this afternoon as we entered our gate for the second time since the fire, my heart sunk to see the number of trees marked with dark red x’s. we took our time touching them. stooping to see what we could find in the ash. forks still laying in the metal basket that kept them organized in our silverware drawer. a thermos i bought for jack to take to work on cold mornings. a piece of pottery he made his junior year of high school, his initials and the year still clearly visible on the bottom. but miracle of all miracles the pine sapling fence he built still stands. inside it our garden had exploded in our absence. ripe fruit hanging from brittle branches. fire roasted jalapenos and too many heirlooms to carry in our hands. anyone who gardens knows what finicky and particular plants bell peppers are. this summer i felt i had finally gotten a hang of their idiosyncrasies and before the fire i was only days away from picking my first, perfect pepper. today i got the chance. and for a moment i caught myself dreaming.
i know in my bones how blessed we are, but i wake from these dreams of our bodies tangled in the blankets of our first bed. the soft morning light shyly making it’s way into our room as lucy’s whiskers tickle my face. in these dreams i can smell freshly ground coffee beans and the cedar tree outside our bathroom window. i can hear the rhythmic chopping of zucchini from our summer garden, the sizzling of bacon in a well loved cast iron skillet. i miss wiping down the counter tops and mopping our dusty floors. i miss singing as i worked, windows flung open to a cool mountain breeze. have you ever noticed the sound the wind makes through an ocean of pines? i’d often sit barefoot on the edge of the porch with my eyes closed to listen. in these dreams i can feel the dirt beneath my finger nails, a clothes pin held awkwardly between my lips as my hands fight to keep a wet sheet from the ground. i can see the dogs chasing each other through the lupines in the clearing and around my favorite, ancient oak. the cat lounging lazily in a windowsill. in these dreams i can hear my husband sink an ax into a large wood round. over. and over again. i can feel the perfect lengths in my gloved hands as we stack them away for winter’s warmth. and oh, how i can see the stars. you’ve never seen stars so bright. unmolested by city lights, some nights i swear we could touch them.
at least the stars remain.
i started this blog the day before my house burned to the ground. that was one week ago. i mentioned something about fire being cleansing before it ever reached anyone i love. i didn’t know. i didn’t think it would come for us, but it did. and when it did, it came fast and strong. i don’t have words for the images i carry with me into the wee hours of the morning, only setting them down to close my eyes when i can no longer keep them open. i don’t have words for the ache in my chest or the way our bodies swell with pride watching our neighbors stoop to help one another. i have seen men and women fight to save another’s home while their own still smolders. i have seen strangers embrace and old friends reach through the years to offer words of comfort and the use of their own hands.
tonight i sorted through what few pieces of clothing we have left. the sweet smell of burnt pine lingered on a favorite sweater. i sat on the end of the bed in this small room cradling my head in my hands, remembering the hurried hours before it all went up in flames. i paced the floors, forsaking housework in order to watch out the windows. the ash and blackened oak leaves fell all around and i talked myself out of being scared. don’t be silly. it couldn’t move that fast. but those canyons. those trees. the dry, dry grass. they’ll tell you if you need to go. funny how i can now recall that every inch of my body was on edge. my brow furrowed. my gut questioning my reason. so instead of packing i picked tomatoes. as the sky turned orange and the ash fell more furiously, i spoke with my neighbor. our eyes saying what our mouths could not. maybe we should get ready to go. the hotline says we should just be prepared. you get a real person. he didn’t sound concerned. i’ll get a shower. wait for my husband. i should grab the box on the top shelf of the closet. where’s my engagement ring anyway? jack called. he sounded excited…not yet worried for our land. we’re just being cautious, baby. do grab the box on the top shelf of the closet. by the time he got home the wind swirled in small circles around the yard. kicking up what i now know to be the remnants of friends’ homes. the lights flickered quickly as i moved from room to room and a foreign heat radiated through the trees behind our houses. when the distant explosions first started you could almost convince yourself that your ears were playing tricks on you. but they only came closer and more frequent in number. i’ll never forget following our yellow jeep out the gate, jack motioning to drive on, signaling that i shouldn’t bother to close it. the ash danced in our headlights like falling snow. as our cars melted into the river of them hurrying down the mountain, i looked back over my right shoulder as the flames silhouetted the ridge before our own. alone in my car, what little we’d thought to take stacked precariously in the back, i cried for the first time.
this morning i finished a book i found hiding in a dusty corner of an old pawn shop in downtown jackson last week. i paid my $5, buried my nose in it’s pages as we walked out the door, and i haven’t put it down since. these women were made of something far grittier than grit. not sure there’s a word for it, but i sure as hell don’t have anything to complain about. if you can’t find a copy, i’m willing to let you borrow mine. some books are so good you have no choice but to give them away.
i started a camera fund….so far i have four dollars. most of which is in quarters. just want something a little more suited to capturing the light. i’ve also taken to spray painting things with a can of metallic paint i found in the shed. like the terracotta pot pictured below. i got most of it on my hands, but was happy with the end results.
tonight is as good a night as any. the house is quiet. fires have choked the air, spewing ashes on half ripened tomatoes and clothes still hanging on the line. leftover heat and the sweet smell of smoldering pines cover me like a thick blanket as i step outside. the pillar of smoke has slowly ascended the tree line and the dogs mumble skyward from their beds as the planes pass over once again.
a fitting introduction to life in northern california. during fire season. on what is, hopefully, the coat tails of a three year drought. but there are other things to write about here. the reasons why i built a life among these winding river canyons and bony oaks. why i sow my stories in fields of perpetually golden grass. here i hope to collect some of the sweetness, like honey in a jar, to keep. to share. i hope to document the trials, that not unlike fire, seem to encourage new growth. aaaaad if i’m honest probably the occasional cocktail recipe. or current read. or household project. or whatever it is housewives blog about these days. i’m kidding…kind of, but when i’m not daydreaming i sometimes help mothers and fathers birth their babies, so perhaps too i’ll offer the stories they so bravely allow me to be apart of.
and again, if i’m honest…i’m with didion on this one:
“the impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. i suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. although i have felt compelled to write things down since i was five years old, i doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
― joan didion