This short story was anthologized in Fire Season ii. With the editors' permission, I am posting the story here. If you enjoy this work, please consider buying a physical or digital copy of the book. Fire Season is a terrific project, and one that I am proud to support.
Never mind the four months it’s been since we’ve seen each other. Never mind the static that has crept up my spine every interim day when I remembered he was hoping to come. He is here, close enough that I can hear his steady breathing. Still, when he sighs the question, Are you really going to move to my city? It doesn’t seem real, I can’t answer. Instead, I start talking about the weather. Stupid to leave Vancouver Island during fire season, I say.
We are camping on a beach that I have only ever taken dates to. It is too early in the year to enjoy it: even the ranger who walks by, doing a maintenance inventory, is surprised by us. Good to see a couple of die-hards. I want summer’s languor so badly it hurts, but here we are in the icy first days of spring, picnicking above the water. The grass is sodden, daisy-studded, fluttering around us. I am trying to remember to look anywhere other than his face. We are perched on the southernmost tip of the point, which is nowhere near as wind-sheltered as I’d hoped it would be when I’d suggested that we sit here. Great, he had said, somewhere wet, but then he’d walked ahead and set down his bag without suggesting anywhere better.
Ever since I’ve been in Portland, I wake up every morning and mistake the fog for fire, he says. The drop in my stomach doesn’t lift even after I realize I’m wrong. Here, too, the spring gives off mist and I fear it. In the last four years since we had lived together in California, each of us has fled to the damp, dank northern coast. I feel weathered and weary after years in the drying west. He has recently moved to Oregon, he has seemingly settled in. Unlike him, I have not learned how to stop my sprinting. I have only just arrived in this new country but already, I am restless. Even before the record-breaking heat, the record-breaking fires, the record-breaking floods, I had already begun to feel suffocated – an island is no place for someone who only knows how to bolt, or else becomes bitter. I still feel like I am on the run, a propensity that increasingly feels pitted up against a wish to be stitched into something, some place sturdy, somewhere that will stick.
He doesn’t know yet that I’ve been interviewing for jobs in Portland. When the HR managers ask where I want to be in five years, all I can imagine is a yard with a single productive fig tree. My interviewers demand a specific tenacity, and here I am, unraveled by the realization that I have never once grown fruit.
Around us, the day is sticky gray. Trees sprout straight out of the bedrock. Their roots, thick as branches and barked, drape over the eroded cliffs. For two days, he has kept bringing it up, I can’t believe it, they’re growing without any soil. There are microbes and mycelia and algal networks, invisible, everywhere, waiting for an opening. It does not take much for a seed to start. A single thumbprint in the rock face will do. It is enough to gather water, to shelter from the wind.
I confess that I have started shopping for property in his neighborhood. The admission dangles something sharp in the space between us, a hope intended to puncture and pull.
Four years ago, when he moved away from the town where we’d met, I assumed we would fall out of touch. Months passed before I found a letter from him in the mail. He, too, was well-versed in fleeing at the turn of every season. This time, I regret leaving too quickly to say goodbye to you, he wrote. Then came the curated playlists, the hours-long phone calls. After three years of this he confessed that he was excited that the years-long relationship he had been in since before we had met was over. I was sunning on my roof but still shivered when he said he was particularly excited about all of the space for intimacy this opens up in my life, including with you. Finally, in December, we had gathered for four days in the blizzarding hills at a cabin with a stove and several cords of chopped wood. I fed him camembert, tinned fish, cans of wine. I diligently avoided acknowledging the dawning realization that my crush had been smoldering for years.
I keep finding houses in burn scars, I tell him. These property listings have an evergreen cheer. You could love it here, they say. Recently renovated! Find your forever-home! Most of the listings I come across are for the last houses standing in razed neighborhoods. They boast newly-panoramic views. Even in their glossy ad photos, I think I can see scrub marks on a few of the black-streaked exteriors.
Sometimes I think, Who could possibly live here? Sometimes, I think I would like to. Of course I, too, am clawing for a way to make this mean something. The ache, the weight at the center of everything. Maybe, I speculate, I would like to wake up everyday and be forced to bear it. Maybe that is what I want.
What if I am too weak to withstand whatever is going to happen to us? It is a worry that dulls me, whose hurt fades like a bruise that I nevertheless am reminded of daily. Some mornings I wake gasping for breath, grasping at the realer worry. What if I am strong enough to bear it, and wouldn’t that be the worse thing, to learn exactly what I am strong enough to carry, and then have to?
Laying in the grass with him, I feel safe enough to let my fears unfurl. We agree that the last year has felt sharper, already and too soon. For years he has been the person that I call when my resolve feels the shakiest. I remind him of this without feeling embarrassed, even as we have been camping for several nights now and I have been too nervous to do more than occasionally put my hand near his hand. And yet, it mostly feels impossible to imagine waking each morning to new danger without also imagining that he will be there, that he will be the first out of bed to stick his hand into the wind, wondering whether that day his fingers will catch water droplets or ash.
He asks if I know whether an area that has already burned is less likely to do so a second time. I know that in our once-home in California, everybody loved the ashy acre that lined the edge of town, leftover from a fire from a few years earlier. People only ever spoke of the burn sweetly and sighing, thank goodness that hurting is over with, even as they mostly avoided hiking the trail that cut through it. Of course it wasn’t true that that patch of dead forest made any of us safer there. The manzanita and cheat grass had grown in dense and fast. It was less than a decade before it reignited.
We had hiked there together, around the curved back of a rickety canyon. The trail would exhale heat. Warmth shimmered off of the skeletal limbs of the standing dead. Sometimes, we would stop, make a point to see it. The new growth was waist-high, a shiny green skin growing over whatever the fire had done to us. Mostly, though, we would hurry down that trail, anxious about every snap. Above us, the last of the towering, trembling burnt trees waited to be released downslope. Widow-makers, we called them, for the force of what their falling could do to us.
The fire had happened less than a month after I had moved away, fooling myself into believing I could outrun the worst risks of the changing climate. A kilometer down the road from the house I had not yet finished moving into, I watched ash from California settle onto the Canadian shore. I imagined each piece was familiar: this one from the trees that had shaded me as my feet soaked in the river; this one from the flesh of the deer whose eyes I’d seen flash through the tangled white pines. Sitting in a circle under the old oaks in my new office’s lawn the next day, someone started, I heard four percent of the state has burned, sounding more weary than I thought they had earned, given the distance we were from any flames. But I stayed silent, judgy, secretly revelling in the scratch in the back of my throat. I ran too fast from that place, I know, and the smoke that followed me across the Salish Sea, wounding me with each inhale, came to feel like a last encounter with everything that I had loved there.
I became obsessed with that fire. For a third of a year, my neighbors had watched it smolder. The column of smoke remained visible even as autumn arced into winter. It stayed until the first snow in December. By the following spring, the rewarming days had thawed the still-tender fear of my friends. Hearing their worries about the coming summer left me with an insecure feeling, like I had been excluded from partaking in that ache. I spent hours on the phone with everyone I knew that worked in fire management. Eventually, I pitched an essay for a high-impact publication, wanting to blame someone for the choice I had made to freely leave before I would have had to evacuate. To my horror, the piece was accepted. The story that I wanted to write would have revealed my intimacy with disappearance, but I ended up being too ashamed to go there. I tried to stretch, to hold the topic from a distance.
Which is why I am now an unfortunate expert in what fire could do – did do – to that place that we shared. When the fire came through a second time, I tell him, it wasn’t deterred by the burn scar like we all had expected. It burned deeper – so hot that the chemical composition of the soil changed, became inhospitable to life. It was California’s largest ever single-ignition burn. The fire’s eastern edge sprinted, then crept, towards the home I had left, until it was separated from the town’s limit by only a single creek and the steep-walled canyon it ran through. That fire ravaged the chaparral we used to hike through. I say, Now, nothing could grow there. The nutrients had burned out of the soil.
So what would you choose? I ask him. Something that is incapable of hosting new life, or somewhere that can, but not forever? Do you choose to live near the risk of the flames and find the courage to start something that you know will surely be ravaged, and probably soon? How do you build a life? How should I build my life? I do not want to run from everything that is capable of starting a spark.
A few meters offshore, a group of harbor seals are bobbing in the water, occasionally leaping halfway out, their heads angular enough that I mistake them for a cetacean’s fins. One seal honks frequently and it makes us laugh every time, hard enough we keep losing the thread of the conversation. I sit up to get a better look. You know, he says, that there are going to be more days like this in the future. There will be so many days, every year for years to come. The future will have days with mild weather. The future will have us laying around doing nothing, feeling alright.
He says it gently, but still, I catch myself steeling against the belief that he might be right. And there it is: we have located the real distance between us. He is endlessly patient. I am avoidant, easily dissatisfied, preemptively let-down even by the things I hope for, even while I am still in the chase.
I don’t believe that you’re coming to Portland, he teases me again, and instead of recognizing by way of his repetition that he might also want it, I am annoyed that for him it feels impossible enough that he feels compelled to repeat his taunt. Convince me, I try to say smoothly, but it squeaks out, tinny like a child’s beg. He laughs and I know that he won’t.