Paper Dolls

The Saturday PG&E cut the power the wind blew through Jarbo Gap at 50 mph. Same as the day of the fire. Come Wednesday, power pulled again, I’m down at the Inferno. Waiting on pizza. The guy there with me, standing round the Inferno truck, he observes, correctly: “This is like the day of the fire. Wind just came in a little later. That’s all.”

Not a lot of complaining, about the power-pulls, from fire people. Their minds on other things. Like: they're up at the Optimo. Trapped for hours; fire all round. Finally; final hope: unloading bottles from the Pepsi truck, setting them out as firebreak: when the fire comes, maybe it will explode the bottles; the Pepsi will douse the fire! Women there considering how best to kill their children. Before the fire takes them. So. Today. They live. In that.

That drawing there. Vision of a fire child. Mother fir child.jpgwrites: “On our way home in the car my son said they had a fire drill at school today. He said some kids were crying. A few hours after arriving home I found in his backpack a drawing he did at school. So I asked him what it was. He said it was the fire in Paradise, and the people trying to get out.”

The bear is running, running with all that he has, but he doesn’t have enough, he is coming out of the fire, but the fire is coming with him, the bear is on fire, the bear is running, the bear is burning, the bear is fire.

The dog is in the house, his man in Chico, the fire is in the house, the dog—good dog, smart dog—retreats to the bathtub; there, he ends. Months on, the people in the bar in the drink in the sports in the tv: though he is there, that is not what the man sees. He sees only his dog. In the bathtub.

I just really can’t hear, the people pouting on the power-pulls, over the sounds of the screams on the 911 tape, of the three generations of women, the youngest in a wheelchair, coughing, choking, cooking, calling, pleading, screaming, in the fire.

The bus down from the mountain Thursday early morn carrying people eleven months fire refugees; now, this day, also, power refugees. One man, of Magalia, he just wants to be warm. He’d awakened very cold, and just couldn’t seem to shake, the cold, from his bones. He sleeps under two blankets, and on an air bed. There’s a regular bed, in the crowded house of the burned, where he dwells, but only one, and they take turns in it. At the moment, in the bed, it’s his brother’s: time. Another man, he sleeps under four blankets, on the floor, atop some couch cushions, salvaged from somewhere. A third man is in an RV on undeveloped land up in DeSabla; occasionally, on the ride down, he blurts out splintered fragments, flashes, of the day of the fire; as we pass the places, where, still, he is: in the fire. Such things common. On the mountain buses. A fourth man, this day pleased, because he’s at last secured a motor home, that next month he’s moving on to 60 acres in Stirling City. There is general approval, there on the bus, of this Stirling City move. “No fires up there,” Two Blankets says. No. Not lately. Not. Yet. Four Blankets, he turns to the woman, sitting quietly behind him, genially inquires into her story. But she isn’t talking. She is just crying. Not in any obvious way. Just with the tears slowly rolling down her cheeks. Like maybe that is even normal. Because it surely is. It was like that, pretty much every day, on the bus, in the months after the bus first started running again, up here. After the fire. If there was anybody even, then, on the bus. Except me. Which, often, there wasn’t. Like the evening it was just me, and this young woman, who had nothing, all of it burned, and she wasn’t really coming from anywhere, and she wasn’t really going anywhere, but that day some Samaritan’s Purse people, down in Chico, they had given her two bibles, and so she was crying, in that, because that, was at least something, and she was crying, in the rest of it, because the rest of it, it was just. Nothing.

The woman who these days often drives the 4:44 p.m. bus, she doesn’t like that route, because there’s a 25-minute layover at the “Paradise Transit Center”—which, now, is just a sheltered bench, looking across at the nothingness of the burned rubbled scraped away to red dirt girl of Frank’s, the once and gone heat and air building, the building where, in a previous incarnation, granola was invented; all the trees round the shelter felled, because, though they came through fine the fire, they were within PG&E’s new after-the-fire close-the-barn-door-after-the fire-got-out 16-foot setback from the power lines; so, fire batcheley.jpgdown they went—and there’s nothing there for her to do. Except. Just. Sit.

I commiserate, regularly, with her. I try, regularly, to commiserate with: everybody. Because: that's: what: I'm supposed: to do. I mean: What? Else? Are? We? Here? To? Supposed? To? Do?

So I try to come up with things for her to do. Like, recently, a deli opened up, not far from the bus shelter. Though the deli can’t serve hot food. Because of burned septic issues. And, just today, a Birkenstock’s place, next door to the deli, it reopened! New space. For the Birkenstock's people. 'Cause old place. Burned down. So, anyway, for the first time, since the fire, there’s a place in town, now, to buy shoes. So now, I tell the bus woman, when you’re parked there, you can get a sandwich. True: cold. But also maybe some shoes!

The bus woman has said she has two more months on this line, until she gets the chance to bid for a different route. And, as I’m shopping there in the Save Mart, in the little 25-minute window that she hates, but that is convenient for me, because in it I can briskly buy animal food, and also food for me, though I don’t give the slightest goddam goddam for food—fire burns food—but I get fucking sick, of the empty stomach, fucking screaming at me; pour some shit in there, to shut the goddam useless fucking burning bugger up; and I think: that means she’ll be up here into the Christmas season. So, mordantly, in the dark humor, I figure I can remind her that, during her little break, she could on her break have gone Christmas shopping, if only she were back in the day, when Paradise, it actually had, and thereabouts, stores.

And then, as I’m wheeling my cart out to the bus stop, I am crying. Because I feel them, recall them, all of them, all those stores, and, all: vividly. Those stores round about me about which I’d planned to joke with her. Once Real. Now: just: gone. Ted, his quirky used bookstore. That also ships packages via UPS. Also; guitar strings. The magical endless thrift store, that had more women’s clothes, than it even seemed possible could be. The plucky little vintage antique place. Open just a couple months. Before the burning. Just: erased: it. The cute cocked charming little market, that besides the usual food and beers, had deeply random weirdities from China, ranging from faux-tropical night lights, to thin bizarro stiff sticks to help you, when you get old, put on your shoes. The pawn shop, with the usual paranoid fixation, on gold.

Know what gold does? IT BURNS.

And I think: you are such a weak sperm. Why, every goddam day, unto almost a year on now, do you have to fucking cry?

And then I get home, and I go into the fire tubes. The private Faceborg sites. Where none but the burned may go. And a woman there has just written:

“Today I passed the burned car on Skyway just up from Wagstaff. I couldn’t help but think about whomever had to climb out of that passenger door and leave it open as they fled the flames. I cried the rest of the way home.”

And then I remember. Yeah. We’re all like this. That’s just the way it is. When you’re burned.

Just the sunniest woman. Always in cheer. Then, the day of the fire, driving to get out; just up ahead, a tree, all aflame, falls, traps a man in fire bird.jpghis car. He burns. He dies. Woman’s husband pushes her head down, so she won’t see. But: she sees. She hears. This woman, now, a ghost. She lives, now, such as it is, in Tennessee. Ghost. Long: black: veil.

First time PG&E pulled the plug—this was a while back—I was sitting there in the dark, eating Progresso soup cold from the can; and thinking: I am in a rerun. Because, in the months after the fire, marooned up here: that was my life.

And, then, back in it, now: I. Gave. No. Shits.

Because, the day before, a woman in a fire tube, she was quite pleased, because, after more than eleven months: “Today I finally brought in a bed. Yay!”

So, I will be in these reruns. If that means that somebody, somewhere, doesn’t go without a bed.

I feed these fire cats. Who have no beds. As they hurt my heart. Because when a cat's tail is up, that means the cat is comfortable, confident, relaxed, happy. But the tails of these fire cats, they are never up. Because comfortable, confident, relaxed, happy: that is not how they know the world. Once they lived up the street, there in the alley behind the paint store, semi-feral, where they were fed and cared for by the nice people in the paint store. But then the town burned down. Including the paint store. And now the nice paint people, they aren't there any more. So the cats, in the course of things, moved over to me. After being alone. In the fire. Burning and burning and burning and burning. And now I feed and care for them. And I talk to them, and all the time. I tell them they can go ahead and try: comfortable, confident, relaxed, happy. That, maybe, it can be that way. That, I remember, when it was.

But they, these fire cats, they are before believing. While, I, I, all I really want, like maybe for Christmas, is for the fire cat tails, to be up.

Sometimes people, they get it. Like these unburned, they are ululating, all over the talk radio, about the power-pulls; but the host, he won’t hear it. “I get it,” he says. “But it’s a small price to pay. Because we’re a community. We’re all paper dolls, standing in an oven, spraying water on each other.”

Chip Franklin. In the weeks when I was castaway, marooned up here, sometimes I would listen to him, afternoon talk-show host on KGO, out of San Francisco. He talked a lot then about the fire. And he won my heart, in referring to Paradise and environs as “the north bay.” Because of course this area is not within a hundred miles of reasonably being considered related to the San Francisco bay area as “the north bay.” But, in doing that, he was bringing, we burned, into his listeners’ circle of compassion. We burned folk, he was saying, were of them.

I mention this to Crispin. The man who bought me this phone. Before the fire, I didn’t know Crispin, he didn’t know me; he just, after the fire, read about me, in the Times; that I was up here, been through the fire, was marooned, had no way to communicate with the world; so he bought me an iPhone, and sent it to the newspaper editor, another person I’d never met, and she drove it up here; and she kept driving up here, because she had a press pass, and could get in here, when no one else but workers could; and so she kept coming up here, to help people, and animals; and so, in coming up here, day after day after day, she burned, and she burned, and she burned; and now she is as burned as if she’d been in the fire itself; because that's just what you do, when you are Real, you do what she did; you put yourself into it; until you are all of it; you are all of it: the thing: itself.

And Crispin, he lives in the consensus-reality "real," geographic, “north bay.” Tiburon. He was just a guy. Who saw me. Who he did not know. And enlarged his circle of compassion. To include me. I: he understood: was him. As. Surely. I am.

And, what Crispin said, of Franklin, Franklin saying, that Paradise is of “the north bay,” is this: “It’s all the north bay.”

Absolutely goddam right. And as soon as the humans get that: they’re home free. Into: the great, wide, open.

PG&E an old wino, fucked up its and everybody’s shit forever, until finally it nodded off smoking a cigarette, and burned down a whole town. Now, scared, at least into the general vicinity of straight, looking to get right. Does no good, now, to yell at the wino: “why didn’t you take care of this before?”

My fire companera: woman in retail. Young, attractive; and so subjected, at all times, to the male gaze. Before the fire, worked a place at least tolerable, selling lizards and cat food. Now, after the fire, again in retail, but selling booze and lotto tickets. And, every shift: a tsunami, of rapey, leery looks.

The fire put her there. Not possible, to number, the infinity of ways, the fire burned people. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what all the fire did. The fire burned everybody. It burned you. Could be, you just don’t feel it. Yet.

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good sharing

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May we be united and strong -- laurel

Lookout's picture

and your forests regrow as healing ensues. You write powerfully about your experience and your community. Wishing you and yours the best. Time may soothe and raise the cat tails.

10 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Granma's picture

Somehow says as much to me about the continuing trauma from the fire as the woman celebrating because she got a bed. At one point in time, we had seven cats living with us. When I think of them, it is always with tails up, sometimes waving a little or with a question mark curve at the end, but almost always tails up. Please tell us when the cats' tails go up at least for brief times.

Thank you Hecate, for writing, for sharing. May you find peace and joy once again.

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Lily O Lady's picture

living underground to try and escape the consequences of climate change. I saw somewhere that Qatar is air conditioning the outside! If my father were still alive, that would have killed him. Heating or air conditioning the outdoors was his definition of crazy. But the world is crazy now because we are crazy. Soon we will be Morlocks with no Eloi possible on the burned Earth.

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"The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

janis b's picture

I am reading Hanif Abdurraquib’s book of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Till They Kill Us, and I can’t help but feel a relationship between reading your Paper Dolls and his writing. Maybe it’s a stretch, or just a coincidence in timing, but I can imagine you'd appreciate his writing, and how you might even find strength in it.

Thank you also for the children's drawings.

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