A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. "Jesus," she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren't that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense. The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. "Jesus God," she said again. No words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush. Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel, words from Scripture that occupied a certain space in her brain but no longer carried honest weight, if they ever had. Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures.
The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it's poked. The sparks spiraled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against gray sky. In broad daylight with no comprehension, she watched. From the tops of the funnels the sparks lifted high and sailed out undirected above the dark forest.
A forest fire, if that's what it was, would roar. This consternation swept the mountain in perfect silence. The air above remained cold and clear. No smoke, no crackling howl. She stopped breathing for a second and closed her eyes to listen, but heard nothing. Only a faint patter like rain on leaves. Not fire, she thought, but her eyes when opened could only tell her, Fire, this place is burning. They said, Get out of here. Up or down, she was unsure. She eyed the dark uncertainty of the trail and the uncrossable breach of the valley. It was all the same everywhere, every tree aglow.
She cupped her hands over her face and tried to think. She was miles from her kids. Cordie with her thumb in her mouth, Preston with his long-lashed eyes cast down, soaking up guilt like a sponge even when he'd done no wrong. She knew what their lives would become if something happened to her here. On a mission of sin. Hester would rain shame on them for all time. Or worse, what if they thought their mother had just run away and left them? Nobody knew to look for her here. Her thoughts clotted with the vocabulary of news reports: dental records, next of kin, sifting through the ash.
And Jimmy. She made herself think his name: a person, not just a destination. Jimmy, who might be up there already. And in a single second that worry lifted from her like a flake of ash as she saw for the first time the truth of this day. For her, the end of all previous comfort and safety. And for him, something else entirely, a kind of game. Nothing to change his life. We'll strike out together, she'd told herself, and into what, his mother's mobile home? Somehow it had come to pass that this man was her whole world, and she had failed to take his measure. Neither child nor father, he knew how to climb telephone poles, and he knew how to disappear. The minute he breathed trouble, he would slip down the back side of the mountain and go on home. Nothing could be more certain. He had the instincts of the young. He would be back at work before anyone knew he'd called in sick. If she turned up in the news as charred remains, he would keep their story quiet, to protect her family. Or so he'd tell himself. Look what she'd nearly done. She paled at the size her foolishness had attained, how large and crowded and devoid of any structural beams. It could be flattened like a circus tent.
She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees. Fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself, in solitude. She couldn't remember when she'd had such room for being. This was not just another fake thing in her life's cheap chain of events, leading up to this day of sneaking around in someone's thrown-away boots. Here that ended. Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something.
From Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver Copyright © 2012 by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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