“Fire Dancer”

by Wendy Fontaine



            I walk along dusty streets at the base of the Verdugo Mountains just north of Los Angeles, my gaze fixed upon the jagged horizon, where an angry orange line burns, jumping and snapping, devouring brush and charring the landscape. Last night, shifting winds pushed wildfire over the canyon close to my home, the one I share with my husband and our daughter, who, like the city, is named after angels.

            Blistered leaves and cinders dance in the air as firefighters march like ants up the ridge. For now, though, my neighbors and I continue our usual routines. We drink our coffee. We check our mail. We walk along the concrete sidewalks, eyes skyward, always watching.

**

            The Verdugos are brown and rough, covered with chaparral – the name for shrubs and bushes that have adapted to a dry, hot environment. Chaparral thrive on extremes. In the intense heat of wildfire, knobcone pine and sargent cypress release their seeds, which grow in the ash. White redwoods and sequoias survive by growing thick, protective bark. California holly have root systems called burls that sprout through scorched earth. Such adjustments are part of the fire cycle: periods of devastation followed by regrowth and regeneration.

**

            At my yoga studio in Burbank, there’s a statue of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. Often depicted in the middle of a sacred dance, he is known for extreme behavior. Once, while Shiva was meditating, his wife, Sati, jumped into fire because her father had denounced her marriage. Shiva woke from meditation angry about what had happened and began a dance to destroy the universe. Other gods tried to appease him by rubbing Sati’s ashes all over his body, but Shiva returned to meditation and stayed there until his wife could be reincarnated. Reborn, Sati joined her husband and helped him find balance – an equilibrium between tearing things down and building them up.

**

            Los Angeles is not my home city, and my husband is not my first husband. I grew up in Maine, in a world that was cold and wet. Instead of canyons and chaparral, we had dense forests of fragrant pines and sugar maples that turned scarlet every fall. 

            I married a military man. After nine years together, we had a baby, named her Angela. We took her to the park to play in the grass, to the pool to learn to swim. When Christmas came, we marched into the woods to find her the perfect tree. Once we got it home, we found a tiny nest tucked into its branches. Inside lay three unhatched robin’s eggs, pale blue and speckled. We left the eggs where they were and decorated all around them. Twinkle lights, glass bulbs, a star on the highest bough – the brilliance of it all reflecting in our daughter’s widening eyes.

            Then, when she was two years old, he had an affair. He left us for another woman. A woman with children of her own, three.

**

            Some fire seasons are worse than others. As California summers bring record heat, brush in the canyon grows thick and dry. Hot Santa Anas blow down from the desert. A lightning strike or discarded cigarette butt sparks a flame. Fueled by parched vegetation and strong winds, the wildfire spreads quickly, sometimes toward cities, sometimes toward farms. In recent years, fires have ravaged the seaside community of Ventura, the bohemian enclave of Topanga, the suburban boroughs of Santa Clarita and the wealthy westside of Bel Air. No one is immune.

**

            After the affair, Angela and I moved away. We got our own apartment, taking with us only what fit into the trunk of my car. Toys, high chair, yoga mat. I filed for divorce and found a part-time job at the local pharmacy. Every morning, I took her to daycare, then drove to work to fill prescriptions. Pastel-colored pills. Some for heart conditions. Some for pain.

            I bought groceries with food stamps and put gas in the car five dollars at a time. Paychecks and child support barely covered the rent. Every day there was a tantrum: hers outward, mine inward. But in the evening, after anger and disappointments faded, we ate dinner together at a folding table in the kitchen. We fell asleep on an inflated mattress, arms and legs twisted like ivy vines beneath the covers.

**

            Before Angela’s third Christmas, I drove to a jewelry store to pawn the wedding ring her father had given me. There was no point in keeping it. Everything we had worked for, everything we had promised one another was gone, burned to ash. The jeweler offered five hundred dollars, a fraction of its original value. I took the money anyway, then went to Walmart, to the noisy, too-bright aisles of toys and holiday decorations. I filled the shopping cart with colored lights and garland, candy canes and chocolate coins. Sticker books and scented markers. A baby doll in pink pajamas with a matching baby high chair.

            That night, on Christmas Eve, I stayed up late, sprawled across the living room floor, assembling the high chair, making something out of nothing.

**

            In Hindu artwork, Shiva has three lines of ash on his forehead, a cobra around his neck, and four strong arms. In one hand, he holds a skull to represent samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. In another, he cups the flame of destruction, known as agni. The third forms the abhaya mudra, a symbolic gesture for manifesting one wish: fearlessness.

            And in his fourth hand, he carries the damaru, an hourglass drum that creates the rhythm of the universe. It marks the passage of time, reminding us all that life goes on.

**

            I walk closer to the edge of the Verdugos, past the public library, past the park with the turtle ponds and the nature trails. Farther up, the residents of Brace Canyon begin to evacuate. They gather their belongings. Photos and laptops, keepsakes and credit cards. Whatever fits into the trunks of their SUVs.

**

            For two years, Angela and I lived alone. We spent summer afternoons on the front porch, barefoot and bug-bitten, eating ice cream cones and watching cars go by. In the winter, we bundled up to play in the snow-covered yard, then went inside for hot cocoa and cartoons. And every autumn, in the mountains all around us, those sugar maples turned fiery red, their leaves like embers separating from the branch and floating gently toward the ground.

**

            In yoga, we practice natarajasana, or dancer pose. The teacher instructs us to balance on one leg while holding the foot of the other leg behind us. He says the move will help us find stability and stillness. It will strengthen our shoulders and our hips. I grab my foot and tip forward, my thigh muscles beginning to shift and shake. My heart slowly opens. My body curves like a crossbow. I feel strong, yet elegant. Like nothing could ever knock me down.

            Shiva has many names, including Nataraja – or Lord of the Dance. His cosmic jig, called the tandava, is a message, a mantra: In order to create, we must first destroy.

**

            In the spring, as daffodils pushed through frozen Maine soil, I sent an email to an old friend from high school. James and I had one brief encounter at a party after college, and I wanted to see if he still remembered me. He did.

            Our messages were sporadic at first, partly because of a three-hour time zone difference and partly because of our lifestyles. He lived in Los Angeles and worked long nights on movie sets. I was a single mom who could barely keep her eyes open past eight in the evening. Eventually, I told him about the divorce, about raising Angela on my own. He told me about his job and his sobriety. Years earlier, a drunken car crash nearly tore his arm from his body. Doctors said he’d never use it again. But from the rubble of that crash came a warrior, stronger than before. He recovered, played football, and found jobs on some of the biggest movies ever made.

            When he offered to fly me to California, I said no. It was too far, too expensive, a gift I could not reciprocate. Mostly, though, I was afraid to go someplace new. For weeks, I resisted, making up excuses for my refusal. Then I realized there was nothing left to be afraid of. For the past two years, that’s all I’d been doing: going places I’d never been.

**

            Certain species of herbs and flowers appear only after a wildfire, their seedlings awakened by the gases and chemicals released during combustion. Whispering bells, mariposa lilies and phacelia grandiflora bloom, repainting the blackened hillside. California poppies flourish too – golden buds for the Golden State.

**

            I went by myself at first. Angela stayed with relatives while I flew three thousand miles across the country, over mountains and rivers and deserts. When I landed, James met me in baggage claim, then drove me north to his apartment, to his neighborhood along the Verdugos.

            The next morning, we visited the Hollywood sign, had lunch in Beverly Hills, and strolled the boardwalk on Venice Beach. We stuck our toes in the Pacific Ocean and watched the sun set over Santa Monica. We went to souvenir shops and the Walk of Fame. Somewhere between Highland Avenue and La Brea, one of us reached for the other’s hand.

            A few months later, I went back with Angela. When they finally got a chance to meet, she barked at him.  

**

            First I fell in love with him, with the fire in his belly, with his creative mind and work ethic. I liked his tough-but-gentle nature, how he played along whenever Angela pretended to be a dog or a shark. Then I fell in love with California, with its sepia mountains and the resiliency that grows here, with the towering palms that sway in the breeze and the mighty manzanita tree, which spreads its stiff and twisted branches toward the sun, like Shiva dancing in the ash.

**

            James and I married on the winter solstice, on the south side of Mount Hollywood at Griffith Observatory. With Angela standing between us, we vowed to love each other forever, a promise that’s only as good as we make it. Walk through enough fires and you’ll see there are no guarantees, no sure-things or happily-ever-afters. Our lives are uncertain, unpredictable. James and I don’t know which way the wind will blow, but we do know this: We wake up each day wanting to be together. And so we are. What more can two people wish for?

            Sometimes when I sit in yoga class and look up at Shiva’s statue, I see that what he holds is more than fire. It is more than destruction. It’s a chance to grow again, someplace new, someplace better than before.

**

            When Angela turned ten, we threw a party at Brace Canyon Park to celebrate. Under a clear blue sky, the kids played with toy guns and foam bullets, while James and I ordered a pizza so large it had to be transported on the roof of the delivery man’s car. At the end of the day, we went home and sprawled across the couch, a jumble of arms and legs, tired but happy.

**

            As I keep my pace along Mountain Street and Irving Avenue, the angry orange line begins to diminish. The winds shift again, and the flames become smoke. At Foothill Drive, one neighbor mows his lawn. Another washes his truck, clearing light gray ash from the windshield and hood. The firefighters retreat. Their trucks wind back down the hillside, off to some other canyon, some other catastrophe. I count them as they go – one, two, three, four – hearing a low thumping sound that could be my own heart or it could be the drumbeat of Shiva’s damaru.




Wendy Fontaine


Wendy Fontaine‘s work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Entropy, Hippocampus, Jet Fuel Review and many other journals. Most recently, her essay, ‘An Embarrassment of Riches,’ won the 2020 Creative Nonfiction Prize at Hunger Mountain.

A native New Englander, she now lives in southern California and holds a master’s degree in creative writing. Follow her on Twitter @wendymfontaine or at www.wendyfontaine.com


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