Smoke, vinegar, rain: Non-Fiction by Sabrina Oliveros

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When wildfire smoke from Butte County crept towards San Francisco in early November, I thought, “This is not ideal, but I can deal with it.” After all, I grew up in a Philippine town where everyone burned litter and leaves in their backyards. Farmers burned vegetation to clear land. I lived most of my life in Manila’s smog-ridden, third-world metro. The smoke was a hazard. I should be cautious. But I could manage. It would be fine.

When wildfire smoke covered the city several days later, I thought, “This is bad, but not as bad. Think of all the people who truly have it bad.” I tried not to think of what truly made it worse. Many found it hard to breathe, but many had ceased to breathe at all. Perhaps many no longer wished to. I picked up a mask, snatched a spare, and bought another pack of cough drops. The next morning, I woke with a sore throat, stinging ears, and a strange burnt smell in my room. Even the headlines gasped: the air that day was more poisonous than it was anywhere in the world.  

As wildfire smoke choked the city, I filled a small bowl with suka, cane vinegar, and placed it on my shelf. I remembered it was a natural freshener, tried and tested through time; I thought it would suffice. I sat by the window and watched the empty gray stained-orange street. I wondered when I could open it again.

Wildfire smoke crippled the city. As fires raged across California, I began to think of floods. Not floods that whipped down mountains like apocalyptic flame, or deluges that washed a world anew, but floods that spilled from ill-planned sewers and ill-kept rivers – mud and muck, garbage and grime, brown and brackish water laying waste after the typhoon had ceased to wail. Those are floods this city has never seen. Floods my other country will always know.

Those floods birthed days like these days of smoke and ash, when all you could do was watch through windows at a sky gone gray, waiting for waters to recede and reveal there was still a world they could wipe out again. Those days, you stood in a house that stood still, water up to your waist, and you thought it’s fine, it will be fine, the front gate is smashed and the power’s still out, the albums are drowned but our house didn’t burn down 

And it would be fine, it should be fine, for in the midst of the flood, you had your family, your friends, your faith, and you had food. Steeped in cane vinegar, boiled to a broth, the potfuls of pork and chicken adobo would keep. It would keep you, again and again, through the alphabet of storms from the first to the last – that cycle of calamities that only calmed before Christmas. By then, the winds would be gentle and the storms would be gone; you could serve at the feast what you had prepared for the famine.

The night before wildfire smoke cleared, the city waited for rain. A storm scrubbed the skies for an entire day and another night, and when the sun finally broke it shone beside a rainbow.

That was the morning of Thanksgiving.

It is not a hallowed day where I come from, but my roommate wanted to celebrate. She comes from a Chinese province just northwest of the Philippines, where typhoons in the region also ravage and reap. Her people, like my people, might be strangers to wildfires yet are no strangers to storms. She asked me to make adobo: a meal she had never had part of.

There was only a cup’s worth of vinegar left in the bottle.

One can make feasts from less a bounty. I knew that it would suffice. I knew it would be fine.


Sabrina Oliveros writes professionally for projects ranging from museum and library exhibits to online marketing campaigns. She lives in San Francisco and was raised in the Philippines.

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Curated by FORTH Nonfiction Editors.


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