Saturday, November 14, 2009

to build a fire

when it’s coldest
i stoke the fire in the night
home from town
after coffee
or television with friends
the only choices

grampa has an outdoor wood furnace
most days it needs to be filled twice.
it warms water that runs in pipes
underground to the basement.
air is blown over hot pipes and distributed
through dusty loud ductwork.
my room is furthest from the furnace.
the coldest room.

there is a small cinderblock building
twenty yards from the house
situated so the door of the furnace opens
inside the building.
it was constructed to hold wood.
that rarely happens.

there’s always been a woodpile
in the yard.
the little shed is filled
with empty beehives,
supers piled high to the trusses,
stored til they’re needed
come summer.

the furnace simplifies things.
daily maintenance is minimal.

dirt and smoke and ash
are kept out of the house
along with the hazard of fire.

the second coldest night of the year
the bottom door of the furnace got left open.
everything in the firebox burnt up quick.
the bottom door is for removing ashes.

grampa shovels them into metal buckets.
when the buckets are full
he spreads ashes on the garden
or the sidewalk if it’s slick
to melt what can.

it felt cold in the house.
14.7 degrees.
night before was 5.
i went out to check on the fire.

when i opened the door
there was one dim cinder
agleam in a bed of ash
at the back end of the furnace.

i rooted around in the brooder house
til i found three empty dogfood bags.
paper for the burning.

i pried small woodscraps and twigs
from the frozen ground.
no snow. just intense cold.

with three strike-anywheres
i set to warm the chill.

i arranged paper and kindling
bark and leaves
as a foundation to rebuild the fire.

i enjoyed the pop
of a strike-anywhere
match on a cinderblock
and began the complicated process
of coaxing flames from none.

i lit the first bag.
it took a couple matches.
while i waited to see
if the fire’d take
i filled the wheelbarrow
from the woodpile.

i looked at the crisp moon,
clear stars
and crackling black branches.
sky’s clean when it’s coldest
moon makes flashlight obsolete.

i think i got a little moonburn.

i got something of a fire going
with the application of the third
and last strike-anywhere.
entropy won out.

i went in
to wait for the new fire
to keep my room
from getting colder.

it was barely fifty in the house
when i went to the kitchen
and looked out the window
(one of my favorite pastimes)
at the furnace
thinking to assist
the fire by willpower
and lurid blue moonlight.

around 5:30 i heard grampa rustling around.
it was cold
and we attacked the fire again.
something was still amiss.

grampa built a fire.
i filled buckets in the kitchen sink
carried them out
and poured them into the top of the furnace
like filling the boiler of a locomotive.

the intense mistaken fire
got so hot
and burned so quick
it cooked off most of the water
in the furnace.

it refills itself.
or it’s supposed to.
such drastic fluctuations are hard
for it to keep up with.

i don’t know how many armfuls
of water i poured
from the third rung
of a broken wooden stepladder
propped against the slick
stainless steel exterior
of the furnace.
an interminably pouring
bucket brigade
of one.

by late afternoon
the water’d been refilled long enough
to rise to the predetermined
temperature required to transfer heat
through its insulated subterranean path
into the basement.

the house warmed up.

problems with the furnace
come when it’s coldest.

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