My father was an east coast Jew who headed west out of desperation and a romantic notion of finding himself by wandering amongst ranchers and riflemen. He left the gaggle of women who clustered about him in New Jersey, the aunts, sisters, grandmothers combing his hair, whispering in his ear, picking the lint off his sweater, and intended on working the railroad or maybe the waterfront, whatever he could do to get money for food and beer and a few hours now and then with a woman of questionable morals. He hitchhiked three thousand miles—this was in 1956, when you could still do that—to see how the Pacific differed from the Atlantic, and was all set to spend his young manhood in motion, sleeping in doorways and bus stations, waking up in towns he'd never heard of, holing up in the corner of seedy bars with the afternoon drinkers who'd come in for some relief from the heat and the emptiness of their lives.
Unfortunately for him, he hadn't even reached the ocean when he wandered right into my mother in what is known as the Great Valley of California, only three months after he left the east. She was something of a renegade herself, having left her family back in Abilene, but she was more Texan than not, and that was as exotic as Chinese to my father. It was his way of talking, which made him seem like he knew what caused the world to go round, that most charmed my mother, who had moved to Madrone to work as assistant to the local vet and whose knowledge was more practical. My father was so smart he forgot, as those afflicted with love often do, that he, too, was a slave to biology, and he watched my mother's stomach grow swiftly into a chain around his neck. But Carl's people had long admired sacrifice, so he did the right thing, snuffed out his dreams like baking soda to a grease fire and settled himself and his new wife into a wooden house on top of a long slope five miles outside of town. As for my mother, she should have known better; she'd been watching animals mate, birth, and die since before she could talk.
Carl knew just enough about the world to make you think he'd traveled all over. But all he'd ever seen was nineteen of our own states before he settled down and tried to pretend that a bad seed can grow a good crop. If you ask me, he should have gone through whatever hardship, heartbreak, and moral or physical dilemma was necessary to have that baby taken out, or leave Ruth to birth it on her own. He should have gathered up his newfound hope and continued on to the coast or north to the Rockies, where men still make a living roping cows. Then at least, several years down the road, his tryst in the San Joaquin Valley would have been not forgotten, but over and done with, a spiny little memory.
That baby, of course, was me. And, as if the cry of a newborn could bring joy into a home, Carl and Ruth kept on having babies. Jason, two years younger than me, was a fragile boy who invited protection. Then there was Daniel, straight-haired like my mother, and the babies, Minnie and Rosa. The subsequent children were better received than myself, since, being the first, I was the one that put the plug in whatever small possibilities my parents' lives held. It didn't help that I came out a girl with the temperament of my mother and the looks of my father, with his dark eyebrows and black curls. They called me Jess, short for Jessica, though my mother used my name as little as possible. Whatever mothering Ruth had in her she reserved for the ones that came after me, and though Carl could see the unfairness in this he was accustomed to taking orders from women, and let it be. While my father had resigned himself that his youth had snapped away from him, my mother never quite accepted the fact that her first love would be her last, and she used me as a sponge to soak up her resentment.
My mother was not one of those sentimental animal lovers who bring home stray dogs or birds with broken wings. She knew as much as Otis Dow, the large animal vet she worked for, and could have been a vet herself, if things had been different. There's a lot of divining to the medical sciences—not magic, but listening and watching for clues, knowing how to add them up. My mother had a gift in this; she had at least six senses and a clear, uncluttered mind that contrasted sharply with Otis Dow's, especially after his wife died and he got into the wine. He once killed a man's prize horse from giving it the wrong kind of shot, and from then on Otis Dow had my mother in charge of mixing the medicines. Most people would not let him tend to their animals unless Ruth was present.
When I was a baby, Carl got a job as a schoolteacher and Ruth, who wasn't about to let a child get between her and her work, brought me on her calls. The first time I remember seeing her work with an animal, I was four years old, standing on a pile of sawdust in the corner of a barn, minding my brother Jason. On the other side of the gate, Ruth was huddled over a cow with the farmer and Otis Dow.
The cow, pregnant and fat as a tractor, was on the ground with long wet strings of mucous spread on the hay all around her. My mother leaned down and put her whole arm inside the animal, which writhed like a car out of control. It looked like she was going to send my mother flying out of the stall, and I had to hold Jason tight to keep him from crying. But Ruth pulled her arm out, wiped the red mess on a towel, and told Otis Dow the calf was dead. Then they went out to the car.
The only sound now was the cow breathing, loud and desperate as wind. The farmer got on his knees and stroked her like she was his woman or his child. He said words to her that were so soft I climbed off the pile and walked over to hear.
"Sweet girl. That's my sweet, sweet girl." His hand rubbed circles on her big cheek and up to her temple. "You'll do just fine."
Ruth and Otis Dow came back in, carrying a case, and my mother uncapped a hypodermic as big as a plunger. The farmer did not move and neither did I.
"You're supposed to be looking after your brother," said my mother, watching the needle rise. I went back to the sawdust, put my arm around Jason, and listened as the farmer again whispered those soft, soft words.
Madrone is cropland primarily, and most of the livestock that Ruth and Otis Dow tended to were animals that farmers kept for their own or for selling locally. We lived in one of the largest fertile valleys in the world, five hundred miles long from the Shasta Dam down to the Tehachapi range in the south, though it wouldn't have been fertile if people hadn't figured out how to get it wet. Canals and aqueducts run the length of the valley, gathering water from streams and rivers, and feeding it into long metal arms that carry the water out to where it doesn't belong. It hasn't always been this dry. Before there were people, this valley was a part of the Pacific, an inland sea, with the San Francisco Bay as its isthmus out to the ocean. In winter, with the rains, it can look like it's underwater again, and I used to stand on our porch above the flooded fields like Noah on his ark.
The house, one story, low to the ground, was not the home my mother had dreamed of. It was made of grayed, unpainted wood that gave it a sour look, even on blue-bright days, and had a roof that sagged like a bad spine. There were six rooms with very few windows for all the sun that could have come in, and a little shed off the side of the driveway. But Ruth kept that house clean and bent over backwards to pay the mortgage every month.
Our house was built on sadness the way some houses are built on stone. Sadness filled the well and seeped in through the faucets, causing us to bathe and drink and soak our feet in that tepid water. There was the sadness of the marriage, based in poverty and carelessness, and the sadness of the land the house sat on, pale and brittle with soil that seemed forever thirsty. In the middle of this most fertile of valleys, surrounded by nut trees and orchards, we were perched on a long, grassy hill, green in winter, sand-colored in summer, with a lone tree, a sprawling live oak covered in Spanish moss. My father's people had made a history of being sad and chased and stolen from, while Ruth had it beaten into her by her mother, who she never talked to, and her father, who never talked to her.
It wasn't until I was old enough to go to school that I realized how quiet we lived. Mornings the bus, the same bright yellow as our pencils, picked me up at the end of the road and transported me to noise, colors, and perfect little desks in rows. At recess we were let out like bees from a jar, and my playmates, mostly boys, accepted me without question. But by sixth grade our differences could no longer be ignored.
One afternoon at Weston Arey's house on Nickel Bluff, a half-hour walk from my house, I was under the front porch shooting rubber-band rifles at anything that moved. None of them could aim, but I hit the neighbor's black-eyed mutt on the haunches and sent him yelping down the road. "Hey," said Raymond, the puniest of the three. "No girls can shoot like that."
It wasn't Weston who started it, but he joined in soon enough when they demanded proof that I wasn't a boy. Two of them grabbed my head and turned me over, pushing my face into the peach-colored dirt. "Know what else?" Weston said. "Her Pa is from New Jew-sy."
Then there was a hand reaching under me, grabbing onto my zipper, and a bunch more tugging on my jeans till they were at my ankles. I took my punishment in silence, which only seemed to aggravate them more. "Jewsy, Jewsy," they chanted. Then they turned me over and little Raymond took his rifle to my panties and pulled them down.
"What do you know, she's a girl after all," he said.
It took them less than a minute to get out of there and leave me alone, half-naked, with a mouthful of sand. But I stayed under that porch for hours, long after Weston's parents came home and the sounds of dinner filtered down through the wood. Finally night fell, I crawled out, and snuck home.
My father, though he was educated, had a naïve faith in the justness of the human animal and believed that respect would come to those who worked hard and lived honest. But you can't turn a pig into a cow no matter how hard you try, and so he learned not to see what he didn't want to. Ruth, on the other hand, had grown up proud, with fighting instincts, and was accustomed to the prairie justice of her home state. She refused to accept anything that she did not like, and she did not like being embarrassed by her children.
That evening when I got home from Weston's, she saw me coming in the door. "What do you got on your face and where have you been?" she said from the front room where she was reading to the babies. The lamplight circled them in a warm glow, like a painting. But she wasn't looking for an answer, and turned back to her story as I went down the dark hallway toward the room I shared with Jason. My father looked up from the kitchen table as I passed by. "I got a plate here for you, Jess."
I ate in the bathroom while I washed, and through the walls I could hear Carl whisper. "Ruth, please. She's a child. Won't you show some concern?"
"It's time she got some skin on her," said my mother. "She's too soft as it is, and things are not going to get any easier."
The secret to revenge is patience, something I had a lot of practice in. Acting rashly makes a person careless; besides, if you wait long enough you avoid being suspected. For most people, the sweetness of revenge comes from the accomplishment, the boasting. But my father's humility had infected me, and it was the justness of revenge, the way it righted things, that satisfied.
A couple weeks went by and then I went back to Weston's house and laid out a thin circle of brush kindling around it. I followed the circle with a quart of kerosene and a match, then crawled into the bushes off to the side and watched it light up like one of Saturn's rings. By the time the Areys came streaming onto the porch, pouring water from kitchen bowls, the fire was mostly gone, leaving just a fine black line etched into the dirt. Most people like the look of a fire at night, but I prefer to watch it in the daylight, the colors melting into the air so you can't tell where exactly the fire is or where it's headed. A day fire looks wild, limitless, and there is nothing so satisfying as watching pale tongues of fire lick, then swallow, whatever is in the way.
I didn't go out looking for reasons to set fires—they're all around you if you pay attention. I paced myself and exercised caution. The power of a lit match inspires respect and I tried not to get distracted by pettiness. That fall I made my second fire, in Principal Scanlon's office, after he put me in the dumb class because I didn't like to talk. It was just a little wastebasket fire, but it got him uneasy, which was all I wanted to do. By the end of high school, I had made eleven fires, but I never so much as singed anyone. It's sleeping people who get hurt by fire, and setting them in the daytime I caught people awake or gone.
It was always the same: the weeks of planning filled me with a throbbing, like I was touching the core of the earth, while everything around me faded. Then the colors, the shapes bold and sharp, the sheer heat of the fire. Flame, smoke, and afterward, the sad line of ash. Climbing the long slope back home, the reds, oranges, yellows still glowing inside me, I'd reach the crest, see the house, gray as ever, and fall back to the ground with a thud.
Fire, in farming country, is a serious matter, though it is not always dry and flammable in the valley. I grew up amongst people who hoped every day for rain, then cursed it when it came down, for it had nowhere to go. Just under the topsoil is a shallow but impermeable layer of clay that can keep the fields saturated to the point of rotting. It was only after the aqueducts were built that the engineers realized that getting the water to leave was as much a problem as getting it to come. Much of it remains on the surface, and when the cool air of winter arrives, it mixes with the surface water to make a thick ground fog, what we call tule fog, white as smoke and almost as dangerous. But the water, when it got into the earth, produced wondrous things. All around us the land was carved into rows—narrow, unnatural shapes—with cauliflower, lettuce, and spinach growing low to the ground, and trees that blossomed into plums and pistachios. You could drive all day in any direction and not escape the rows or the brown bodies hunched over them.
When I was twelve, I snuck down to the fields on a Saturday in picking season. The sun had not yet risen when I got in line with the Mexicans, who were drinking chocolate out of metal cups. They paid little attention to me and we worked the rows, bending over, tugging, shaking the dirt free, till the sky was bleached with light, and sweat was dripping into our eyes. The truck came around and we threw our sacks in the back and climbed on to get out of the sun for lunch. I had brought only an orange and water in a canteen, but a man in a red bandana gave me a thick tortilla and a hard-boiled egg. "Comida para segar la comida," he said, cracking another egg against his knee. Food to harvest the food.
My hands, stained green, gave me away, and after a few weeks my mother figured out what I was doing. Otis Dow's was not a thriving business, and my father seemed to work all the time with nothing to show for it. But, as Ruth reminded us nearly every day, my parents owned their house and kept us fed and respectable. The last thing she wanted was for people to think we were poor. One night when she got home, she called me onto the porch.
"What are you doing acting like a field hand with the Mexicans and transients and God knows who else?" It was dusk but there were no lights on in the house. Jason and the children were inside, their faces against the window.
"What the hell do you need money for?" she asked. "Don't you know your father and I work hard so we can live decent?"
I kept my eyes to the floorboards and my mouth shut.
"I should tan your hide," she said, raising her hand. My mother rarely hit me, but the threat of it was always there, especially if Carl wasn't around. I braced myself, but through the purple air I made out her face, worn, weary. She'd done all she was going to do to me.
"Go on, now," she sighed, like a candle going out, and I backed into the doorway leaving her invisible.
My father, in contrast, couldn't care less what I did with my time so long as I wasn't harming anyone. "I just want my children to be happy. That's all I could hope for," he used to say, as if burying his own desires could somehow cause his children's to flourish. How could he not know that everything he and Ruth did to themselves they did to us; that for every desire they squelched, they put out one of ours as well.
I would have loved to have seen my mother as a young woman, her hair long and straight, her hands strong from reaching inside animals and pulling out their reluctant calves. Even with her thick riding legs there must have been a softness there, an opening. I pity my father, dark, full of thinking, but overcome with a rash of optimism, running up against a headstrong beauty like Ruth, whose very footsteps demonstrated how solidly she was planted on the ground. She had no schooling to speak of, but she knew how to do things, and it was this concreteness that must have attracted him as much as her tanned skin, brown eyes, and full bosom, which she tucked into a man's button-up shirt. It was only after they married that he watched her words dry up like a summer rainstorm and all that strength turn against him. What little optimism the West had bought him dried up as well.
Even the cautious stumble, and it happened to me the spring I turned sixteen. John Carey, who owned four hundred acres of fruit trees in our area, had found Jason building a fort out in the northwest section of his land. John Carey didn't like us; he thought my father was womanish for wearing glasses and teaching school. He called the goddamned sheriff, who drove up with Jason, green, shaking, in the back of the squad car. My mother was filled with a shame that quickly turned to rage, and though she didn't blame Jason, she kept us out of school for a week.
Out on the Carey property, about forty-five minutes by bike, there was a decrepit old barn with a small outbuilding in even worse shape. I got there on a Saturday about eight in the morning and started pouring kerosene. I didn't want the barn, just the shed, but I wanted a small explosion, a pop, a ball of fire. I hadn't taken the matches out, but the air was thick with fumes when Bradford Carey, John's son, came out of the barn. He looked like he just woke up and we stood there for a moment like two cats wondering who'd caught who.
"Well, well," Carey said. "Little Jess Miller. This how you spend your weekends?" He was in the doorway, shadowed, and he started toward me.
His face, now that I could see it, looked like it had been kicked; there was green and purple around one of his eyes and a fresh scab along the temple. He felt me looking at it and reached up to touch the scab. Carey's father was a drinking man, and it was not uncommon for Carey to miss school, then show up with the leftovers of a bruise. It was odd to be on equal footing with him; he was a senior, three years older than me, and his people owned land and hired people to work it. He had a car and he dated Connie Downs, though her parents did not approve. But it would be embarrassing if anyone found out that Carey had been beat so bad he had to spend the night in one of his father's barns.
"You ain't too bad," he said, lifting the fuel can out of my hands, then rubbing a clump of my hair between his fingers like I was a horse he was thinking about buying. "Kind of foreign-looking."
His fingers traveled down the back of my neck to the triangle between my shoulder blades and I felt my footing slip away. "How about if we go inside," he said, nodding toward the barn, "and work out a bargain." Then he took me by the elbow, almost polite, and led me in.
It was the opposite of fire, dark, wet. He pushed me into the ground and underneath it, till my body went numb and couldn't feel a thing. He sounded like a bull running, and he looked like one, too, his mouth loose and slobbering, his eyes pulled up and back. When he was done, he held me still and closed his eyes, and there was a moment of breathing before the sound of zippers and gates and footsteps.
I stayed there, eyes closed, till there was no sound at all. Then I went back out, picked up the can, and continued dousing the shed. I walked the sweet line of fuel over to the barn, inside the doorway, around the stalls, on the pile of straw where we had been. The flame made the outbuilding sputter and fizz, then followed the fuse to the barn. There was no wind and the fire ate its way leisurely, in thick orange waves.
We lived alongside a crack, even longer than the valley, where the earth is trying to break away from itself. But the two pieces, the size of continents, are welded together, and can only move sideways, one heading north, the other heading south. Every year this seam rips a few more inches, causing spasms, often gentle, sometimes fierce. But the coming together of continents is as violent as the breaking apart. Millions of years ago, when the pieces collided, the earth erupted into mountains. The Central Valley is surrounded by these mountains, and, depending on the weather, I used to be able to make out the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the great range that runs the length of the valley, protecting it from the desert. To the west, the humbler coastal ranges kept us from the ocean, which I had seen only in pictures.
The barn fire made the paper, but Carey kept his mouth shut. Still, I was relieved when school ended and he left to join the service. That summer I was allowed to work, and I got a job at the coffee shop on Route 38. Gray-haired Mavis Knight taught me how to start the brewer and pour from the glass pots without getting burned by the wet clouds of steam. I spent as much time there as possible, clearing the chrome-edged tables, wiping them down, and setting them up again with white napkins and shiny spoons.
The shop served locals as well as those who traveled alone, driving to Salinas to pick lettuce or down to Barstow for the olives or whatever else was ripe. Most craved conversation, and their talk was full of the names of places and the roads that took you there. I liked being the link between the customers and what they wanted, and I liked the smell of coffee—sharp, sweet—that stayed on me long after I got home. Every week I put my paycheck in the bank and watched the numbers grow like inches marked on a wall.
Because I was earning money, something Ruth now approved of, she stopped insisting that I have supper with the family. I could work as many hours as I wanted, even after school started, as long as I got my chores done. My father tried to get me home most Sundays for dinner, and, after the dishes were done and the younger kids in bed, we often sat up together at the kitchen table.
One day, about two years later—I was eighteen and about to graduate high school—Brad Carey came into the coffee shop with two of his buddies. He was on leave and he looked smart and citified compared to his friends, who worked as foremen on his father's land, and were covered in dust. He didn't make much of seeing me again, just winked on his way in and out. But an hour later he was back.
He strolled up to the counter and ordered coffee, black. I didn't know what states or countries he'd been to, but something was different about him. He walked lighter and his ears, made plain by the haircut, were pale and tender as shoots.
"Hey, Jess," he said, pouring sugar from the jar. "I've been thinking about you." I avoided his eyes and went back to stacking glasses under the counter.
"Yeah, there was something I always wanted to ask you," he said. I went on stacking, hoping he'd stop right there. "Is Jess your real name?"
I stood up but didn't say anything.
"Come on," he said, his lips curling into a smile. "That's a boy's name. What is it really?"
"Jessica," I said, taking a sponge to the little white grains he'd spilled on the counter. "But no one calls me that."
"Well that's what I'm gonna call you." He brought the cup to his mouth. "Jessica."
There were two old men in the corner booth, the only ones in the shop, and I was afraid they'd heard us. Still, it felt good, him leaning on his elbows and calling me by a new name.
After my shift I met him at the café down the highway and let him buy me dinner and tell me about where he'd been and what he'd seen. The way he talked was like the world was open and waiting for him to come visit, and I wouldn't have minded if some of that attitude rubbed off on me. We went for a drive in his car, out to his father's orchard, where small green plums were turning to purple, and we slid down under the branches. The breeze washed over us, warm and quiet, as we undid our clothes and helped ourselves to each other, touching skin to skin, muscle to muscle, bone to bone.
Some seek pleasure while others just hope for relief. Brad Carey, he was not like people I knew. He had been away and he smelled of the ocean, clean, moist, salty. He helped himself to what he wanted and moved swiftly on. He was back at the base long before I realized that I had made the same mistake as my mother and forgotten that desire did not exempt you from the laws of nature. But unlike my mother I did not see the baby as the end to a courtship that had just begun, and I intended to get rid of the thing before I started to show.
One evening in late June, we were standing in the kitchen, Ruth and I, scraping off the dinner plates. Doors and windows were open to discourage the heat, and the sounds of my brothers and sisters yelling drifted in.
"Have you seen a doctor?" she asked.
"It's time you did," she said, pushing bread crusts into the garbage. "I know one in Cordova you could see." My mother was not an evil woman; she was strong, decisive, and I am grateful to her for passing some of that fortitude along to me. But she had a blind spot, and that moment I saw that it was not going to go away. All my life I had been waiting for her to turn tender toward me, but it was never going to happen.
"But you better do it soon," she said, turning on the water and loading the dishes into the sink.
"Do what?" I asked, though I knew full well what she was talking about.
"Have it taken out."
A new idea caught hold of me right then and it made me feel thick and powerful, like I was full of money. I had something that was mine and she couldn't take it from me. "I'm not going to," I said, plunging my hands into the water. "I want to have it."
"What the hell are you thinking?" She threw a handful of silverware into the sink. "You'll do no such thing."
But everything around me had faded, her voice, the heat, and all I could feel was warm, silky water on my hands and the sweet sensation of things being righted.
There's not much in this world you can count on, least of all seeds, and toward the beginning of August I began to get sick. It came on fast, and I was retching five or six times a day till one morning I sat on the toilet with my head against the cool sink, afraid to move. The pain seared through my gut till finally I looked in the bowl, saw blood, and knew I had lost it.
I had missed a week of work and all I wanted to do was to get back there. The next day I went in, but I was weak and flimsy, and Mavis made me go home. The house was empty, I slipped into bed, and fell into a sleep filled with sweat and fever dreams. It was still light when my father's voice, through the walls, woke me up.
"What are you doing with that stuff?" He was in the kitchen, but I didn't know who he could have been talking to in that voice.
"Does Otis Dow know you have that over here?" he said, with an anger I'd never heard from him.
There was a long pause, then a scuffle, glass against glass, metal against metal. Then quiet.
"You made her sick, didn't you?" he said.
"It's for her own good," said my mother.
"Since when have you cared about that?" he said. It got quiet again. "You could have killed her."
"I know what I'm doing."
"That's what I'm afraid of, Ruth." He'd lost the anger and his voice receded. "That's what I'm afraid of."
The rains come in November and stay till March. By summer, the rivers are dried up and the land is parched, the grass brown and crackling. Early one morning that October, it was clear, still, what we call earthquake weather. I left the house and hid in the shed with the door opened slightly, then watched my brothers and sisters tumble out of the house for the school bus, and Carl get into the Vega and drive away.
Kerosene stings the nose and makes the eyes water, but it's a good hurt, full of promise. It took two cans to make a wet trail around the house and one more to cover the door frames, the porch, the railings. All sound seemed to evaporate into the air along with the fumes, and though Ruth was inside, I couldn't hear her. My intention was to frighten her, something I'd never been able to do, and make her cry for help. I put the can back in the shed and struck a match. Every five feet around the base of the house I lit another match, and soon the yellow tufts of flame were reaching out to each other. Once they touched, they formed a thick orange rope that scurried up the steps and erupted into a sheet of fire.
It was like my mother to calmly open the door and attempt to walk through flames. But Ruth didn't know about fire; she didn't know that as soon as she opened the door, the flame would swoop in on her like a bird of prey. She jumped back inside and slammed the door. I wish I could have seen her as she ran—no, she would have walked—to the back of the house, only to find another blaze locking her in. I waited for her to break a window and climb through it, but my mother approached fire like she did everything else, and she was not going to give in.
The flames lapped up toward the roof, and I began to wonder if my mother was stubborn enough to die. I had thought I was fierce, like her, but this fire scared me: It had no beauty, just urgency, and I was afraid of what it might do. I got my bike out of the shed and rode down the hill toward the Tandy's house, to call the station. But Ruth must have already called; the sirens were on their way, and I turned around and headed back toward the house as two water trucks passed me.
When I got to the top of the hill, they were carrying my mother, coughing, sputtering, from the back of the house. They put her on the ground and stuffed a bunch of padding under her feet. I rushed up, I had to know, but one of the men grabbed my arm.
"That your mother?"
"She'll be all right. You step back, now."
The fire had become a new creature, unrecognizable, and it was hard to believe that I had something to do with its birth. Around me the men were uncoiling hoses and then the water came on so violently it hardly seemed like a fair fight. Thick gray pillows of smoke gushed out the windows. But the flames, healthy, orange, had speed and agility on their side. They were cunning where the water was simply bold, and they multiplied and escaped in tendrils.
I sat down by the shed and watched the men, like soldiers, fall in line. They barely spoke, and we were surrounded by the awful sound of fire and water fighting each other. Then the Vega pulled up and my father ran toward the house. He, too, was stopped by one of the men, who pointed to where Ruth was resting on the ground. Carl bent to his knees and put his hand to her forehead before he got shooed away.
I imagine Carl's mind, which until that moment had only had room for worry, began to open up again and let wonder start to seep in. He looked up at his house, covered by a screen of smoke and dust, then looked beyond the house, at the yard, the giant oak tree, the fields in the distance. It was then he turned around and saw me. He went from wonder to knowing and his face got a look on it that I will never forget. He stepped toward me, and the horror began to melt off his face, in long, slow tears. I stood up to meet him and he put both hands on my shoulders and shook me, hard, then gentle. He kept one arm around me, and we turned to watch the fierce blades of color eat up our home.
Rain came early that year. It came in pellets, and the earth, which was not ready for the rain, repelled it, made it wait in pools on the roads and in the fields. But the water was persistent, and finally the earth relented, opened up and let it in. We salvaged a few belongings, wet and ash-covered, and went to stay at Otis Dow's, while he moved in with his sister. His was a square house, two stories, painted creamy white inside and out, and my family seemed oddly at home there, with shelves full of books, and little flowered cups hanging from the cupboards.
There was nothing for me to do but leave, and they let me go, my father playing chess with Daniel in the living room, my mother in the kitchen shelling peas. "You'll make out, Jess," she said, sticking her thumb in and splitting open the spine of a pea. She looked up from the bowl and into my eyes. It was the first time since the fire, maybe the first time ever, that she looked at me like that. "You'll do just fine." She nodded real slow, in approval, or assurance, or both. Then she went back to her peas.
And so I gathered up my money from the bank and bought a map and a bus ticket. Then I began my climb up the mountains and out of the valley, heading west toward the ocean, to continue the journey my father had started, to see the things my parents had not seen.