MARY MACKEY (2)
Introduction: This is an excerpt from my unpublished novel California Burning, written in 1999, which takes as its subject emerging diseases and California wildfires caused by climate change. Thanks to a life-long interest in and study of ecology and epidemiology, I became aware of these potential disasters many years before they were mainstream concerns. As a result, when my agent sent this novel to editors to consider for publication, it was met with almost complete incomprehension.
At that time virtually all the major publishers (now called the “Legacy Publishers”) were located in New York City, and the West Coast, not to mention West Coast writers, were hardly on their radar. One editor, who rejected the novel, actually said: “Who cares what happens in California?” Another upbraided me for using the word “Google” which she said was so obscure a word that “no one on the East Coast had ever heard of it.” Yet another said that the idea of “new, infectious diseases suddenly emerging,” was “too much like science fiction.”
Unfortunately, the world now knows how short-sighted all this was; but being too early for the train is as bad as being too late, so for twenty-one years California Burning has lain in my desk drawer unpublished while I have gone on to write and see published five more novels and four collections of poetry.
On the excerpt from California Burning
This five-page excerpt is the climax of my unpublished novel California Burning (written in 1999), which takes as its subject emerging diseases and wildfires caused by climate change. Nick is an oil well firefighter who, like Red Adair, spent years putting out well fires around the world. Recently, he has returned to Fools Hope, a small, remote Gold Rush community located in the mountains of California. Fools Hope is Nick’s hometown, and he has become a volunteer firefighter. The other major character in the novel is Kit, a grieving mother who lost has her son to a new virus and who has come to Fools Hope to get away from her memories and the break-up of her marriage. At this point in the novel two crucial things have happened: Nick and Kit have fallen deeply in love, and a huge wildfire is raging unchecked. In the previous chapter, Nick saved Kit, his mother, his aunt, a neighbor, and two small children by leading them to a mine shaft where they can shelter in safety. He is now risking almost certain death by going back down the mountain to try to save Art, another neighbor who he was forced to leave behind.
From California Burning
Not long ago, Joe had seen a small fire and brought the news to Bunny as a hat full of roses. Now a single great rose bloomed in the forest, petaling out in a corona of flame and turning everything it touched to ashes. Trees exploded in its path; deer vaporized leaving only their bones behind. The rose grew rapidly. By the time its petals had reached the base of the old mining road, they formed a sheer wall of flame over five hundred feet high.
Nick ran straight down side of the mountain toward the sound of twenty jet planes all landing at the same time. It took him less than a minute and a half to reach Art--only a minute and a half of miraculous luck, when he fell and rolled, and came back up on his feet again like an acrobat and kept going--but still he could tell from the roar that he didn't have time to carry Art back up the hill to safety.
He reached out, grabbed Art by the belt, and dragged him sideways along the slope like a sledge. Through stickers and maybe poison oak. Nothing mattered but getting to water. He humped Art over the loose gravel. There was no time for apologies; just that sound roaring toward them like a Texas tornado.
A dip, one more rise, and they were there. There was no pond like he'd told Kit. The pond had been a lie. There was only a spring, a wet green channel in the limestone, knee deep, big enough for one but not for two. Two had also been a lie. A kind lie, because Nick hadn't been able to bring himself to tell Kit the truth. That I may die, he thought. And leave you. Which is what I'll regret most, now. The leaving of you, my love.
He pulled Art into the water, rolled him flat on his back, face up so he wouldn't drown, with a stone under his head and all the rest of him underwater. One man who fit perfectly in a channel where there had never been room for two. The water was so cold. Like ice. To feel it on your hands, a kind of blessing with the fire coming. That's what Nick thought. A blessing.
No. This didn't work. Not quite. When the fire came, Art's face would fry. Not just his eyebrows and hair. There'd be nothing left of his face that would look human.
Nick spent a few precious seconds rearranging Art by pushing most of him back under a limestone overhang so there was a thick, damp ledge of stone over his face and upper body: a pocket of oxygen for him to breathe, shelter from the fire.
Not Wes or Pat, Nick thought. Not Consuela either. Couldn't save any of them. But Art, I can save you. Maybe. Maybe.
He jerked the fire shelter off of his belt and draped the fireproof aluminum around Art like a mother tucking her child into bed. Then he grabbed a few big rocks from the side of the channel and used them to weigh down the edges.
Sleep tight, Art.
As he stood up, the false wind of the coming fire hit him so hard it nearly blew him off his feet. He leaned into it, and a hail of burning things suddenly filled the air: twigs, pine cones, canoes of burning cedar bark as long as his forearm. Some of it landed on him and he began to burn: his hair mostly, because when he was running down the mountain he had lost his hard hat and never even noticed.
He turned and ran back up the slope slapping at the flames like man being swarmed by mosquitoes of fire. He put the embers out, and when more embers fell on him and started more fires, he put those out too all without breaking stride. He was strong, young--at least young enough to run faster than fire. He figured he still might make it back to the mine shaft.
The roar of the approaching fire became so loud that it became silence. He felt a great heat on his back. The heat penetrated his body and filled his lungs. His head was filled with heat and the silence of infinite noise. He looked ahead and saw the entrance to the mine not more than a hundred yards up the slope; looked back and saw a pillar of fire that rose from the earth to heaven. Gold and red, dancing, advancing, as beautiful as anything he'd ever seen.
The beauty of the blowup took his breath away. He began to run more slowly. He felt almost euphoric. You don't die from the heat, he remembered, you die from the fumes and the carbon monoxide.
He tried to force himself to run faster but his legs were getting heavy. The fire was all around him now, wrapping him in a red quilt of light deeper than all the summers he'd ever lived through. He had run and run to the very end of the world, so he stopped.
Kit, he thought, this isn't the way I wanted it to be.
He stood very still. A tiny, confused deer mouse with big ears and small black eyes suddenly emerged from the smoke. She looked up at Nick and then dashed back into the smoke and disappeared.
I can follow her, he thought. I can keep running. I can go on; only I need something cool. Just a sip of cold water.
Up ahead, the opening of the mineshaft looked like a circle of black ice. It seemed very far away. He took a breath of air so hot it felt like melted gold; then once again he headed for the mine, running up the slope along a bright path surrounded by a brightness so great it filled the world.
Mary Mackey became a writer by running high fevers, tramping through tropical jungles, dodging machine gun fire, being swarmed by army ants, making catastrophic decisions about men, and reading. Her published works consist of fourteen novels including The Village of Bones, which won a 2018 CIIS Women’s Spirituality Book Award from the Department of Diversity and Inclusion; The Year The Horses Came; and A Grand Passion, which was translated into 12 foreign languages and made The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle best seller lists. She is also the author of eight collections of poetry including Sugar Zone, which won the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award; and The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, which won the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award for the Best Book Published by a Small Press. Her work has been praised by Wendell Berry, Pat Conroy, Jane Hirshfield, D. Nurkse, Al Young, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Marge Piercy for its beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. Professor Emeritus and Former Writer in Residence at California State University, Sacramento, she received her B.A. from Harvard and her PhD from the University of Michigan. Mackey, who presently lives with her husband in northern California, is related through her father’s family to Mark Twain. You can contact her at https://marymackey.com/ and follow her on Twitter @MMackeyAuthor. To be the first to know when she publishes a new novel or collection of poems you can subscribe to her quarterly newsletter at http://eepurl.com/CrLHT