by CHRISTOPHER RING
Dry lightning lit on a ridge five miles off just as Jules crouched down to urinate. By sheer luck she had squatted on the southwest corner of the tower. Nothing told her to look that way, butshe sawasilver thread of light cut a crack down the leaden sky, interrupting her reverie. Jules quickly closed up the groover, set aside her dog-eared copy of The English Patient,and grabbed her binoculars off a post. The mountains were in drought conditions,so it came as no surprise when a puff of slate colored smoke rose out of the trees. Two minutes later a darker ribbon lifted off the ridge, signaling that a tree had caught fire. For the first time in five seasons, Jules longed to share the moment; not just report it.
She aimed her fire finder at the thin column of smoke, marked the azimuth and called in the coordinates to her only human contact on the lookout. Every day she listened in on other calls, feeling an attachment with voices she had never met. She already knew that several crews of smokejumpers had dropped in on two fires earlier that morning, fifty miles to the southwest.
“What are the road conditions up to the Spring Gulch trailhead? Over.”
Jules recognized from the question that a Hotshot crew would have to hike in from the trailhead, carrying limited gear;they wouldn’t have asked otherwise,as the mountains in her vicinity were too steep and thickly forested for a helicopter landing.
“The road crew did a stand-up job clearing the beetle kill. Over.”
“Copy that Jules. Over.”
There were 30,000 lightning strikes a year on the Gila Wilderness. Only a small fraction sparked a fire that would become a blaze. But ten years of beetle kill had primed a forest of roman candles and brown bark candy canes. The outcome was mere chance;Jules took it that life was much the same.
For two days she watched suppression crews attack her blaze. She couldn’t actually see the
Hotshots, but she could read their progress:aswath of trees felled in the containment line, delicate puffs of smoke from controlled burns skirted the mountain flanks,chainsaw-buzzing and Pulaski axes echoingon the wind. Air-tankers were another matter. They roared down like fattened eagles, raining shower after shower of fire retardant slurry upon the spreading flames.
Never had she been so close to a blaze.
Yet, Jules felt useless observing the Mason Ridge Fire consume a place she thought of as home. She wanted to help, not just watch. On the second day she hauled cubies of water from a spring, on the chance a beleaguered crew might come her way. She’d seen enough fires to know the containment lines weren’t holding. Tall conifers were toppling downhill, casting sparks into the ash choked air, clearing strips out of the forest in seconds. A moat of flame surged forward, a king tide of heat and hunger. When she finished with the water, Jules sketched a picture of the scene with a simple note. Evacuation evident.
She’d first gone up to the tower, a week after her training and only two since leaving Boston, armed with a stack of empty sketch pads, basic provisions, binoculars, a good pair of boots and a fire blanket. She earned $10.65 an hour, minus expenses. This was a stark contrast to what she left back east: a Beacon Hill condo, an expensive car, bewildered friends and a career with nothing else to offer, but more money. It had taken an errant missile drop on a hospital in Afghanistan to upend the life she had been living. In the controversy that ensued, the artillery was traced back to a company held largely in the hedge fund she managed; but this wasn’t the first time she was connected with the misfortune of others.
One of her earliest memories was riding the Tilt-O-Whirl with her older brother in
Topsfield. While the ride was decelerating she’d dared him to unbuckle and surf to a stop. He was always testing his balance – on tree limbs, brick walls, riding the T in Boston. This time the result landed him in the hospital with a broken arm and a severe concussion that would plague him for years. In high school, Jules was the lead-off batter for her softball team. During one practice she joked about buzzing the pitcher – a response to wisecracks about her butt-out stance. One pitch later, Jules inadvertently drilled the ball into her friend’s neck. The sound of that impact – like crunching a soft shell lobster – had kept Jules awake for many nights. No one blamed her for what had happened, but Jules blamed herself.
There were more incidences – the ex-boyfriend who slipped on the gravelly edge of a road while riding his moped, a fellow intern whose hair caught in a paper shredder while they arranged after-work plans. By college, she’d withdrawn into a shell, avoiding relationships and intimacy, except for the occasional one night stand. She declined invitations from her geologist father to hike in the White Mountains and retreated from nature, too. She quickly landed a job with Credit Suisse; ditching her childhood dream of becoming a wildlife biologist. Her M.B.A. at Tufts took three years, working weekends and nights. The one venture she’d made into a relationship ended as quickly as it started – during an executive retreat in San Francisco – when she and the Viacom production manager realized over dinner that they had nothing to share about themselves. She was thirty.
Examining the circumstances that led her to that lifestyle, Jules had finally come to believe that the accidents were just freak occurrences when the errant bomb dropped. In those other cases no one had died. Thanks to an old friend of her father stationed out of Silver City, New Mexico, she found a tower to work. There she could hurt no one. Including herself. In the winter Jules worked the night shift at a Taos hotel; but five seasons alone left her feeling empty.
Few people ever witness the birth of a fire. Already, Jules had spotted two that summer. On the third night of the blaze she stood in a meadow and watched the flames climb the air. The life of the place was up for grabs. The next morning the call came to evacuate. A running-crown fire took off in the canopy, climbing fast on the upwelling wind. She had thirty minutes to grab her most valued possessions – the unfinished romance novel and her binoculars – and board a helicopter for the trailhead. Yet, nothing waited for her in Silver City. It was one thing to be alone on the mountain,another to be alone in town. She had her truck and a bi-weekly deal with the Puffing Grouse motel.
“Don’t forget to turn off the propane line. Over.”
When the bird came in she was surprised to find a crew of hotshots on board. The flight was only a matter of minutes, but no one spoke a word. Their soot lined faces told the full story. She would later learn that a crewmember had died, mowed over by a fiery totem pole of conifer.
Down at the trailhead, she’d already tossed her pack in the rear of her truck and started the engine when one of the men hopped off the helicopter and asked to ride back to the base with her. Ash drifted down like the fattened flakes of a late autumn snowfall. Gyres of smoke filled the mountain pass. She waved the pilot off and cleared the bench seat.
“That was my home,” Jules said.
She laughed, nervously, realizing that deep down she’d enjoyed watching the blaze grow.
“I don’t have anything else.”
They had just hit the pavement after an hour on rugged dirt roads. Until then, not a word passed between them. He simply stared out the window, silent. Even so, she felt a bond with this stranger because of what they shared – they both had to flee. But Jules didn’t want flight anymore. Not from people.
“Every big fire is a birthday event for the next forest,” he said.
It was the burnt smell that Jules relished when Warren, the hotshot, was gone. It lingered in the truck long after she dropped him off at his hangar. Crews were laying out gear on the edge of the tarmac, buses funneling through the gate with out of state fighters. Beyond the once quiet airfield the Gila mountains were smoking, all the light browned by the heat and ashes into the sepia tones of old photos. She’d inhaled plenty of mountain smoke over the years, marveling how she could touch something from so far away, but Warren carried the smell with him. He wasn’t simply cloaked in it; the smell was his own. If she reached out and touched him, she would burn herself. If she were to listen while he slept he would crackle like a fire. She drank a
PBR in the doorway of her efficiency, dwelling on his lone statement: a birthday event.
“Ha!” She laughed out loud. Guests swimming in the greasy pool looked up at her.
The next day Jules received permission to survey the windward lines. Warren swung from a makeshift hammock at the Hotshots base hangar. Washed up and wearing fresh clothes he looked reborn, but the charred scent of his skin remained.
“I want to see it,” she said.
It had taken a sleepless night to convince herself that nothing would threaten Warren that he would not face on his own.
She stepped around his gear, laid out in neat lines for the next assault.
“The birthday event.”
Warren whistled and tipped his open book down on his chest – Hydrology and Watershed Management. Most hotshots she’d seen were big men and big women, too. They were known for their fitness and most were built for felling trees and carving ditches. Warren was more wiry – a rock climber’s long, lean build. Later, on the trail, he would move with the sinuous stride of flame. He looked her up and down, settling on her boots as much as her legs. She was happy to be seen this way.
“You’ll need more water than that.”
They parked at the edge of the assault camp in a field of dry scrub and old flood debris. A nylon city of multicolored tents and mosquito shelters surrounded a mobile kitchen. After dropping off supplies they paced through the maze of silent bivouacs; snoring men and women scattered like cold fire pits. Warren remained silent until they entered the parched pine stands. The wind was blowing east, so he led her southwest around the line, stopping every ten minutes to listen to the radio and gauge the wind. Even at the camp the distant fire purred low and long.
Just upwind of its rear flank that purr hitched up to a roar.
“My god, it sounds feral.”
But he said nothing.
Two miles up the trail on a pile of wind toppled beetle kill, Jules felt the blaze. The ravine below them was charred and blackened, still smoldering. Across that divide the pale twitching of fire chewed through an out-cropping of forest in a cloud of red and yellow static. To Jules, it sounded like beach rocks clacking on the tide. A swelling bank of smoke rolled off the ridge.
“Let’s go closer,” she said.
Jules focused on his hands as he drank. The day before, he’d ridden to the base without removing his gloves. He’d told her that it helped retain what little moisture was left in his skin.
Now she could see why. The backs of his hand were leathery reptilian, the palms burning red.
But when an ash fluttered down on her hair, he brushed it away like a whisper.
“Do they hurt?” she asked.
Warren shrugged. “Come.I want you to feel it.”
They hiked beneath the ravine, keeping upwind from the burn, circling west of the suppression crews. On the tower she had felt drafts of heat ebbing across the mountain top. This was something different. Through her Nomex shirt she could feel her body slowly cooking. Her thoughts fixed solely on the momentary. The fire, the mountain, and Warren.
“How does it feel right on the line?” she asked.
“It clears your mind of nonsense, that’s for sure.”
He gazed intently at the sky, observing the clouds. Morning was giving way to afternoon when winds often shifted. Jules recognized his concern.
“Come on, let’s go. It’s time.”
He pointed to a plume coming off the mountain, turning in a gyre, slowly climbing the sky. Jules wanted to stay and watch. She knew that Warren was creating a buffer for her, but she wanted him to know she was strong.
“A lot of hotshots have been scorched by their first blaze.” His tone was softer. “It draws you in.”
“Just a little more,” she said.
He watched her then, taking his eyes off the sky. Still focused on the plume, Jules untied her boots and shook out the pebbles, then carefully laced them up again. She could feel his gaze.
“Well, now you know. But we need to go.”
She’d seen a plume like it before, thirty miles distant. Stories had been told ever since of the weather it created and the melee of flight when charred oak leaves fluttered to the ground twenty miles away. This one was still smaller, but they walked quickly. Every few minutes Warren stopped to watch the plume. Sometimes it shrank, only to grow minutes later. They were back on the main trail, an old fire road, when they both felt a rustling in the air and saw the tree tops shimmer. It was a light breeze, but enough to move the fire line.
“Now.” Warren said.
They jogged until reconnecting with the hiking trail and when the wind picked up they sprinted. Those same drafts of heat were moving laterally across the mountainside and they ran to get below that river of heat. The radio filled with chatter, but Warren’s calm smile reassured her even as he picked up the pace. Now and then the trail split around a tree or a ledge and Jules came astride with him. Warren grinned as he skimmed off the rocks, gliding down the trail. He burst ahead, challenging her. Suddenly, they broke out into a field of juniper shrubs and dust, the remains of old ranch fences. The fire remained high on the mountain.
He wasn’t even breathing hard. “You know the wind will shift. You just don’t know how quick it will happen.”
The plume had spiraled up a half a mile high by Warren’s estimation. They lay in the grass,
Jules still panting, watching the wind drag the edges of the column southward.
“How do you describe a plume like that, without seeing it? The way it shifts and grows and reshapes. It’salivingthing.”
Warren etched an outline of the cloud with a stalk of dry grass.
“I swear you’re in love with it,” she said.
Jules recalled backpacking with her father in Quebec. He’d made a small fire with a bow string. She had tried to sketch it, but her flames never seemed right.
“Not love.” Warren’s laugh was buoyant. “Infatuation, maybe.”
That night, spot fires burned for miles along the ridge tops. Lying in the bed of the Forest Service truck with Warren, Jules began to understand his remark about a birthday event. She laughed at herself as she rose up on her knees and unbuttoned her sun bleached work shirt. The few friends she still had in Boston always commented on her new style with a mix of wonder and sarcasm, but Warren watched her intently, combing the ridge-lines and abrasions of her body with his scorched hands. They were as rough as tree bark, but pulsing with warmth. Her knees didn’t quite fit in the corrugated runnels of the truck bed,and when she ground down on his pelvis,her knee cap levered painfully over the ridging. When Warren rolled her over she pressed her nose to his neck, inhaling smoke. Rivets dug into her back. She liked it all, the discomfort, the pain, the uncertainty –she felt reborn.
In the bars, Jules heard hotshots talk about making fire-babies, children born with the same resistance to heat. They spoke in a language their own, moved with a presence that kept standard crews at a distance. She wanted to understand Warren the way only they could.
A day later she was posted on a different tower twenty miles north. She struggled to settle in. The tower was like her own, but the orientation was foreign. Razor-backed peaks and ridgelines taunted her, where before the ridges were gentle and wavelike. She could not read what was happening with the fire,or Warren,for the matter. Then, in early August, a super plume rose out of the mountains, capped by a massive pyrocumulus cloud that blotted out the sun. She could hear the thunder it created miles off and knew that crews were on the run again.
Jules called in to dispatch.
“Yes, we know,” the voice on the other end said. “Over.”
The broadband crackled with emptiness, but she wanted to keep the voice on the line – her only connection to Warren.
“Did spot fires ignite behind the line?”
Jules ran her index finger over the topographical map.
“We can’t confirm that. Over.”
After another long silence she was asked to keep the lines clear.
Weeks went by withno word from Warren. She grew restless. She lost her patience with reading and left the tower for longer stretches, hiking farther out on the ridge, closer to the blaze. If Warren died, it would not be her fault.But he did come, eventually. She’d hiked out to a flat-topped boulder covered in lichen when she heard him come slashing up the mountainside. At first, she thought about a bear, but bears never slashed. She listened carefully, tracking the noise until Warren cleared the pinyon pines ringing her tower. He hefted a machete and buried its blade in the edge of a stump. Ignoring the spiraling ladder that ran up the structure, Warren scaled the exterior rigging. At the top he finally spotted her, far below. He screeched like a hawk and waved. Jules howled back.
In the tower he was smoldering.
“You stink like creosote,” she said.
Even his bad odors were a manifestation of fire. They intoxicated her. She propped herself on the perimeter rail of the tower, nine stories above the earth and waited for Warren to step between her legs.
“Not exactly a field of monkey flowers yourself.”
He stayed the week, breaking a code; but with him there, she was certain she would not miss a flicker. He would smell fire before it began, see where lightning would strike before the clouds charged with electrons. They split her rations and the ten-pound bag of trail mix he’d humped up the mountain. By mid-week, though, the lookout felt cramped. Insignificant items disappeared under books and supplies. They tripped on each other’s shoes in the doorway. His voice grew tight. Warren would strike out of the cabin un-announced, boots clanging on the metal steps, and disappear for hours. Jules yearned to join him, but her job rooted her to the tower. She wondered if Warren felt rooted to anything.
“Off to see your mistress again?”
Once, he returned with a mountain king snake and grilled it.
“Mistress Steak,” he called it.
Another time he offered her the broken claw of a mountain lion. He hollowed a hole in it and dangled the claw around her neck with climber’s cordelette.
“More gifts from my mistress.”
At the end of the week Warren hid on the ridge and waited for her relief to arrive. Jules entered the tree line half an hour later. He pounced on her. The Mason Ridge fire was still billowing brown clouds of smoke and ash to the south. What had begun with a spark now spanned thousands of acres.
“I smell rain coming,” he said.
Jules hoped not. She knew fire would keep Warren close.
Atseason’s endthey left for Bozeman, Montana where a job driving snow cats for a ski area waited for Warren each winter. They wound their way north following a trail of recent burn scars. The Dry Creek fire in south central Colorado had been cold twelve weeks when Warren retraced his flight during the inaugural fire of the season. Blistered stumps of standing conifers pierced the air. Snags of sapling and hunched underbrush, black and petrified. Yet, tendrils of new life sprouted through the char: aspen shoots already hip-high, the red-rimmed helicopter wing of cottonwood seedlings. A rough scrim of black was pixilated with wildflowers.
They never spoke of their future together, but Jules looked for clues among his possessions. She flipped through the pages of his books, scanning for margin notes. She asked about his childhood in Duluth, but he casually dismissed it as mundane. When she got the nerve to bring up the future, Warren leaned into her:
“I don’t know,” he said. “Why dam a beautiful river?”
Because she wanted to hold it, but she didn’t say so.
The cabin they rented on the bank of the East Gallatin felt smaller, the landscape around it larger. Within a month, the same cramped feeling of those ten days on the tower returned. Their best times were outdoors – on explorations to an old burn or skinning up their favorite ski line during the early snows. But in his absence, the cabin felt even smaller.
In Bozeman, Jules applied for work with the university forestry program. She doubted the value of her experience, but the director echoed Warren’s comment about birthday events.
“In nature, creation and destruction are forever intertwined.”
They set her to organizing outreach efforts, signing up local schools and leading classes as a field guide. Second and third graders called her “Miss Jules.”When she asked questions,they came back with statements about their lives. My brother doesn’t eat bacon because pigs are smart.They held her by her pant legs. My dad can talk with wolves.Can you?Jules recalled Warren climbing her tower and said yes. Some children held her hands and hugged her at the conclusion of each visit.
Come February, Jules booked two nights at Big Sky resort for Warren’s birthday surprise. She’d had to look through his wallet to find out the date and was stunned; he was four years her younger. His boss confirmed Warren’s schedule, but on the morning of the trip she woke to find him packing his gear for a backcountry ski tour with Marc Parrish, a fellow groomer.
“Where are my skins?” he asked.
One thing Jules had gotten to know about Warren – he frequently misplaced his things.
“Are you heading up to the basin?”
Bee Hive Basin was their favorite ski tour.
“My climbing skins. Have you seen them? You’re always organizing my stuff.”
She could see the orange fabric of his precious skins poking out between two Rubbermaid storage boxes in the loft, where he’d shoved them after their last mountain trek. But she said nothing.
“We live in a train car. We’re always moving each other’s stuff.”
“I thought you liked it here?”
He turned back to his search, digging through gear boxes, tossing axes and crampons on the new couch Jules had bought to replace his threadbare taco. Then he stopped and sighed.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
Carefully, Warren lifted the crampons off the cushions. He was the man who saw fires as a birthday event and somehow, she noted, a pair of climbing skins had wound him up.
“Maybe we need a different place. This is small.”
He reached out to brush her cheek – God how she loved that – but Jules was caught in the motion of reaching for the skins.
“You knew. Come on, Jules.”
Yes, Jules wanted him to fight. She wanted shouting and accusations, anything to rile him up about her; and though he was more forceful than necessary as he stuffed the pack, he regained his placidness as he prepared to leave
“Enjoy the kids.”
He pecked her on the cheek while she filled the coffee pot. Jules reeled back.
“What the hell was that?”
Jules though of her parent’s failed marriage.
Warren took a deep breath and pulled Jules closer. He flashed that smile that made her confident in the world. Then he kissed her on the lips, but there was no heat in them.
“You’re off Saturday. I’ll be back before noon.”
“Take your time.”
Jules tore the place apart. If he wasn’t going to throw anything, she was. By the time Jules finished, she was out of breath. She still felt that way the next morning when Warren returned a day earlier than expected. He’d run into a mutual friend of theirs at a mountain hut. That friend
asked about his trip to Big Sky.
“Why would I go to that cluster-fest?” he’d said, before realizing.
Jules had cleaned up and with her bags packed the place looked as it should have; simple, polite and uncluttered. Hadn’t he been more easy-going in New Mexico? More organized, too?
She told herself she was only moving across town; for them.
“I’m sorry,” he called, kicking the door open.
His arms were full with gear and a bottle of wine dangled from his fingertips. The spartan order stopped him in his tracks.
“I don’t want this,” he croaked. That was all.
“You need your space,” she told him. “I’ll come over for breakfast Monday. You’re cooking.”
She expected his calm, so Jules matched it and slipped out the door, stopping only to peck his cheek. His appearance, moments later, ten feet ahead of her car, took Jules by surprise. Blurry eyed, she barely tapped the brakes before he bounced off her windshield. Thin cracks spidered across the snow dusted glass.
Warren moaned. “I think I needed that.”
They made love before driving cross-town to the hospital. He insisted on it. But when he lifted her onto the countertop, Warren yelped with pain.
“We do have a bed.”
“Screw the bed.”
Warren pulled her with him over the arm of the couch, yelping again.
“Hurts so good.” He laughed.
With her help, he sat up on the arm rest and Jules straddled him. He pulled her tight by the small of her back, his shoulder limp at his side. She cradled his forearm, supporting the shoulder, moving slowly, kissing his wound. Halfway through, they moved to the bed and Jules finished, riding low to his chest, feeling closer than ever. A loved one, not a lover.
Halfway to the hospital Warren threw open the door at a traffic light and vomited. His head wasn’t exactly spinning, he said.
“It’s more like gravity got shut off.”
With a type III shoulder separation,Warren managed driving the cat a week later, but when his boss learned about the concussion and the prolonged headaches, Warren was given a temporary leave. They used the time to look for a suitable rental, but every option was in the city proper. For Jules there was no need to ask; Warren would struggle. She had felt the same way during her winters in Taos; but she was done hiding. Five days into the search their tensions flared again.
“You’re opening the windows?” she asked. “It’s winter. I’m cold.”
“It’s just a crack.”
“But I’m cold.”
He picked up a sweater and tossed it on her head. Next thing Jules knew, Warren was reaching for his ski gear.
“I’m not going there. I’m not fighting. Grab your gear.”
He’d already warmed up the ’83 Ford F-150 when she threw her telemark skis in the truck bed.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Wherever you want to go?”
Halfway up Blacktop Mountain, Jules veered into the underside of a gully and felt the snow move. She’d been thinking about the morning, feeling light. She’d simply wanted a sign that they were working together; Warren had reached out for her as she climbed inside the truck. He’d hooked his hand around the curve of her waist and pulled her across the bench seat. Full blown arguments just weren’t his way.
“I want to make this work,” he had said.
The movement of the slab was subtle at first; like an old dog leaning against her leg. Twenty yards above her, Warren began to slide. In horror, she watched him pass, his arms swimming to keep afloat on a snow churning conveyor belt. It was slow moving, but the weight was insurmountable. Within thirty seconds, Warren was carried over the edge of the small cliff band they’d just skinned around. She found him with his foot by his face, spitting debris.
“Right out of the Kama Sutra.” Warren laughed. “Was it something I said?”
“No, no, no.” Jules pressed her wet face into his. “I thought I killed you.”
“Hotshot killed by snow. What a headline!”
Warren blamed himself. Two calm, dry weeks had convinced him they were safe, but the bottom layer of hoarfrost was substantial.
“We should have dug a snow pit. I could have gotten us both killed.”
“No, it was me Warren. It’s always me.”
That night Jules told Warren about the Topsham Fair and her brother, her high school teammate and the errant bomb. She confessed to seeing her mother kiss a stranger outside the
Gallerie Mall when her school class left the Museum of Science in Boston.
“Five months later they divorced.”
Warren laid aside the torn pants he was stitching back together.
“How many lightning strikes hit the Gila each summer? Is it your fault that you spot one?”
She reached out and stroked Warren’s hand. The lines in his skin were still summer dark.
Her life felt too good now to trust.
“I know the risk. Your brother knew the risk.”
“And the bomb?” Jules asked. “Another one of your birthday events?”
“Just a lightning strike, Jules. Nothing to do with you.”
Still, she thought of the window Warren had opened that morning.
Fire season. In Silver City,they opened up Warren’s musty cabin and swept the place out. There was none of his scent, but the cabin was his all the same – a climbing rope that hung on a peg above the river rock fireplace, wood carvings dangling from the rafters on monofilament line, a closet filled with assault gear and Nomex fire wear. For the first time, Jules understood theinstinctual strength of his migratory pattern. She was thirty-six; too old for that. Yet, Warren seemed renewed by their migration. When Jules slammed a dresser drawer shut – she needed only two – he poked his head in the doorway.
Jules smiled. “Of course.”
Falling in love was her fault. She knew the risk.
“Take all the space you want,” he said. “I don’t need much.”
Two days later, Jules left for her post, twenty-five miles northwest of Mason Ridge. Warren planned to hike up to her at the end of the week, if he could, but he didn’t come. When her relief arrived three days later, Jules hiked the six miles back to her truck and drove to his cabin, passing the Puffing Grouse Motel on her way. There was a note on the table, dated four days earlier. It was held in place by a wood carved bowl filled with dry cactus rose petals.
“Fire outside Tucson. Sorry.”
She talked more during her communications and wrote daily in her journal. She received three postcards from him on the tower; twice with a helicopter resupply and once by the hands of a thru-hiker. Ten days on, four days off. In late May and again in June she saw signs of Warren. An empty beer can on the table. Dirty clothes in the hamper. His smell. He left carvings and short letters, too. She liked to think of them as love letters, but without him there she wasn’t sure. He wrote about hidden spot fires and the staccato of her voice when they made love. He described how large trees feasted on a short blaze. She’d spotted a dozen burns herself that year,
but none had reached any special magnitude. He wrote of his hunger for her.
From time to Warren’s reports came through the radio chatter, affectionately detailing prescribed burns. Blossoms of flame. Orange ribbons of light. Shadows and fire song. She yearned to be loved the same way.She feared that she was forgotten. But when a light rain arrived in late June, the morning of her furlough, she called in the weather and Warren answered.
“I’ll be snoozing in the bed of your truck,” he told her.
Jules caught her breath. Her heart pounded.
“No point in driving all the way out when you’ll just have to drive back. I’ll see you after check-in.”
Her relief was slow in arriving. Morning brought a bluebird sky, but she could see clouds far off to the southwest. By noon, dense cumulonimbus clouds were marching over the valley and the high shark-toothed mountains were eating sky. Reports of potential thunderstorms came over the line. By mid-afternoon the ridge was covered in a two inch scab of hail. Five summers in the Gila and she had never seen anything like it. There’d been hail before. Lightning storms preceded by a short burst of weaponry, hail that fell in tiny crystals that lit up the sky, but nothing so heavy and determined. It was early evening before she could leave, but with the so much hail on the ground she stayed the night. Jules was back in Silver City noon the next day.
Warren wasn’t there to meet her.
She showered, changed into clean clothes and grabbed a can of beer from the fridge. On the countertop she found a wire from the Forest Service about a blaze in Malibu Canyon, California, dated that morning.
“Oh, come on!”
Jules hurled the can of beer and it exploded on the rock fireplace. She snatched another and downed it. She’d been living on look-out food for weeks – canned beans, dehydrated chicken, rice and bulk food; to calm herself she focused on a healthy meal. She found a defrosted pork shoulder in the fridge and lentils in the cupboard. She was carving the meat with a hunting knife she’d found when Warren opened the door.
“I thought you’d left,” she said, suppressing a sigh.
“Left for where?”
Warren stood in the doorway, backlit by the white sun. He looked at the glistening fireplace rocks and the dented can. Jules was happy she hadn’t cleaned up.
“But you were thinking about it?”
“Come on Jules, it’s what I do. So yes, I was thinking about it. But I’m here.”
He set a duffel bag on the counter. His personal kit.
“Can you move that?” She waved the knife. “I want to make a good meal.”
“With my father’s hunting knife?”
Warren opened a drawer that made no sense to her.
“Here. Use this.”
Jules gave the pot of lentil beans a shove, dousing the blue flame. Sidestepping Warren she grabbed two beers from the fridge. Tears welled up in her eyes as he slid his arms around her waist and his warm, calloused hands closed around hers. She’d been afraid to say what she wanted to say; believed that saying such a thing would curse it, but saying nothing would protect
“I just want you to love me the way you love your fires.”
Warren shook his head.
“I don’t want to. You’re my birthday event, not a fire.”
They ate quietly by a lone mesquite tree in the scrubland outside. Warren set a trampoline style cot in the shade,and when they finished,he flung the tin plates like frisbees towards the door.
“Maybe I love fire. Working a blaze that’s all I think of; I have to. So maybe you can call that love. But when I was back here, without you – all I could think about was you.”
Jules a felt her heart relax for the first time in weeks. She sank into his arms, burrowing into the twilight beneath the gnarled mesquite branches.
“Can we talk about what’s next?” he said. “I love you, Jules.”
Jules laughed. She’d wanted this talk for so long it seemed absurd to cry, but she was crying. When a coyote spooked her, licked the plates Warren had tossed into the cabin doorway hours before, she laughed again.
“Does this mean you want a dog?”
Three days later, after the feral clawing, after watching lichen fall to the shower floor from making love against a tree, after howling in imitation of local coyotes until their throats were raw, she packed for her post. They’d gotten coffee in town while looking online at home rentals in Bozeman. They’d studied maps to route their road trip north in the fall. Jules knew she could not live the migratory life forever, but what choice did she have.
“Go to Malibu,” she said, leaning out the Forest Service truck window. “I can wait.”
Jules felt happy and scared at once; love would just have to be this way
Warren brushed the hair out of her face. The warmth in his hand was hotter than ever.
“I’ll see you in a couple weeks or so,” he said.
But Warren never returned. She was on the tower when her supervisor from central command visited. In six seasons he’d never done such a thing before. Jules fell to her knees and cried. When she was finished as much as she could be, Jules hefted her pack, then descended the tower thinking of grilled king snakes and gyres of smoke.
Some of the biggest fir trees in the Gila are older than the nation. They were saplings when the Spanish had first arrived. Jules reminded herself of this and how quickly a blaze could reduce men and women to ashes. A running crown fire had chased Warren and his crew up a side canyon when the Santa Ana winds had shifted on them. The flames caught the crew in minutes. That her love with Warren grew into anything was an event of succession, but she doubted anything could ever grow from the scar.
In October, she flew to Los Angeles and drove out to Malibu canyon. The road had just reopened, but the trails were still closed. Jules ducked the yellow tape and hiked, turning off into the scar when the pacific faded from sight.
News coverage of the burn described an irreversible catastrophe, but Jules knew that the canyon had always known fires,that it was born from the fires of earth’s creation. She didn’t have to wander far into the charcoal moonscape to see evidence of the birthday event – green shoots sprouting out of charred earth, ankle high saplings of chaparral, wildflowers stitching the black quilt landscape. Warren’s smell. Scrambling into a gulch, she found water running in a thin stream. The river rocks were seared and glowing with silver. Jules hefted a stone in her hand and watched a Tiger Salamander squirt out from a crevice. The creature froze, its only defense out in the open. She wondered what consciousness it had of the fire. Was the blaze just a lightning strike in its existence? It didn’t matter, Jules realized. Even the best camouflage did you no good out in the open. The only option was to acknowledge the beauty of the burn.