The fires two hundred miles away,
the whole region engulfed in smoke. More than a week now, and they’re assigning numbers to the air: 0 to 500, and here we are at 350.
What sort of god is this? you said.
Today when we walked by the lake, the trees illumined as if in yellow streetlight, we took our masks off for a moment, put them back on. Streetlight sun, you said, and we gave up, went back to the car.
What god would give us intelligence but not quite enough, the keys to our destruction and a newly-lubricated lock? God of Firestorms, my love, God of Poisoned Air, God of Pogrom. Hitler his son sitting at his right hand. Attila to the left.
The death toll rising as in the ashes new shapes are found. It’s hard to find much, they say, not a house left, so much confusion there. The wood, of course, blackened, but metal melted, too, in the heat, and all the plastic, the human bodies sometimes like plastic, too, they say: misshapen, blackened, viscous. The searchers grateful for gloves.
When the firestorm came there was no time. Fuel built over decades in the dry hills, hardwood: oak & manzanita, madrone, chemise, ceanothus, and the flares of softwood pine & fir—then wind and a doubling of wind come of fire, embers the size of fists. And the noise like freight trains, they always say, but this train endless, this freight different, flatcars laden with burning coal & trees, and you’re at the tracks, waiting to get through, and there’s no getting through, just the roaring, unending roaring.
Ever think about what these numbers mean? you said. Particulate matter: it’s based on the density of particles in the air, the air we’re breathing at this moment.
Sure, I said. I know that.
Ever think about the particles?
Well, they’re from the smoke, I said.
No: they are the smoke. And in the smoke, the bonded molecules of what’s burned. We’re breathing wood, we’re breathing metal. We’re breathing plaster. Fiberglass. Plastic. And we’re breathing the dead. Ever think of that? We’re breathing the dead.
They closed the schools again today, I said.
Gerald Fleming’s newest book is One (Hanging Loose Press, New York, 2016), prose poems in monosyllabics. Previous books are The Choreographer (prose poems, Sixteen Rivers Press, California, 2013), Night of Pure Breathing (prose poems, Hanging Loose, 2011), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore, poetry (Sixteen Rivers, 2005). He taught in San Francisco’s public schools for thirty-seven years and has written three books for teachers, including Rain, Steam, and Speed (Jossey-Bass/Wiley). From 1995 to 2000, he edited and published the literary magazine Barnabe Mountain Review, and is currently editing both the limited-edition vitreous magazine One (More) Glass and The Collected Prose & Poetry of Lawrence Fixel. He lives most of the year in Lagunitas, California, and part of the year in Paris.
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