There’s no real insurance in the grand adventure of life. That’s the lesson Melissa Marsted is taking away from the loss of her family home of 16 years to the Tea Fire. On the evening of November 13, 2008, Marsted and her older son, William, ran through their Coyote Road house grabbing whatever they could as wind-whipped flames encroached on their property. They threw a mishmash of items into their car: soccer trophies, photo albums, a handful of books, a violin and a saxophone, and two laptop computers. On the way out the door, Marsted grabbed a CD containing illustrations for a children’s book she had been writing. One year later, as she continues to struggle with loss and recovery, Marsted says that CD was one of the most precious things she saved.
Marsted is the author of Pablito and the Speckled Bear, a children’s book that follows the young hero Pablito on a rites-of-passage quest through the Peruvian Andes. The author was inspired by the concept of the hero’s journey, in which the protagonist is called on a quest and encounters great challenges before emerging from his trials transformed.
A writer and college advisor, Marsted had been working on the text for the book for some time, but had not yet found an illustrator. One afternoon, while running along Mountain Drive, she discovered a metal sculpture in the shape of a heart that had been painted with whimsical illustrations. The next time she ran past the same spot, the heart bore new images, and each time she went for a run, she checked to see what the mystery painter had created. Her curiosity thoroughly piqued, Marsted asked around and discovered who had been doing the covert painting. The artist’s name was Ben Cicatti, and he lived with his wife and baby in a rental property on Mountain Drive.
At Marsted’s invitation, Cicatti, who is a design artist for The Independent, began creating original oil paintings to illustrate the story of Pablito. From moody mountain landscapes to bright village scenes, each piece radiated the spirit of joy and adventure that characterized Marsted’s story. At the time of the Tea Fire, he had completed about half the illustrations for the book. Every one of them was lost to the fire, which swept quickly across the 100 yards between the Tea Garden where it originated and the house where Ciccati and his daughter, Chloe Bee, were hanging out that evening. He had just enough time to get her into the car and off the mountain.
As a renter, Ciccati feels he walked away from the fire relatively unscathed. “We had no insurance,” he explained last week. “We lost everything we had, but we were lucky; we could move on to other things and not have to deal with so much stuff.”
Marsted, in contrast, has found the aftermath of the fire to be a protracted process of dealing with stuff. “We’re still going through the dark forest,” she explained over coffee last month. “You just go day to day. Will you rebuild, will you not?” The way Marsted described it, recovering insurance for losses due to the fire is practically a full-time job, one that leaves her with little time or energy for other pursuits. “I don’t think people understand how hard this is,” she admitted. Yet despite the uncertainty of the future and the anxiety that produces, she has remained determined to complete Pablito and the Speckled Bear. In November, her perseverance paid off, with a number of regional stores agreeing to sell copies of the book’s first printing.
Like all those Santa Barbarans who have survived trial by fire, the protagonist of this book goes on a journey that brings him face to face with a terrifying force of nature. By harnessing his courage and trusting his instinct, he makes it through his ordeal, and returns to his village a bigger person. That’s a metaphor that speaks to Marsted daily as she sorts through the rubble of insurance paperwork and considers how to rebuild her life. “The book is one of the most positive things that came out of the fire,” she explained, adding that she dedicates the book to the next generation, especially to her sons, and to Ciccati’s daughter. “This is the one thing that helped me take my mind off things and see that something good came out of the past year.”
Pablito and the Speckled Bear is now available at Chaucer’s Books, Tecolote Book Shop, and Wendy Foster Upstairs. Marsted’s writing can also be found at teafirechronicles.com.