I think about fire a lot these days. Especially when I’m trying to start one with wood that was sold to me at top price by a guy who referred to it as “seasoned.” But as someone told me recently, “seasoned”—in Maine, at least—only means that it was cut a couple of weeks ago and left out in the weather. It’s a tedious process, this fire-starting business, and I’ve learned to take it seriously. I know now that if I don’t give these sticks the attention they require, they will sense my distraction. They will watch me leave the room to refill a glass of wine or check something on the stove, and they will flare, then fizzle, and go cold moments before I return. So, as I try and try to get these fresh logs to catch, willing them toward flame, I think about how amazing and unlikely it is that fire ever came into humanity’s possession. It is not a cooperative element. I watch my pile of newspaper, kindling, and “seasoned” wood, and I consider how such a magical process was ever conceived. As the stove darkens from yet another failure, I wonder about that primitive man—or most-likely woman—who was able to do, with far less, what I struggle with every frigid evening.
It had to be a woman. What man would have the patience or attention span to deal with fire’s perverseness. I think about how she came to the idea—whether it was with sticks or rocks or old bones—to rub the things together for long enough to produce even a spark. And I imagine her being surrounded by all those primitive naysayers who were wondering what the hell she thought she was doing, some of them even grunting words of advice. Grunts that might translate as “Harder” or “Faster.” The men especially must have been coaching her, maybe snickering behind her back, laughing at her silly tenacity. And this patient primitive—more evidence of her gender—just kept rubbing, ignoring their ignorance, holding back what surely must have been on her lips, some grunted version of “Shut the hell up, you stupid apes!”
How did she do it? What stirred in her primordial mind to imagine such a magical thing as fire? And what was the need that inspired such determined effort while being cursed by less imaginative primates.
I’m convinced that this innovative woman was not trying to make heat. She would have given up long before those first sparks zapped into the cluster of dried leaves or bark. She would have had to. Her fingers, her whole body would have cried for her to stop and climb back into that pile of smelly fur. I know this from my own experience. Even with the benefit of newsprint, kindling, and a lighter that usually works, I have been too cold for patience and perseverance. I have given up, as I’m sure she would have, and pulled my dog closer, wrapping us both in mounds of 21st century, down-filled warmth. No, my suspicion is that the person responsible for fire was not cold and felt no urgency.
Hunger is a possibility, but I doubt that as well. The leap from spark to rotisserie is a bit too lengthy for even a patient genius, and I’m quite sure that the hunger would have been dealt with before a roaring cooking fire could have been accomplished.
No, my opinion—the one I’ve settled on as I stare into the black belly of many a cold stove—is that she did that tedious task of rubbing stone or stick or bone together for who-knows-how-long for reasons connected to power. She rubbed those bits together until they sparked, and the collection of idiots and naysayers grunted for more. It was for entertainment. “See what I can do?” she must have intonated. And at some point, maybe after a half-dozen performances that wowed the half-wits into admiration, a few random sparks might have caught the wind and hit on something dry, causing a flame to erupt. And this entertainer, this performance artist, this woman who had a passion for making people smile, changed the world. And I imagine she was the only person who did this for a while. She must have been elevated in the community for her new accidental skill and praised for her power to harness heat and light, sun and season. That woman surely had a fire inside of her, something that made her persist in making her life, and the life of the others, better.
So these are the thoughts that change how I am dealing now with my fire. I build it like I know it should be built. I light it with a magical flare. I give it the attention that it deserves, as much attention as that primitive woman must have given those first flames. I sit there until it gives me what I need, and I give it whatever it needs to flame up and to keep going. And I imagine a crowd of naysayers surrounding me, doubting my efforts, challenging my abilities. I grunt back and persist.
Sometimes that works. My inner primitive-woman will get the best of those uncooperative logs. She’ll squat and grunt and blow into the embers until a flame rears up, wowing the audience and introducing humanity to the age of fire and warmth.
But more often it doesn’t. Lately, possibly the result of too many failures and not enough need, I will run out of wind, patience, and imagination. I’ll give up on changing the world. I will turn up the propane heater, pull close my shivering pup, and wrap us both in 21st century wonder.
Clif Travers is a visual artist as well as a writer, recently relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y. to the mountains of Maine. In 2017, Clif received an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine, and has been working on two collections of interrelated short stories that are based on the lives and the deaths in a small town. His stories have been published in Underwood Press and Dime Show Review.