(All it took was three days and one competent Verizon network technician, but we're back online at last. Novelist David Francis experienced the recent Los Angeles area fires firsthand, and was kind enough to share this essay of his experience with us.)
I decided there’d be no party for my fiftieth – instead I’d reflect, I’d go on a silent retreat to the monastery in the mountains above Santa Barbara where I’d often gone to hibernate and write. But when I called, Mt. Calvary was fully booked. Kindly, Brother Will suggested an alternative - The Immaculate Heart: Center for Spiritual Renewal.
Why not? I thought, if I couldn’t contemplate among the Episcopal brothers in their monastery atop a ridge with ocean views, I’d be penitent among the nuns in a stucco mansion, snuggled in the Montecito hills.
As I drove up the coast, the Pacific appeared unnaturally calm, glistening out towards where I grew up, eight thousand miles across the water. The afternoon air was unseasonably heavy and hot for November, and by the time I turned inland, up San Ysidro Road, a breeze had come up suddenly, eddying dust along the verge. I wound past fancy Montecito homes, asked a gentleman walking a pair of Retrievers where The Immaculate Heart might be. He motioned me on to an unmarked gate, framed with flagstone posts, to a driveway that was paved, tracing its way through a park of elms, old stone cottages, a high stone fence. The house loomed square and taupe among the trees; a white-bearded gardener in a broad-brimmed hat raked leaves in slow motion like some Dickensian prop. As I carried my bag over the gravel to the wooden double-doors, a towering monkey tree shook its paw-like branches at me in an unexpected twist of wind. Gingerly, I rang the bell and waited, wondering if I’d done the right birthday thing.
An un-habited nun appeared and introduced herself as Sister Cresanna. Smiling, she ushered me into the entry hall then shyly pointed to a large dining-room, announcing that dinner would be around seven and that I would sleep upstairs in The Porch Room. She showed me up a wide flight of steps and along an unlit hall to a curtained glass door, a room of windows looking up into the mountains. A floor of pale stones, a desk and narrow bed. Spartan and charming, just as I’d imagined - a place to come and be still, to meditate, even write, gardens to walk in, a book on the bedside table. Why not be a mystic? Why not indeed? It was time to accomplish – in a matter of hours I’d be fifty – and yet I’d come to a place to do nothing.
I lay on the bed and stared out at the hills as they purpled in the direction of Mount Calvary, the retreat house I knew intimately, its aromatic gardens and stone labyrinth, a place I missed when I wasn’t there. But my birthday would be here, alone with the nuns, no cake or party, just books and gardens and quiet. This was what I’d wanted.
I read half a page of the bedside reading to confirm I wasn’t yet mystic material and then fell deeply asleep. When I woke it was dark and noisy outside, the wind stirred wildly through the eucalyptus, a familiar sound from Australia, branches scraping against roofs and windows, a whirlwind of dust in the parking lot. The night air was strangely hot. Santa Anas, I thought and sat up to behold a vision of flames roping high in the newly laid darkness, red smoke billowed silently, no sound of a siren.
I ran downstairs in search of nuns, and there they stood with my fellow retreatants, nervously assembled. The fire had been reported. A woman from New York announced with grand authority that Oprah had a house up there so it’d all be taken care of soon. I didn’t let on that where I come from, the heat of a fire like this in dry eucalyptus incinerates anything it set its sights on, celebrities and all, the scrub as good as self-combusts. As the group dispersed to finish the dinner I’d missed, I stayed out in the night with a woman called Marta. We stared at the flames rising up in the distance, their plumes like brilliant sails hoisted then flailing, the wind so strong the branches of the monkey tree now thrashed about beside us like spastic arms. My sense of the world seemed strangely off-kilter, a moon that rose high, eerie and full but occluded by smoke. I pictured Mount Calvary up in the dark foothills and thought of the brothers, Robert and old Brother Will, wondered if they’d had enough warning, laurel sumac burning towards them like broom-straw, their art and books and iconry, their home. I checked back behind me and wondered how well stucco burns.
“We should pack our things,” I said to Marta, breaking silence.
She said nothing. What was there to say?
In the house, the power had failed. A scurry of footsteps in the dark, nuns lighting candles by torchlight. I got myself upstairs and from the landing glanced out a veiled window - crimson and orange flared up through the blackness. I passed a doorway where Sister Pauline knelt, her cane on the ground beside her. She prayed to a candlelit Virgin. “It burns away from us?” she whispered, looking up at me. I nodded yes, but I was afraid the wind might switch - I’d seen it as a boy, the Pakenham Hills burning back on themselves to where a friend was burned to death as he tried to save his father’s horses.
Someone in the hall behind me announced that numerous houses were already ablaze and the fire was now up on Los Alturas, a street name I remembered from weaving up from the Mission to Mount Calvary. Hurriedly, I packed my clothes and my makeshift altar, my readings and incense burner, my Native American totems, Reiki symbols embedded in stones, a photo of me as a kid on the farm. I shoved them all in the bag they came in, folded my traveling meditation stool then kneeled, wondering if fire was a symbol of God’s presence or just nature, or evil, or if it was all the same. I could already taste a dry throat of smoke creeping through the screens and my mind was too busy with thinking to pray as Sister Joanna knocked sharply on the glass of the door, announcing it was time. “When in doubt travel downhill,” she urged.
I struggled down the stairs with my bags and my portable altar, threw everything into my ash-dusted Rav and followed my new friend Marta’s Lexus through smoky unlit streets, getting lost and making turns towards the coast. Breathing fast and shallow, but out of danger, I turned off the highway, made my way to the beach near Summerland and parked in the dark looking out over the water towards the place where I am from. Then I listened to reports on the local NPR affiliate. “The blaze is being fanned by sundowner winds blowing up to eighty miles per hour. The sundowner effect.” They weren’t Santa Anas after all, but some “violent clash of hot air from the Santa Ynez Mountains with cool air off the Pacific Ocean.” I watched up towards the lurid specs in the far-off night and wondered about the brothers, their gardens and labyrinth, the infinite views from the library windows, the great bronze bell that tolled for matins and evensong, my favorite room with the charcoal drawing of an innocent Mary holding the curious infant, her pale sketched arm disappearing to nothingness. “Fire officials confirm that more than fifty homes have already been destroyed in the celebrity-studded enclave of Montecito.”
I slept fitfully in the car, the windows open to the hot night air, the murmur of the radio for company, then awoke to a puce light hinting through the smoke-haze. I turned up the volume and heard: “The wildfire area expanded overnight to more than 1,300 acres, destroying the treasured Mount Calvary Monastery and Retreat House which firemen tell us has burned to the ground.” It went on to report that an iron cross in the courtyard and the arch of the entry hall were all that remained.
Stunned, I gazed out at an entire region bathed in dove-gray smoke, as I imagined the bookshelves bursting into flames and sconces melting down the walls, and tried to picture the latticed cross still standing amongst the rubble, the archway book-ended by murals. St. Eunice with her crown and a heart full of swords, or was it Mary pierced with arrows, the wounds representing the sorrowful mysteries? I stared out as a new day broke eerily about me and I prayed for the survival of my friends, the brothers, for the safety of the sisters I’d left behind. I listened humbly to the quiet lapping of the ocean and realized I’d turned fifty. The day Mount Calvary was gone.
David Francis's novel Stray Dog Winter has just been released by Macadam/Cage.