I want to write about things. That’s what I do, I write about things. Even while I’m sprinting up a hill, a half dozen screamed directions competing for space in my ears
I’m writing emails at my kitchen table, the one that Isma made from a perfect slice of a perota tree, by my count around fifty years old, judging by the rings beneath my coffee mug. There are two dogs at my feet, maybe three—one of them is pregnant, pressing her back against my ankle, panting softly. She’s due in the next few days, and periodically raises her head to make sure that I’m still there, that nothing bad is happening to her. I start to cough, the air feels thick and hot, even up here at the top of the mountain. Even the breeze feels thick, which is odd, since the wind here is its own creature, a playful god, fresh and lively, one that mostly doesn’t seem to mind our presence on their hill.
But still, I focus on my email: professional, direct, filled with ideas I have honed down to the sharpest point, necessary for sales and marketing—even for a novel a full year out from publication. I am a professional woman. I am getting things done. Oh, the context has changed in almost every particular, but I still do what I’ve always done. Until the context slides out from behind my screen and pushes itself into my lungs, shades the light and makes me go, right after I’ve hit send—Is that a cloud? Have the rains finally come?
Isma is sleeping on the floor in the bedroom. He hasn’t noticed anything yet. I step outside. The sun is an orange ball in a billowing red cloud, and a black swarm is heading my way, like flies ahead of the apocalypse. One lands on my eyelid. I smack it away, but it crumples like snow beneath my palm and leaves a black smear behind.
Not flies, ash.
Not a cloud, smoke.
“Isma! Isma! Come out here, the cerro is on fire…”
I want to write about things. That’s what I do, I write about things. Even while I’m sprinting up a hill, a half dozen screamed directions competing for space in my ears, I am thinking about the words I will use to describe the sensation of the thick air in my lungs, the dogs’ bright eyes following me. The grass-thatched roof of our hut is my responsibility now: I have to protect it, along with the dogs. I am the woman, I guard the home, I keep everyone safe. The gender essentialism of that ought to make me gag, but I’m certainly not about to go bounding up and down the soot-covered scree, pocked with smoking white horse droppings among the burning gorse, hauling water to put out fires blossoming heat inches from my face. I’m certainly not going to do that until the wind shifts and the fires get too close and then there I am, sliding down the loose gravel of the dirt road to put out a fire with our cracked blue bucket and a jícara filled with holes, smoke and heat pushing me back, burning my eyes. I plant my sandals on the earth, bucket in hand, and say to myself and the dogs, “Okay, we’re doing this.”
We’re doing this. One jícara throw after another, fast, so the water doesn’t have time to filter through the holes. The flames are high, but the fuel is fragile: one splash of water is enough to douse them to embers. Two splashes, and they are just smoke and black floss. All by myself, I put it out. The men are off putting out the main fire further downhill, on that scree I can barely scale when it isn’t a fucking flame. All by myself, I put it out. I rush back to the house with the dogs, to take a look at what fires remain, to do what else needs to be done. To take notes, if only in my thoughts, of how I will write my own story of this later.
There are always fires in the pueblo. Cook fires in the early mornings when the women throw a small plastic bag under the comal to help the damp tinder light, crackle, transmit heat to fired clay and, finally, to flat rounds of masa. That smell is wood and earth, the way I remember campfires on class trips growing up, but less sweet. Not much pine down here in the lower highlands (or higher lowlands?). Or garbage fires, where plastic mixes with debris of nearby trees, a sharp, cloying scent: a burnt fruit pie mixed with the skunkiest of old weed. When I traveled back to Mexico City, the pueblo came with me, that faint woodsmoke emanating from my clothes as I unpacked them in the Airbnb.
This fire smells different, though. Perhaps it’s the sheer size of it, roaring from one side of the cerro to the other. Perhaps it’s the horse dung, which hoards the flame like a geode with a treasure at its heart, brittle piles of white heat that can rekindle the flames with any unburnt grass in their vicinity. Perhaps it’s that brown smoke, billowing from the bottom of the hill and choking me as I run from fire to fire, dousing them with water and stomping them with the old goodyear tire soles of my sandals. But I think that it’s mostly the heat, the stench of that dark shimmering.
Perhaps I’ve smelled this before: I recall the silky air above the tarmac on those dog days in late July, firework time, when it seemed half the kids in the district had busted open a fire hydrant and the other half were setting the sky—and sometimes themselves—on fire. The air was soup and the sidewalk steamed when the water first poured out of those hydrant heads. This heat is like that, but stronger, wilder. It has the wind behind it here, and on this cerro, the wind is its own creature.
The wind turns. Down the hill, the fires stop a few yards away from the dirt road leading to our house. The fire still burns, but farther away, under the red encinos we can’t reach. They’ve survived decades of brush fires; we hope they’ll survive this one. As the air clears of the averted apocalypse, Isma and the men come trudging back up the hill. Most of the cerro burned this time, but the important things are safe: the house, the animals, us. I go back to my computer and write the first part of this essay with a blessedly cold corona in my hand. On the porch, Isma and the men who helped us are joking in quiet Amuzgo. And farther away, I can just make out the crackle of the cerro still burning into the night
I write about things, that’s what I do. And yet sometimes it feels as though I can’t do anything else. That the world is too distant from me, fuzzy, strange and dangerous, unless I have words to transect it, examine it, and build it up again. I wonder if this is a problem. Ironically, my favorite characters in literature are those who go out into the world whole-heartedly, who swallow what they can and let themselves in turn be swallowed. I dream of being like them, but even now there are days—and in bad times, weeks—when I will huddle in my beautiful, half-finished house on the top of a mountain and feel as though I am collapsing inward, that the world is sandpaper and my skin is scraped flesh and I will never be able to do anything again. I despair that I am broken for life, simply because I survived long enough to live it.
Then a fire comes, and there is no time to think any of those things at all.
I am running up a hill, my skin can take the heat, and the world might not be safe, but it is a sacrament.
Five days later, my dog has her puppies. It’s sunny and hot when she starts, and the stink of her blood and amniotic fluid joins the faint scent of charred earth that still lingers from the fire. Funny how much that smells like my own period blood, I think, and make sure each of the puppies are breathing as she eats off their cauls. They take their sweet time, about once an hour. After each one, I go back to my computer, to the line edits I have to turn around for the novel that I’ve been working on for the last six years, and that is miraculously nearly finished. That afternoon, the clouds start to come in. By the time my dog is on number six, the air has turned cold and the wind is back, ducking under our clothes and tweaking our nipples. We get the dog and the puppies inside. By the time lucky number seven is born—five injections of oxytocin and a lot of worried belly palpations later—the fog has rolled in thick and white. If the old god of fire fashions his veil of soupy brown smoke, the masked god of storms has his own tools and vestments: his thunder, his clouds.
My heart is gladder for this weather than I ever could have dreamed in my previous life. No more fires, now, at least not this year. The rains have come at last.
Thank you so much for reading A Stranger Comes Home! I am grateful to everyone who has subscribed. If you like these essays, please like, comment and (especially!) recommend this to your friends and on social media. I do want to write these more regularly, but you know us writers, we thrive on encouragement.
If you would like to support me financially, consider buying a copy of my short story collection, Reconstruction, recently hailed as a “Such a punch!” in the BookRiot SFF Yeah! podcast (Also: “Don’t eat while reading this collection!” quite possibly my favorite review of any of my work ever). Or you could try out my World Fantasy Award-winning novel, Trouble the Saints (now out in paperback!). And of course, if you haven’t yet checked out my collaboration with Janelle Monáe in her ground-breaking, NYT bestselling The Memory Librarian (alongside some other brilliant writers), please rectify that situation immediately. Seriously, I’ll wait. In the meantime, I am considering turning on a paid option for this newsletter, but it would probably be for those who feel like chipping in, not a requirement to get content. I know that things are tight these days.
And finally, about that six-years-in-the-making novel I’m doing line edits on? It’s called The Library of Broken Worlds, due from Scholastic in May 2023, and I am so goddamn excited to share this wild head-trip of a galaxy-spanning hard SF YA political thriller with you all that my heart actually starts racing when I think about it. I will share any updates here first, including cover and excerpts and (especially!) ARC giveaways when I have them, so keep an eye out.
Do you have a question for me or a subject you’d like me to write about in an upcoming newsletter? Write to me! alaya A T alayadawnjohnson D O T com
As always!!!!!!!!You have a poetic way with words. I found myself engaged in all the senses while reading. Don’t to smelling smoke, the humming of flies, dogs, and hot summer nights. Your depiction of clouds reminded me of how I view clouds during hurricane season in New Orleans. They have this dark element about them. Beyond ready for the new novel although we have to wait a year. Lol. I guess I can get over that. Jk jk! Take you time! I’m chilling.
I get the broken stuff. Can't wait to read your novel!