The fires had been burning for three weeks. Smoke hung thick in the air like a dense fog that rolls off the river late at night, always breaking up as the sun rises. Nothing could penetrate the smoke, not even the sun’s rays. The air smelled only of burning wood, like the smell that soaks into your hair and your clothes when you sit around a bonfire all night. However, this fire wasn’t a bonfire—it was an inferno swallowing homes and hundreds of acres of timber whole.
When the fires had first begun, we stood on the porch at night, staring at the mountain behind our house. We watched the lines of fire glimmering in the distance, orange and red ablaze in the blackness. We prayed for God’s mercy and for rain. We watched the forecast on our single television set and listened to the news as more homes were abandoned. The rain didn’t come.
One evening I stood just outside the kitchen and strained to hear what my parents were saying in their hushed voices. I could hear the worry in Mamma’s voice.
“It’s getting closer,” she said wringing a dish towel between her hands.
My daddy stood in front of the kitchen sink, his gaze fixed on the mountain beyond the window. He didn’t speak for some time. Silently, I lurked in the shadow of the hall just outside the kitchen. I didn’t want them to know I was listening.
“Patti said Steven Newcomb’s place is completely gone. Nothin’ left.” she pressed.
I felt my breath catch just as his steady voice broke the silence.
“We’ll have to be ready when the time comes. We can always go to the cabin if the fire hasn’t gotten it yet. I’ll ride over tomorrow and see.”
Mamma nodded in reply as I slipped away unnoticed.
The next morning we awoke to discover the fire had traveled down from the mountain to the property adjacent ours. The flames lapped hungrily at the dry foliage that continued to feed them. Daddy immediately grabbed the water hose and began spraying down the house, a feeble attempt to save the house he had built with his own hands.
The previous night Mamma had followed Daddy’s orders and made sure we were ready to go when the time came. He knew that once the flames reached our door, there wouldn’t be any time left to pack. Our trunk was loaded down with camping supplies. We packed enough rice and beans to last two weeks. My sister and I each carried a backpack full of clothes and books. Daddy brought his hunting knife, ammunition, and the few guns he had. Mamma made sure to grab the family Bible and the photo album as we reluctantly headed to the car.
“When are we coming back?” my sister asked as we backed out of our gravel drive.
Her question fell flat before Mamma offered her weak reply: “I don’t know.”
Driving eastward, pushing through the wall of smoke, we reached our family’s old hunting cabin. Miraculously, the humble structure nestled deep in the woods under large oaks and giant sycamores had been spared. The pine trees that lined the dirt road coming in stood charred, ominous. The black earth still smoldered in places. The fire came so quickly, Daddy hadn’t had the time to drive out and check on it. The risk we took in leaving was a gamble we were happy to have won.
Time passed slowly. After two weeks at the cabin, our rations waned, and hunger crept in. Daddy had attempted to drive back into town, but once he made it to blacktop, visibility was zero. We were stuck. Our prayers for rain were replaced by prayers for food. Mamma began foraging around the cabin, looking for anything that we could eat. My sister watched the leaves.
“Look!” she cried out one evening. “The leaves are turnin’ up! It must be getting’ ready to rain.”
I stared up at the clear blue sky, resentful that she’d even mentioned it.
“Yeah,” I scoffed, “It’s going to rain, alright.”
The following day, before the sun had risen, Daddy came and stirred me from my sleep. Dark circles under his eyes confessed he hadn’t slept the previous night. His face was tired and haggard, but he managed his same simple smile.
“Wanna go huntin’ with me? I could use the company.”
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and nodded.
Smoke from the fires made hunting nearly impossible, and most animals had sought refuge elsewhere. We had been surviving on nuts, berries, and mushrooms. We desperately needed sustenance.
At daybreak I followed my daddy silently through the woods, a .22 caliber rifle slung over my shoulder. We stopped from time to time and listened for any sound other than our own footsteps crushing leaves and twigs. We strained our eyes in search of movement through the smoky haze and the maze of brush and trees. We made our way to a ridgeline with a high wall at our backs. Suddenly, in the tree tops, I caught the flicker of a tail. I watched as a squirrel scurried up the white trunk of a tall beech tree. My eyes followed it as it reached the end of the branch and leaped out, arms wide, grabbing the nearby limb. I seized my gun and raised the orange bead on the tiny, brown body. My daddy, realizing I was onto something, turned to watch.
Please, God, don’t let me miss. Don’t let me miss!
I inhaled deeply, ignoring the pains deep within my empty stomach. My index finger rested on the cold, steel trigger. As I exhaled, my index finger pulled against it. When the cracking sound echoed in my ears, I imagined the tiny body hitting the ground with a soft thud, myself grabbing its tail and swinging it triumphantly, and the look on my daddy’s face when he realized I’d scored us a meal. I lowered the end of the gun and watched as the squirrel scuttled out of sight. Defeated, I swallowed back the lump in my throat and dropped my head.
“We’ll find us another one,” Daddy said rubbing my shoulder.
“Yeah,” I agreed without belief.
We followed the ridgeline out until the sun was high in the noon sky. Empty-handed, we decided to head back to the cabin. The smoke had begun to overwhelm us. The dense clouds stung our eyes and filled our lungs.
“I’ll come out later this evening. You can help Ma look for mushrooms around the cabin.”
Yeah, since I clearly can’t hunt, I thought.The anger stoked within me like hot coals. My hunger began to mock me again. What are we going to do? I choked back the hot tears while briars and limbs lashed at my arms and legs. Watching my feet as they trudged, one foot in front of the other, I didn’t even notice the first drops of rain that hit my forehead and trickled down past my nose. I stopped and stared up at the October sky as the rain came down harder.
Coty Paul was raised in Whitley County, Kentucky. She graduated from University of the Cumberlands in 2012, earning her degree in English Education. She currently teaches sophomore English at Bell County High School. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time outdoors.