She’s accustomed to the kind of blaze that crumbles buildings, melts air conditioners, with smoke so thick you can’t smell the highway exhaust anymore. The firefighter is good at her job, pickaxe and hose in hand, rattled only when she’s unable to rescue someone’s home, which happens a lot these days.
It’s a suburban fire that trips her up, one that takes house after house, leaving behind flattened blocks, children’s bedrooms turned to ash, basketball poles tall and marooned like masts in a shipwreck. The blaze is so big that even the air burns, flameless but singeing her skin.
There’s still heat in the sky when the ER lets her out. The station gives her time off to recuperate, but she can’t stop holding her breath, like something else is about to happen. A release? A relief? The four walls of her apartment bear down, and she can’t sleep, certain another disaster is coming.
“Imagine you’re on the beach,” her therapist says, “Look over the horizon. What do you see?” She closes her eyes to see crests of white water pouring over surfer bodies, pelicans diving for fish, dogs playing fetch with driftwood on the coast of Guanacaste. She knows she needs to go back.
Her first time in Costa Rica, she took surfing lessons with George, the green-eyed boy born by the waves. “No habla Ingles,” he said, though he knew the words board and grip and pull and crash, and he was fluent in pillow talk. The last day of that infinitely long weekend, the firefighter asked George to take her photo with the waves behind her, the waters she never mastered, a memento of the experience that fully consumed her for what felt like a moment.
She is so changed now, though it’s only been a few years. Will it feel different to sink her toes in the black sand, to walk over mottled lava, to crunch in the jungle brush? Touching down in Playa Negra, it is all there, as if barely touched, these beaches of sand like satin dotted with volcanic rock.
She takes another surfing lesson, taught by a chica with a long braid down her back and a shoelace-tied bikini, uncaring of belly fat or burn tissue. Hundreds of hermit crabs scuttle in the crystal clear water. The sun begins to set. But the firefighter can’t let go of her breath.
The beachside cafe serves ceviche and cerveza. A round or two in, the locals crowd around the chica. The firefighter hears the word “fuego,” sees foreheads crease, recognizes the look of panic and disbelief. She asks to see the video on the chica’s phone: a roadside ablaze a mile away, with fields of teak trees haloed in fire just like at home.
A white Isuzu picks up volunteers, the chica’s brother, others from the beach, and the firefighter wearing flip flops and a bathing suit. In the truck bed, they rattle on rock and gravel yellowed from dry season buds dropped off the Cortez tree and crushed under the tires of four wheelers and motorbikes. They pass brahman cattle, arched backs as big as their sagging gullets, gathering at the edge of the road as if the herd could protect them from fire.
When they stop, the driver opens the tailgate, eyes green and boiling with stress. George doesn’t look at her. The firefighter is one of many who are here to contain what they can. Seeing him, she feels something release. Road dust falls like a thick fog, leaving smoke in its wake.
“Foreign investors seeded the fields,” the chica’s brother tells the firefighter. “They export the logs across the Pacific. Sometimes, there’s a controlled burn.” Arm-sized, paper-thin brown leaves crackle underfoot. It’s the perfect fuel, thinks the firefighter, and today it spread too far.
George shouts something in Spanish, with a tone that tells her he’s done this before. To the chica’s brother, she says “How can I help?”
“George!” yells the brother.
He steps over in ripped jeans, mud-caked sneakers, and a white t-shirt stained with sweat. There is a new scar on his chin, which surely hadn’t been there before when the firefighter mapped every drop of his skin.
She fights a blush, stands straighter. “I’m a firefighter back in the states. I want to help.”
George puts a hand on her shoulder. He says: “My friend.”
Someone hands them shovels. They cut a trench in bare earth, stirring ground and rock and dry teak leaves. Digging, digging, digging, each fold of skin painted with muck, crusted dust, and the dirt between bodies in the midst of wildfire. Side by side, slowly, they contain it. And finally, the firefighter can exhale.