Friday, August 21, 2020

"Fire Season," Guest Story by Anne Leonard

When I met author Anne Leonard through a mutual friend, I was reading for Lace and Blade 5. Anne sent me the following amazing story, inspired by her own experience of California wildfires. Now more than ever, it's a reminder that in the ashes of despair grow the seeds of hope. And love. 

She and I independently thought of this story. It's posted here with her permission. If you enjoy it, check out the rest of the anthology.

Fire Season

By Anne Leonard

Ash floats softly down like snow. My eyes are swollen and stinging from smoke, my throat raw. The sky is a murky yellow-grey, the sun a dull copper through the haze. I am taut with readiness. I was one of a dozen people to climb the firetower at dawn when the wind blew into the village with the smell of burning on its back. From the tower we saw blackened hillsides and billowing smoke. The flames seemed to have turned north, away; if they continue on that path, they will burn themselves out in the canyonlands. We are not fleeing yet.

It is autumn, the hot dry time of year when fires are common, and my neighbors speculate about the causes: a hunter’s careless fire, dry lightning, a wind-carried ember. I say nothing. I know what caused it– my lover, the djinni.


I met him in a bazaar in a city in another country, where he was selling olive oil. He had five varieties; he drizzled a little of each onto a platter and gave me bread to taste them with. One was light, almost grassy, round in my mouth like good wine.

“That is for summer cooking,” he said. His hair was as dark as mine but with a wave to it. His skin was a warm gold-brown, his lips narrow, his eyes an intense black. I could not tell his age – his eyes were far older than his features. Looking at them, I thought of glistening coal, obsidian, onyx. Hard and ancient and reflective. He was handsome, with a lovely voice. Desire, which I had put aside for a long time, flickered in me.

“Thank you,” I said. “How much for one of the smaller bottles?”

He named an absurd price. I laughed at it and offered something much too low. I had the advantage in haggling, because I could take as much time as I wanted while he needed to sell quickly, and I pressed it.

The numbers flew back and forth. We were very close to something fair and in the middle, when impulse seized me.

I said, “I’ll buy at that if you come have dinner with me when I use the oil first.”

It surprised him, but he was quick on his feet. “Done! And I promise you it will be the finest meal you have ever cooked.”


He arrived at the agreed-upon time, carrying roses and a small volume of poetry. His name was Azhif, firelight, the opposite of my own Rahit, running stream. I lived in a small but well-made flat which overlooked a courtyard garden. The willow in the center was tall and old, and the early evening light on its upper branches had the same green-gold glow of the olive oil. I had dressed carefully and wore the sandals which set off my feet to the best advantage.

We had cucumbers, goat cheese folded into flaky pastry I had cooked with the oil, nectarines. I don’t remember what else. We took wine to the garden with us and sat on the grass under the willow, and he read me poetry. Not love poetry, which would have been precipitous, but poems about beauty and friendship and hope. His lashes were long and dark as he bent over, looking down at the page.

When it grew too dark to read, he shut the book, and we sat silently while night purpled around us. I looked at him and saw the flame in his eyes.

He took my hand. We kissed. Then I knew he was not human. He shifted under my touch like the being of fire that he was. He was heat, light, motion. There are no words to describe the reaction of my body. I was transformed.


The mistake, it turned out, was not falling in love with him. It was letting him fall in love with me.


How can I tell the wonder of those first weeks? I can’t. No one can ever tell happiness.

He said, “All things are fire, even water, because without fire there is no life, no movement.”

“Love is movement,” I said.

“Love is fire.”


That winter, my father died. I am the only child, and I went back to the village where I had grown up to hold his funeral, pay his debts, and sell his animals. The farm house was small and old; the roof leaked and dust was thick in the rooms my father no longer used. I swept and cleaned and hammered, and somehow the silence of the country folded around me so that returning to the city was fearsome.

I wrote Azhif, and he came. He brought small and beautiful things which enlarged and warmed the house: copper statuettes, books with covers calligraphed in gold, crimson teacups that seemed to blaze where they rested. Winter was held at bay. Azhif and I drank tea in the morning while looking over the fog-covered land. When he touched the window glass, steam rose from the condensed moisture.

We loved each other madly. We made love on the kitchen table and the stairs and behind the goat shed. I was never cold. Once when rain fell in torrents, we climbed the slippery wooden steps of the firetower and took each other on the damp floor. The rain that landed on my bare skin was warm as a summer sea. We were scarcely two separate beings, constantly touching, hands and lips on breast and thigh and cheek. I was replete. Replete and burnished.

And in my joy, my pleasure, I failed to notice what was happening to Azhif. He was separate from his kin, from the place that had been his home for years uncountable. One night I lay close to him and put my hand on his chest. His skin was warm. Warm, not hot. I kissed him, and where usually I felt only flame I felt the pressure of his lips and tongue. He was cooling.


Looking at the thick columns of smoke in the distance, I consider now – I have often considered – whether I should have said nothing. Would things have turned out differently? Inhaling the smoke, I think that silence would have set a secret between us, and secrets kill love faster than anything else.

I run my hand along the rail and by touch find the scorchmarks from Azhif’s fingers. I place my own fingers over the marks, but they are only burned wood. Nothing of him lingers. I imagine being among the flames, feeling the hot smoky air against my skin, hearing the hiss and crackle of dry wood burning. I never knew I wanted that.


I waited over a day to speak to him. It was evening, rain falling softly, the room cozy with the fire in the hearth. He was reading. I had been tense all day, worrying about this. I gave him his usual after dinner glass of wine and said, “Azhif, we need to talk.”

He looked up. For a moment I thought he seemed older, lines on his face. He moved and the illusion vanished. “What about, my love?”

I sat down opposite him and put my own glass on a side table. I said, “Two nights ago, when I touched you, you were cooling.”

“Impossible,” he said. “Fire is who I am. It cannot be expended or used up as long as I am alive.”

“Then maybe you’re dying,” I said.

“I am not dying.”

“How old are you?” I asked. “Really?” It was a thing we had never talked about.

He was always confident and self-assured, but the question caught him out. He kept his eyes on his glass as he answered.

“I’ve lost count.”

“Two hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand?”

A log shifted in the fireplace, sending up a shower of sparks. Rain tapped on the windowpane.

“Not quite a thousand, I suppose,” he said at last. “What does it matter?”

How many lovers have you had? I thought, but I had the sense not to say it. “How long do djinn live?”

“We die if we are slain in combat or by magic. Otherwise we do not age. I have known other djinn who have lived six thousand years. I am young. Rahit, I’m not cooling. You imagined it.”

I didn’t. I was too cowardly to say the words. I drank my wine, dismissing the topic, and sat watching him with lowered eyelids. It was terrible, in all senses of the word, frightening and magnificent, that he was so old. That I slept with someone who had seen so much history. That he loved me. Because I had no doubt of that.


He continued to lose heat. I saw the evidence in the absence: the lack of steam from his footsteps when he walked barefoot on the wet porch, the ordinary feel of metal things he had touched, the loss of incandescence when we made love. That he could control his fire, I knew, or he could never have lived in a human world, but he had been less careful around me. Now when he kissed me, I felt the blood pulsing in his lips.

The winter rains ended and the trees bloomed and leafed. The days grew longer. Azhif and I took our meals outside more and more often. Grass which had been green turned brown, then gold, with sun. His cooling was harder to tell as the world warmed. His eyes had lost their flicker, though.

One morning I slept late. When I looked out the bedroom window I saw him standing by the goat shed, and his posture was that of despair.

He came in, and I said, “Azhif, it’s time you go home. It’s damaging you, to be here.”

He was angry. “Do you love me for myself?” he said. “Or for my fire?”

“You can’t separate it that easily,” I shot back.

“Are you banishing me?”

“If you will have me, I’ll come,” I said. “This house, this place, they don’t matter.”

“They do to you,” he said. “You’re happier here. You breathe more.”

“I’ve left it before. I can leave it again.”

He sighed. “I’ll make arrangements,” he said.


The hills in the north give way to broken, tree-less land, all rock with a bit of scrub. There are wild animals – mountain goats and crows and snakes and mice – but no people. When the fire reaches that far, it will die. It will not even smolder. In that land, flame has no fuel.

Azhif is settled there, somewhere. I imagine that at night he looks at the stars and tells himself the stories about them which everyone else has forgotten. Perhaps he sits on the sandy bottom of a canyon and waits for an animal to approach him. He might read by candlelight or even by the glow of his own fingers.

Or perhaps he walks in this fire, exultant, watching the flames rise in his footsteps, touching the dry leaves of the trees and making the fire dance and swoop as it tears along the limbs. The wind bears to me the gift of his hot breath.


Azhif had shown no signs of leaving, and finally I confronted him. I waited until night, when I could look up at the dark ceiling.

“I need you to go,” I said. “I can’t stand to watch you withering like this.” His face was that of a middle-aged man, and when he left the bed in the mornings the sheets were cool.

For a long time he was silent. I was afraid to touch him. I knew that he was angry, that he would leave, that I had drawn a knife I couldn’t sheathe.

“I can’t go back,” he said. “Not with you. I am outcast.”

“By your people?”


“Because you took a human lover?”

“Because I stayed with you,” he said. “A night, a week, a month, that would be of no account. But I left my home and followed you here, and for that I am exiled so long as I am with you.”

“Did you know that would happen?” I was ready to be furious with him, and also full of grief. I didn’t want him to make so great a sacrifice for me.

“When you asked me to return, then they told me.”

“Leave me, then,” I said. It hurt. “You’re dying. Go back.”

“Not dying. Merely becoming mortal.” His hand clasped mine. “To love a human is to become one.”

“Why me?” I asked, afraid that at any moment I would start to cry. “In a thousand years of life, why am I the human you give everything up for?”

“There is no everything, there is only you, Rahit, and I love you.”

Not so much, not so much, please not so much. I couldn’t say it.

He turned onto his side and pressed close to me, his arm across my chest. He kissed my forehead, light and cool as a butterfly.

“Let it be,” he said. “I’ve lived long enough to make many mistakes, often more than once. This is not a mistake.”

I did cry, then, and after a long while fell asleep. I woke once. He was gone from the bed. I listened for the sounds of him in the house and heard only silence. When I could bear it no longer I got up and went to the window.

He sat naked on the grass, facing the hills. He glowed dull orange, like an ember. It was more heat than there had been in months. We would never, not even when the universe wound down, be of the same kind.

It was not a bar to love. But it might be a bar to happiness.

Let this not be the last, I wished, let this not be the last.


Late summer arrived, fierce and hot. Around us the world dried and dried. The air smelled of dried sage. The sun bleached and cracked the bare earth. Hornets came out of their nests and droned near anything moist. Frogs went silent as their wet places dried up. It was too hot to bake and too hot to eat; we lived on water and fruit and the lettuces we rescued from wilting in the garden. The light was hard and white.

Azhif spent most of his time outside, reveling in the furnace of sun. He wore no shirt or hat. He sweated only a little. When he was inside, we rarely spoke. I wished he would go home, where he could have what he needed. The space between us thickened with the need for change.


One night, after a particularly hard day where I had simmered alone in anger and grief, he asked me to climb the firetower with him. I went, unhappy, aching for something more. I could not pinpoint the moment where everything had gone askew, but I knew I could not endure much more. One of us would have to leave. I hoped we could do it while we still loved each other.

He pointed at the heat lightning flashing on the horizon and said, “People used to say that was caused by dancing djinn, our feet striking the floor of heaven.”

“Was it?”

“Only sometimes.” I could not tell if he was joking.

We were silent. “This can’t go on,” I said at last.

“I know.” He inhaled, a very human noise of nervousness. I remembered haggling with him, when I had thought he was just a handsome young man. He said, “I have made a bargain with my folk. I can burn again, and stay with you. But there’s a cost.”


He put his hand on the rail, and grey smoke threaded upward. “We can be together only during the rains. The rest of the year, I burn, and parts of the world burn with me.”

“Will you go home?”

“Home is with you,” he said. “Always. What burns will be close.” He turned and kissed me, and it felt like the first kiss, heat inside and cool darkness around and our bodies as ephemeral as air but powerful as wind. The gold light was back in his eyes.

“Let the world burn,” I said.


I climb down from the firetower. When it is wet he will return. He will leave his warmth on the sheets and read poetry aloud to me in his beautiful voice.

The fires he starts are not born of malice. They are simply the signs of his passage, the trace of his being, like steaming footprints on the porch.

I know I should be consumed with guilt. The smoke, the destruction, the fear, they are my fault. But if he had not caused them, something else would have. It is fire season, after all.

The End

Anne Leonard is the author of the novel Moth and Spark. She lives in Northern California,


  1. Gods above!
    How beautiful!!!! The most creative and exciting story about the cause of fires I've ever read