Thursday, May 01, 2008

checking the fire

I went with Dad last night to see how the brush pile was burning. The far corner of the farm was dark despite all the lights: parking lights, flashlights, cigarettes, embers, flames, and fireflies that were in a hurry to meet the stars.

As I stood near the fire, feeling like Earth at just the right distance from the sun neither to scorch nor to freeze, I would glance up to the sky, trying to catch a spark pretending to be a star. Like when you first look at a clock and the second hand seems to have stopped, and just as you convince yourself the clock has broken or time itself has really stood still, it clicks onward dutifully one second at a time. And so I watched orange stars shake loose from the sky and whisp into the night air.

I stood in silence between the fire and Dad as he carried out his winding monologue about the fire, its heat, its size, its smoke -- my only lines, "I guess," "I don't guess," and one hand movement indicating north because he asked me if I knew where it was. Something about wind direction. Then I continued my own monologue, internally, discussing the irrelevance of north, south, east, and west once you exit Earth's gravity. A compass, I imagine, doesn't help any in outerspace. You can't head east to Mars.

Just as I was hypothesizing that north and south might exist in the solar system, Dad broke in, said his science teacher told him that all fire is trapped sunlight accumulated over the years. I could see that. These hundred-year-old trees were giving off their lives' work of drinking in light, a final catharsis. "Nothing is created or destroyed," he then said, in agreement with that teacher. "It only changes form."

I clicked on my flashlight to light a path back to the pickup, and a chunk of burning tree trunk shifted in the pile, releasing a new generation of eager sparks.

"Can you count them?"

My eyes followed as they raced themselves out of the fire and into the sky, and I knew they weren't pretending, just reminiscing.

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