Please enjoy this reading by Rachel Ann Brickner. The essay is awesome and the audio production is so rad our heads exploded. Thanks, Rachel. You’re cool.
When I was a girl, I had nightmares about fire. I’d wake up in my small room in our second-floor apartment, unable to see through the smoke streaming in through the crack of my door. The smoke would consume me. I’d feel a pain in my chest, knowing that at some point, I wouldn’t be able to breathe.
I’d scream for my parents.
But there was never an answer.
Eventually, I’d pull my hand into the sleeve of my shirt to protect my hand. I never had a dream where I was able to save them. Or myself. I’d pull open the door.
The flames always rushed in.
Shortly before my 31st birthday, I became obsessed with how trees survive a fire.
I remember walking through redwood forests in California when I still lived there, wondering how it was possible that they were still standing. Running my hand along the thick bark of their bodies, reading signs about the fires planned so they could survive and thrive.
I begin to talk to friends, asking them what they know about trees and fire.
One tells me about a scorned lover setting a love note on fire in a forest in Colorado, how it lit the whole forest up.
Another tells me about his experience of walking in forests and slipping into tree time. How trees are givers and witnesses—that they don’t have perception of time, only change.
There is a misconception, he says, that trees are rigid, but it’s not true. They’re grounded, rooted, centered, but also flexible. If a tree doesn’t change, he says, it won’t survive.
Sometime before the fourth grade, I spent a summer at a woman’s house who was big and mean. The house was small and swarmed with other kids whose parents were overworked, working several jobs in order to get by like my parents.
I am six. My hair is wavy and bright blonde. My eyes are blue, sometimes green depending on the light. I am shy, hesitant, but also easily amused. My smile is big. In pictures, my head is often thrown back from laughing so hard that it makes my stomach hurt. I like to run and jump and sing. My legs are long. I am small but strong, beating boys at arm wrestling, races down the block, swimming contests, games of capture the flag.
I am eating a grape popsicle with my only girl friend that summer in the backyard. It is so hot we pull our t-shirts up then down through our collars so our bellies can breathe. The juice of the popsicle melts on our hands. I rub my hands in the grass.
That summer we stay outside in the sun for so long, my skin begins to blister. I go inside to complain about how it burns, but the mean woman yells at me to go back into the sun.
There is an older boy. I don’t know him. He just happens to be there that summer too. I don’t like how he looks at me. The feeling of his hand on my hand. The drop in my stomach as he pulls me into a room.
Then, the man. The mean woman’s boyfriend with a moustache who scares me. I try not to look at him. There’s the boy’s hands. Then the man’s belt coming off.
The feeling of the leather smacking my back, a burn so big, I think I might be dead. And in some ways, I am.
When the blisters on my shoulders and arms pop, pus oozes over my skin and down my arm. The smell of my body makes me feel sick.
I have never told anyone about what Christopher Bollas calls the “unthought known” of my life—that which is somehow known to an individual but about which she is unable to properly think.
Out of desperation, when I am 31 years old, I ask my mother for the first time if she knows anything about that summer and what happened to me, if she’s hidden anything she thought I might forget. When I tell her without telling her what happened to me (“something happened”), when I express the unthought known to the best of my ability (“something happened to me”), she begins to cry but her face is stone.
She says she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. And I think if she does, she’s unable to let herself fully think it.
After a moment of silence, she makes an expression as though she’s realizing something for the first time. She tells me that I wasn’t at that house with the mean woman and the big man with the belt for only a summer. I stayed with them after school and during the summers for years, though I have no memory of this.
She’s sorry, she says, but she needs to step outside. When she gets up from the table, she’s holding a cigarette and a lighter in her hands.
On the National Forest Foundation website, I read an article called “How Trees Survive and Thrive After a Fire.”
It says, “Big or small, gradual or sudden, change rhythmically punctuates human life. In the natural world, change is just as intrinsic and pattern-based. Seasonal fluctuations in temperature, shifts in sunlight, and natural disturbances, like fire, are all part of nature’s cycle.
Most people resist change, especially change they consider destructive. Perhaps that’s why uncontrolled wildfires have been suppressed since the early 1900s. Fire can be damaging, and its effects certainly scar once verdant landscapes.”
The article says that of course no species has adapted to live in fire itself, but plants and animals can adapt to a fire regime. A fire regime being, among other things, fire frequency, intensity, and patterns of fuel consumption. Plants have a distinct disadvantage compared to animals in the face of fires, I learn. Because they can’t run, fly, creep or crawl out of a fire’s path. But, eventually, they adapt to survive and even come to depend on regular fire.
A month after my 30th birthday, I fell in love with a boy I’d known in high school. I had my first sex dream about this boy and then I tried to never think about him again. He was a bad kid, one who came to school high, who got into fights, who was in special ed while I was on honor roll, avoided all conflict, and did my best to quietly scare people off by cutting my hair into a pixie cut and piercing my nose.
He scared me, yet I also desired him—the way his hair fell into his face, the way he walked the halls like no one could touch him, the way he seemed to care about nothing and no one.
I hadn’t seen or thought about him for more than a decade when I saw him for the first time at the bike shop where he worked. I came to the shop to buy a new bike after mine was stolen. He looked at me. I looked at him.
I felt something light inside me that I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager.
I pretended not to recognize him, but he didn’t let me. He helped me. We smiled. He blushed. I left the shop with a new bike that he sold me for much cheaper than it was.
Our first date lasted for two days. Soon he gave me a key and I stayed with him almost every night. I told myself it was because it was winter. That his apartment was so warm.
We drank too much beer and got stoned before taking long walks to the river or riding our bikes in the cold around the city, racing each other on trails while almost skidding out around turns.
We discovered strange, previously unknown parallels in our lives. Our dads’ drinking, the fights between our parents, the way our fathers left before we graduated high school, our mothers’ breakdowns, how we were blamed for our fathers leaving. How, when we were teenagers, we promised ourselves we wouldn’t be like them. How we both struggled with drinking too much and taking too many drugs. How we wanted to be able to run away from ourselves and others as soon as our feelings got to be too much.
We grew closer. We met each other’s families. We got into a fight about nothing and made up. His drinking worsened while I began to have spells of lightheadedness where I couldn’t see clearly or catch my breath. Sometimes when he touched me, I felt very far outside of myself. When I spent a night without him, my nightmares returned.
The love we felt for one another somehow morphed into inescapable fear.
This is what happens with twin flames, a friend tells me. Unlike soul mates, a twin flame is your perfect mirror. They show you all the things that you’ve been running from. They force you to face yourself.
By the time we broke up almost a year later, he was drunk almost every time I saw him. And my nightmares turned to insomnia. I spent my days sleep-deprived, trying to work while a tingling then numbness washed over my arms, my legs, my chest. My body remembering the unthought known I wanted it to forget. I felt trapped in a smoke-filled room that was impossible to escape.
The little girl in that room—I thought she was gone, but she had only been in hiding.
I try not to leave my apartment. I avoid being alone with men. I hate looking in mirrors, the sight of my body making me feel sick. I try everything I can to make her go away, only to end up too high or drunk or eating too much or running until my body hurts so badly that it distracts me from the hurt beneath it.
No matter what I do, she won’t leave me alone.
A year after I first fell in love with the boy I knew from school, I have a panic attack so bad in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep that all the muscles in my body seize into a tight fist in my back so that I am on my knees, unable to do anything but crawl.
I am that little girl alone in a room unable to call for help. And I still don’t know how to help her.
She is a flame I can’t put out, that only grows the more I ignore her.
Over the phone, my friend tells me that when a tree falls in a forest, the roots of the surrounding trees keep the fallen tree alive, maintaining the life, energy, and memory of it.
When I finally tell my closest friends about the unthought known that’s followed me since I was a girl, I feel like they’re fully seeing me for the first time—on my knees, unable to breathe in a smoke-filled room. I am surprised when they don’t run or hide. Instead, they get on their knees with me and help me find the door.
When the flames rush in, I am no longer alone.
“Trees in fire-prone areas develop thicker bark,” the article tells me, “in part, because thick bark does not catch fire or burn easily. It also protects the inside of the trunk, the living tissues that transport water and nutrients, from heat damage during fires.”
As the tree grows older, it drops its lower branches in order to prevent fire from climbing up and burning the green needles adorning it.
Species that regenerate by re-sprouting after they’ve been burned tend to have an extensive root system. Underground, dormant buds are protected. And nutrients stored in the root system, allow for growth after the damage of a fire.