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Tracking Fire

by Frances Kerridge
 

When you step outside onto the deck of your house the first thing you see is the plume. You’ve just come out for a little fresh air when there it is, rising before you in the bright, blue summer sky like a thundercloud, but you know immediately and with something akin to instinct that that thing is not a cloud. It’s too stunning, too ominous. It looks like the blast from an atomic bomb.

Everything inside you goes still. Recently, in an attempt at getting a grip on your life, you’ve been trying to learn to meditate but as hard as you’ve tried, you haven’t been able to get to that inner place past where all thought stops and you’re in contact with your truest and deepest self.

You’re halfway there now. You have one thought in your mind, one solid, one-word thought: Fire. You turn back into the house, hurry to the telephone.

“Raven’s Rock,” the woman at the forest service says when you ask where the fire is. “It started at nine o’clock this morning. Right now it’s moving East. But you know how fluky these afternoon winds can get.”

Not only do you know about the winds but you know about the terrain between you and the fire: several canyons that given the slightest wind change, can suck hot air straight up toward your house like it’s been invited. Even worse, those canyons are filled with miles of drought-dried pines and dense underbrush that haven’t seen a controlled burn in more years than you have lived here. You know because you’ve walked, skied, and biked this mountain and the ones around it. You know this terrain better than you know your own character.

You hang up the phone, take the black case from the desk drawer and go back outside. You hold the binoculars up and focus them on a point above Raven’s Rock. There’s an underneath of red in the plume, a painful red, like something scorched raw but still burning. You bring the binoculars down toward tree-top level, but you’re too far away; all you can see is the billowing, black smoke that’s feeding the plume.

You know there’s no way you’re going to be able to go back to work, so you go inside and turn off the computer.  Just in case you have to leave, you unhook the mess of cables and the DSL line from the back, then set everything in a heap on the desk.

 All afternoon you alternate between the refrigerator and the deck. You stop eating only long enough to feel for the wind direction on your face. The plume thickens. By evening the wind has died but the plume has marked more territory. You call your best friend who lives close to the fire. Her voice is high-pitched; there’s a man in her living room dressed in full fire fighting gear. He’s ripping the blinds off her windows.

“I can’t believe I answered the phone,” she yells into your ear, and she hangs up.

You walk into the pantry and peel several garbage sacks off the roll, then go back into the living room. Several years ago you made a fire plan consisting of the things you would take if you were forced to leave. You told yourself that you made the plan because you were more rational than those people who would refuse to leave. The deeper and more painful truth was that you had made so many bad calls in your life that given a tight situation, you didn’t want to run the chance of making another one.

You shove everything from your desk into one of the garbage bags, check book, computer disks, files, the computer cables. If your house burns at least you’ll still be able to earn a living.

You take another garbage bag downstairs into the bedroom and empty several drawers of clothing into it, then you set the bag by the front door.

You crawl into bed at eleven, not sure that that’s the place you want to be, but not sure of where else you want to be either.

At what should be daylight the next morning the sky is dark with smoke. You make another phone call. A man answers this time. “It’s reached Steven’s Peak,” he says. “We’ve evacuated the area and called in more units. You should be prepared to leave, too.”

Steven’s Peak is still southeast of you, still south of one of the canyons, but as the crow flies and the wind blows, not that far south.

“I’m prepared,” you say.

“Good. We’ll let you know.”

You stand in the living room and look at all the things you might be leaving behind. When you first came to this mountain you had the usual odd assortment of things people just out of college have, but in the five years you’ve lived here you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff.

You have an urge to run back to the refrigerator—there’s still some ice cream left—but instead, you take a tablet from your desk drawer, take it outside on the deck, and sit down to write a list for the insurance company. It occurs to you that if you have time to write the list you also have time to pack some of the things you’re listing, but you allow the irony to pass. There are some things you won’t mind leaving, leftovers from your college life that you would replace with items more inclined toward your older taste if you were not so frugal. You’re writing these things down when you see the sheriff’s car coming up the road. Your stomach muscles tighten as if you’re about to be punched. You watch as the car pulls into your driveway. The man who gets out is a person you know better than you care to admit. He walks a slow, everything-is fine-here, no-need-to-panic walk toward the steps leading to the deck where you’re sitting. You start to write his name, Steve, down on your list, but you’ve only gotten to the first “e” when the lead on your pencil snaps.

“Hi,” he says.

You stare at him. The last time you saw him, a few weeks ago, you told him that you never wanted to see him again. Apparently he didn’t hear you. But he’s a good mind reader.

“This is an official call,” he says.

You cross your arms over your chest.

He points in the direction of the fire. “I’m making notification.”

A snorting sound comes out of your mouth. “Imagine that,” you say.

You stare hard at each other. This is the man who waited until you were naked to tell you that he was married. He waited until your clothes were strung from one end of his house to another before mentioning a wife, and you had to run from room to room grabbing things to your chest while your butt flashed white in the dark. You can still feel the sinking feeling you felt in your heart when you heard his words in your ear. You can still feel the humiliation rise up in you like bile when you realized that the reason he wanted to make love by moonlight was because if he turned on the lights you would see signs of the woman who lived there. You can still feel the angry resolution that that was the last of your butt he would ever see.

You put the tablet down on the chair. You stand up.  “Okay. You’ve done your job.”

“Officially. But I’ll leave when you do.”

The authoritative tone of his voice turns you cold. It feels like something splits open in your diaphragm. Over the past few weeks you’ve been aware of something in there. It’s felt like a hard object, something you associated with grief. Now as you feel the hot release of anger you realize it’s not just tears that had solidified next to your heart.

“I don’t want you around here that long.” You turn toward the door.

“Sara.”

You turn around and at the same time chastise yourself for doing so. Responding too quickly to the wrong man calling your name seems to be a weakness you just can’t seem to overcome.

“This fire’s nothing to play around with.” His eyes are steel. You feel like you’re looking down a gun barrel. It was this sense of his strength and your own feeling of vulnerability in the face of it that attracted you to him in the first place. Right now, it’s the one thing in the world you despise.

You let your eyes move down his body. They stop a moment at his crotch, then move back up to his eyes. “It’s probably more exciting than the last thing I played with.”

You stand behind the closed door until you hear his car drive away, then you come back outside. You have to hold the binoculars against the side of the house to steady them, but even so, the smoke is thicker than yesterday. The fire has covered such a wide area that at least from this direction, the plume has become an even mass of smoke. You bring the binoculars down further. All you can detect of the sheriff’s car is a glint of chrome from what little sun is managing to make its way through the smoke. The car is already a mile down the road.

You go back in the house to your bedroom, take off your tennis shoes, and put on a pair of hiking boots. You put a baseball cap on your head, pull your hair through the hole in the back, grab the binoculars, and slam the front door behind you.

You drive fast in the same direction Steve has gone, but before you run the chance of catching up with him you turn off onto a dirt road. You drive the mile or so, then park your pickup, and get out. You walk until the road ends, then walk out further to a rock outcropping and climb up to the highest rock. From here you can see down into the canyon and miles past it. You bring the binoculars up to your eyes and sure enough, there it is, wildfire climbing fast up the mountainside. You’re stunned by what you’re seeing. You’ve seen forest fires on TV but they were nothing compared to seeing them through your own binoculars. You can’t stop staring. You’re aware that your mouth is open. As you watch, a tree in front of the fire line torches; in seconds it is gone. Goosebumps rise up your arms. Your heart pumps a hard wobbly beat that causes a gasp in your throat. You feel as if you’re going to faint.

You sit down with your head between your knees until the feeling passes, then you look up. You really should get off this mountain. In fact, you shouldn’t be sitting here on this rock. The wind is blowing at least a few miles an hour, not much by wind standards, but it could blow the fire in this direction. You think about how far Steve has gone. In your mind you visualize him parked on the side of the road between here and town. He does not give up easily. In the past few weeks he has left several messages on your answering machine. He wants to talk, he’s said in each message, but nothing he can say can get past the message he left you that night. You can still feel that cold truck seat against your back and legs as you drove away from his house, the feel of that accelerator beneath your socked foot—the only piece of clothing you managed to put on. But what changes the hurt to anger is this: the signs of his secret were there and you didn’t see them. In two months of what you thought was mutually serious dating, he did not take you to his house until that last night. He preferred a restaurant more than an hour’s drive away. The few friends of his that you did meet were uncomfortable around you.  But, like the ones before him, you did not see the signs until afterwards. No bells went off, no alarms were sounded.  You didn’t feel the slightest twinge of unease. If you even have a self, which the prophets claim everyone does, there’s something wrong with yours. It’s as if some wall stands between the outside and the inside, as if some inner connective device is missing. Or you’re just severely limited in the good-judgment department.

You stand up, brush off your backside, and half-walk, half-slide down the rock outcropping until you’re standing on the ground again. You backtrack your steps until you’re halfway to the pickup, then you slide on your heels down the side of the canyon, slipping and falling and grabbing onto bushes until you’re standing on the brush-filled bottom. It’s narrow here, the most narrow point of the entire canyon, so narrow that after a few steps you’re going up the other side. Going up is more difficult. You’re on all fours, grabbing and clutching at anything until finally you reach the top. Your nose is running. Your palms are a sticky sappy mess, your face is scratched, but you’re walking along the top of the ridge and then you’ve recovered your backtracked steps and you’re still breathing hard but now you can hear the chainsaws of the firefighters working below you. You still can’t see them; they’re lost in the smoke, but you can hear their voices.

You sit down, pull your knees up, prop your elbows against your knees, and there, through your binoculars and on what has to be the other side of the voices, are the flames. As you watch and listen, the wind shifts to the west. It seems to take only moments to take the smoke with it, clearing the view as if the reception has just come in. Moments later you hear the rotor of a helicopter. It appears in your binoculars, coming from the direction of the forebay, a bucket hanging from its underside. 

You get up, head for a more westerly ridge. Dust cakes the front of your jeans. Some sweet weed smell fills your nose. By the time you get to the ridge you’re breathing hard but now you don’t need the binoculars to see. You hold them up anyway. A helicopter flies toward you. You think it’s going to rise but it maintains its altitude and when it’s close you flatten yourself against the ground. Water from the bucket sprays across your back; it feels like you’ve been hit by buckshot. You lie still for a long moment smelling the dirt you’ve breathed up your nose, then you turn over and sit up. Your heart pumps so hard you can imagine the blood spurting into your arteries. You wonder at the strength of your heart, if it has any flaws that you haven’t been aware of up till now. Both of your parents are living; you’ve at least got some decent genes. But this feels beyond anything a gene can handle. This feels like the biggest rush you’ve ever had. You feel like you’re no longer a part of your body, like you’ve broken past all physical boundaries and you’re riding high on thin air.

You turn and slide down the south slope of the hill until you’re near the forebay, then you climb up until you’re in direct line of the big borate bombers coming in. You walk down the hill when you see them coming, climb back up once they’ve made their turn.

Late afternoon the fire advances toward the canyon and part of the sole comes off your shoe. It flaps when you walk. Gravel digs into the heel of your foot. You should have bought a new pair of boots by now, but you’re one of those people who hate waste. You feel more comfortable using something completely up before replacing it. You did that with your loneliness when you thought the answer to your problems was to stay away from men. For well over a year you ate by yourself, worked by yourself, slept by yourself until your loneliness became a companion. But like the only float in the parade, it gradually lost its appeal. And then you met Steve.

You don’t want to chance walking in the canyon again, so you walk north until you’ve made a large circle back to your pickup. You get in and drive to town. At the hardware store you buy a roll of duct tape, then you tape your sole back on to your shoe, wrapping the tape like a bandage for a sprained ankle. You go to the small grocery store, buy a bottle of water and a box of crackers, then head back up the ridge. You’re almost to the top when you see the sheriff’s car on the side of the road, lights twirling. It’s not Steve, it’s another man standing in the middle of the road, feet placed wide apart, arms crossed over his chest. You pull up beside him.

“Road’s closed,” he says.

“I just came down this road.”

“Just closed it.” 

“I live up there.”

“Sorry. Nobody goes up this road.”

“What happens if I do?”

“If you try to get by me, I’ll arrest you.”

He has a singsong quality to his voice. You look straight ahead at the road in front of you. You look at him.  You put your truck in reverse, speed backwards off onto the side of the road, and slam on the brakes, causing a dust storm. You turn off the engine and sit there. The dust settles. A pickup with a number written on the windshield drives up. The driver is waved through. A moment later an old white bus carrying firefighters drives through. A truck hauling a trailer of green outhouses follows them. You eat some of the crackers from the box, then drink half the water. Another sheriff’s car drives up, another man you’ve never seen before. He gets out, gestures in your direction, and says something to Mr. Macho. The two men laugh.  
   
You screw the cap back on the water bottle, tighten it, then start the truck. You make a wide, slow U-turn in the road, the side of your pickup nearly brushing the big sawhorse that has been placed in the road as a barricade.  From the corner of your eye you see the men staring at you.  When you look in your rearview mirror they are still staring.

The guy behind the counter at the hardware store is suspicious. “What do you want chalk for?” he asks.

“I want to play hopscotch.”

You stare at each other but your stare is powered by a combination of anger and adrenaline and after a moment he drops his eyes. “Sorry,” he says. “We don’t have any.”

You leave the store and walk across the street. In the grocery store, next to a box of crayons, is a box of chalk in different colors. You get in your pickup, turn left out of town. You turn up a dirt road, stop the truck, get out, and walk around to the passenger side. You climb up on the hood, then with the piece of white chalk, write “P42” across the passenger side of the window. You jump down, stand back, and look at it. It’s too bad you don’t have a helmet. The number will have to do.

It takes an hour to drive the dirt road to another road that comes out miles above the road block, but when you go from dirt to asphalt the truck feels like its been shot out of a cannon. It feels like it’s sliding on ice.  

There’s a truck coming toward you. It gets closer. “P18” you see on the window. You wave. The driver waves back. 

“Well, zippity do dah,” you say.

You pull onto a jeep trail that runs up and behind your house. It’s rough going; the trail washed out years ago but you make it to the top. Through your binoculars you can see your driveway. And the tail end of the sheriff’s car. While you watch, Steve appears from the direction of the front door. You did not lock your house when you left but even if your did you remember that he has a key. You think of the garbage bags of your stuff sitting by the front door and upstairs in the living room. He stands for a moment behind his car as if he’s not sure of what to do. A helicopter flies overhead but higher than the ones that have been flying over you. Steve tips his head back, shields his eyes from the glare of the smoke-filtered sun, and watches until the helicopter is past. He brings his hand down, stands still for a moment, then walks fast to the driver’s side of the car.

You wait for him to leave, then you get back in your pickup and backtrack your trail. Fire equipment traffic is heavy on the main road. You’re between a crew bus and a tractor trailer carrying a bulldozer. The crew bus continues up the main road past your house but the big rig pulls off onto a dirt road at the head of the canyon. You slow down, watch in your rearview mirror, then make a u-turn.

You drive off the road into the brush, take your binoculars, and walk in the direction of the bulldozer. When you hear it start up you turn and walk parallel to the canyon until you come to a spot halfway between the firefighters and the bulldozer.

All evening you watch the big borate bombers bombing the canyon, red repellent spewing from their bellies.  Before nightfall the wind dies, bringing the smoke back.  It’s like being in a fog. The air contingent leaves. You continue sitting on the mountainside. At full dark the fire burns through the smoke like uncountable flaring eyes. The temperature drops; the downdraft through the canyon pulls the fire along with it to the west.

You doze through the sounds of voices and chainsaws. At dawn you’re awake and sitting up. At full daylight you’re looking through your binoculars but the smoke is too thick to see. You’re thinking that maybe you should try a different angle, maybe off the 82 Road, when you hear a rustle in the brush and a deer is standing in front of you. You stare at each other, then the deer, realizing what it’s seeing, springs toward the main road. A feeling stirs inside of you. You’re trying to name it when you hear the wind come up in the tops of the trees. For a moment the sound is merely a nudge against you, something you would normally not pay any attention to, then it’s a full blown roar in your ears. Too early, you think, it’s too early for such a wind, but it’s there anyway, rushing through the tree tops with the sound of high water. Your mind tracks the reasons for it coming up this early: in advance of a low pressure system in the Pacific, during a hurricane in Mexico, after a week of scorching heat in the valley miles below; only a weather man would know which it is, but after living here these past years you know that the result is the same, merciless gusts that can lay claim to all directions.

In your mind you see the startled eyes of the deer. Against your skin you feel the first burst of wind as it lowers toward the ground. You’re aware of the feeling inside of you again, more insistent this time. It’s like a deep, soft voice, both familiar and strange. You know you’ve heard it before and didn’t recognize its language, but as you listen you suddenly know what it is saying and you know now too with a depth of knowledge you have never felt, that if you pay close enough attention you will always know.

You turn and run. You rip the binoculars from around your neck and hold them in your hand, and run. At the pickup, you throw them onto the seat, hoist yourself in, and head fast up the main road.

When you turn onto the road to your house you can see the sheriff’s car. You pull up beside it, leave the engine running, and run past Steve to the front door. “Make it quick,” you think you hear behind your back but you don’t take time to dwell on it. His voice is lost in the noise of your own footsteps up the stairs of your house, in the sounds of those bags thumping down the stairs, in the sound of your own breath coming hard and fiery.

  
  

Frances Kerridge's stories have appeared in Ascent, Santa Monica Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Redbook, Passages North, Crescent Review, Press, and the Australian magazine Cleo. She lives in the Sierra Nevada community of Lakeshore with her husband.
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