Kage Baker was in love with lightning. Chain, ball and sheet; bolts and inverted burning trees; red sprites and blue jets and elves, and those weird half-dome ones where the entire atmosphere flashes and ripples like something is clawing through the projection screen of the sky.
Growing up in California is not the best luck for a lightning-lover. Oh, we get lightning, here and there. Several hundred acres of the state burn every year where Almighty Zeus gets careless with his ammo. But it’s rare, and rarer still over the turgid Los Angeles Basin – there, even when the air is clean, it’s about as lively as a bowl of custard. Even the native Tongva called it the Valley of the Smokes; the place collects haze and has stagnant air.
But farther up and further in, California can breed some heavy lightning. In fact, a memorable three years or so ago, over a thousand lightning fires started in California in one astounding June afternoon.
Kage and I were actually in Big Sur when it got its divine middle finger; saw the bolt come down, felt the thunder in our bones and the beginning of that furnace wind in our faces. We drove down Highway 1 like maniacs, being waved around every curve by increasing numbers of grim-faced volunteer firemen – guys in jeans and flannel shirts: buckling on helmets and long armoured coats, tranforming into heroes with axes as we fled past them, Kage chanting propitiatory hymns to the Thunderer as we went … at the bottom, in San Simeon, we pulled over and looked at one another.
“Might that have been a wee bit melodramatic?” I said.
Kage just pointed behind us. The sky was covered in clouds that looked like giant cats’ paws reaching down; lightning still clawed at the hilltops and smoke was ascending from a hill after hill. A firetruck screamed past us, and our car rocked on the verge like a tree in a gale.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said.
We went on home to Pismo. Ashes rained down every day for two weeks. Portions of the state burned for months. The following spring a remnant of the Big Sur fire, banked in a dead tree and snowed under in a hidden canyon, burst out into new life and burned for days.
But Kage still loved the lightning. She couldn’t help it. It sparked bubbles in her blood, like fireworks. We got a couple of good storms that winter, and we just sat in front of the living room window and watched the lightning strike the sea over and over. If you’re close enough – and the lightning is close enough – and it’s dark enough otherwise – you can see a glow where all that power explodes into the water. Or maybe it’s fond imagining, but whether it’s physics or fantasy, it made Kage squeal like a teenybopper at a concert.
We light candles and put the soundtrack to Bride of Frankenstein on the CD player, and rocked out to the classics while the storm raged. We were trading dialogue back and forth; Kage did a killer Ernest Theisiger imitation. From time to time the power would falter and the music would warp and warble; then pick up and and resume, while we yelled with glee. Finally the power went out entirely, though.
The music ran down like a sound effect for the end of the world. The storm got worse, and we could see transformers off on the park roads into the Pismo Dunes exploding now and then in blue sparks.
“Damned UFOs drag racing out there in the Dunes again,” said Kage. “I blame the 7-11 staying open.”
I agreed. We sat and watched the lightning dance – red sprites, blue jets and more fucking elves.