Her name was Vikki. She was fifty-four years old. She lived alone in a little house on our hill. Her house was so reticent and mossy and shouldered by brooding trees that you didn’t notice it from the street. She had two cats. She never married. Had no children. Was a bookkeeper, but when she was laid off, she never got another job-and never really came out of her house again.
We neighbors were discreet or cold or shy or ignorant or polite or distracted or respectful or whatever word fits the fact that we didn’t know her and she didn’t know us, which was, as one neighbor said, the way she wanted it.
Then, not long ago, her house burned to the ground with her inside. The flames rose twenty feet high and the long fingers of the brooding trees caught fire too and firemen sprinted and shouted and ambulances and fire engines and cop cars roared up and down the street and children wept and the adjacent houses were evacuated and the young woman in the house next to ours ran by me weeping with her two children cradled in her arms like footballs and a young policeman came to my door to warn us and I packed a box of photographs and passports and Important Papers and got ready to wake the children-but then the young policeman came by again and said the fire was under control though the house was a total loss.
She died from the smoke, said the fire marshal. One cat burned also. The cat was in the living room. The fire started in the kitchen. We put a lot of water on the kitchen. That was the seed of the fire. Then it traveled into the attic and then it moved fast through the house. We put six thousand gallons of water on it. We had forty-two men there. Guys came from six towns around to help. We had five men on it until dawn. The roof fell in finally.
Twenty years we were neighbors and I hardly knew her at all, said the neighbor next door. But that’s how she wanted it. She’d do her shopping early in the morning so as not to talk to people. I don’t know what she was running from. She was good at her job. She liked wind chimes and wind socks and wine and television and cats and dogs and cigarettes and the daily newspaper. One time she had eight cats and two dogs. She planted roses and hydrangeas but, after she lost her job, she stopped tending to the flowers and her trees got all ragged. She stopped eating and she got skinnier and skinnier. She was just drinking water. I tried to bring her food but it was no use. She said that nothing tasted good. She was some kind of ill. She started opening her drapes later in the morning and closing them earlier in the evening. She canceled the daily paper and just got the Sunday paper and then came the fire.
After I talked to the neighbor, I went and stood by Vikki’s fence. The roses were in riotous bloom. The ash was everywhere. Some of the ash was Vikki and some was her cat. After the fire, it rained for days. Ash washed into the river and down to the sea. Sadness is a tide in each of us. Her hawthorn trees are high and wild and lap at the eaves of the charred house.
Once, long ago, the native people who lived on our hill used hawthorn ash to make face paint for dances to drive away their sadness. They would make a vast fire and whirl around it all night long, and in the morning when they washed the ashes from their faces, they were clean and new. Their sadness had died in the fire.