Eight Rules for Making Fire (Shane Strange)
- I watch him through the kitchen window as he cuts the wood, outside, in the cold morning. He has his back to me. I watch as he braces his legs and raises the axe over his head and, with two arms, brings the axe down. In my mind’s eye I can see the muscles flex and contract in his back, the tendons in his legs strain, the muscles on the side of his neck widen beneath his scarf. Mists roll in the valley. The mountain is covered in a grey veil. When the sun rises higher it will burn off the mists. And through the day, the shadow of the mountain will meander across the valley before darkness again.
- He is the bear man – a big, slow man. I am the tiny bird: the sparrow; the wren. My life burns away faster than others. I flutter. My heart beats fast against my chest. When he opens his arms, I fall into his paunch, and he wraps his arms around me and folds his claws together at the nape of my neck.
- I imagine that he has become an adept, a scholar, a high priest of being with me: versed in my moods and emotions. I should be grateful, but his levelness, his steadfastness, his reliability have all been used at times in judgement of me. We have had mighty battles. No quarter has been given. More than once, we have verged on dissolution. In this way we have mapped our tendernesses.
- Some days we walk long into the property, him and me, tracing cattle tracks, noting rusted barbed wire fences and tiny gullies of eroded soil. There is a forest of eucalypt trees and low scrub down the mountain and into the valley. The trees are silent and shambolic, with gnarled branches tapering into the sky as if seeking fissures in the air.
- Once, we discovered an old house down beyond the forest. A solid, brick chimney stood alongside foundation stones: the outline of a home. Inside the area that the foundation stones described, he found an old tin can and a solid piece of rust-coated metal that he said was a tool of some kind. Near the chimney I found the rim of an old pot, a china cup handle, a bone. I stuck my head inside the chimney. The back was stained dark – charred bricks crumbling. In a shadow in the back corner something shone for a moment, and without thinking I reached my hand in to grasp the shiny thing. It was a tiny spoon, stained green and black, such as might be used to feed a child or a baby. ‘Be careful,’ I felt his hand between my shoulders. I stepped out and he pointed up to the top of the chimney where a brick teetered out over the edge, ready to fall. We walked back through the trees and along the cattle tracks in silence. He carried the metal tool with him, and I held the spoon in my pocket, tightly and secretly, rubbing its bowl with my thumb.
- As I make lunch, I watch him working on the wood shed from the kitchen window. I watch him saw wood with a handsaw on an old wood horse, and drill nails with a hand drill, and sand down boards with sandpaper wrapped around an off cut block of wood. I know at the end of the day he will have exhausted himself, and I worry that he overdoes it. But he is strong. He is always strong. At the table in the kitchen, we eat in silence.
- In the evenings, he and I eat on a small table in the lounge room. After we finish he clears the table and washes the dishes while I sit in an armchair with a glass of wine, staring into the fire. I always let him deal with the needs of the fire. I like to pretend it is a mystery that only he is privy to. I hear the chink and splash of dishes as he washes them in the water. He hums to himself while he cleans: croaky and low.
- The fire is like a hand that holds me, and a hand that crushes the wood into bright embers. The wine is having an effect. I can feel it drawing down my throat, like a long cold wire. White smoke is being drawn upwards into the chimney and away across the mountain. It is the smoke that chokes us, never the fire. What is this place we are in? This place of quiet trees, waiting for fire.