Postcards from fire

‘We will rise from the ashes, sweep them from our children's hair.’

 

Mom,

I am driving. The night bursts. Stars explode millions of years ago and flood the car. Stars explode a hundred thousand years ago and ping off the hood and windshield. Stars explode 60 years ago and flurry in little ground storms around the spinning tires.

*

Yggdrasil bore the weight of ancient Norse cosmology. Scholars argue over the etymology of the word. Some link it to “Odin’s horse;” others to “tree of terror” or “tree of gallows.” It is one of many trees of lineage, of memorial, a means of tracing. Just over a rise on Highway 50 in central Nevada, there is a tree covered in shoes. It is old but very alive. No one knows when passers-by began crowning it. There is no plaque or commemoration visible. We can only guess the intent. A sacrifice? Were shoes no longer necessary? Did they just not have far to go?

 *

Dear Mom,

I pull off near the gate. No services, no people, nothing to spare. They call this place Bravo. One of many Bravos, but this happens to be one of the most bombed places on Earth. Pitted sandbox. Playground of those far removed. I walk it, at least what I can. A photographer wants to make this a national park. He documents it tenderly, calls the series Cantos – a nod to Dante, a wink to Pound. We are in deep here. Bravo, bravo.

 *

There is a town in Pennsylvania called Centralia. It is far from this desert. It has burned for 60 years now. A ribbon of coal tucked beneath the crust was ignited by a fire in a garbage dump. This set the minotaur chasing its own tail deeper and deeper into the earth. A town burns; its people are told the fire will burn itself out in a year. The earth swallows a bicycle and a pet; they are told it will burn itself out in five years. A subsidence opens and a child tumbles in, is hospitalized by the fumes. They are told it will burn itself out in 20 years. One year ago, the last remaining residents were forcibly evacuated. Centralia no longer appears on maps. It is like this desert, but honest with itself. It burns; it trysts in the open. Here, the fire is cold, windswept.

 *

Mom,

At ground zero, heat is so intense the sand turns to glass. There are mirrors dotting the desert that are so large, no matter how long we stare, we always disappear. By now, they are covered in sand. And when some unimaginable descendant stumbles upon one, what will he think? Will he look up at the sky and wonder who was so vain, who was looking down?

 *

Region of sacrifice. Erogenous zone of faith. We hold a federal wafer to our lips, take it into the body. Transubstantiation of all things beyond the naked eye. Though we walk in the valley of death, we fear no light. We will rise from the ashes, sweep them from our children’s hair and go about their business.

 *

Years ago, we walked deserts. You pointed out geometry in the cracking terrain. Salt flats and playas delicately bent and poised. Thirst metastasizes perfectly, one pattern juxtaposed onto one ever larger. We can follow these lines to the very end, pace the logic of time until overwhelmed. Of course, there is interference. We cluster and dig and cannot help ourselves. Tandem acts of violence — one silent, one loud enough to briefly interrupt the course of the planet. Just as we walked, others paced their offices, following things through to the end.

 *

Your thyroid will be quickly forgotten. There will be pills, but that is charted territory. Your voice will change a little, become rockier, but will have a certain gravitas. Be glad the doctors insisted. Be grateful that other people canceled appointments. Be sure to thank them for their speed. 

 *

Dear Mom,

Teller, Oppenheimer and the others were obsessed with walking, their pacing slowly shifting the spin of the earth, wearing away the soil. Problems found solutions in motion. The pressure, the weight of their feet. Did it churn the soil to glass? Oppenheimer lobbied hard for Los Alamos as the site for his work, partly because of its beauty, its mesas. There is no mention of him venturing out to look into Trinity’s mirror. Perhaps at night, alone.

 *

I’m told that correlation does not equal causation. That phrase is too much an aside, too slippery on the lips. Too many organs gone missing. Too much iodine substituted for questions. Too few miles to justify comfort. I can’t prove anything, and you choose not to think this way. But out here, it is quiet. Out here, no one can tell me I’m wrong. Out here is red-handed.

 *

Mom,

We take cartographic knowledge for granted. If an X is present, we say, “There,” say, “Something.” If it is missing, we jump to conclusions, say “Nothing.” This is the origin of “region of sacrifice,” the designation given to the Great Basin. The missing X’s denote areas of low population densities and few resources — in other words, wasteland. If you are brave enough or foolish enough to cross the bombing ranges that dot the region, you will see enormous targets painted haphazardly on the earth and huge X’s splayed in the sand, pocked and waiting on the next pilot.

 *

I am writing this at the foot of your bed. The desert behind us both. You are sleeping, whole, though your throat is sore. You will want ice when you wake. I have a cup ready. My fingers rest on the cubes, their tips burned ever so slightly. I did not want you to see yourself here, so I took the mirror from the bathroom and hid it beneath the bed. When I grabbed it, it was hot to the touch.

Michael McLane is an editor for saltfront: studies in human habit(at) and Sugar House Review. His work has appeared in Colorado Review, Interim, Western Humanities Review and The Dark Mountain Project.