All morning it is night.
The children stand at the window, gazing out at the rust-colored sky. They wiggle like wind-up machines, ticking out their excitement.
“Will the streetlights turn off?” the older child asks.
“I guess we’ll see,” his mother answers.
“Will the owls know it’s time to sleep?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“I think the owls will go to sleep.” He sounds sure.
A neighbor walks by, masked, and waves to the children, who wave back.
“Mom! Mom! Has the sky ever turned red before?”
Motherhood has taught her to be a good witness: speculation is dangerous. Say only what must be said—no more than that. No need to speak your worries into the air.
“I’m sure it’s happened before. There’ve been lots of fires here before. I’m sure it’ll go back to blue soon,” she says. She has no idea whether the sky has turned red before. Have so many acres ever burned at one time?
She drags the children away from the window and sees them shod. They set off on their morning walk with their father and the dog. She stands at the doorway, watching as they disappear around a corner, two little pajama bodies bouncing at the thrill of daytime darkness.
She takes a single picture on her phone: their dark suburban neighborhood, squat ranch houses and tall trees, under a dome of red.
Despite the color of the sky, the air is clean to breathe: an odd reprieve from the kind of smoke you can smell.
She has already accessed explanations.
The fires are sending smoke into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sunlight.
And: The fires are caused by mismanagement of forested areas in California and Oregon.
Also: This mismanagement is exacerbated by the encroachment of human structures on wilderness areas.
In short, there are places that need to burn—places that will go up, one way or another. The tribes indigenous to the area—the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Miwok, Chumash and, here, Ohlone—conducted prescribed burns in order to prevent wildfires. But those who stole their land pay no heed to their knowledge.
People build houses in the tinderbox and, lo, it burns.
It is quiet, as after snow.
She walks the yard, thinking of snow: snows of a youth spent elsewhere, in a place with winter. She carries within her a mute animal sensorium calibrated there, in that other climate. Here, it betrays her. The sky is red and the air is warm, but the feral part sees pink—like the pinks that portend snow—and it cannot be persuaded to understand otherwise. She can find no way to speak of that inner rending, that dislocation, of knowing two ways within one body.
She visits her plants. Among the tender annuals, she bends down to touch. A coating of ash covers the hairy leaves of the cucumber vines and the tops of tomatoes. She rinses them, cleans them, showering them with hose water and wiping the ash with her fingertips. Acts of contrition. Sometimes she talks to them—but today, no. She keeps her disquiet to herself. They need sunlight, the whole spectrum, and she can’t say when blue will return.
Having cleaned the weaker plants, she stands under the live oak, Quercus agrifolia, listening. No squirrels. Why should the squirrels have disappeared? She looks up, trying to discern their movements in the oak tree. A sharp, oblong acorn lands on her forehead. She reaches up to the spot and touches a tiny trickle of wetness. Her fingers come away with a smudge of blood.
The children return from their walk; the dog settles onto the couch with dirty paws; her husband ascends the stairs to the ersatz office of their erstwhile bedroom. Feeling the creep of despair, she yields easily to requests for screens.
Soon, she is at her screen, too: checking the news, checking the news; reading variations of the same articles, over and over; sending and receiving text messages; posting, posting, posting.
She is the recipient of several photos of the sky—her sky—sent from friends back East, who are seeing it on newsfeeds. One friend forwards a picture culled from Twitter: the concrete column of Coit Tower, poised above the city, the colors all ripe persimmon. “San Francisco, September 9, 2020,” the text reads, as if the day, half-done, were already entering historical record. Another friend sends an image of the Golden Gate Bridge rising into a bloody orange haze. She decides not to reply with pictures of her own. Their pictures are better than her pictures. They tell her that’s because the iPhone “fixes” the color, making it difficult to capture the shock of red. On her screen, it looks more like a pale salmon glow. As before snow.
I need a 10 min break, she texts her husband.
No prob be right down
Standing in the garden, no birdsong reaches her.
This place, California, is where she so wished to be at one time. Now she misses rain; she misses thunderstorms. She was thrilled when the lightning came in August. It was not until two days later that they learned the lightning lit hundreds of tiny fires. These grew for weeks, merging at last into three massive conflagrations—more than a million acres burning.
Some people will not realize a fire might be smoldering somewhere, unseen—hidden inside the trunk of a tree—a fire that could catch, burn, spread. She is forced to admit that she is one of those people.
She hasn’t dressed; her children haven’t dressed. At least one of them is sleeping again, so that it seems sensible not to have dressed him. The other sits at her side, reading a book. His limbs are unaccountably heavy and he drapes his leg over hers and winches it back and forth, irritating her. He likes to pause too long on some pages and to go on too quickly on others. If she doesn’t tell him to quiet down, his voice rises until he’s shouting.
One day, one day, when he is a young man, he may give young man hugs, and she will miss the unselfconscious way he clambers and leans and tramps companionably upon her foot to give her a kiss.
It had once been a relief to perceive, from within the creep and whoosh of time, that she was infinitesimal. Incomparable sweetness, once—it was in her twenties—to feel in her dusty bones that all her deeds were marks on water.
But then he was born. That he, too—her son—should, in the timespan of the universe, be infinitesimal—that he should, moreover, alter continually within the all-too-brief overlap of their lives—was very near unbearable.
Thus, she lurches, in an instant, and her eyes fill with tears, and she reads on.
She stands, again, beneath the live oak. She stares up at its limbs, again, her hair undone.
The tree is not young—being some thirty-five or forty feet fall—but, like her, it is not old, either. It stands next to a fence, on the other side of which lives a neighbor who shears the tree’s limbs clean off so that none overhang his driveway. On her side, it is imposing, implacable, with sharp leaves like the holly she used to hide under as a child when her father was sick or mean or both. On the neighbor’s side, it is flat, its rounded canopy cut away, so that its shape from the vantage point of the sidewalk is like a button mushroom cut in half.
She has the feeling, sometimes, that she, too, is truncated or lopsided—from a certain perspective. She has the feeling, too, sometimes, however, that this tree despises her.
Sometimes, when it seems civilization teeters on the brink, she inventories her small knowledge of how to survive and remembers that the acorns are edible. Grind them up and soak the acorn meal in water, then drain, rinse, repeat, to wash away the tannins. After leaching, the acorn meal can be used like wheat flour. Or so she understands, anyway: she has never tried it. It is Indigenous knowledge, not hers.
But somehow she thinks this tree does not want her to survive on its acorns. Will not let her. If it comes to that.
All day it has been brightening night. By afternoon, they have ceased to remark on it.
The strange sky feels like an excuse, so they eat pizza for dinner.
They walk to a field. The children run up and down a hill, laughing wildly.
She wonders how the grass lives. Someone must irrigate it; every inch of grass they have near their own house is dead. She could water it and keep it alive, but the roots of the live oak run beneath it and the live oak doesn’t need or want her water. It is native here, tough motherfucker, in this unfriendly state. Only coddling can kill it.
The children are in the bath. Lining plastic dinos on the side of the tub.
Has she coddled them? They are unprepared for what’s coming—for the vicissitudes of their time. She is unprepared to teach them. Yes, it’s true she has read a few books on foraging. But she also has never been camping in her life, does not know how to light a fire, fears the darkness. What they need is a community that does not yet exist. But how can she give what she, too, is waiting for?
The two dinosaurs, carnivore and herbivore, are having a very civilized conversation. Hello, T Rex. Hello, Triceratops. How are you today? Okay, how are you?
She stares out the window at the oak, a black silhouette against the red sky.
“To coddle” means “to treat with extreme or excessive care or kindness,” but also “to cook (something, such as eggs) in liquid slowly and gently just below the boiling point.” A marvel that a single word can wind such antinomies together, carrying them forward like an unresolved musical dissonance.
The children are in the bath, being coddled by their mother.
They stand in the kitchen, husband and wife, doing the dishes together. She knows she is doing the dishes in that cross way she has of doing dishes—slamming them a little, clinking things—and she knows he’ll notice. Yet she can’t seem to control the tension in her limbs or her jaw.
He turns off the music. “How are you doing? Was it a tough day?”
“It was fine. I’m just tired.”
Crash of a dish dropped into the dishwasher. The beer bottle clips the edge of the sink when she sets it down. Maybe she’s a little drunk. Who cares? The fucking sky was red today.
“Are you feeling hopeless?” That diagnostic language. He is checking her like a gauge.
“Of course I’m feeling hopeless,” she says. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
All day it was dark and now it is night.
All day she listened, stepped out into the yard to listen, and didn’t hear birds singing or insects buzzing. Heard only a little wind, perhaps, or the drumming of a neighbor who practices every day—who has practiced every day for months—never to arrive at any confidence or skill. She admires this neighbor their fortitude: drumming on, drumming on, day after day.
All day beneath this ruddy sky and then she climbs into bed and stares into the lighted rectangle of her phone, bluish in the dark. So she can’t sleep. Perhaps today she never woke up.
There are places, it says—the phone says, the internet—places that need to burn. We know this. And either this is new or it has always been this way. Either we burn ourselves or the fire is suppressed and it burns, in time, anyway. Then, after? A cone opens; a seed germinates. A meadow unfurls from the earth.
She is full of something like rage. Is it rage? Can rage keep her alive? Whatever it is, can it keep her alive? That’s what she needs to know: can it keep her alive. Can it keep her children alive.
There are places that need to burn. We know this.
The animals know to run before humans do. She had read that, in Sri Lanka before the tsunami, the elephants screamed and fled. Animals run before the fire or they burrow underground—the small ones—to a hole in the ground, deep enough that they will not be cooked.
Maybe what she feels right now is new—a new human emotion. Maybe she can’t put her finger on it because it is not rage but whatever flows in with this collective animal knowing.
There are places that need to burn. Hurry, hurry.
She visits her children in their beds.
In the first room, the darkness is thick as velvet and the white noise drones.
In the second room, the stars whirl overhead.
She goes to the side of her oldest child’s bed.
Reaches out, trembling fingers, touches his hair.
The cucumber leaves, too, were dusted with ash.
She puts a hand to her mouth. Retreats.
Outside, it is quiet, as after snow.
It never snows here, however; that place is in her memory.
She steps under the live oak. Her feet are bare and so cold. The acorns and the sharp leaves cut into them. Like the leaves of the holly.
In the darkness the oak leans over her, a little shiver beneath it.
Speak, O tree!
An entreaty. (Ha!)
But there is no sound.
Tell me, Reader, why should she find herself surprised at her own softness? At the tender soles of her feet? Her vulnerable offspring? That we, unlike them—the trees—cannot withstand centuries? That we live, and have always done so, precariously, in the vanishing margin of a few degrees?
Do not say, please, that you are surprised to find ash in your children’s hair.
Sometimes you need to set your hand upon a thing to feel that it is not itself