A story about fire, especially now, is invariably a story about land. The problem before us is how to “live with” what has long been deemed an exogenous threat—to the maximization of timber yields at the start of the twentieth century, to suburban sprawl following WWII. Et cetera. The seemingly endless surplus of flammable vegetation built up over generations has, we now see all too well, transformed landscapes into unmanageable fuel loads igniting with the touch of a single firebrand.
In the case of Kim Barnes’s haunting 2000 essay “The Ashes of August,” set in Idaho’s Clearwater Canyon, the spectacular nature of combustion is nothing less than sublime. The theater of fire is the theater of the American West, both as place and reigning ethos, as the men make their way toward “the front” to carve out firebreaks, laboring under “the black raft of storm clouds” amid wind “huffing its way up the canyon like a steam engine.” But Barnes’s careful rendering of an altered environment is also the beginning of an ethic. As her bioregional literacy reminds us, fire makes us stewards of the places we inhabit. Taking her attention one step further, we can note that this very stewardship is tinged with violence, drawing, as it must, from knowledge and traditions erased through genocide and environmental engineering. A story about fire is, in short, a story about how we live with—or ignore—the past.
The twenty-year gap between Barnes’s essay and C. M. Lindley’s short story “The Burn,” which appears in our Spring 2021 issue, reveals how the discourse around fire continues to evolve, taking stock not only of the sources of combustion but its more shadowy effects upon the individual. Never naming its locale, “The Burn” zooms in to register the end times through the violence wrought both physically and mentally, as the line between inner and outer slowly erodes. Smog makes the caretaker sick with vertigo, and her daughter is sent to a support group for “Preteens and Conflagration Trauma.” While this is fiction, it is far from invention, for we need not look very far for corollaries in the present. Indeed, “smoke season” in California has made for an identifiable rise in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among those who live along the wildland-urban interface and are forced to evacuate year after year, sometimes with no home to return to. The impressions left by fire are palimpsestic: as regions are repeatedly afflicted, so are the minds, if not the bodies, of their inhabitants.
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The Ashes of August
(FIRST PUBLISHED IN SUMMER 2000)
Late summer light comes to Idaho’s Clearwater Canyon in a wash of color so sweet it’s palatable: butterscotch and toffee, caramel and honey. It is as though the high fields of wheat, the darker ravines tangled with blackberry, sumac, and poison ivy, the riverbanks bedded in basalt and shadowed by cottonwood and locust-all have drawn from the arid soil the last threaded rindles of moisture and spun them to gold. By four o’clock, the thermometer outside my kitchen window will read 105°. In another three hours, a hot whip of wind, and then those few moments when the wheat beards and brittle leaves, even the river, are gilded in alpenglow. Often my children call me to the window, and even as we watch, the soft brilliance darkens to sepia. But soon there will be the moon, illuminating the bridge that seems to levitate above the pearlescent river. Some nights my family and I spread our blankets on the deck and lie uncovered to trace the stars, to witness the Perseids of August—the shower of meteors so intense we exhaust ourselves pointing and counting, then fall asleep while the sky above us sparks and flares.
Other nights there is no moon or stars, only clouds gathering in the south and the air so close we labor to breathe. “Storm corning,” my daughter announces, and we wait for the stillness to give way, for the wind we’ll hear first as it pushes across the prairie and down the draws, bringing with it the grit of harvest. Bolts etch the sky, hit the ridges all around us; the thunder cracks above our heads. Perhaps the crop-saving rain will come, or the hail, leaving our garden shredded and bruised. Sometimes, there is nothing but the lightning and thunder, the gale bending the yellow pines to impossible angles, one tree so old and seemingly wise to wind that we watch it as the miners once watched their caged canaries: should the pine ever break, we may do well to seek concrete shelter.
These are the times we huddle together on the couch, mesmerized and alarmed. We know that the storm will pass and that we will find ourselves to have again survived. We know, too, that somewhere around us, the lightning-struck forests have begun to burn; by morning, the canyon will be nearly unseeable, the sunset a smoky vermilion.
The West, Wallace Stegner so famously noted, is defined by its aridity, and this stretch of north Idaho canyon land where I live is no exception. The Clearwater River is the reason for the numerous settlements along its reach as well as those of its tributaries. Logging, mining, agriculture: all are dependent on the presence and ways of water. Fire, too, defines this land, and at no time more so than in the month of August, when the early rains of spring have given way to weeks of no measurable precipitation, when the sweet blossoms of syringa and chokecherry have shriveled and fallen, when wild plums hang blistered with ferment. We must go high into the mountains where the snowpack held longest to find huckleberries, our belt-strung buckets banging our legs, our mouths and fingers stained black, and we go prepared to defend ourselves against two things: the bears who share our fondness for fruit, and fire. Our bear defense is little more than loud conversation and an occasional glance toward the perimeters of our patch. For fire, we carry in our pickup a shovel and a water-worthy bucket. If called upon to do so, we could hope to dig a fire line, or drown a few flames if lucky enough to be near a creek or spring.
Born and raised within a fifty-mile radius of where I now live, I have memories of late summer that are infused with fire. As a child growing up in the logging camps of the Clearwater National Forest, I knew August meant that my father would rise at two am to work the dew-damp hours before noon, when a machine-struck spark could set the wilderness ablaze. But no one could mandate the hours ruled by lightning, and with the lightning came the fires—as many as fifty or sixty from one storm—and with the fires came the pleas for volunteers to man the Pulaskis, buckets, and bulldozers. Often, the loggers were not asked so much as pressed into service, ordered from their sites and sent to the front lines still wearing their calked boots and pants cut short to avoid snags.
Like my father, my uncles had taken up the life of the lumberjack. Our communal camp was a circle of small wooden trailers, out of which each morning my cousins came, still in their pajamas, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. I remember my mother and aunts in those weeks of searing high-altitude heat, how they rose with their husbands and made their biscuits and pies so that the wood-fueled stove might cool before dawn, then loaded a pillowcase with sandwiches, fried pies, jugs of iced tea and Kool-Aid that would chill in the creek. Somewhere just over the ridge the men battled to keep the fires at bay, while my cousins and I explored the cool recesses of the stream bed, searching for mussels whose halves spread out like angel wings, prying the translucent periwinkles from their casings to be stabbed onto hooks that would catch the trout we’d have for supper. My sensory memories of those afternoons—the sun on my shoulders, the icy water at my knees, the incense of pine and camas, the image of my mother and aunts lounging with the straps of their swimsuits pulled down, the brush of skin against skin as my cousins sifted the water beside me in their quest for gold—are forever linked with my awareness of the smoke rising in columns only a few miles away and the drone of planes overhead, belly-heavy with retardant, the smell of something dangerous that caused us to lift our faces to the breeze as it shifted. When the men returned they were red-eyed and weary, smudged with pitch and ash, smelling like coals from the furnace. I watched them drink tumbler after tumbler of iced tea, wondered at the dangers they faced, and thought that I might want to be like them and come home a fighter and a hero.
As a child raised in the woods, I gained my awareness and wariness of fire by way of the stories told by my elders as they sat around the table after dinner, picking their teeth with broomstraw, pouring another cup of the stout coffee kept warm atop the cookstove. New fires brought stories of old ones, and so August was full of fire, both distant and near, burning the night horizon, burning the edges of my dreams.
There was the fire of 1910, the one most often remembered by those old enough to have witnessed its destruction, their stories retold by the generations who have sat and listened and seen with their own eyes the scars left across the land. That year, July had come and gone with only .05 inches of rain. Thunderstorms had started spot fires throughout the Clearwater National Forest; the Forest Service and its small force of men, working with little more than shovels and picks, could not hope to suppress so much flame. And then came August, “ominous, sinister, and threatening,” according to Forest Service worker Clarence B. Swim’s account of that summer. “Dire catastrophe seemed to permeate the very atmosphere. Through the first weeks of August, the sun rose a coppery red ball and passed overhead . . . as if announcing impending disaster. The air felt close, oppressive, and explosive.”1
“Ten days of clear summer weather,” the old-timers say, “and the forest will burn.” No rains came, and the many small fires that crews had been battling for days grew stronger and joined and began a run that would last for weeks. It swept up and down and across the Clearwater drainages: the Lochsa, Warm Springs Creek, Kelly Creek, Hemlock Creek, Cayuse Creek—the Idaho sky was black with ash. One Forest Service veteran, Ralph S. Space, whose written history of the Clearwater Forest contains lively anecdotal recollections, remembers smoke so thick that, as a nine-year-old boy rising to another day of no rain, he could look directly into the sun without hurting his eyes. The chickens, he said, never left their roost.2
On 21 August 1910, the wind began to blow, picking up velocity as the sun crested, until the bull pine and white fir swayed and snapped, and the dust rose up from the dirt roads and fields to join the smoke in a dervish of soot and cinder. Men along the fires’ perimeters were told to run, get out, it was no use. Some took to the creeks and rivers, pulling their hysterical horses along behind them. (One legend tells of a panicked horse breaking away and racing the fire some fifty miles east to Superior, Montana—and making it.) Others fled northward, subsisting on grouse whose feathers were too burnt for them to fly.
As in any war, many who fought the fires came away scarred, some bearing the marks like badges of courage while others, whose less-than-brave actions in the face of disaster had earned them the coward’s stripes, hid themselves in the backrooms of saloons or simply disappeared. One man, part of a group sent to fight the blaze near Avery, Idaho, was so undone by the blistering heat and hurricane roar of the approaching fire that he deserted, pulled his pistol, and shot himself—the only casualty to beset his crew.3
One of the heroes was a man named Edward Pulaski. When he found himself and the forty-three men he led cut off from escape, he ordered them into the nearby War Eagle mine, believing the large tunnel their only hope for survival. As the heat rose and the fire ate its way closer, several of the men panicked and threatened to run. Pulaski drew his pistol and forced the men to lie belly down, faces to the ground, where the coolest air would gather. He hung blankets across the tunnel’s entrance, dampening them with what water he could, until he fainted. By the time the flames had passed around them, sucking the oxygen from the cavern, replacing it with a scorching, unbreathable wind, five were dead from suffocation. Another man who had chosen to run before Pulaski could stop him was found a short distance away: the rescue party had stepped over him on the way in, thinking the blackened mass a burned log; only on their return trip did they recognize the charred body for what it was. Pulaski had stood strong in the face of events “such as sear the souls of lesser men,” declared the Washington, D.C., Star.4 He would go on to become even more famous for his invention bearing his name, the Pulaski—a combination shovel, ax, and mattock that since has become standard equipment for fighters of wildfire.
Pulaski’s story is just one of many that came from that time of unimaginable conflagration. For three days and nights the wind howled up the canyons and down the draws, taking the fire with it. The ash, caught by updraft and high current, traveled for thousands of miles before falling in places that most Idahoans had only heard of: in Saskatchewan, Denver, and New York, the air was thick with the detritus of western larch and hemlock; in San Francisco, ships dropped anchor outside the bay and waited for days, unable to sight land through the blue-gray smoke that had drifted south and descended upon the city.5 Norman Maclean wrote that in his home town of Missoula, “the street lights had to be turned on in the middle of the afternoon, and curled ashes brushed softly against the lamps as if snow were falling heavily in the heat of August.”6 The “Big Blowup,” they call it now, or the “Big Burn”—not one large fire, but 1,736 smaller ones that had come together across the Clearwater Region. By the time it was over, three million acres and many small towns across Idaho and Montana lay in ruins; at least eighty-five people, most of them firefighters, were dead.7
The Big Blowup of 1910 was not the last August fire to rage across the Clearwater: 1914, 1919, 1929, 1934—major fires every five to ten years. The fire of 1919 is synonymous in my mind with the North Fork of the Clearwater, where I spent much of my childhood, for it is there, in the middle of the turquoise river, that a small rise of land bears the name Survivor Island. I remember how, aware of its legendary significance, I studied the island each time we passed along the dusty road, how the heart-flutter of danger and adventure filled my chest. What written history I can find records how two packers and their packstrings, two Nez Perce, and several wild animals had found safety from the fire by swimming to the island. But the story I remember has only three characters: an Indian grandfather, his grandson, and a black bear, all secure upon the island as the fire raged by, the winds it generated whipping the water into whitecaps. At some point, the story became embellished with a detail I still can’t shake—how the child, emboldened by the success of their escape, wanted to kill the bear, and how the grandfather would not let him. Perhaps the elder understood the mythical ties he and his charge would forever have to that bear; perhaps he believed that nothing else should die in the face of the carnage that surrounded them.
With each year’s August, I feel the familiar expectation that comes with the heat and powder-dry dust boiling up from behind the cars and logging trucks. Expectation, anticipation, sometimes fear of what lies just over the horizon—August is a month of waiting for storm, for fire, for rain, for the season to change and pull us away from our gardens, our open windows and doors, back to the contained warmth of the hearth and the bed that comforts us.
Yet some part of me loves the suspense of August, the hot breath of morning whispering the possibility of high drama, the calm and complacency of dog-day afternoons giving way to evening thunderheads brewing along the ridge. Something’s afoot, something’s about to happen, and I shiver with the sureness of it.
Years when I have lived in town, surrounded by asphalt, concrete, and brick, there was little to fear from the dance of electricity lighting the sky except the loss of electricity itself. Here in the country, on the south-facing slope of the Clearwater Canyon, what surrounds us is something as volatile and menacing as the tinder-dry forest: miles of waist high grass and thistle the color and texture of straw. Just such desiccated vegetation fueled the flames that killed the men made famous by Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire (1992), the story of the tragic 1949 Mann Gulch blaze.
We have no rural fire district here; those of us who have chosen to call this small settlement home know that should a wildfire come our way, we have only our wits to protect us—that and every available gunnysack, shovel, hoe, and tractor the community can provide. All through the summer we watch from our windows as the sun leaches the green from the hills and the color from the sky, and the land takes on a pale translucence. Come August, we have counted the days since no rain, and we know that somewhere a storm is building, perhaps just to the south where the horizontal plane of the Camas Prairie intersects the vertical thrust of the Seven Devils—the mountains whose peaks rise jagged and white through the brown haze of harvest.
We check our flashlights, our candle supply; we fill our bathtubs with water. There will be wind, which will switch the sumac and send the sagebrush busting across the gravel roads; it will tear the limbs from the trees, drop them across the power lines in some part of the county so remote that the service crew will take hours, sometimes days, to locate and repair them. Then comes the lightning, blasting the tops from the tallest pines, striking the poles that carry our phone and electricity. The lights will flicker, then fail; the air conditioner will moan into silence. Pumps that pull the water from the springs will lapse into stillness; our toilets and faucets will gurgle and go dry. If we’re lucky, what passes over us will be nothing more than the black raft of storm clouds, and the seconds we count between lightning and thunder will never fall below five. But there have been times when the bolt and jarring crack have come simultaneously, and we have known, then, that the lightning has touched somewhere near us, and that we must watch more carefully now and smell the air and be ready to fight or to run.
The summer of 1998, on just such an evening, we sat at the dinner table with my in-laws, who had arrived from Illinois for a weeklong visit. My husband Bob and I had each kept an eye on the clouds mushrooming behind Angel Ridge; to my Midwestern relatives, the oppressive humidity seemed nothing unusual, but to us, accustomed to zero percent air moisture, the too-still air signaled a weather change. When I stepped out onto the deck, I could hear the wind coming, huffing its way up the canyon like a steam engine. Within minutes, I was hit with a blast of hot air, then felt the cool come in behind it. The first reverberating boom made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, a response so atavistic I could barely resist the instinctual urge to take shelter. Instead, I raised my face to the wind, redolent with fennel and sage, locust and mullein, the arid incense of a summer’s rich dust; along the edges of the breeze, I could smell the dampness of distant rain.
Back at the table, we drank our coffee and shared stories of the past year. I got up once to fill a few pitchers with water. The lightning moved closer—only a few seconds between the flash and thunder—and then a clap so loud and close we all jumped. Not really a clap, not even a boom, but a sharp, ripping roar. Bob and I looked at one another and headed for the porch, and then we could see it: to the west, a narrow column of smoke just beginning to rise. Even as we watched, the column grew thicker, and then we felt the wind gain momentum, pushing east toward us.
The county road, we knew, was our best hope, cutting between us and the fire, providing a fuel-free strip where the flames might falter. Earlier in the summer, Bob had cut, raked, and burned a fire-line around our house, decreasing the chances that fire could reach us, but what we couldn’t shield ourselves against were the airborne cinders already beginning to descend.
“It’s right behind the Bringman place,” Bob said. “If we don’t get it stopped, they’ll be in trouble.”
I had a vague acquaintance with Mr. and Mrs. Bringman, a retired couple who have worked the canyon land for decades. Their house and outbuildings sit a quarter-mile above and to the west of us, in the middle of what was then a good crop of ripe wheat. We had come to know them as we have come to know most of our neighbors: by our happenstance run-ins at the PO. Mr. Bringman is also known for his homemade wine. Local history holds that his land had once belonged to a man of some note who had imported grapevines from France and planted them in the sandy bluffs above the river. “Noble vines,” Mr. Bringman pronounced, and we began saving our empty store-bought bottles so that, once a month, he could swing by on his four-wheeler to collect them and drop off a sample of the wine he had put up the past summer, which we dutifully shelved, though he insisted it was quite ready to drink now.
“You get on the phone,” Bob said. “I’m going up there.” Already the smoke and ash had darkened the sky to a deep shade of gray.
“Wear boots,” I said. “Take a wet handkerchief and gloves.” While Bob gathered his gear, I picked up the phone and dialed. Mrs. Bringman’s voice came on the line, high-pitched and quavering. “Tell your husband to get here as fast as he can,” she said. “Call anyone you can. It’s coming our way.”
I hung up, then began a series of calls, knowing that for each call I made, two more would go out, word of the lightning strike spreading faster than the fire itself, fanning out across the ridges and high prairie for miles, until every family would be alerted. I knew that every wife and mother would dial the next number down the road, that each man and his oldest sons would don their hats and boots, grab their shovels and buckets and be out the door within minutes, all guided by the pillar of smoke that marked the point of danger as surely as a lighthouse beam. I paused in my calling long enough to kiss Bob as he hurried out the door. I could see the charge in his eyes, the urgency and excitement, and I felt the regret and longing and resignation I had as a child when the men had gone into the wilderness, to the front where the stories were being made and the dramas played out.
“Remember how fast the fire can move,” I said. I had a momentary image of my husband scrabbling across the canyon’s steep pitch and felt my heart jerk with fear. “Do you have a lighter?”
Bob nodded, remembering, as I remembered, the story of the ranger who survived the Mann Gulch fire.
“Be careful,” I cautioned.
“I will,” he said, and was gone.
In Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean researches and describes the 5 August 1949 blaze that caught and killed all but three of the fifteen Forest Service smoke jumpers who had parachuted into the Helena National Forest of Montana. They had been on the ground for less than two hours and were working their way down a hillside toward the fire—an error that would cost them dearly, for a fire racing uphill can easily catch even the fastest man. But what they had found was a simple class C fire, no more than sixty acres. It was a “ground” fire, one the men expected to mean hard work but little danger.8
Yet there is always danger when a wildfire is present, and so the crew knew that this one might “crown,” as its charred path suggested it had done already before moving back down into undergrowth. The fire that has crowned is what creates the great roar of sound so many survivors describe as the noise of a fast-moving train descending upon them, so loud that communication becomes impossible. A crown fire creates its own weather system: the warmer air rises and the cooler air rushes down to replace it, creating a “fire whirl,” a moving convection that can fill the air with burning pine cones and limbs, as though the forest itself has exploded. This incendiary debris gives rise to spot fires that can flare behind or in front of the fighters; crews find themselves suddenly surrounded, ringed by fire that seems to have come from nowhere, sprung up from the ground and converging.9 With these conditions comes the possibility of the phenomenon firefighters most fear: the “blowup.” Blowups occur when fresh air is drawn into the “fire triangle” of flammable material, high temperature, and oxygen. Few have witnessed a true blowup and lived to tell of it, but those who have speak with wonder of the fire’s speed. Maclean recounts the experience of fire expert Harry T. Gisborne, perhaps the first to observe, survive, and describe a blowup. The 1929 fire Gisborne detailed occurred in Glacier National Park and burned ninety thousand acres with almost incomprehensible swiftness, demolishing “over two square miles in possibly two minutes, although probably in a minute flat.”10
The Mann Gulch smoke jumpers were young and had dropped onto a terrain that may have seemed at the time less threatening than the densely wooded ridge in the distance. They were at a point where the tree-studded mountains broke open to grassy plains dried to amber. Perhaps they believed themselves safe amid the loose-rock slope and low-lying vegetation, but they were tragically mistaken. They had their tools—their shovels and Pulaskis—but what they did not have was knowledge of the ways of this fire and of how, within an hour, it would cross the gulch and push them screaming up the steep hill, crest at the top, and die there with them. Bunch grass, cheat grass, some immature pines mixed in with older growth—these were all that was needed to create the blowup that engulfed the men. Two of the three who survived did so by racing the fire to the ridge and winning; the third, the crew’s foreman, saved himself by escape of another kind: instead of running, he stopped, struck a match, set fire to the grass at his feet, then stepped into the flames he had created. He lay face down on the still-smoking earth, covered his head with his hands, and waited for the main fire to catch and sweep over him. And it did.11
A steeply pitched basalt-strewn slope covered with dry grass and scattered patches of timber—the very terrain into which Bob was headed. I prayed that he would have the foreman’s presence of mind should the fire overtake him. I could see the flames themselves now, flaring twenty feet into the sky. I let the screen door swing shut, went back to the phone, and began another call.
The men came in their pickups and stock trucks and cars, on their four-wheelers and tractors—a steady parade passing by our house. Having exhausted my list of numbers, I gave up my station to stand with my children and in-laws where our gravel driveway met the gravel road. We tried to determine what we could of the fire’s direction. We waved our support as our neighbors flew by—driving too fast, we thought, though we understood their urgency. On the slope just above us, the Goodes and Grimms and Andersons had set their sprinklers atop their roofs, dampening the embers and sparking ash that floated and fell around us like fireflies in the darkening sky. I’d instructed my ten-year-old daughter and eightyear-old son to stand ready with the hose, knowing that should the power lines go down, our electric pump that drew water from the spring below would be useless; our only defense against the fire would be whatever water remained in the storage tank. But if we used that water for prevention, we would have none left should the fire reach us.
As twilight deepened, the fire’s glow grew more distinct along the western horizon, until the last rays of sunlight were indistinguishable from the orange-red aura melding sky to land. My mother-in-law, city raised and only half understanding her son’s desire to live in such a wild place, did her best to rein in her fear; my father-in-law, nearing eighty, paced in frustration: he should be out there, offering what help he could. Had it not been for the fire’s location along the breaks of the canyon, our ability to keep him clear of the battle would have proven much more difficult.
We all knew the immediate danger Bob and the other men faced—the fire—but there were other concerns I kept to myself. Just down the road from our house is a jut of land named Rattlesnake Point: we kill an average of two diamondbacks per year in our yard; the annual score we spy along the roads and paths outside our property we leave be. In times of fire, every living thing flees from what threatens it—cougar, deer, elk, rabbit, pheasant, field mouse, bear, and rattlesnakes, too, slithering ahead of the heat faster than most could imagine, sometimes smoking from their close brush with death. My hope was that, should Bob encounter a snake, it would be too intent on escape to strike at the legs of a man.
And then there was the terrain itself: fragile shelves of talus, slanted fields of scree. The land could give way beneath your feet, begin moving like a tipped mass of marbles. I have had it happen before, while hunting chukar, and found myself grabbing at the smallest outcroppings of sage and buckbrush, feeling them pull loose in my hands, the only thing below me a chute toward an outcropping of columnar basalt that would launch me into the canyon. I’ve always been lucky, able to catch a knob of stable rock or wedge my foot into the roots of a stunted hawthorn, but that memory of falling, of gathering momentum, of hurtling toward endless open space, has never left me. I knew that Bob was sure-footed and careful; I knew, too, that in the lapse of light, the ground’s definition would fade.
The smoke thickened. We covered our faces with our hands, coughing, our eyes watering, unwilling to abandon our vigil, knowing how much more those closer to the fire were having to endure. I ordered the children back to the house, but they would not go. They wanted to be of some help, perhaps believing, as I did, that our standing guard might somehow keep the fire at bay. The glow had moved higher up the ridge; the flames leapt, receded, then leapt again. With the wind and lack of equipment, we had little hope that simple manpower could contain the fire. I estimated that a half-mile of pasture land separated us from the conflagration—that and the road—and I told myself we could hold our ground for a little while longer before loading the cars with what we most treasured: photographs, books, laptop computer, the children’s most precious belongings. The possibility of losing our home and everything in it seemed very real to me, but I considered it with little emotion. What was uppermost in my mind was the safety of my loved ones: the family that gathered closer as the smoke increased, and my husband, somewhere just over the ridge, risking his life to save the nearby houses and barns, the crops and timber, perhaps even an entire small town should the fire run the ridge and drop over into the next draw. At that moment, I wasn’t sure the saving was worth the risk. How could I weigh the loss of my husband against nothing more than property and economy? There was little chance that anyone other than the firefighters was in danger—by now, everyone in the county had been warned. Why not stand back, allow the fire to meet the river on one side, the linkage of creeks on the other? In the end, it would burn itself out.
But then I remembered the stories—the fire of 1910, the young men who had died so suddenly by thinking the distance between them and the fire enough—and I realized that this wasn’t about the wheat field a mile down the road or the home of the family at the bottom of the draw. It was about fire. It was about crowning and whirls, convection and blowups. It was about August and a summer’s long drought. It was about three million acres burned in a matter of days—the width and breadth of many whole states.
What I wished for, then, was the help of all the technology and knowledge such fires of the past had brought into being. The fire of 1910 showed everyone that crews of men scattered about the burning edges would never be enough, and then the Forest Service began its study and transformation of firefighting. But we do not live in a forest; we live on private land, too distant to warrant the protection of the city, too sparsely populated to afford the luxury of a volunteer fire department. That August of 1998, our situation was little different from the one facing the farmers and loggers and townspeople of 1910: our primitive tools had not changed, and at that moment, I began to realize that our chances of saving our home had not, either.
I moved down the driveway, preparing myself to announce that it was time to pack up, to position ourselves by the river where Bob might find us. But then came the roar of something overhead—the thrum and air-beat of a helicopter. I looked up to see what I had believed would not come to us: help from the outside world.
From beneath the helicopter hung a length of cable attached to a large vinyl-and-canvas bucket. The pilot did not head for the fire but for the river, where he hovered and dropped and filled the bucket with nearly one hundred gallons of water—a half ton hoisted up and swinging from the Bell Jet Ranger. As we watched, the helicopter leaned itself toward the fire’s furthest point, the bale opened, and a sheet of water rained down. My daughter and son let loose with whoops of excitement. My in-laws and I clapped and hugged, jubilant at this unexpected turn of events. Again and again, the pilot followed his path from river to fire, until the ribbon of flame along the horizon had dimmed to a faint glow; within an hour, we could no longer point to even the smallest flare.
We stood watch as night came on, unable to see the helicopter now but tracing its direction by the deep hum that drifted to us on the smoky breeze. Although we were safe, rescued by the graces of the ClearwaterPotlatch Timber Protective Association, who had sent the helicopter because they were fighting no fires of their own, we all knew our wait was not over: somewhere in the darkness was our father, son, and husband. The line of vehicles that had sped by us earlier now came in reverse—a slower-moving column whose lights passed over us as we held up our hands in a gesture of greeting and gratitude.
“Bob will be coming soon,” I said. “Let’s go make him some fresh iced tea.”
We walked the few yards back to the house, turned on the porch light. Our jubilation had been replaced by a quiet fear that grew with each passing minute—fear that receded and then leapt up each time another pickup approached but did not slow and turn into our driveway. “He should be back by now,” my father-in-law said, pacing from the window to the door and back again. “Maybe I should go see if I can find him.”
I knew that Bob and the other men would have driven off-road and into the fields, gaining what time they could against the fire. Even if we could locate our four-wheel-drive, there was no guarantee Bob would be near it. Without light, the diminishing fire behind him and the total black ness of rural night before him, he could walk for hours before finding his way back to where he had parked.
“I think we should wait,” I said. “He’ll stay as long as he’s needed. Someone will come and get us if there’s trouble.” I listened to my own words, only half believing. What if Bob had gotten turned around, fallen into a ravine, been isolated and trapped by the fire? What if he were lying somewhere in the dark, injured, unable to save himself?
I thought again of the rough terrain—familiar to me from the many walks Bob and I had taken, the many hours we had spent exploring and visually mapping the area. The fire likely would have eaten its way across Bedrock Canyon, down to the river and up to the top of the ridge, creating acres and acres of charcoal earth, charcoal sky—like a black blizzard. How could we hope to find him?
We made the tea. We gathered and washed the dinner dishes. We distracted the children with books and puzzles until none of us could be distracted any longer. We gathered outside in the cooling air, still heavy with smoke that would hang in the canyon for days.
“Come on, Bob,” I whispered to myself. “Come on.” I thought of my mother and aunts then, waiting as I waited, fighting the growing panic with the mundane details of daily life. How many hours had they spent watching from the window above the sink, their hands submerged in soapy water, their fingers blindly tracing the knife’s edge? How many Augusts had passed in a haze of worry and despair as the lightning came down and the flames rose up and the men disappeared into that place where no one could reach them?
But then, the lights at the top of the driveway, the held breath, the release as the engine idled and died.
I let my daughter and son reach him first, escort him into the house. He was covered with soot, his white T-shirt scorched, burned through in some places; his face was red, nearly blistered beneath the ashy smudges. We hovered around him, offering tea, voicing our concern and sympathy. I stepped up close, breathed in the familiar smell of everything burned—the dead grass and live trees, the cloth on his back, the singed hair. “I’m so glad you’re okay.” I wanted to cry—out of relief that he was home, out of anger at the fire, out of frustration that I had found myself caught up in the same cycle that my mother had known so well. I knew that the stories Bob would tell of the fire would become part of our family’s shared history, that we would recite and embellish the narrative with each passing summer, that we would always remember the way he shook his head when he told us: “There was no way we were going to be able to stop it. But then I heard the helicopter, directly overhead. I looked up just as the bottom of the bucket opened. I’ve never felt anything so good in my life.”
The next day, we drove downriver to view where the fire had burned—an oily pool spread across the golden hillside. After the fire subsided, Bob had found himself disoriented and had wandered in the dark for an hour before coming across several other men. Together they were able to find their way back. “I can look up there now,” he said, “and have no idea where I was.”
Later, when I asked my son what he remembered about the fire, he answered quickly: “I remember that I couldn’t breathe.” My daughter recalled the ash falling and my concern that we would lose our water supply. And she reminded me of something I had forgotten: “What I remember most,” she said, “is how badly I wanted to go and help fight the fire, and how you wouldn’t let me.”
Perhaps she will be the one to leave the phone and go to the place where stories are being made, the one who will not be left behind. One of the most respected smoke jumping crews in the country is composed entirely of women; of the fourteen Oregon-based firefighters who died in the Colorado fire of 1994, four were female. I shudder with the thought of my son or daughter choosing to try himself, herself, against such an adversary. I wonder if I would come to dread and despise the month I love so well, for I am strangely wedded to the tyrannical heat, the thunderstorms, even the fire—the absolutism, the undeniable presence of August in my life.
Instead of wading the ashes of August, I spend many late summer days wading the river. This is Nez Perce land, and the water’s flux covers and uncovers the remnants of their ancient industry: arrowheads, spear points, blades of obsidian. I come to the Clearwater armed only with a hook and line, meaning to fool the fish with a tuft of feather, a swirl of bright thread. I step in to my waist and feel the strange dissonance of temperature—my feet numbing with cold, the crown of my head hot with sun. I stand for a moment, brace myself. I am all that is still, an island anchored by nothing more than the felt soles of my boots. I load my line, cast toward the calm above the current. I imagine the fish rising, its world a kaleidoscope of shattered light.
Through the cooling nights of fall, during the long nights of winter when ice rimes the eddies, I dream of August, the water at my hips, my line lacing the sun. I wake to the odor of woodsmoke—my husband firing the stove—but for a sleepy moment it is the warm wind that I smell, the burning of yellow pine and prairie grass and wheat stubble. I smell summer sage and mullein, the licorice spice of dog fennel. I smell the cool drift of fish scent off the river. I open my eyes, expecting early light, the windows still open to the morning breeze, but what I see instead is the darkness before sunrise, the frost that glisters each pane of glass, and I am bereft.
1. Stan Cohen and Don Miller, The Big Burn: The Northwest’s Forest Fire of 1910 (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1978), 3.
2. Ralph S. Space,The Clearwater Story: A History of the Clearwater National Forest (Forest Service USDA, 64), 6.
3. Stan B. Cohen and A. Richard Guth, Northern Region: A Pictorial History of the US. ForestService 1891–1945 (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1991), 61; Stan Cohen and Don Miller, 18–19.
4. Cohen and Miller, 18.
5. Cohen and Guth, 58.
6. Norman Maclean, “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 140.
7. Cohen and Miller, v.
8. Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire: A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire (Chicago: The University of Chicago Pre 1992), 33.
9. Maclean, 34–37.
10. Maclean, 35, 37.
11. Maclean, 74–75,102–106.
* * *
(FIRST PUBLISHED IN SPRING 2021)
Carol has the two of us and a daughter named Livi, and we have each other, and all of us have ten weeks, at most, to live. The news says it will be slow, then happen at once. We’ve been staying with Carol since it began. Unlike our foster mother, she likes having us around; she teaches what we cannot learn anywhere else, what we are sure to miss. We start with tarot cards and watch as Carol pulls the Two of Swords, where a blindfolded woman kneels in front of water. It’s a better fortune than the Eight of Swords, she tells us, where a blindfolded woman is bound by rope.
Carol introduces us to psychics, chakras, and alignments. She oscillates between debunking and explaining them in the same breath. “There is, of course, no scientific evidence behind any of this,” she says, “but now that I’ve opened my third eye, I can never go back.” From her, we learn our astrological signs. Carol and Livi are Libras, which makes them a match for us. We’re the same, born twelve months apart: Sagittarius, the fire sign. “Fire signs are survivors,” Carol says. “They know how to adapt.”
My sister and I share everything—toothbrushes, underwear, abandonment. Sometimes it feels like we share the same skin, the same bones. Sometimes I wonder if, between the two of us, you’d find enough blood supply for only one body.
After school, we sit in a circle on Carol’s living room carpet and concentrate, knotting the velvet skin between our brows, practicing our Kegels. “Do you make a face when you do it?” Livi asks. “You can, sure.” Carol tells us about the time she pushed in a golden egg and kept it there for a full day. “You just have to squeeze,” she says. “It’s not hard.” We nod. Outside, ash bounces off Carol’s bay window—weightless, gray tufts of dandelion.
“Doesn’t your foster mother want you home?” Carol asks. Sharon doesn’t care where we go; “As long as the world’s still ending,” she says over the phone, “do what you want.” Through the receiver, we can hear Sharon’s face split into a yawn, imagine how she’s holding the phone between her shoulder and ear while she paints her nails beige. After six years of living with her, we can detect her indifference in our slumber.
Carol asks us to keep our eyes on Livi at school. “I’m worried,” she says. “Don’t tell her I said anything.” We report back daily, cataloging the details within the details. The laughter at 2:59 pm on a Tuesday in our French class when Livi says the French word for “bullshit.” The subsequent squeak of the chair pulling out, the exact angle her hair parted, the one piece of dandruff on her right shoulder, the muted scratch on her cheek, the lemon-drop scent of her breath. The full sentence: “Learning French is bullshit when you know you’re about to get charred to death.”
Back at Carol’s, while Livi’s in the bathroom, Carol describes her as a stranger, someone she does not recognize. According to Carol, every time Livi steps outside, she picks up the soles of her feet and looks at them, seemingly confused that they have not lit up from the pavement like a struck match.
One night, a few weeks before the Burn began, Livi’s period poured out of her body and seeped into the cotton of her tulip-patterned sheets. Carol took her to the gynecologist for a pelvic exam. “My daughter,” she said, “she’s too young to be bleeding this much.” Inside the blank room, her legs splayed as a praying mantis before the kill, the metal rod slipped inside, caught on ribbed pink flesh, and broke the seal. When Livi put her white-washed jeans on, blood bloomed between her thighs.
Now, Livi keeps those stained jeans in her closet along with the preserved specimens she’s started to collect. She’s got duck fetuses in jars and Borax-covered rat skins in Ziploc bags. She wants to understand death, she tells us, make sure she knows what to expect. She opens one of the jars, lets it exhale. We smell formaldehyde and tomato sauce. The heart of a bat, that one’s our favorite. It swims in the prettiest crystal bottle, like a message.
We were sleeping over at Livi’s when the earth first caught fire. That night, before we knew our lives would be measured in weeks, Carol lugged our half-asleep bodies into her running car. “We’ll get a better view without the city lights,” she said, roping satin blindfolds around our heads and then Livi’s, “but don’t peek until we’re there.” We cruised at midnight, cradled together in the back, close as stacked spoons. Livi sat in the front, quiet. An hour later, Carol pulled over and plucked us out, one by one. “This is a night you’ll never forget,” she said. We followed her, the pads of our feet hot, our pits releasing a sour smell into the air as we tried to soften fear by keeping hold of one another’s hands. We inhaled threads of smoke and her perfume; we unfastened our blindfolds, let them drop to the warm grass like our underwear before a bath. “Lay down,” she said. “Look up.” We were in the middle of a field, under the shadow of a red and angry earth. The blazing sky opened into a wound. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Carol said. “Have you ever seen such a color?”
With eight weeks to go, Carol teaches us about boys, about men, about who we are in relation to others. “It’s important you fall in love,” she says. “Everyone needs to, at least once, before they die.” We sit on fevered metal bleachers and listen for the slap of tennis shoes on pavement. “It’s okay, too,” Carol says, “if you want to love a girl. Love is love, isn’t it?” We don’t know who we want to love, not yet. For now, we watch shorts stretch over sweaty thighs as boys run around the smoky track, coughing at every lap. Some of them wear their shorts tighter, some wear them longer. We count inches from kneecap to edge. Some have an ass curve to fill out the fabric, a dip above the double-cheek. Carol calls it a space to melt into. Others are flat as Livi’s stomach, one hundred percent muscle. We imagine their butts to be as smooth as the stones we used to skip over cool water back when it ran in streams along the American River, back before the water evaporated.
We do sit ups, try to replicate the boys’ hard frames. Attempt pull-ups on the wooden rods in Carol’s closet, our balmy fingers with their snaggy nails leaving tiger stripes in the white paint, proof we’ve been there. Even though all the wood in this house will soon turn black, we wonder if they still have meaning, these things we want to leave behind.
“Men don’t like muscle,” Carol tells us. “They don’t like fat either.” We ask her what they like. She says, “I’ll show you.” We curl around Carol’s laptop with Livi, cover our ears from the moaning but can’t look away. “In other cultures,” Carol says, “women go topless; sex isn’t a big deal.” It’s not like this every time, she tells us, nodding toward the screen; it can be quieter, less gymnastic. It can be passionate. “I’m sorry you will never experience lovemaking,” she says, “the prickle of a shattering orgasm, the taste of someone else’s skin.” We lick the backs of one another’s hands. Livi licks her own. “It’s different,” Carol says. “Skin tastes different when it belongs to someone you want to, well, fuck.”
Carol keeps books on her bedside table, on the lip of the bathtub, on the kitchen counter next to dishes encrusted in grease. Before fire steals the pages, we read everything we can. According to the dog-eared, waterlogged pages, our bodies are temples, our bodies are problems. Our bodies are bad, beautiful, ours, someone else’s. With Livi, we look at one another’s thighs and feet and stomachs and compare, measure our pebble breasts, squish them together, lift them with underwires, frown when the wires scratch our sternums. We take turns going into the bathroom with a handheld mirror and pull off our pants and spread apart on the floor to examine the various shades of pinks and mauves and return to the group—sometimes triumphant, sometimes concerned—to report what we’ve found. “It won’t matter anyway,” Livi tells us. “Once the world is gone, it won’t matter what anyone thinks of you.”
Livi’s afraid the final day will hurt; it’s all she thinks about, dreams about: the soon-to-be scrapping of her small life. She can’t sleep, so Carol feeds her orange, oblong pills, and inspects her mouth afterward to make sure she swallows. On afternoons, Carol takes Livi to the local support group, P. A C. T. (Pre-teens and Conflagration Trauma). When Livi comes home, Carol instructs us to be gentle with her, not to discuss how the atmosphere is hell-bent on choking us all out. But at night, Livi tells us about plans to “end it before it ends her.” She tells us about a gun and a safe. She rakes a hand over her scalp, and we watch her fine hair fall to the ground, buoyant as the ash outside. For the past few nights she’s been bleeding through her pajamas. “It’s worse from the stress,” Carol tells us, as she peels soaked cotton off Livi’s body in the bathroom and soothes her blood-stained legs with a wet cloth, rambling promises she can’t keep—“You’re going to be okay,” she keeps saying. “You’re going to be all right.”
With six weeks left, Carol sends Livi to an institute in San Francisco for girls who cannot move past the idea of finality by fire, who wake whole neighborhoods with their screams. While she’s gone, Carol’s restless leg syndrome gets worse. She wakes in the middle of the night and walks through the blistering air to stretch out her calves to keep them from pulsing. “It’s like there’s a heart inside each of my calves. Can you imagine? Having three hearts?” We tell her one is enough.
We still stay in Livi’s room. We sleep in her bed, on our sides, heat-drenched and slick with sweat. We take out her tarot cards and put them back in their box. We put that box in another box, the same box that houses Livi’s baby teeth, and we put both of those boxes into the bottom drawer of her dresser under blankets, her baby blanket in particular. Woven with sherbet- and pastel-colored fibers, it isn’t soft anymore, but matted down and dull. Once or twice, we’ve stolen that blanket when Livi wasn’t looking and put it between our legs and rocked back and forth, to feel something other than dread.
During the day, Carol starts to garden. She dresses the part. A linen oatmeal jumper and a straw hat and gloves with black pads on the fingers and palms. She’s got a row of dirt and seeds in her hand, and she shifts her gaze between the two, unsure of what goes where. We offer help but can’t figure out how to start. “Put them in,” Carol says, “put them in and something will grow.” We know that’s not true.
Carol mothers us: smears salicylic acid on our oily chins, plaits our hair, scrubs our nails, washes our clothes. “Running the dryer, too hot, too hot,” she says, sweat piling on the swoop of her nose. “I’ll hang them outside.” We do not want our dirty shirts and padded bras made visible to the world, not our socks with holes or our pajamas with their cartoon characters, but we can’t tell Carol to stop. She hums and hangs them, pin by pin. She looks joyful with purpose, until the clothes start collecting ash. “You deserve better than this,” she says and lobs them into the garbage out back.
We shuffle into Carol’s car and head to the mall. Inside, clothes litter the ground and litter hangs on the racks, and hardly anyone seems to be working. Bright pink lipstick graffities the glass tops of the makeup counters: the burn is a real bitch. We smudge the message, wipe the color under our eyes. War paint. We try on denim. We try on leather. We try on corduroy, but no fabric is distracting enough to make us forget the flammability of our own skin.
“At what temperature does skin melt?” we ask the store’s supervisor. We focus on a tee shirt she’s folding and unfolding and folding. Her lashless eyes red-rimmed and rabbit-like, she tells us to find our mother. We tell her we don’t have a mother, we have a Carol.
We crowd in the dressing room together. When we see each other shirtless, we think about Livi, whose back is a constellation of psoriasis, pink little flares she wanted us to touch at night. “Scratch please,” she’d say before she left—turning over, placing our hands in position—her spine, a knotted rope. “Lighter, like a tickle.” We weren’t permitted to cut our nails, just bite them off. She liked that jagged edge. Now, Carol makes us use clippers. Now, every time we hear those metal jaws snap, every time we see an ivory trimming fall to the floor, we get sad, misshapen, wonder if we’ll get to feel Livi again.
We bend our bodies over or lie belly flat on the dressing room ground and peek to see if anyone’s there. Carol teaches us how to take what’s ours. “It’s important,” she says. “Especially now. When there’s nothing left to lose.”
Back in Carol’s kitchen, we sit on her checkered tile floor and eat for our future selves, the ones we won’t know, for our future sons and daughters and their sons and daughters. Carol says we’re too hungry for our own good. We have several girls inside each of us. We claw out mouthfuls of sheet cake. Swallow big. Snakes swallowing sweet rats. The temperature doesn’t allow our mint chip ice cream to keep its form, so we stop using spoons and glug instead. Liquid trickles down our gullets, spills on our chins and chests and stolen clothes. Carol lets us eat whatever we want, however we want. “There are no rules anymore,” she says. “Go wild.”
According to Livi, before the Burn, and before we arrived, Carol was always on a new diet. Before the Burn, Carol did yoga and Pilates. Now, we find her on the couch watching mid-day television. Her once manicured fingers are stained with pink marshmallows, wet and formed into a neon paste. She brushes the remains on her sweat-soaked pajamas and says it’s our own fault. “If only we had just recycled, or given up beef,” she says, tossing a wrapper behind the couch.
When she’s not on the couch, the air quality causes Carol to slink back into her muggy bed. The smog makes her dizzy, she says—vertigo. Once she passes out, her mouth hangs open and we examine her tongue, withered from dry heat, and the black-red of her throat, rusty and inflamed, a never-ending tunnel. She moans in her sleep. She cries. She has sleep paralysis. It feels like a ghost is tying her to the bed frame and she cannot move or speak. She just watches, watches it hold her down with slimy, specter hands. “Even the ghost perspires,” she says.
We play the choking game in Carol’s room while she naps. Ring one arm around the neck and squeeze until our minds go blank. Make sure we have a pulpy landing, a line of pillows to catch our soft plop. When it turns to night, we look for ways to defy death. We give life to what won’t exist. We discuss who we would become. We talk about sex and blow jobs and how we want to snort drugs and get cross-eyed-level drunk like Carol and take out a hundred dollars at the bank. How we don’t want to go, not like this. Inexperienced. With braces tugging our teeth in different directions. With hardly detectable hair under our arms. With no stories of our own.
With two weeks left, Livi returns, and we stop attending junior high. The schools close. Nobody goes to work. Livi takes two white pills in the morning and spends all day with her specimens. Us, we scuttle in circles during orange evenings and split the ends of our hair and eat ladles-full of sugar-soup—two parts water, one part sugar—until we puke. We shove our hands into Carol’s condoms and watch them rupture. We smash our bare butts up to her bay window and wiggle. We leave a snail-trail of sweat on the glass. We kiss each other on the mouth. We try to forget about the end like we have forgotten about the beginning, like we have forgotten about the first time we came to Carol’s house and felt the floors creak under our feet and noticed freckles under Carol’s eyes. Freckles that have since melted together and left her splotched with what appears to be sludge but does not wipe off.
It’s the UVs, she tells us. Sunscreen won’t help. Hats won’t help. “Remember how pretty I used to be?” she asks Livi. We speak for Livi and say yes, but we never knew Carol like we do now, and soon, we won’t know her at all. We won’t know the way her cheekbones grow apples when she smiles, or her staircase ears, how one sits higher than the other, how such an imbalance causes reading glasses to cock, or the dry forehead peck from her thin lips, her childlike nose, the overripe jasmine smell of her chin. We won’t know Carol’s face at all, when there are no faces left, when there are only skulls, dripping into the ground like hot candle wax.
On the afternoon the news tells us we’ve got less than a week left, ropes are confiscated from hardware stores and guns are no longer for sale. But it makes no difference; there are too many ways to go. Husbands and wives watch each other take their last swigs of air. Fathers and mothers lure their kids into the basement. Put pillowcases over their children’s heads, turn the radios on full blast, and shoot point blank. We imagine Sharon buying the kind of car she’s always wanted and driving it off a bridge, but we’ll never know what really happened, since she stopped returning our calls weeks ago.
During the final days, the news warns us to stay inside. Carol stops wearing makeup. Her eyelids slacken. She stops coiling her hair and spraying herself with perfume. She smells embered and earthy as the fertilizer from her failed garden. She looks like a candy wrapper gone through a wash cycle. When she stands on the bed to pull the fan cord, we see up her dress. A bit of dried blood hanging on a string, brown and lingering, and we flush with excitement or embarrassment or both. We turn away but hope if she pulls enough, she’ll tap into a higher setting. But it whizzes at the same dull speed, never fast enough to cool. Meanwhile, Livi sits in the corner and cries in silence; she talks to no one.
We level our bodies with Carol’s, belly up on her plush comforter, press our hands to the weak breeze above, feel Carol’s eyes burn through us, her throat squeak. “You really are quite something,” she says. She hands us a note and leaves for a glass of warm water.
Tomorrow, don’t be afraid. The pills for you and Livi are in my glove compartment. If I don’t have the courage to say it out loud, please know that I have loved you like you were my own.
Tomorrow comes and we watch Carol turn the safe dial, three clicks. Smoke filters under the garage door, and our eyes water as Carol plucks the guns out, one by one, and loads all three, two with blanks. “Take them,” she says, and along with Livi, we do. Heavy in our hands, we don’t like the weight, the power. We form a silent train as Carol covers our eyes with blindfolds and binds their black strings with trembling hands. We think there has to be something more than this; we are afraid to think there is not something more than this. But before we can think anything more, Carol turns our bodies in her direction, raises our arms for us, and says, “Go.” Livi stays silent. We scream. But we all pull the trigger, we all shoot. Whose gun had the bullet—one of ours or Livi’s—we’ll never know. We leave the weapons on the cement and close the door.
The world will combust before we feel the burn of an unwashed finger inside us, the burn of a popped cherry, the burn of a birth tear, the burn of growing old and invisible. When the final hours come, we will find our way back to that field. We will feed Livi half a bottle of her orange pills, carry her limp body into Carol’s car, drive through the cinder storm. Roll onto our backs into the roasting blades of grass, swallow a handful of Livi’s drugs ourselves. Look up at the sky and wait for the blaze to lick our feet. Smell the fine hair under our arms as it starts to singe. Take us with you take us with you, my sister and I will chant. Because we are fire too. That’s all we’ve ever been.