Red was shirtless on a lawn chair in the grass. His tattoos were seeping into his skin. He shook my hand. “You cross paths with anybody on the way up?”
“You met old Gator Belt then.”
“I didn’t look too close.”
“That’s how we know where to turn. Like Green Boots on Everest.”
He led me up under the shade of the porch and into the house. Inside it was all dark wood, comfortably worn. There were oil paintings all over the bare redwood walls—barns, horses, wildflowers I recognized. They were signed at the corner, all the same signature—FD, a playful hand, cornflower blue. Light sieved through hand-crocheted curtains, cast daytime starlight on opposite walls, lit lazy dust that spoke of living. Native baskets—small, perfect, watertight—held treasures otherwise extinct. A possum skull, a robin’s egg, the feather of a great horned owl. No photos anywhere.
There was a bottle of rum on the table and two glasses beside it. "We don't want thunder; we want rum; give us a glass of rum. Um, um, um!” said Red. I knew Moby Dick practically by heart and I smiled. Red palmed the tumblers. “Take ice?”
“Sure.” It wasn’t that unusual to have electricity. Some of the guys from the lake had managed to scavenge solar panels from the deserted resorts and they even had a karaoke night sometimes down on a big concrete slab that used to be the foundation of an antiques store. But ice, that was something.
Red sat across from me and poured. I held my glass in my hand and watched the ice melt and float away from itself in dancing eddies. I plucked it out and held it in my palm, watched it melt the dirt from my hands and run it all away. I held it in my mouth, an extravagance of water. Red sat back deep in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, considering my thirst. I spat the ice back into the glass and took a swallow.
“This was my wife’s place.” He pointed to the signature on a painting. “Fran Daley.”
“It didn’t burn.”
Red shook his head slowly. “I owe it to Fran. She was a Tuolumne Miwok. Worked fire like you or I’d work a border collie pup. She’d talk to it like it was something live—cheeky and brash, but reasonable in the end. Hell, friendly. She saw what was comin’, and she saved this place. We cut down anything with a trunk and burned the rest. Usually fire made her laugh, but not this time. She was grievin’. Knew it was too fuckin’ hot for any of it to grow back.”
Red put the rum away in a wet gulp and poured another. I looked down. I didn’t ask where Fran was now.
“They were in town havin’ lunch with Fran’s Ma when the bad one came through. It was nowhere and then it was everywhere. I was standin’ on the porch, just watchin’ it close in and I didn’t care. I called her and called her and I just watched it come. I couldn’t reach her.
“The fire came up to the fence and then it just stopped. I looked it in the eye and I could see that it was angry. It wanted to take everything but Fran wouldn’t let it. The pasture was all young green shoots, too fresh to catch. I had the sprinklers on, but the well was damn near dry. They coulda gone out any time but they didn’t. They danced in the smoke and laughed, and the fire stood there for a long time, glarin’ at us, but there was nothin’ it could do, and it slunk away when the wind switched.”
I saw him glance over his shoulder at an apron hanging in the hallway, cream colored with little blue pansies, like he was seeing the body that had once animated it.
“I called her one more time and someone picked up. It was a man, and he was just screamin’ ‘Help!’ over and over. It was so smoky. I felt like I was standin’ on an island that ended at the fence and everything else in the world was ash. I still can’t breathe right.”
I looked at his hands, which were small and hard like crab apples. “I am past scorching,” I said, “Not easily can’st thou scorch a scar.”
Red laughed. It made him cough. “You’re not like Marcus, are ya? You’re like your pa.”
I could smell our mingled sweat in the close room. It was not a scent of healthy exertion. It was a creeping, scraping smell, an odor of appetites routinely gratified, and still a lingering hunger. Red took his time pouring another round. I held up my hand to say enough, but he topped me up anyway. I tried not to drink it but I was helplessly thirsty.
“You won’t give me up, Casey, will you? Not for some filthy fuckin’ animals with nothing to live for.”
Kim Carson Bodie is an American journalist living on unceded Whadjuk Noongar Boodja land. She has worked a lot of odd jobs and lived a lot of odd places. This is her creative debut. You can find Kim on Instagram @all.is.gravy and she recommends you donate to buglife if you don't want to end up like the characters in this story.