She was watching TV when the light switched on just before midnight. She stood up and walked his way. He sat in the other room with his head phones halfway on, eyes closed, head slightly swinging side to side as his fingers flew over the piano. He was practicing a passage and therefore had no idea she was standing right behind him.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” she spoke louder than normal.
“Christ!” He exclaimed, lightly shook. “You’re still up?”
“Let’s go for a walk. It’s a beautiful night out.”
“Sure, why not,” he said. “Let me get my ducks in a row right quick.” He put his head phones fully on and continued practicing his passage.
“I have to change anyways. Ten minutes it is.” she said shaking her head.
She slipped into her tights then a pair of jeans followed. On top she wore a sweater and she stuffed a couple of letters with matches and keys into the pockets of her jeans. She nudged him in the back with a her foot. He tore off his headphones. It was time to go.
“Are you ready?” She asked.
“I think so,” he said wondering if he was. “It’s cold out though. Twelve o’clock midnight. You really want to go for a walk right now?”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to come. I can go by myself.” She said with a touch of sadness.
He politely sighed, “I can’t very well let a lovely young woman roam through the darkness all alone. Gimme a minute to get a little warmer.”
He switched on the light, and over his pajamas he put on pants and a hoodie. His most trusted one, the one with a logo of a green thumb. She wrapped a scarf around her neck and he put on her knitted hat. They hit the road.
“This seems crazy,” he said as they took a path through a broken gate towards the beach. “But you were right, though chilly, it really is a beautiful night.”
The night was cold. The moonlight even colder. There was no wind at all. It was the kind of night when the words they spoke left their mouths only to hang frozen in midair.”
“We should build a fire,” she lightly demanded.
“It’s a little late for that don’t you think?” He asked her. “What’s so great about building a fire anyways?”
“What’s so great about Ben Harper?” She asked out of nowhere. “It’s just a bunch of poetic noise.”
“Ben Harper has millions of fans worldwide.” He grinned answering her question.
“Well, fire has had fans all over the world since it was first discovered all those years ago,” she said matter-of-factly.
“You’re on to something there,” I laughed.
“People will be building fires long after Ben Harper and ourselves are gone, too”
“That’s something, too.” He pulled his hand out of his pocket and put his arm around her shoulders. “The trouble is, I don’t have a damn thing to do with Ben Harper—except that I was practicing one of his songs on the piano earlier. Nor do I have anything to do with anything from even a hundred years ago—or a hundred years from now, either. Nothing. Zip. Nada. What’s important is right now, this moment. Who knows when this world will end? Who can worry about the future? The only thing that matters is the fact that we are talking together, and we are enjoying this walk, and we are about to build a fire.”
They climbed the steps to the beach. They found an unusual spot, where driftwood of all shapes and sizes had collected, all the while, making a neat little pile. One oversized piece of wood must have made a generous effort to work its way there.
The light of the full moon transformed the shoreline into a sharp blade. Winter’s dying waves crashing hushed as they washed their footprints away. There was not another soul around.
“Pretty cool spot, huh?” He said with a cloud of chilly breath.
“Incredible!” She smiled. “Now let’s see how good you are. Let’s get warm,” she said with her head motioning to the pile of driftwood.
“Patience now,” he said. “There’s a right way to do this. First, you’ve got to plan it. And you’ve got to get it all arranged so it’ll burn without a hitch, you light it slow-like. You can’t rush these things. The patient beggar earns his keep.”
In such short time, he had done a fantastic job of weaving the bigger logs with the smaller scraps until the pile resembled something of an avant-garde sculpture. Stepping back from time to time, he would examine in detail the pile he had built, adjust a few pieces, then circle back around the pile for another look, repeating the process several times over.
As always, all he had to do was look at how the pieces of wood were stacked to begin seeing mental images of the subtlest movement of the preconceived flames rising, the way a sculptor can imagine the pose of a figure hidden in the shadows of himself.
He took his time, but once he had his affairs in order, and everything arranged to his satisfaction, he nodded as if saying to himself, that’s it: Perfecto! Next he twisted up sheets of old clippings from an outdated newspaper dispenser that was stranded nearby, and slipped them into the open gaps at the bottom of the pile.
“Do you have a match?” He asked her.
She took the matches from her pocket and gave them to him. He struck one against the flimsy flint and flung it at the bottom of the pile. Narrowing her focus, she stared at him and his glowing eyes. This was it: the one heart-stopping moment of the whole procedure. Would the fire catch? Would it erupt in flames?
The two of them stared in silence at the small perfectly piled mountain of driftwood. The sheets of newspaper flared up, and rose were flames, swaying for a moment’s notice. After that, there was nothing. It didn’t work, she thought. Maybe the wood was too wet.
She was on the verge of giving up hope when a plume of white smoke shot up from the pile. With no wind to dispose of it, the smoke became an unbroken thread rising up into the sky. The pile must have caught fire somewhere, but still there was no sign of flames.
They didn’t say a word. He kept his mouth shut tight, hands shoved in his pockets. She folded her arms across her chest, and slowly tapped her foot to her thoughts.
As usual, she thought about Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” It was the story of a man traveling alone through the wilderness and his attempts to light a fire. He would freeze to death unless he could make it catch. The sun was going down. She hadn’t read much fiction. But that one short story she read again and again, ever since it had been assigned to her as an essay topic during her last summer vacation of high school.
The landscape of the story would forever be vivid in her mind as she thought back. She could feel the man’s fear, hope, and despair as if they were her own; she could sense the very thumping of his heart as he hovered over the creative brink of life or death. Most important of all, though, was the fact that she thought the man might’ve been fundamentally longing for death.
She knew that for sure. She could never explain how she knew, but she knew it from the start. Death was what he really wanted. He knew that it was the only ending for him, and yet, still he went on fighting for his life and what he believed in with all his might. He had to fight an over-whelming adversary, himself and the wild in order to survive. What shook her most was this deep-seated contradiction.
The teacher ridiculed her viewpoint. “Death is really what he wants? That’s a new one for me! And odd! Quite original, I’d have to say.” He read her conclusion aloud to the class, and everyone laughed at her.
But she knew. They were all wrong. Otherwise, how could the ending be so tranquil and beautiful?
“Uh, Ryan,” she said venturing away from her thoughts, “don’t you think the fire has gone out?”
“Don’t worry gorgeous, it’s caught. It’s just getting ready to flare up, see how it’s smoking still? You know what they say: ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’”
“How can you be so sure it’s caught?”
“I just know. It’s going to flare up any minute now.”
“How did you come to master such an art, handsome?”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘art’. I learned it when I was a boy scout. When you’re a scout, like it or not, you learn everything you need to know about surviving in the wild, and all that you need to know about building a fire, too.”
“I see,” she said. “A boy scout, too. It’s true, when they say we learn something new everyday.”
“That’s not the whole story, of course, I have this weird talent, too. When it comes to starting fires I have a knack that some guys just don’t have.”
“It must give you lots of pleasure, but I don’t suppose this talent of yours makes you lots of money.”
“True. Not a damn dime.” He said with a smile.
As he had said, a few flames began to flicker at the center of the pile, accompanied by faint crackling sounds. She let out a long-held breath. Now there was nothing to worry about. They would find their warmth.
Facing the newborn flames, they began to stretch out their hands through the shimmering light for each other’s. For the next few minutes, maybe hours, maybe days, maybe years, maybe eternities. There was nothing to be done but to hold each other’s hand in silence as, little by little, the flames rose with unprecedented strength.
As her beauty glowed in the darkness behind the flames, she pulled the crumpled letters from her pocket and held them over the fire until they disintegrated into nothing more than ashes.
“What was that?” He asked.
“The past,” she said shining.