Not the scent of the smoke, but the sight of it, not the sight itself, but the screen through which it altered the sunlight—she couldn’t articulate the change exactly, it’s just that the light seemed odd, like the acidic light of a nightmare. She had overslept. She was used to waking at the sound of his alarm. Risen dazed and blinking into this strange day, the cool and yellow morning. Before she woke the girl, she stood on the deck. I have use of my limbs, she thought, without knowing why she thought it. And went back into the house. She dressed the child, and combed her hair, and shook cereal into a bowl for her—the child seemed not to notice anything at all, still pliant with sleep, and ate without speaking but with an unfocused concentration she brought to most tasks, that she brought even to her dreams, her face concentrated even in the task of dreaming, mirroring perhaps a dream-face that rarely smiled. It was too late now to hurry. And the girl ate slowly. The mother had the urge to smack her. She turned her eyes down to her mug of coffee and took a sip from it. Without milk or sugar it tasted bitter. Drank. She was coming awake.
Where’s Daddy today? Halfway through the soggy bowl.
Went to work early. You know, he might get home late tonight. After you’re in bed.
I feel funny, said the girl.
The mother put a testing hand against the silky forehead. You’re fine.
I feel funny.
No, she wasn’t fine, the forehead was hot. But Jesus, God, just a moment alone, today of all days. Children made noise, the woman had been told, but nobody had ever told her that the noise children made would be intolerable. The noise they made, the sneezing and singing and screaming and shrieking—nothing wrong, when she raced to the other room, the child was shrieking with delight—and crying, crying, a scraped knee, a broken doll, and the crashing of toys and furniture and bodies, this noise was near constant, slowly growing throughout the waking hours, swelling in the afternoon to an evening crescendo, the noise under everything, diminishing every pure thought and action, the noise she could not quite block out and had to monitor for signs of true distress. Even alone, one child—Christ, imagine two! Looking down at the sick daughter. She was small, she was six years old, very small, but turning, already, or, she should say, finally, human, with her own thoughts. Dark as her father, darker than him, the mother had not made a mark on her.
Okay, stay home with me today. I’ll call the school. You go back to bed.
I don’t want to.
You go to school or you go back to bed.
Don’t try me right now. The anger in her own voice scared her. The girl fled. Anika!
She called the school. Something going around. She was shaking. The anger in her voice sounded like her mother’s.
She lay in her bed, still with her school clothes on, and pressed her face into the pillow. Now the mother was gentle and stroked her back. The structure of her rib cage was like a pair of hands, each rib a slender finger. The little body contained a soul. She wasn’t crying, but her face was flushed.
Come let’s get you—
Let’s get you—Anika!—still—
For she was squirming, then shivering, as the woman lifted the dress over her head and pulled down the tights. Her baby’s body gone skinny, the ribs, the dark chest, tiny nipples. Her pajamas were pink, they buttoned. She dressed the girl in them, then tucked the blankets around her.
You’ll warm up.
Read to me?
The same book, one they could both easily recite from memory (father, too). The mother made herself patient. One winter morning, Peter woke up and looked out the window. The body beside her felt incandescent. She could have been sick the day before and the mother hadn’t noticed. Maybe even two days. Had she? Three pages and she was dozing. The mother shut the curtains and left the room. Out the window, the sky was lambent, glowing, it seemed, from a diffuse source. She went out onto the deck to gaze at it. The air felt dry in her throat. The hill sloped away from the house, bare for a mile and then trees, not tall enough to block the view yet, but they were creeping slowly upward, and one day would. The woman was remembering the hillside when it was green and jeweled with newts bisected with purple and orange, with sideways eyes, cool on the palm, their movements slow with terror. The girl had caught them. Delighted. They lost their tails, she told her mother. If they were caught. Does it hurt? The mother didn’t know. What happens to the tail, does it become a whole new newt? The mother said maybe. And then, the girl’s eyes lighting up with understanding, Is that how humans are made, too? Baby, the mother had asked, do we have tails? But rain had not come for months and months, and the hillside had browned—some would say become golden but she would say brown, and it was not bitterness, because she had felt this way for many years, steady in her hatred of summer.
The light was golden. As light should be but never is. Then she caught the first dark scent. Oh—what now? But the feeling was like wonder. Smoke? She was a body in air. As he was speaking last night, she could hear the water in his mouth—his spit—she could hear the sounds of the mouth that happened around the words, of the lips opening and closing, of the tongue sliding, and occasionally the click of teeth. Under the sound of the words was the sound of breath, the breath that carried those words, so at first it was difficult to hear them, the words, and when she did hear them there was so much space around them she thought, Well, I’m okay. But later, only a little later, she realized that it had been shock. She had not let the words into her body. It was as though she had placed a pill on her tongue, could feel the weight of it there, but could not yet taste it. Alone, in the almost empty house—for it had been late at night, and the girl was sleeping—his words began to enter her: she tasted them, she felt the burning of their swallow, she felt them come into her bloodstream. She stood in front of the mirror. He had changed her, she wanted to see it. Her features were the same, but they had a different meaning now, she looked older and sour, and she saw the lines on either side of her mouth and traced them with her finger. The lines of her mother, her mother’s sourness. Oh God. And then she turned away from the mirror with a clenching, a balling up, for once her tears began to form she would not be able to stop them, for days she would live in a red and swollen mind, stuffed up as if by cold, eyes leaking in betrayal.
Now inside, she turned on the TV for news but there was nothing. Only soaps. Three channels came in, and a Spanish channel and a Christian one. Switched it off. And restless. She went into the child’s room, the girl slept with her mouth open. Sick, the child was docile, hers, she was her mother’s but not her own, too docile, suffering but the face in sleep was angelic. She had forgotten to take her temperature like a bad mother, she had not given her any medicine like a bad mother. Should she wake her? But didn’t the body need sleep most of all? She thought of the drive to school with her daughter, pulling to the curb and watching her walk into the stone building. Past that, she had not thought, but likely she would end up at the ocean. Walking, walking, or just sitting in the car, dry, watching the sea fold
over. Where was he. Work, or.
Startled by a knock at the door, she looked through the window in the kitchen and saw a man standing in uniform. He started speaking as soon as she opened the door, polite but with little preamble: the hillside was burning. Far off but uncontained, growing in the other direction: still. Are you all right?
She nodded. She was not sure what shape her face had been in to make him ask.
It’s not going to come this close. I promise you.
Then why do we have to leave? She heard herself speaking like a child. The man had a face, she noticed, a young face, dark with stubble, the kind of man who couldn’t keep his chin clean. The eyes of the man were amber with pity under his hat.
Just a precaution. Really, there’s no need to be afraid.
Do we have enough water?
To put the fire out.
Helicopters, he said, come from the lake.
Is there enough water in the lake?
No need to worry. We’re just being extra careful.
Don’t cry now, she told herself. Then it won’t stop. She watched his jeep turn in the drive, and she waved to him.
She stood looking dumbly at the possessions they had gathered and arranged. Each thing was in its place with few subtractions: he had taken only a few shirts and pants and a beloved sweater she sometimes borrowed and two books (he didn’t read often, and they were just paperbacks, easily replaceable). Each thing was in its place and clean because she had just cleaned. She liked to scrub the kitchen floor on her hands and knees: he liked it, too. She went to the kitchen and opened the utensil drawer and looked down at the spoons. Which should she take? Would they melt? She began to take them out of the drawer and put them in a paper bag with handles. Then the forks. Not the real knives with teeth, but the gentle butter knives, made for spreading. Then she took out the utensil holder and put that in the bag, too. Undressed, the drawer looked unsettling. She took off her wedding ring and put it in the drawer and closed it, hard, she could hear the gold ping against the wood.
In the doorway of her room, as if in the frame of a picture: But who would paint a child like this, skinny and wary—the eyes of it oddly yellow? Her baby.
Go back to bed, Ani.
I was sick in the bed.
I was sick.
She had spit up, like a baby, her breakfast, sour in the sheets, and on her nightclothes. The mother undressed her and pulled the foul clothes off the bed. Heat came off the body of the child as it would a radiator. Now the mother would be a good mother, lifting the girl, who smelled sweet in her hair, and taking her to the bathroom, and running a bath, as she waited, wrapped in a towel on the toilet to keep warm. The mother poured a spoon of blue medicine down the girl’s throat, bitter, but she told the girl of Shiva’s heroism, sucking the poison from the ocean as it was churned by the gods for nectar and holding it in his dark throat so the others would not be harmed.
Will I turn blue?
No, love. Why so tender? And tears suddenly rising. In you go.
Have I been bad?
Then why are you crying?
You’re just sick. Sometimes when people are sick they throw up. It’s okay.
She washed her daughter’s hair. The girl was having trouble keeping upright and wanted to lie down. Her head bubbled under the water for a few seconds as it followed its own weight. Almost, said the mother, patting her body dry. She brought a too-big T-shirt for the girl and slipped her arms and neck through it. Forcing her tears back into her eyes took all her effort. She wiped her face and turned to the girl and smiled. Okay, Ani, back to bed.
In her parents’ bed the child looked tiny.
The man looked disappointed when she opened the door. The open door let in the friendly smell of smoke, the kind that perfumed the hair of campers.
I fell asleep! she said.
The thing is, the fire’s turned. We’re evacuating everyone now.
Is the lake dry?
He rubbed his chin. They’re dumping mud.
I have to pack.
There’s not much time now.
No time to pack?
Ten minutes, he said, okay?
No, ten. Five. But I can’t come back here to make sure you’re out, you should be out already. Will you be out in ten minutes?
Like a child she was making him a solemn promise. Could he see that, underneath, her skull was glinting with laughter? But she straightened herself: she was a serious woman. She set an egg timer. His jeep raised dust as it turned.
The house is a body, a body houses souls. Three souls but now there were only two. The house did not betray pain. She would just as well let the photographs burn but the girl would want them one day. What would the girl want? It was time, past time, to call him, but still she did not. She filled a paper bag with books and when she lifted it by the handles it tore in half. Once I had been beautiful. Not all at once but for a day at a time. And now—
Outside, the yellow of the air had intensified, the light had thickened. There was no time, but she stepped onto the deck anyway and held her arm out, it had changed color. Her skin looked eerie, ruined. She could not see the fire from where she stood, but the smell in the air had deepened, that good smell, the clean smell of wood releasing its carbon. And the aircraft hauling water from the lake thrusting their noise into the morning. They were small as insects.
She couldn’t pull open her eyes, she was sweating her kid’s sweat at her brow, the gentle kind of sweat that smells like clay. The bad mother had forgotten to take her daughter’s temperature, but to take it now she would have to wake her, and she couldn’t remember if she should: it had been at least a year since the girl was so sick, maybe longer, her colds were mild and almost sweet, cured, it seemed, by a day of rest, hot tea, baby aspirin, and a mother or father sitting on the bed, singing badly (mother) or beautifully (father). She didn’t trust the Internet, but Dr. Spock would know, she went to the shelf and remembered she’d emptied it into the bag, she rifled through the spilt bag and found him, flipped to the index, fever, fever, and then to the page it directed. It was a good sign if your child was sleeping, if she was able to sleep then the fever wasn’t so severe and you must not wake her. Still, it was alarming to put her hand against the cheek or the forehead of the little girl—surely she had never been this hot. At the child’s neck the skin prickled up in the shape of a continent, raised and slightly purple. She winced when it was touched by the mother’s gentle fingers, and the skin under the fingers: even hotter. Spock? Now don’t get hysterical. He only took one suitcase so she could still pack, none of these ripping paper bags. And then they’d drive straight down to the hospital and she’d call him from there. The egg timer sounded, she cranked it again, generously granting herself more time as though she had the power to give it.
What should she take from the house, just the pictures? And the clothes from the girl’s room she lifted from their hangers and set them down on the bed. Perhaps food? The air coming from the girl’s lungs had an odd flavor. Spock gave you the feeling that everything was under control, he had written a whole book on all the possibilities, they were all accounted for. Her jewelry wouldn’t burn but perhaps it would melt, the bridal jewelry she had been saving for the girl: a crust of jewels for the neck and the arms and a complex and delicate gold structure worn in the hair and the earlobes and nose, even if neither were pierced. And the bride wrapped in silk and strung with gold and jewels looking shyly up into the eyes of the new husband, whom she has loved, and already fucked, but still shy, enacting her ritual part, and he, too, shy, enacting his ritual part, though they laughed as the priest made him promise that he had regarded her only in friendship before this moment, and they had each thought of a secret corner of the other: a dark nipple held between teeth, a dark cock gripped in a pale hand. Under the turban, three gray hairs at the crown of his head, she knew, and the fleck of subtle color in the iris of his left eye. And he to her: the curves of her, the location of several moles. The jewelry was stored in a crawl space above the kitchen, which required a ladder, and she climbed it and hoisted down the box that contained it, nearly losing balance and toppling over, and where would she be, but finding her footing and giddy as her feet touched the kitchen tile. But this was the wrong box, full of letters, tinder, difficult to look at. She could see his hand. He stroked ink onto the page neatly, his writing was angular and precise, an architect’s hand, while her long scribble imbued several possible meanings into each word: he squinted over them, the months she spent in Kenya doing fieldwork and they had not been able to email because she was too remote. And had talked only once, his voice rushing toward her from another continent, she had wept afterward, missing him. That missing him had felt like pain, but it was sweetness, she knew now, that came with certainty. She climbed up again. At the top of the ladder she saw black ash on the skylight. The light had changed again. Pulled out the box but the child was crying.
She climbed down. A flock of helicopters growling overhead. She pulled the girl up from the bed. You could read a book by the light of that body, limp in her arms, smelling deeply animal.
Ma, I saw a blobby thing! With teeth—and—. She was out of breath.
There’s no blobby thing. You were dreaming. I’m going to take your temperature, okay?
I wasn’t dreaming. I had my eyes open just like now.
There’s no blobby thing. She raced to the bathroom and came back with the thermometer. Open.
The child’s tongue had a fur of white. The egg timer was sounding again. Hold on.
She twisted the thing quiet. The thermometer read 104 degrees. The girl lay back in the enormous bed. Jesus, kid.
Mama, look, the blobby thing is there. The mother winced at “mama,” the word the child had outgrown, now creeping back into her mouth.
Okay, she said, talking to herself, I’m going to take the photographs and take the jewelry, and we’re going to go. We’re going.
To the doctor.
The girl began to whimper. Mama, I hate the doctor. Mama, I hate her, she gives me shots. Mama, please don’t make me go.
Don’t call me that. She hated that word. It made her think of a sweater with stains on it. Mama. A cow with huge teats. The girl was gearing up for a tantrum, but instead, the energy seemed to be leeching from her, her body softened and she shut her eyes. What does death smell like? But don’t panic, she was saying to herself. Too late to panic. The rash on the neck of the child looked alien, unlike the rest of the child, which, even hot, felt silky and familiar. An animal knows her young. Could she lick the fever away, or suck from her neck the poison to hold in her own throat. She was not thinking clearly.
Anika, we’re going now, but the girl’s half-shut eyes only showed the white. Ani?
Through the window, her eye caught the edge of it: the fire. Then, picking up the girl, she was back out on the deck, entranced. Look, Ani, but the girl would not look. The light of the day blackened and remade new. Waves of black air were blowing toward the house, streaming up from beyond the trees as though the ocean itself were burning. She felt their bodies acutely in air, in air that had the harsh, milky quality of evening. Lit. She was nearly gasping. Look, Ani, she said again, lifting her daughter’s head. Look how beautiful.