Ingham County, MI
Two shovels go into a bed of coals from a dying fire in a pit near the house. The elder boy, in need of a little Isaac and Esau time tonight, has been cleared to stay awake for a bit—cleared, that is to say, by his old man the Bar Jester: we’ve haven’t consulted the Petticoat Government, of which (moms, aunts, grandmothers) there’s plenty come holiday time. The boy totes an armful of emergency newspapers we won’t need and a flashlight we will.
We head to the woods: in one hand I carry a shovel full of glowing coals, red as a maniac’s eyes, and in the other hand another shovel full of coals, also glowing. Put these lumps in a naughty boy’s Christmas stocking, and you’ll disenfranchise his whole damned family.
It’s a trek of about four- or five-hundred yards to a brush pile about eight feet high. The pile is snow-covered, but on the up-wind side of it we’ve cleared a small space, lined it with dry twigs, and prepared a stack of more twigs, snapped and ready, nearby.
Tales of Sasquatch, coyotes, and the Abominable Snowman have been told and retold. For once in my life I’m as necessary as a flashlight.
At last my boy and I arrive. Onto the bed of twigs go two shovels-full of coals; onto the coals go the prepared twigs. We’ve got a fire.
“We’ve got a fire,” I tell the boy, “but we’ve got to keep feeding it until the wind drives it into the pile—like this.” I crack dried branches and begin to wick the patient flames toward the pile. The boy watches and does nothing—much as I probably would have at his age and degree of relative uselessness. I cut him a little slack: he lost a bet on the Cowboys-Redskins game and is feeling a little blue. (To mend his spirits I gave him the money he needs to buy me the beef jerky he owes me. Now all I have to do is cure him of his affection for hateful Cowboys, a sickness that seems to blast every young boy at some stage of his life. Remembering my own affliction during the Staubach-Landry years, I cut the slacker some more slack.)
We watch the fire eat into the pile. The flames, now ardent, grope. At a certain point I say, “In ten minutes this will go up.”
Eight minutes later we have ten feet of flames. We back away. Soon we have fifteen.
My boy, thirsty, eats a handful of snow. Earlier I pelted him with snowballs and gave him and his cousins a lesson in snow-drift face-planting. They’re all amply acquainted with the snow now—and sorely pissed at me. I’m the world’s worst uncle. My boy and I back away from the fire—the white-man fire. I tell him that if we were trying to survive the night in the woods, we’d be making a much smaller fire and conserving the wood. But tonight we’re making a New Year’s Eve fire.
Except I don’t even think about the new year, and my boy, being my boy, isn’t habituated to thinking about it either. In Chaucer’s day the new year began in March—at the Annunciation; in the Christian East the new year begins in September. What purchase does January first have on our imaginations? None. We’re in the woods by a fire.
I point out how bright the woods are now. My boy, his interest waning as his fatigue grows and temperature rises, voluntarily plants his reddening visage in the snow a couple of times. “Ah,” he says. “That feels good.” My thoughts, turning in their wonted manner toward our days, and how they are as grass, incline me to point to the snowy imprint and to say, “amazing how small the mask is, isn’t it?” and he, his thoughts not inclined thereto, agrees. He doesn’t even know that I’ve come back from wandering off to drain the main vein.
As the fire dies a little I show him how to pull in the branches from the periphery while protecting himself from the scorching heat and the smoke. He’s sees and understands but is thinking about a bowl of ice cream and his bed. “Want to take the flashlight and head in”? I ask. “Not alone,” he says.
I walk him to the fence line and tell him I’ll wait there until he makes it to the house. He runs and makes it—after stopping several times to make sure I haven’t abandoned him—and I watch him disappear into the mud room.
What a boy! God bless the woman who bore him—and into whose hands I now commend his soul and body.
Back to the companionable–back to the friendly–fire I go. I’m waiting for all the denizens of the house—the family, the cousins, the in-laws—to hit the hay. I’ll return when, looking from the woods, I see total fenestrated darkness.
The fire is small enough that I can stand near it now. I feed it wood from the periphery and discover in my back pocket a flask. Now how did that get there? I pull from a small reserve of Old Grand-Dad. Ah! God’s plan for my life, as the heretics say.
I look about me. If I were a painter I’d be hard-pressed to say I need anything more than black and white to paint the whites and grays of my surroundings. I’m almost certain that the ground is a true white and the sky a lighter gray than the trunks and branches of the trees, which I can’t really say are black. Maybe the sky needs a little something more, something else, but even the mass of darkness in the distance near the ground, where trees and bramble conspire to give the illusion of solidity, looks less like a black ink spot than a single ambiguous canvas of gray.
In such a manner does the moral life confuse me. I think and think and think. I hear what sounds like gunshot in the distance. It doesn’t even occur to me that this is New Year’s Eve.
At long last the house in the distance is dark: that is, safe for re-entry. I drain the flask, collect the shovels and flashlight, and head toward ambient warmth and soft personnel. Around the country people are making a new start—or would be if they had a different calendar, a better askesis, and rituals to hold them to their resolutions.
Me: I’m incorrigible.
I shake the snow from my boots, put away the coat and gloves, and head toward the cold half of a warm bed. The Bar Jester is ready for sleep—and maybe, in the fullness of time, a quiet return to the Porch.