Run. It was the last word Petra heard from her crew boss "Big" Dan Chief when the weather shifted. That's what she was doing now as the fire cracked and popped at her heels. Super-heated embers fell like burning snow as she fled the wind-driven flames. She was singed, blinded by the smoke, and coughing but she wasn't going to stop. Could not stop.
They were a crew of ten cutting a fire break near the top of the ridge. The break wouldn't stop the fire but it might slow it, or contain it for a few precious moments, maybe help the evacuations and give the water bombers time to get up here and drop their fire retardant loads.
This was a war, another dry year in a string of dry years, and the whole forest was a short fuse. One spark and everything exploded like a bomb. No rain now, none for weeks, and none expected to come.
Petra stumbled, fell, and rolled shedding her gear. Her axe, shovel, the forty pound pack she carried, even the fire-resistant tarp-she could have dug in and hid beneath it if there was time-all gone. Run. Down. Keep going down. It was summer and warm dry winds from the south had held the flames to the northern forests. Why did it change today? Vicious gusts from the north starting pushing, pushing, pushing destruction south where the creek beds, the swamps, everything was sun-baked as dry as paper.
Heat and smoke rolled and roared. Flames overtopped the pine forest now dangerously flammable like gasoline.
Run. How long? Don't stop. Everything burning. Run.
Petra broke through to a hydro line, a wide clear-cut swath of grass running northwest to southeast. Overhead power lines hummed as they carried electricity from the dams on northern rivers to towns and cities in the south.
The ground evened out here. It had been cleared and graded by the power company. Choices. Which way? Away. Away from the flames, away from her friends and workmates, away from the roiling boiling death that burnt at her heels.
Burning ash fell and ignited the tall grasses at her feet. The far trees seemed to shiver in the wind as the fire roared closer.
Petra turned left, to the southeast. She'd seen from the helicopter that dropped them off just a few hours earlier there was a cut, or canyon, or something there she could hide in, stay low. Even if she did escape the heat the smoke could still suffocate her.
Run. Don't stand still, don't stop. Just run.
Friday, March 20, 2015
The devil is in the details, in the corners, the joins where two different things come together, where something broken has been repaired, the moment between moments. Details are transitions. The devil is in change, and change is necessary. It's the only way to move forward; or backward, sideways, up, down. Unless we jump from time to time, place to place, leap over the details, skip the devil. Then we think we're safe but the details sneak up and there is a reckoning of things we've missed. Miss the details and you get lost.
Feelings are smooth like ice on a still pond. They are deep. The place she keeps them is empty. Imagine a chasm too wide to cross and too deep to fill. Imagine nothing. Imagine this is the safest place. An empty palace and even the echoes have fled.
This place is broken but it's as fixed as she could make it on her own. A place for unneeded, unwanted and painful things.
"Gran, what's this?" A young man's newly deepened voice rumbled through the plush green-carpeted living room.
"What is what my dear?" A small bird-like voice trilled back.
An old woman perched on the edge of a pink velour upholstered easy chair. It swivelled from side to side as she shifted her weight in an unconscious effort to influence the flight of the golf ball soaring across her television. Beside her on an ancient, plastic, folding TV tray and next to the simple remote control sat a pile of personal correspondence, all scrawled in a fine looping style.
She still tried to write letters and cards when time and the arthritis allowed. Just now she had some to send so she'd sent her grandson David to fetch envelopes from her bedroom.
When he visited as a boy she allowed him to go through her dressing table and keep whatever dusty baubles or treasures he might find. There were a number of very interesting marbles and some very fine lighters she'd forgotten she ever had, some pins, and cards, and even a few old trinkets and charms she received as a girl from her father. David was 16 now and looking more like his great-grandfather every day. If only the boy would cut his hair and wear slacks without any holes, she thought. His visits cheered her though and he often came by himself, walking past the factory and down the hill after school when he didn't feel like taking the hour long bus ride to her former daughter-in-law's house. A strange boy thought the old lady, he never calls anywhere home. He must be snooping out of habit.
David brought her an old silver picture frame, about four inches by six and needing polish. It had a simple card stock backing covered in luxurious black velvet. The glass was greasy the way old glass can get when it's rarely handled. She took it gently in faltering hands.
"Oh dear," Gran murmured,"did I leave that out?"
"It was under the envelopes." David replied.
The picture was old, and black and white. David recognized his grandmother. She always looked elegant in photos, especially when she was younger. In this picture she was seated on a large armchair and wearing the typical 1940's housewife's uniform; calf length skirt, knit sweater, curled blonde hair, pearls. She was smiling widely and holding a large young girl on her lap. The girl was smiling too, but not at the camera. His tiny gran looked like she was supporting the girl under her arms as if to keep her from falling on the floor. The girl's head tilted up and back. Her eyes were almond-shaped, her mouth split wide in a goofy, toothy grin, and her tongue lolled to one side. Long blond hair was cut in a fringe, brushed away from her face and hung straight to her shoulders which were covered by an embroidered calf length white smock. It looked fancy and special, like a dress for first communion, but she wasn't wearing shoes just socks, knee length probably, ribbed, and also white. Her arms and hands bent awkwardly in toward her body and the soles of her feet seemed rounded with no arch.
"Who is it Gran?" David was quiet and curious.
"Why I haven't looked at this for...Well that's me of course, and the little girl...well...that's my Abigail." She paused to wipe something from her behind her bifocal glasses then turned off the television. It was awhile before she spoke again.
"You know I married your grandfather when I was older. I'd had so many beaus. When I was not much older than you I had a particular boyfriend. One Christmas we were at a parade and it was so cold the mickey of vodka I was holding for him froze and broke in my good fur jacket. He was so mad, and I was mad at him of course for ruining my coat. We didn't end up together. But your grandfather. Oh my. I met him later that next year, we courted for a long time, and we eventually married. Then we had Abigail and this was right before the war you see." Gran seemed to drift away while she reminisced. A smile crossed behind her eyes and ever so slightly lifted the corners of her mouth. It stayed there a moment, then tightened and fell. With a sigh she continued slowly.
"I'm so tiny you see and she was just such a large baby...the doctors back then...didn't know what they should have known...Abigail stuck inside me during the delivery so they used forceps to pull her out and they damaged her. She wasn't breathing at first, and then she was and then she couldn't swallow without a tube so that was how they fed her. That hospital. We were there for so long. Your grandfather was away, the war and all that. He never had to fight though. Colour-blind. He served as part of a military police force as I remember."
"Anyway when I could finally bring her home it was suggested I put her in a place for, you know, people like that. In an institution. Back then it was expected if your child was different like she was but I just couldn't bear the thought of her in a place like that. So I kept her with me and took care of her, cleaned her up, took her out... Oh the ruddy messes she'd make. I fed her and helped her swallow her food. When your grandfather came home he just loved her so. She never learned to walk or speak you know, not real words, just sounds, and people would whisper like they do why are they keeping her at home."
"We lived in a house in Kingston Ontario at the time and your grandfather stayed in the army for a little while after the war. I don't know why. Enjoyed it I guess. This picture was taken when he was away for a little while again. Training, I think. It took forever to clean her up for the photographer. She's six there. Look how big she is already! Little me and I carried her everywhere-in and out, up and down. She just really loved getting ready and going out."
Gran carefully removed the velvet covered cardboard backing to reveal a folded pressed piece of tissue paper. She slowly peeled the paper open and gently held it in her palm as if it was a butterfly that might startle and fly at any moment. Neatly curled inside and tied with a thin red ribbon was a lock of the blondest hair David ever saw.
"She liked ribbons, red ones, and her hair was so fine I could never get a braid to stay. It was always just hanging down and in her face and so much lighter than blond. Almost white. It used to shine in the summer."
"Where is she now? Dad never said he had a sister. Do I have an aunt?" David sounded confused.
"He doesn't really know that much about her dear. He was born a few years after...well..." Gran stopped and rubbed her eyes again, properly with a tissue. With a deep breath she continued.
"She always had trouble swallowing, you see, and one night, in her sleep, she must have choked, I suppose, and it made her sick. She vomited but somehow she had turned onto her back. I tried to do what I could but I was on my own and it just wasn't enough. She couldn't breathe and that was that. She went so very quick. She was gone before the ambulance came. There was nothing the men could do. They let me hold on to her...I held her for such a long time. Oh my." Silence fell like a blanket. The kitchen clock ticked and tocked in the space left behind. Sunlight streamed in through the large front window sparkling on the few dust motes dancing in the air.
"It's such a silly thing being sad. Abigail would never have had the things we take for granted, or been an adult on her own. Still, she was so very dear and sweet. This picture is the last one I have of her. We took it just before that ruddy awful night. I think losing her hit your grandfather very hard...I don't think he ever wanted to leave the army, even after the war. When our Gail passed he took leave, then an honourable discharge,and we travelled. The Caribbean mostly. Some of the places he'd been and some he hadn't. Across Canada, the east coast where I'd lived as a girl. My second youngest brother and his wife came along too, to California and some really nice places in Florida. My it was a fine time.
Then four years later we were back in our little house in Kingston where your father was born and then we moved here after your grandfather took a job as a teacher at the high school. My my. So many memories. But it's almost teatime dear! I tell you what! I think today we'll break out the rye. It's in the bottom cupboard beside the sink. I take mine over two ice cubes, you can mix yours how you like. My brothers always took theirs straight."