What is it about firelight that draws us in? Harnessed, it brings life. Left to play off its leash, it is death. One of the first lessons most of us learn as children is to not get too close to the flame – but we never really listen, do we? Many of my earliest memories are of fire – touching it, not touching it, being scolded for thinking of touching it. My left wrist bears a sizable scar from a run-in with a wood heater as a child. I was skittish around open flame for years, but sorely tempted, all the same. Despite the fact that pain is part of its makeup, fire entices us.
It also lulls us, encourages us to show our shadow side. There is nothing like a story told fireside. The tradition may not be in our DNA, but it can’t be too far off. Any child, telling a ghost story, flashlight pressed up to chin, baby fat bathed in shadows, burgeoning adolescent angles glowing eerily, is a faded photocopy of some long-ago bard.
It’s easy for me to get tangled in fire and tales. And heat. And attraction. All of these things fall into the same pot, I think. I can fall in love with a fire, or by a fire, or with a story, or a storyteller, or a person who talks to me beside a fire, or a person who builds fires. Not a book burner, though. At least I know my boundaries, right?
Today I’ve been thinking of several things that have all gotten jumbled in my memory, and should probably be different stories – and one day might be. But today, they’re the story of my day, and of my life when I was younger, and of endings. Let’s keep it short. Four memories that don’t really tell a story that you’ll recognize, unless you know me. And maybe not even then. Maybe it’s not that kind of day. Pretend that we’re sitting in a pub somewhere, nice and cosy, even though it’s freezing out. We’ve got a prime spot, a cosy little booth across from the wide, welcoming fireplace, logs crackling in the blazing fire that burns therein. I don’t know what you’re drinking, but I have a nice glass of scotch. And I’m telling you a story in four parts. Make of them what you will…
I am 14, and it is my birthday weekend. Once again, my family is at Ft. Branch, attending the yearly Civil War reenactment. It’s Saturday night, and the second year that I’m allowed to dance at the barn dance. Last year, I met a cute boy – his name was Matthew – who asked me to dance (later, I found out it was my father’s idea, and I’ve always wondered if he paid the poor sap to ask me). This year, I’m not sure who I’ll dance with, and am feeling awkward. To my surprise, an older boy, almost a man, steps out of the crowd and asks for the honor of a waltz. Larry and I have so much fun that we end up dancing most of the night. A few months later, we meet again, another reenactment, another barn dance, this one held out in a field. The dance floor is a little dim, lit by far-away campfires. A waltz instructor gives us lessons, and together we’re good enough that for the next few years, we’re dance partners at every barn dance we attend together. He is five years older than me. I’ve just started high school – he’s just started college.
I am 15, and it is Christmas. I’m visiting my grandparents, and Larry and I decide to meet near another fort, this one on the seacoast of North Carolina. He gives me two presents – a delicate, stained glass oil lamp, and a Beatles album on CD. We walk on a beach littered with seaweed and dead jellyfish. It is cold, and desolate, and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
I am 16, and it is once again my birthday weekend. I’m excited to see Larry, and happy that my parents let me have free reign of the reenactment. I’ve forsaken the petticoats and hoop skirt to costume as a boy, and play at being a nurse in disguise. Larry and his friends are acting as dismounted cavalry, members of the U.S. Army. As soon as everything’s set up at my parents’ campsite, I rush over to hang out with the guys. It’s a crisp fall night, and we sit, basking in the warmth of their campfire. Everything smells of autumn leaves, old leather, tobacco, wood smoke. All around us, campfires and lanterns bathe the little groups of family and friends in sepia circles. Quiet conversations hum beneath the trees. It’s a simple kind of magic. Here I feel grownup, loved. I am Larry’s little sister, and he and his friends are college age, but not neanderthal frat boys – they’re band kids, geeks like me. They watch their language, and don’t drink or smoke while I’m around. Larry has a friend, a boy with a generous smile and sad eyes, James. It’s obvious that Larry’s brought him along to introduce to me, and he was on to something. James and I get to talking about the kinds of things that I love at 16 – Beatles, Chicago, Star Wars, Hitchhiker’s Guide, the Vietnam conflict, airplanes, writing, hats. I am wearing a really great hat this weekend, a straw hat that I’ve folded up into a jaunty tricorn, with a big feather. It’s not accurate, but it suits me, so I don’t particularly care. At the end of the weekend, as the guys are packing up to leave, I hang out with them to say bye. Larry and James joke about the can of Dinty Moore that has been rolling around in the back of Larry’s Suburban since he was in high school. James and I exchange emails, and there’s a little jolt of energy as we hug goodbye. He smiles. I walk away feeling pretty good about myself.
I am 16, and it’s ten days after my birthday. I’m in English class, and the guidance counselor calls me out of class. There’s been a phone call, she explains. Something has happened. Someone has passed away. I am as tall as the guidance counselor. I’ve never liked her, and now I see that I am taller than she is, and for some reason it makes me like her even less. She isn’t being clear, and I am annoyed. What is this about? She takes my hand, and I steel myself for the worst – an ancient great-aunt must have kicked the bucket. There’s nothing else that I can imagine at this point in my life. Grandparents don’t die, and I’m fresh out of great-grandparents, and obviously parents live forever, so what are we talking, here? And why would she call me out of my favorite class? She’s asking me if I understand. Understand what? She hasn’t told me anything yet, just that there’s been a phone call, and that it was my friend Larry, and that James – James with the sad eyes and that stupid, scraggly hair – 19-year-old James, with that deep laugh, and the cigar he was never going to actually smoke – James who was going to ask me out when he got up the nerve – has been murdered. James is gone. James is dead. He won’t be calling me, after all. My legs give out. My spine liquifies. My forehead kisses the cold, filthy tile floor there in the hallway by the freshmen lockers. The guidance counselor, inefficient as always, runs off to find help. I crawl to the bathroom, where I jumble in a corner, sobbing, until my favorite teacher comes to gather me up and piece me back together again.
The stories are over. I’ve finished my scotch. We should say goodnight. The fire burns low. For now, let’s do our best to ignore the thought that the flames live by their own law. Let’s pretend for just one night that we’ve harnessed them, and not they us.