© 1996 Sara McAulay

Short Fiction by Sara McAulay

In 1991 the firestorm burned 2000 homes, but hers wasn't one of them. She remembers the worried faces of her neighbors, but she herself was not afraid. She was distracted, newly in love. The flames on the hills so close to her house seemed false, theatrical. There should be actors, a director. Although she knew that the danger was real she didn't believe in it.
All afternoon she watched the dark smoke billow while she and her husband took turns hosing the roof and loading their belongings into the car, and her thoughts drifted like smoke to the night before, when she and her lover had been together. Borate bombers lumbered overhead, police helicopters whack- whack- whacked at treetop level down side streets, blaring warnings to evacuate. Her mind veered to her lover's kisses. Those flames were real. They had marked her. She was afraid to undress, for fear of what might be visible on her skin.
From her window she saw cars in an anxious stream on the winding road out of the hills. She saw bicycles and awkward bundles lashed to station wagon rooftops, and she saw her lover's eyes shine silver in the moonlight--danger she could believe in. She and her husband had agreed not to evacuate unless the flames jumped the road at the bottom of the canyon.
As darkness fell, flames spilled over the hilltop two ridges to the north and ate their way slowly down. She walked out a little ways, around the first bend, for a better view. Eucalyptus, pine, scrub oak blazed, exploding like Roman candles, geysers of sparks erupting. She watched a house explode, saw the roof lift, and fall back in upon itself with a sound like an indrawn gasp. Smoke hung in an oily, acrid, orange-bellied black cloud.
The woman she was in love with lived across the freeway from the fire. She thought about this woman's breasts, the cleft of her sex as she watched the trees erupting, as flames engulfed another house, less than half a mile from her own. She thought: This is a wrong thing to think, but in its own way this is beautiful.
At 10 o'clock that night the wind shifted, driving the flames back onto themselves, back over the area already burned. The next day she, like many others, walked past still-steaming blackened fallen trees and collapsed walls, touring disaster as people do, feeling horror and sadness and a strange guilty joy. That evening on some pretext she managed to spend time with her lover, and it seemed to her that their lovemaking was particularly sweet, as though she had carried to bed with her all the tragedy of those ruined homes, the groves of eucalyptus and oak reduced to charred and reeking stumps offered as a sacrament.
Once through the burned area was enough for her. Her house was safe, but her marriage did not last. She moved across the bay to an apartment where from the bedroom window she could see the hills burned by the firestorm. It was eerie at first to look across the water at night and see the great black gap in the familiar pattern of lights, like a hole in the sky where Orion should be. Eerier still to do so along he contours of her lover's body, through the tangle of her hair as they embraced. She got used to the black gap before long; stopped thinking about it, stopped noticing. And then, gradually, reconstruction began. The burn scars healed; lights began to return. Before long she didn't notice them either.
Five years passed. Still more new houses went up, their lights at night now thick in the distance, as if the fire had been in fact as unreal as it had seemed to her that afternoon in the spark-filled air, hosing her roof and thinking of her lover's tongue, a soft wet flame. Still, it was by no particular plan that the two of them found themselves one Sunday walking in the neighborhood near where she had lived. Her lover had found someone else and was thinking of leaving. They both knew it, but neither of them had spoken of it yet. They walked down the tree-lined street carefully not speaking of it, past the house that had been her house, the house that hadn't burned that night when others did. A mystery. Trick of the wind. Don't leave, she wanted to say.
They kept on walking, up the hill through stands of live oak and pine. The air smelled of dust and pine needles and dry grass. As they climbed higher they could see the bright tricorn dots of sails on the glittering bay. Then, rounding one last bend they came upon the burn. The trees ended, exposing the hills' contours, cauterized and violently rearranged. Huge new houses loomed, many of them empty.
From a distance, from below, these houses looked like small hotels. Up close they resembled giant mausoleums. Picture-windowed mausoleums, mausoleums with a view. From some angles they looked like the scalped heads of multi-eyed monsters thrusting out of the earth. A science-fiction landscape. That's it, she thought. We're on the moon.
What struck her first was the silence, the stillness that went beyond silence. No birds. No children playing, no one at work in a flower bed or edging the lawn or tinkering with a car, the ballgame on the radio for company.
Without thinking, the two of them held hands. Their shoes crunched on loose gravel. Don't leave, she wanted to say. Please don't leave. Her lover bent and picked up something dark and shiny from the edge of the road. A flake of fused glass, burnt bone, who could tell? Sharp. Slick black when she touched it to her tongue. Soft tongue, white teeth. The fire's leavings.

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