The woman shows me how to lay the fire – “just this once, and then you’re on your own,” she says. Fires must breathe, she explains. They are greedy for oxygen. I’m a guest in these woods, and this is how I am supposed to stay mostly warm for the month.
I do as the woman shows me: I lay two logs parallel in the wood stove, leaving room between them for newspaper loosely balled up. Atop the logs and crumpled newspaper, I diagonally arrange the first layer of kindling – three thin strips of wood. I place the second layer of kindling diagonally in the opposite direction. I quickly draw the match across the matchbox, striking the small slate-like surface of powdered glass and red phosphorus. Scratch, scratch, fire. A modern, efficient shortcut instead of rubbing two pieces of kindling together.
Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Here in the woods, I am holed up in a sweet gabled roof cottage. The squat wood stove is in the center of the room – cast-iron black and charred inside from so many previous fires.
Can a fire suddenly blaze and then engulf me?
Fire, with its inherent warmth and danger, is a paradox. My only tenuous control is to feed the fire with kindling and then close the door, starving it when I’ve had enough. In between I fan the flames with my breath, a makeshift bellows. Blow, blow to tend the fire.
As a kid, I can’t get enough of the smokey, sulphureous smell of a striking a match. I thrill to light the eight candles that blazed in their small, individual cups on the last night of Hanukkah. Wax drips on the menorah’s brass branches, and before I return the shamash – the ninth candle, the helper candle that will light the others – to its holder I drop it, setting fire to the worn carpet in our living room. I am suddenly in the center of a ring of fire, at first fascinated then afraid.
Until that moment, fire has always been contained in the tame red glow of our oven’s electric coils. Domesticated fire to reheat soup. On the other hand, my grandparents, mis abuelos, made strong Cuban coffee in a cafeterra that always sat on their gas stovetop. Orange, blue-rimmed flames shooting up from the burner lick the cafeterra’s silver beak as it percolates. When Abuelo lights his cigarette in the flame, he leans in too far, and I’m scared he will catch on fire.
I am hyper-vigilant over this combustible enterprise where peril and power meld after setting fire to the balled-up newspaper and kindling. The fire I have laid slowly catches on the thick logs. The fire I have laid casts soft, focused light alleviating a patch of darkness in the room. “Face it, you’re just glamping,” my son says.
“Maybe,” I say; “But one woman’s glamping is another woman’s version of roughing it.”
I am born under the sign of Capricorn – an earth child, bound to the dry land. But I have never been camping. I have never warmed my hands near a blaze or toasted marshmallows. Yet, these images feel so intimate to me.
The fire takes and I let it smolder until it is reduced to embers whose color are like the fiery red of the coils on my old electric stove. After I clean out the wood stove, I look like an old-fashioned chimney sweep. Ashes, ashes, smudged on my forehead as if I, a Jew, am doing Christian penance. But the Jew in me is struggling to clear the feathery piles of ashes, reminding me of ash collected that gave off wisps of smoke floating out of chimneys of Nazi crematoria. The crematoria as black and ashy as my woodstove.
And then magical thinking takes over. “Everything will be returned to its place,” writes the late Israeli poet Dan Pagis, “and already you will be covered with skin and sinews and you will live,/look, you will have your lives back,/sit in the living room, read the evening paper./Here you are. Nothing is too late.”
Reverse the well-worn black and white films of the camps – vestiges of the Nazi’s obsessive documentation – and witness that everything is too late in the world today.
I am crying over the ashes that settle inside the compact wood stove, feeling the history of the Holocaust slipping through my fingers. Fire and Air, Earth and Water, paired to nourish or destroy. I have laid a small conflagration. The embers glow and crackle long after the smoke has dissipated.
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s memoir, “Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets,” is published by Mandel Vilar Press. Her essays and reviews appear in major newspapers, literary magazines, and anthologies. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee. She has received several fellowships from Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Mineral School, and Hedgebrook.