There’s nothing like the sound of a mom reading to her children, when they’re your children too. It’s the exact opposite of their nightmares, the universal antidote to whatever imagined horrors the darkness may conceal. It works on me too, easing me away from today’s and tomorrow’s cares. And everything sounds better in Ann’s British accent.
“The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. Read by Mum, for Jake and Amber.
“Once upon a time, there were four little Rabbits, and their names were…”
Jake and Amber are still young enough to enjoy snuggling in our bed for their bedtime stories, and they’re small enough to fit there between Ann and me. I’m in my pajamas because my bedtime is early too; I have to be on station by 5:00 a.m., almost an hour away. On work nights I hardly ever hear the end of the first story. I love falling asleep to Ann’s voice.
When it’s not a work night, I’m there for stories anyway. I love staying awake to her voice.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, half-awake for a fleeting moment, I’ll put my arm around the warm body beside me, and she’ll snuggle against me in her sleep and purr. At 3:45 a.m., when it’s time for me to get up, I try not to wake her, but she drowsily welcomes and sometimes returns a hug and kiss before falling back into sleep for a couple more hours.
I shower, dress, and pause for a moment in each child’s doorway, gazing happily on small, quietly slumbering forms in the pale white glow of the moon. Then it’s off to work.
That’s how things are for me at home, how they’re supposed to be. I’m not content with everything in my life, and I don’t always love a routine, but I love this one.
That is, I loved it until the storm came.
This morning, it’s harder to wake up than it used to be, and it takes longer. Even as I fumble for my phone to turn off the alarm, I’m not certain I’m awake.
The moon’s up, shining faintly through the bedroom window, but the color’s wrong—brown, yellow, weak, eerie. The light is like sludge; it should probably smell bad. The alarm’s cruel beeping is off a bit too. I must be more tired than usual, or maybe I’m coming down with something. I turn it off before it wakes Ann.
I roll over to put my arm around her and give her a squeeze and a kiss. My arm falls onto the cool sheet. The wrongness of that shocks me fully awake.
The sheet feels crisp and clean on her side of the bed. No one has slept there since laundry day, at least.
Her walk-in closet is next to my not-walk-in closet. I quietly open its doors, because I love that it smells like her. This morning, it just smells like dust and smoke.
The air in the rest of the house smells like smoke too. It seems like that’s not new, but it hasn’t always been that way.
Just past the closets is the master bathroom. The moonlight’s wrong there too, and flipping the light switch doesn’t help as much as I expect. The face in the mirror is off—my own, almost, but there’s something hollow about the eyes, and more gray in my hair than I remember.
For all the strangeness, routine is routine. I stop at each child’s doorway. By the faint yellow-brown glow I see empty, carefully made beds in unnaturally tidy rooms.
I grab my lunch from the fridge, wondering if it will taste like smoke. The brown paper bag is unusually soft, and it doesn’t crinkle like a paper bag should. At first its proportions seem too wide and too short, and its angles are odd, but I blink a couple of times and it looks normal.
It’s time to leave.
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Our home sits on the outskirts of town, near the base of a mountain and the edge of a forest. I have countless memories of watching the sun rise into a clear blue sky above evergreens and gray peaks, while ten thousand birds chirp and sing, and our whole world smells of pine, aspen, and scrub oak.
Now, in the smoky silence, those memories feel distant and unreal. The sounds of my truck’s door closing and its engine starting are unnaturally loud.
My office is a Forest Service watchtower, thirteen miles in. The last ten miles are a primitive track that makes my four-wheel-drive Toyota a necessity, not a toy.
This morning, after the first mile, I see no other lights at all—not on the road or off, not on land or in the sky. The moon’s gone, and I cannot see the countless stars. If I could, they’d be a lush blanket of lights such as no one ever sees in the city.
My burly Tundra is the only light source in this world. Its headlights make the surrounding darkness darker.
The forest should be full of wildlife, but after the second mile I see no animal, large or small. The reason’s in my headlights, when they shine on what used to be aspens. Now they’re naked trunks, forlorn shadows on the mountainsides, mostly black, with uncharred streaks of whitish bark.
The fire here was recent enough, but I never saw the flames, and I barely remember the smoke. The night shift watchman called it in. He saw the lightning bolt that started it, about the time I emerged from the mountains after my shift and noticed all the flashing lights on the freeway, a mile and a half away.
The storm brought mostly wind and lightning to the mountains, but there were sudden, heavy downpours in the valley. On the watery freeway five lives ended quickly in a multi-vehicle crash. Three of them were mine.
It wasn’t Ann’s fault, said the state troopers at the front door. She hadn’t caused it. It was just bad luck. An accident. Nothing Anyone Could Do.
Everyone was so very, very sorry for my loss.
The fire in the forest was out by the time I returned to work, many days later.
Fog shrouds the road ahead, but when I reach it, it’s dull and brownish, not reflective and white. I know it’s smoke from 300 miles upwind, not from the forest I watch for fire, but the drive into smoky blackness is too familiar. I feel as if I should be accustomed to this nightmare, but I’m not.
How would one become accustomed to this?
I work alone, a 12-hour shift. Ty is nearly always there as I arrive, ending his own shift, but this morning there’s just a note in his familiar scrawl. “Repeater down again. I’ll reset it on the way home. Leaving early.” The note itself is strange. I seem to remember him spelling repeater with all e’s and no a, and putting two s’s in reset. This morning, everything’s right, and that’s wrong.
Until he resets the repeater, I’m isolated. But it shouldn’t be long. He lives on the other side of the mountains, a seventeen-mile drive from our post. The repeater sits just off the road and resets in two or three minutes.
In any case the rules are clear: even if communication fails, I stay at my post, except to report a fire.
When the sun climbs halfheartedly through the secondhand smoke, it’s clear that only the firebreak saved the watchtower itself when the forest burned. From the far edge of the cleared area to the jagged horizon, in every direction, I see a black, lifeless dreamscape, with practically nothing left to burn.
Yet still we watch for fire.
This must be what hell is like. Alone, the smoke, the stench of charred forest, the meaningless drudgery, the silence.
I often stream music while I watch the horizon, but our internet connection depends on the same repeater. So I turn on the AM radio instead. Nothing happens, not even static. Fresh batteries don’t help.
I could push back the silence by talking or singing, but I don’t try. It would simply wait nearby for me to stop, and then it would return.
The repeater doesn’t go back on line. No doubt, Ty will explain when he arrives for his shift, but that’s hours away. In the meantime I doze. I dream of the same wasteland I see with waking eyes. It feels like a nightmare that has always been and will always be.
At noon I study my lunch bag. It’s just a brown paper bag, used and reused until it’s soft and verges on disintegration. I probably have new ones at home. Ann would know where.
Ty doesn’t arrive for his 5:00 p.m. shift. It’s been months since that happened. The rule says I’m to remain on station for an hour. Then, if he’s still not here, I can leave and report.
I wait the extra hour, then two more. By then it’s dark, and my drive home is through the same brown, black, smoky nightmare as my morning commute. The last two miles of forest are green and alive, but shrouded like the rest.
As I approach the valley, my phone finds a connection and vibrates with alerts. As soon as I’m home, I start with my voice mail. There are two messages from Ty. The repeater wouldn’t reset, the power supply’s fried, that was the spare, and a new one won’t arrive until next week. Also his truck wouldn’t start, so he’ll be three or four hours late for his shift. But he’ll be there. I text him, thanking him and wishing him luck.
Dinner is something from a can. Then I make tomorrow’s lunch. I find more lunch bags in a cupboard, but they’re worn soft too, so I use the one I used today. Showering washes the stench of burnt wood off me. Too bad I can’t wash the air. Every light I see from my window is a dingy yellow.
At 8:30 p.m. I put on my pajamas and settle into bed. I used to pray at both ends of the day, but no more.
With the thoughtless efficiency of long habit, I tell Siri to set my phone alarm for 3:45 a.m. Then I give the last voice command of the night: “Play Ann Czerny.”
Her words and voice are my refuge. Her accent is music.
“The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. Read by Mum, for Jake and Amber.”
She planned so carefully for her month-long trip home to Yorkshire, to help her father care for her mother after surgery. She wanted to take the children with her, but we couldn’t make it work. So for the month before she left, to help them miss her a little less, she would record one story a day, every day they were in school. Twenty stories in all.
She recorded only one. Then the storm came, and she left for a different destination, and they went with her after all.
“Once upon a time, there were four little Rabbits, and their names were—”
If I’m lucky—I often am—I’ll dream of her in bed beside me, with our children between us at first and then not. Of waking up early and giving her a hug and kiss, and standing in the children’s doorways for a long moment, watching them sleep. And going to work in a lush mountain forest that teems with life.
“Her Voice” was first published in a 2021 anthology, Shadowed Hourglass: A Collection of Poetry and Prose. It’s available in print and electronically at Amazon, and in print through Barnes and Noble.
Photo credit: Landon Parenteau on Unsplash.
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