A dry wind blows in from the east. It unsettles an ancient but live wire from a telephone pole, which scampers on the ground before fusing the dried grass. The fire spreads quickly, the field unseasonably dry. A cow is on the hill. It smells the smoke, which triggers a fear memory, the time she was singed in a barn fire when she was but a calf and had to be led out by a boy on a rope. The cow bolts, spooking the others. They follow her, herding toward the houses, for the humans, not stopping, not even for the metal fence, hitting it at full speed.
The fence does not give and the first cows go down, the others trampling them and ramming the fence, until the cows are climbing one another. They form a heap so high they are able to make it over the bending fence, to the pool they did not know was on the other side.
A woman watches from the kitchen window, stunned. She is the housekeeper. From her vantage, it appears as though the cows are leaping into the pool, one after the other, shrieking like giddy kids. They come so quickly that the ones in the water cannot find their way to safety, crushed and suffocated under the weight of the herd.
The housekeeper cannot move, to help them, to hide her eyes, not until she sees the child watching at the sliding glass door, hand on the handle. The housekeeper whisks the girl into her arms, four years old and nearly too big to carry, carrying her back to her bedroom and calming her with a song, one the housekeeper sang to her own son when he was still small enough to want her.
The fire spreads quickly to the homes and the fire department is called, an evacuation underway. The housekeeper secures the children in their car seats as their mother collects valuables. She comes out wearing a white fox fur coat over her shoulders, necklaces around her neck, a stack of photo albums pressed to her chest. “You’re driving,” she says, “I’m too upset.”
After the housekeeper is buckled into the driver’s seat, she asks, “Where am I going?”
She drops the family at the Radisson, takes a twenty from the mother for a cab and pockets the money, calling her son for a ride instead.
The sun sets as she waits on the stone bench near the entrance with the smokers, the wildfire burning the sky blood red. For some reason, it reminds her of the one time she saw snow. She’d been thirteen, a late bloomer, the last of her friends to get her period. She was in geometry class, examining angles and counting sides and lining up equations when a girl, the housekeeper cannot remember her name, shouted, “What’s that?”
The whole class turned to the window. The housekeeper had never seen snow, but she knew it instantly, and she followed the others outside, despite the teacher’s threats of detention and more homework and oh never mind. That is what the housekeeper remembers now, her teacher, a small wrinkled woman twirling in the snow that melted when it hit her skin.
Finally the housekeeper’s son arrives, and she can tell he’s stoned. She gets out of the car, walks around to the driver’s seat, tells him to get out. He does as he’s told, and she drives the two of them home, unable to form the words to tell him what she’d seen, the cows, the pool full of them, water exploding onto the deck.
Her son falls asleep on the I-5, wide and merciless and full of raging drivers. The housekeeper stays in the right lane, takes her time. To the east, the hills burn, the houses, all insured.