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CALIFORNIA STORY Short Fiction

Fire

October 08, 2006|Susan Klenner | Susan Klenner is a retired real estate broker. This is her first published story.

In the dying days of summer the hot desert wind rushes up the back side of the mountains and rattles the desiccated needles as it dances through the pines. Grownups sniff the air, anticipating brushfire smoke, and whisper ominously in hoarse, dehydrated voices, "The Santa Ana is blowing." That was when the dog came. He hung around the manzanita shrubs, a grayish wraith sliding smoke-like among the sage-green leaves and satin-mahogany trunks and branches. We never saw him come down close to the house, but sometimes, mostly at dusk if it was quiet, we heard him drinking from our dog's water bowl.

In 1954, the year of the gray dog, I was 14 years old, an awkward girl lingering in the last summer-slow days of a long childhood, suspended in time awaiting further transformations of adolescence, an only child raised almost entirely with adults. I must have been lonesome with my books and my phonograph records and my long, solitary walks. Yet, while I recall the solitude, I don't remember being lonely.

My mother and father worked hard as innkeepers, and I worked with them. I made beds in the mornings, whipping the sheets tight and making precise box corners. Ah, how I loved the fresh scent of the clean linens. I waited on tables in the evenings and washed green-and-cream Winfield Ware dishes well into the summer nights. But now and again in the afternoons I wandered off. I often rambled along the shady mountain roads with small varmints and chirping birds for company. Sometimes I crossed the creek and the meadows and spent an afternoon sitting beside a small lake with my back propped against a boulder. There I whiled away the warm hours reading, always reading. Less frequently, feeling a subtle restlessness (perhaps a nervousness carried on the dry wind), I climbed the ridges behind our house.

One afternoon in the season of the Santa Anas, I took an apple from the kitchen and set off up the slope. Fat gray squirrels crossed my path and dashed up widely spaced tree trunks. Chipmunks ran in circles among fallen logs, and a California jaybird flew from tree to shrub and back, crying a harsh complaint as unsubtle as his enamel-blue feathers. That end-of-summer afternoon the long-legged gray dog fell in beside me--well, not exactly beside me. He ambled a somewhat parallel course a few yards to my left or right, partially obscured by the brush. Sometimes he loped ahead, and soon I realized that I was following him up the rocky slope, not setting my own course, but adopting his. We reached an altitude at which there were no more pines, and even the manzanita and scrub thinned. It must have been a challenge for the dog to remain apart and, in fact, he ceased to do so. He had trotted a bit ahead of me on a more or less level place that was almost, but not quite, a trail. He paused and turned around as if to inquire, "Are you coming with me?" much as a herding dog would do. I caught up, and because I had never been close to him, it was only then I noticed that above his long muzzle his eyes were yellow.

"A wolf?" I half asked, half gasped, but, of course, he did not reply, merely turned around and set off up the slope again, following a ragged fence line of weathered posts and rusty wire with me close behind. Where the fence turned a corner, the dog slipped between the wires. He paused and waited for me as I clambered through. I followed closer now than before, as he seemed not to object.

I climbed quickly to keep up with the easy lope of my guide, and was breathless when we reached the ridgeline. We were at the margin of a neglected dirt road. It ran rocky and rutted, weed-grown in places, along the ridge farther than I could see in either direction. The wolf dog didn't linger; he turned east and trotted along the road quite confidently, as if this place belonged to him. He no longer had any need to keep to the shelter of shrubs. Nor did he distance himself from me. Once he even brushed, ever so fleetingly, against the left side of my jeans, almost as a domestic dog walks at heel.

We must have gone for a mile or so when we came to the stone foundation and stark chimney of an old house. The tall stack stood silhouetted against the pale sky, a sentinel beside the road. There were a few charred remnants, but all else had been reduced to ash and blown away by the wind. The same wind had blown the seeds of wild grasses into this carcass. Watered by spring rains, the seeds had germinated, and weeds had sprouted in the space beneath the vanished floor, turned as golden as a field of wheat or oats, and dropped in turn their seeds for another season.

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