The front door opened into the cabin’s kitchen, bouncing on the frame before it latched. Inside was nearly as cold as outside, which was very. The linoleum floor slanted slightly but perceptively toward the far living-room corner and gave when we walked. A blue rug, faded and pocked with burns, led up to the fireplace.
It was perfect.
Spring hadn’t yet come to the Catskills even this late in March, and neither had the crowds. We drove up in our winter coats through sparse towns, met few cars on the roads. We seemed to be the only people staying in the small cluster of cabins at the foot of a decent-sized mountain. Even the caretakers of the place were present only as notes and signs.
I’d been preparing myself to not like my son M as much as I want to — to not like him at all if it came to it. (Love is different, of course; love is the necessity that makes actual close life possible.) He was on the edge of 13 and, tall and thin, was already being mistaken for much older. Adolescent boys can be difficult creatures — desire and muscle fill them up at the same time, emptying them of nearly everything else. They can be cruel and oblivious, as if the feelings and projects of others are a language they’ve forgotten how to speak or even forgotten how to recognize as a language at all. M, clever and caring, hadn’t yet drifted into a more remote teen orbit, but I knew it was coming. As the father (and the resident survivor of male adolescence), I felt responsible for helping him through this time.
But I wasn’t sure how. My teen years were as fraught as anyone’s, and that time has become only slightly clearer when viewed from a distance. Still, I was sure that I wanted to spend time with him, and I wanted us both to have some good memories of each other to look to when we needed them.
M was probably already beyond taking the city out of the boy, but I decided to take him out of New York, where every angle of the environment has been plotted and poured, to somewhere that had shaped itself. I wanted to teach him how to build a good fire, the kind with deep-orange coals that heats a whole room while slowly eating itself to ash. I planned to teach him how to get a fire going outside, how to keep it both fed and tamed in the wind, how to poke it with purpose. And I wanted to show him how to let yourself enjoy it all because fires are cool.
After we brought our few things inside, we headed right out back toward the nearby mountain to explore without looking for anything in particular. The grass around the cabin had been bushwhacked into something like a lawn, but this imposed order gave way pretty quickly to brush and trees. A split-rail fence ran along the side of the lodge, drawing an artificial line between the lodge’s property and a rickety looking set of vacant apartments. The fence didn’t even bother running along the back, but even if it did, we would have gone over it without thinking.
The mountain looked thick with trees from a distance, but it was much more sparse up close. I saw no clear path up, and I started weaving through the old trees and striving saplings. At the first clearing, I thought I should point out something interesting, but I realized that I didn’t know the name of a single plant; the landscape seemed like a wet smear of brown and green.
I looked back, but M wasn’t behind me. He had come up a different way and had taken out his camera, a semi-serious DSLR that we handed down to him to help him find and nurture his creative side. He looks through it and sees things I don’t, beautiful things.
He found a stripe of bright green running through the layers of brown leaves where snowmelt had made itself a path to the river below, and, deciding he wanted to remember it, squatted down to frame a photo. I decided I wanted to remember his remembering, and took out my camera. As we both were still with looking, I noticed the odd quiet — no birds, nothing rustling over the ground. Our shutters snapped one after the other like twigs giving under a foot. He stood up, looking at the camera’s screen pleased with the picture, and we both saw that his right foot was buried to the ankle in mud.
His shoe and sock were soaked through. We needed only the thinnest excuse to build a fire, but now we had a reason. (I should help him understand that distinction.)
The fireplace was still full of ash from the last occupants. An inkjet sign on the mantel told us to spread cold ash on the grass, and I used the end-iron shovel to fill the bag we brought our bagels in. M took the full bag out and did what he thought “spreading” meant while I tried to steady the broken three-legged gate.
Fire making is an old ritual, so old that we really don’t know how old it is. It’s certainly an old ritual for me — heat, the smell of wood smoke, all bass notes from my childhood. We kept the fireplace running in the Kansas house I grew up in from September to March. We had what seemed like yearly ice storms that made the cottonwoods too heavy for themselves, sending their branches down across the power lines. No electricity meant no heat, and during those powerless nights we slept in the living room near the fireplace, listening to the cedar pine sap hiss and pop. When I was older, my father had me not just carry in the wood from the neat pile along the alley, but start and tend the fire. I’ve built hundreds of them, and I’ve enjoyed each one.
My son returned with the empty bag.
“Go fill the crate with wood from the porch,” I said to M while tearing the bag into strips. “Try to get as many pieces with bark as you can.”
Truth is, it’s not that hard to build a fire; most things want to burn. Begin by checking that the flue is open. Lean logs up on each other — split wood is best — to make a tent. Put some kindling underneath — smaller sticks, say — but leave room for air to rush in. You’ll need something that catches quickly to go under the kindling. Folded paper burns slowly; balled paper and leaves burn quickly; birch bark burns hot like a bad thought. If it’s built right, the balled paper catches the kindling, which burns a bit more slowly and hot enough to start the logs. You blow here and there if the process slows.
M came back with a crate full of good logs. The wood felt cold and heavy, like stone. I wasn’t sure it would catch.
My son leaned in, listening. I was suddenly extremely aware of teaching, of trying to pass on some important bit of knowing. And that it might very well not work — the wood won’t light, or M won’t remember what’s the best wood, or how to stack it, or how not to starve or smother a fire, or how to respect it enough to keep it under control, useful. Will he see these ingredients as parts of a puzzle he can’t solve? How does he take all this with him? How does he come to see himself as someone who can do this on his own, as someone who can do anything?
The strips of bag lit and curled under the sticks, and the bark started to bloom red. Paper to sticks to bark to log. The room began to warm, and we took off our coats for the first time that day. We put M’s soaked sock and shoe on the hearth and sat close. I don’t think I had ever liked him more. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking.
I handed M the poker. He prodded the wood gently, knocking some sparks loose. We watched them go up together.