From the back porch, I check on the fire’s progress. Just over the tree line, dark columns of smoke billow. The fires, I know, are closing fast on the ranch. The wind, shifting all afternoon, howls now, stirring aromas of pine resin, sage, and char. Brown needle grass sways in the pastures. My sister Becky’s horses kick at the stable walls.
I reach for my small notepad, open the cover, and click my pen. But once again, no words come.
Inside Sami dozes on the couch. Dark hair falls across her slender shoulders. If she dreams, I hope Sami dreams of rain. I close the sliding doors quietly to avoid disturbing her, grab the gin bottle from the bar, and head toward the kitchen. My sister’s collie, Zeph, follows at my heels, hoping for a treat.
The dog, the horses, the booze, the ranch, all of it belongs to Becky, who is in the city recovering from surgery on a herniated vertebra. The timing worked out perfectly. I needed to get away to work on the new novel, and Becky needed someone to watch over her ranch.
Just don’t burn the fucking place down, little brother, Becky said in jest before she left.
I drop ice into a glass, slice a lime, and turn on the news. Videos and maps show fires burning on three sides of the valley. We are now inside the mandatory evacuation zone, cutoff.
Three hours ago, when we still could have gotten out, I told Sami not to worry. I didn’t want to leave then because I refused to believe the fire would spread. I didn’t want to leave then because leaving early meant I’d have to call my agent and tell her I was nowhere on the next book.
Sami appears in the kitchen. “I fell asleep,” she says, shivering despite the heat.
Pretty in an understated way, Sami is thin, serious, and restrained. She still reads my books, which lately is enough to qualify her for sainthood. Sami works for the studio that is making my first book into a movie. She doesn’t care about the rest of my life, about which I’ve been clear from the start.
She sips my drink and glances at the television.
“The rescue shelter is sending someone, right?” she says, the first sounds of irritation in her voice. “They’re coming for the horses?”
“They’ll be up here as soon as they can,” I say, lying. I have not called. There was no point. “We’re just low on the priority list.”
“Will you call him?” she asks. She means, of course, Mark, who is my husband. Mark and I have been together for almost twenty years. Until Sami, I had been faithful, a loving partner, a friend, a companion. But something has snapped, some internal fuse has blown, and I am not sure what to do.
Sami adores Mark. In one of the many strange twists in this sordid affair, my young lover finds my aging partner charming. “A hoot,” she calls him. “Mark is a real hoot.” I have no idea what that even means.
“He has enough to worry about,” I say, lying again.
I can’t tell Mark about the fire, because once I do, all of this becomes real. The fire. My failure to write the next book. The affair with Sami. The long, slow degradation of my lover’s body.
Only the fire feels certain. Heat. Scorch. Char. Perhaps I deserve to burn.
“You didn’t leave?” Earl asks.
I’m standing in Becky’s driveway with her nearest neighbor, Earl, who has come down the road to check on us.
“Will we be safe?” I ask
“If that fire jumps the valley, we’re in trouble.”
I want Earl to save us. I want to throw my arms around his neck and have him whisk me away. I may still be a fool, but I’m no longer a child. Earl can’t save us. I ask him how the fire started.
“Some clod probably tossed a cigarette,” Earl says.
That morning, I’d been smoking and carelessly tossing butts off the porch. I pray that Earl doesn’t notice my pile of spent cigarettes on Becky’s brown lawn.
Earl carries himself with a quiet confidence that I admire. He wears a Stetson hat, a plaid snap shirt, denim Wranglers and laced-up work boots. Earl looks like a caricature fit for a postcard, except, of course, Earl is the genuine thing. White curls leak out from beneath his hat, and Earl’s blue eyes are just too much. I fight the urge to snap a picture and send it to Mark.
They appear to be similar in age—Mark and Earl—though they may as well be from different species. Mark’s decline has been swift and total. Once the most handsome man I’d ever known, Mark’s skin now droops and sags. Liver spots cover his once-muscular arms. Hair grows from suspicious moles. Most days, Mark’s body resembles that of a defrosted chicken, whereas Earl—still rugged, vital—stands before me, reminding me of everything I’ve lost.
“I read your last book,” Earl says.
“The Great American flop,” I say. The last book garnered little if any critical praise. It sold enough copies to keep writing, to secure a new contract, but I’m nowhere on the next. And the movie? The studio has stripped the plot bare, corrupted my characters, and optioned it to the Oxygen Network. I’m not a writer anymore, but a hack. I’ve traded in my artistic integrity and ambition in order to afford a mortgage and health insurance.
For years, Mark had encouraged me to keep going. He supported me through two agents, baskets of rejections, three novels and two book tours. How do I thank him? I slink off with the production assistant and fuck her behind his back. Now there’s a story.
“Is there another way out?” I ask Earl.
“I don’t know why you’re still here,” Earl says. “Keep your radio on.”
I ask him again if we will be safe. Earl glances at the orange light glowing over the ridgeline and turns away without answering.
“Who was that?” Sami asks.
“That was Earl,” I say. “I’m so sorry about all this.”
“Let’s go now. I’m scared.”
“Old Earl thinks we’ll be fine,” I say, lying like Judas for the third time. “Besides, I can’t leave Becky’s horses.”
Becky stables four Morgans at the ranch, down from the days when she had over 20 horses out here. A foal was born this summer. My sister’s capacity to train and keep up the stables has dwindled as she battled aggressive, rheumatoid arthritis. If Becky were here, she’d let the whole valley burn to save her horses.
Sami curls up next to me on the couch. I love how different a woman’s body feels in bed. Sami doesn’t make things complicated. Unlike Mark, she is young, heathy, full of passions, even if she doesn’t understand the complexities of love. For Sami, love has smooth clean lines. Love is a bikini wax, devoid of stubble. I probably felt that way too at her age. But now, married to a man twenty-years older, love has become monthly trips to the ER. Cancer screening appointments on the calendar, blood-pressure meds in the cabinet, Viagra and a vigil for signs of chest pain. A kingdom once ruled by spontaneity and wild sex has been overrun by constipation, sciatica, seasonal depression, arguments about the water bill. Somehow, our love became ordinary.
I should be writing this shit down.
Outside, thick smoke darkens the sky. I pour the last of the gin over a fresh glass filled with ice. I leave the news on mute. Sami takes the drink from my hand. “I’m scared,” she says.
“We’ll be okay,” I say, not knowing if we will.
An hour later, the windows rattle and a bright flash illuminates the room. I rush to the porch just in time to see a huge pine explode into flames across the pasture. Fire shoots off the treetop like a roman candle and the whole thing is gone in seconds.
The fire is close now. The heat warms my face. Smoke curls around the valley, choking off the light.
“Let’s get up to Earl’s,” I say, trying to suppress the panic burning in my chest. Fire crackles nearby, so close the heat warms my skin. Sami dresses quickly. I whistle for the dog.
On the road, the smoke makes it impossible to see. I worry the tires will melt from the heat. Zeph sits on Sami’s lap. She pulls her knees up and embraces the dog, who seems oblivious to the danger. How I envy the dog.
I navigate slowly. Sami complains. “Christ, can’t you drive any faster?” Ash covers the road, covers the trees, the windshield, our skin. Embers fizz in the air. I want to comfort Sami, to reassure her that we’ll be all right, but I hate to lie again. Finally, I spot Earl’s tin mailbox through the smoke.
“We could’ve walked here faster,” Sami says. She slams the door.
Earl’s wife stands in the driveway. “We heard you coming,” she says. Sami collapses in the woman’s embrace.
If I’d hoped Earl might offer a solution, he does not. The old man stares off at the hills as the women disappear into the house. “What about the horses?” Earl asks.
“They’re still in the stables,” I say. For a moment, I think how Earl must despise me.
“We gotta go back for Becky’s horses,” Earl says, calling into the house.
“Are you serious?” I say. “Nothing can make me return through that hell.”
Earl doesn’t acknowledge my protest. He hands me a bandana and tells me to soak it with the hose.
“I’m not going back there.”
Despite my refusal, I soak the bandana and tie it around my head. The wet cloth cools my dry skin. For an old man, Earl moves quickly, grabbing rope from a shed, an ax, a few gallons of water. The last thing he takes is a small handgun, which he places in a leather holster on his jeans. I think of Mark again as we drive down the road.
Earl knows the road better, but it still takes several minutes to cover the mile to Becky’s ranch. “You’re going to help me rope the horses,” Earl says. “How many does she have now?”
“Four,” I say, forgetting the foal. “Five. The mare gave birth this spring.”
“A weanling?” Earl says. “That complicates things. They tend to panic.”
I have no idea what good Earl thinks we will do—the horses are, in all likelihood, already dead. I have even less of an idea why I’m sitting next to him. It seems the height of insanity to drive back into this conflagration. But oddly, it’s thrilling too. And I trust the old man, the way you trust a country doctor.
“We need to get them out into the pasture across the road,” Earl says when we arrive.
Fire sizzles near the barn. Beyond Becky’s driveway, a eucalyptus has burst into flames. The air crackles as the tree sends fire and smoke above the ranch. The whole valley feels like an oven.
“Will the horses stay?” I ask.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Earl says. “That barn will go like kindling. Take the spray paint. You’re gonna spray their hinds.”
“You’re joking?” I say.
Are we really going to turn Becky’s horses loose into a field surrounded by flames? Am I really going spray orange paint on my sister’s horses?
Earl works quietly, swiftly, but without a trace of panic. He loops the rope over the first horse’s neck while I spray a large orange B onto the animal’s hip. Then Earl tugs the horse out from its stall, removes the lead, and slaps the animal’s hind. Startled, the horse hesitates, and then breaks into a sprint. We move to the next horse and repeat the same process. I tag the animals quickly, carelessly. Orange paint drips down the animals’ thick legs. It feels like I’m desecrating pieces of art. The horses look confused, vulnerable, but their warm, salty breath heats my neck.
I’ve always been frightened by horses, but they seem so frail now. The fire rages closer. We move to the next animal, and then the next. As each horse trots away into the smoky pasture, a strange, exhilarating urgency takes over.
“Take the lead rope and get the last one,” Earl says.
“Will they be all right?”
Earl provides no false reassurance. An eerie orange haze lights the pasture. The last to go is the one he calls the weanling.
Back at the house, Earl pours us two whiskeys and turns on the news. The L.A. channels cover the fire burning closer to the desert cities of Banning, Beaumont, and Hemet. This tiny village, with its general store and two-pump gas station, hardly garners press coverage. On the screen, a massive white and red jet sweeps in low over the mountains, showering the hills with purple chemicals.
“Your sister’s ranch doesn’t have much firebreak,” Earl says. “I’d warned her about those damned eucalyptus.”
“Will the horses be okay?”
“I worry about the weanling,” he says. “One way or another, if that fire sweeps further into the valley, the pasture is their only chance.”
“Are we safe here?” I ask.
Earl shrugs and sips his whiskey.
Sami sleeps in the guest bedroom with the door closed. She has stopped speaking to me. Earl’s wife props a pillow by the front door and he sleeps with his back against the wall. I take the couch. Several times during the night, I wake to the crackle and crunch of flame. The windows glow like noontime. Earl remains in the same position all night, his back erect, his eyes closed.
In the morning, a thick black phlegm clogs my throat. I’ve never felt so thirsty. Earl sips coffee on his porch. The entire hillside smolders. Gray, hissing smoke rises above charred trees. Everything around us is black and ruined, but remarkably, Earl’s property remains undamaged. A ring of green trees and pasture grass circle us like a halo. To the south, in the direction of Becky’s ranch, the landscape looks like photos of Hiroshima.
“Right down the chute,” Earl says. “Grab some coffee. Let’s go see about the horses.”
I suddenly miss Mark. I miss our home. I miss our dull life together, complaints and all. I only want to go back, to embrace my husband, to embrace the ordinary routine of our lives together.
Approaching Becky’s ranch, it looks as if a great dragon has swept down from the sky and scorched her property. Her house, her barn, everything is gone. All that remains are charred beams and ash. For the first time, I try to imagine what I will tell my sister, what I will tell Mark.
Across the road, in the pasture, no horses move through the smoke. Earl and I both scan the black fields for signs of movement.
“Over there,” he says, pointing.
In the distance, like a mystical vision, a single horse stands alone in the smoke. Then, just beyond it, I spot three other horses, occasionally lowering their heads to the graze.
“They made it,” I say.
But Earl is gone, racing toward the animals.
I feel it then, a feeling like a great fire roaring in my soul, every bit as real and powerful as the one that has destroyed my sister’s ranch. I have made it. I am alive. My breath comes in gasps. I want to embrace the world, embrace every flaw, every flicker of hope. The only question is, what will I do with this feeling?
“The weanling,” Earl shouts back at me. “Bring the goddamn water.”
Ripped from my reverie, I stand there confused for a moment before I grab a gallon of water from Earl’s truck and jog toward him. When I arrive, he is already shimmying down a ravine. He has tied one end of the rope to a tree stump and the other is around his waist.
A deep wheezing sound rises from below ground. I lean over the edge.
“Hold that,” Earl says, pointing at the line.
Then I see the young horse, twenty feet down, collapsed on its side, its hind leg twisted at an unnatural angle. A bright orange B, stained with blood and dirt, seems to pulsate as muscles twitch on the animal’s hind. The horse huffs, squirms, tries to rise as Earl lowers himself nearer. The rope burns in my hands. At last the line goes slack. Earl kneels and strokes the creature’s ears.
For a moment, I still expect the young horse climb out of this ditch. Isn’t that what we always expect? Redemption? A positive outcome? Isn’t optimism what sustains us through life’s ups and downs? Earl un-holster his pistol. A wave of nausea buckles me to my knees. I have to turn away.
Across the pasture, the other horses move slowly through the smoky haze. I want to do something, to climb on their backs and ride them away. I want to erase the weekend, to put the world back where it belongs. I want to forget it all, to pretend none of this is real. I want to be a better man, a better friend, a better brother, a better husband.
When the shot echoes through the valley, hollow and soft, it sounds almost like mercy.
© Richard Farrell
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Richard’s interview]