We haven’t seen sky for weeks. It’s been smoky-grey so long, I’ve forgotten if blue even exists anymore. Ash catches in my throat as some Fire Marshalls arrive in a blackened truck to evacuate us, but Red insists we’re okay. We’re not – but he’d never admit it, the shithead. When they leave, he yanks that ridiculous trilby over his creeping bald spot and hauls off to his shift at the Mill. I’m rooted in stupor, stunned as to how I even got here. Baffled how I ever found that stupid fucking hat attractive.
Our shack’s pretty isolated in these hills, so when a stranger wanders up through the smoke, I dead-bolt the doors. He looks spent, smeared with soot. Angel’s wriggling on my hip, whimpering. She can’t seem to settle, these days. Then the screen-door rattles, and the stranger’s whisper trickles like liquid through the keyhole, right into my head.
“Ma’am? Please… a little water?”
I’m outside of myself today, on edge. Yet what harm it could do? Strange, since all I know lately is harm. I pour some of our precious bottled water into a tin mug, unbolt the door, and slip it to him.
“Thanks,” he coughs. “Fire was bad in my pasture… came real close to the house, too. Managed to save my livestock, but… I been worried about the pair of you.”
I stare blankly past my feet at the peeling lino.
“Doncha know me?” His smile changes his voice. “I’m your neighbor, Ray.”
I finally look into his eyes. They’re clear blue, aquamarine; pristine. My stomach lurches. Could I have slipped into some alternate reality? The Mediterranean, perhaps? I feel odd, like my head’s been hit again. Maybe it has, because actually I invite him – Ray – inside. I pour him more water. He sighs – then raises his fist. I flinch automatically, but all he does is swipe some grit out of his eye with his thumb. I feel like an idiot. I only hope he didn’t notice.
“Listen. Pack some essentials,” he instructs, “I’ll be back to get you…” And with the lightest touch on my wrist, he hands me back the mug and leaves.
But Red returns directly – the Mill’s in shut-down because of the fire, but they couldn’t reach him. Of course not. He spends most of our money at the bar, so wouldn’t you know, they cut his cell phone off. As usual. He just doesn’t seem to get it.
He barges past me into the house. “Grab your shit!” he yells. He throws stuff into his hockey bag for himself, then chucks Angel’s carry-crib into the truck. And, just like that, we’re racing to the community shelter through walls of hell-flame. I’m torn, somehow, by leaving. If I stay, could I be burned clean through to some pure kind of newness? Even when you feel outside of yourself, watching your life burn away to bits is anything but painless.
Two days in at the shelter, and Red’s completely out of his comfort-zone. He’s fidgety with having nothing to do, but his local bar’s in the evacuation zone too, so his buddies aren’t around to bolster his boredom. His fists are itching. I can sass him, now, because now there are witnesses. But – typical Red – he still manages to pinch me viciously when no one’s looking.
Finally, sniffing for any excuse, he disappears. Supposedly to dig fire-breaks. I’ve clenched my fingers so tightly, my nails have gouged purple crescents into my palms. My mind beats against the wrongness of my life like a bee against a window pane. Seeing escape. I pray guiltily that his stupid fucking hat – and whatever’s in it – burns up in that fire.
A lady wearing make-up comes to sit beside me on the cot. Pretty. Normal. I bet she never felt the business-end of a belt. She ruffles Angel’s hair, glancing at my bruises. They’re turning from blueish-black to yellowish-green. They’re changing. I’m changing.
“Hi, hon. I’m Kim,” she whispers, “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to chat. Your neighbor, Ray, says you might need… some help?” She takes hold of my hand.
I check around, but can’t see the stranger with the sapphire eyes. I’ve been so dammed-up with thoughts, my voice spills out of me in a torrent, like a sluice gate’s been opened.
But suddenly – there he is, across the hall. He grins; waves a little wave. He sure cleans up good. My gut lurches, revisiting the soot-covered hand brushing mine, and I’m back in the beautiful, aquamarine Mediterranean. If I allowed myself a dream, it would be to float in it, for as long as I could.
I turn to the lady.
“Kim, do you suppose, if bad things happen to people, really fast… could good things happen fast, too?”
She stares at Ray, exchanging some invisible communication. She pats my hand. Releases it. A heavy rope unknots from back of my neck, and clean, fresh air enters my chest. I’m light, rising from being trapped in that black, burning forest, up, up into the clear blue.
“Perhaps…” she releases my hand. “We never know, do we, unless we take the plunge…”
And I think to myself – differently from the first time – maybe fire is renaissance, after all.
Decades ago, autodidact & bloody-minded optimist kerry rawlinson gravitated from sunny Zambian skies to solid Canadian soil. Fast-forward: she follows Literature & Art’s Muses around the Okanagan, still barefoot. She’s cracked some contests, e.g. Geist; Fish Poetry Prize; and features lately in: Spelk Fiction, AcrosstheMargin, PaintedBride, ConnecticutRiverReview, Pedestal, ArcPoetry, amongst others. kerryrawlinson.tumblr.com | @kerryrawli