Color has history. And, our sky is black. During the day it melts into a metallic gray, its edges a charcoaled red, as if it has burned too. During the night it glows with heat, tender skin pulled back to expose a wound. It reminds me of flying off my bike as a child: my blackened knees beading up with dark blood after skidding across asphalt. I want to wrap this scene in gauze. Blot it. Allow its damaged edges time to heal.
Collin is peeling ash off our ranch vehicles like plastic. Long strands of filmy residue come off in strips. My eyes sting to think Collin’s moved to the cars because he can’t look at the land. Soot snows on us, covers every hillside. The ranch is mostly ash; the avocado trees—what is left of them—charcoaled stubs. I watch a fuchsia sun drip through black. Historic black. None of what I want to say, to scream, has been said before—not from my mouth. We had watched the fire roll, licking over the hills, the Santa Ana winds urging it forward. But neither of us could leave.
How is there fear in something so beautiful?
W]hen the Santa Ana winds blow we slather on lip balm and lotion, our parched skin soaking it up. My lips crimson in the dryness. Collin’s hands become rougher from working. Our dry skin burns during the day and peels at night. We slice the pointed fronds of aloe lining our trailer, squeezing out their juice and rubbing the protective seal onto our backs, necks, and shoulders.
The winds blow westward through the canyons reaching speeds of 70 mph, spreading wildfires. As a Southern California farmer, fire is the wild card you play with. You know although the odds are low the chance is there for perfectly positioned winds to send one erratic spark tunneling up the canyon to your trees.
We hear that the man who started the fire was lost. He built his signal fire in the dry dip of a hill less than half a mile away from homes. So close to fields that when the warm winds bellowed, sparks licked the dry grass igniting into torches, marching forward on a crazed hunt, ramming doors and homes down. 90,440 acres burned.
Is there aloe for this?
The Santa Anas send electricity through the air: warm, staticky currents buzzing through my hair and tugging hot shivers up my spine. They bring me back to my childhood excitement for anything resembling weather in Southern California. We don’t have hurricanes or blizzards. We have the rare earthquake and hot winds. Alluring winds signaling something is brewing, being kicked up, rustled from its resting place. The static and heat send odd warm chills through our bodies, telling us things are shifting. I could be wiping sweat from my forehead one minute and watching my hair stand on end, goose bumps rippling up my arms the next. The winds pick up surface dust, stinging our bare skin and scattering sharp, jagged fronds of palm trees along our roads. Eyelashes are a particularly useful mechanism during the winds, catching particles as we walk head down, eyes focused on the sand twirling at our feet.
“Keep busy,” Collin whispers. It is one of the few things we say to each other.
One structure is saved: the small trailer we live in. The barn, storage containers, and skeleton of the home we were slowly piecing together from leftover money in each growing season, all burned.
I’d read humans shed 105 pounds of skin by the time they are 70 years old. Every month, we have an entirely new outer layer of skin cells, almost 1,000 new skins in an average lifetime.
During the fire the sun is a rubbed out circle, chalked over by the grayness of ash. I watch the fire’s movement update online: Northern San Diego County as a stream of dust, darkness blowing through Pauma Valley, arcing toward the City of Bonsall, 72 mph winds forcing it toward Valley Center. Quills of black smoke from individual fires stroke the satellite image, smudging the map along the southern fringe of Palomar Mountain, Rainbow Valley, the Los Coyotes reservation, and moving toward our ranch.
Is this our land shedding?
Fire is black. It isn’t red or yellow or blue. It’s not the bright of a fire at a campsite. We know fire as darkness. Complete darkness. Black smoke, and the heavy weight that the fire is somewhere within it. I re-imagine it as if it had been a film: splitting and grainy—I can only picture it in another era. This devastation as something separate from my life.
We hear about a woman from the City Council in Escondido who ordered a fire truck to stand guard on her street, about sisters burning in their car on their way home, about those who never received the warning phone call, about the husband-wife who met their neighbors in their pool, their heads scabbing and hypothermia setting in, after six hours of waiting out the fire.
If I close my eyes I can see the roof of avocado leaves glowing with midday heat, sunlight splattering the undergrowth. We’d pick avocados late into the evening. Stay in the orchard to feel the fruit twist and pop from the branch. To hear weight shift from umbilical cord to palm.
When we lived in Spain as farm volunteers, we jumped through fire to be reborn. To cleanse body and soul, we were told. When it was our turn for rebirth, Collin and I, holding hands, smoke stinging our eyes, wind sending sparks and flakes of ash across our skin, ran. Leaping together, we skimmed across the bonfire, pyres of smoke disappearing into deep sky.
In the evenings when the winds picked up, the trees came to life. They were silent most days, saturated in heat, lethargic under the late summer sun. In the evening they stretched, exhaling the deep breath they’d held for the day. The forest of avocados surrounding us came alive with whispers.
Collin and I are covered in it when we come in—head to foot in soot, in the ashes of our trees. I run my eyes over us in our bathroom mirror: my filthy arms and hands, ash resting thick in the soft wrinkles inside my forearms and wrists; Collin’s work boots ash-caked and worn, dampness winding through his shirt and clinging to his spine; the soft ledge of flab poking over his pants that makes him so human so real that my voice catches, cracks, as I clear my throat, trying to say all the things I want to but can’t. A cough sputters from his throat as he brings his fist to his lips, shaking his head. We can’t speak because there is nothing to soothe this, nothing to suture it or synch the heavy numbness ebbing in our chests.
When we wash, it is one of the first times I don’t feel better to be clean. The darkness of our torched trees spirals down the shower drain. We wash off dark sleeves and pant legs of dirt that cling to us, marking our bare skin where our clothes were peeled off. We blow our noses, cleaning them of gray snot. The ash is in every crevice, every nerve, every tendon that helped us work this ranch and its exhaustion creeps through us.
Everything feels fragile—like the thinness of a flower stem, our spinal chords when Collin and I sleep back to back, a hiccup bubbling up from our reservoir, the sunspots and creases that rest along our foreheads. Like anything could break.
I rest my dark forearm against Collin’s light skin, barely beige, the darkest he’ll get even in late summer. Against his chest, I listen to the whoosh of air, the pump of blood, move through him, an entirely enclosed system that feels wooded, planted, a rush of wind blowing through it. I know his blood runs on this place. Is part rock, dirt, and avocado just like mine.
I can’t sleep. I fumble through papers and grab a blank copy of Collin’s irrigation map. The map we use to color-code how we irrigate our avocados each week. I write our memories out by location:
Collin: for you. Because it’s the only way I know how to speak.
1) The first time we installed irrigation pipe, gluing each piece together after coating them in purple primer. It runs like veins under our charred hills.
2) Here, I felt your sun tattoo warm my hip, and the branches from the tree of your other tattoo become part of my skin, my earlobes roving over your lips.
3) The mint leaves that we use to make ice tea for cool breaks and bath tea for summer days grow here.
4) An imprint—how I will always remember that kiss—not our first—but the one that I can still feel on my neck, on my thigh under the blanket the cobalt sky wrapped us in.
5) Where your grandfather built the original access road.
6) In this block are the roads that you designed for a school project years before we knew each other.
7) Here we cut the agave and attempted to make tequila, baking its fronds.
8) Where they came out to listen to our land with their equipment and found water—heard it echo and bounce off rock; where we danced jumping and hollering as the water burst from the ground from our own well.
9) Our wildflower field—where the shadows of hummingbirds flitted across the pages of my journal.
Planted: our avocados.
Water bodies: shivers up and down our spines, taste testing the well water, frog legs brushing against us, the water of the reservoir pulsing and deepening below us.
I leave the map next to Collin as he sleeps, soft snores buzzing through his throat. I want to be in the dirt again, be up to my elbows in ash. The thought that if I keep busy we’ll be that much closer to healing our land, to green instead of black, winds through me, drawing me outside.
How can you turn out the light on something that still glows outside your door?
The moon is orange. A rusty imperfect circle darkening like a decomposing orange peel as it drifts toward the mountains. Its light hits the scars that flick across my forearms, drops of whitened skin from welding in short sleeves. I remember my mother’s scars: similar speckles along her knuckles and wrists from oil splattering out of a hot pan and biting where it hit while she cooked.
I dig my hands further into the charred soil where our garden had been. A light turns on behind me, its angled beam shining on a single blade of grass that was somehow missed. I’d read that some plant species thrive on growing through burnt soil.
Collin’s shadow falls over me, the etching of his face and flickering of his eyes bob next to me like a moving negative. He leans his arm lightly on my shoulder and then pulls me in roughly, kissing my forehead. I think of its imprint.
He sees my hand cupping green against black.
“Like jumping through fire,” he says.
Like shedding skins and hearing fruit twist and pop from the branch, feeling its weight shift from umbilical cord to palm. Like coating burnt skin with fresh aloe and a forest of avocados surrounding us in whispers.
[toggler title=”Fiction Judge Skip Horack says…”]
In nature, fire destroys even as it rejuvenates. A paradox brilliantly and affectingly captured in “Color Has History”—the lyrical and bittersweet portrait of a young couple left to pick up the pieces after a wildfire sweeps across their cherished farm. As with fire itself, the language here is beautiful and intense. In the end, “Color Has History” is a love letter to a person and a place, as well as a testament to the ability of both humanity and nature to rise from the ashes. [/toggler]
Courtney Amber Kilian has an MFA from UCSD. She is working on her first novel, Anatomy of Growing, which is an in-depth look at humanity’s relationship to the natural world through a heroine who winds up farming in Southern California. “Color Has History” is an adapted excerpt from the novel. She teaches creative writing and composition in San Diego. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Mary Magazine as the New Voice in Nonfiction, 1913: a journal of forms, and California Prose Directory: New Writing from the Golden State. She loves yoga near trees, growing copious amounts of fresh produce, teatime, and floating in the Pacific. Follow her @CAmberKilian and CourtneyKilian.com.