Get dressed. We’re heading for a walk in the woods. We have to drive to the park. Grab me my keys please. It might rain so let’s not forget slickers. You look so cute wrapped in opaque plastic, your big shiny face extruded at one end like some sort of girl-worm. Look, when you grow up in the suburbs you never learn the names for trees—they’re all just trees—so you have to think about other stuff when you’re walking along the manicured paths beneath the tall pointy ones and beside the bushy ones with dark bark and nodules of sap like spoonfuls of lemon jelly flicked against the skin. When I was little I’d run away from mom, hide beneath one at the side of the house, and ignite the blobs with a cigarette lighter that was mine and only I knew about. They came aflame like snapping your fingers. The smoke absolutely black, almost a solid. Drops on fire falling with a bee-in-a-cup, whistling zip that scratched an itch between the two halves of my brain I hadn’t even known was there. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.
DAVE: I do an activity in my class where I burn sugar—
Hold my hand. There’s a hillock ahead. The path is strewn with needles from above. They’re a normal part of living on this planet.
DAVE: —as an example for respiration, which is what happens in our lungs when we breathe in. We use the oxygen to release the energy from the glucose in our food. And so I’m releasing the energy in front of people by burning sucrose just like a marshmallow burns. You do it more rapidly with a flame, whereas in your blood or in your cells you do it one-by-one, one molecule by one molecule.
ME: (sitting with friends around a backyard bonfire) How do your students react to you burning sugar in the classroom?
DAVE: They like the smell. And they’re like, (hushed voice of amazement) “You’re starting a fire in the room?” And they get freaked out. I don’t have a hood or anything so it’s a little exciting.
ME: How do you keep it safe? What method do you use to put it out?
DAVE: (laughs) That’s a good question. I have a pan to cover it afterwards.
ME: So, you smother it. You don’t pour water on it?
DAVE: No. I pour sugar on a flame-proof table and then I just pour alcohol all over it and I light it on fire.
Aluminum (airplanes) silver-white.
ME: What color are the flames?
DAVE: That’s a good question. A variety of colors. They’re kind of invisible, but they’re green and like pink.
Antimony (against money) pale green. Arsenic (poison old ladies use) blue. Calcium (bones) orange. Boron (double insult) bright green. Iron (bridges) gold. Lithium (depression) crimson red. Mercury (thermometers) red. Potassium (contains a swear) lilac. Sodium (parking lot lights) intense yellow. Phosphorus (matches) pale bluish green. Tin (If I only had a heart…) blue-white. Tantalum (sounds like “tantrum”) blue.
ME: Why do you think staring at a fire feels so good?
Yttrium (made up by scientists as a joke name) carmine, crimson or scarlet.
SARAH S: Well, it’s “The Fire Channel.” It’s warm, it’s constantly changing. (looks down at her kid) And your child is throwing things into it, so you have the added bonus of “Will she catch on fire?” (to her daughter who hands her a stick she was about to toss at the fire) Thank you, Nor-nor.
NORA (AGE 3): I’m keeping the fire going.
SARAH S: My dad used to light matches on his jeans zipper, his crotch zipper. Then he’d light the stove with it.
MELINDA: Did you think he was gonna catch his crotch on fire?
SARAH S: (laughs) There was that slight concern as a kid, that your dad was gonna catch his crotch on fire—yes—as he lights the Strike Anywhere matches on his zipper. We also had bonfires where he would stick the bratwursts on a pitchfork. It was the same pitchfork he was scooping manure with, but he—
ME: (amid general laughter) Did he sterilize it in the fire?
SARAH S: He swore he sterilized it with the wire brush you use for grinding metal. He cleaned it off with that and then put the brauts on.
ME: Did you have many childhood illnesses?
SARAH S: That was also around the time that he chipped a tooth on a very strong peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
So far my pants have twice caught light.
I think it was the raspberry jelly that did him in.
The first time I’m standing in front of the fireplace, watching Three’s Company with a few high school friends. I slip a hand in my jeans pocket and a second later feel a strange itch. I tap my pocket and smoke and sparks fly out of the hole. Should this have happened? I ask myself. No it should not, I answer, then scream. I proceed to jump up and down, smacking at the general area of my groin. A few more flames lick out as I’m on the floor with my jeans around my ankles. My friends turn away from Jack Tripper on roller skates splayed at the feet of his sexy jewel thief blind date to watch me on the floor instead. In lighting the kindling I’d placed several matchbooks in my pocket, some of which had their covers torn off. Sticking my hand in my pocket later I’d rubbed some of the match heads against the striking areas and—have you ever ignited an entire book of matches at once? Multiple that by four and imagine it in your pants.
The second time I’m standing at the board in a seminar room at the University of Kansas drawing Venn diagrams for my Introduction to Logic students. A few spare CD Walkman batteries align just so against the keys in my pocket to short-circuit, heat up, and ignite my jeans. Again with the itch, the pocket pat, the sparks and smoke, (no John Ritter but) yes the drop to the floor.
SARA K: It was Valentine’s Day and it was snowing.
This time I keep my pants on. Later, that feels like a victory.
SARA K: I was probably 9 or 10. We had a fire going in our fireplace, which was faulty but we didn’t know it at the time. My dad smoked in the house. I went upstairs, to an open loft area, and I could see down and I’m like, “Wow it’s really smoky, we should open a window.” And when my dad went to open the window we saw the flames shooting out of the side of the house. The whole wall was on fire. So we had to call the fire department.
ME: And did the firefighters put it out?
SARA K: They did but my dad wouldn’t let them bring any hoses in the house until they covered all of his record collection. The Axis: Bold As Love. The Bongo Fury. As I’m outside in my pajamas in the snow going, “Can we put the fire out now?” and he’s like, “Hold on we need more plastic.” The firemen were getting irritated with him. He was probably really drunk but I didn’t realize it at the time.
We need our car but we don’t love our car.
He might have accidentally thrown his vodka instead of water on the fire.
We need one another and we sure as sugar love one another. Right now death feels like the only thing could screw this up. Bad choices though. Let’s not forget the power of bad choices to reduce a home to smoking rubble. Have you seen a mattress at the side of the road? Remember how wrong that seemed? Even in a rainstorm some fires are capable of devouring a forest, new drops vaporizing before reaching the leaves. The forest transforms into a new creature with shuddering flames for lungs and a hammered heart turning anything otherwise inert explosive. New skin reaches as far as the heat waves, and the air warps so you can’t see through. When you brought me the cheese scone you baked while I sat downstairs trying in my head to become a better person for the rest of the day, I ate it after you left.
ME: What do you use to light it with?
It brought me back to life from the inside out. Like a sun—a good sun—had switched on somewhere near my heart.
DAVE: I usually have a kid do it with a match. I didn’t do it this year because last year they were really freaked out. This was the second week of school, and they were like, “What?” They just didn’t trust me at that point. They were like, “You’re starting a fire without safety equipment and—” We don’t have safety goggles. I don’t use safety goggles in my room. That was another thing, they were like, “We didn’t have a safety talk or a safety test or any of those things.” And I was like, “You guys did that in middle school. When you guys have a fire at home do you guys put safety goggles on?”
ME: And what did they say?
DAVE: (meek voice) “We don’t have fires.” But then they do.
“All the things you prohibit are interesting for children—
ME: Do they think you’re the reckless science teacher or the wacky science teacher?
DAVE: It varies. Lighting things on fire can definitely destroy your credulity to the young. Especially if it’s where they’re trying to feel safe.
—and the more you prohibit them, the more interesting they are,” said Frieder Kircher, a deputy assistant chief with the Berlin Fire Department. Tonight I stumbled across an NYTimes.com article about day cares in Germany that have begun teaching children as little as 6 how to light a match. They show them how to make fire then how to deal safely with the fire they’ve made. Our fascination with fire runs deep. “It’s very clear we have been dependent on fire for a long, long time, and it has been integral to our evolution as a highly intelligent, information using species,” said Daniel Fessler, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Fire served as protection, warmth and a means to a higher quality diet, which may have allowed our pre-human ancestors to develop bigger brains, he says. Natural selection may even have favored individuals who learned how to master fire early, he speculates. In other words, our children may come preprogrammed to play with fire, and if so, it’s an impulse extremely difficult to suppress. Below the article’s headline, close-ups of small children holding flaring little sticks—
ME: Do you remember who taught you to light a match?
—gazing into the flames with concentration and awe, each small face bathed in orange light.
MELINDA: My mom. I think I was 4. We had a fireplace we used for heat and I lit that on fire. In fact my mom was disappointed in me because when my kids were little they didn’t know how to use a match. She’s like, (disbelieving voice) “You didn’t teach your kids how to light a match?” and I’m like, “Why would you teach your kid to light a match? We don’t have a fireplace.”
DAVE: Back then Felicity would say, “I’m allergic to fire.” She’d have a reaction to it.
ME: What would she do?
MELINDA: If her skin got too close, it would melt and form blisters. She would be like (coughing dramatically) “I’m allergic to fire.”
I almost blew up my nephew Brian.
ME: How old was she when she did that?
MELINDA: Around 5.
I’m little. He’s a little litttler than me, over the house on a visit with his parents. Hey, let’s go to the garage out back so I can show you something I saw on TV. This guy in a white coat made flames shoot up a tube! He said don’t try this at home, but he didn’t mean us.
I set Brian up as a lookout as I pour lawnmower gasoline down a wrapping paper tube—late afternoon sunlight jabbing at us from the workbench window—and for good measure switch on a fan from an air hockey table I’d recently dismantled. Only a week before one of my brothers taught me how to light a match—standing in the basement under a bare bulb, you hold it like this, your press it here and scrape. Now don’t tell anyone I showed you. And now there we are, Brian with his eye at a gap in the garage door panels, me trying to get match after match to light in my little fingers, combustible fumes circling my nephew and me like demons in an old painting of something bad about to happen due to poor choices.
“Grampa’s coming!” whisper-yells Brian, and I toss the cup of unleaded behind some boxes and shoot past him just as he’s reaching for the knob. Don’t panic. Walk away clean. In my whole childhood (to my memory) my dad spanks me a total of twice. Welcome to number two. I’m sent to my room afterward—to my pleasure palace filled with scratch-n-sniff stickers, groan tubes, and Dr. Seuss—to think over my crime. Emerging an hour later, everyone’s in the kitchen. I go stand close to my mom at the stove—
I’m ready to turn to stone.
—as the adults above me talk in that way they always talk, a nonstop meander of subjects and stories, excited interjections that fascinate me trying to follow.
Not now but as an idea. Someday. When all the episodes set on cruise ships have been filmed, shown, and set on the shelves in the vaults. Then watch me harden. Someone held against her will in a house downtown last week. She escaped screaming into the street. The paper published everyone’s faces big as balloons and the criminal charges—captors and captive. Meanwhile another rocket explodes upon takeoff. Flames as each section of fuselage falls scorching the soil below. Someday they’ll come with trowels or futuristic versions of trowels to see what we were up to, to see what colors our dreams were. Burnt earth around here is reddened earth. That’s to do with clay in the soil.
BETTY R: The dangerous thing about western Kansas is—
Our blood, when it washed in, barely left a stain.
BETTY R: —we were 12 miles from the nearest fire department, so you were mighty mighty careful with fire. We didn’t even burn trash on a regular basis because you had to be so careful. You did not have a bonfire. You know how most places would have a bonfire before homecoming? Not us. We didn’t do that.
ME: Because of the risk of starting a wildfire?
BETTY R: Uh-huh. It wasn’t a wildfire, but one time some buildings in Claflin caught fire. It was in August. It must have been 1967, because I was writing a letter to David and I wrote “Claflin’s burning.” Well, what happened was they had to tell everybody in town quit using water and they used up the whole entire water tower and then they had to go out to Cow Creek and they had to load the water into trucks to take it back to town. And then when they finally got it all put out—when my cousin and his dad got home they were soot-covered and there was nothing to wash with.
ME: Were they volunteer fire people or was it just everybody in town?
BETTY R: Everybody went out and did it. And I sat out past the barns and watched black smoke go up. From 12 miles away.
ME: Did they know what started the fire?
BETTY R: Wiring. In one of the buildings. Yeah, everybody out there was very very very careful with fire. Safety first. You just had to be. We didn’t even like it when sometimes the county would come out and try to burn ditches.
One autumn my dad decides to skip the raking—
Everyone would be watching.
—and just set light to the leaves where they fell. Normally we’ll spend several weekends on our heavily wooded acre gathering leaves into numerous small piles, which we drag on tarps to the back garden to burn in one big pile before the snows come. This year though, my dad decides to save the labor and ignites the ankle deep carpet where it lays. We clear little safety haloes around each tree, run up and down the hill with garden hoses and buckets of water. As a method, it mostly works, though several unattended lengths of hose melt, and in some places the grass never recovers. I can still see the open-mouthed faces of our neighbors on either side, standing in the gathering darkness, their eyes illuminated now and then by flare-ups as the flames eat closer to their property line. Despite our best efforts, one mid-sized sugar maple near the back garage somehow catches fire deep inside. The water we spray can’t reach it.
ME: Did you have a fireplace in the house in Claflin?
Here and there cracks glow from within and the unblemished bark steams. For days after, I’ll walk back and touch the nails pounded through a ring of catfish skulls around the trunk, to see if they’re still warm.
BETTY R: It was gas logs. There was no trees and I was not going out and get cow patties. (laughs)
ME: Did people still do that when you were little?
BETTY R: No. If people had a fireplace or a stove they burned wood or coal. Coal is what they usually used because it was easier to get than wood.
DAVID R: Just go out by the tracks and pick up what fell off the coal trains coming through.
BETTY R: Or go over by Elsworth, between Wilson and someplace in there—my dad pointed down a road once and said, “There’s where we used to get the coal.” It was very poor quality, but that’s what they burned.
ME: Why was it down that road?
BETTY R: Cuz that was where the hill was.
Sometimes I’ll freeze a Star Wars figure—
ME: You mean they dug it out themselves?
BETTY R: Yeah. Pretty close to where they got the fence posts that they dug out themselves. The limestone fence posts.
—in a Dixie Cup of water, to peel later and hang on thread by the ankles from the mantle. As I lay on a blanket before the fire watching Love Boat then Fantasy Island, Han Solo slowly revolves in the heat, his ice prison sparkling as it drips onto steaming bricks. I’ll set pages from glossy magazines on the logs to see what color flames the pictures make. I’ll stand with my back close as I can until I can’t stand it anymore and run to the couch to sit on my mom where she’ll make cooing sounds and thank me for warming her up.
My bed rests against a wall just the other side of the fireplace, and in the winter I’ll press myself against the flat warmth as I try to fall asleep. I dream of crawling into the fireplace, discovering a door at the back that opens into a maze of corridors linking warehouses, attics, sunken office spaces, greenhouses, bedrooms, outdoor gardens, and libraries I’ve never seen and in which my usual dream narratives unfold: I’m on the run, fighting for my life against overwhelming odds. Think of those scenes in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker has to make his way through the Death Star’s labyrinthine heart—Stormtroopers with masks and blasters being dicks around every corner—and you’ve more or less got the picture. Some nights I’ll survive. Some I’ll end up dead. People say they never die in their dreams. I often die in mine. I look back on my corpse and feel pity for the lifeless thing.
ME: Then what happens, Dave?
Then I generally wake up.
DAVE: Oh, that’s it. Fire is oxygen slamming into carbon. And that’s all I know.
ME: Do you think that would suffice for your science students?
DAVE: That’s what I tell them. I don’t think there’s an easy explanation. But there might be a better one—
Lightning smacks a tree—
—like a Neil deGrasse Tyson explanation that would make you be like (impressed voice) “Oh yeah, that’s a great way of looking at it.”
—and now it’s someone’s job to maintain the flame. Either a leader or the leader’s friend, the one who points and says “Follow that guy” as the big cheese points to himself and smiles. Deep in the back of the cave where the rain and wind can’t get at it, a special thing that’s not a thing but the going away of trees, which keeps us warm, which helps us fill our bellies with more digestible meat. Which lets us throw puppet shadows. Which helps us when the sun goes down tell stories about the sun coming back. If it dies, we live in the dark and eat salad. In a different story, someone clever rubs two sticks together and she becomes queen or maybe she’s just more magic than before. Or she twists an arrow in a bowstring, touches the tip into an empty bowl—adding wood shavings, fat, and leaves—as she saws the bow back and forth, spinning the arrow. Flame grows in the bowl like food.
NORA: The fire’s going out! I need the stick!
No one needs wait for a storm to throw fire from the sky. All we need is the person who knows what she’s doing.
ME: (walks over to Nora and Dave) Maybe I can get Nora to answer one.
DAVE: (to Nora) Do you want the stick? Ok but you gotta be careful for two things. One, people’s heads. And two, the fire.
ME: Hey, Nora can I ask you a question? Do you know how fire works?
NORA: (silently looks up at me holding out my microphone)
I will settle in once I’ve mapped the visible lights.
ME: That’s alright. I don’t really know how it works either.
One on the street illuminates our pines. One on the house to the south: a guy lives with his elderly mother and one of those what’s-the-point mini-dogs. There’s a hummingbird feeder out front. It’s kept full. The red juice glows every afternoon. When the sun’s down you can’t even see it. Their front light a pale white star that pierces my eye standing by a window in the living room. To the north across the street another pale beacon. Some contractor too cheap to rent a garage keeps his work trailers in his shiny polished driveway and lights them up all night. He’s worried there’s someone out there who wants to get him. There’s more but then again there’s always more. Distant bulbs above the high school stadium. Each evening as the light fails, these brighten the field for the young adults running and sweating and marching across it. They’re dead by 10 p.m. The universe might still make sense if enough of us believe it does. Every day there’s people dropping out. Every day new ones rise to take their places.
Christopher Citro is the author of The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy (Steel Toe Books). His awards include a 2017 Pushcart Prize and the 2015 Poetry Competition at Columbia Journal. Recent and upcoming publications include poetry in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Best New Poets, Blackbird, The Iowa Review Blog, Mid-American Review, Meridian, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Boulevard, Passages North, and Colorado Review. Christopher received his MFA from Indiana University and lives in Syracuse, NY.