For the first few months after he married our Mother, Step-Father spent most of his time clearing away the forest trees that surrounded our house.
“The homestead,” he called it. We’d never called it that before.
He cleared the trees, he said, because the forest that stretched as far as I could see from my upstairs windows was dry and dying, full of old trees that might catch flame at any moment.
“These trees close to our house,” he told me as we looked out my window together, “will carry fire right to our roof. And we don’t want that.” He put his hand on my shoulder but kept his fist closed. “I want to give us breathing space. I want to make us safe—you, your mother, and your brothers and sisters.”
“Be quiet now, daughter.” He emphasized that last word, as he always did when the discussion was closed. I knew enough already to obey.
As he cleared the land, he also took down the torch adorning the top of our house, the one lit at night that would guide us back from our adventures in the forest.
“Don’t need it anymore,” he said to Mother the day he took it down. “We know where we live. If you can’t find your way back from the forest without the torch, don’t go out there.” She took the torch from him without a word and put it in the closet of the room they shared.
Over the next few months I watched as he removed more trees all around the house—those that cooled the east side of the house in the morning, the west side near dusk; those on the north and south that glistened with ice in the winter and dewy buds in the spring. I was born in this house, and had spent all my years here watching the trees grow, running through these trunks closest to us. Never had there been such a divide between “our trees,” those whose branches caressed our walls and roof, and the trees of the forest, whose branches had intertwined with ours. After a few months, a wide swath of bare, muddy ground lay between our house and the distant trees.
My mother and the rest of us were left to cower each day in the sun-glared rooms while Step-Father walked around outside, haphazardly planting grass seed or staring off into the forest. We didn’t go outside anymore, especially at night. Our house felt smaller in the wide-open space. Time passed slowly.
One winter night we were all jolted from sleep by someone pounding on our front door.
“Fire! Please open up!”
Step-Father told us all to stay put and be quiet. Then he went downstairs to answer the door. The only disobedient one, I crept from my room and listened from the landing. I could see Step-Father with his hand still on the doorknob. Frosty air from the half-opened door climbed the stairs and wrapped itself like fingers around my ankles.
“The forest is on fire!” a man on the porch said between gulps of air. “Our homes in the forest are burning. Please, can you help us? May my wife and children and I come in?”
Step-Father stood with his body blocking any entrance. The frosty air steamed around him.
“I’m afraid not,” he told the man. “Did you start that fire out there? You might have. You probably did. And you might bring it with you here. Please understand. I must protect my wife and her children. God be with you.” And he closed the door.
I turned and tiptoed quietly to my room, to my window. I could see the fire blazing in the distance. Between our house and the trees, shadows moved, dark shapes huddling together at the edges of the forest, perhaps seeking warmth from the spreading fire. A few straggled toward our house. Others, perhaps including the man who had just spoken to Step-Father with his family, trudged away.
Step-Father came back upstairs and stood in the dim, candlelit hallway for a moment, perhaps lost in thought. Then he entered the bedroom where Mother waited. I left my door cracked.
“Woman,” he said, “I need the torch.” I heard her moving through the dark room. He came out a minute later with the torch alight, its flame lending a wavering orange hue to the determined look on his face. I hid back in the shadows as he walked past, but somehow he knew I was there.
“Lie down and be quiet,” he said as he walked past. The torch crackled.
I heard him pull down the attic ladder from the ceiling near the end of the hallway. He was going to the roof. And I was determined to follow.
A moment of optimism, maybe pride, came as I stood at the foot of the ladder and listened for his footsteps across our roof. Perhaps he regretted turning the man and his family away. With a growing sense of warmth in my chest, I hoped he was going to the roof to replace the torch—our beacon to those huddling in the dark, those escaping the forest fire, so they could once again find the way to our house. I imagined the sounds of voices in the many spare rooms of our home, the coming and going at all hours of walking parents and running children, the wood of our hallways and stairs creaking under the weight of so many feet.
With those images in mind I followed Step-Father up the ladder and out through the door that opened onto the least-slanted part of our roof. The old cedar shingles felt frozen against my bare feet, but I did not mind. Step-Father was standing at the high point of our roof with the torch raised above his head. I looked in the distance and saw those in the shadows slowly coming toward us. Occasionally Step-Father waved the torch back and forth. It was a lovely vision. I spoke, unable to contain that warmth in my chest.
“Are you calling them toward the house?”
“I told you to lie down and be quiet,” he said. “You children and your mother, you talk too much.” He turned away and looked out into the darkness, slowly turning in all directions. “I’m using this torch so I can see who’s coming, so I can wave them away.”
The shadows retreated in the distance. In silence, I watched him wave the torch for another moment before I realized how cold I was. My feet had grown numb on the shingles and my lungs shivered. Just as I stepped toward the door, he waved the torch more violently. A few burning embers fell from the torch and landed on the cedar. The small ones fizzled away, but the larger embers landed and stuck, smoldering.
“Step-Father.” I pointed at the embers. He glared down at my face, the torch fire reflecting bright in his eyes. “I told you to be quiet, daughter.” Then he looked away into the dark. He did not see the embers igniting.
I left him there and climbed back down the ladder. I headed for Mother’s room, where I found my sisters and brothers already huddled with her. She stared out the window like a statue.
“We must leave,” I said. “Step-Father is burning the roof but doesn’t seem to know it.”
Mother shook her head. “Light candles and place them in all the downstairs windows. They will be miniature torches, lighting the way here. He never goes into those lower rooms, so he won’t see them.” She turned from the window and caressed my cheek. “And leave some of the windows open in case anyone needs to come in. It is what we can do now.”
“But the fire,” I said.
She nodded. “Hurry and place the candles. There isn’t much time.”