Between her sessions with the driver training school and her less formal lessons with Sue, Cindy experimented through the summer.
Her mother didn’t need to worry about the baking powder going flat. Cindy cooked and baked through cans of the stuff, to say nothing of flour, experimenting with different concentrations of leaven in batters. She looked at the effect of different oven temperatures on foods, paper, and plants. She often burned things to scrutinize the browning and burn patterns that resulted. She started a little plant nursery from which she supplied her experiments. The nursery wasn’t a chore, as she didn’t discriminate against weeds. She used tin cans and old metal tumblers for planters. She would bring a plant into the kitchen, preheat it at a specific temperature for a specific duration, and then she’d light a match under one of its leaves to measure its readiness.
Not always satisfied with the degree of privacy available in her mother’s kitchen, Cindy sometimes did her cooking on the back lot. She was discrete, and it happened that the fires never got out of control, so the adults never heard a word about it.
In the kitchen, Cindy watched the blue flame of a burner transfer its thermodynamic forms into a pot full of ice cubes. First, the ice melted and lost the form that had been imposed upon it by the tray, and then the formless water began to circulate like the fiery gasses beneath it. Cindy dropped grains of polenta into the pot one by one to better observe the aqueous convection. She watched the water transform into vapor. The hot, animated gas pressed upward like a flame.
Where other kids and adults might have summed up the relationship between fire and water with “water kills fire,” Cindy saw the relationship quite differently. To Cindy it seemed that fire brought water to life; that water without fire could only be ice. The only life that Cindy recognized in water was the life of fire temporarily within it.
She could see something very similar happening under the heat of the California sun. The air, heated by the hot surface of the Sink and forced upward as it piled up against the Range, would rise and fall in great convection cells, growing plumes of cloud; in some places bestowing precious water upon the land for fuel production, or ionizing and discharging electric current in sudden eruptions of light, heat, and sound, and igniting the rich stores of fuel in the chaparral and forests of the Range. In such a way, smoke followed the cloud.
Since that fateful trip to the Range that summer, she’d been seeing the fire in more and more of the world. What started with ostensibly unrelated phenomena such as smog, the mountain sun, and chaparral—the distant forest fire, and the lightning strike, now seemed to merge into a common fabric of life on earth. She saw it in the sunlight. She saw it in light, whether refracted or reflected. She saw it in the outlines of shadows. She saw it in the green of plants and tasted it the sweetness of fruit. She continued to smell it in the exhaust of cars and trucks. She could feel it in her own heat. Deep within her, a smoldering fire was inhaling the oxygen in her red blood cells and eating the sugar floating among them. She could feel her fire in the warm exhaust that she exhaled. As it saturated her senses, the fire began to occupy her thoughts and her imagination, whether she was in the backyard, the back lot, the kitchen, the city library, or in her dreams.
Cindy grabbed a book of matches and an old edition of the Slough City Sentinel and stepped out the back door. She walked to the back lot, drew several sticks from her pile of scrap wood, and she lit a small fire.
She felt the little fire’s ambition. She could feel its hunger as she watched it reach out for more food. In her own lungs she felt its need to breathe. She watched it spawn embers like seed. She gazed upon its mesmerizing dance. She listened to it inhale and exhale as it piped out its crackling song. She let the dance, the song, and the hot caress soak deep into her consciousness, and deeper still.