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When I burned the inside of my middle finger on the steel-iron stovetop in my kitchen last Tuesday, my baby hair sizzled in the purple-blue light, and I thought, almost instantly, of my father. I heard his voice in my head; lucid, like soft thunder: “Doodle. I’m heading out.”
I open my eyes to find the soft curve of my ceiling blending into my closet, my father’s eyes just below. I wonder, in this moment, if he built it to look this way on purpose. “Where?” I say as I stretch.
“There was a fire at Wolf Gap.” He stands from my side, his hunting boots squeaking in the dark. I imagine him minutes earlier tying them on the side of his bed, his eyes creasing at the corners, his lips drawn tight like a shoelace. “I’m just going to help out.” He backs out of my room, closing the door.
This most recent burn is small, already stretching pink like a caterpillar of raw skin between my knuckles. I cross the tile to the bathroom and sift under the sink for a bandage.
Heeding my father’s instructions, I hear, once again, his Jupiter-like voice as if he’s standing beside me now holding my palm under the running water.
“Not cold. Warm. Cold water on a burn like this will damage the nerves and you’ll scar. Do you understand?” He wraps my eight-year-old finger in cloth, sticky with astringent, and adheres it to my skin with soft tape. “From now on, how about you wait until your mother is awake to use the burner.” He lifts me off the sink top.
“Why do you say your mother like that, like you don’t know her?” I ask.
He is dressed for work. He has shaved the weekend from his face with a silver blade and wears a tricky smile, perhaps already having said goodbye to me in his head. It’s still a dark morning. Cold, Monday light creeps into the bathroom, and we both look out the window at the red cardinal on the feeder, chirping.
“I’ve got an early flight, Doodle.” He checks his wristwatch. “Feed the horses and leave them in their stalls for the week, okay? It’s gonna be a cold one.” He winks at me.
Heading west, he beeps the horn at the bay laurel just past the property line, and after he’s disappeared into the crest of a new week, I crawl into his bed, next to my mother, and study my swathe.
I fall back asleep and have a dream that he and I sit inside the barn in the early morning while he wraps what looks like a human heart in layers of gauze.
Years after I wake up I will remember putting my hands on his face and pressing my bones hard into his bones, hoping to get so close that I would become him.
I will remember asking him, as he tried to teach me how to fire my first shotgun, if the recoil would hurt me. At this, he crossed his arms, a small smile pulling the lines on his lips tight. He ran his hand over the top of his head, considering my question.
He never said, “Yes, it will hurt you. Yes, it might surprise you, or change your mind about some things.” He never said, “The kick? Don’t think about that, just focus on your aim.” But I recognized the thought in him, shifting like the splint in his left ankle and haunting him in the woods each morning and in his sleep each night.
Instead, he took back the .22 and said, “We’ll try another day.”
Satisfied with this response, we headed back to the house and he held my hand as we walked through the yard together.
One morning, before he left for work, he showed me how to water his plants. His Italian cognac shoes looked out of place in the dirt as he tended to the bleeding hearts around the pond, his two worlds slow-danced with one another. He held the base of the spout away from his gold-threaded suit, and I sat watching him in the glade. I revelled in his secret music. No one could see him like I could: We were always hidden from the rest.
Our time waned. Now, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish my memories of my father from my dreams of him. In any case, he is always much taller than me, built like Apollo. Crows fly around us, a syrupy lightning storm brews in the early, pitch-black morning. “Heat lightning,” he whispers now, holding the well-watered world in his hands. “Heat lightning,” I whisper back.
I wake up in college, cold. Far away from the heat of my father. Far from his Arizona hands, his silver crossbows, and the smell of his cigars. I look at the place on my palm that he once covered. The burn is long gone. Still, our hands once lived in the same house; were once so close that they were, perhaps, one set of hands, attached to one body.
I wish to return to that clearing again sometimes, to fire the Remington into the trees, and to hear it echo in his step. To burn myself on the heat of a gun, to make the proof of him visible in a scar.
The night Wolf Gap caught fire, my father was the first to know. I dressed quickly in the dark and followed him like a shadow to the side of the house where he was already climbing into his truck. The night settled around my eyes. “I’m coming with you!” I yelled from the porch.
He crank-rolled his window down and shook his head. Sometimes I can still see his eyes through the dark, as blue as stars. He didn’t need to yell; his voice was loud enough to reach me, even still, shroomed with the cadence of a gale.
“No, you’re not. It’s not gonna be fun, I’m just going to make sure it doesn’t get any bigger, that’s all.”
He closes his door and peels up the drive, heading into the heart of our burning mountain.
I retreat to the front porch and sit in my father’s rocking chair. On the side table next to me lies his ashtray, with one half-smoked Madura perched in the divot. I move it to my mouth and pretend that it’s lit.
I can’t see or smell the fire from our home, but I imagine what it looks like when my eyes are closed. I drift off in his imprint and have a dream that he comes home and wakes me to see the world burn with him. We fly to Wolf Gap in his golden chariot, and when we get there, he holds my hand and leads me into the campground.
He stares into this forest fire in the same way one might stare into a mirror. He is searching for something – a clue, maybe? A hand to pull him through the flame? His gaze shifts to mine, and I smile at him, expectantly.
The fire swells around us in a smoky brume, but we don’t struggle for air. We stay like this forever, looking at each other in the crimson dark.
Our eyes are locked in time, and nothing breaks our view. We don’t look away.
We don’t even blink.