Peshtigo, WI – October 8, 1871
When Chicago burned, so did we.
Our bodies froze in the river
where we hid our skin from flame
and held our breath until our lungs
broke open and our mouths chewed ash.
Updraft and fall,
wind solid as locomotive steel
twisted, wound, concentric
and tossing houses in the air
only to drop them to wreckage.
A fire whirl, they called it later–
a name as light as dancing,
as though a dervish had spun through
after a dry season and kindled
the fields, jumping rivers gleefully.
In truth, the heat was a drill
chewing into every surface it could find,
and we closed our eyes against it
as though our eyelids stood a chance.
Note: This summer, while traveling around northern Michigan, I learned about the Peshtigo fire–an event most people outside of the Green Bay area have never heard of, in part because it occurred on the same day as the much more widely publicized Great Chicago Fire. Communities in Michigan (Manistee and Holland) also experienced fires that day. However, in truth, the Peshtigo fire destroyed more square acreage, more property, and took more lives than any of those other fires that day, and it remains the deadliest wildfire in American history, with a death toll of at least 1,200 and possibly as many as 2,500.