Foolish Fire

The small river town where I lived and worked for a time was in a pretty and neglected part of the state. When I first moved down there I used to tell friends that it was as if I’d relocated to a remote little corner of some obscure European country. There were rolling, wooded hills, streams and creeks, and spectacular limestone bluffs in every direction.

The town was situated in a picturesque bowl, and the main road in and out took you up and over the bluffs that surrounded the place. A mile or so outside of town to the east there was one dirt road that would take you north and down into a long valley where many of the county’s Amish farmers lived tucked quietly away. That road was seldom traveled by anyone but the Amish in their black buggies, although rumor had it that teenagers had been going back in there at night for years, looking for privacy and darkness.

There was certainly darkness back there. I remember shortly after I’d come to town, a co-worker had driven me out to the valley one night and we had turned off our lights and parked at the top of the road leading down. I was startled, actually, to see all that darkness stretching away to the north. There wasn’t a single light anywhere in the valley, and beyond it you could see the halo of over-light from a town maybe ten miles away over the next bluff.

At the western edge of the valley there was a good-sized marsh, a shallow, boggy, backwater thing congested with weeds and cattails. Early one fall I heard the rumor in town that some teenagers had encountered in this marsh a handful of giant geese that glowed with some internal light. They had seen these luminous geese, I was told, moving slowly through the reeds in the darkness.

This, of course, was the sort of rumor you’ll hear all the time in a small town, although the majority of them aren’t nearly so fanciful. The story persisted for a week or two, however, and though most of the older residents seemed to think it made a nice addition to local folklore and were content to leave it at that, I also know some folks made the trek back into the valley to investigate but turned up nothing.

Then, a month or so later, a local character by the name of Lum Hoversten bagged a six-point albino buck just outside town. Lum made the newspapers and tv stations clear up to the Twin Cities, and some Rochester banker showed up and wrote Lum a $10,000 check for the albino deer, and all of a sudden Lum was something of a celebrity around town. Lum worked for his old man, Clayton, down at the John Deere dealership, and he loved to talk. If an albino deer was worth $10,000, he said, then one of those geese back in the Amish valley ought to make him a rich man. He said it with a smile on his face, but you never could tell with Lum.

Around this same time I had gone over to a neighboring community to a livestock auction. Some of the farmers were talking about the business with Lum Hoversten and the albino deer, and the talk eventually worked its way around to the geese.

"You gotta remember, fellas, that this is Lum Hoversten talking," somebody said. "Show me a reliable man who’s actually seen these geese. An albino deer is one thing, but geese that glow in the dark is quite another."

There were several Amish farmers from our area on hand, and one of the guys from our little group collared one of them on his way out and asked him about the stories. The Amish fellow actually chuckled. "When it’s dark in the valley, it’s dark," he said.

"So you haven’t seen these geese?" someone asked.

"I haven’t seen them," he said, and then he smiled, shrugged, and went on his way.

The next week I had lunch with an old gentleman who was regarded as the local scholar and historian. We were at the Copper Cup downtown, and were surrounded by farmers nodding their feed caps over the daily special.

My lunch companion was 73-years-old and had lived in the area most of his life.

"I certainly know the valley in question," he told me. "And I suppose I’ve been back there a few times. I do find these stories interesting on some level, but not terribly surprising. I suppose it’s typical of each generation to create its own little mythologies to give this place some semblance of romance or intrigue."

I asked him in he was inclined to find the stories at all believable.

"I can’t say I find them believable or unbelievable," he said. "But I haven’t seen the geese, I’ll say that, and I don’t suppose I’m likely to. And I haven’t heard from anyone who has seen them, although that may be due more to the fact that these people" –and here he indicated the locals with a sweep of his hand– "aren’t the sort to go mucking around in the dark looking for things they’ve already decided they don’t believe in. And the fact that these geese allegedly are back there in that particular valley contributes, I’m sure, to the reluctance of most older people to look much further into the story; for as long as I can remember people have respected the privacy of the Amish in the valley. I can certainly tell you that I’ve never felt like I have any business back there."

He did admit that there were things about the story he found fascinating. "The first thing a rational man thinks of when he hears these stories is the ignus fatuus. Do you know it? The name means ‘foolish fire,’ and the phenomenon is also commonly known as the ‘Will-o-the-Whisp’ or, more obscurely, feu follet. At any rate, the ignus fatuus is phosphorescence, similar in appearance to a gas flame, that swirls around over marshy ground. It’s apparently caused by the spontaneous combustion of gases from decaying vegetable matter."

"You think that’s it?" I said.

He shrugged. "I don’t know that there is an it," he said. "But I’ve always been fascinated by the other stories that have been offered to explain the phenomenon through the years. According to Russian folklore, for instance, these ‘foolish fires’ were the spirits of stillborn children. Curiously enough, somewhere else in folklore there is another similar legend associated with geese. It was once believed –and perhaps somewhere it still is– that the noise of geese in flight issued from the souls of unbaptized children wandering the earth until Judgment Day."

I asked him what he thought someone would find if they were to make a serious effort to prove the existence of these geese.

"Oh, God, I have no idea," he said. "What does anyone ever find who goes tramping around in the darkness looking for fires or phantoms?"

I shouldn’t have been there that night. I had come to town six years earlier, a kid just out of college and looking to pay his dues at a small town newspaper. Once there and settled in, though, I discovered that I liked the town, liked the people, liked the pace of life. The paper was a twice-a-week grab bag with a circulation of under a thousand. The job called for lots of coverage of community events, school board meetings, and high school sports. The pay was next to nothing, but so was the cost of living.

It certainly wasn’t something I thought I’d stick with. But there I was, and one day Lum Hoversten pulled me aside downtown and mentioned all hush-hush that he was going down into the valley after the geese and thought I might like the story. The whole thing had pretty much died down in recent weeks, so I was somewhat taken aback.

"What exactly do you think you’re going to do?" I asked him.

"Catch a goose," Lum said, smiling.

I laughed. "I’ll tell you what," I said. "When you’ve got one of those geese in your possession, you bring it by the office and I’ll do a great big story."

"Listen," Lum said. "I don’t want this all over town, but I was down there last night and I saw them with my own eyes. Walked right out to the edge of the m
arsh. Ask Beryl Wyant, he was with me. Five of ’em. Looked just like a bunch of floating lanterns."

"Hell, Lum," I said.

"It would be a big mistake if you didn’t come along," he said. "It’ll be just you and me and Beryl. This is the kind of story that’ll make us all famous."

Lum Hoversten was a big man, top-heavy, presumably hypertensive, the sort of guy who sweated when he whistled. He had a lot of energy, and even standing still he suggested a big man in motion.

"We’re going down tomorrow night, provided it doesn’t rain," he said. "We’ll swing by your place around ten o’clock."

It was a clear night, with smoky, swirling strands of ground fog beginning to settle and move around in the valley. Lum had driven down between two fields to the edge of a small stand of trees. Just on the other side of the stand of trees was the marsh. It was no more than fifty yards down a slight rise to the edge of the water. Beryl and I were instructed to wait by the car so as not to spook the geese. From the muddy side road we’d been able to make out scattered luminous somethings trembling within the ground fog that had settled on the surface of the marsh.

Lum, clad entirely in black and wearing only stockings on his feet, crept away through the trees. I got my camera out of the backseat and monkeyed with the lens while Beryl leaned against the hood and drank a beer. We had been waiting perhaps twenty minutes when we heard a commotion down by the water, and a moment later we saw Lum lurch into view. The goose in his arms was indeed glowing, and Lum was struggling to subdue it even as he ran. He was bowed under the burden, and was hunch-hurrying through the brush, stumbling and cursing and weaving all over the place like a man who was shit-faced drunk and trying desperately to keep his pants from falling down.

It was dark, of course, and there was all sorts of brush underfoot. As he got closer we could hear Lum’s wheezing, and he was still wrestling with the struggling goose, which in his arms made no sound other than the damp, papery fwoop-fwoop of its furiously treading wings. Lum veered suddenly in our direction and we could see the goose heaving in his arms and paddling desperately with its legs. Beside me I was aware of Beryl chuckling nervously and saying things like "Jesus H. Christ!" and "Goddamn, boy, goddamn!" I somehow recovered from the initial shock and managed to raise the camera to my eye and snap some photos just as the light started peeling away from the goose. It was as if sparks or fragments of bright light were spitting and swirling from Lum’s arms and flowing out into his wake; almost, I later thought, like he had been attempting to transport a blazing log through the woods in the scoop of a shovel. The light was just shattering, and with each flap of its wings the goose was shaking off the light like a wet dog shaking off water.

It was a sight at once horrifying and breathtaking, the luminous particles scattering and fading in the darkness, some of them drifting for a time on the breeze and creeping through the trees. The light from the goose was fading so rapidly that after a couple of moments the creature in Lum’s arms was visible only in this faint, ghostly outline.

Lum finally staggered into the clearing, completely out of breath and mumbling something I couldn’t make out. The wings of the goose were now quiet, and as Lum approached the car the last embers in his arms faded away until he was moving again in complete darkness. He flopped the goose down before us and it rolled over in the grass with a sound like a water balloon. Lum fell forward against the fender of the car and leaned there for a minute, catching his breath. After a moment he craned his neck and looked back under his arm at his prize in the grass.

"Shit," he said. "It’s just a goose."

"Was," Beryl said. I bent down for a closer look and Beryl nudged it with his boot. "Look dead to you?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

We all stood there for awhile, mostly trying to ignore the goose in the grass, and after a time Beryl and I silently followed Lum back through the trees to the edge of the marsh, where we found nothing but darkness. There were no signs of geese, luminous or otherwise.

I suppose it’s like this: You see things sometimes in this world and after a certain amount of time passes you’re no longer sure anymore what it was you saw. I know I can tell you that after a few days I could no longer say with any certainty whether or not I had entirely imagined the things that I’ve just recounted. Even after all these years, I still can’t say. I do know that the photos I took that night were either entirely washed out, too blurry to be conclusive, or revealed nothing but a dark chaos of brush. I like to think I’m a decent photographer, but there isn’t even one of those pictures that you could point to and say, "There’s Lum Hoversten," let alone "There’s Lum Hoversten with a goose in his arms."

To the best of my knowledge nobody ever saw the geese again, and the events of that night pretty quickly became nothing but another colorful local story.

For years, much to Lum’s consternation, I refused to corroborate any of the aspects of his story or confirm my role in it. Somewhat to my surprise, I guess, and for reasons I can only guess at, Beryl Wyant also chose to keep his mouth shut, at least publicly. I’ve no doubt, however, that Lum’s still telling the story even now.