I sat with Erica under dim lights on yoga mats in a ceramic-art studio while the skinny-as-a-bird teacher, arms dotted with Egyptian hieroglyphs, led the class.
Had Erica asked me here just as a friendly gesture, or was it a date?
“Clear your mind. Focus on the ‘ohm,’” the teacher droned. “Ohm.”
“Ohm,” Erica hummed, her right knee almost touching my left one.
“Think of nothing,” the teacher directed.
I had never meditated before, so this seemed like crazy talk. Who can think of nothing? Nothing is something. My stiff back. My itchy right knee. Would I burp? Fart?
Erica’s breasts squeezed together as she leaned forward to stretch. I wished I were flying with her up into the clouds. My grandfather’s head beamed from the face of the moon. A purplish bruise protruded from his chest and eclipsed the sun. A rain of blood. Flies. Bats. A tentacled thing out there beyond the universe twirled, and it didn’t give a shit about meditation or world peace. Exploding suns–a supernova chain reaction–conflagrated the universe in one epic light. I heard the rushing of air that Erica breathed deeply. I was not in Zen mode.
“Stare into the flame,” the teacher insisted. “This time, don’t worry what wanders in and out of your mind. Let the flame burn up your doubts.”
I stared. The rest of the room contracted around the flame. The orange flickered in endless variations. Flapping fire. A feather in the wind. The flame bent and flipped, a blue boundary on the lower edges, a yellow core near the top. Dancing supple spark of infinity. Bright. Beautiful. Free.
“That will do,” the teacher’s voice came from far-off. “Did you notice the room darken or bend around you like a tunnel? Did you block out everything else?”
Only I had raised my hand.
“Good. That’s unusual the first time.”
But it wasn’t the first time fire hypnotized me.
How many evenings with Grandpa had I watched flames spread shadows and soot up the chimney?
Erica tapped my shoulder. “How about next week?”
Sadly, there was no next week.
“Would you,” I rasped, “uh, go to Prom . . . with me?” I had called her at 10:00 PM after spending an hour on the impossible calculus of cowardice and romance.
“I’m sorry, Duncan,” she said. “I’m dating Ronnie now. He asked me to Prom, and I asked him to Sadie Hawkins. He doesn’t want me to be spending time with other people.”
“You’re not allowed to have friends?”
“Not guy friends who want to date me.”
As I stared out the window at the night, something flickered within. I didn’t go to meditation class again with Erica, but having already stared into flame, I found my gods.
I researched gods of fire. Belanos from the Celts, Prometheus and Hephaestos from the Greeks, Pélè from the Hawaiians, Agni from the Hindus.
Creation. Destruction. Regeneration. They could give and take life. Ruin and remake the world through their plastic art of fire. My favorite fire god was Xiuhtecuhtli, known as Turquoise Lord of the Aztecs because he wore a turquoise mask. He had an older form, Huehueteotl: an old man who squatted with a brazier of coals perched on his head. I thought of me and my Grandpa when I looked at pictures of Xiuhtecuhtli and Huehueteotl, the oldest of the Aztec deities.
Like a superhero, I bought a sky blue ski mask (closest thing to turquoise I could find), and I’d sit in my room staring at the lit candle on my desk, watching the rubbery dance of flame.
Before Grandpa died, he called me a salamander because I was fearless around fire, and I gave off a lot of body heat. I liked the nickname, though I had no idea about the folklore of salamanders, their immunity to fire. Grandpa would poke me in the ribs, and I’d laugh as he’d say, “How’s Salamander doing? Staying out trouble?” He’d glance at the fireplace and wink at me, as though we had some joke between us and fire.
After Grandpa died, my mother didn’t share my enthusiasm about fire. I learned this one day when, equipped with a magnifying glass and toilet paper out on the driveway beneath the afternoon sun, I made a hole of flame which spread, crinkling the paper into wavy flames and ashes.
“You think fire is fun?” Mother screamed.
She poured a pitcher of water upon the blackened remains of the bathroom tissue. Then pulled me into the house.
She jerked me into the laundry room and yanked my left hand over the large square white sink. Then, she lit a match, grabbed my hand, and thrust my thumb into the flame. I winced but did not cry.
“See what fire feels like? You think it’s a game?” She tugged at my hand again and pushed my pointer finger into the flame. She kept it there at least a second.
“Ow!” I yelled.
One-by-one, she burned each of my fingertips on that hand.
I yelled louder each time but without tears.
The surprise of pain was another magical power of flame. This dancing and flowing light could destroy and punish. I wanted to wield it more than ever.
Erica’s red, orange, and yellow skirt flickered about her thighs as she stepped into darkness. Not far behind, I slinked down the stairs into Devil’s Kitchen, the opening to the blackness of Subway Cave, a level-floored lava tube in Lassen Park where our geology class spent the first weekend of May, and two weeks after Grandpa’s funeral.
Flashlights clicked on. Ghostly ovals of yellow light glided on the wavy basalt walls. I’d visited the cave with Grandpa, and so knew my way. Lava had poured through the Hat Creek Valley about twenty-thousand years ago, and a crust formed in places over the channel of gradually cooling liquid fire. Once the lava oozed to a halt, it sculpted the channel into the pedestrian-friendly form of Subway Cave.
“Whoa, this cave is hella big,” Topher, the star linebacker and county-pie-eating-champion, announced. In the beam of Topher’s flashlight, I glimpsed Ronnie’s hand around Erica’s waist.
Worse, she had her hand down the front of his pants.
Vengeance would have to sit on ice till I had a chance to make it hot and sizzling.
In Subway Cave, there was no dancing in my heart, baked black with jealous hatred when I spotted Ronnie and Erica caressing each other. But, I would not be broken easily.
Vuarnet sunglasses, on the top of Ronnie’s hat, glimmered in darkness, reflecting the strobing flashlights of student explorers.
I whistled the theme to the Inspector Gadget television show and skipped by the happy couple.
“What the fuck is that freak doing?” Ronnie growled to Erica as I passed.
“Ronald,” I said. “It’s true that I’m not a human being. I’m an alien.”
“Ha, the loser admits it!” Ronnie guffawed. His thick neck inflated like a frog.
“I must be an alien, right?” I jogged in place beside him. “I don’t drag my knuckles on the ground, wear my hat backwards, or have my sunglasses facing in the wrong direction.”
“Are you talking shit to me?”
“No, I’m just saying you’re an idiot.” I bounced from one foot to the other, the hardness of the lava tube pressing against the soles of my running shoes.
Air rushed from Ronnie’s direction, like a bull had just snorted, so I side-stepped.
Ronnie plowed past me and banged his fists against the wall.
“Fuck! I’m going to kick your ass, Meyer.”
“There’s a reason you’re not supposed to run into walls, Ron-Jon.”
Erica laughed. “Ronnie, Duncan is just kidding. You can handle a joke.”
“Yeah, Ronnie,” I said, “life has a lot of jokes coming when people find out what an idiot you are.”
“Fuck off, Meyer!”
Ronnie charged again. He swung, and his fist hit the edge of my ribcage. I winced from the sharp ache, but I could breathe. Nothing broken.
“Knock it off back there!”
Ronnie’s father and linebacker coach, Mr. Mollard, was a tall broad-chested man with a thick mustache. He swung his bright light in our direction—one of those nifty flashlights attached to his spelunker’s helmet.
Ronnie pulled away. Frankenstein’s monster heeded his walrus-mouthed-master.
I resented Ronnie had a father around to nag him. My Dad died when I was two. I remember nothing except sitting on his lap while he read to me by the fireplace. I heard from Mom that he sold antiques for several years after he lost his accounting job. He died one day of a heart attack.
“Enough horseplay back there! RJ, save it for the football field.”
The “J” was for Julius. Ronnie Julius Mollard. Mr. Mollard wanted his son to be a conqueror.
“Duncan, give RJ his space and move up front. Now, everybody, watch out. Step carefully past this boulder. There was a cave-in thousands of years ago, and the debris remains.”
I trotted to where the smart kids were with Mr. Mollard and his geology lectures.
In the cluster of brainiacs was Liza Vinley.
She tutored me in Calculus and made amazing gargoyle sculptures. I’ve got one on my desk that I use as a candle holder when I do flame-meditation
Liza’s glow-in-the-dark green fingernails tickled my forearm
“I wish I were popular, so I could treat everyone like shit,” she hissed in my ear.
“Wouldn’t you want to use that power for good?”
“Uh, not? But seriously? Why do you waste your time talking to either of them? She’s a conformist, and he’s a Neanderthal.”
“Don’t insult Neanderthals. They did beautiful cave paintings. And what’s wrong with being friendly?”
As Liza slid her arm around the small of my back, the thick rubber studs on her punk rock bracelet rubbed across my spine.
“Nothing at all, if you’re friendly to the right people.”
“I’ve tried being friendly to you, Liza, and it doesn’t usually work.”
Liza put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
“You think I’m kidding when I’m nice to you,” Liza sighed. The breeze of her breath warmed my cheek.
“But,” she said, “I actually love you.”
I stood still in the darkness. Then Liza’s nervous giggling filled the void.
It was my turn to sigh, then force a laugh, “See, ha, there you go again.”
Mr. Mollard blithered on about the speed of lava rushing through this rocky tube, how pressure from gas caused sections of the ceiling to burst. After some students laughed about the word “gas,” I envisioned lava consuming the entire class, except for me, sailing ahead, a being of flame, reveling in the element of fire.
After Subway Cave, we had a campfire. Mr. Mollard complimented me on how I stacked the logs in classic log-cabin style, which I’d learned from Grandpa’s lessons. Mr. Mollard let me light the kindling I had collected from lichen, leaves, and twigs. Ronnie pointed at me from where he stood with his football cohorts, but whatever jokes he made must have been subtle because I heard no laughing while Mr. Mollard was on guard.
Mr. Mollard had me do something impractical, but he’s a teacher, after all. I had to show the class how to use a battery and steel wool to produce a spark. It did the job. I stared spellbound at the convolutions of flame that entwined the logs and reduced their mass into faded husks and glowing coals. I didn’t eat the marshmallows I was given to roast because I preferred—as always—to watch them burn.
Each night on the trip after everyone else had gone to their tents, I stayed up late by the campfire. I stared at hot coals and thought of what fire gave me: a bond with a primal element that time and death could not destroy.
Before he was dying, Grandpa taught me to build fires, and though I was only five-years-old, I picked up the basics.
“You make a chimney inside the chimney,” Grandpa explained. The structure of the firewood needed space in the center, so when packed with kindling the oxygen whooshes up and carries the flames to the outside structure.
“Not too tight now,” Grandpa cautioned. I watched as he’d make a cabin of logs.
I didn’t say much when Grandpa was dying. While Grandma drank Coors and ate Carob, I wandered in and out of that room. I didn’t know what else to do.
“Stop going in and out, Duncan,” Mom growled, “you’ll get sick.”
“Cancer isn’t contagious,” Grandma said.
“You don’t know that,” Mom hissed.
And there near the smoldering coals and my arguing relatives and the dying Grandpa, I’d stare into the fireplace and wonder where those bits of soot would fly up to in that chimney. Would those blinking sparks become stars?
Grandma said Grandpa had a soul, and it was getting ready to take flight. I wondered if he’d go up that chimney like ashes from the fire.
“Grandpa needs to rest, honey,” Grandma said. “Here, have some carob.”
I thought I’d like it, but it tasted like chalk, yeast, and malt—with maybe an ounce of cocoa powder sprinkled in, like lipstick on the pig.
While I ate the bit of carob that I could stand, I heard Grandpa’s coughing and wheezing, like an ancient dragon too emphysemic and exhausted to dispatch some stupid villager who dared to invade his fabled hoard.
Sometimes Grandma would talk about the “fires of hell” and mutter about “Jehovah” and how Grandpa should pray to him.
Grandpa’s voice got so weak, he just gave up on talking. But even that didn’t stop Grandma from her preaching.
If Grandpa ended up in hell, I wondered if I could visit him more easily than in heaven. Was there an elevator up and down?
I wondered if I’d get by in hell since I liked fire. I’d take the poker Grandpa kept in the coal scuttle and poke around. Maybe I wouldn’t have to use a pitchfork on anyone or have one used on me if I stoked the coals of the demons’ fires. Grandpa wheezed in shadows behind me while I stared to a shining eternity where devils danced in the flames, and angels looked down bored from clouds, maybe envious of fun they were missing.
Grandpa died just three weeks before that trip to Lassen Park. The first weekend after his death I visited Grandma and continued to light my fires.
I had my spot in the woods away from where people walked. By remnants of a rickety fence, I set fires in a rusty refrigerator dotted with bullet holes whose edges resembled flower-petals.
On one of the last days of April, a spark leapt from the burning fridge over the fresh green grass and old leaves to the fence. That fence crackled up in seconds.
Panicked, I raked away the old leaves along the fence, scouring down from the soft black soil to the orangish dirt. I circled from one side of the fence to the other, watching the fire burn, wary of wayward sparks. Fearing the whole woods might light up, I emptied the buckets of water and sand on the fence. I refilled the buckets with black and orange dirt and dumped them upon the smoldering ashes of fence until it was extinguished. I had escaped the threat of an inferno. I could continue to tour the fires of hell at my own pace.
There’s a fantastic part of Lassen Park called Bumpass Hell, a thermal area named after a settler who burned off his leg stepping into a scalding hot spring. Hiking along the trail, you smell the sulphur long before you see steam rising from multi-colored pools or hear burping gloppy mudpots splashing upwards from miniature craters in the earth.
The day after Subway Cave, our class hiked Bumpass Hell, another testament to the power of heat. I thought of how the whole area was one smoldering furnace. It reminded me of how I had watched Grandpa after he lost his voice and stared sullenly at the ceiling all day during those last days. I knew what it meant to burn inwardly in silence.
On the walkway, I stared at the spastic belches of the gray mudpot below. Two thick hands grabbed my shoulders. Meaty thumbs dug into the delicate nerves of my scapula. Turning, I saw the bulging Adam’s apple of Ronnie.
“I could just push you in, Duncan. No one would know you didn’t just trip.”
“Actually, you’d get expelled because I’d scream your name and someone would see, like Coach Mollard. Hey, there is he is now. Coach, aren’t these mudpots awesome?”
Ronnie let go and wheeled around to see if Coach Mollard were coming. I jogged ahead on the walkway to a bridge over a steaming sulphur-stinking pool: a spa for a devil.
When the tour drove away from Bumpas Hell, we passed through a section of the forest burned by a wildfire a day before from some Spring thunderstorms. The flames were long gone, and the trees were still standing. Trunks and branches were black, pine and fir needles were either burned off or faded into grayish-rust.
A forest of the rooted dead. Beneath the ash-clotted evergreens pulsed sap of trees which would revive in time with new needles, despite the reduction of the underbrush to dirt and coals. The blasted ground would be richer for the plants that had disintegrated in a rush of fire and smoke. Despite the promise of renewal, it was an ugly and pathetic sight: the glory of a fire reduced to a dark coating over ruined trees and seared earth.
While the class hiked to a waterfall, an afternoon thunderstorm came up with constant lightning that mesmerized me with its nerve-like clusters of electricity splitting the sky. I wandered off the trail to climb up a ridge and stand on a boulder. I gazed around at drooping blue-black clouds. I could see the highest tree of the forest, an immense Douglas Fir.
A red-tailed hawk soared away from its perch on a scraggly branch that swayed in the storm’s gusts near the tree’s top. Seconds later, lightning struck the tree in a white flash, accompanied by a startling crack and then a roar as though something physical were shattering apart in the air.
The treetop erupted in a wreath of yellow and orange flame. Fire cascaded down through the branches and needles. The trunk was slashed as though by the mark of Zorro, and chips of bark and pieces of exploded branches lay in clumps on the ground.
A Christmas tree blazed in Spring. I inhaled smoke—a thick cloud of charcoal, fir needles, moss, dust—a soft glove wrapping around my lungs. Dizzy, I walked out of the woods, back to the trail and joined my class at the parking lot, where people buzzed with wonder at fire and storm. As we loaded into the bus, I heard sirens of approaching fire trucks overtake the whining of wind, and in the distant air the thumping of a chopper ready to dump water on the flames. As the hawk soared over the mountains, I felt like a primitive man seeing the mythic phoenix.
The last night of that geology field trip, we stayed at Hat Creek Campground. After marshmallows, everyone went to the tents. Only I walked along by Hat Creek, staring up at the stars, hoping to see a meteorite because the Eta Aquarids were supposed to be active.
I didn’t see a damn thing.
My lower back and neck ached from having stared up at the sky for a half-hour. I walked back to stand by the campfire bowl and before getting in my tent, looked up once more.
I heard a rush of steps behind me, and the mitts of Ronnie clamped my shoulders.
I stumbled. My right calf brushed against the campfire bowl, which was searing hot, although there was no sign of light glowing within the ashes anymore.
“Shit! You burned my leg!”
I ran from Ronnie straight into the ice-cold water of Hat Creek. The liquid chill washed over my hiking boots, through my socks, and against the fiery pain on my calf.
Mr. Mollard and some students popped out of their tents.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Mollard’s voice boomed.
Ronnie laughed and said, “I was just messing with Duncan. He spazzed out and burned his leg.”
As Mr. Mollard lectured Ronnie, I heard new laughter as other people who had crawled from their tents spotted me trying to numb my leg in the creek.
“What is he doing?” Erica tittered to one of her friends.
Finally, after a miserable bus ride, only partially relieved by Aspirin, the trip to Lassen Park ended, and I was back in Hammerton.
Sunday. A Christian day. But any fool can tell from just the name that it has an older derivation. A day for sun and fire.
Yellow pustules had formed on the back of what had first been red splotches on my leg, and the gauze I got from my mother was keeping the area sanitary but not free from pain. I remembered my laughing class when the blisters throbbed.
I picked up supplies at Home Depot, like a stack of lath and some root killer. Lath is great kindling, and root killer has copper sulfate in it, which produces a nice green flame.
As I was leaving Home Depot with my shopping cart, I saw Erica about to go in Home Depot from another entrance.
I pretended I didn’t see her.
Then she came over.
“Going to do some home improvements?” She stared at my shopping cart and then glanced at my bandaged leg.
“Yeah.” I avoided her eyes. “I’m going to help Grandma with her garden and a wall.”
Erica smiled and said, “Sounds like a fun weekend.”
“What about you?”
“Mrs. Mollard is leaving on a riding trip today up in the Sierras, so Ronnie and I are going to have a date. Mr. Mollard is more easy-going about things than she is.”
“You’re going to be at his house?”
“No, Mr. Mollard isn’t that easy-going.”
“Well, have fun. Not everyone has a date tonight with the love of their life.”
Erica looked at my leg again.
“I’m sorry about Ronnie,” she said.
“Sorry you met him?”
“Sorry he’s such a jerk to you.”
“Yeah, he’s a real asshole. So why are you with such a jerk?
Erica folded her arms and pursed her lips.
“He’s not really that mean.”
“Where’s the proof?”
“He likes to take care of rabbits.”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Give him a Nobel peace prize. Wow, he raises rabbits. Probably just eats them.”
“No, he loves them. He’s a big kid. We have all sorts of things in common.”
“I’d never be a jerk to you, Erica.”
“I’d n-never break up with you. Or . . . or cheat on you or any of that stuff.”
Erica moved in to give me a quick hug.
She blinked away wetness from her eyes with her brown eyelashes. Perhaps her hug meant something more than charity.
“Well, thank you very much, but. . . .”
She backed off with her hands dangling near her hips.
“I can never think of you that way.”
“In what way?”
“As more than a friend.”
She shook her head. “Sorry, never.”
“Yeah.” I nodded putting my bags in my grandmother’s Buick. “I got that.”
Erica planted one foot at an angle like a ballerina. “You going to be ok?”
“Me? Just great. Don’t forget, I’ve got a fun weekend coming up.”
I drove away and saw a swollen tomato of a sun going down. I breathed out relief with despair. Yeah, I had no chance with Erica. I always knew that deep down. There was no healing of my torn heart through her.
But . . . I was free.
Now, Belonos, I prayed, give me your strength of fire,
Xiuhtecuhtli and Huehueteotl, do not fail me.
May Pélè and Agni, aid one who serves fire.
I was the Salamander, and fire was my element.
It was time to lift the reins of flame and set out on that blazing path that called to me. The fiery eye of the sinking sun stared back at me, and I thought of Phaethon who tried to handle the sun-chariot of Apollo and got burned up; I thought of Icarus, son of Daedulus, who flew too close to the sun; I thought of the Phoenix, rising up again and again from the ashes of destruction. I thought of the Navajo Black God who lit into flame the stars of the Milky Way. I thought of the secret cult of Grevalogians, and their fire god Izakilaka, whose flaming face flew once every hundred years over the ocean and burned every living thing to ashes.
It was time to harness that ultimate energy.
At three A. M. I wore my blue ski-mask while lugging a punch container of gasoline. I was Xiuhtecuhtli, the Turqoise Lord, ready to make Grandpa Huehueteotl proud.
If a meteorite fell that night, it would land where I told it to, right on the garage of the Mollards.
Ronnie’s household slept, dreaming of football glory, glitzy jewelry, or another boat or car in their mammoth driveway. I looked around. No man or dog guarded that overstuffed house, tennis courts, pool, and the horse corral.
The garden hose lay looped up outside the garage wall like some tangle of snakes—didn’t need that nor any water buckets this time.
The garage was the place to start. Easy entry to pour gasoline through the window. If the car’s gas tank exploded, that would warn the sleepy-headed Mollards—Ronnie, and his father, Coach Mollard—to get out before their flesh melted like marshmallows.
I lit my fuse to the gasoline-punch carrier. Blinding white and yellow light blazed from the garage when that container of gasoline whooshed up with green-tinged flame. I was entranced by the roaring worm of flame that twisted up and around the garage.
Mr. Mollard, however, was roused from his trance of sleep and looked out the window to see something wasn’t right. He got old Ronnie up pretty fast too. As I backed away from the garage, savoring how the whole wall of the garage rippled with flame, trembling with joy at the sound the exploding car would make, that wild boar of a boy rushed me.
Erica wasn’t kidding about Ronnie and his rabbits.
The rabbits shrieked as they burned in their kennels in the garage.
A grating, record-scratching, repetitive screech.
Ronnie sprinted towards me with his best forty-yard dash. He hit me in the jaw going full throttle. While I tottered dizzily, my tongue running inside my mouth over the torn texture of flesh cut by my teeth, Coach Mollard tackled me from my right side. I gasped for breath on the ground and heard the two of them screaming.
“Get the hose, Ronnie, get the hose!” And the old man squeezed around my ribs that were still sore from the hit in Subway Cave.
Ronnie sprinted, got the hose, and ran back, spraying water at that garage, flowering into flame. The water hissed to steam without dampening the fire at all. That’s when Coach Mollard got off me. He knew he had to call the fire department.
I ran off like a shot. Track practice finally paid off. The two Mollards cussed and yelled. I ran around the block, and “boom” went what must have been something juicy in that garage. Maybe not a gasoline tank in a car but something more than an old man’s oxygen tank. That one was for you, Grandpa.
I peeled off my ski mask and tossed it as I ran over the bridge that crosses Danton creek. And then I tore off in Grandma’s Buick, far and fast away.
By the time I had pulled into Grandma’s driveway, I heard the banshee wail of firetrucks in the distance, and all I could see clearly of the fire a mile-and-a-half away was the grey plume of smoke.
It’s a shame I didn’t get a good look at how that fire went up before the trucks came, but then the Mollards didn’t get a look at me behind that mask, so I call that even.
Next time I start a serious fire, I’ll find a real turquoise mask as I watch the fun.
And it was fun. It wasn’t about purging the love and hate for Erica and Ronnie. It wasn’t about punishing that house of Mammon or wreaking the just vengeance of Yahweh, the Old Testament god, or even celebrating the Babylonian god of justice and fire, Nushku.
It wasn’t even about healing the pains of Duncan.
No, it was about reveling in the glory of fire.
That glory thrilled me as my hands and legs shook as I stood there in Grandma’s driveway. The smoke twisted like some celestial snake, swaying in the sky. That glory gripped my innards and surged into my brain, for I could see a ruby glow at the base of that floating shape of infinite grace.
I had done a horrible thing but a beautiful thing. And it was mine.
Fire is not only ultimate energy; it is ultimate beauty. Whether combustion, fission, or fusion, it rewards by a conflagration of gaseous atoms whirling into bright tongues of flame and soft throat-clutching smoke, a beautiful mist to dim the pains of the world. A necklace of pink, yellow, and red diamonds sparkles over our glassy sunless sea. And not the love of women, the wreckage of houses, the scream of the rabbits, the bars of prisons, or the treasures of this world, will make me repent of my fires in the dark.