“Objects and Bones” by Maggie Montague

14 December 2018 on Nonfiction   Tags: ,

By the time our bags were packed and our dogs hoisted into the van, ash had started to fall around us. The gray flecks covering the green grass were the closest thing to snow Fallbrook had seen since a hailstorm a couple of years before.

I stood in the driveway as my parents ran through the house one last time, making sure we’d grabbed the essentials. Through the van’s windows, the stacked items we’d deemed essential seemed so disappointing, so ordinary. Suitcases full of clothes. Oversized computer monitors from the house and Dad’s dental office. My canvas backpack stuffed with high school textbooks. A floral family photo album from the ‘90s. Our red emergency kit. Each was meticulously arranged to create more space. Dad emerged from the house holding a purple and white woven blanket. He tossed it over our possessions, our life in artifacts. A fleck of ash caught in his hair. It blended in with the gray.

We inhaled one last smoky breath and climbed into the van. Dad turned the engine on but hesitated before leaving the driveway. “We have everything we need?” he said.

I shrugged, though I wanted to run back into the house and rethink the things I’d left behind. My bookshelves were still full. I should have grabbed East, my favorite childhood book, and the framed poem my grandfather wrote me a few years before he died. But I pushed the panic down. I said nothing.

Dad shifted the van into gear. We turned the corner, and our house disappeared from sight.

The first phone call came around 7 a.m. on October 22, 2007. An automated voice reported that Fallbrook Union High School had canceled school; the wildfires in the hills had quickly shifting winds. Barely two months into my freshman year, I’d already begun to dread walking through the black iron gates of my high school. I was new to public school. The 3,000 high schoolers at Fallbrook threatened to swallow me whole. I welcomed the break from school due to fire. My parents bustled about the house, checking emergency supplies, packing bags just in case. They called Jacob and Jonathan, who were away at college, and switched the TV to the news. More than a dozen uncontained wildfires blazed across southern California. A state of emergency was issued by 11 a.m. A recording of the mayor sounded on our answering machine. He called for an evacuation of San Diego’s North County.

There are only three ways out of Fallbrook. Three separate wildfires blocked the eastern and southern exits. That left us one option to escape west through Camp Pendleton, the neighboring Marine base.

We made our way into Camp Pendleton. At the entrance, a red-and-white striped gate lifted, and a Marine waved us through. We crept slowly onto the base. The road resembled a parking lot more than a street. Vans, trucks, and sedans, stuffed with belongings, families, and pets, surrounded our mini van. Armed Marines lined the road, making certain no civilians wandered off the designated route. Ash fell on the Marines’ uniforms, accumulating on their shoulders, in the bends of their arms, and on their knuckles clasping their guns. Their faces remained expressionless as their eyes flicked between each passing car. A smoke-gauzed orange glow outlined the eastern horizon.

I twisted my body in my seat, hoping to get a glimpse out the rear window. But it was partially blocked by the pile of our things. Plumes of smoke billowed from the distant fire-streaked hills, like the branches of a tree stretching across the sky, shading the earth from the sun. The smoke erased the outline of the eastern mountains. I feared it would soon erase the hills of Fallbrook.

It felt like the end of the world. A scene from a disaster or an alien invasion movie. It was all too cinematic to be real: the caravan of cars, the guns, the helicopters disappearing into the smoke, and the sense of impending doom. That Arnold Schwarzenegger was our governor encouraged my apocalyptic illusion. But in the movies, you only get a glimpse of the gridlock. Usually, the protagonist is in constant motion, running, jumping from a helicopter, doing something to save someone. But we were sitting, waiting, and growing hungry. The van’s vents tried to pump out air conditioning, but the heat was persistent, and our van was old. The back vents produced hot air instead. Sweat dripped from the backs of my knees, but I was reluctant to roll down the window and let the thick smoke in.

Lacy, our half-pit bull half-lab, jumped from the blanket-covered van floor onto the seat and pressed her nose against the window. Petey, our white boxer with a brown patch over his left eye, let out a high-pitched whimper. He was ten years old with an oversized heart and cancer. Petey wore a blue and white striped shirt to cover the leaky tube in his chest, which was left in from his last surgery.

“It’ll be okay,” I promised, trying to keep them calm. I strained against my seatbelt to stroke their heads.

We were leaving our home.

We were running away.

We had just gotten new carpet.

*

In southern California, fall is fire season. The year 2007 marked my first evacuation, but the ash-thick air and gray skies were familiar, as 2007 was the year of the Witch Creek Fire, the Rice Fire, the Harris Fire, and the Poomacha Fire. But every year, wildfires burned. Along with haircuts and new shoes, fall brings the Santa Anas, the winds from the northeast triggered by a shift in pressure. The atmospheric pressure in southern California mounts in the desert and drops in the coast, resulting in dry, desert winds. A spark from a construction site, a downed power line, a cigarette tossed out a window, a lightning strike — these accidental or intentional things ignite a flame in the brush, and the winds spread the fire. The winds make the flames unpredictable, fast, and dangerous.

My parents and I had different ways of detecting the Santa Anas. Dad would point to the ocean on our weekend walks. “It’s a Santa Ana. See?” I’d follow his finger to the mist rising off the waves as they broke low and white. The dry gusts from the east pushed up against the waves before they could fully form. For Mom, the coming winds triggered an itch deep in her lungs. Her laughter would transform into a wheeze. A Santa Ana was about the only time she got thirsty. My body also warned me, just before the dry air swept through our town. The skin between my thumb and my index finger rubbed off in giant flakes. Red divots formed around my fingernails. Cracks on my palms marred my hands. Tangerines became painful to peel. My lips looked like I’d just eaten a cherry popsicle and grew tight when I smiled. My hair fell flat against my head.

*

In 2003, when I was only ten, the Cedar Fire — one of the largest recorded wildfires in California at the time — burned over 200,000 acres, destroyed nearly 3,000 structures, and killed 15 people. When the fire broke out, Mom was at a women’s retreat in Ramona a few hours southeast of Fallbrook, putting her directly in the Cedar Fire’s path. She awoke in the cabin to smoke. The women scrambled to grab their things and ran for their cars. The flames approached quickly. Though it was night, fire illuminated the campground bright as day. Mom says it was one of the scariest nights of her life. The fire leapt across the freeway, forcing them to find an alternative route. From home, Dad, my brothers, and I watched the news. A red animation traveled quickly down the slopes of greenish-brown hills, rippling outward across the screen. Afraid and alert, we waited for the house phone to ring. A few hours later, Mom pulled into the driveway, smelling of smoke. Her eyes were bloodshot from the acrid air.

As the Santa Anas drove the flames of the Cedar Fire and carved new grooves into the land, ancient ruins resurfaced. The Cedar Fire devastated Cuyamaca State Park. But in that devastation, stonewalls of an ancient Native American settlement were revealed. Archaeologists often accompany firemen during the aftermath of a blaze, searching out the historical sites that flames can unearth. I imagine these archaeologists wearing khakis streaked black from ash. They must have stood before the stonewalls. Their eyes must have traced the arc of the wall, the wonder exposed from disaster. They must have speculated about the wall’s function and significance; what ancient stories might the fire have revealed this time?

And just north of the Cuyamaca State Park, nearly 700 of San Diego county’s Native Americans fled their homes as the Cedar Fire, aided by the Paradise Fire, swept through their reservations. Wildfires frequently traversed the eighteen reservations situated in dry, vulnerable areas in San Diego county. While the fire displaced almost half of the Native Americans living in our county, people prodded at the past, asking what happened to the ancient inhabitants. Who were these people? What had they left behind?

*

On that smoky Monday in 2007, we headed north to my paternal grandparents’ house in West Covina. As we drove, I watched the landscape of strip malls, palm trees, and housing developments pass by, cloaked in a haze of smoke. I remembered sneaking into Grandma’s kitchen. I’d stood on the balls of my feet, lifted the glass lid of the cookie jar, and stole sugar wafers before and after dinner. I was that grandchild, shirt dusted with crumbs. My parents dropped my brothers and me off at my grandparents’ for a week every year until I was about nine.

They lived in the same house for fifty-two years and had been married for sixty. Originally yellow, the now pink house, though small inside, was once home to a family of ten. I hadn’t been in the house since Grandpa’s funeral five months earlier.

After my parents and I pulled into the driveway, Grandma ushered us in with a quick flick of her hand. Dad’s six-foot frame towered over her. He bent to offer a kiss on the cheek. I cautiously hugged her. Her slim figure was brittle in my arms. Mom trailed behind, wheezing when she tried to speak. The house had not changed despite Grandpa’s absence. The living room chairs still sat in opposite corners, facing each other. The wear in the diamond-patterned carpet still spoke of the footsteps from the front door to the kitchen, from the kitchen to Grandpa’s chair by the window. The floor creaked as we carried our luggage inside. The wall to the left of the front door was still covered in mirror tiles. They reflected our disheveled figures now, our backs hunched from the weight of our bags.

I stayed in the guest room with the accordion vinyl closet doors that never fully shut. My parents slept in the basement. I couldn’t sleep that first night at my grandparents’. The bed’s springs dug into my back, and my leg muscles twitched, restless from inactivity. My body was covered in a sweaty sheen. I threw the sheet off. The night was too silent.

At home, I had grown accustomed to the distant boom of Camp Pendleton, the windows shaking. “Oh, it’s just Camp Pendleton, testing bombs or something,” we would say to visitors, startled by the loud booms in the distance. It sounded like thunder, but the sky was clear. Even when the grounds of Camp Pendleton slept silently, the sounds of military helicopters and airplanes filled the night sky.

When I closed my eyes, I imagined that I was back in my room, in my own bed, staring at my bookcase, listening to the rumble of the night. I pictured heading downstairs, my toes sinking into the soft carpet. We had just given the house a fresh look. We had just painted the walls, some burgundy, others beige. We had just purchased new furniture, and new pillows for the new couch.

In the silence, my mom’s words drifted back to me. As we left Fallbrook, she’d squeezed my hand and told me that most of the town would have to burn down for the flames to reach our house. Our neighborhood was near the center of Fallbrook. She said the firefighters wouldn’t let the flames get that far. She meant for this to be encouraging, but I pictured piles of ash around the cul-de-sac where I lived; the whole town gone.

I imagined Main Street’s boutiques, banks, and restaurants blackened, their walls crumbling. The vacuum shop’s outside purple awning half-charred, hanging askew over the entrance. My brothers had always bought their yo-yos at that vacuum shop. The owner had a wall of yo-yos near the back, past the newest vacuum models. I wondered if vacuums exploded in flames, the air locked inside, bursting outward.  I imagined the yo-yos melted into flat discs.

When the silence gave way to sirens, Lacy started barking, which caused Petey to whine. These were such familiar sounds. Soon, despite being far from home, I slept.

That first night I dreamed of men with large black-rimmed glasses and tall yellow rain boots. They walked through the streets of Fallbrook, though it was not the Fallbrook I remembered. The roof of the Mission Theater collapsed. The windows of Dominic’s, my favorite sandwich place, were shattered. Lettuce covered the ground. I followed the men as they scribbled on their clipboards, documenting the ruins. We reached what had been my house. It was as though the façade had fallen off, crumbled into a heap of debris, but the frame still stood. The house opened up, like a dollhouse, exposing its structure. The staircase was still intact, but the rooms on the first and second floors were blackened by the fire.

The dream shifted. I stood before a glass case labeled Fallbrook, Firestorm 2007. Inside the case, I saw remnants of my house. A surviving patch of the new brown carpet, a singed ace of clubs from the Mountain Dew cards I’d stolen from Jacob, a photograph of my family at Jonathan’s high school graduation. My world now artifacts, pinned to the bottom of the vitrine with long, thick rusted nails.

When I awoke, the dream stayed. I doodled the blackened structures, the glass case, and the artifacts. What words would pass over the glass case? What curious eyes? I wondered what stories would be told to make sense of these fragments.

*

Years later in college, my dream of the glass case came back to me as I listened to an art history lecture on Native American artist James Luna’s The Artifact Piece. Luna first performed the work in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man alongside exhibits on the Kumeyaay Indians. For several days, he lay in a glass case on a bed of sand, dressed in only a loincloth, still and silent.

The museum-goers peered at him, talked over him. Many did not realize that he was in fact alive. The movement of his chest with each breath startled the onlookers, some looked closer and others moved away quickly, unsettled by the presence of the living among exhibits of the dead. Labels pointed to and explained the scars on his body, describing a history of alcoholism. In surrounding glass cases, objects from his life were on display, including divorce papers, family photographs, Rolling Stones cassettes, shoes, and other things from his daily life.

Luna said this piece represented the modern Indian. The Artifact Piece changed the dialogue surrounding the exhibition. It spotlighted how museums relegate Native Americans to the past. “I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one-sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date. In that framework you really couldn't talk about joy, intelligence, humor, or anything that I know makes up our people,” Luna said.

His piece struck me, not just because of his efforts to engage viewers in a dialogue, but also because of the questions he raised about how we remember. How do we remember without reducing a people or an individual to objects and bones? How do we hold the present in one hand and the past in the other, letting neither slip through our fingers? I wonder how we can both stand in awe of ancient ruins and support those displaced in the present, both search for answers to what happened to these ancient civilizations and recognize that this cycle of vanishing continues.

In the aftermath of a California wildfire in 2006, archaeologists discovered granite boulders that ancient Kumeyaay Indians once used as a kitchen table. Smoke still rose from the ground as the archaeologists searched the ruins and found that the fire had revealed a collection of boulders, evidence of an ancient settlement. The archaeologists speculated that over 2,000 years ago, five families could have lived in this place. They searched the scorched earth, sifting through the ash in hopes of finding more artifacts to help them understand how the Kumeyaay had lived.

I do not question the value of preserving the past, of learning from history, or of seeking to understand what came before. I too would stand enthralled within the smoking ruins. I too would kneel in the ashes and dig for artifacts, for some evidence of what happened to these people. But I do wonder about the methods of preservation. Luna points out the limitations of the present framework of representation. In remembering people through objects, we lose the ability to see them as more than just absent from the present. The memory of them becomes just as static as the object.

*

For a week, we did nothing but look for news about Fallbrook. My parents and I scrunched in the couch in my grandparents’ family room, shoulders pinched to our necks, staring at the screen, waiting. The Los Angeles news stations never mentioned our little town. They had enough fires of their own to talk about. Fires burnt north of Los Angeles county, an hour or so from where we sat transfixed in front of Grandma’s TV. The smoke combined with the smog until only the west offered a small sliver of blue sky. We could not escape the thick, gritty air, which seemed determined to choke us. My snot turned black.

We searched Fallbrook’s local news source, The Village News, but the site only had two short lines telling us that all residents must evacuate and that troops were patrolling the downtown streets. The only current wildfire reports we heard were from those who stayed behind. My mom’s friend Paulette sat on top of her roof with a hose to keep the sparks from landing. Paulette was a matter-of-fact Texan, the kind of person you wanted on your side. She drove a loop around Fallbrook and reported that the fires were getting close to my dad’s dental practice, but that the office still stood.

Fallbrook is a small town by southern California standards, population around 43,000. It hides in the hills between the larger cities of Temecula and Escondido. We have one exit off the freeway, proof that we do in fact exist. Our fifteen seconds of fame came on Jeopardy! when Fallbrook, Calif., was the clue in a festival’s category. Answer: What is the Avocado Festival?

In Fallbrook, we grow things. The land is covered in avocado, citrus, and palm tree groves. My friend once tried to count the number of tree nurseries along the six-mile road connecting the freeway to town, getting to ten before she forgot what she was counting. A sign featuring a dancing avocado welcomes you to Fallbrook, the Friendly Village, the avocado capital of the world.

The sign for my elementary school, St. Stephen Lutheran School, comes up on the right soon after the welcome sign. I learned early on to sense the proximity of a wildfire. When the teacher let us out for recess, as soon as we smelled the smoke our heads would drop back, eyes surveying the sky. We spun in circles, searching for the gray pillar. When the winds whipped through the hills, we leaned into them, seeing if the gusts were strong enough to catch our little bodies. Most often, they were not, leaving my knees skinned and bruised.

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, the school buried a time capsule under several feet of dirt topped by freshly laid concrete. Though I can picture the metal plaque marking the spot beside the flagpole, I have no memory of what I put in the time capsule, no idea what they will unearth in fifty years or how I will be remembered.

*

Most nights at my grandparents’, when the silence subsided and I drifted to sleep, I dreamed the dream of the men in yellow boots, of the vitrine.

By Friday, I tired of looking at the reports of flames and burnt buildings, of newscasters wiping the water from their eyes as another burst of smoky wind tousled their hair. So when Grandma leaned against the doorframe and asked us if we needed anything, and my parents shook their heads, I followed her out into the kitchen. She drifted between rooms, moving slowly, not trusting her knees. Her clothes hung off her thin frame, and I stared at the smallness of her wrists. Her long, sinewy fingers and blue veined hands seemed too heavy for her wrists. I worried her hands might break off. She had always been thin, but until now never seemed frail. She had worked as a nurse, raised eight kids, suffered through miscarriages, and beaten breast cancer, maintaining a sarcastic, dry humor through it all. She was a fighter, suddenly exhausted by the fight.

She offered me a cookie. I held out my hand, not mentioning the two I’d already eaten. She moved slowly, measuring each step, then she led me into the living room and sat down under the air conditioning unit.

I stared at Grandpa’s empty chair. The seat cushion had sunk from the weight of his body. No one dared sit in it. Every time we came to visit when he was alive, we found his square frame in the circular chair, a newspaper on his lap, his thick black-rimmed, rectangular glasses resting on his nose. He had a square head, too, topped with a shock of stark white hair. Everything about him seemed geometric, even the curve of his potbelly and the slant of his shoulders. He usually remained quiet in his corner of the room. When he did speak, words slipped out the side of his mouth.

His obituary listed those he left behind: eight children, nineteen grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren. We added eight great-grandchildren to that number over the past nine years. The obituary stated that he was “survived by” us. I only knew him through scattered moments, through brief hugs on holidays, through weeks in the summer spent in his home. Survived by? Survivors carry on, hauling the memory of the dead through their own lives. But how could I carry him? I barely knew him.

*

When I think of Grandpa, I see the imprint in his chair, the straw hat we bought him that he never wore, his newspaper stack in the corner of the room, his black sneakers, one with a slightly raised heel.

When I think of Grandma, who passed away a year and two months after Grandpa, I see her mint green stationary bike, her wrists, and three framed faces; she kept images of Jesus, Pope John Paul II, and former President George W. Bush on a shelf in the family room.

I read that tangible objects hold more firmly in our memory than abstractions, because most often we think in images, which we then translate into words; our minds remember through association, categorization, and reduction. In an effort to remember, I fall into the pattern of listing objects, of trying to fill the absence with artifacts. I curate, sorting objects and bones into glass cases, the off-white label infusing some fragment of meaning back into the artifacts.

But maybe, remembering is not an activity meant for an individual, but for a community. In a community, we can fit the pieces back together, recreating a whole from our fragments. I speak of the smallness of Grandma’s wrists, Dad mentions the blue of her eyes, Mom her sarcasm, my cousin Karli the rosary beads next to her bed. We ask each other for a little bit more. A patchwork of images created by those of us who also survived. Multiple hands hold the memory intact. We carry our heritage within us. The stories we tell fill the absence of those who left us.

*

By the weekend, we were allowed to return home. Though the smoke lingered and flames continued to burn, the drive home didn’t feel as apocalyptic as the flight from our town. But scorched earth now scarred the hills, blackened tree trunks rose from gray soil, and the chaparral, which usually covered the hills, had been reduced to charred twigs. On some of the hillsides, a few scraggly trees had managed to survive the flames. The sparks had jumped over them, preserving their leafless branches for a little longer. As we got closer to home, the evidence of the fire seemed to disappear.

The rolling landscape hid most of the destruction from us, and the tree-lined entry into Fallbrook said nothing of the desiccated orchards, the rubble that had once been a mobile home park, or the houses reduced to concrete foundations. In Fallbrook, over 200 homes were lost. The Witch Creek Fire, one of the three wildfires surrounding my town, was recorded as the sixth largest wildfire in state history at that time. The 2007 firestorm burned 370,998 acres.

We were lucky; we were able to return home. Aside from the ash-covered streets and bitter air, our neighborhood was untouched. The Marines retreated back to their base. A few weeks later, the rumble of explosions again lulled me to sleep.

The fires took their toll in an unexpected way. The day after we returned, Petey wouldn’t wake up. The smoke had been too much for him. I lay with Lacy on the carpet in the living room, whispering that it would be okay as my dad wheel-barrowed Petey's body out of the backyard.

We keep a photograph of him in his striped blue shirt. A red rubber chew toy is buried in the backyard. His sun-bleached collar that was once red hangs in the garage. I wonder what stories these artifacts will tell when there is no one left who knew him, who never felt the drip of his drool on their leg. The clipboard men will find traces of blood on the striped blue shirt: canine. The eucalyptus trees will consume the manicured hills. They’ll discover that this dwelling once held a family of five, though time will obscure the lives we lived.

---

Maggie Montague recently earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University. She is from a small town in southern California, loves storytelling in all genres, and studied art history and literature in Washington. She has a penchant for taking cross-country road trips, wandering around national parks, and adding chocolate to everything she makes. 

 "Thundershower I" is a collograph print by Amalia Siegel. Centering her work in the intersection of human and natural worlds, she bringing a sense of curiosity and creative spirit to help others discover how they can become agents of positive change in their communities. Amalia's passions include bookmaking, origami, music, cooking, juggling, and all things outdoors. She is a lifelong Mainer who currently lives on a remote island off its coast as a fellow with the Island Institute. 

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