From that house built into the hills of Northern California, you cannot see the flames but you can smell them. The tops of trees look dipped in watercolor gray. Mornings, you wake to the absence of birds. That silence of waiting.
It’s quiet, if you listen––quieter than you’d expect––and death clings to the air like skin. The city is apathetic, but here the trees are alive and fresh and always dying.
You spend afternoons in the hammock strung up in the front yard. Its coarse nylon cuts criss-crosses into your bare thighs and when you fall asleep around noon, you don’t dream.
Here, you can’t talk to your ex or wait for emails that won’t come. The land smells of dust and fire and meat. You walk down to the corner market and buy a Coke, drink it on the bench in front of the store and when someone passes, tuck your ankles beneath. News bins quickly empty. Folded papers pile in the corner garbage cans. People walking past pour water bottles out over the refuse. They pinch at their elbows, folding dry skin beneath thumbnails.
You’re here, in your family’s empty cabin near the top of a state that looks like a slouched body from the side, and maybe even you don’t know why.
At night, the distant sound of helicopters keeps you awake. You’re reminded of childhood summers spent running through dry grass in that bowl of land carved out by a river and drained by a dam. You were taught to notice the helicopter flying low overhead with a bucket on a rope trailing behind like a forgotten limb. That means danger is nearby, they told you. Watch for it.
You learned to wish for these helicopters in your own life, small indicators of hurt you could cover with your thumb if you moved your hand between it and the sun.
You’re tired of the way your friends back home flaunt bruises and empty beer cans as proofs of existence. You want to say: Yes, we get it. Yes, we see you with the heavy eyes and breath like whiskey. This is nothing new. But you can’t. You’ve silenced yourself through miles, mountains, ash.
The way your arm hurts, like you could trace it back through your arteries and into your chest, this must be the way it aches before a heart attack. There the pin would stick into the arm’s ropey muscles. You push against the skin with your fore and middle fingers and wait for the throbbing to recede. Eventually it does.
Other indicators include a stillness in the trees, empty houses, a grimace as you hand over the five-dollar bill to the cashier. Other names include bush fire, wildfire, peat fire.
One afternoon, you drive up thirty minutes and hike down ten to a mountain lake, dipped into the rock and sparkling a pearl blue. There’s a family already camped on the small pebble beach. You hike along the rocky edge, pull off your jean shorts and t-shirt and go in quickly, before you can think twice or look back over your shoulder at the boys perched on the other end.
The water isn’t the same blue up close. It’s darker. Looking down, you can just see the outlines of your feet. You push out into the middle until you’re far enough away from shore that if you begin to drown, no one will have time to save you. You lift yourself until you’re floating on your back, spinning and staring up at the sky. Cloaked in blue. You’d like to stay here until your skin puckers, absorbs the cerulean pigment.
The sky is clear. No clouds. No gray.
In Northern California, fires come and go, unpredicted and uncontrolled. In Southern California, there is an entire season for the devastation. You wonder which is the better option: to lose everything when you most or least expect it.
Twenty years ago, your dad and his dad stood on the roof of their house in Southern California and waited for the flames to blow through. They pointed water hoses down toward the street, to keep the flames from their living room and dining room and kitchen, the placemats and spatulas and couch covers.
They had to work so hard, standing up there, to keep everything as it was.