Flash Fiction Friday: Mountains in the Furnace
by Kirsten Alene
We have mountains in the furnace.
It’s difficult to explain to company why we can’t turn on the heat in the house. “Well, there’s a problem with the furnace,” is what we usually say. We don’t like to lie. But it’s hard to say: “There’s a delicate mountain ecosystem in the furnace,” or “Our furnace is protected by the N.G.P.A. Commission,” or “Turning on the furnace would result in the complete obliteration of more than 80 animal species, 250 species of plants, and innumerable varieties of insect found nowhere else.” You can’t just say, “There are over 1,000 acres of mountain forest located inside our furnace,” to normal, God-fearing people.
Over the years we’ve used a lot of excuses: “The boys prefer the cold,” “Cutting back on electricity bills,” “Furnace needs repair.” Sometimes people are pretty suspicious. They ask a lot of questions. But we found out a long time ago that it’s no use telling them the truth, although sometimes we’ve wanted to, they only want to see it for themselves. But too much foot traffic in the forest disrupts the undergrowth and the government officials that stop by periodically to take photographs and record data about the forest get fussy about damaged plant life.
So we can’t tell our guests the truth about the mountains in the furnace.
The mountains do technically belong to us, that’s the strange thing about the N.G.P.A Commission, the land is protected, but still in our possession. There are pretty strict limits on what we can do in the furnace.
Apart from fishing a little in the streams, and walking in the meadows, we aren’t allowed to do anything that could affect the plants or wildlife.
The government officials gave us permission to cull a herd of mischievous elk in 1992 – that was the spring when all the new growth along the river banks was being ripped up by an overpopulation of elk because almost no wolf-cubs had survived the previous year. All because of a late frost in the spring of ’91.
It just goes to show you how fragile everything in nature is – how everything is connected.
We had elk in our freezer for three winters and that was with the huge barbecue we had for all of our friends at my brother Sam’s house. Sam and I had quite a time getting those elk out of the furnace once we’d shot them. We had eight, overall.
The summer Sam and I taught the boys to fish, the trout count dropped below acceptable levels and we got in a lot of trouble with the government officials. Our oldest boy, Eric, turned out to be a natural fisherman. He had an eye and a hand for it that not even Sam had ever had.
Mauve and I spend a lot of time in the furnace now that the boys are grown. We climb in when the weather’s nice in there and sit in the meadow in those old lawn chairs, just holding hands, reading or talking.
In our younger years we explored a lot of the western side of the mountain range – we hiked up and down, taking different routes every time, we summitted the three peaks, and kept a close eye on the wildlife. It got to the point, over the years, that all the animals knew us, even the birds would light on our hats or shoulders, looking to be fed.
Now the only hiking we do is a few miles up the mountain to this little stream where Sam and I can fish and Mauve can write and soak her feet.
When we bought the house – it was a real find. We’d wanted desperately to stay in the city, close to the hardware store where I’d worked since Mauve and I met, but Mauve was pregnant with our first son, Eric, and we needed a place to start the family right. Our realtor showed us the house right off, said it’d been on the market for about a year. It was ancient, built at the turn of the last century, but it’d been well cared for, and it was close to the city. I had just been promoted to assistant manager, and Mauve had inherited a bit of money from an aunt. We didn’t really have the money for the house, but between the little extra coming in from the hardware store and Mauve’s inheritance, we were able to scrape together enough to get the place.
Sam and I did a lot of work on the house the first month or so, tore up carpets and replaced wires and light fixtures. It was a hot spring, and a hot summer and there wasn’t a night until October when we needed to turn on the furnace.
When we did, eventually, we found the switch disconnected. I thought I could fix it right up but Mauve thought we should call a repair guy, just in case. The thing was just as ancient as everything else there and she wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to burn down the house. I didn’t think it was anything I couldn’t repair, but she was eight and a half months pregnant, so I humored her.
I mean, it’s lucky I did.
That repair guy opened the furnace up and there it was, a whole mountain landscape, stretching off into the distance in every direction.
Of course we explored the place and called the realtor. We even called the company that had made the furnace, but no one could tell us anything about it.
A few months after Eric was born, the N.G.P.A officials showed up and gave us a lot of paperwork and pamphlets.
Mauve was worried we’d have to claim the property in our taxes but, as it takes up only around two square feet, and it’s inside the house, no one’s ever told us we need to claim it.
We’ve never had heat in the house, but we’ve gotten used to cold winters.
At first Mauve wanted to move – after we found the mountains and there was the risk that repairing the furnace would incinerate everything inside it, our only choices were to live with it or move. We eventually decided to tough out the winters. Some years were harder than others.
But in the end it’s been worth it to have the mountains, for ourselves and for the boys. From as early as either of them could walk, they’d spend days and weeks exploring the woods and meadows. Growing up with mountains in the furnace has made them strong, independent, and confident. It still strikes me, when they visit, that those boys know the forest better than the backs of their hands.
We don’t regret keeping the house, or the cold in the winter. Mauve and I don’t regret a thing about our lives here, in the house, and the mountains.
And Eric and his wife, Marie, just moved into a little studio apartment downtown, not far from the house, it’s a real small place but it’s cheap and it’s just right for them. It’s about eleven o’clock at night when he calls up Mauve, we’re out watching the stars in the furnace and he says, “Hey Mom, our stove’s broken, and we’re gonna call the landlord in the morning, but Marie’s just opened the thing up, and there’s an ocean in there.”