The wildfire had been burning for over a week. I expected to see evidence of it as I passed the green metal road sign that marked the Long County line and drove on down the highway lined with pine trees and wire grass, but I didn't.
There were no fields black with soot and stubbled with brittle stems and shoots. There were no rapidly-dug trenches across the dirt roads that splayed out from the highway like arteries. There were no collapsed barns or tenant houses, defenseless tinder for unhindered flames. The bright white clapboard of Jones Creek Church still reflected the late afternoon sunlight directly into my eyes as I came around the curve and the marquee at the elementary school announced that spring break would be next week. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that over 4,000 acres had burned.
Nothing except the smell.
And I didn't notice that at first. The windows were up and it seeped in slowly, a smell something like fresh creamed corn left on the stove unattended and scorched, stuck to the bottom of your best pot in a thick layer of crud that will have to soak overnight before it even thinks of coming loose. Or like your daddy's white dress shirt pressed by a too-hot iron and tattooed with a caramel-colored arrowhead the size of a fist smack-dab on the front pocket. Like that - bitter and sweet at the same time.
I was on my way to the beach - that place of endless sky, endless water, endless sight - so the land's trauma did not stay with me long. I can't help it; it is as though the core of my heart is made of iron and the closer I get the stronger is the pull so that by the time I reach the highest point on the causeway bridge I am falling like a ball bearing.
I had no plans other than to talk to, spend time with, be with my friends, but Providence had an invitation and a perfect wind and, before I knew it, the next day I was on a sailboat slicing through the sound like a knife through butter. To the north we could just make out a handful of people riding horses on Jekyll and just off the port side was the lighthouse at St. Simons and a nearly empty beach. The sails snapped like laundry hung out to dry and the conversation wound in and out of the rigging like children around a Maypole. You could not have asked for a more idyllic setting.
Driving back home later, I didn't notice, didn't notice not noticing the smell of burned landscape. Only later did I realize it. It had been 24 hours, of course, and perhaps there had been a rain shower to settle the scent or maybe it was just the normal dissipation of chemicals, but that's not what I think.
What I think is that the smell of scorched corn and burned fabric was still wafting over Long County in long waves like the ones that follow Pepé LePew in the Looney Tunes® cartoons and I - or, rather, my brain's limbic system - had chosen not to smell it, had chosen rather to concentrate on the scent of ocean and sunscreen and that peculiar combination of pimento cheese, grits, and pork barbecue that had been the lunch special at Southern Soul.
Our brains create such interesting scrapbooks. They clip and save the oddest things - one line from the lyrics of a song heard on the radio driving down the highway during a rainstorm, the color of a shirt hanging over the railing on a hotel balcony, the satin smoothness of a scar, the smell of 4,000 acres charred to jagged nothingness. And they organize those things no better than we organize the photographs and programs and movie ticket stubs we are so intent on saving. Some get attached to archival pages with archival glue, labeled with archival ink, but most of them get thrown into a shoe box or shopping bag with a half-hearted promise of return. Someday.
I hold in my hands the reflection of sunlight on water, the laughter of children, the saltiness of my own lips. They are piled in a generous heap and beneath them lies the scent of ash.