‘I remember it was on a night very much like this…’
—Words spoken around 10,000 campfires by a billion storytellers for a million years.
I found myself staring at the clouds drifting slowly past the quarter moon. In these early days of autumn, it should be a little cooler, but it was a mild evening. The fire wasn’t needed for warmth…the fire was needed for the mood.
An almost imperceptible breeze blew in from the lake. I watched the clouds and the moon. The wind was from the northwest…the weather was going to get cooler.
I poked at the fire and a flurry of sparks rose up into the darkness. Suddenly, a story came into my mind.
It was a time for tales and legends.
The story came quickly into my head. It was about a young teenage boy who had to say good-bye to the girl he loved. She was going to travel to a distant land…a place where the people were different and the language was hard to follow. I saw storm clouds. I saw lightning. I heard thunder. Not in real life, mind you, just in my mind. The boy was going to worry about his love.
“There was a boy,” I began. “He had a girlfriend he used to play with. He always used to love to walk her home on nights like this…on nights very much like this…and they would kick leaves and kiss when the moon went behind a cloud. But someone came to tell the girl that she had to come home right away…the time to catch the train was near.”
“Wait a minute!” my wife said with a sudden movement. She got up and leaned over to me. “Come here…closer,” she said.
She brushed something out of my hair.
“You had a tiny red spark from the fire caught in your hair. Gone now.”
“Thanks,” I said, and prepared to continue my story…but there was nothing to say…no words to speak. No story to tell. I had forgotten what the tale was about. I stared at the fire. I was frustrated. I knew it was a good story…I just had no idea what it was about.
All this, the fire, the story and the forgetting happened many years ago. But I know now what occurred. That’s because I’m older and presumably wiser.
The spark, I found out, was my idea. My idea became my story I began to tell. Without the spark, I had nothing.
Throughout my lifetime, on mountain tops, ancient forests, deserts, glaciers, beaches, islands or backyards…I had countless sparks fall on me. Most of the time, I just took the story that came with them and put it away…somewhere in my mind…where no one could find it or where I could get it when I needed it. Some of the time, I would have the spark fall on me and I would tell a fable or a legend. There were even times when I didn’t need a fire…the sparks fell on me while I sat at my laptop, or with my notebook while I drifted in my kayak, or when I would let the others on a hike go on ahead…so I could be alone. Or, when I would sit by a tree and rest and think.
I’m sitting here on the dock. The lake water has become like glass. The western sky is red. I’m remembering a place called the Brick Pond, in Owego, NY. A place in my hometown where magical things happened. But, right now I can feel the chill of winter approaching. My summers are over…my springs are a memory and my autumns…well, its autumn now…but it will soon be over. But, my memory keeps returning to the Brick Pond…in the winter, the dead-cold middle of winter…when my friends and I would build a bonfire. Oh God, the sparks flew from those huge blazes! And they fell down on the snow and made tiny black holes before they died. And they fell down on the snow-covered tree limbs, and for a brief moment, the leafless oak was like a Christmas tree with tiny red lights. And they fell down on the heads of my friends…all my friends (yes, even my little girlfriend). I believe with all my heart that they were filled with stories and memories and fables at that moment.
But, today, the bonfire site at the Brick Pond is a small patch of blackened charcoal. The furry trim of my friends’ hoods, the knit caps and the scarves have been given away and resold countless times. The black and brown hair of all my childhood companions is most likely gray now…mine is.
A French poet once asked: “Where are the snows of yesterday?”
But, I’m wondering where are the sparks, the lighter-than-air embers that gave us all dreams and hopes and fears?
I’m sitting on the dock. It’s dark now…the skies are filled with a zillion points of light…like white sparks. I pray that my friends see these stars and feel the memories fall down on them like rain, like snow or like sparks from the bonfires of yesterday.
I’m ready to make the climb the hill to our cottage. I walk away from the dock and something hits me in the face. It’s a maple leaf. I think of the autumn again and something occurs to me. Our memories, our personal legends, don’t have to be hot sparks…they can be a falling leaf, a falling snowflake, a raindrop, a photograph or a cloud. It can be anything that once happened to us…or anything we’ve seen in our past. These can bring on the memories of our lives. My childhood friends can watch the Susquehanna flow under a bridge, see something in a window of an antique store, a book, a poem, a song…any relic of our past and the days can be relived, in detail, for even a moment. The real beauty of all this opportunity to connect with a fable or a story is that it can happen anywhere. My friends are scattered around the world. A girl (woman now) lives on a farm in Oregon. Someone else in Florida. Someone in Texas, Maine or Paris.
But, for me, it’s a campfire just steps from our house that opens those dusty doors.
And, it happens on a night just like this one…