If a woman is going to write a Book of Peace, it is given her to know devastation. I have lost my book—156 good pages. A firestorm blew over the Oakland-Berkeley hills in October of 1991, and took my house, things, neighborhood, and other neighborhoods, and forests. And the lives of twenty-five people.
I almost reached my manuscript, typescript, printouts, and disks in time. I was driving home from funeral ceremonies for my father. I have lost my father. He’s gone less than a month; we were having the full-month ceremony early, Sunday day off. Never before had I driven by myself away from Stockton and my parents’ house. I turned on public radio for the intelligent voices, and heard that the hills were burning, toward Moraga, toward Walnut Creek. It’s not my poor sense of direction, I told myself, but the newscasters in confusion. The perimeters of the fire were different from station to station, from taped news to live news. North of the Caldecott Tunnel, south of the Caldecott Tunnel, east, west of the Warren Freeway. I pictured wildfire far up in the hills—ridgelines of flame spilling down, then running up sere-grass slopes. I have seen it at night—red gashes zigzagging the black. Impossible that it cross ten lanes of freeway and take over settled, established, built city.
Behind me, my sister-in-law Cindy was chasing me at ninety miles per hour. My family believed that I didn’t know about the fire, and would drive into it, and not be able to find my way out on the altered, burning streets. Like all the Chinese members of our family, I have an instinct that left is right and vice versa. Too easily lost. Cindy, who is not Chinese but Arkie, ran out of gas at Tracy.
In a half-hour, halfway there, forty miles to go, I was speeding over the Altamont Pass (where there be ghosts and accidents; it is the ground upon which the stabbing happened at the Rolling Stones concert, after Woodstock), and through the windfarms. Some windmills turned, and some were still. Here the winds and all seemed normal; I had no evidence that hurricanes of fire were storming on the other side of these hills but for the radio. “Forty-five houses have gone up in flames.” “About a hundred homes.” “A hundred and fifty structures have burned.” The numbers would keep going up—nine hundred degrees, the temperature of molten lava; twenty-one hundred degrees, the temperature of kilns; thirty-five hundred houses. “Winds of forty-five miles per hour . . .” “. . . sixty-five-mile-per-hour firewind . . .” “. . . record heat and winds . . .” “Foehn winds.” “Northeast winds . . .” I would have to look up “foehn,” which sounds like “wind” in Chinese, as in “typhoon.” “The fire has jumped the junction of Highway Twenty-four and Highway Thirteen.” It’s blown over and through ten lanes. Ten lanes are not wide enough firebreak. It’s on our side of the freeway. “. . . dynamite College Avenue.” “. . . draw the line at College Avenue.” “. . . helicopters and available cropdusters chemical-drop the Claremont Hotel.” “If the Claremont Hotel goes, explodes, the fire will burn to the Bay.” “No cars have been trapped in the Caldecott Tunnel.” Once, a propane truck had exploded inside the tunnel—a giant flamethrower pointed at Oakland.
NO TANK TRUCKS
WITH HAZARDOUS MATERIALS
ALLOWED IN CALDECOTT TUNNEL
A police car was parked sideways across my exit, Broadway Terrace. I drove fast to the next exit, which was blocked by a Highway Patrol car and flares. They are setting up the roadblocks moments ahead of me, I thought. If only I had driven faster, I might have saved the book, and my mother’s jewelry, and my father’s watch, and his spectacles, which fit my eyes, and his draft card, which I had taken from his wallet. “This card is to be carried on your person at all times.” He carried it safely for over fifty years.
When I got off the freeway, I was somewhere in downtown Oakland, and driving too slowly through complicated traffic. It was the middle of the afternoon, about two o’clock. Too late. Too late. The sky was black. The sun was red. Leaves of burned black paper wafted high and low among the buildings. Ashes from a forest fire were falling and blowing in downtown Oakland.
In the middle of my U-turn, the radio said that Broadway and/or Broadway Terrace was on fire, and that there was looting on Ostrander Street. Parallel streets—big Broadway Terrace for cars, little Broadway Terrace for walking—eucalyptus and pine trees and apple trees between them—a tree-high, two-street-thick wall of flame. Mass fire. I said out loud, “No. No. No. No.” Ostrander is—was?—a one-way road through a small woods on a hill. On my walks to and from the Village Market, families of quail would surprise me. They walked ahead just so far, as if leading me, or as if I were giving chase, then took off running into the bushes, and flying up into the lower branches of the oaks and pines. Once, on Ostrander, I stood amazed at the center of a storm of birds—hundreds of robins, jays, and chickadees—flying touch-and-go, on and off treetops and roofs and grass, circling and crisscrossing singly and in schools, and never bumping into one another—better than the Blue Angels. I love looking out at Oakland and seeing a crane extend itself over the city. So—their flyway can sweep this far west, and they rest at Lake Merritt or Lake Anza or Temescal. Anne Frank saw cranes out the sky window. Another time, riding BART, as the train came up out of the Bay into Oakland, I saw twelve angels wheeling in the sun, rays of white wings and gold light. “Swans!” I said loudly; the other passengers had to see them too. “Look. Swans.”
It can’t be too late. All I want is a minute inside the house—run to the far end of the living room, to the alcove where my book is in a wine box, take one more breath, and run upstairs for the gold and jade that my ancestresses had been able to keep safe through wars in China and world wars and journeys across oceans and continents.
Where Broadway meets the start of College Avenue, at the California College of Arts and Crafts (where Wittman kissed Taña; but I’ll get to that), only a few feet from the sign pointing up to Broadway Terrace, the police were herding cars down and away to College Avenue. I stopped at the light, left the car, and ran over to talk them into letting me through. Even though the light turned green, the line of cars I’d blocked did not honk; nobody yelled. I wished for a hand gesture to communicate Sorry, to use in traffic situations. Sorry. Thank you. I asked a policeman, “Are you absolutely sure I can’t drive up there?” He answered that no cars were allowed past this point. I thought, May I go to my house on foot, then? I got back in the car, drove diagonally across the intersection, and parked in the red-curb stop for the College Avenue bus. The police shouldn’t write tickets on this terrible day. Twenty-eight dollars, worth it. Have mercy on this car that could very well have been left here by someone who had escaped the fire and was getting a drink of water, parking as close as she could to home.
I stood at the curb plotting how I was going to fade past the police, and got in step with an African American family with many children crossing the street. I told them I lived on Golden Gate Avenue and was trying to go up there; where did they live? They lived on Brookside, which winds around Golden Gate. I asked, “Were you officially evacuated? Has our area been officially evacuated yet?” They didn’t know, but they had been back to their house. The father said, “The police will escort you home if you tell them you have a life-and-death situation.” The mother said, “They drove us to our house.” I asked, “What was the life-and-death situation you told them?” “We couldn’t find our son. Our son was missing.” The kids, all about junior-high age, were smiling and safe; I couldn’t tell which was the one lost and now found. An unfinished book is nothing as important as a child. I told the family that I was trying to save the manuscript of a book I was writing. Said out loud in the open to actual people, who did not get excited, my plight did not seem to have enormity. “I’ve been working on it for years,” I said. About one and a half to two years of pure writing, not counting thinking and imagining. Is one and a half to two years much? It depends on which years. Didn’t Rilke write The Duino Elegies
in six months? Or was it six hours one wide-awake night? He did it about ten years before his death at fifty-one. The happy family and I wished each other Good luck and Take care.
While the policemen—the Oakland cops aren’t as big as during the Viet Nam demonstrations—were busy, I walked through the barricades into the defined fire area. Householders were staying, hosing down roofs and dry lawns. A flare of fire fell out of the sky and landed behind a man intent on watering his property. I motioned to him that he should look to his rear, but he stared at me as if I were a crazy woman, pointing at my own butt. I didn’t try to shout over the helicopters; they chopped up sound and the air, and whupped up heartbeats. Anyway, only now, as I write, am I coming up with words for the things that were making wild appearances and disappearances. That flame went out; another fell out of nowhere onto his roof. Even if he saw it, he couldn’t have reached it with the spray from his garden hose. I ran on.
I felt afraid when there was not a person in sight. I ran up the center of the street, between the houses, locked up tight. I wanted to run faster, through and out of this deserted place. But I was trying to breathe shallowly. The car radio had said that poison oak was burning; I coughed, thinking of breathing poison-oak smoke, which must blister lungs. The air smelled poisonous—toxic polymers, space-age plastics, petrochemicals, refrigerants, Freon, radon. I am breathing carcinogens, I will die of lung cancer. I held my long white hair as a filter over my nose and mouth and ran at a pace that allowed me to control my wind. I passed side streets without deciding to turn left into one. Many streets end in culs-de-sac, or loop around. I would lose time backtracking out. I wished for a photographic memory to recall the map of this area in the Thomas Guide
. But the Thomas Guide
only blurredly indicates the snarl of these streets, lanes, paths, and steps; they curl around boulders and oak trees and Lake Temescal and hills. From now on, wherever I live, I will pay attention to which streets go through exactly where. Pages of ash were floating high up, and also skimming along curbs. I did not stop to try to read them. Someone once told me about a child who lived at the time of the burning of a great library. He caught pages of burned paper, and read Latin words. At Margarido, a long, wide street, I turned left toward the heat and fire. I hoped that I would see again the enormous old ginkgo tree that fountains up and up—wings, gold, autumn. I passed a man and a woman leaving their house, and a homeowner on his rooftop wetting it down. None of them could answer me: whether or not this street was officially evacuated. I arrived at the edge of the golf course, which was lined by a row of eucalyptus trees. Their tops were on fire. This is crown fire, and flames jumped from tree to tree. I imagined myself running under the eucalyptus trees, but, before I reached the open field, the trees dropping fire on my head, and me exploding. More eucalyptus trees lined the other side. (My husband, who should be at my side helping me, would tease, You’re always afraid that things will explode. “ ‘Be careful,’ ” Earll mimics me. “ ‘Watch out. It’s going to explode.’ ” But I have seen and/or heard for myself the explosions of an automobile motor, a sewing-machine motor, my electric typewriter [a cat pissed in it], a toilet, mother spiders, tules. In Phoenix Park in Dublin, I made Earll get away before a dead cow, its big stomach expanding, blew up.) Eucalyptus trees have big wood-cells filled with eucalyptus oil. The bangs I was hearing were houses, cars, and trees blowing up. If I made it across the golf course (Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the hero of From Here to Eternity, was killed on a golf course), I would come out at the corner of Broadway Terrace and Ostrander, amidst the fire and the looters. I turned about. Is this retreat, then, and am I giving up on my book? I let the possibility that the book was gone—my book gone—enter my ken. I did not feel bad; I did not believe it was lost. I had not stopped trying to rescue it. The same men were still watering down their houses, which their wives and children must have evacuated. The sky was darker now, and the air hotter. The sun was ugly red. (“Ugly red” are Judy Foosaner’s words; she’s a painter, we’re “friends since girls.” She was down in the flatlands, and watched the cars exploding up on the hills. I’d thought until she said “ugly red” that to a painter all colors were beautiful.)
Gravity sped me downhill, back to crowds and industrial-strength buildings. I found my red car—no ticket—and drove down College to Chabot Road, which was barricaded. Chabot Road was my familiar turn home. It was not right that it be an impasse. I left the car there, surprised at the free parking. Again, I became invisible to the police, and walked for home. This way seemed almost normal. I should have come up these known streets in the first place. As always, there was a stillness at St. Albert’s College; either the monks had evacuated the seminary, or they were staying hidden. You hardly ever see them in the garden or out on the tennis courts anyway. The atmosphere feels full of prayer. The row of elm trees—grandmother tree, grandfather tree—stood unharmed. This was the first tree seen by me as a child, and is more magnificent each time I find another one. Some people call them Chinese elms, some call them American elms. Here was a stand of nine elms, here before I was here, and meant to outlast me. I do not remember touching them, each one, the elephant bark, the horned-toad bark, the crocogator bark, as I usually do; I must have rushed past. Their jigjag leaves were a strong green, though October was ending, and my fiftieth year was ending.
The strange shifting light—the winds were blowing the weather and the time of day crazily up and down the street—stilled at St. Albert’s and started up again at Chabot Elementary, shadows swinging across the asphalt and through the cyclone fences, backstop, and jungle-gym bars. Why do we raise children on ground barren of trees and grass? We are teaching them to endure a world like a cage, a jail.
Chabot Road tails up and off into hills and forests, and Golden Gate Avenue, my street, starts to its right. This corner—I am traveling northeast—is a natural border between man-built city and wildland. Flats and hills, chapparal and forest also meet here. All influenced by underground rivers, and by fault lines. The wind changes its blowing; the climate turns. At such a place, you enter and leave ecosystems. Leina-a-ka-‘uhane. I was at a border of the fire, the built city behind me, and ahead black ground. I walked onto it. I could disappear, I thought. If I had continued walking northeast, up the hill, I would’ve come to the place where the fire killed nineteen people. The slopes on either side of me had just burned. The ivy, dill, vetch, pampas plumes, and coyote bushes do not exist anymore, except in my mind.
I have been at controlled burns. Farmers weed fields by burning them down to fertile ash and black earth. The harvest fires in the cane fields run at you, and suddenly stop. The burning kansaa, the prairie grass of Kansas, smells like baking bread. The Forest Service clear-cuts trees, then napalms, then seeds. Storms of wildfire are as normal as timely rain. The reason for this fire is five years of drought.
Golden Gate, my street, begins with a small cement bridge marked “Narrow Bridge,” which goes under a steel bridge for the BART train. It’s a wonderful surprise when, overhead, up in the air, the train appears out of the trees. The Concord line was not running today, the radio had said. The girders were smoking. Were they usually this red? Was the bridge rusty, or red hot? I stood still and thought about whether I should go under it. The metal could melt or crumble, the loosened structure break apart, drop, and hit me on the head. I only worried for my head, had not a thought for other parts of my body. The head looks out for itself. I needed to see around a bend to look for my house. I didn’t see any houses on the other side of the bridges, but wasn’t sure if you ever could from here anyway. I threw myself straight forward, and felt the heat from above. I ran through a gigantic kiln, which has since recurred in nightmares: I am flying up into the hot ceiling, and can’t wake up. The concrete walls that support the trains and the freeways boxed me in. I was a long time under the BART rails, then under Highway 24 West, then Highway 24 East, then Broadway—immense wide slabs of concrete and steel that could fall and squash me entirely, like the Cypress Freeway, which “pancaked” thirty-five cars and the people inside them during the earthquake two Octobers ago.
I came out into a changed world. Its color had gone out. Its dimensions had stretched away here, shrunk there. New mountains and canyons vistaed as far as I could see. To my left, close beside me, a mountain appeared, terraced with streets on which burning cars sat on every level. To my right, below, opened a canyon; I could see its entire contours—a black, defoliated wedge. The canyon contains just the College Prep School, has held it from harm. Clean two-by-fours at roof angles poked up to the canyon’s rim, where I was standing. The frame of the gym or auditorium they were putting up had not burned; they could keep on building it. Suppose I were to go on, take myself farther into the fire scene—might I see my house, earn it, cause it to be, after all, there? What with the tricky distances, beyond the next turn could very well be my house. Walking in the center of the street, I stepped over power lines. I was entering a black, negative dimension, where things disappeared, and I might disappear. The only movement and color were flames. I sidestepped burning logs that had flown here; they must have been chunks from houses. The houses cast off logs before falling into ashes. Suddenly, I saw a whole two-story house with high-peaked roof—I have never seen this house before, not from this side; I was looking at it through invisible, gone houses—an enormous house standing squarely inside a flame. A red-orange diamond enhoused the house, the crystal within a crystal. So—a house can burn all at once, not simply be eaten away corner by corner.
I kept looking down at my feet to puzzle my way through the tangles of power lines, and looking up at a wavery, flickering, blinking scene. What I wanted to see, what used to be, popped in and out of sight, alternated with the real. The hot ground was reeking mirages that cheated the eye with blear illusions. A thing would appear—a chimney, an oldened wrought-iron gate, a ceramic pot—but it did not cue the next thing, the thing that should be attached to it (house, fence), to appear. Things were out of the order that was in my mind. Memory was off. If only I had paid better attention—I have to be more awake—I would not be losing the detailed world. One more bend, and yet one more bend, but my cedar-shake roof did not rise into sight.
I came upon and recognized a tiny white house with wood siding, which looked water-stained or chemical-stained. The poorest house in the neighborhood has survived. I hadn’t met its latest owners; it was always changing hands. This small house on a corner lot was affordable entry into our good neighborhood and the housing market. The houses to the side of it and in back of it were gone, and it now seemed to have a huge yard. Happiness rushed back and forth between it and me. The tiny house nicely fit its place in my mind, and gave me my bearings. My house, the next smallest, should be at the other end of this curving, winding block, with only the crest of the hill in the way.
A fireman was puttering with a long yellow fire truck, parked beside the stone retaining wall that held an upswooping street and a hillside of houses. I could not see if any houses were still up there. The fireman did not warn me from stepping through the mess of wires and cables and flat hoses, black serpents and white serpents that had fought, and lay slain. I tiptoed amongst them. Jackstraws—one touch, misstep, trip, and be zapped. I made it across the street—a wire did not wake up and jump me—to say Hi to the fireman. It takes this much upheaval for me to get over shyness. I thought of saying but didn’t say, “What a mess, huh?” or ask, “How’re things going? Is your truck broken? Where are the other firefighters? Do you know where the main fire is? Why are you here all by yourself?” He might feel embarrassed. I did not bother him with inquiry after my address either. We stood quiet together awhile. I asked, “Which direction did you come from?” He said, “It came down that way, very fast,” pointing northeast, up at the hills. “And blew back up, then down again from over there.” At my house. The firefighters had taken a stand at my intersection. The fire almost surrounded them, fire in back, then in front of them. They retreated to this rampart. We were standing at the wall of our devastated city. “We didn’t get water up here.”
The fireman did not stop me. I went on. A bicyclist got off his bicycle to walk alongside me. We hesitated at a maze and thicket of power lines, some piled waist-high and others dangling eye-high. Where to straddle over, where to limbo under? The street was webbed in knots and nets of lines. I remembered learning in Latin class that the triton-and-net was the most dangerous weapon, the one to choose for war games and war. In dreams where I try to fly, I am halted by electrical lines, which shoot ahead of me and cut off the free sky. Where had such a plethora of lines dropped from? Our utilities weren’t buried underground, but the sky had never seemed hatchmarked and crisscrossed. Through the knot, I saw Mrs. Fessler’s Karmann Ghia. Its paint had been seared from red to white. Tears of melted glass hung from the windows, the eyeholes of a baboon skull. Cables draped like black hair over its low forehead and weeping eyes; the interior was a black hollow. The tires were gone, burned off. Where is Mrs. Fessler? She is all right, please. She was at church; or her son came for her, and they drove off in his car. The simmering ground was flat, no mound of ashes that could be a small human body. There—another recognizable house: the house-in-the-gully—how many lots away from mine is it?—crouched under the flames, and had made it, alive. So—firewinds blow over the top of the earth. You can see why people lived in tunnels in Viet Nam and Okinawa. (But months ago we bulldozed the desert sand into the trenches, and buried Iraqi soldiers alive. I had read an impossi- ble number—seventy thousand. “A turkey shoot.”)
The fire had reached from the foot to the armpits of the phone poles; crossbars were hanging by a burning arm. Atop its white metal flagpole, higher than the utility poles and away from trees, on a mound in a clearing, was the American flag, limp and singed, but still there. Its primary colors (which don’t occur much in nature) had dulled, scorched in the dark air. The wind stopped; I might have been in the eye of its swirl.
I have ambivalence about the Flag. It is a battle flag, a war flag, and I don’t like being patriotically roused and led to war. The Red, White, and Blue stands for competition and nationalism. I want it to stand for peace and cooperation. I get scared of my fellow Americans’ going crazy as it waves. Because of that dramatic unburned American flag, our part of the fire would keep appearing in the news. A CNN reporter called our area a “picturesque burnscape.” A reporter for a college paper interviewed me, and translated my burbling: “So, you saw the Flag, and realized that you transcended the fire.” I was dismayed—he was a writer, yet locked inside the Flag symbol: You have the Flag, you win.
I did not have a sudden moment of knowing that my house and all that was in it were no more. I stood there reasoning, If I can see that flag from here, then I am also looking through the place where my house was. I was laying eyes on it without registering which piece of blackened land amidst all this blackened land was exactly my piece. The landscape was utterly changed. I had come to the ash moon of a planet that passes through the sun.
I had flown a flag too, a white dove on a sky-blue silk field, UN colors plus orange beak, green leaves, brown branch, brown eye. I appliquéd and embroidered two peace flags at the beginning of my country’s continuing war against Iraq, and hung one out the upstairs front window, the other out the side, toward the peaceful neighbor, to hearten her. Christina Simoni was the only other neighbor who put up peace signs, made on her home computer: across the top of the picture window, every soldier is somebody’s son; and across the bottom, or daughter. She was answering President Bush, who made a speech—“our boys”? “our sons”? “our side”?—that didn’t make sense, wasn’t true, so I forget it. He kept ejaculating, “Euphoria!” On another day of our country’s mad fit, Christina hand-lettered a new poster—war is not an energy policy. We were two households with such ideas, amidst neighbors who tied the trees and poles and gates with yellow ribbons. The giant eucalyptus tree at our crossroads was tied. Some middle of the night, it was untied (not by me), and never retied.
My Book of Peace is gone.
Suddenly, I felt rushing at me—this fire movie is about to run in reverse; smoky ghosts will hurry backward into rising houses and trees, refill them, and pull them upright—I felt coming into me—oh, but here all along inside chest and stomach and all around me and out of the smoking ground—Idea. Idea has weight and life; I can feel it. Ideas are pervious to firebombs, which shoot through them without harming them. Americans own too many things. I can feel Idea because I am thingless, and because of my education, thinking, reading, meditation. I heard the monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh say the Five Wonderful Precepts, which are the moral foundation of Buddhism. Having ethics, even intentions and aspirations, turns you in the right direction, toward some lasting idea about good. I am a manifestation of Idea, food that makes blood, bones, muscles, body, self. I stood alive in the fire, and felt ideas pour into me.
I know why this fire. God is showing us Iraq. It is wrong to kill, and refuse to look at what we’ve done. (Count the children killed, in “sanctions”: 150,000, 360,000, 750,000. “Collateral damage.” The counts go up with each new report. We killed more children than soldiers. Some of the children were soldiers.) For refusing to be conscious of the suffering we caused—the camera-eye on the bomb went out as it hit the door or roof at the center of the crosshairs—no journalists allowed, no witnesses—we are given this sight of our city in ashes. God is teaching us, showing us this scene that is like war.
I’m not crazy; I’m not unpatriotic. People who’ve been there, who saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the A-bombs, the Ong Plain and Hu´ê after the firefights, compared our fire to war. Oakland Fire Captain Ray Gatchalian, Asian American, Green Beret, Viet Nam vet, Panama vet, said, “When I went up in the helicopter the day after the fire, I couldn’t even film, I was so stunned. You have to remember, I went to Mexico City after the earthquake where hundreds and thousands of people were displaced, but when you see your own environment, people you know, whose homes were burned to the ground, I was stunned, in total shock. That day, one house burned every five seconds. Seeing it the next morning, it brought me back to the shock and horror of Vietnam. When I looked down on the devastation that day, I thought what an opportunity this would be to bring busloads of people and busloads of children and tell them when we, as a country, decide to go to war against somebody, this is what we are going to get. When we decide to send our military and our bombs into a country, this is what we’re deciding to do.”
My Book of Peace is gone. And my father is gone. Fatherless. And thingless. But not Idea-less.
Copyright © 2004 by Maxine Hong Kingston. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.