Fuego

Monday night, I was in my treehouse around 8pm when I smelled smoke. Since the roof is thatched and I´m in, you know, a tree, I figure I should probably check this burning smell out, so I take a few wild spins around the room — what do I need? — and  toss my passport, room key and wallet into a shoulder bag and scamper down the ten tiny steps from the treehouse to the ground. The hillside, about half a mile away, is on fire, one long strip of flame licking at the trees and crackling through the brush. The man who owns the hotel, Gerardo, is outside on his cellphone.

´’Just stay here,’ he says and runs off to check it out.

He returns, shirtless, ten minutes later. ‘It won´t come here,’ he says. ‘This is the wettest place in town, I´ve got 10,000 litres of water if we need it.’

The thing is, we will need it, if the fire does spread — there are no firefighters here. They will have to call the bomberos from the next town, and until then, it will just be the people in the village wetting their clothes and fighting it as best they can.

I stand outside in my thin t-shirt and jeans,  in the ink-black night flecked with stars, and watch it burn, trying to tell if it´s moving towards or away.  A beautiful woman in a sundress holding her baby in a sling, with a  puppy cradled in one arm, appears. Eva, from the Netherlands. We share predictions: it won´t come this far. We share stories: she was in the house when a neighbor yelled to get out.

She asks me to hold her puppy, a docile tan little thing, so I take it in my arms, holding it awkwardly at first and then cradling it against my stomach.  ‘We can control fire with our minds,’ she says. The puppy is heavy and warm against my body. ‘Gives you something to hold on to,’ she says, gesturing to her baby, who is calm in his sling. We watch and watch until we can´t tell if it is coming or going. Finally her husband, with all their things in backpacks, takes them to a friend´s house to get out of the smoke. I hand off the puppy and stay there with Gerardo, drinking a beer and talking about the position of the stars and how they make Lake Atitlan a very special place.

By 9 the firefighters from the town across the lake have arrived, and with the help of the residents it seems to be dying down, flaring up, and then dying down again. By 10pm it is out, and I go back to the treehouse. In the morning, I walk along the path by the lake but don´t see any damage — someone later says it didn´t come down this far, it stayed in the hills and didn´t even come close to Eva´s house.  The smell of smoke hung in the trees the rest of the day, but now it´s gone.

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