All that’s left is the empty space


It’s like a death, he told me. He thought about holding a service there, where the earth is scored and mounded and the shrubs grow around the perimeter of a building that’s no longer there.

It’s all that’s left now.

(Smoke was — I really can’t think of a word to describe it. It boiled out in towering pillars, black and brown and gray, swirling, agitated, from every window and crevice of the barn-turned-furniture store. The air conditioner was breathing out smoke; it writhed out from the seals of the siding, under crevices of the roof, between doors and their frames and windows and theirs.)

That was the first fire I ever covered, and it was spectacular. Flames danced near power lines, the road was shut for hours, and nothing survived.

It’s been one year today.

(When the flames shot through the roof, I felt the wall of heat slam into my body. The unseasonably cold morning was suddenly hot, I was pulling off my jacket, seeking refuge across the road with neighbors who watched, curious and concerned. Water ran down the highway in streams, splashed over shoes and soaking my feet.)

I’m reliving it this afternoon, remembering the raw power of it, the way he shook when he spoke, watching water and fire consume the old red barn that housed his furniture store.

I know he’s reliving it too.

And it’s been one year and they’ve ruled it arson and for weeks into months yellow caution tape fluttered in the wind around the blackened bones of the structure. Until, in the winter, they knocked it down, and snow fell on piles of debris and the caution tape disappeared.

Today it’s green again, all around, and the earth is empty, waiting. He tells me he isn’t making plans yet, because too much needs to be settled.

And she, who shared the building and watched the elderberry bush burn along with it, she tells me a kind man read my story and offered her his elderberries, and she had jam last summer after all.

She worries about the person responsible, wondering who, wondering why. Is he, or she, ill? In need of help? Because while part of her wants the relief justice would bring, the other part just wants healing, for everyone involved.

I type his words, and hers, and we run the picture of the piles of dirt where a picture of flames ran last year. It’s the end of the day and the end of the week and the start of a long weekend.

We’ll drive out-of-town later today, along that same road, and I’ll look out where nothing stands now.

(And I’m finding that sometimes, there just aren’t words enough to really make you understand. You’d have had to be there, to really know.)

That was true then, and it’s true again now.

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