Scar on the Mountain

Jenny's first instinct in the morning is to reach out and feel his side of the bed. Phil's not there, of course. It's too soon to expect him home.

There's still the mop-up phase—several more days during which he'll work to ensure no smoldering log remains. She'd known that last night when they'd downgraded the fire from contained to controlled. Nevertheless, the announcement had given her some peace and allowed her to fall asleep.

She hadn't slept soundly—alone on the cold muslin sheets—and she won't, not until Phil is back and cuddled next to her. This is her part of their compromise.

She knows he's careful, but the safety protocols do little to reassure her. Even with lookouts, communications, escape routes, and safety zones in place, fire is a dangerous mistress.

Three years ago when tragedy struck down in Arizona, he'd been three states away, fighting fire up in Montana. Yet she couldn't help but imagine him among the nineteen lives claimed on Yarnell Hill. The mental image of those firefighters hunkered down in their portable fire shelters as the flames overtook them… it haunts her.

So she'd finally summoned her courage and given him an ultimatum: his career as a smokejumper or her. At the time, she'd thought her demand might break them apart, but she hadn't been able to live with the fear and uncertainty anymore. Perhaps it was her insecurity—or perhaps she had come to realize how seductive the job could be—but she had been unsure which he would choose.

Theirs wouldn't have been the first marriage broken apart by fire.

Phil had chosen her, though, and they had compromised: he'd resigned as a smokejumper and signed on with the Forest Service instead. He still fights local fires—like the one he's on now—but she feels more at ease with him close by. And most of the fires he fights now are smaller ones, lessening the risk of burnovers and entrapments—at least in her mind.

During the first fire season following Phil's resignation, she had seen the restlessness in him: how he watched the news with intensity every time wildfires made the national headlines and how he paused and listened each time his scanner crackled and garbled. For him, the adrenaline rush of firefighting—the allure of challenging the beast on its own turf—rivaled any drug. But the compromise held, and by the second fire season they'd fallen into a rhythm.

In comparison to other couples she knows, they have a good marriage. The thought has her smiling as she plucks her glasses off the nightstand and glances blearily at the clock. She's overslept, but she's glad for the extra thirty minutes rest after days on end of tension and worry.

The doorbell startles her. Who would be at the door so early in the morning? She stumbles into some clothes and narrowly avoids careening into furniture as she hurries to the door. If it's salesmen or Jehovah's Witnesses, she's going to give them a piece of her mind.

It's not salesmen. And it's not Jehovah's Witnesses. The doorknob freezes under her hand as she peers through the beveled glass of the door.

Two men in Forest Service uniforms can only mean one thing. Her legs are wooden as she opens the door and ushers them in to sit on the living room furniture, as though they are about to have tea rather than break her heart.

Maybe there's some other explanation for why they're here… maybe he's just injured.

Her mind refuses to focus and dances back in time. She'd been a young teacher on a field trip with her students when they met—Phil's passion for forestry as attractive to her as the playful smile she couldn't help but return. He'd already been a wildland firefighter at the time, and she'd tried to accept that piece of him.

Dragging herself back to the present, she focuses on the older man's scar. It curves around his cheek and down his neck. She wonders how he got it. She'd met him at some Forest Service function once but can't remember his name, and she wasn't listening when they introduced themselves just now.

The two Forest Service officials have to explain what happened three times. A snag—a hazard tree as they're known—had fallen unexpectedly, and Phil had been trapped beneath it. The rest of the crew had gotten him out as quickly as they could and maneuvered him onto a backboard, but he'd never regained consciousness.

She should be feeling something, yelling, screaming. Why isn't she sobbing? But she can't feel anything. Not yet.

The next few weeks pass in a blur. People move in and out of her awareness like shadows. Everyone is supportive, making sure she's not alone and bringing meals. She used to love lasagna—she'll never eat it again.

After the service, she sends them away, saying she needs to be alone, and finally the sobs come. It feels like something is being torn loose inside her.

Frequently, she wakes with the barest memory of a dream. Sometimes she knows she's been looking for something—looking everywhere but unable to find it. Or she wakes with the recollection of arguing with Phil in her dream, but can't remember what the fight was about.

She draws the curtains, shutting out the mountain with its ugly, black scar where once a proud forest stood.

Her days are filled with endless red tape as she files for his death certificate and applies for death benefits. The fine print and bureaucratic hoops would have baffled her on the best of days—and these are far from the best of days.

Winter snows dust the mountain, turning its blackened scar white. It stands out in stark relief against the still-green trees rimming its ragged edges. She contemplates moving away. Would the ache in her heart diminish if the mountain weren't leering down at her?

She blames herself. Why did she insist on his transfer? Why didn't she make him quit altogether? She's mad at Phil too—which in turn brings more guilt. How can she be mad at him when he's dead?

She packs Phil's clothing to be donated. She pulls an old shirt close and inhales. Maybe it's her imagination or maybe the unique scent of him still lingers.

A year crawls by, and the house is too quiet. The deluge of support has ebbed, replaced with the awkwardness of friends who don't know what to say. She gets it; nothing can be said to diminish her loss.

In fact, some of the well-intended platitudes wound her, though she won't show it. "It must have been God's will," they say. Or, "At least he died doing what he loved." As if they wish to confirm her secret fear that maybe he loved firefighting more than her. But the one that makes her livid is, "It's time to get back on the horse—you're still young and good-looking." As if her choice to remain single has anything to do with her age or looks.

Yes, she knows her biological clock is ticking. They'd talked about having kids, but it had always been their kids. She doesn't want another man, and she doesn't want another man's children.

She wants Phil.

Two years. It doesn't seem possible it's been that long. At the same time, it feels as if it's been forever. She brushes her hand across the soft petals of the flowers she's brought to commemorate the second anniversary of the worst day of her life.

She's adopted a dog, and his graying muzzle pokes about searching for squirrels as she kneels in prayer. Spring rains have left the ground damp, and moisture seeps through her clothes. She opens her eyes when she is finished.

The blackened stumps still stand, pointing their gnarled limbs up to the sky, but the groundcover and brush are coming in thick, tinging the mountainside green. Eventually, over the course of years, new trees will mature to replace those burned in the fire. Erosion is evident and the land may never be exactly the same, but it's recovering.

That's the nature of scars, she thinks, as she gazes at the place where Phil lost his life. They may irrevocably change the surface contours, but ultimately, scars represent healing.

Phil—ever the ecologist—would have liked the metaphor.

She will never be the same. The marks left on her soul are much too deep for that. But interest in life is rekindling inside her like green shoots breaking through ash. She's started hiking again and has volunteered with an advocacy group. That doesn't mean she's forgotten or that she's ready to date again, but it does mean the nightmares have faded and she no longer reaches for his side of the bed when she wakes.

Because—like the scar on the mountain—she is healing day by day.

Thanks for reading. This story is dedicated to the wildland firefighters and their families.

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