Joe Ben

The other night I met a woman who worked to bring all her animals out of the fire. Seven dogs, ten chickens, twenty adult cats, three litters of kittens. She made it out with all but the chickens. Who will now be a Mr. Bojangles loss. As are all the animals who pass. For all those. Who can feel them.

After the recent fires in Napa and Sonoma, this woman and her husband had worked to be prepared. They bought a couple flatbed trailers, trucks to pull them, and enough cages for all their living beings. When came the fire, they were ready. Gathered up everybody, save the fleeing chickens, and then caravanned on down the mountain. They goose17_1542165966398.jpghad lived just above the hardware store; Yankee Hill. Everything on their land, that was not an animal: burned.

After the fire, she lived the fire life: “There is nothing more humbling than having to squat and pee outside the minivan you are sleeping in, with your chihuahua, a mother cat, and her nine kittens, at two in the morning, with mud all around, and being rained on.

"Been there, done that.”

She is at present in Cherokee. But not for ever. Because she is coming back. With the insurance money, she bought a backhoe, dump truck, trailers, vehicles to pull them, “and every tool and piece of equipment needed to go in and rebuild, repair, replenish.”

She is 70. Her husband is 73. But they will not let the fire. Beat.

I know how she feels. My friend lived over on North Libby. My friend with the nine green thumbs. Over nearly a decade, she transformed a little over an acre there, into a perennial paradise. Even the wildflowers she favored; perennials. I got her a seed-packet thing called “grandmother’s garden mix”; every spring, they came again. She planted trees. She liked honeycrisp apples; so she planted one of those. But needed another variety. For the sex. She wanted something old; sturdy. So I found her a Calville blanc: French apple, been around 600 years. Ordered it from Stark’s. That thing, it was so wonderfully willful. Knew exactly, how it wanted to grow. Didn’t grow pretty; grew, instead, right. Ferociously opposed to pruning, and made that known; after one pass, she thereafter left off. She’d fuss it was putting out too much fruit for the branches to hold, but the tree knew what it was about. Branches would dip all the way to the ground; but held. And always the last to go to sleep, that tree, come dormant season; scorned, what we, here, consider “winter.”

“This is not winter,” it would scoff, in that sneering French accent. “To know real winter, as I have known it, you must come, to freeze, in France.”

The fire burned that spunky tough sassy little apple. Fried its body and soul. Clean away. Sick, it made me, to see it. The fire burned every living thing, on her land. Left just the house. Modest little abode. We always called it the train car. ‘Cause it was shaped kinda like a sleeper car. On a train.

Had a tin roof. Maybe that helped. Though really. Who. Knows.

After, she couldn’t go back there. To live. Everything horse burner man.jpgaround her house, not only her perennial paradise, but also all of the houses, and all of the lands, of all of her neighbors: burned. She did not want to look at that. Did not want to try to start, on her own land, all over again. So. She went away. Is over on the coast now. Has a nice little house. Some land. Is planting. But not trees. Not perennials. Not anywhere. Near. Like that.

“I did get seventeen varieties of annual seeds planted yesterday,” she recently said.

“I’m renewing my appreciation of annuals,” earlier, she said.

Annuals. I understand. Though it makes me heartsick. Because, now, thinks she: why grow anything, other than annuals. Plants for a single season. Because: fire: it can come. Will come. And burn it all. Away.

She also says: “I’m like Joe Ben in Sometimes A Great Notion, laughing about his predicament, which makes him drown, drowning slowly drowning, and laughing about it.”

And I’m like Hank, in Sometimes A Great Notion: I try to give her breath, as she’s underwater, trapped, beneath that log. Try to feed her breath, breath to hold her, till the river, it will inevitably rise!, and lift that log, right off her! Work, to give her breath. But she has no faith. And, to her, it's all so stupid, now. So, like Joe Ben, she can’t, won’t, take the breath: not any more. Because: she's just done with it. And so: laughing: and so: underwater: drowning: until: drowned. It all rushes in. And it finishes her. And. Nothing. I can do. So; then. All I can do. Like Hank. Is nail her shirt to the log. So somebody will find her. When the river, inevitably, rises. And the log, then, floats, on, away.

Like the Yankee Hill woman, this Joe Ben woman, she had a Maine coon cat. Who came through the fire. Because everything. It is connected. But it's hard. To see that. When you're Joe Ben. Pinned down. Under the log. Trying to breathe. Underwater. Just wanting. An end to it. Just wanting. Drowning.

And, Joe Ben done, I, like Hank, walk back to the Stamper place. Stubborn, still, at the edge of the river. Because Stark’s, it still sells that Calville blanc. And so I am going to the tubes. And I am putting in an order. And, when that blanc comes again, I am going over to Joe Ben’s train car. And there. I am planting it.

Because. The fire. It will not. Beat.

The people who live in the train car now, they are Joe Ben’s former neighbors. All theirs: burned. The train car, it is a rental. But the owner, he is one of the good guys. All his other rentals, they burned. He has relatives—blood—the fire took their homes, they burned, he could move them into the train car, but he knows, he knows that, that, of course, Joe Ben’s neighbors, they should live there. Because. Next door. They are rebuilding. Their home.

Because. Those people. Will not allow. The fire. To beat.

And. Neither. Will he.

All the driplines deerfire 2.jpgon Joe Ben's lovingly crafted property, they burned. All the other many improvements, with her own money, she put into that place, they too, all: burned. But we, me and the neighbors, now in the train car, we don’t care. Because until the driplines return—and they will return—we will take turns, watering the French apples. By hand. Long as it takes. Because. The fire. Will not. Beat.

Meanwhile, there are these apricot trees. The other day Korie was coming up to Magalia anyway, so I told her that bodhisattvas from out of Oakdale would be setting up at the church up there, to give away free fruit trees. To the burned. Because people want to be good. And life wants to be happy. And that is the essential truth. And I suggested that Korie, burned, should get a couple, though she has not yet landed where she will in the end be; I would give her stout pots, I told her, into which she could put the trees, until that, end, place, she reached. So she picks up a couple of trees. And, being Korie, picks up a couple, too, for me. Apricots. Harglow. Tomcat. She also brings me a bunch of bottled water. And refuses to take, in return, any money. Which, she knows, violates all laws. But then, she is a scofflaw. Something, at some point, will have to be done about that. But not by me. Because I certainly can’t control her. No man can. Which: is: as it should be. And: always.

Now, yes, it is true, I don’t even like apricots. But: so what? Every tree alive, I like. Unreservedly. Especially now. Living amongst this tree shoah. And the jays, they certainly like apricots. Also liking apricots, are the foxes. When I lived up in Cherokee, the foxes mostly came out for the mulberries—the trees were thick with them, in season—but they’d also take an apricot or nine. And maybe planting apricots here, that will lure foxes in. For there should be foxes here. Also a henhouse. And mulberries. All of it, should be here. Because I didn't burn. And so, I owe everybody, everything. And all of the life. And so: I am bojangling. I dance.

The two hopeful little five-foot bare-root apricots, they are soaking in the buckets. As we speak. Soon, they will go in the ground. It doesn’t matter, that I won’t eat them. The animals will. And, someday, somebody, will live here, who will. When. I. Am in the ground. And. Until that day. The fire. Here. Will not. Beat.

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gulfgal98's picture

This strikes such a chord in my soul. The smell and trauma of being one of the burned may never completely go away but I hope that it will eventually be softened. My heart goes out to you, hecate, and all of the burned. May your trauma one day be just a bitter memory of the past.

Please keep writing.

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"I don't want to run the empire, I want to bring it down!" ~ Dr. Cornel West

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." ~ President John F. Kennedy

smiley7's picture

to my mind reading Joe Ben.

Yank: Sure! Lock me up! Put me in a cage! Dat's de on'y answer yuh know. G'wan, lock me up! Policeman: What you been doin'? Yank: Enough to gimme life for! I was born, see? Sure, dat's de charge. Write it in de blotter. I was born, get me!

Thank you.

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janis b's picture

you go to the very depth of a life’s tragedy and breathe hope into it. Thank you for the amazing pictures you paint and the depth of feeling you narrate.

Try to feed her breath, breath to hold her, till the river, it will inevitably rise!, and lift that log, right off her! Work, to give her breath. But she has no faith … I, like Hank, walk back to the Stamper place. Stubborn, still, at the edge of the river. Because Stark’s, it still sells that Calville blanc. And so I am going to the tubes. And I am putting in an order. And, when that blanc comes again, I am going over to Joe Ben’s train car. And there. I am planting it.

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Such a huge thing from which to have to recover.

A woman from Haiti helps me with some household chores. She tells me nothing in Haiti has changed in Haiti, even Haiti's "White House." So, she came to the US.

She and her two year old will live with her cousin until her husband can get official permission to work in the US. She won't live in California, she says, because of fire. She told me about a town named Paradise. I told her that I knew about it.

Some tragedies are just too big, like Haiti and Paradise. Some are just too small, like when your mom passes. In all, tragedies suck.

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