My name is Sarah. I live in the Gila Wilderness, in the mountains of south-western New Mexico, and I map fires. From the nearest road, by horse or mule, it’s a day’s journey here; few people pass through, only botanists and geologists, the occasional tree counter. In the rare event that one of these men is sent to discuss my data, they are surprised when I open my cabin door. I have neither the heft nor years to fit their image of a solitary outdoorswoman. I wear lipgloss. I French-braid my hair. Even in the late autumn, when I am in gloves all day, I still paint my fingernails. These men glance at my pyramid of firewood, the axe pitched in the stump; they study the fly rod leaning against the door frame, the line of trout drying in the sun.
‘You’re the lookout?’ they ask, their heads shaking in disbelief.
They unload their bags in the small room provided for guests of the forest service and, through the open door, shout formalities: studied forest patterns with Albert Popperly, concerned about mesquite and cottonwood regrowth. Finally unpacked, they emerge with a fresh shirt and combed hair to share what wine or whiskey they have brought. I grill a trout and over dinner we discuss the land, the fires, the Indians who once roamed these mountains. As the sun sets, I light a fire, and, when the fire dies, we shimmy closer on the lumpy couch to share the large wool blanket that has borne witness to all of my wilderness couplings. The discussion continues, punctuated by probing silences, pauses that anticipate a kiss or a toppling of torsos, but I am, as always, unable to turn away from the embers. As I fight a yawn, the man declares that he loves his work but that all the travel has come at the expense of meeting the right woman. Don’t I get lonely out here? I say that the spruce-firs and the ponderosa keep me company. In semi-surrender he smiles, and I stand to rake the ashes. But later, while I am showing him how to release the water valve on the sink so he can brush his teeth, I bury my face in the thick scent between his neck and shoulder, breathing him in, this stranger, as though it is the last scent in the world.
He lifts my chin. ‘What on earth are you doing out here?’ he whispers, kissing me before I can answer.
The next morning, he sets off up the mountain to get cell reception, and by sunset clomps breathlessly up the cabin steps, cheeks flushed. ‘I lied to all of my superiors,’ he boasts.
‘Flu? Sprained ankle?’
‘And you’re being tended by a nice forest ranger until you can resume your survey?’
‘I think my recovery will take at least a week, don’t you?’
‘Well then. Would you like the grilled trout or the grilled trout tonight?’
For days we play house. We are honeymooners; we are an old couple reading side by side, wrapped snugly in our silence. In the morning, we drink coffee in our underwear. In the afternoon, sweaty from sex, he steps outside in Tevas only to retrieve firewood for the night. I try on his slippers, grow dizzy behind his reading glasses.
I harbour no illusion that I, in particular, have drawn him into this exchange. It is the wind rustling the ponderosa, the wingspread of a falcon traversing the evening sun, the scratch of bobcats on ancient rocks. We are a man and woman alone in the wilderness. We are Adam and Eve, or so he believes.
Splayed across the blanket on the floor, spooning condensed milk into my mouth, he asks, ‘So you don’t miss television?’
‘Baseball games? Telephones?’
‘I miss draught beer,’ I say. ‘And oysters.’
‘Come on, you’re too young to be living out here like a hermit.’
I am thirty-two.
‘I’m a hermit prodigy,’ I say. ‘I exhibited hermiting skills at age five so my parents entered me in a special programme.’
He reels in mock dismay, then growls and playfully smacks my thigh. ‘God, look at that curve. Look at that delicious flesh.’ He runs his hand along my side. ‘Those are childbearing hips.’
He leans in to kiss me.
‘Leave,’ I say.
The Earth once existed without fire. Until 400 million years ago, primordial peat and reeds emerged from the sea, plants to feed the ravenous flames. Across the continents fire flashed and faded, sputtered and raged, a wild beast of heat and light roaming the forest until one day man tamed it.
Fire opened the night. Fire rendered animals edible. Brought together by their shared fire, early humans formed tribes, clans, families. For fire must be conceived, fed, disciplined, watched, put to bed, awakened. Fire is like a baby.
Here in the Gila Wilderness, walk a half-mile in any direction and you will come across a lightning-scarred tree. When a tree is struck, if the current runs just beneath the surface, the pressure blasts off a strip of bark.
If the current runs down the centre – kaboom.
Few fires in the world begin with lightning. Only one bolt in four reaches the ground, and most strike rock or water. There is hot lightning and cold lightning. Cold lightning will blast without burning. But hot lightning has the high amperage and low voltage to spark combustion. Hot lightning loves these woods, and, at any given time of year, a half-dozen wild fires are burning here.
Apache, Aspen, Meason, Grouse . . .
Every fire is named, and mapped. From my lookout tower I mark the hourly and daily changes in a fire’s perimeters: one acre, seventy-five acres. I note the wind speeds and air temperatures. In the cabin lay seventy-five years’ worth of fire maps, maps made by my predecessors. These are used to overlay subsequent forest growth maps. Sometimes, a tree counter will arrive and ask for a fire map from 1962. A botanist will set up camp in my living room and for days examine every fire map from the 1980s. Because present growth, or lack thereof, means little without the record of destruction. I make copies of these maps to send to the district office, indicating the basic fire-data points so that it can all be computerized. But the originals remain on site, and many are quite beautiful. The first man in this cabin was named Everett Hodges, and he signed all of his maps with a calligraphic drawing of bighorn sheep, though the bighorns had already vanished from the landscape when he arrived. Perhaps he spotted one, the last of its kind. Perhaps he imagined he did. These woods are ancient; the past lingers. Everett Hodges also lived in this wilderness alone. I am the only woman to have lived here. I have made seventy maps. I have been here five years.
I once lived in another house, on another hillside, in northern Arkansas. The house was a lofted wood cabin fronted by a wrap-around porch with two rocking chairs from which you could see the Ozark Mountains to the south and east. Sitting in those chairs as the sun rose, you could watch the morning mail truck turn off the old highway and slowly tackle the quarter-mile gravel road snaking up to the house. Conversely – and this is important – from the bottom of the same road, you could see the entirety of the front porch, even the main door, above which hung the red wooden letters I had carved and painted myself, spelling: The Lamberts.
The man who built this house was my husband, Luke.
Luke and I met in college. We ended up in the same corner of a boring party together my sophomore year. I thought he was sexy (a word I wasn’t accustomed to applying to nineteen-year-olds), but as for what I said to him or what he said to me I can’t recall. We were too young to think such details important. When, after too many tequila shots and a shared Marlboro Red, we made out on the hood of a car, we had no idea a significant era of our lives had begun.
Luke was the bass player in a band called the Skornflakes. He tried to teach me to play bass; in the name of higher education, he cracked my Indigo Girls cassettes in half and replaced them with Rage Against the Machine. He wore T-shirts, faded and ripped, hiking boots and dirt-smeared sneakers. The only time I ever saw Luke in a suit was at our lakeside wedding, a suit he peeled off at the night’s end to dive from the dock and race his band’s drummer across the lake.
We hadn’t originally planned on getting married. After graduation, Luke went to work on a fishing boat in Alaska, and, for lack of a better idea, I had moved back to Boston where I worked as a receptionist at a law firm and in the evenings draped my floor with an old bed sheet and set up my easel. I had a few brief, disappointing flings, which always left me with the strange urge to confide in Luke. But I had no way of calling him. From the fishing boat, Luke wrote long letters that sometimes took weeks to arrive, the envelopes covered with ballpoint-pen drawings of king crabs, nautical knots, the crests of Pacific waves. He loved the ocean but did not like his job. The boat was a floating dictatorship, he wrote, and signed his letters Fletcher Christian, HMS Bounty Mutineer. He said he wanted to get home, to see me and to never look at another salmon again.
When Luke finally returned to the mainland, he learned his grandfather had died; he called to say that he was clearing out the house in Oregon and would drive his grandfather’s truck across the country with some furniture, stopping along the way in Arkansas to see a plot of land his grandfather had left him, but that he would be at my doorstep in two weeks.
I told him I’d fly out and meet him in Arkansas, and we could drive the rest of the way back east together.
We never made it back east.
It was a spectacular piece of land. Situated on a hill near the town of Eureka Springs, the Ozarks rose above us, and below snaked the Buffalo River. That night, we pitched a tent, heated canned ravioli over an old camping stove, shared a warm beer and confessed that in our year apart we had each had some meaningless ‘encounters’. Then we put on headlamps, lay side by side on our stomachs, and Luke showed me the photographs he’d taken in Alaska. He narrated each one, then laid out a row of six, edge to edge, that composed a full image of the horizon.
‘Muy artsy,’ I said, injecting Spanish into our conversation as we always did when we were alone, though we could never recall how this started.
‘De nada, señorita,’ he answered, collecting the photos. ‘Now tell me about your paintings.’
I explained that I’d stopped painting landscapes because I could only work at night. I was painting still lifes instead, and to save money on canvases I’d buy old paintings from flea markets – some ten inches wide, some five feet wide.
‘But you’ve got to have fresh canvases, Sarah. Won’t your parents help?’
‘I’m twenty-one. That’s too old to live at home or ask for money. Besides, it’s kind of interesting. Always painting over something else.’
He pushed the hair from my eyes and kissed me gently, almost nervously, and then slowly it eased into something more insistent, more urgent. Even though for weeks I’d imagined our passionate reunion, when we’d met at the airport it had felt strange to be near him again. For a year Luke had been jagged handwriting on worn paper; he’d been the perfect memory of young love, of sheet-tangled conversations about our parents and religion, talks that spiralled into dawn beside overflowing ashtrays. We’d shared every thought, every memory; I thought I knew him inside out. But he looked different now. His hair was longer and fastened in a ponytail. His left arm was sunburned from the drive and he looked – although I may only have imagined it – salted, or aged, from the sea. Before touching him I found myself needing to study every inch of him, and could sense him doing the same. So even though we’d never been shy around each other, it seemed proper to talk, to reacquaint ourselves before tossing aside our headlamps and kicking off our boots, then jeans, as we finally did then, toppling the pots from dinner.
‘Do you still respect me?’ I asked afterwards.
‘Good God. I respect you even more.’
‘I could live like this,’ he said, pulling me close. ‘This night sky, this air, that moon.’
My heart was still beating strongly. ‘Me too.’
‘I thought about you a lot when I was at sea.’
‘You were on a boat full of men. Of course you thought about me.’
‘Seriously.’ Luke propped himself up on one elbow. ‘Putting aside your shitty taste in music, you’re the person I admire most in the world. You’ve got integrity. You’ll eat beef jerky for dinner without complaint. You can drink me under the table. And, oh yeah, you’re smokin’ hot.’
I blushed. ‘Well, what of it?’
‘Grandpa Lambert was pretty generous. So I can buy you a ring, or I can build you a house. Right here.’
I lay back on a nylon sack stuffed with Luke’s shirts. The sky above was dazzling. He laid his head beside mine and our ears touched, our jaws aligned.
‘Casa,’ I whispered.
It took seven months to build the house. We rented a garage apartment in town, and as Luke puzzled over blueprints at night, he looked older and more responsible than the bass player I’d met in college; for the first time I could imagine us one day being middle-aged, drinking wine together by a fireplace, studying the first faint furrows on each other’s foreheads, joking about the reckless nights of our youth.
‘Sarah, look at how you have to angle the ceiling beams to bear the weight of the roof.’ Having majored in engineering, Luke harboured a deep respect for geometry and design. He decided to build me a painting studio with floor-to-ceiling windows and a skylight; it would be attached to the back of the house in order to share plumbing with the kitchen and have its own kitchenette and bathroom, but it would have its own entrance from the outside so that I could have some privacy.
This is also important.
His band mates came to set the timbers and frame. But Luke, alone, hammered in the siding, laid the roof, put up the Sheetrock. I helped with the plaster and sawed logs for the porch rails.
‘You would have kicked ass on the frontier.’
‘Luke, as far as my family is concerned, this is the frontier.’
The night we unpacked the last of our belongings – boxes of our college notebooks, ceramic bowls and vases I had made before abandoning pottery for painting, Luke’s bass and speakers – we invited over the few local friends we’d made – the lumber merchant and hardware dealer, the contractor who installed the kitchen cabinetry and plumbing, the electrician – and their wives. Older people who were pink-faced from years in the Ozark sun, delighted to see a young couple setting up house.
‘This, darlings, is a house you can grow into,’ the lumber merchant’s wife said with a wink.
Luke found work as a river guide, taking out canoes and kayaks for weekenders down from Kansas City or up from Little Rock, and I found a part-time receptionist job at a doctor’s office, which left my afternoons free for painting. Before dinner, Luke would go for a long run, and sometimes I’d join him, and then we’d shower and sit on our front porch, feet propped on the log rail, our heads wet, drinking beer and watching the sun set above the mountains, amused and amazed that this was our life.
Most of our friends were in law school or medical school, or had headed west to join the dot-com boom. They worked long hours and regaled us over the phone with tales of their dating disasters. Luke and I had each other. We’d built a house.
Our lives felt full, settled, except that after our families came to visit that first year, we rarely had company. No one passed through Eureka Springs. And so the downstairs guest room stood empty.
Luke could have set up his amp and bass in there, but he didn’t. I hung some paintings on the wall, but my supplies remained in my cluttered studio. We put nothing in the dresser drawers, or the closets. The room, strangely, seemed to be waiting for something.
One night, as we were going to sleep, I studied my foil pack of birth-control pills.
‘Luke –’ I began.
He could see me struggling, and took the pack from my hand. We had been married two years.
‘I say we flush these fuckers,’ he said.
Derek arrives on my doorstep in mid-August with evacuation orders. He works in the Gila Wilderness on a saw team – the sawyer saws off unburned brush, then the swamper throws it across the fire line. Derek and his partner Mike used to swap jobs every time the saw needed a new tank of gas. Until one day, Mike, distracted by a fight he’d had with his wife, cut a tree with a hang point, not a hinge; it fell with a fast pivot and crushed Mike’s ribcage before he could escape. While Derek held Mike’s hand, waiting for the medic and talking to keep him conscious, the blood loss killed Mike. Derek has been grounded until the crew psychiatrist deems him fit to return to the fire zone. I know all the fire crew by name and speciality; I know their voices, but not their faces. In my lookout tower, I listen to them on their radios. The day Derek was with Mike, I heard him shout for the medic, talking Mike through his last breath, then weeping. This was three months ago.
‘Macon is close,’ Derek says. ‘They told me they’d radioed your station but that you hadn’t responded.’
‘The winds are shifting,’ I say. ‘It won’t come this far.’
He looks up at the sky. He is short and stocky; he has the build of a boxer. ‘You’re probably right. But I’ve got nothing better to do than get you out of here. I can give you thirty minutes to pack up your valuables, then we hit the trail.’
‘There’s nothing to pack.’
He stares at me, then walks back to his horse and mounts the saddle. ‘Hop on.’
We ride silently through the woods, watching smoke rise in the distance. The air is hot and dry. Two miles from the cabin, we stop at the stream to water the animal.
‘I hear you’ve been out here a few years,’ he said.
‘Going on six.’
‘And that you don’t much leave the park. Lost your taste for humanity?’
‘Just strip malls and traffic jams.’
‘Can’t argue that.’ He sits on a rock and pulls out an apple and knife. He quarters it and hands me a slice, then offers one to the horse. ‘It’s the going back and forth that always gets me. Sometimes we don’t sleep for days, don’t shower. We breathe smoke all day and hike right into the thick of a fire. Can’t really finish up and wander Kmart on the weekend. Like trying to re-enter the atmosphere; the skin just wants to jump from your face.’
‘It’s been an active season,’ I say.
He nods, and then his gaze settles on his boots. I regret my remark. He is thinking of Mike.
‘Are you from these parts originally?’ I ask.
‘Phoenix. My grandmother was Apache. Chiricahua. She lived in a wickiup with a big domed straw roof. All anyone is supposed to want in life is a roof over their head. I hate roofs.’ He turns and strokes his horse’s face, nodding to the animal as though they have discussed the matter many times. ‘Roofs literally make me sick. Perforated ulcer. There’s a doctor in Albuquerque wants to study me.’
‘You like being up in the trees.’
‘Even if there’s fire right below. My wife said I must have been a monkey in a former life. Before she decided I was an ass in this one.’
I laugh, and look at his ring finger.
‘She gave you the boot?’
He smiles. ‘With a steel toe.’
‘I’m sure you deserved it.’
‘Well, she wanted a roof over her head.’ He looks up at the sky. The wind has shifted. ‘There goes Macon, running the other way now, just like you said.’
‘Then I can go home now.’ I stand and head for the horse.
He watches me, without moving. ‘You’re not scared of the fires?’ he asks.
‘Not scared,’ I say. ‘Terrified.’
According to the Cherokee, Grandmother Water Spider spun a bowl and placed it on her back to steal fire from the land of Thunders and Light. It was the Rabbit, claim the Algonquin, who pilfered fire from an old man and his daughters. The Apache say it was the Fox who stole fire from the fireflies, tying bark to his tail to catch their flame, then running away, igniting brush and wood along his path, spreading fire across the Earth.
The record of mankind was written with fire. Prehistoric hearths scorched cave roofs, leaving traces of human habitation for millennia; the charred remains of rabbits and bison settled in the earth, awaiting the shovels of palaeontologists. Fire is history.
‘I’m here to evacuate you again.’
‘No you’re not. Nothing’s burning within twenty miles of here.’
Derek stands on my front porch; it is a week later. He is clean-shaven. His black hair gleams with some kind of gel.
‘An unofficial evacuation,’ he says.
‘You’ve gone rogue?’
‘There’s somewhere I’d like to visit. Call it a destination evacuation.’
I can see the determination in his face; I can see how this mission, this small adventure, has for the time being subsumed his grief.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be on leave? Or working the station?’
‘They’ve already grounded me.’
‘Well, where do you want to go?’
He is already walking back to his horse, mounting the saddle. A cooler is tied to the horse’s flank. ‘You coming?’
The sun sits low in the sky as we slowly descend the hill; when the ground levels and the trees clear, Derek gives the horse a kick and the animal tears loose across the grass. The wind is warm on our faces. As we pass a fire site from two years ago, Derek halts the horse to examine a field of black stumps. ‘This one . . .’ he says, his silence conjuring a momentary sea of flames.
By the time we arrive at the monument entrance, the gates have closed. ‘Hold on.’ Derek urges the horse into a run and then a long jump. The cooler rumbles. I am briefly lifted from the saddle, and I don’t want to lose my balance but avoid lingering in a hug. I’m grateful when we slow for the approach to the cliffs. In five years I have never been here, but I know what we are looking at. Almost a thousand years ago, the Mogollon people roamed this wilderness, taking shelter in the cliff-side caves. With stone axes they felled pines to use as roof beams. Dozens of ceremonial rooms and homes were built into the cliffs.
Derek ties up the horse and we approach on foot. He rests the cooler on his shoulder. The landscape is silent but for the sound of the rocks beneath our boots.
We pass a pictograph – a red stick figure of a man walking – and examine it silently. It looks like a child’s drawing.
‘Take your pick,’ he says. ‘Cave one through five.’
We duck and enter sideways. Then we are standing in a massive stone room, looking up at ancient beams.
I put my hand on my hip. ‘I thought you hated roofs.’
He smiles and from the cooler tosses me a beer. He sits and opens a can for himself, then cuts a salami in thick slices and lays them on pieces of bread. He cubes a chunk of pimiento cheese and lays it on a bandanna between us. The view from inside the cliff is somehow more stirring than looking at it from the outside. I can imagine living here one thousand years ago, looking out at these wilds every night, hiding from the wind. I wonder what version of myself would have emerged if I had lived then; would I have had more courage?
‘You’re not from around here,’ Derek says.
‘Boston. Born and raised.’
‘Are your people still there?’
I like this phrasing: your people. Family, friends, distant cousins, tribes. I say, ‘Yes,’ and do not need to elaborate.
Soon we have finished the salami and the cheese and the bread. He pulls two more beers from the cooler, and when he hands mine over, he clears away the bandanna with the pimiento scraps and repositions himself closer to me.
He thinks it would be wrong to make a pass; I see him struggling with this. He is, technically, supposed to be protecting me. But I like him. So I lean against his arm, and he seems pleased.
‘They found bodies here, you know,’ he whispers.
‘Is this the time of night when you try to scare the girl with a ghost story?’
‘Scout’s honour. They were mummies. They’re gone now, of course. A hundred years ago, they found the mummy of an infant in one of the caves. They named him Zeke. That’s how this place got famous.’
I try to calm my breathing, and Derek mistakes the meaning of my silence.
‘It’s true,’ he insists.
I consider how Derek flaunts honesty, as if it is a badge permitting entry into the darkest of stories.
I close my eyes and rest my head on his chest; he kisses my scalp and soon my mouth is searching his. In the warmth and tangle of our bodies, my mind releases its hold on all memory, like a shoe kicked to the corner of the room.
Derek pulls himself up from me. ‘I don’t have anything. But it would look pretty bad if I carried rubbers when heading off to fight fires.’
‘Should I stop?’
‘Don’t worry. I’m tied up.’
He looks taken aback, but says nothing.
In winter, halfway to the hospital in Little Rock, Emily Anne Lambert was born.
The first months were like a fever dream; days slid into the swirl of night; my body was her captive. At the slightest cry from across the room, milk rushed my breasts. She latched on to me, gasping, in a fit of madness, then drank greedily; afterwards, conquered, spellbound, I gazed at her red-lipped face. Leaning in to smell her breath – sweet and sour – I’d press my mouth to hers.
My happiness was so deep I was afraid to speak of it.
Luke offered to watch her so that I could leave the house and glimpse the real world, but I refused. I wrapped us in blankets and in the grey afternoon light she nursed on the porch; day after day we watched the winter days slowly lengthen, until, in March, I put her in the car seat for the first time and we went for groceries.
The world looked different; in every face I passed – the man slicing ham at the deli counter, the distracted cashier, the boy who wheeled abandoned carts across the parking lot – I imagined the babies they had once been. At the post office, the sight of an old man hobbling on a cane, struggling to open the door, struck a blow to my heart. He is all alone, I thought. He is looking for his mother.
As my body healed from the birth and the awkwardness of pregnancy withdrew into memory, I began to doubt that I had ever made Emily. She giggled when I sneezed or coughed, grinned at pictures of dogs; with Luke she batted her eyes and tugged at his ear lobes, squealing when he entered the room. She was a person. And I couldn’t help but think that she must have always existed; perhaps, I told myself, she’d been waiting to join the world and thought Luke and I seemed a good arrangement.
Like old furniture making way for a grand piano, Luke and I shifted our former selves around Emily. Cigarettes and sleeping in were abandoned. Luke swapped his amp for headphones, and took up cooking. He grilled eggplants, zucchinis, slices of tomato sprinkled with Parmesan. I set aside my canvases and threw what energy I had into painting murals in her room; with balsa wood I built a mobile of Matisse’s dancers. The baseboards of the house became a sea-blue horizon of turtles and sea horses and zebra fish. Luke bought her a baby drum set. A baby guitar. A baby bass.
My days were filled with the scent of apples baking for her lunch; the juice of mashed blueberries stained my fingertips. I pinched bananas and slid pieces onto her tongue, watching her eyes widen and her legs kick with excitement. Everything was new for her; each day held a first.
At night, when she had finally surrendered to sleep, I would lie awake wondering what her world must seem like. Did the chairs and tables she zigzagged through hold meaning? While she lay in her crib, did she dream of the living room? Did she recall, like a trip once taken to Paris, the night we roused her from sleep and carried her outside for the meteor shower? Did she fear the staircase? Long for the porch? Did she know there was a world beyond our house?
I, certainly, was forgetting.
‘Diapers, bottles, soiled blankets – I don’t know. None of it bothers me,’ I told Luke. ‘Betty Friedan would be appalled.’
‘You’re in the honeymoon phase. You’ll miss your work soon enough.’
I didn’t, but during Emily’s long naps I set up the baby monitor and forced myself to wander into my studio and prop up a canvas. For weeks I stared at the blank surface, while household tasks – boil and purée peas, buy more diaper wipes – crept into my head. Fearing I’d never again concentrate, I resorted to my freshman method, taping a landscape postcard to my easel – one that Luke had sent from Alaska years earlier – so that I could finally begin putting down colour.
Within weeks, this daily struggle had transformed into an obsessive escape, the perfect counterpoint to the chores of parenting, and by the time Emily turned one, I was painting better than ever. The deep reserve of emotion that motherhood had brought me now spilled onto my canvases faster than I could understand. The process was exhilarating, and exhausting. Often, I curled up on my cot and slept.
So there was nothing particularly notable about the Tuesday afternoon in October when I put Emily down for her nap, then carried a cup of tea outside, sat on the porch for a few minutes, and headed drowsily into my studio. I hung the usual white shoelace from my studio doorknob, a signal to Luke that I was napping.
He had phoned that day to say he would head home early, as he often did when he had no afternoon boat rentals. He said he’d go for a run and then wake Emily and get dinner started. I could relax.
On the cot I flipped through a magazine – I don’t recall which one – until I drifted off. What I now know was an hour later, I awoke choking on smoke.
We are in my cabin, on the bed. It is midday, overcast; the sky has been grey for hours. It is one of those days where dusk swallows dawn.
We have been talking about movies, and old-time movie stars. Derek has never heard of Greer Garson, my favourite, so I am listing her films. He shakes his head. ‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘You’re dealing with a hick. I know Marilyn Monroe, and the one who was in Go West, Young Man.’
‘Mae West,’ I said. ‘You know the ones with big boobs.’
I have lost track of how many days we have spent like this. I know only that we have begun to run out of banter; our bodies are too exhausted to fill the silences. We lie naked in an awkward limbo, each wondering if we should say goodbye, or ask something that matters.
‘Wait a second,’ he says. ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey . . . Hepburn. Flat as a wall!’
‘Brute.’ I kick the sheet at him.
He clasps my toes, lifts my foot, then holds his breath in deep concentration.
‘I know these scars,’ he finally says. ‘The way the skin regrows. You have no footprint. Just like I –’ he shows me his palm, ‘– have no handprints. The lines never come back. They never told me that when I had the graft. Those whorls and swirls. We lose the very thing that’s supposed to always identify us.’
‘Now you can burgle without fear.’
Derek smiles, but I feel his grip on my foot tighten, ever so slightly. ‘I opened a door. I was nineteen, and eager to prove myself. You?’
I suddenly wish it were night-time, and pitch dark. I gaze out the window. ‘I didn’t open a door.’
‘This stuff . . . it’s hard to talk about.’ He lifts my bare foot and, as if it is the most delicate of birds, rests the sole gently on his shoulder. ‘I hated working the engine. House fires. Buildings with people. Out here it’s different. Just me and the flames. No bystanders. Or that’s what I thought.’
I remember listening to the radio the day his partner died and he called for the medic: Get here, just fucking come help, I can’t do anything. His voice had the heightened pitch of a child’s.
I stare at the muscled slope of his shoulder, the hairy breadth of his arm. I cannot, or perhaps refuse to, imagine that voice coming from him.
‘So did you prove yourself?’ I ask. ‘When you were nineteen?’
‘I went in for an old lady who decided to jump out the window rather than wait for me to get upstairs.’
‘She was scared.’
‘She should have been scared of the concrete.’
I pull my foot from his shoulder, slide it under the blanket, and then he carefully arranges the blanket around my foot, as though putting it to sleep. He scoots towards me, presses his chest to my back and whispers into my hair, ‘Sarah . . . It started in the basement, yes?’ I can speak of every fire, except one.
My pregnancy had been uneventful but for some minor insomnia. Through my eighth month, I went kayaking and hiking; every day I ate spinach and broccoli and sardines; I didn’t once touch alcohol. I felt entirely ready for the birthing process.
Luke had made me a mix CD – classic rock for active labour, heavy metal for pushing. And as my due date approached, we bought scented candles, an exercise ball; we loaded our camera with film, packed a bag with baby clothing and placed bets on when I would go into labour, how many hours it would take.
What happened was this: my water broke in the middle of the night, but labour did not begin. So we lazed around the house, eating scrambled eggs, waiting for my contractions. We called friends, family, laughing at the anticlimax of it all, we watched morning television, cooking shows and small-claims-courtroom disputes; we took photographs of me supine, balancing the labour bag on my belly. Then at noon our midwife called and recommended I drink some castor oil to avoid being induced at the hospital.
This, too, was done with a good deal of silliness – Luke pouring the castor oil into a Martini shaker with grapefruit juice and ice. He served it to me in a sugar-rimmed glass, putting Marvin Gaye on the stereo. Within an hour, though, I was crawling the floor. The pain – like being bludgeoned from the inside – overwhelmed me, and nothing Luke said could make me look at him. He hovered nearby with cups of tea, glasses of coconut water, crackers. Like a dying animal, I curled up in the corner of the bathroom and moaned.
I had imagined labour as a process of endurance, like climbing a mountain; something that required strength; instead, it was trauma. I had difficulty thinking. As water leaked from me and the contractions strengthened, I lost my grip on memory and intention. It was as if I were being born, a terrified and weakened version of myself.
‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I cried.
‘We’re going to the hospital right now,’ said Luke, a look of terror on his face.
I hobbled into the back seat of the truck, writhing as we drove, trying to assure Luke, between gulps of air, that I was OK, until I felt my skin tear. I reached down and felt the baby’s head. Luke pulled over to climb into the back seat as the midwife and ambulance raced our way. He poured water into my mouth, held my hand as I whimpered.
Once the medics arrived, I pushed for an hour while Luke and the midwife held my legs. I closed my eyes, at times stopped pushing because the pain dizzied me. I wanted to sleep; I wanted it all to end.
‘You did it,’ Luke finally said, as he held Emily to his chest.
‘What choice did I have?’
Later, when I had rested and recovered, I said to Luke, ‘I never thought pain could scare me so much.’
‘She was ten pounds,’ said Luke. ‘Go easy on yourself.’
‘You don’t understand. I never felt pain like that. I had no idea that part of me existed.’
‘Well,’ he said, kissing my forehead, ‘it only existed for a few hours.’
I remember thick smoke; I remember tripping over my shoes. I remember air so hot my eyes felt singed. Fire eats oxygen and sucks the air from your lungs. It strangles you. I swung my arms around, knocking down easels, gasping and trying to find my way out.
The door was a rectangle of flame. I stopped moving, trapped, until the heat began to eat my skin. I stepped back and prayed to anything and everything and kicked at the door. It fell forward, and I stumbled onto the flaming wood. I didn’t feel the pain on my feet until I stepped out onto the cool ground beyond, toppled over and vomited. The cuff of my jeans was on fire, and I rolled until the flame died.
Behind me, the entire house thundered and crackled. I scrambled along the grass to the front porch, grabbed a rail and pulled myself up. My feet stuck to the wood, skin peeling off as I mounted each step. I stood before the front door and heard the splintering of wooden beams. Glass shattered in the window to my right and flames leapt out. Emily’s room.
I opened the door and a blast of air seared my face. Throughout the living room, columns of flame spiralled upwards. Between them, a thick black smoke, lit with embers, churned scraps of wood and glass.
I could not move.
I called her name. I must have, right? I must have at least done this.
Then I closed the door and stumbled away.
‘Object permanence’ was coined by Jean Piaget to describe a child’s understanding that objects and people exist when not seen.
Watch a baby in its early months, and it shows little concern when things disappear. Hide its favourite toy, and there is no protest. A baby won’t even cry when its mother leaves.
But somewhere between eight and twelve months, infants realize that things exist when out of sight. A baby that age will understand that its mother is in the next room, down the hall, outside the door. A baby that age, in distress, wants her mother to come back.
When the fire truck arrived, I was lying on a blanket in the back of our truck, having passed out from smoke inhalation. Luke, bare-chested in running shorts, stood beside our neighbour Max, both spraying kitchen-sized fire extinguishers into Emily’s flaming window, to no avail, then tossing in heavy wool blankets.
From the bottom of the hill, coming back from his run, Luke had seen smoke rising from the house. He had seen me on the porch, had seen me, as he ran faster than ever to reach the top of the hill, pull closed the front door.
Doubled over, he looked up at my blackened face.
‘Tell me she isn’t in there.’
I wanted to tell him she wasn’t in there.
‘Sarah!’ He shook me hard, as though to loosen words.
It took the firefighters almost two hours to extinguish the blaze; I learned this later in the hospital, where I was treated for my burns. I lay silently in the bed, as a stream of nurses and doctors and friends came to offer their shock and condolences.
‘She tried to go back in,’ Luke would say, hugging his legs in a chair by the window. ‘She kept trying to get back in to save Emily.’
‘Stop it, Luke,’ I said when we were finally alone, the words garbled by my oxygen mask. My eyes, with what strength they had left, reminded him that I knew he’d seen me close the door.
‘It’s OK,’ Luke said, tears in his eyes. ‘She was already gone.’ He pulled his chair close and searched for a part of me that wasn’t singed, some piece of my former self, his wife, that was left intact, that he could still grab hold of. He rested his hands in the crook of my elbow and set his forehead on his hands.
I did not tell him that Emily wasn’t already gone. Because through the door, beneath the roar of the fire, I heard her calling for me.
It is getting dark, and with each exchange, with each detail spoken, I find myself putting on an article of clothing. I wear socks, my underwear, and I’m clutching a grey cardigan at the waist. Derek remains naked beneath the sheet, but I stand and cross the room and find his jeans. I hand them to him, coins falling to the floor in a noisy rattle.
‘A mother is supposed to do anything for her child,’ I say.
‘You’d have been caught in the flashover. You would have burned to death.’
I slowly pick up each of the coins.
‘People jump out of windows rather than walk through fire,’ he continues, setting the jeans down. ‘Maybe you can walk through fire – once. And then you know what it feels like. Once you’ve known that pain, you can’t make yourself face it again.’
‘Yes, of course. You’re right.’
‘I’ll forgive myself; I’ll start a new life. I’ll have more children and make it all better.’
‘Sarah, come on.’
‘You should go.’
He steps into one leg of his jeans, then looks up. ‘Survivor’s guilt, Sarah. I know it back and forth.’
I want to tell Derek that in ancient Rome, while Romulus ruled and Tacitus wrote and Horatius stood alone on a bridge against the Etruscans, an order of vestal priestesses, all virgins, guarded a single flame for a thousand years.
I want to tell Derek that the Earth itself is filled with hidden flames that can never stop burning.
The Baba Gurgur in Iraq has been aflame for thousands of years. In Turkey and Taiwan, in New York and Washington, fires smoulder – small and controlled – which can never be extinguished. In Australia, a single coal seam has burned for 6,000 years.
‘Derek,’ I say. ‘I didn’t survive.’
At night, I lie in bed, alone, and think of her. She would be six. She would be in school. She would tell me about her day – her friends, her art class, a pet turtle that her class adopted. She would ask questions about rainbows and rivers, she would demand to know why about everything, the way children do, and I would have answers.
Instead, I have questions.
After everything I have learned about fire, I do not understand this: Why is it that one day a wire in the basement overheats? And why are you asleep when it happens? Why is it that you are in the same house as your child, but your husband, in kindness, has built you a separate entrance, so that to get to her you must walk through two walls of flame? And why is it that, despite your love, despite everything you ever believed about yourself, you can’t?
You shake your head: You would have raced in, you think. Walked through the flames, carried her out in your arms. You would never let that happen to your child.
I am here to tell you: you don’t know.
Image © Dennis Stock / Magnum Photos