When the lights went out, a soft silence settled
over everything like fine, heavy ash.
We stopped talking, newly aware of the candles
lit on the table, the edge of everything
blurred in a way that felt beautiful.
We turned off our phones to conserve the charge
—that was before the towers went down—
and then we looked up from them
into each other’s face. We had not looked before,
not that night. The candlelight
cast different shadows, sculpting ridges and planes
we had not known were there.
Small sounds became acute: a faucet plinking
somewhere, crickets, calls of owls.
We lowered our voices, exposed in darkness
in a way we were never exposed
in the light. Is it wishful thinking to remember
we were kinder with each other then?
There was fear, yes, elemental fear, mineral fear
of the dark and the fire raging 30 miles
to the north. There was fear of showing our fear,
and of showing a certain lack of gratitude
that things were not yet quite dire.
There was the car’s gas-tank on empty
and the go-bag not yet packed, the single corridor
out of Marin already unspooling
its long red Mylar ribbon of taillights
and above them, the stars we’d forgotten,
usually masked by the streetlights
but tonight bright, cold, unperturbed, still there
throwing fire at our eyes from lightyears away.
How funny, to measure distance with time.
Or maybe, not funny at all: it takes five minutes
to make the freeway in no traffic, an hour
or more during rush hour to get out of Marin,
the precise distance between life and death,
or was for the cars caught in the hell
called Paradise, sparks arcing like sequins
across windshields, steering wheels too hot
to touch, flames walling both sides.
Some people died in their cars, or running
from them, or in their beds or barns
letting the livestock out. Moments before, maybe
sitting at a table like this in the new dark,
looking around at each other in wonder,
seeing something new, and listening, really listening.
I wrote this after the terrible Paradise wildfire in CA in 2018, and it
won the 2020 Pablo Neruda prize.