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The wildfire season reminds us that things are not always as they seem. It’s a sunny late June afternoon in the green, leafy interior of Colorado Springs and a lazy breeze stirs the daylilies. The dog rolls on a soft lawn beneath bluebird skies when, without notice, the wind shifts and the air turns gray. Smoke pours across the sky toward the east, filling every breathable space with the stench of wood smoke, burning rubber and an unidentifiable chemical smell. We rush in to close the windows and turn on the television to watch the fire.
News reporters compete for the saddest story, repeating over and over how hard this destruction is to watch while stalking neighborhoods for the site of greatest destruction. We check Facebook obsessively for news of our friends, real and virtual. The news is bad. The news is very, very bad. We absorb the gloom, and are heartened when someone says something hopeful or brave or exceptionally kind in the face of disaster.
The phone rings, an unfamiliar number with a 270 area code. I answer “hello” instead of immediately repeating the name on the caller ID. The soft voice on the other end identifies itself — a childhood friend, my southern Kentucky next-door neighbor whose father drove a Sunbeam bread truck. I haven’t spoken to her in years. She wants to know if my family and I and our house are safe from the flames. She has placed us and Colorado Springs on her church’s prayer list.
By late evening, the air has settled and the windows can be thrown back open.
The next morning, very early, before the heat sets in, I walk the dog through our neighborhood, an urban, man-made forest with close-together houses just north of downtown Colorado Springs. The morning is cool and near silent, except for the occasional hysterical yipping of a dog inside that has spotted my golden retriever wobbling down the sidewalk. Sprinklers churn. The dog’s nails click on the concrete. Even the steady roar of rubber on asphalt, the incessant movement of cars up and down the interstate highway that borders our neighborhood to the west — and in our minds, separates us from the fire — is hushed at this time of day.
We are two blocks away from our house when we reach a shady side street we often turn down. Two teenage girls in flip-flops turn the corner and their wide eyes meet mine signaling something unusual. I follow their glances to the opposite sidewalk and am frozen by the sight of three large, muscular adult deer — females with big triangular ears. Their hooves make a clopping sound as they startle and, in a crowded tangle, try to turn. Their liquid brown eyes are pools of fear.
The dog barely gives them a sidelong glance and maintains a steady clip forward, away from them. I rush past the corner feeling apologetic, as if I should give them some privacy to collect themselves.
We walk several more blocks south, then turn west as we do every morning. We reach a street of bigger lawns and bigger houses and turn back toward home. The deer have reached this street too and have dispersed across a long block. One of them stands near the curb across from my dog and me, and as we draw nearer, she turns and gracefully leaps across a black iron fence, toward the shadows of a tall hedge. Two houses down, another of the three spots us and silently springs over a gate into a side garden.
All day, I wonder where they are, and the next morning I look for them again, but they are gone. The smoke rolls in every afternoon, reminding those of us farther away from the fire that we’re all in this together, like it or not. The dust that pours through our open windows at night contains fine black soot, and every day the dust rag picks up microscopic particles of incinerated pine, gambel oak, or perhaps the roof beams of someone’s home.
We grow impatient with the wind and the smoke and the dust and the bad news. Then, on July 3, it begins to rain and the evening air is washed clean. I’ve just settled down to watch the fire news on TV when I notice what looks like a big spotlight through my living room window. I walk outside into the darkness and there, hovering above, is the nearly full moon, storm clouds swirling around it, its light brighter than a thousand fires.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.