05 June 2011

Defensible Space

As the weed eater sputtered to quiet, Elise turned back to look at what she’d accomplished. Her arms were still shaking, from the vibrations of the weed eater as well as the exertion of the yard work. At the fire safety meeting last night in the elementary school cafeteria, the forest ranger had harped on the importance of defensible space. It saddened Elise to cut down the grasses she loved, especially the side oats grama grass, but she also knew that her cabin’s location on the border of the national forest was risky until the summer rains came again, probably two months from now.

The wet winter had encouraged a seemingly disproportionate crop of native grasses; plants her neighbor Dave called weeds. But Elise loved them all, even the ones that deposited sticky seeds she’d have to pull off of her socks one by one with a pair of tweezers. Looking west to the forest, a shiver went down her spine. So many dead trees, juniper and ponderosa. Last summer they’d appeared flaming orange, still clinging hopelessly to their dead needles. But now they all stood grey and lifeless, ominous in their fuel potential. Satisfied with her progress for the day, Elise hauled the weed eater back to the shed. Tomorrow she’d prune some of the low branches out of the junipers on her property. She cringed at the thought that she might need Dave’s help. He’d offer to chop the trees into firewood for her, oblivious or not caring that they were habitat for countless species of birds and insects.

Elise had lived in the cabin for more than ten years, since she retired after thirty years teaching fifth grade, and divorced Charlie. It had once been only a summer getaway, but during the divorce she’d talked Charlie into keeping the house in Mesa so that she could take the cabin in the mountains. She knew that Charlie still wondered sometimes why they’d divorced. They talked on the phone at least a few times a month, and he’d often come up once or twice in the summer for a weekend. It was nice; they were comfortable together. But she’d just needed a change, and so they’d split officially, while still sometimes sharing a bed, and supporting one another through the trials of aging parents.

Charlie would be up this weekend, for Fourth of July. And she’d promised him her famous barbecue chicken. Elise cleaned up and got ready for a trip into the grocery store. She made a mental list of what she’d need: a whole chicken, brown sugar, French bread, green beans, tonic water, lime. Probably a new bottle of gin and some of that extra sharp cheddar that Charlie liked so much.

It wasn’t until she turned onto Valley Road, on the way home from the grocery, that Elise noticed the plume of smoke. It wasn’t yet a huge trail through the otherwise blue sky, but it was definitely smoke. She pulled over and called the forest service office from her cell phone, relieved that she’d programmed it into her phone during the fire safety meeting last night.

“Yeah, we know about it,” the gruff voice answered. “Haven’t got a crew out there yet, but we’re working on it. It’s already been called in. Someone’s campfire got away from them and they called us.”

Idiot! Campfires had been banned in the forest now for three weeks! And yet there was always someone who thought they were above the regulations. Damn. She pulled back onto the road, noticing the plume’s width had already doubled. Arriving at home, gravel from her driveway spraying behind her truck as she slammed to a stop, Elise realized the fire was due west of her cabin. The afternoon winds were picking up, whispering potency into the fire.

Elise ran inside, up the stairs and onto the small deck overlooking the forest. The smoke now seemed to take up most of the western horizon, and she could smell it. Running inside, she knew she would need to evacuate. She grabbed the box she’d packed last night after the fire meeting, filled with a change of clothes, her jewelry box and some framed photos off the walls. She took it outside and put it in the back of the truck, vowing not to look at the smoke plume until she was ready to leave.

Running back to the house, she grabbed the cooler and took it to the truck, filling it with the groceries that were still in the bed of the truck. And again, racing back inside she grabbed another box, not sure what to fill it with, but compelled to try to save what she could. Her eyes darted from object to object. How could she determine what was worth trying to save and what would have to be left to chance? The books – there were so many! Charlie had given her so many books, for birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmases, sometimes for no reason at all. Some were first editions; others were signed by the author. But they were heavy, and, she supposed, ultimately replaceable. Her grandmother’s silver candlesticks stood sentry on the small mantle. Grabbing those, she looked on the other side of the room. She seized the photo album from the coffee table. Her cardboard box still had a good deal of empty space, but as she whirled around the room, she couldn’t decide what to choose.

Forcing herself to stop her chaotic frenzy, she set down the box, closed her eyes, and took three deep breaths. Her eyes opened, and were trained on the bookcase. She opened the glass doors and grabbed the first edition of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Charlie had given her that one Valentine’s Day, exactly one month after they first met.

Praying that the box contained enough memory, she took one more tour about the small cabin. Grabbing her toothbrush and a few other toiletries, she approached the door. She was about to turn around to say goodbye, but stopped herself.

“Damn it, Elise, it’s not going to burn. Be positive!” She was surprised at the anger in her voice.

She opened the door, and stood there gaping at the scene in front of her. Flakes of ash were falling all around her, and the sun burned orange and huge behind the barrier of smoke. Her eyes burned, and she coughed at the acrid smoke. Running to her truck, she threw the box in the cab of the truck, noticing the layer of ash that covered everything, including the windshield. Frantic, she sprayed the windshield and started up the wipers. But it only made a mucky mess, and seemed to attract more flakes of ash. Holding back tears, she paused before pulling away from the cabin, the windshield wipers pathetic in their frenzy.

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