A good day was winding down when an unexpected commotion called me to the top of the stairs. Dick was yelling something about calling the fire department and then rushing out the door. Behind our house, about 700 feet from our back door, dinner plate-sized flakes of ash were flying up into the air. Along the road on the other side of the brook someone's house was engulfed in flames. In about 15 minutes, before the local fire department and mutual aid could arrive and unleash water, it was beyond saving. I stood in the backyard watching the flowering smoke and tinsel-like sparks; listening to the roar and pop. In the cold, clear night voices of the firefighters carried distinctly over the trees and then I heard the crying - first a woman's voice calling for her dog and then her wails as she realized he was gone. I turned around. There in the yellow light of my own warm house stood my own dog, watching. Later, after the flames were out and the firetrucks had left, I stood looking out my back door. The red glow was gone from the horizon - there was not even a hint of smoke in the air. Above the fir by the back door the sky was full of stars. An ordinary winter night.
This morning we left early on errands and drove past the wreck of the burnt out trailer back off the road. I never knew that people lived there. Or that a dog lived there too. Here we were, only steps away from each others' doors. I probably passed those people on the road, stood in back of them on line at the grocery store, heard their voices through the screens on summer nights, heard their dog bark and my dog answer. Last night, unable to sleep, I woke Dick up and asked him if he thought those people had a place to stay for the night. He said he had thought of that too but there had been a lot of people there with them. "The poor lady," he said, "was crying". Someone took them in for the night, I'm sure. And as I lay awake at 10 and 11 and 12, I imagined my unknown neighbor also laying awake in a strange bed or on someone's couch, staring into the darkness.