As we were returning from the store, the sun was almost to set, and the sky, partly cloudy all day, was glowing red, almost as though one of the fires was approaching. Though I knew it was actually just a spectacular sunset, it reminded me of the day two years ago when Paradise burned. I just looked back at my journal entry for November 7, 2018, which I have not read since it was written. It mentioned the robocalls I had gotten from PG&E, warning of a possible power outage if the wind picked up. After noting that the evening had thus far been quite still, I heard my window rattle and went outside to check the sudden wind, and found it quite strong. I went back to the computer and noted that change, and then posted the entry at eleven o'clock. I had no idea that that Wednesday night would be the last night of the life I had known for so many years.
Thursday there would be no journal entry, but I posted the story on Friday. That entry didn't mention anything about that last night, but only described the following day. I remember going out to see if I could feed the two back yard feral cats. I hadn't been able to do so earlier as three raccoons had been hanging around, and they had grown so accustomed to me that they had lost their fear, and would growl at me if I tired to keep them away from the cats' food, and the cats had grown very fearful of them and wouldn't come eat while the raccoons were around. I left the cats unfed, and have regretted it ever since. I expected I'd be able to go out later and feed them after the raccoons had given up on getting a free meal that night, but I was tired and ended up falling asleep on the couch, and when I went out the next morning after being awakened by the neighbor banging on my front door, they were nowhere to be found. I put food in their bowls anyway, and fresh water in the water bowls, but I doubt they ever came back to eat it. The house was probably inflames within an hour.
I remember on my way out to see about feeding them at eleven, passing by the rocking chair and having Shadow, my very shy indoor black cat, hop onto the back of it to be petted. Although he was over two years old by then, he had only recently begun to crave petting, and I stopped for a minute or two to give him some attention. When I came back in, I found he had settled into a spot on the couch and fallen asleep. As I needed that particular spot to lie down on myself, I tried to wake him, but he was a very sound sleeper, so I ended up picking him up and moving him down a foot or so, so I could lie down. He was quite a bit heavier than I'd expected, and didn't stir as I moved him. It was the first time He had ever slept on the couch, and I had no idea it would also be the last.
I remember that once I'd reclined, Portia hopped up onto the pillow. next to my head, as she usually did. Frosty, the big gray and white cat, climbed up next to her so she could groom him, which she did for a while, and then he moved down to his usual place near my feet. Shredda, his smaller and much smaller and much younger black and white half sister stretched out on the arm of the couch just above him. Other cats settled in various spots around the room, though some were in other rooms, as was usually their wont. I can't remember what I was watching on the television, but it son put me to sleep, and when I was awakened by the banging on the door the cats had scattered, probably from the same noise.
I never saw any of them again but Portia, who came into the kitchen while I was standing with the bag of clothing I'd gathered, wondering what to do next. She looked frightened, and had I gone around the corner into the living room and opened the door to the cat carrier that was sitting there I suspect she would have gotten right into it. She knew something terrible was happening. But I was still dazed from foreshortened sleep and the unbelievability of the situation, and when my sister came in to hurry me along I simply took the worthless bag of clothes out to the car, and then it was too late to go back in to fetch the cat. MY nephew said he would try to get the cats out, and would leave a door open for them to escape, but I don't know that he did, and we drove away. I curse myself every day for leaving Portia there, and the terrified look on her face the last time I saw her probably haunts the dreams I never quite remember.
The next few nightmarish weeks are recorded in the journal, and the long hours I spent over the next few months following the Internet posts about cats who were being rescued from the rubble, hoping that at least one or two would turn up, though they never did. The two years I've now spent in this strange little town, to which I've never really adjusted, have been haunted by memories of that fire. I'm forever missing things I lost that day, and have been most astonished by the fact that so many of my memories themselves have been among the losses. But it is mostly the cats I miss. Those particular cats. I have long since quit writing about them, as the chances of any of them ever being found now are so vanishingly small, but I still think about them every day. I can't really say I miss Paradise itself all that much. I miss it much less than I missed Los Angeles the entire time I lived in Paradise. Of course the Los Angeles I missed for all those years, though still largely intact physically, has changed in character so much that the place as I knew it no longer exists any more than Paradise does. I still miss it more than I miss Paradise. But the thing I miss most of all is still the cats. They remain more real to me, and more regretted, than all the books and pictures and records and other artifacts that burned.
I didn't post a poem the Sunday after the fire, but if I had it might have been the one I'm posting tonight, though I've posted it more than once before. In fact I might have posted in around the end of 2018, as it is set on New Year's Eve. It's a poem about sudden, unexpected changes, and seems appropriate.
by Richard Wilbur
Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.
I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.
There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii
The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.
These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.