Last week, after learning that wildfires were destroying the area near our family cabin, I went searching through old photos. I sat alone at my desk, clicking through snapshots on a thumb drive, and when I came across this one I chortled.
It surprised me, this photo.
When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that the most satisfying surprise is the surprise of recognition, the surprise of I-should-have-seen-that-coming-but-I-didn’t. That’s exactly how this photo felt to me: of course there was a horse in the window. That used to happen all the time.
One summer these horses roamed the valley and we watched them from a distance. We’d see them trot towards the creek at the bottom of the hill, or we’d drive by them in the meadow on our way down the mountain.
The next summer, Kellie bought a metal trough and filled it with fresh water from our well. The horses discovered this and every morning we had company. Just as the sun rose over the hill, I’d wake to the sound of them munching and nickering. They hung around the cabin for an hour or more, sidling up to the porch or the outdoor sink, pooping in our driveway. When I watched them from inside the cabin or when I went outside and stepped cautiously between them, I felt like I was the guest and they were the residents. I felt this way because it was true.
Kellie claimed that it was practical to have horses eating our grass, and I know that she was right. Tall grass becomes a fire hazard once it dries. But I also know Kellie well enough to understand her motives. She bought and filled the trough because she wanted their company.
The horses visited us at the cabin for two summers and then, the following spring, their owner sold them all. The land seemed awfully quiet the first summer they were gone. I would wake to a sunny day and watch the wind move through the grass, watch a bluebird perch on a mullein stalk. No one was tromping through; no one was munching.
By the next year I had all but forgotten the horses. Instead, I watched my baby learn to scoot himself across the floor. I fed him applesauce and oatmeal. I carried him on long walks. When I remembered that there had once been horses, my mind placed them halfway down a hill, living their own horse lives far from us. I forgot about how well we’d been acquainted.
Slowly I remembered all the other lives I’ve led—my own life in three-year increments, iterations of me that felt permanent but were not.
I remember, for instance, the years I spent trying to get pregnant and how stark my world seemed then. How the chance of a baby felt like the fur mouse on a cat toy, alternately in reach and then so far away.
Or I remember when my first child was a newborn, and everyone kept saying “It all goes by so fast,” but instead those days slogged along. I nursed my baby every two hours, and then nursed him before bed for three hours straight, and then woke up in the night to nurse him some more. The whole process was in equal measures sublime and boring, precious and frustrating, and I thought it was my new forever-life.
Nearly every reality I’ve lived has felt permanent. Every reality has been temporary.
Our cabin, as far as I know has not burned down, but the world it occupies has been forever changed. Last night I dreamed that we returned to the land with our children and discovered that the surrounding hills were still burning. This is not far from the truth.
I do not know what we will find next time we return. I don’t know what landscape we’ll see on the seven-hour drive, if it will be ash, or scorched trees. I don’t know what I’ll see from our cabin window—to what extent the view will have changed.
I will say this: I am grateful to bear witness, to still have four walls and a porch in Okanogan County, to have years ahead of me to see how green forges a path through char and ash, to observe the cycle of devastation and regeneration. I know that it is a luxury to be at once connected to and distant from disaster: my loss is peripheral—something I love has shifted, but it has not left my world forever.
In three years remind me of the time before the fire. I will have forgotten by then.