Chapter 11: Burning Bright

In the high desert at night, the wind blew hard and strong. We built a fire in the small pit at the top of our hill and placed a dome over it, but the flames swirled up through the screen and the wind cast sparks out into the grasses and chaparral down by the Joshua tree below us. The sparks blew out long before they landed, tiny specks of ephemeral fire, but in my mind I could see one smoldering in the grass, could see the hill go up in flames. I worried as I edged closer to the warmth of the fire and watched the sparks fly off into the dusk.

Making a home in California means making at least a casual acquaintance with fire. We have many here. Our spring and autumn may be less obvious to outsiders, but our fire season is distinct, even in non-drought years.

When I was a little girl in Philadelphia, I had a nightmare about my house burning down. I woke up terrified, remembering the image of my beloved Minnie Mouse stuffed doll on the lawn while I watched flames eat at a house I had never seen before, a house that looked like the Victorians of San Francisco. Fire dreams followed me into adulthood. There were few scenes of total destruction, but many where fire was a constant, steady presence. Always burning, always too hot, always waiting for its opportunity to consume.

And yet I was drawn to flame after flame, somehow never worried until it was too late, as if I could not hear the voice inside me that had always known exactly what fire will do.

There are many things to love about the desert, but among them is the expanse that stretches before you. If your mind is prone to wandering, the desert horizon is as good as the ocean for letting yourself run free. And like the ocean, there are very few places to hide.

I went into the desert with one of my own stories about myself. This particular story is a familiar one, soft and bedraggled like an old blanket I might have rescued from one of those dreams, before everything went up in smoke. It was about fear and choice, about love and uncertainty. I repeated the tale to myself for many years: I am not good at decisions. I’m not sure who I am or what it is I want. Better to let things flare up and burn brightly, I said, no matter how quickly they might be extinguished, and no matter how much it may hurt.

Then I saw the sparks snap against the sky, black and violet like a bruise. I thought of that expanse before me, as yet unwritten, with room to imagine an entirely new story, and I saw it disappear in the smoke of fires that should have been extinguished, should have been tended more thoughtfully. As the heavy logs burned down into broken embers, I watched as the story I had told myself disappeared up beneath Orion’s swagger. I stared out into the unknown darkness beyond the orange glow, already writing the next story.