by Ray Bradbury
This one, with gratitude,
is for DON CONGDON.
The temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns
The Hearth and the Salamander
The Sieve and the Sand
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things
blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this
great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood
pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing
conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring
down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic
helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame
with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the
house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and
yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above
all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace,
while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and
lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and
blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back
He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at
himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to
sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in
the dark. It never went away, that. smile, it never ever went away, as
long as he remembered.
He hung up his black-beetle-colored helmet and shined it, he hung
his flameproof jacket neatly; he showered luxuriously, and then,
whistling, hands in pockets, walked across the upper floor of the fire
station and fell down the hole. At the last moment, when disaster
seemed positive, he pulled his hands from his pockets and broke his
fall by grasping the golden pole. He slid to a squeaking halt, the heels
one inch from the concrete floor downstairs.
He walked out of the fire station and along the midnight street
toward the subway where the silent, air-propelled train slid
soundlessly down its lubricated flue in the earth and let him out with a
great puff of warm air an to the cream-tiled escalator rising to the
Whistling, he let the escalator waft him into the still night air. He
walked toward the comer, thinking little at all about nothing in
particular. Before he reached the corner, however, he slowed as if a
wind had sprung up from nowhere, as if someone had called his name.
The last few nights he had had the most uncertain feelings about
the sidewalk just around the corner here, moving in the starlight
toward his house. He had felt that a moment prior to
his making the turn, someone had been there. The air seemed charged
with a special calm as if someone had waited there, quietly, and only a
moment before he came, simply turned to a shadow and let him
through. Perhaps his nose detected a faint perfume, perhaps the skin on
the backs of his hands, on his face, felt the temperature rise at this one
spot where a person's standing might raise the immediate atmosphere
ten degrees for an instant. There was no understanding it. Each time he
made the turn, he saw only the white, unused, buckling sidewalk, with
perhaps, on one night, something vanishing swiftly across a lawn
before he could focus his eyes or speak.
But now, tonight, he slowed almost to a stop. His inner mind,
reaching out to turn the corner for him, had heard the faintest whisper.
Breathing? Or was the atmosphere compressed merely by someone
standing very quietly there, waiting?
He turned the corner.
The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way
as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk,
letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward. Her
head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face
was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that
touched over everything with tireless curiosity. It was a look, almost, of
pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move
escaped them. Her dress was white and it whispered. He almost
thought he heard the motion of her hands as she walked, and the
infinitely small sound now, the white stir of her face turning when she
discovered she was a moment away from a man who stood in the
middle of the pavement waiting.
The trees overhead made a great sound of letting down their dry
rain. The girl stopped and looked as if she might pull back in
surprise, but instead stood regarding Montag with eyes so dark and
shining and alive, that he felt he had said something quite wonderful.
But he knew his mouth had only moved to say hello, and then when
she seemed hypnotized by the salamander on his arm and the phoenixdisc on his chest, he spoke again.
"Of course," he said, "you're a new neighbor, aren't you?"
"And you must be"-she raised her eyes from his professional
symbols-"the fireman." Her voice trailed off.
"How oddly you say that."
"I'd-I'd have known it with my eyes shut," she said, slowly.
"What-the smell of kerosene? My wife always complains," he
laughed. "You never wash it off completely."
"No, you don't," she said, in awe.
He felt she was walking in a circle about him, turning him end for
end, shaking him quietly, and emptying his pockets, without once
"Kerosene," he said, because the silence had lengthened, "is
nothing but perfume to me."
"Does it seem like that, really?"
"Of course. Why not?"
She gave herself time to think of it. "I don't know." She turned to
face the sidewalk going toward their homes. "Do you mind if I walk
back with you? I'm Clarisse McClellan."
"Clarisse. Guy Montag. Come along. What are you doing out so
late wandering around? How old are you?"
They walked in the warm-cool blowing night on the silvered
pavement and there was the faintest breath of fresh apricots and
strawberries in the air, and he looked around and realized this was
quite impossible, so late in the year.
There was only the girl walking with him now, her face bright as
snow in the moonlight, and he knew she was working
his questions around, seeking the best answers she could possibly give.
"Well," she said, "I'm seventeen and I'm crazy. My uncle says the
two always go together. When people ask your age, he said, always say
seventeen and insane. Isn't this a nice time of night to walk? I like to
smell things and look at things, and sometimes stay up all night,
walking, and watch the sun rise."
They walked on again in silence and finally she said, thoughtfully,
"You know, I'm not afraid of you at all."
He was surprised. "Why should you be?"
"So many people are. Afraid of firemen, I mean. But you're just a
man, after all..."
He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of
bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his
mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of
violet amber that might capture and hold him intact. Her face, turned
to him now, was fragile milk crystal with a soft and constant light in it.
It was not the hysterical light of electricity but-what? But the strangely
comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle. One time,
when he was a child, in a power-failure, his mother had found and lit a
last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such
illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably
around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping
that the power might not come on again too soon ....
And then Clarisse McClellan said:
"Do you mind if I ask? How long have you worked at being a
"Since I was twenty, ten years ago."
"Do you ever read any of the books you bum?"
He laughed. "That's against the law!"
"Oh. Of course."
"It's fine work. Monday bum Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday
Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes, then bum the ashes. That's our official
They walked still further and the girl said, "Is it true that long ago
firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?"
"No. Houses. have always been fireproof, take my word for it."
"Strange. I heard once that a long time ago houses used to burn by
accident and they needed firemen to stop the flames."
She glanced quickly over. "Why are you laughing?"
"I don't know." He started to laugh again and stopped "Why?"
"You laugh when I haven't been funny and you answer right off.
You never stop to think what I've asked you."
He stopped walking, "You are an odd one," he said, looking at her.
"Haven't you any respect?"
"I don't mean to be insulting. It's just, I love to watch people too
much, I guess."
"Well, doesn't this mean anything to you?" He tapped the
numerals 451 stitched on his char-colored sleeve.
"Yes," she whispered. She increased her pace. "Have you ever
watched the jet cars racing on the boulevards down that way?
"You're changing the subject!"
"I sometimes think drivers don't know what grass is, or flowers,
because they never see them slowly," she said. "If you showed a driver
a green blur, Oh yes! he'd say, that's grass! A pink blur? That's a rosegarden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. My uncle drove
slowly on a highway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jailed
him for two days. Isn't that funny, and sad, too?"
"You think too many things," said Montag, uneasily.
"I rarely watch the 'parlor walls' or go to races or Fun Parks. So I've
lots of time for crazy thoughts, I guess. Have you seen the twohundred-foot-long billboards in the country beyond town? Did you
know that once billboards were only twenty feet long? But cars started
rushing by so quickly they had to stretch the advertising out so it
"I didn't know that!" Montag laughed abruptly.
"Bet I know something else you don't. There's dew on the grass in
He suddenly couldn't remember if he had known this or not, and
it made him quite irritable.
"And if you look"-she nodded at the sky-"there's a man in the
He hadn't looked for a long time.
They walked the rest of the way in silence, hers thoughtful, his a
kind of clenching and uncomfortable silence in which he shot her
accusing glances. When they reached her house all its lights were
"What's going on?" Montag had rarely seen that many house lights.
"Oh, just my mother and father and uncle sitting around, talking.
It's like being a pedestrian, only rarer. My uncle was arrested another
time-did I tell you?-for being a pedestrian. Oh, we're most peculiar."
"But what do you talk about?"
She laughed at this. "Good night!" She started up her walk. Then
she seemed to remember something and came back to look at him with
wonder and curiosity. "Are you happy?" she said.
"Am I what?" he cried.
But she was gone-running in the moonlight. Her front door shut
"Happy! Of all the nonsense."
He stopped laughing.
He put his hand into the glove-hole of his front door and let it
know his touch. The front door slid open.
Of course I'm happy. What does she think? I'm not? he asked the
quiet rooms. He stood looking up at the ventilator grille in the hall and
suddenly remembered that something lay hidden behind the grille,
something that seemed to peer down at him now. He moved his eyes
What a strange meeting on a strange night. He remembered
nothing like it save one afternoon a year ago when he had met an old
man in the park and they had talked ....
Montag shook his head. He looked at a blank wall. The girl's face
was there, really quite beautiful in memory: astonishing, in fact. She
had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark
room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see
the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a
white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it has to
tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses but
moving also toward a new sun.
"What?" asked Montag of that other self, the subconscious idiot
that ran babbling at times, quite independent of will, habit, and
He glanced back at the wall. How like a mirror, too, her face.
Impossible; for how many people did you know that refracted your
own light to you? People were more often-he searched for a simile,
found one in his work-torches, blazing away until they whiffed out.
How rarely did other people's faces take of you and throw back to you
your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?
What incredible power of identification the girl had; she was like
the eager watcher of a marionette show, anticipating each flicker of an
eyelid, each gesture of his hand, each flick of a finger, the moment
before it began. How long had they walked together? Three minutes?
Five? Yet how large that time seemed now. How immense a figure she
was on the stage before him; what a shadow she threw on the wall with
her slender body! He felt that if his eye itched, she might blink. And if
the muscles of his jaws stretched imperceptibly, she would yawn long
before he would.
Why, he thought, now that I think of it, she almost seemed to be
waiting for me there, in the street, so damned late at night ... .
He opened the bedroom door.
It was like coming into the cold marbled room of a mausoleum
after the moon had set. Complete darkness, not a hint of the silver
world outside, the windows tightly shut, the chamber a tomb-world
where no sound from the great city could penetrate. The room was not
The little mosquito-delicate dancing hum in the air, the electrical
murmur of a hidden wasp snug in its special pink warm nest. The
music was almost loud enough so he could follow the tune.
He felt his smile slide away, melt, fold over, and down on itself
like a tallow skin, like the stuff of a fantastic candle burning too long
and now collapsing and now blown out. Darkness. He was not happy.
He was not happy. He said the words to himself. He recognized this as
the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl
had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of
going to knock on her door and ask for it back.
Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would
look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body
displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible
threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the
thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music
and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her
unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves
came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her,
wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two
years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down
in it for the third time.
The room was cold but nonetheless he felt he could not breathe.
He did not wish to open the curtains and open the French windows, for
he did not want the moon to come into the room. So, with the feeling of
a man who will die in the next hour for lack of air, he felt his way
toward his open, separate, and therefore cold bed.
An instant before his foot hit the object on the floor he knew he
would hit such an object. It was not unlike the feeling he had
experienced before turning the corner and almost knocking the girl
down. His foot, sending vibrations ahead, received back echoes of the
small barrier across its path even as the foot swung. His foot kicked.
The object gave a dull clink and slid off in darkness.
He stood very straight and listened to the person on the dark bed
in the completely featureless night. The breath coming out of the
nostrils was so faint it stirred only the furthest fringes of life, a small
leaf, a black feather, a single fiber of hair.
He still did not want outside light. He pulled out his igniter, felt
the salamander etched on its silver disc, gave it a flick....
Two moonstones looked up at him in the light of his small handheld fire; two pale moonstones buried in a creek of clear water over
which the life of the world ran, not touching them.
"Mildred ! "
Her face was like a snow-covered island upon which rain might
fall; but it felt no rain; over which clouds might pass their moving
shadows, but she felt no shadow. There was only the singing of the
thimble-wasps in her tamped-shut ears, and her eyes all glass, and
breath going in and out, softly, faintly, in and out of her nostrils, and
her not caring whether it came or went, went or came.
The object he had sent tumbling with his foot now glinted under
the edge of his own bed. The small crystal bottle of sleeping-tablets
which earlier today had been filled with thirty capsules and which now
lay uncapped and empty in the light of the tiny flare.
As he stood there the sky over the house screamed. There was a
tremendous ripping sound as if two giant hands had torn ten thousand
miles of black linen down the seam. Montag was cut in half. He felt his
chest chopped down and split apart. The jet-bombs going over, going
over, going over, one two, one two, one two, six of them, nine of them,
twelve of them, one and one and one and another and another and
another, did all the screaming for him. He opened his own mouth and
let their shriek come down and out between his bared teeth. The house
shook. The flare went out in his hand. The moonstones vanished. He
felt his hand plunge toward the telephone.
The jets were gone. He felt his lips move, brushing the mouthpiece
of the phone. "Emergency hospital." A terrible whisper.
He felt that the stars had been pulverized by the sound
of the black jets and that in the morning the earth would be thought as
he stood shivering in the dark, and let his lips go on moving and
They had this machine. They had two machines, really. One of them
slid down into your stomach like a black cobra down an echoing well
looking for all the old water and the old time gathered there. It drank
up the green matter that flowed to the top in a slow boil. Did it drink of
the darkness? Did it suck out all the poisons accumulated with the
years? It fed in silence with an occasional sound of inner suffocation
and blind searching. It had an Eye. The impersonal operator of the
machine could, by wearing a special optical helmet, gaze into the soul
of the person whom he was pumping out. What did the Eye see? He
did not say. He saw but did not see what the Eye saw. The entire
operation was not unlike the digging of a trench in one's yard. The
woman on the bed was no more than a hard stratum of marble they
had reached. Go on, anyway, shove the bore down, slush up the
emptiness, if such a thing could be brought out in the throb of the
suction snake. The operator stood smoking a cigarette. The other
machine was working too.
The other machine was operated by an equally impersonal fellow
in non-stainable reddish-brown overalls. This machine pumped all of
the blood from the body and replaced it with fresh blood and serum.
"Got to clean 'em out both ways," said the operator, standing over
the silent woman. "No use getting the stomach if you don't clean the
blood. Leave that stuff in the blood and the blood hits the brain like a
mallet, bang, a couple of thousand times and the brain just gives up,
"Stop it!" said Montag.
"I was just sayin'," said the operator.
"Are you done?" said Montag.
They shut the machines up tight. "We're done." His anger did not
even touch them. They stood with the cigarette smoke curling around
their noses and into their eyes without making them blink or squint.
"That's fifty bucks."
"First, why don't you tell me if she'll be all right?"
"Sure, she'll be O.K. We got all the mean stuff right in our suitcase
here, it can't get at her now. As I said, you take out ...
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