I wanted to show her how to start a fire.
We were from the city, from concrete and glass and asphalt. We wanted to be alone to get to know each other better. We wanted to get away, to do something unique, or at least unique for people like us.
I wanted to impress, wanted things to move faster. And I thought showing her how to start a fire would do both.
It was a metaphor, you see.
I wanted to show her how to collect the little things, the kindling, the dried leaves, the birch bark, the twigs. I was going to say These small things seem inconsequential, but they are important. This is the foundation, the little things. I was going to hand them to her, naming them. I was going to let my fingers linger in her palm and look her in the eyes and watch as she blushed and I blushed. Then I would have her put them in a pile.
I wanted to take sticks and build them into a small cabin around the kindling. I wanted to say Some people make a mountain, like in the cartoons, with all of the sticks touching the ground and pointing towards the sky. But I like the cabin. I like to build something that requires support and balance. I wanted to build and feel connected to the ground and the trees. I wanted to feel us both on our knees and sitting so close that our breath was the fog around us, that our body heat was the summer wind.
I wanted to grab logs, large logs, wanted to go into the woods and chop down a tree and chop the tree into segments and split the segments until the wood was the right size and I could show how the muscles in my back grew taught and swelled with each swing because I thought that was what she would want, thought that I could impress with how my body adapted to challenges. I wanted to say This is dangerous. I wanted to say This is when you’ve committed fully. This is how you work for something that will last.
Finally, I would pull a flint and steel from my pocket. I would strike them together; I would keep them too far from the kindling to prove my point. I would say But nothing starts, nothing can grow, without there first being a spark. First, a spark, then heat, then fire. And I would lean in, kissing her for the first time, long and slow and soft before pulling away just too soon, striking the flint and steel together for real this time, and watching as the fire leapt from kindling to sticks to logs. And we’d look at each other. And we’d regret pitching two tents when we’d only need one.
But when I finished with my tent, when I said, without looking, that we should build a fire, she said Already there. And I looked over and, surrounded by rocks, she had collected kindling and built a mountain of sticks, touching the ground with their ends reaching towards the sky. Around us, the woods hummed with cicadas and crickets and whatever else was there, beating their wings together and signaling that no matter how far out we were, we’d never be alone, not really. The trees caught the light with greens so deep it seemed black, the sky caught in shades of orange and yellow and purple and red.
I wanted to ask her, how do you describe the smell of earth? What does home taste like? But she was looking at me, the fire growing, perfect and contained in her ring of stones. And I realized that the metaphor I wanted would never be as wonderful as that moment.
And she looked at me, smiling the way I had imagined her doing.
I had nothing to show her that she didn’t already know.
And I asked, Where did you learn to start a fire? thinking back to camping trips with my dad, thinking about crouching and watching as he slowly went through the process while telling me that these were skills you needed to have, that you’d never know when you’d need to get back to the earth.
But she didn’t answer. Instead, she walked over to where I was standing. And there, a hundred miles from where we lived, there, in the loud quiet of the woods, she stood in front of me, her face rich with smoke and full of fire.