Omens (from MRR #318)

Janelle got me thinking about omens the night before I left.
We were packing boxes in my nearly cleaned out apartment when she explained her subtle art of divining. “So right before a job interview, I went to get coffee and this homeless man whipped it out”
“The interview went great! I ended up telling my potential future boss about it. I don’t know how appropriate that was, but he thought it was hilarious. Homeless penis is goodluck”
“I guess we gotta troll around people’s park anytime something crucial comes up”
“then the other day this bird shit on my hand. And I had the worst day ever.”
“that one makes sense. ”
I don’t believe on omens, or signs, or much of anything really, but it was fun to subscribe luck and portent to the random weird things that tend to happen to me and Janelle. A bird shit on my hand once too, and I totally had a terrible day too. Evidence enough for us.
That night I dreamt of crows, hundreds lined up on fences. One cocked its head looking at me and said something I couldn’t hear. They took flight all at once, and I opened my eyes.
I’ve had this unsettled feeling the whole drive down the I-5, my car packed full of belongings. The BBC tells me they there is an out of control wildfire burning in the foothills above Los Angeles. They just evacuated half of the city I’m moving to and the fire is only 5% contained. The governor has declared a state of emergency. I pick up my phone.
“Hey mom, why did no one bother to tell me La Crescenta is on fire?!”
“It’s not on fire, it’s the hills," she answers. "It’s all over the news.”
“I don’t have a tv”
“it’s on the radio too”
“yeah, I know. But why didn’t you call me?”
“it wasn’t serious. There are lots of fires right now. But I thought you knew.”
“Well, what’s going on ? Is there any news?
“aunt carol is evacuated, so is your uncle donny. The fire is coming down the mountain now. But, I think it’ll be okay. they said at the very worst the 210 will be a fire break, it won’t go past the freeway.”
“mom, we’re on the mountain side of the 210”
“well, yeah, but that’s at the worst, they’d never let the fire get this far through the city. Unless the wind picks up, then they can’t… but it won’t honey. Everything will be fine.”
“okay, I’ll just see you when I get in”
“oh, didn’t you get my message?… I’m taking your dad out of here, the smoke is too much for him. Don’t worry so much. Just make sure you get a face mask on as soon as you get here. And stay inside. And keep the phone on you in case they call to evacuate. Love you honey.”
This is bad.
My first glimpse of flames is exiting the freeway. The night sky is clouded by smoke lit orange by towering flames. I continue to drive and the flames continue with me. The familiar range of mountain transformed into seething and angry gods. The mountains like an endless row of erupting hilltops and the trailing orange glow of fire on the mountainside like lava creeping ever closer. It’s easy to feel awe and hysteria mixed in the sight of such unbelievable demonstrations of nature. The desire to go home sweeps over me. But I don’t have a home anymore, I am here to make a new one. Carrying my bags up to the house the smoke is thick, the air is hot and dry, and it’s lightly snowing ash. My nose burns with the smell campfire, and my eyes are watering.
The house is empty, but the oversize TV is blaring the news. A man stands framed against the flaming hills.
“We’ve been lucky so far, but if the winds pick up, I can’t promise the safety of the 10,000 homes now threatened” He looks tired. Face smudged with black ash, eyes red and drooped, but alight with the same anxiety in mine. I need a cup of coffee, or a beer.
The coffee shop is full of pacing nervous people and black smudged firefighters. No less anxiety here.
“Even in a worst case scenario, the fire won’t come down this far. Right?” the girl pouring coffee is smiling, sure of his answer.
He is less sure, and careful with his words, “we hope it won’t come to that miss”
No one wants to make predictions. The fire doubled in size over night, and no one feels sure of anything. I know, intellectually, the fire would be stopped before it raged so far down the hill as my father’s house. But at the moment, anything feels possible. I step outside.
The smoke has settled like fog, and my flimsy mask is not helping very much. I’m looking at the mountain, wondering what I’ve got myself into. Joan had it right when she said that “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” She was speaking of the hot dry winds that rise out of the Mojave and usually spark the autumn fires, but it feels like it can be applied to all of LA’s seasonal phenomena: mudslides, floods, earthquakes, and fires.
“you know, the native Americans used to burn off large sections of this land to make fertile soil… they did. What we’re gonna have is new and abundant growth up in those mountains. And nothing for the Santa Anas to burn this fall. So don’t look so concerned young lady. It’s a natural cycle, a clean slate for the mountain, a fertile renewal.” He is a dapper old man, cane in hand, and white hair parted and smoothed down.
“aren’t you worried about all these houses?”
“oh no, not for mine anyway. I’ve got a box of photos and books to put in the car, and insurance for the rest. I could do without all this smoke though.” I handed him a spare mask my mother had left me while he coughed into a white handkerchief.
“thank you.“
“do you believe in omens?” I said returning my gaze to the mountains.
“no, no I don’t. but if I did, I think fire would be the best kind. A promise of a new beginning, of a world purged of mediocrity.” With that he shuffled off into the smoke fog.
I went home, turned off the news and began to unpack my things.