Selected Stories

“Don-gonh” - Excerpt

StoryQuarterly, Vol. 34

At first there is only the smell of smoke in the air, faint, as if someone is burning wood in a fireplace. Except this is August in Southern California, and the temperature even at the beach is almost ninety.

The girls will be arriving any time, and I am already running late. I have promised to make a traditional Vietnamese meal, and have made the trip to Little Saigon for ingredients: fish sauce, duck, lemongrass, fresh coconut milk, rice and bean-thread noodles.

I do remember noticing a few white, fluttering ashes in the air; perhaps I absent-mindedly brushed away an ash lying against the shiny black of my car trunk. But it is not until Lily and Pearl arrive that the reality of the fire dawns on me.

"Mom, don't you smell it?" Lily asks.

"Look at the smoke," Pearl says.

From behind the hills at our back, an angry black cloud is fanning out. We all stand out on the terrace and look towards the ocean. It is an uncanny sight — like snow falling on a clear sunny day.
A fire engine pulls up our narrow road, and the red-faced fireman tells us of the raging fire in the parkland to the north. We are to evacuate immediately.

That evening, downtown, we sit at tables in the high-school gym that is serving as an emergency shelter. We are by turns brave and worried with our neighbors. An old woman who lives on our street is crying because she was made to leave before she could find her cat. The men are off doing volunteer clearing; the children are playing in a makeshift daycare. The girls and I look at each other and get back into the car.

On the coast highway, we swim against the current of evacuees. Horns are honking. Men are pinch-faced; women are crying. But I feel calm and alert. It is as if I were at home at last. When a policeman stops us at the bottom of our hill, I roll down the window.

"We are afraid someone has been forgotten."

Cited in BASS