about the author

Loretta McCormick is a UWM English PhD student from Los Angeles, California, and Editor in Chief of cream city review.

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Premonition in Smoke 

Loretta McCormick

Last time the fires raged through the city, mother insisted on tucking damp towels under the windowsills and doorframes. It did little to keep out the smoke but I stood by her as she knelt over the tub, soaking bath towels and wringing them out. “We will not be abandoning the house,” she said and draped a wet towel across my forearms. “Not under any circumstances.” We went from room to room, replacing dried towels with damp ones, then heading back to the bathroom to start all over again. I was knelt down in front of the sliding glass door when I noticed a deer that had found its way into the backyard. It was listlessly drinking from the jaccuzzi. But its rib cage labored in and out and its delicate legs trembled, not knowing where to run. I pounded on the glass until it tore off back over the fence.

There was a time when the fires came only after the spring rains had dried up, when the fleshy leaves of the toyon, coffeeberry, and skunkbush became brittle in the heat and birds had picked them clean of their red pebble fruit. The drying grasses turned the mountainsides gold and then an electric wind would sweep over the flora. Friction from those hot gales rubbing up against the papery leaves caused flames to bloom across the landscape. Or sometimes bolts of lightning cracked the sky and touched the earth with their scorching tips. But now it has become impossible to predict the beginning or the end of fire season. At any time of the year, plumes of smoke might roll down the mountains, a dragon’s breath warning that chases raccoons, coyotes, and deer through the chaparral and into the city. Even the rodents and reptiles that burrow deep into the earth until a conflagration passes can no longer dig fast or deep enough to escape danger.

Yesterday, father and I had just begun to pull the garbage bins down to the curb when a raccoon hiding between them began to bark and spit and scrape its glossy claws on the garage floor. Father grabbed the shovel leaning against a shelf and brought it down on the creature with a ping of metal hitting concrete and a sickly wet crunch of bone and flesh. It was still twitching, a broken tooth dangling from its thin black lip, when he grabbed it by the tail and dropped it into the garbage. I followed him down the driveway with the second garbage bin. At the curb, I leaned against the bin—dizzy, unable to catch my breath. I felt the smoke-tainted air at the back of my throat, a sulfur burn premonition of danger. Father went back inside, left me standing at the curb in my pajamas and slippers, throwing up into the gutter.

Before the city rose from the basin at the foot of the mountains and sprawled across the dry plain, people gave thanks for the fire. They knew that when the winds died down and the fires ran their course, seeds that could only be forced open with heat sprouted from the ashy soil. And when barbed air warned them that their homes were in the path of a blaze, they wrapped their heirlooms in animal skins and packed them into lightweight baskets. They carried their young children and their possessions on their backs to safety and let the blaze devour their sturdy grass huts. And if the fires didn’t come, they would—with great care—set their homes and the landscape on fire themselves.

When I was very young, father bought a plot of land—once part of a citrus and avocado grove and, before that, a grove of acorns. He drove mother and I up and away from the city noise to the cleared property, where their new house was already beginning to rise out of the ground. He pointed to the still drying foundation and explained how he had helped pour the concrete, pointed out where the pool and jaccuzzi would be dug, how the master bedroom would have a perfect view. I stood in front of a skeleton, bare bones architecture rising up around me. An ark half built before a flood.

Now, I see the house, with its lovely green shutters and low-pitched, gabled roof, the neighboring houses, the graffiti-marked trees and rocks on the hillside behind the house and the city that has crept so much closer around us since we moved in and think not of an ark but of how easily we could all be swallowed up. Nobody remembers how to build a grass shelter or which plants need fire to survive. Nobody believes in a controlled burn anymore. To start a fire is foolish, dangerous. And because we don’t know any better, we call the blazes wild fires. It’s true, they are wild. When they come, eucalyptus trees detonate like bombs. Their fragrant sap heats up until it explodes from their veins, shattering the pale, slender trunks into molten shrapnel. Still, I find myself breathing deeply at my open window, and for a moment taking pleasure in the burn at the back of my throat before trying to decipher where the fire started and which way it will move. Imagining all our important heirlooms and beautiful possessions melting like soft wax.

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