Scorpions, jellyfish, poisonous flowers. My orientation as a young newcomer to a Caribbean island began with a litany of how to avoid being stung or cut or poisoned or burned. At age four, I learned to shake out my shoes to check for scorpions. I learned to back away from the pink blooms of jellyfish in the water. I learned to recognize the dark, flitting form of the stingray. I learned don’t step on a sea urchin, don’t eat an ackee raw, don’t taste the milky sap of the oleander plant.
To practice the quick slipping away of ground beneath our feet, geologists built a second mountain. This one is a tender surface, fitted with sensors, and rigged for data. On sunny, cold mornings, to practice how helpless, they measure piles to drop — peat, gravel, water-saturated masses of organic matter, combinations to mimic what might happen — and let them fall into chaos. To practice the moment of shock, they invite everyone like a performance. The scientists on their lunch break gather, promising to stand quietly for five minutes after the stopwatch starts, for the duration of the drop, to watch how it all tumbles, gaining speed, no gasping no matter what it looks like, and for ten whole minutes after. This is the most difficult part. Practicing the quiet after.
I bought it thirty years ago on my first visit to Italy, in a cramped bookbinding shop tucked on a dark, narrow alley behind Piazza San Marco. I paid for it in lire—heavy coins that bore the images of grapevines and olive branches, and oversized pastel bills printed with portraits of Guglielmo Marconi and Maria Montessori.
My address book, covered in blue marbled paper, is the size of 3 x 5 index card. The flyleaf is stamped with the symbol of Venice: a winged lion. The lion looks proudly out, as if—in a city where many go to deliberately get lost in the enchanting maze—he knows exactly where he is going.
Over and over, I dig thin flower stems into the earth, as if mending a hole in an old shirt. The earth buckles at my persistence. I imagine the worms, deep in the ground, ducking each stem in slow, pink frenzy. The flowers are from Safeway along Route 18—dip-dyed daisy petals in blue and pink food coloring. It’s strange to return these gaudy flowers back to the soil. But they were the only ones we could find in the store that weren’t browning at the edges. If you’re going to bring flowers for the dead, they better not be dead themselves.
I once read somewhere that all stories are ghost stories, so here’s one.
It begins when I’m about sixteen or seventeen and still living in my hometown. There are many English towns just like it: rural, obscenely sentimentalized, a place where fox hunting enjoys popular support, but immigration does not. A few of us had spent an afternoon sitting on the disintegrating wall of the town’s 11th–century castle: a major tourist pull that we’d often appropriate for our own ends. On this day we were drinking home-brewed cider, a cloudy ochre liquid shared out from a large plastic demijohn, swiped from someone’s dad’s, or maybe uncle’s, annual batch. It tasted like disinfectant: unpleasant and sour, but hygienic. I remember feeling very grown up, like it was undoing all the unsophisticated parts of myself. A reminder that time would eventually pass, and that one day I would be out of here, living a different life entirely.
When I return to the landscape of my growing up years, making the five hour drive from my home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the gentle farmland of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I drive by the farm where I grew up without stopping. I do not turn in the lane once shaded by a canopy of catalpa trees or pass by the rock garden where the “Slow Children at Play” sign my older sister painted so many decades ago once stood among the hostas. It could as easily have said “Slow, Children at Work.”
This is a place many say no longer exists. Headlines read, “Paradise Lost: Inside the Burned-out California Town Destroyed by Deadly Fire,” and “‘There’s Nothing Left of This Town,’ Paradise, California, May Never Come Back From the Ashes.” It was a small town; few knew it. It is not an overstatement to say the wildfire put it on the map the same day it wiped it off.