Smoke I

Drawing by Jean Vincent

Smoke I

An angry column of black smoke drilling furiously into the blue sky.

“Hey, Alice, look at that,” my father said.

“It’s just the train,” my mother responded unenthusiastically.

“Gonna to take a look,” he said. He took off running.

As I got out of the car I looked past the trees in the neighbours’ yard and saw what they were talking about. Squinting against the late afternoon sun, I saw something familiar, yet different.

Black smoke rising from the southwest. The train, but not the train.

Moments before we had waited for a coal-burning steam train heading that direction, but something was not right. I had never seen smoke like that. The house down the street was burning. This is my earliest memory.

The fire department came and struggled to contain the blaze but water was in short supply. The house was destroyed.

Bellevue, Washington. The year was 1947 and I was 2½ years old; my sister, Linda, was an infant.

I have no recollection of the family who lived in the burning house — the Leonards. Just a name attached to this event. The house down the street that burned to the ground. The burnt-out house on several acres, land that would remain unoccupied for decades.

Overrun by blackberries, the property became a favourite local “picking spot” — we would often see women picking berries or sometimes apples or pears which were spared from the house fire.

To the children in the neighbourhood, however, “Leonards’” was darker and more mysterious. There was a barn with a sagging roof; a smell inside of old motor oil. Owls lived in the barn as well and, although we never saw them, we knew they were there. Most disturbing of all, there was the sounding board of a piano that had been dragged from the burning house. Strings still attached, it rotted under the apple tree that mindlessly continued to bear fruit. Whenever I saw the decaying piano I imagined sounds coming from it.

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