By Tamara Matthews
Featured art: Golden Egg by Maddy McFadden
I didn’t want to start a fire.
I didn’t want to walk out the door with the letter that morning either. I didn’t want to shut off Ken’s 5:45 AM alarm and find his side of the bed empty. I didn’t want the lingering cologne in the bathroom and the trail of beard tips tapped from a razor along the sink’s edge. But what I wanted was beside the point.
This is how we lived during our separation, coming and going through the house we still shared. Ken avoided me, and I tracked his traces like a botanist searching for a rare species of plant. I tracked him to the coat rack where his bomber jacket was missing, and there he disappeared, destination unknown.
So I sat at the kitchen counter to drink my coffee and read the newspaper, trying not to ruminate on Ken so I could get my morning started. I liked to do the crossword while eating my shredded wheat. “Plant native to the rainforest.” Five letters. That would be cacao. It could be many things, so much grows in the rainforest, but the point of a crossword is that the answer fits the context. Starts with c. Cacao.
I had never been to the rainforest. Our vegetation was subalpine. My favorite tree was the aspen. Also five letters. Pine trees can get dull after a while and a grove of aspen catches the eye. They seem more alive, quaking and whispering. Little leaves tipped in flame when September comes.
It was there in my shiplap-covered kitchen, so decorated because we watched the rehab show where the couple was always covering things in shiplap so we did too, that I spotted the envelope leaning against the lighthouse-painted bread box. The bread box stood under a wooden anchor Ken had hung on the wall–the nautical theme was all him, child of Cape Cod. I was a landlocked spirit. The envelope leaned conspicuously in the spot where Ken sometimes left his cash to pay the gas bill. He was never one for bank accounts, and we kept our money separate because of his gambling affliction.
I trailed my fingers along the counter as I edged over to pick up the envelope. I could feel the tri-folded single sheet of paper inside. Not the divorce papers then. Nothing so official. He had written my name on it in his pretty, tight cursive. Tara. Extra curl on the capital T.
I looked at the living room and thought of the new vibrancy we had brought into it last night. Ken had come in after dinner but instead of going straight to bed as he usually did, we sat on separate ends of the couch and drank tumblers of bourbon. Ken spoke candidly about his latest job laying water pipe by the highway in Divide and how his jerk of a boss was pushing them to get it done unreasonably soon. Did he note my encouraging words? Did he see my smile when he said the word “buttface?” Could he feel my hand reaching across the back of the couch as I considered touching his arm?
My heart surged, and I thought to open the envelope. Ken used to leave simple notes around the house. “Morning, sunshine” on a post-it on the alarm clock. “Oink oink” next to a plate of bacon. My finger toyed under the flap, and the glue began to peel apart. Prying two parts that once held. My eyes fell back to the kitchen, and I noticed the empty sink. No breakfast, no coffee, he had been in a hurry to leave. I sighed and pressed the letter against the top of the counter and smoothed the flap. It remained slightly curled up despite my pressure. I wanted to hold onto my memories of last night more than I wanted to know what was in that letter, at least right then.
I gently clasped the envelope in my hand and went to the hall closet to tuck it in my satchel. A clump of mountain sage fell out of the zipper. Could Ken have put it there? I pressed the herb to my chest and breathed in deep the smell of it. Fields and gardens and fresh morning air. I grabbed my coat from the hanger and tucked the sage in the inside pocket.
Coat and satchel in hand, I paced the house looking for other signs as I got ready to leave for my shift. But all I found in every room was me. My rumpled sheets. My pajamas on the bathroom floor. My book overturned on the end table. Just the beard shavings and the bourbon glass said Ken. I lifted the glass to my mouth, pressed my lips where Ken’s might have been. A whiff of alcohol stung my nostrils.
I set the glass in the sink and headed for the door. When I grabbed my car keys from the dish by the door I also palmed a book of matches from Mountain Shadows restaurant. One shouldn’t leave the house unprepared.
Preparation was my auto-state. This is what the forest service taught us. Try to prevent the worst from happening. The forest is a perfect temple and the pine trees are our unvarnished cross. All in the service of the holy tree. Find the beetle populations. Eradicate them. Clear the dry, dead branches. That’s tinder. It wasn’t until later that we realized that pine cones with their seeds are secret bombs craving destruction. They need fire to really thrive.
Morning shift meant I had Lot 10. The big campground was in Lot 10. You never knew if you were going to get families or drunken ragers. The drunk kids left broken bottles and used condoms. And guess who has to pick that up like a regular old janitor? Well, nobody said forest work was glamorous. I hoped there would be fewer shenanigans on a weekday though.
I got into my black Bronco, placing the satchel in the passenger seat. Ken had left his pack of cigarettes in the cup holder. I always parked the Bronco near the barn, which was his smoking spot and hence my car became his stash spot. He used to find little ways to leave reminders of his presence wherever I looked. It would have been sweet if he was doing it on purpose.
Intention was always at the center of our arguments. “What do you really want, Tara?” As if the pregnancy problems were my intention. Ken was surprisingly traditional at heart. He saw a marriage without children as besides the point. All I really wanted was the unrestrained glee of the early days, when loving me was the end and the means and waking up beside me was enough. Instead he considered his string of absences as perfectly excusable. He was always out on jobs for days, digging a culvert in Lake George or repaving the highway to Buena Vista. Like becoming a rootless man was his only other option. It burned me to see it.
Past the Pike National Forest sign, I pulled the Bronco off Highway 24 and saw my boss’s truck parked at the cabin. Usually I would pop in and fill up my thermos with coffee, pass the regular daily exchanges. But I was running late, and Lot 10 was a lot of work. I decided there was no need to check in.
Beyond the ranger cabin was the Smokey the Bear “Fire Danger Today” sign. The changeable square in the middle read “extreme,” a tick up from yesterday’s “very high.” I wondered if we would reach the point of closing the campgrounds. People would grumble, but wildfire was becoming an unavoidable aspect of living in the mountains.
Lot 10 spans a thousand acres of valley between two high bluffs. The campgrounds are mostly along the creek, which is prone to flooding. So many times I’ve had to gather up soggy and abandoned sleeping bags, spare shorts, bottles of bug spray, and boxes of Capri Sun floating in disintegrated cardboard.
When I left the Bronco in the campground lot, I strapped on my walkie and bear spray. No flooding in Lot 10 this time. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time it had rained. Fire restrictions were up. Stage 2, which meant no campfires were allowed. I found no tents, no abandoned goods. I checked the five fire rings. I used a branch to shift the ash, making sure there were no fresh embers. I did a sweep and found no people. It was a Wednesday, the most unpopular time to camp. Not a bad time to be stuck with Lot 10.
After the campground comes a pass on foot up the bluffs. Looking for illegal activity, for brush that needs clearing. Check how the animal life is holding up. We’re trying to get the horned owl population to thrive again. I don’t get what the fuss is. Is it the flashy feathers? The wonder of flying? It seems an affront to the other things that need our attention.
I prefer plants to wildlife. How rarely a flower will betray you. How pliable the limbs of trees are. They wait. They’re predictable. Every morning that I wake, the juniper bush is still outside the bedroom window. Every lingering look meets nature in its various verdant forms. Without fail. And plants are more clever than you would give them credit for. A grove of aspens is a single organism, for example. Above ground, they act like separate entities, but below they have an interconnected root system. They are united where no one can see.
I made my way up the east bluff, eyeing the scenery. Nearing the top of the bluff I noticed a disturbance among the ponderosa pine. The ground had been cleared, the pine needles flattened. A blanket or a sleeping bag had been thrown down, away from tents, under the stars. It didn’t take long to suss out what had taken place there, once I spotted a used condom dangling from a tree branch like a deflated balloon. Wrinkling my nose, I used the garbage bag from my satchel to grasp it down.
The wind whispered a curl across my neck. I shivered. The natural world can make you feel more free, uninhibited. It can also make you ache with the knowing of what you’ll never have. Never truly have, that is, because what is wild cannot be claimed. I felt that tenuous razor’s edge of freedom and longing, every day. Ken only thought of the mountains in transactional terms. There were things to build and things to tear down. There was always a job to do. Whatever he set his mind to was a high bet that was sure to pay off.
I slung the garbage bag over my shoulder and padded toward where a smaller creek tumbled down the east bluff to meet up with the creek in the valley. It made little rippling waterfalls that were popular for sightseeing. Here there were always forgotten items. Binoculars. Camp stoves. People got distracted looking at the view. Knowing the campground was close, they assumed they would come back.
Out of a moss-covered rock sitting creekside rose a twisted scrub oak, roots planted in a crack in the rock. The first time we camped in Lot 10, Ken held court under the tree and knocked his life philosophy out for me. See, Ken said, this tree is taking a chance that the others aren’t. And it has the best view. I hadn’t told him that it probably wasn’t the best strategy because the tree didn’t look too healthy. I was in the depths of forestry training, and I knew a robust tree from a struggling one. I let Ken have his say and instead suggested we mark the tree. Walking up to it now, I ran my hand across our initials. KM + TW. We weren’t married then.
Next was down the east bluffs, back through the valley, and up into the west bluffs. The west bluffs are steeper, more rock strewn. I headed up the slope straight, as I always did, for the cove of rocks that guarded the entrance to a high field of wildflowers where clusters of Indian paintbrush were stirring in the steady gust. Frequently, a bouquet of their bright red would show up by the fistful from Ken, arrayed in a vase on the kitchen table, back when he was still doing such things. During our years as unburdened lovebirds, back before I needed to come to that field.
There, under a crown of these vibrant flowers, lay buried Tarana and Kinsie, my daughters that would never be. They were the two who made it late-term. Tarana was 22 weeks and Kinsie 18. Failed attempt, one word. Bungle. Debacle. Mistake. Clamorous words for such a private thing.
The graves were marked under a stack of stones known as a cairn. I had chosen three smooth stones of the prettiest granite I could find for each one. Generally used as a trail marker, there’s an unspoken rule not to touch such things, and I knew I’d be able to find the spot even though the field was starting to overgrow them.
Ken questioned why I would choose a spot so far from the house. Why not in the yard, he said, next to the aspens where you hang your hammock. I don’t think he understood that’s where shame goes; you bury your secrets in a home’s shadow. But here was a spot I had watched and walked by many times and, always, the sun touched it. I wanted them to rest in that light.
I pushed the grass away from the stones, sat down on the ground, and recited the words I always said at that spot: “My peace I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” These were the words my bible-thumping grandma uttered when I told her about Tarana, and I carried them like a balm. I sat, looking at the cairns and the grass that bent against the wind, framing the sky, and thought about what a heart truly unburdened would feel like.
I grabbed a clump of paintbrush and pressed them to my chest before tucking them into the inside pocket of my coat. I felt the sage that I had placed there earlier and wondered when Ken had been to the stones last. After Kinsie, Ken had wanted to keep trying. How many cairns would I stack up if we had kept rolling the dice? You bet, and you keep betting. You get a return eventually. That was Ken’s way. Easy for one who does not feel the loss of that promise within their very body. How could I open myself to fill what had been hollowed out again and again and again? I did try, but if you keep betting and don’t win, the money runs out. It just runs right out.
I slid the letter out of my satchel and thought about reading it right there. Maybe I could read it aloud to the girls. We could hear what their father had to say, together. Maybe it would be beautiful, a bunched-up bundle of long-held thoughts, rendering into words the love that created them.
As I pulled it free, the envelope caught in a gust of wind and went singing across the field. I whipped the satchel across my shoulder and took after it. I shushed through the tall grass and found it caught against a clump of gold yarrow. I reached out a hand and the wind caught the envelope again. It tumbled through the grass, tip over tip. I hustled after, feeling caught in some sort of Three Stooges skit. Maybe Ken and I could laugh about it later.
Next time I caught up, it was flapping, wedged in among the stalks of grass, and I plucked it free. I secured it in my satchel and glanced around for a windbreak. I remembered a secluded spot nearby that offered shelter. It was back through the cove of rocks in a carved-out part of the hill. Boulders loomed overhead like giants, stained with lichen.
I sat on a bench-length stone and took out my sandwich for lunch. And the envelope. I took a bite of honey ham and unfolded the single sheet. I expected a page full of little loping cursive crawling caterpillars, a full accounting of his heart in the only way he could bring himself to. Tara I love you… Tara it’s taken me a long time… Tara, remember how we used to… Tara, I’m sorry…
My jaw worked to chew my lunch, but my tongue had gone dry. There, in the middle of the tri-fold sheet in less precious cursive, the top and bottom of the page folded over it like wounded beetle wings: “The papers are at my lawyer’s office in Florissant.”
The ham tasted cloying, and I spit my bite out. Nine-letter word for betrayal? Deception. Duplicity. Falseness. Treachery. There are a lot of words for something so unforgivable. The answer will fit the context.
If that is all he had to say, what had taken him so long to say it?
I took the book of matches out of my satchel. Flipped the cover open and saw the restaurant motto: “Good people. Good times.” The motto lacked follow through. What seems good over a beer or two or three looks different in the light of day. I flipped the cover closed again.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. We had been in a state of distancing for years. Ken had even moved out twice, but he always came back. Now he was stating that he was so far away from me, no bridge could hope to cross the span.
I balled the sheet of paper in my fist and stood. I marched my way down the hill and hiked away from the windbreak, away from the boulders, away from the rocks, away from my two stacks of three stones each. My hair whipped against the increasing shriek of wind. At the bottom of the west bluffs, on the far edge of Lot 10, is my least favorite campground. Hunters would sometimes hole up there, and it always smelled like animal skins.
I made directly for the fire pit and dropped the ball of paper in. I followed it with the envelope, paying no mind to the brush gathered around the pit where it should have been cleared. Bracing my back against the direction of the wind, I folded the cover of the matchbook against the phosphorous strip, tore out one of the paper sticks, and breathed in.
I lit the match.
The smell of it was wrong. I gave a nervous laugh and blew the match out. The smell grew stronger. I almost did that.
I held the matches firmly and bit back tears. No crying at work. I let my head fall back to reabsorb any moisture into my tear ducts and saw on the lowest branch of the ponderosa in front of me, head swiveled to stare me straight in the eyes, a downy horned owl. Feather tufts framed unblinking yellow pupils, with a scowl that reminded me of Ken’s face when I told him about the tubal ligation. Freedom comes in different forms, and he could never understand mine.
I paced the campground and thought about our conversation on the couch. I had been too warmed by the whisky and the conversation to realize that Ken hadn’t asked anything about me. He had talked about his job, about his boss, about his work buddies, about the next job. He didn’t want to know about my job, my boss, or how I might be holding up. I was not holding up.
I grabbed the plants out of my inside pocket, soft leaves and fragrance clinging like a memory. Plants begin to die and wilt the minute you tear them from the ground. We make gifts of dying things. With a huff, I threw those in the fire ring too. I lit the second match quickly and threw it clumsily toward the ring where it fell on the campfire stones. It blew out on its own.
My walkie screeched to life. “Tara – are you out there? I didn’t see that you checked in this morning.” I shut my walkie off and looked at the letter again. Not even “Love, Ken.” No name at all.
The third match struck true. I dropped the match in like dropping a penny down a well. It began to waft smoke and the air smelled crisp, woodsy. The flames flared, and I watched as the paper disintegrated piece by piece. The paintbrush and the sage curled in on themselves.
I thought to stamp it out but paused my foot midair. The heat under my sole was a living thing, so unlike the wind and the earth that I couldn’t bring my will to it. I did not have that right. As the brush circling the fire pit began to crackle, I walked away from the campsite, retreating backwards so as not to turn my back on the danger.
I wound up in a cluster of aspen. The wind picked up again and the aspen leaves shook with their gentle rustling, their unison creating a sound like the burble of a small creek. I could see orange flame rising from the brush into the treeline. The owl screeched and took to the sky.
Connected by their roots underground, aspens have a failsafe against fire. What is cut or destroyed or burned will be replenished. They are eternally resprouting. Germinate, quicken, ripen, root. There are so many words for how something grows.
Tamara Matthews has been published in Story Club Magazine and The Rumpus where she also runs a column called “This Week in Essays.” She received a Page One Prize honorable mention for the first page of her novel-in-progress. She is currently the fiction editor at Another Chicago Magazine. She lives in Chicago with her houseplants.