Fire in the Sky by Muriel Moore-Smith.
It is the creaking and whooshing above him which first alerts him to it. Later, he had wondered whether he was able to discern the cries of men amidst the noise, but no, in truth he could only recall the roar of flames and the whistling of air as the ship sliced its way through the sky.
The fire overhead illuminates the entire garden, passing so low that he thinks it will set Mother’s washing alight. Great black smuts rain down on white sheets. He feels intense heat on the top of his head and raises his eyes, squinting against the raging fireball which has just now jettisoned part of itself in the field.
Zeppelin, breathes the boy. Here, over my garden, a German Zeppelin. He ponders the incongruity of it for a moment, calculates how many miles it must have travelled to get here, then remembers the dry, yellow fields, the haybales lazing in the Suffolk sun. The whole lot’ll go up like a tinder box.
He starts to run, vaults the garden fence, stumbles momentarily on the rock-hard ground. His legs and arms are well-oiled pistons as he runs along the coastal path. Ahead of him, the vast hull of the Zeppelin stutters, an orange lozenge, towards the earth.
A crash, then a ricochet of sound, like the dry air has been concertinaed. The earth vibrates beneath his feet.
He is first on the scene, although only for a matter of moments; there are shouts behind him as a swarm of men on bicycles arrive carrying a hosepipe between them. Boy! Quick! Where’s the nearest well? It is a short journey home to the well, the boy running, the men following along behind. Some douse the livid flames with water, others dodge the heat and smoke looking for survivors. Look! The boy shouts, seeing a body roll from under the orange glow of the girders, his fur coat dancing with flames. He watches as the man is bundled into the back of an ambulance, his fur coat now a blackened hide. Others are less fortunate: charred beings, curled in on themselves, no longer human. He looks at his boots as they are carried past. Try not to worry, says a man behind him, placing a warm, heavy hand on his shoulder, they’ll all be given a Christian burial. He nods and thinks of his father, fighting somewhere in France. There’d been no letter for weeks.
In the grainy light of dusk, the Zeppelin now lies like the sun-bleached skeleton of a great whale, the people dotted around it miniscule, ridiculous against its magnitude. Tired now but reluctant to leave the spectacle, the boy creeps forward and picks up a fragment of iron girder. It lies hot in his hand. Carefully, he wraps it in a handkerchief and puts it in his pocket. Walking home, he feels its warmth pulse in syncopation with his own heartbeat, like something made alive by fire.
When his father returns home, he too will have a story to tell.
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