They tell me this is nothing new. They tell me, “There have always been fires, but you were just too small to see them.” They tell me, “It will all blow over, just like the storm that strengthens your roots.”
I would like to believe them.
They have stood tall for centuries, patient and steady while the beasts of the earth dart around their trunks worrying through brief lives. “We grow from their graves,” they tell me, “and our roots are tangled in their bones. But we shall persist. We always persist.”
The air is dry. There is smoke on the horizon. Surely this is not normal. Surely this is worse than usual.
But they tell me it will pass. “There are bad times, yes. So grow your roots deep and your bark thick, and drink in the sun while you can. Soon the rain will come.”
I would like to believe them. I do not wish to burn.
The sun is dim. The sky is red. All around me, smoke billows. Wood splinters. The trees in whose shade I grew as a sapling writhe and burn and fall. All around me is the sound of splintering wood.
The wind was so strong. It reminded Tom of kite-flying as a boy with a kite as red as Rachel’s lips on their wedding day. They had met the summer he broke his arm. He had broken six bones in his life; the worst was his femur. He broke it falling off the roof while replacing shingles one summer.
A fall of all things …
Fall was his favourite season. It made him think of apple cider and the smoke of leaf burnings. He had burned his tongue drinking his coffee too quickly this morning. That always happened when he was running late for work. In high school, he prided himself on his speed. He even went to state for the 110 hurdles one year, but he fell and broke his ankle.
Tom Jr had broken his ankle at seven jumping off a swing. Rachel had been terrified. She blamed Tom for not watching closely enough. His watch—he should have taken it off.
The lights of the building were flying past like the shooting stars he and his first love saw that night in the mountains.
The wind was so strong. In a moment, he would never feel it again.
Sara’s fingers worked quickly, plucking the clusters of dark shapes from Maggie’s sweatshirt. “You’re sure there aren’t any ticks or anything, right?” Maggie asked.
“No, just some beggar’s lice.”
“Lice?” Maggie said in a panic, “Are you serious?”
“Oh—no it’s not—” Sara laughed. “They’re just stickseeds.”
“Seeds.” Sara held up a cluster of spikey brown kernels and leaned closer to Maggie. “They’ve got these little barbs that stick to clothes and hair and stuff. Pretty annoying.”
Maggie’s eyes darted distractedly between the seeds and Sara’s face, but all she said was, “Oh.”
“Yeah, you must’ve really charged right through them.”
“I guess so,” Maggie said with a brief, uncertain smile.
“You’ve never spent much time in nature, have you?” Sara asked. Maggie shook her head, but didn’t speak. Sara felt her smile fading. This wasn’t working. Better to cut things off, to tear away the barbs of hope she had let accumulate. “I guess you probably aren’t interested in any more hikes then.”
Maggie was picking absently at a line of seeds stuck to her jeans. “Actually,” she said, looking away as a blush rose to her cheeks. “I think I’d like to do it again some time.”
Don’t think I haven’t been faithful or even happy. Because I have. All I’m trying to say is that I’ve never been able to love my wife with my whole heart.
When I was eighteen, I went out into a field during the rain. I danced, splashing in the mud. There was a girl walking through the tall grass and singing a sad, slow song. And she kissed me once before going on her way. When the rain was gone, so was she.
I loved her.
But I never saw her again. A month later I met the woman who would be my wife. She came like a ray of sunshine and illuminated all of the dark recesses of my heart. It was in her that I first knew myself, and her warmth helped me accept all of the wild shadows I had never realized were inside of me. She was comfort and stability.
We were happy. We have always been happy together.
But whenever it rains, I remember that kiss beneath the clouds. I remember the taste and rhythm of untamed passion that fell into my life. And for a moment, my wife does not have all my love.
It was crowded, and louder than usual. A gust of cold wind hit him as one more soul was ushered into the tiny coffee house. The bell above the door tinkled. Another angel’s wings, he thought.
His attention returned to his tea: Irish Breakfast. He used to drink it with his grandmother, who was neither Irish nor ever ate breakfast. She just liked tea. “Tea is peace and comfort,” she would tell him. “A good pot of tea can make the worst enemies into friends.” She always used to say that. But that was almost forty years ago.
This was the best Irish Breakfast tea in town. Almost as good and Grammaw’s. “Excuse me …”
Steam and memory rose from his cup, and he looked through the mist at a stranger’s face.
“It’s pretty full here today. Would you mind if I sat with you … or are you expecting someone?”
The bell tinkled. Wind rushed in. He was silent a long moment, knowing nobody was coming for him. His eyes fell to his tea. It was getting cold.
“It’s alright. I’ll find somewhere else.” And the stranger was gone, lost to the bustling noise of the coffee house.
He recoils initially, then leans forward and sniffs. “Popcorn.”
She shakes her head, grinning slyly and takes back the paper. “No, it doesn’t.”
A shrug. “Well of course it doesn’t. It’s a sticker. How’s it supposed to smell like butter and salt and all that? It just smells like popcorn ‘cuz that’s the best they can do.”
“No,” she says again.
She leans forward conspiratorially, eyes bright. “You just think it smells like popcorn because there’s a picture of popcorn on the sticker, so you smell what you’re expecting. But it really smells like something else entirely. Try again.”
“It’s a scratch-n-sniff.”
“Close your eyes.”
A smack on the arm. “Just do it. Close your eyes.” He sighs, but does as instructed. “Clear your mind. Inhale.”
With a roll of his closed eyes, he breathes in, expecting nothing. He smells smoke. Wood smoke. Dirt and pine needles. Bug spray and sunscreen. Fish roasting over a campfire. Then he hears wind. Rustling branches and creaking trees. He feels mottled sunlight flickering over his eyes. There are footsteps approaching from behind.
He always let the phone ring twice before answering, just to be sure it was a real call.
“I hate you and I never want to see you,” a shrill voice rang out.
“Um … who is this?”
“Cheryl” the voice replied.
He paused a moment to reflect, his mind swimming through a sea of names and faces, but landed on nothing familiar. “I don’t know anyone named Cheryl.”
“Who is this?” “Matt. Matt Reinhart.”
There was a pause. A gasp. A click. And he walked away from the phone.
“I want you to know that I hate you, and I never want to see you.”
He sighed. “Cheryl, this is Matt again. Goodbye.” The phone was barely out of his hand when he heard it.
Was it … ?
Should he … ?
“Don’t hang up” the now familiar voice squeaked.
“Just let me explain …” He decided to let her. “Today has been very rough and filled with a lot of misdirected hostility. Then I heard your voice and your name, and something changed inside me. I knew. Matt Reinhart … do you believe it’s possible to hate someone you’ve never met?”
The tower’s columns soared as high as an eagle, a masterpiece of both architectural and magical construction. Still it shook when the dragon alighted on its pinnacle.
“Madame?” the servant said uncertainly. “There’s no time left. We must–“
“Must?” the mage answered sharply. “The only thing we must do is face death. You may do that now, or if you wish you must postpone it.”
The servant glanced upward, nodded, and dashed for the stairs.
Ignoring his retreat, the mage stepped to the balcony. “Beast!” she called out. “I’ve been waiting.”
A large, scaled head descended, the monster’s large yellow eye peering down at her. “Your bravado is wasted, witch,” the dragon’s voice rumbled. “No boasts nor screams nor pleas for mercy shall stay my fire. I will consume you, crush your tower, incinerate even the memory of your name.”
She smiled. “All are forgotten eventually. All comes to dust in the end. Even you.”
The dragon snorted, a cascade of smoke and sparks.
“Piteous,” she sighed, “that a creature of ruin would be too afraid to face the darkness that awaits us all.” With that, she turned her back.
The sun was rising slowly, persistently. Pale light illuminating gentle slopes, peaks casting shadows into the valleys folded around them. A world spread out around her, peaceful and still. A landscape of folded cloth.
Her phone buzzed. “Do you want to talk?”
She retreated beneath the covers, back into darkness. It wasn’t that she wanted to sleep—not that her mind would let her anyway—another day was simply too much to bear. That growing light revealed the mess of sheets around her, the pile of unwashed clothes, the dishes in the corner. She couldn’t clean her room, couldn’t change her clothes, couldn’t even get out of bed.
Better not to try. Better to stay inside—to stay in the dark, where there was nothing to see and no one to see her. She recognized that she was cycling, but that didn’t mean she had the energy or willpower to overcome it.
Her phone buzzed again. A light beneath the covers. “I’m here when you’re ready.”
There was a whole world out there where the sun illuminated beauty as well as pain, cruelty as well as compassion. She wasn’t ready. Not yet. But she held her phone close.
The alley was wide, but few people used it. It may have been because the tall stone buildings on either side kept out the sun most of the day except for around 12 o’clock. That’s where they stood, surrounded by murky shadows while strangers passed by on either end of the manmade ravine.
“Are you sure?” he asked. He bowed his head to look at her, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Are you sure?”
She nodded slowly.
A breath of wind wound its way down the alley and swept up a few of her golden hairs, coaxing them to flutter before her face and land on her moist lips. His dark, gentle hand brushed those strands aside, tucking them behind her ear and letting his palm rest for just a moment on her warm cheek. She might have been blushing, but the half-light around them made her almost expressionless face appear more serene than he had ever seen it.
He felt her jaw tighten.
“Come on. We should be going.”
Her heels clicked on the cement footpath as she walked. But he lingered ever so briefly, saying goodbye to the air where her perfume and his hand still hung.