I lie in bed, wakeful for no reason. I am facing my window, a glass sliding door leading to a tiny deck I never use. I have left the curtain partly open in preparation for the dawn. The moon and the yard-light on the other side of the house provide enough light for me to see the branches of the large maple tree beside the house blowing and swaying in the west wind. The stars are bright tonight, above the wind-storm. They appear to blink on and off through the dancing branches. I get up and put on my glasses to bring the world into focus, and I realize the flashing points of light are not celestial but electric. The power lines running through the maple are rubbing on the branches and sending off blue-white sparkles with each contact. Glitter skips across the length of cable as tiny twigs touch and release and return.
The tree is fated to die, and I suppose this is the reason. Months ago, a Consumer Energy worker clomped through the snow and marked several of our trees with a spray-painted blue ‘x.’ Pine trees in two corners of the yard, the big maple, even part of the birch tree must go, but we will only let them cut off one branch. It is rare for a birch tree to grow as big as ours has. These are the chosen. Those whose growth infringes upon the avenue cut through the sky by the power lines. This silver maple outside my room is the chief offender. As much as I love trees, I don’t mind the idea that the maple will be gone soon. Since it stands between the wind and my bedroom, I always feared it would fall on my head in a storm someday. It has caused other problems too. It is so close to the deck that the roots push the boards up on one side. Its branches scratch on the slanted A-frame roof above my head whenever the wind blows at night. It’s still here, inexplicably ignored by the electric company, and now it’s putting on a pyrotechnic display. Of all the things I have feared from that tree in the night, I never thought to fear this.
The sparks have a kind of threatening beauty. They really do look like stars, only nearer, created for only half a moment in the space between wood and wire, silent fireworks outside my window. I think about waking my parents but decide not to. I’m not a child anymore. They can do nothing more than I can. It would only worry them, and they both need the sleep more than I do. I need to do this. I need to make sure nothing happens. They wouldn’t even let me drive my car the seven hours home from Ohio last winter for Christmas, because there was snow.
For some reason I press my face to the glass and look out and to my right. Near the trunk of the tree, there is a half-dead branch about an inch thick rubbing against the thickest cable. I see small orange flames licking out from the wood. That does it. I’m not dealing with this by myself.
I feel like a little girl again, sneaking downstairs after a bad dream, careful not to step on the creaky second stair, standing like a ghost beside my sleeping mother, regretful to wake her but needy, whispering “Mom.” No. I make sure my voice is strong and calm and normal this time. “I’m sorry to bother you, but the tree is sparking on the powerlines and there’s some fire.” I know perfectly well there’s not much they can do, but it is comforting to share the burden of knowledge. I feel that if the house is going to catch on fire, at least they would already be awake. We watch together, warn the fire department, nothing to do but wait. Someone makes coffee. Suddenly this night is less fearful and is almost peaceful, maybe even exciting, like waiting for midnight to come on New Year’s Eve, or staying up late into the night waiting for shooting stars.
Every so often, to make myself feel useful, I go upstairs to check on the tree from my window. The wind frees bright orange, glowing embers from the burning branch, which is now lit with blue flame. A hot orange flake blows from the tree onto my porch, landing right next to the glass sliding door in a pile of old dead leaves. I can see it there, but the window is sealed shut with shrink wrap for the winter. I can’t put it out, I can only watch. I make a plan in my head for what I will do if the pile of leaves catches fire. I will wake my younger brother and older sister in the next room, still asleep. I will get everyone outside. No harm will come to my family. I am awake. I am watching.
I am the second youngest child of my parents. Of the three of us still living in the house, I am the only one without a disability. My sister, eleven years older but less emotionally and socially mature, looks up to me as she looked up to my older brother before he moved out. She models her behavior on mine, looks to me for companionship and affirmation. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I leave the house.
I have watched argument between Mother and Father, trying to keep small fights about chairs from blazing to divorce. I always think about divorce during parental fights. My parents each divorced before they married each other. This was, of course, long before my time, but I’ve always been afraid it could happen again. I try to carry around a bucket of humor and common sense with which to douse tense situations. My powerlessness frustrates me. I have sat fuming on the floor of my room wishing I couldn’t hear their raised voices. I once screamed at both my parents for being unreasonable.
The ember does not set fire to the leaves. My parents and I wait until the flame has cropped the burnt branch to a short stump so that it no longer rubs on the lines. We watch the glowing amputated limb fall to the ground and smolder there. We watch until the orange light goes out. Then Mom goes to bed, and Dad stays up for a while. They tell me to go to bed. I know it shouldn’t be my job to protect us. But if the house catches on fire while I’m asleep, then it’s my fault. I should keep watching.