Deep south Texas, having received no rain for the baking months of the summer of 2011, had finally gotten rain in late December. A late Christmas gift, it had soaked the farm ground and welled up into the spring at the back and made strange things happen. Trees, whose sap should have receded causing leaves to fall and begin their winter resting, instead sprouted newly minted ones that curled and opened in the La Nina warmed air. They didn’t seem to care that the days were shorter. Pastures rolled like green carpets, colored so because of strange seed or root that lay dormant and waiting for these conditions and the peculiar opportunity.
In the middle of the middle pasture, surrounded by all this extravagant weird winter nature, a bonfire stood, unlit, for four years.
The first summer at the farm Silent Bob and I had taken three huge logs and wrestled them to stand one against each other. Sweat poured off of us, tears of a kind, as Mother had watched. On and on we piled brush and limb against its sides, until ten feet high it stood. We said it was for when Josh came home from Iraq, the first time, and then we said it was for when he came home the second time. We knew it was in part for when Jake went to heaven.
For all these many months, years, no one really watched, or at least they pretended not to, as I piled things on and in it.
Things that I couldn’t figure out what else to do with. I stuffed them into holey and rotted places among the timber and limbs; leaves of books and bank records, the items of a son’s life that was dead and gone. Like a children’s cigar box full of things that meant the world to only her, I deposited these and other things, for safekeeping at the bonfire.
Sometimes, we pretended it was something else than what we knew it to be.
Getting up one morning, the end of December, on a clear but previously-wetted day, the end of another year, selfishly or rightly, I decided it was time to burn that fire. It was time for me to burn that fire.
Situated as it was on the highest part of the farm, I started it.
It took little tinder and almost no wind and the most eastern side of the pile caught first. I watched as tendrils of flame grew longer and searched the center most wood.
I wondered how long it would burn and sitting in the sun I closed my eyes and considered the papers in the fire and the pages that lay under my palm, the ones that talked of God’s love and His son. It’s a curious thing, the sacrificing of a son, especially if you’re God. It’s curiouser still, those older parts of this ancient book that lay in my lap, where it talked of fires and offerings, altars and pleasant smells that reach to heaven.
I watched the smoke from my fire curl heavenward.
Carbon consuming, it cracked loudly as the flames reached beyond their fuel. The sound echoed. Somehow, on just this rise of a hill vacant of trees, the sound flowed down to hit the forest around and echoed back in exaggerated repeat. Slightly delayed and so much louder than its source, sound coming back from all around me, it was unsettling at first, until my occupied mind connected the pattern of popping fire and returning sound. The echoes rolled across the little pasture and the fire got bigger. I had to move away.
Hot tendrils reached the sentimental cubby holes I had stuffed. Propelled upward by the heat and lighter than air at the moment, paper ashes moved high in the heat column and then floated down like snow. A slight wind blew them about and around me. For those moments they prevailed in tact, to rest upon my arm and on my coat and in my hair. They blanketed the ground and having lost all heat by the time they littered, like dark snowflakes, they disintegrated at my touch. Only occasionally, tiny bits of burned carbon would be large enough to continue to drift on the wind.
I closed my eyes again and wondered how long this fire would burn.
In less than three hours the pile was half the size.
Alone on the hill all day, as night came on, I watched the moon become visible in the night sky as she waned to the west. Scorched earth extended five feet all around what remained of the fire and with its heat gone, I drew closer, placing my chair at the edge of the charred ground.
Gently as if a Father was placing them, stars appeared in the darkening sky. There were no more echoes. The fire burned quietly, quenched to mostly embers, a small flame at its center. Ash had become pasture. Peering into the remaining coals, phantom like forms that followed the outline of the books and trinkets I had secreted away glowed eerily.
In the moonlight, the pasture was clear of a bonfire that stood for four years, but much longer in my heart, likley always in my heart. Packing up, I left.
“You know your bonfire, Janet?” Silent Bob would tell me three days later, when he went to feed the animals.
“Yeah,” I replied, the single word filled with all that fire had meant to me..
“Strange. There is almost nothing left, but there is still a curl of smoke rising from the middle,” he answered.
“And when I say almost nothing left,” he continued, “I mean nothing. That pile was huge. It’s weird,” he finished.