That night I lay still and held my breath, trying to hear them. When I finally surrendered to the need for air, the echo of my loud exhale and gasping inhale reverberated off my darkened bedroom walls. Earlier that day, while I was walking down the sidewalk with my mom, a woman with cracked lips and hot, putrid breath had clamped onto my shoulder with bony-cold fingers.
Inside, a single faded light bulb dimly lit the otherwise dark space. The odor of mothballs and mold greeted me as I cracked open the ancient wooden chest. Within, filling half the chest were stacks of black felt-covered photo albums, each one full of brittle and faded pictures of people I had never known.
The water pulled at my body, dragging me under, the sandy shore giving way to emptiness below. I’d tied myself to my friend with a rope — I was the better swimmer — but now I couldn’t see him in the churning water where his saucer-plate eyes had disappeared. Struggling against the current, I frantically kicked my legs and clawed with my arms. As I flailed, the rope pulsated and pulled me downward. I thought, “This is how it happens — this is how I die.”
Ryder Zetts has been cooking in the Napa Valley for the last dozen years. His most recent tenure was becoming a partner at Cook and Cook Tavern in St. Helena. Now he and his family are moving to Nashville, where he’s been hired as the executive chef for three new restaurants owned by Atlanta’s prolific restaurateur, Ford Fry.
Although often threatened, restriction was a rarely used punishment in my home. Years later I’d learn why: A sentence of confinement is often as much a punishment for the parents as for the offender because they needed to police the captive or risk further unwanted infractions. In this special case, however, my parents had made an exception — Earlier that week I had started a fire in our backyard.
Seconds pass slowly in the dark. Nearby sounds are amplified. A rustle in the bushes at my feet brings with it a primal fear — is that a snake? Coyote? Worse? After taking a few deep breaths I turn my attention to the aromas around me — the musty smells of the earth, perhaps the subtle perfume of a night-blooming flower or pungent smoke from someone’s campfire. By then, my heart rate has slowed and any fear from the sound has subsided.
I crouched on the metal stairs. A few feet ahead lay a line of darkness where the fading evening sunlight from above abruptly ended as if a curtain had been pulled across the path. I strained to hear something familiar. And that’s when I heard it. Soft at first, growing louder as I listened. The sound was like that of lightly crumpled paper with a few clicks and high squeaks. At first I thought it might be coming from somewhere above, but as the noise grew closer it also grew in intensity. “Bats,” I thought and flicked on my headlamp before starting down the stairs into darkness.
When I opened the front door a wave of wind and smoke rushed toward me. The orange-yellow glow had grown and was pulsing against the dark sky like a misplaced sunrise. I jumped into my truck and headed north from Calistoga along Highway 128 toward Tubbs Lane. As I approached the fire I slowed. The flames and smoke leapt hundreds of feet into the air from the nearby hillside and moved with such ferocity and speed that I pulled over and started making phone calls to my friends in the immediate area.
Unencumbered by a seatbelt, I twisted around and peered out the broad back window. I had no idea why we’d stopped in the middle of the road after passing through the Carquinez Bridge tollbooth, but I was sure he was about to give whoever was honking behind us a piece of his mind, or maybe even worse.
“I don’t give a damn what you speak,” Bob interrupted. “In this town we only speak English. And we also don’t allow those burkas, so that’ll need to go, too.”
“It’s not a burka, you moron,” Mohamed said. “It’s a—”
“Who’s the moron?” Bob said as he pulled his shirt up to reveal an 8-inch knife strapped to his belt.
My brother’s voice echoed in my head: “Black widow spiders are venomous with fangs so big and sharp that they can pierce even the thickest clothing,” he’d often warned me, mostly before I headed into some dark, foreboding space. And once I had entered, he might call in added details: “Their poison will liquefy you from the inside so it can suck up your fluids.”
The washed-out trail to the site was precarious but not bad enough for me to use ropes down the cliff. Nevertheless, with my heavy gear and the darkness it was slow going, and I paused often to gaze into the night, the beam of my headlight creating milky stabs of brightness that faded into the distance.