by Tom Walsh
The swirling wind throws sparks in every direction.
“Albert!” Holly calls out wearily. “We’re about to lose the Trimming Shed.”
It’s been 20 years since the outbuilding has hosted pot trimmers, back when marijuana was still illegal in California, but the name stuck, is even carved above the front door.
An ember—riding the wind from the main fire—lands on the shed’s roof, smoldering a minute before igniting the weathered redwood shingles. Holly had split each one herself, hewing them from logs left in the creek bottom by old-time loggers. Albert had tied the shingles in bundles and hauled them up on the back of Melvin, the mule they often borrowed from a neighbor in the early years.
“If that’s all we lose it’ll be a good day, my dear,” says Albert, his face tanned deep into its creases, his ponytail a contrast in white. “If this was 30 years ago the whole valley would get a buzz on if that old shed had burned down.”
Holly chuckles. Albert always makes her laugh—from his wry wit to his unexpected, arm-flailing dances at the solstice festivals.
Holly and Albert met in their early 20s at Yellowstone Park. It was 1968 and Albert, who grew up on a ranch nearby, wore the forest green uniform of a park ranger. Holly, a teacher from New York City, had taken a summer housekeeping job at The Lodge on a whim. They first laid eyes on each other at 3 a.m. on a July morning, in the empty grandstands at Old Faithful.
“I love when there’s no tourists around,” Holly said, the night sky full of diamonds.
“If any of them come now, I’ll arrest them,” Albert said, slipping his hand into hers.
Holly couldn’t believe that Albert had never seen the ocean, and at summer’s end they drove his ’55 Chevy pickup to northern California. They camped at a black sand beach near Shelter Cove for two weeks, Albert a six-foot-four child swimming in the freezing water, building immense sand castles, barking at the sea lions. Holly discovered a skill with rocks and driftwood as she built a lean-to, a fire pit, and whimsical mobiles.
They never looked back.
They planted trees side-by-side through rainy winters. In the summers, Holly waited tables, Albert was the short-order cook. When they saved enough to buy land, his only ask was that it have a glimpse of the ocean.
They bought a steep, 160-acre tract for a song, just before the marijuana boom, and married on it 48 years ago. Holly was pregnant at the time, and it would have been a nice place to raise kids, but it was not to be.
They built the shed first, a small shelter they used while raising the main cabin with peaveys and a come-along, one log at a time. They cursed the poison oak, but learned to treat its sting with leaves from the manzanita bushes.
The cabin itself sat on the only flat spot, leveled by Albert with a D-9 dozer he also used to carve out the dirt road and salvage redwood and Douglas fir from the creek.
In their pot-farmer years, the shed held the bud-trimming operation. Holly recalled the procession of eager, young hippies who slept in tents, trimming tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Emerald Triangle homegrown in the shed every fall and winter.
She cooked stews and baked pies to appease their munchies, secretly looking on “the kids” as the brood she couldn’t have. Three of them—Ruth, Christy, and Wild Dave—came back five years in a row when their work as seasonal firefighters ended.
(“Boy could we use them today!” Holly thinks.)
“Holly, I’m losing pressure here, can you go check the pump?”
Albert stands on a ladder braced against an apple tree, hosing down the roof and watching for spot fires in the dry grass, madrone, and coyote brush. They cleared what they could over the past few days, before the sheriff told them to evacuate yesterday. They’d shared a quick look before Albert said: “Thanks, John, but don’t worry about us. We know what we need to do.”
Holly hikes down to the pump. The rock steps that she and Albert (mainly she) had pounded into place over the years wound two hundred yards downhill to the swimming hole they quarried from the cliff and the creek bed.
Debris clogs the pump’s suction line—Big-Leaf Maple leaves, pine needles, twigs, and silt. Holly clears it and tops off the gas tank. She’s thankful for the spring upstream, one of the many blessings the land holds.
When she starts coughing, she realizes how thick the smoke has grown. The sky is more midnight than noon. She heads uphill, stopping to catch her breath beside a favorite patch of five-finger ferns and Douglas Irises.
Back at the cabin, she sees fire engulfing the shed across the draw, flames peeping through windows shattered by the heat.
“Albert, where did you put the cradle?” she asks, hopefully. “Did you move it to the cabin?”
Rarely at a loss for words, Albert can’t find his voice.
“Oh, Albert,” Holly sighs. She isn’t mad. She had been in the shed yesterday, should have moved it herself instead of asking Albert, who’d been clearing brush. She hand-carved the cradle years ago from a single redwood burl, back when she still had hope of raising a family here. She rarely looks at it any more, but can’t give it away, won’t sell it.
The wind shifts again, briefly clearing the smoke and opening the view to the ocean. The fire leaps from the shed to a nearby pepperwood tree.
“Here it comes, Albert. Let’s stay together now.”
* * *
Tom Walsh is a writer and editor living in northern California. He has been a newspaper reporter, editor, wildland firefighter, and more. His stories are in or soon to appear in Litro USA, Hobart Pulp, The Cabinet of Heed, Progenitor, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and elsewhere. His cat, born in the UK on the 4th of July, is named Independence.