It started with a convergence of screaming
sirens wailing wail wail wailing wail wail
wailing, yanking us out of our chairs and
onto the balcony from which we could
see an eight-unit building straight
down the hill from us on fire, partially
obscured by a stand of tall pines.
Black smoke raged up and through
the treetops, muscular, crepuscular,
a colony of massive soot-black gorillas
being wrenched backward out of flames,
hanging on until their great fingertips
released their dark bodies to the wind
and up into the blue innocence of sky.
Glints of red, chrome, yellow coats
rushing; commands, shouts, flashes of
flame now leaping high into the trees,
arcs of water smacking at the flames,
bringing the flames down only to see
them climb up again into the trees.
Were our downhill neighbors safe? Were
they standing in the street watching as
their eight connected attic spaces sucked
the wall of flame horizontally across the
building, engulfing everything they owned?
Afterwards, we learned all fourteen residents
had gotten out safely—with little but their
lives. Tables, chairs, beds, clothes, household
goods, keepsakes and treasures gone, cars
melted like plastic toys. Those who ran down
to see if they could help at the fire scene learned
the fire had started in one resident’s kitchen;
something caught fire on the stove. But three
days later our community newspaper reported
the results of the fire investigation had been
inconclusive. And the official word was that
in situations like this it is often impossible
to assign a cause or fix the blame.
This the first time I’ve ever realized
the-big-anonymous of government
might have the capacity for compassion,
for inconclusive conclusions
that name no names.
Ann L. Keiffer