noticed I seemed quite nervous around the mechanical hound. It seemed to dislike me intensely, vicious with it’s glowing eyes, spider-like physique, and 4-inch proboscis filled with procaine.”
The children shuddered at the vivid description of the bloodthirsty hound.
“I thought that it would attack me. Of course, Beatty said it would not, not unless I were hiding something.”
“Like what?” the boy questioned.
“A book. Or perhaps even the inclination to read a book.” Montag explained.
“Did you have a book?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” he continued with a quaver, rather than with his usual calm demeanor, “earlier that night, we had gone to an old woman’s house. We found hidden shelves in the attic, the parlor, the kitchen, everywhere and more books than I had ever seen in my lifetime. The house had so many books, that we had to burn the house as well. We doused everything with kerosene. A simple procedure. We had to make sure that everyone was out of the house before we burned it. Unfortunately, that poor woman refused to leave. We tried vehemently to reason with her, to get her out, but she said she wanted to stay with her books. It was of no use. As we left the house, I turned and looked at her. Calmly, she struck a match, and the entire house was soon ablaze—with her in it.”
The boy and girl stared somewhat in disbelief at Montag, their hollow faces illuminated by the fire.
“I managed to steal a book. I just had to know. What made a book so special that a person would want to burn with it, to die for it? I had to know. Books. The source of fear and paranoia. Books. The cause of so much joy and misery, so much loyalty and loathing. I had to know,” Montag said.
The boy instinctively clutched a tattered yellowed book to his chest.
“ I am glad I have become this one, Animal Farm by George Orwell.”
“Yes,” said Montag, “it was your mother’s. I have kept it all of these years perhaps foolishly, but no one knew I had it, not even her.” Montag continued, “For me it all began when I hid under my pillow the copy of The Book of Ecclesiastes that I had taken from the old woman’s house so Mildred would not find it. I knew that I could not return to burning books. It was wrong.”
The girl and boy watched Montag as he went on,
“I contacted a friend who seemed to have the same consuming desire to read as I did. His name was Faber, an old professor. He felt that he was a coward for not speaking out against book burning, but his cowardice proved to be quite useful. When hiding away in fear, he made a device by which he could communicate with me. I could not have escaped without him,” Montag said, revealing a metallic green object that was small enough to fit within his ear.
The sky turned its darkest, allowing the fire to fully illuminate the people around it.
“Faber instructed me in what I needed to do. Plant books in the firemen’s houses exposing them as criminals, taking down the entire firehouse one man at a time.”
Montag paused and shook his head solemnly, “It all came to a climax the day I was called to my own home. Beatty had discovered the books I had hidden. Mildred left me. I was looked upon as a common criminal.”
The boy and girl glanced at each other, finding the idea highly unlikely that their father had been a criminal.
“He asked me why I had done it. He said that I was a fool for trying. He had no respect for me, and began treating me like a disobedient child, lecturing me about what I had done, how I had disgraced myself and how I must accept the punishment that was my due.”
The three figures hunched towards the fire to keep warm, as the yellow light radiated toward the surrounding forest.
“I burned the parlor walls of our home. I burned our bedroom. I wanted to erase any trace of my life with Mildred. I burned the books to ashes. Then burnt the ashes. That was the fireman’s motto, and I was still a fireman whether I liked it or not. Beatty had every intention of having me arrested. He may have been my Captain, but that gave him no right to berate me for reading books. He did not understand. He did not know that books were not objects to be disdained, but a means of freeing one’s mind. We argued, and he drew his pistol. I lifted the safety catch on the flame-thrower, and squeezed the trigger. Beatty fell.”
There was a brief silence as the boy and girl exchanged an uneasy glance with their father.
“The hound, almost as if avenging Beatty, lunged at me and stabbed me with its needle tooth on my right leg. The pain was unbearable. It was difficult to run, but I knew that I must,” Montag said.
“Is this true?” the boy asked.
Montag nodded grimly and continued, “ I went to Faber. I had to run. My “crime” was already known to the public. Everyone was searching for me. Faber told me my only chance was to go live with the book people on the island across the river. He said he was going to St. Louis. I went to the river, pursued by a swarm of helicopters and a mechanical hound that was released to track me. Faber gave me some of his clothes so the hound would lose my scent.”
The children were still as the fire sent a large plume of smoke billowing upward.
“I drifted down the river, reflecting on how drastically my life had changed. I was no longer Montag the fireman. I was Montag the fugitive. I traveled through the night and into the next day. The jets flew overhead, their roaring engines, shrill and loud pierced my ears. I thought nothing of it, for I had heard the jets overhead for as long as I could remember and now for the first time, I actually thought of nothing at all.”
The boy and girl looked overhead as if expecting to hear a jet thundering by.
“The war is over now. The bombs fell on the city that day, reducing it to a pile of rubble, a metropolis in ruins,” Montag said, looking across the river.
“I at last reached the island, welcomed by strangers who seemed like close friends immediately. I met Granger who introduced me to everyone. Plato’s Republic, Gulliver’s Travels, An American Tragedy, Animal Farm, each and every person a piece of literary history, passed on by word of mouth. I thought of Mildred, but I did not feel sad. She did not care for me, but I met someone who did,” he smiled.
“Mother?” the girl asked.
Montag nodded, “Yes. She loved politics which is why I suppose she enjoyed Animal Farm as much as she did. We had you children, and were so glad that we did. Mildred never wanted children, but I on the other hand was eager to experience the responsibility of fatherhood; the responsibility of keeping hope alive. That is why Clarisse and I were so close. I felt like her father in one way but her friend in another. When she died, I felt sad, the sadness I felt when your mother passed away, the kind of sadness I imagine I would feel if I were to lose either of you,” he replied.
The boy looked at the book in his hands ruefully.
“We have to burn it so no one finds it.” he said quietly.
“Go ahead, son.”
The boy tossed the book on the fire, watching as page upon page turned brown, curled and burnt to a crisp, jet black. The words disintegrated along with the pages making the fire surge.
The little girl threw a twig into the flames. Montag watched as it ignited, crackled, turned a bright vermillion then slowly decayed into small charred pieces. He started as his mind suddenly flashed back to the countless books that he had burned and that seemed to be right in front of him, staring at him from within the flames. He felt a single tear well up that did not fall.
“ I have been here for ten years, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of how lucky I am to be your father and how much I miss your mother and Clarisse.”
“Now, son, please finish tonight’s chapter.”
The boy’s face was ashen as he spoke the words deliberately.
“We will teach this miserable traitor that he cannot undo our work so easily. Remember, comrades, there must be no alteration in our plans: they shall be carried out to the day. Forward, comrades! Long live the windmill! Long live Animal Farm!”
“It’s getting late. Off to bed with you both,” Montag said.
The children sulked off to the small weathered house hoping that their father would call them back for another story but knowing that he would not. After the children had gone, Montag sat in silence watching the dying flames. He exhaled deeply then extinguished the fire. The silver-grey ashes glittered in the moonlight as the autumn breeze swept them away toward the city. The city, the remnants of an empire now fallen that was reflected in the river.
A chill began to set in as the brisk air swept about him. His breath became crystalline ghosts that danced about and disappeared as he spoke, “We will reach the city. Someday. For noon. For noon. When we reach the city.” Montag smiled.