Looking for the Phoenix
Between the humid and breezeless hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, July 15, our 24’ x 48’ pole barn burned.
We slept through the red-orange flames eating every inch of wood framing and trusses, the sounds of shattering glass as the side windows exploded, the melting of Rubbermaid totes that held camping gear and bundles of magazines, the acrid smell of plastic electric fence insulators surrendering to the intense heat.
And we didn’t hear the last soft, short peeps of 35 chicks that Patrick picked up at the post office the Friday before, tucked into their brooding pen for the night. Forget about the other stuff we no longer have. It’s that image I cannot bear.
I tended to my morning routine as I usually do: wake up around 5:00 (seriously, it’s my body’s clock, and there’s no ignoring it), straighten the living room, wash the previous night's dishes, and go check the rabbits' water and food. With the delivery of our next round of meat chicks—Rainbow Rangers this time—I would naturally expand my morning chores to include checking their water and feed, stooping to gently scoop a couple of them into my hands, saying good morning and then resting my palm flat as each one decided whether to hop back into the pen with the others, or stand on their tiny new legs, surveying the pellet-floored landscape from a perch two inches above their peers.
But not this morning. As I made my way down the path behind the house and turned the corner where a stand of cherry saplings and pokeberry stalks jutted out just past Patrick’s wood-turning shed, I saw the remains of the metal siding, buckled from the heat and leaning inward, and swaths of blackened grass stretching 15 feet on each side. Random still-smoldering “hot spots” sent wisps of smoke upward where the wood-framed trussed ceiling used to be, beyond the spine of the metal roof that now dipped toward the dirt and ash-covered ground below. A willow and a sycamore framed the doors of the south entrance, and now stood charred, their leaves crisp and black, waiting for a non-existent breeze to carry them to the ground.
Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Over and over, my vocabulary limited by a filter of shock. The magnitude of the scene filled my every sense, and I just stood, unable to register what had happened.
Then, Patrick. Must tell Patrick. NOW.
Barefoot, I ran back to the house, my feet covered in wet, dew-drenched clippings (he had cut the grass Saturday). Just because this is how my mind was working at the moment, I wrenched open the mudroom door, and looked for a rag to brush the wet grass off of my feet first before walking through the living room and then upstairs. I didn’t want to leave a trail I’d have to clean up later. Irrational thought can sometimes hold the gift of practicality in its hands.
Out of breath by the time I reached my still-sleeping husband, I knelt gently on the edge of the bed, his back to me, and touched his shoulder. “Good morning, sweetheart”, I trembled, “I’ve got something shocking to tell you”.
I’ll remember the look on his face for quite some time, as he turned the same corner I did on the path, past the stand of cherry saplings and pokeweed stalks, and saw…
Then, a flurry of movement—9-1-1 calls, pacing back and forth from the front porch to the kitchen for coffee, out back again to stand in disbelief before a middle-of-the-night story that had written its own ending, listening as the wailing strains of volunteer fire department sirens drew closer and sounded like they were right in our driveway. They were.
Our good and trained neighbors put out the remaining hot spots, and marked their paperwork with “cause undetermined”. We'd made previous plans to visit with friends that day for lunch two hours away, and decided that, with the scene declared safe, we could leave. A little windshield discussion time would be good trauma therapy.
But my mind stayed fixed on the image of those chicks, and the growing reality that I didn’t truly know, immediately, everything that we stored in that barn. It would be several days before our list was drawn up and comprehensive, and a few more conversations interrupted with "you know what else we had in there...". I felt the “filthy” part of “filthy rich” in a humiliating way. To have so much stuff that it took days to remember and list it all...
It’s two weeks to the day, and I walk past the scorched ground and dangling metal on my way out to the woods. It still renders even my inner voice silent, and the full image rests uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach. How could we have slept through this? Then more questions surge forward: How could two people accumulate so much stuff that has so little to do with their every day survival needs? Why didn't the dry grass catch fire and burn more of the field and the trees on the meadow ridge? Can we still use those blackened t-posts? Was our tipi liner stored in there? (yes, it was). Where did the tires on the riding mower go? And the tiller? Is that the leaf blower? Wow.
Change, in any form, slides along a continuum of refreshing to shocking in its impact. We've been living more on the shocking end these past two weeks, as items we knew and used no longer look like they did (if they were metal), and others are simply gone. Yes, we were raising the chicks to eventually harvest and eat them, so death was on their calendar, like it is on every living thing's calendar. But not like this. We'll never know exactly how it started, or how many other living things succumbed to the licking flames. 35 chicks and two trees. At least. Sudden loss of life, any life, is hard.
Put this where you will in the magical thinking part of your mind, but at dinner the night before, I had just mentioned to Patrick that I was looking forward to cleaning out that barn as a great project on a cool, sunny autumn day. I imagined myself sorting and organizing (it brings me such peace), and reorienting the barn's purpose toward next year's chicken enterprise, making it easier to access our gardening equipment, and creating a place to work on thrift store furniture finds that begged to be re-purposed. The unseen, unheard fire did my work for me, and in less time than it would have taken me, I'm certain. Underneath the lingering shock was a small and weird glimmer of gratitude.
I wonder what that area of land will look like, once the remains have been pulled down, the nails and metal truss brackets pulled from the ashes with an industrial-sized magnet, and the rest back-hoed into the tolerant soil. It's been nearly ten years since anything blocked our view of the field to the north. Over the years, silently and steadily, behind the skeletal sagging remnants of that once-proud barn, a new landscape has been emerging from the old seventeen-acre corn and soybean field. Fast-growing sycamores and black walnut trees, alongside vast thickets of blackberries, ironweed, and nettles, fill in the space easily and without boundaries. In a matter of hours, in the dark of night, we re-gained 1152 square feet of visible field and sky.
We will most likely rebuild, but it won't happen overnight (creation and destruction live on opposite ends of the reality spectrum). In the meantime, a simple haiku I heard in college gently and profoundly floats to the surface.
Since my house burned down
I now have a better view
Of the rising sun.