When my sister Sally and I were children, we lit the woods behind our house on fire. This is a true story, one I have said out loud many times yet never written down.
I was about 10 years old then, and my friend Doreen and I had been lighting little fires in the woods for days. On top of a flat boulder, we would put a pile of dried leaves and twigs, make sure that the area around the pile was free of other debris, and then strike the match. On our fires we toasted bread. I wonder now if we imagined ourselves to be characters in some of our favorite television shows, like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons.
Sally and her friend Kenny became privy to our fires, and, of course, they wanted their own. We traded them a book of matches for the Chinese jump rope, and Doreen and I sternly lectured them on safety and secrecy.
It was fall. Later that day, or perhaps it was later that week, I was riding my bike around the curve in the road that brought my house into view, and I saw, behind and to the sides of the house, lots of patches of orange flame, as if there were 50 or 100 campfires on the ground among the tall pine trees.
I felt a clutch in my gut — this had something to do with me — and I kept riding my bike. Mentally I knew I should have stopped, but I kept riding up the street, to another friend’s house. I remember trying to act cool and regular, while inside I was working out my story and imagining what was going on at my house. The woods surrounded the neighborhood and ran behind all of our houses; I must have looked out the window and been relieved that the flames had not traveled up to the house I was laying low in.
Later I heard from my mother what had happened. Neighbors — adults and children — had formed a bucket brigade while they waited for the fire trucks to arrive. Some adults beat at the flames with rakes. No one was burned. The fire incinerated a huge swath of downed branches, dried needles, and underbrush, but the fire fighters arrived in time to extinguish it and save the trees. My mother said it was lucky that my little sister, who had on a fringed poncho that day, had not caught fire.
Sally went with my mother to the house of the people who owned the woods, and she apologized. Was I punished? Perhaps I was grounded. I have always felt that I escaped the greater culpability that I deserved.
The house I live in now has a fireplace. Although we have lived here eight years, in only the last month or so have we tried to get a fire going. Jimmy and I crumple newspaper into the iron stand and loosely lay kindling on top of that. We add a piece or two of split wood. To the paper, we touch a lit match here and there. The paper burns quickly and dramatically, and we stare at it, waiting for the kindling to catch. It does, for a moment, and then fades, like a used-up birthday cake candle. The flames lick promisingly at the bark of the split wood, and then retreat. Within 10 or 15 minutes, the whole thing dies.
We sweep out the meager ashes, pull out the charred pieces, and try again. I go onto the web and read authoritative advice on how to start a fire in a fireplace. The other night, Jimmy whispered in my ear, “Squirt some lighter fluid on it,” and I grin, remembering how we attempted to burn a yew stump in our yard last summer, until Lydia, steadfast at 11, protested emotionally until I poured a couple of pails of water onto the smoldering wood. She was right, and I knew we were wrong. Still, I wanted to keep that fire going, and it was only my love for her that made me stop.
At the local Whole Foods market, you can buy something called a Java Log, which I guess is the organic equivalent of a Duraflame. Jimmy and I are able to get these things burning in our fireplace; we arrange one in the grill and light the paper wrapper where it says “Light here.” As you can see in the picture at the top of this post, as the paper starts burning, it curls away from the log, which is made from compressed coffee grounds. It’s black, and it burns evenly, but it does not make a cheery fire. That dark block is always there.
It strikes me that our shared inability to build a natural fire indoors might be the kind of affliction that a couple in a short story might struggle with. Jimmy and I are not characters, though; we’re just us, and, for now, we’ll stick with the coffee logs. If you know us, and you’re willing to come by and teach two novices how to build a proper fire (Rich?), we welcome you. I would still like, however, to be the one to light the match.