In those lines where we all line up, this time for the free and needful things at the Salvation Army’s Airport Supermarket (No charge.) we all talked about the rains; the rains that were forecast, the rains we hoped to have; the rains that when they come, even if they come in this very instant, come far too late this year; far too late for all of us.
The grandmother with the thousand yard stare who stood next to me wanted rain, wanted it badly. “It’ll put the fires out. Finally. Forecast to be a real soaking rain, a real soaker I heard,” she said as she snagged the escaping toddler among her seven grandchildren. She’d been working in the post office in Paradise, left it almost too late, got home and scooped up her grandchildren and, “My six Yorkies. Rounded them up and put them the van with the kids. Off we went. The fire was starting to surround us. All the kids were quiet but the Yorkies just yapped and yipped all the way out. We have to have that rain. We just have to have it. It’s going to be a soaker.”
She and her older children lost five houses between them. All were burned out. All were saved. Her son, a solid man with an even and determined look, came over and agreed about the rain. “I’m buying an RV and I’m going to park it right next to the foundation of my house. Get a generator and some chain link fencing. You should too, mom.” She was off scooping up her escaping toddler while the son’s wife secured a daughter who was trying to escape from her stroller. “Better rain. Better rain soon.”
As we waited in the line and silently prayed for rain, a strange thing began to happen to Chico. The smoke began to lift. The air began to clear. Some blue. S0me clear blue began to appear. And then, for the first time since the immolation of Paradise (How many days was it? Was it yesterday, or last week, or before.) it was a beautiful autumn day in Chico. Somewhere off to the south, and off to the east, the Camp Fire continued to burn but all that was previous, previous.
The air was still bad, of course. The air was still full of soot and toxins and all the hundreds of things given off from the burning of the corpse of Paradise, but here and now down in the valley it seemed clear and we heard the rains were coming. It was a beautiful day with the rains on the way. That was the forecast for Chico and a lot of the masks, the white smoke masks, came off.
I left the Salvation Army Everything Free Supermarket after getting some needful things and called my mother’s doctor. My mother had been housebound by the smoke for days and she hadn’t had a flu shot. And this year, of all the years of her life, she needed a flu shot. She’d survived The 1918 influenza pandemic and didn’t need to press her luck again 100 years later. I called her doctor and got an immediate appointment. We went to the office and they took her in immediately. In the reception area, the nurses were all talking about the rain. Hoping for the rain. Praying for the rain.
When we left we took some extra time to drive down the central boulevard of Chico, the Esplanade. We drove slowly on this most extraordinary clear and deep-dyed autumn day. Along the center of the Esplanade, the gingkos were in their final gold and the clear afternoon sunlight made the red leaves of the oaks glow. Then we went back to my mother’s apartment where the lady that comes to help her was waiting for, praying for, and talking about nothing but the rain.
In Brooklyn on 9/11, I’d watched the Towers burn and fall in the middle of the same kind of clear and beautiful autumn day. To the north and to the south of the Towers as seen from the Brooklyn Heights promenade it was all serene. Serene but made obscene with the burning funeral pyre of three thousand people sending up thick and deadly smoke in the exact center of a crisp blue sky.
In the days after the Towers fell, all in the city prayed for rain. We prayed for rain so that those waters from heaven, cold and deep and drenching, might put out the fires and cool the embers and we would all be restored and returned to life as it was.
And the rains came. And the dust on the leaves ran gold into the gutters. And the fires still burned on deep in “The Pile.” Burned for months and months as the smoke rose and drifted and swirled, a constant despised companion. And now it was seventeen years later and we were all praying for rain in Paradise.
And we were not restored by the rains then and these rains will not restore us now. Like a root fire, it will burn on inside all of us. Who will stop the rain? God knows.
Heard the singers playin’
How we cheered for more
The crowd then rushed together
Tryin’ to keep warm
Still the rain kept pourin’
Fallin’ on my ears
And I wonder, still I wonder
Who’ll stop the rain?