One of the odd side effects I developed as a smoker was a hyper-awareness about the smell of something burning. I do not mean cigarette smoke. The smell of burning tobacco has become background noise to me. I mean the smell of anything else burning.
Which is why, at 4 am in the morning, I snapped awake with a start, a burning stench, a half-scream, a pounding heart and a single thought –
“THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE! ABANDON SHIP! EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF!”
(Okay that’s a series of thoughts, but trust me, they are inter-linked enough to be considered one and the same.)
My pants were half-way on and the front door nearly unlocked before sanity drowsily arose, took one slow look at the situation, gave me one tight slap across the face and asked me to come back to bed.
It was a tempting offer. But since I was already well and truly awake by then, I decided to go check out the source of the smell.
(Sanity, if you remember, was snoozing under the covers.)
It was not hard to find. Some guys had lit a huge bonfire out of trash just outside my flat. They were doing the usual things hand-warming, ass-warming movements men always do when huddled around a fire.
As I joined them they looked at me with long sideways glances, muttered something in their local lingo, realized I was one of those imbecile heathens who did not speak their language and (presumably) resumed their debate on whether to just rob me or to beat me to death and then rob me.
But I was unconcerned-ish because the quivering, fluttering naked flame had transfixed me. It whipped about wild and free, blazing slightly taller than me.
How long had it been since I had even seen a naked flame of this size? A year? Several years? Possibly.
I stared at the little tip of fire that crowned my lit cigarette. It seemed tiny, insignificant. Its bigger cousin was overpowering us both.
The entire circus that got me down here seemed ludicrous after that moment. The fear of a house fire, the panic, the checking of rooms and ashtrays, the ‘moment’ to calm down.
In these days of inter-continental cruises over the Panama canal, which we watch from our air-conditioned suites while sipping mojitos, mother nature is just one of those things that the hippies sing about while waving their tambourines. We won that war long, long ago.
However, no matter how many ever victories we may notch up on the bed post, the first notch, unsteadily carved when we were young and had no idea what we just did, still remains special.
Fire was that first one – the first great discovery…the one to which we lost our innocence.
It will always remain special. Even though we treat it rather like our first lover – somewhat embarrassed at how enamored we were with it once and now only thinking about it when we accidentally bump into it.
Oh keep your pants on, you hippies. I am sure there are vast swathes of people out there to whom fire is a faithful daily companion. Probably somewhere, in some jungle, right now, some kid is holding onto a flickering torch and waving it unsteadily at a several sets of glowing eyes in the under brush.
But unless you are reading this off a cell phone besides that boy – then you and me have the same relationship with fire – distant.
(Incidentally, if that is the situation, I am flattered but put the cell phone down and sort out your priorities.)
Fire still remains independent and wild though. We have caged and tamed parts of it, but only a small part.
Our reaction to this reality says a lot about who we are as a species.
Despite its great threat and uncontrollable nature, we have never backed down, never surrendered. For all of our collective sins, we were never a cowardly species. The unwillingness to let any stand taller than us never left us.
This was our land damn it, and fire would heel or we would know the reason why!
Well five minutes of this bravado and several charred corpses later I presume our species well learnt the reason why.
(Combustibility is a bitch…)
“Fine then!” we collectively yowled, as our feet sizzled in some water. “Trap it! Cage it! Banish it from our world!”
Several millennia after said declaration, we came up with electricity and have duly declared the battle won. Kinda.
I looked around at my world. Here and there a wash of light framed a window. Far off streetlights stood in swirling pools of light. But it wasn’t dark.
Even at night, the sky glowed visibly orange. A strange side effect of erecting millions pools of lights.
It was like we were all inside a fire now. Inside but unburned…the ancient dream fulfilled.
We have poured out the concrete and fitted our bright bulbs by the billion. Now, except a little for cooking (although the electric stove is replacing even that), what is fire needed for?
We proved its insignificance by turning night to day, in a blaze of little glowing creations. None may stand taller than us…
That is what we presume the situation is anyway.
Unfortunately this is how we are.
First we try to make something our own. We try to break it, tame it. Make it into what we believe it its right form and shape.
If it does not bend or break, then we banish and ban it and ignore the fact that it exists.
We can never just tolerate. Never accept a free stand.
I light another cigarette, regarding the little flame for a moment before snapping the lighter shut.
All we have ever done is play with a part of the whole. We take little parts; little slivers, and push it through holes and grills.
But the unquenchable, unfathomable whole, which blazes deep underneath our feet and high in the stars over our heads, can never be held by us. Whether we ever accept that, or not.
I stared into the white-hot center of my big flickering friend.
One day, perhaps…we will face the whole. We will be the tallest – taller than the orange waves, the fleeing sparks, the whitest centers…and taller still.
The fire flared and rose ever so slightly higher, as if it was calling to me, coaxing me. It seemed to bend closer to me. I could feel it’s hot breath over me, feel its close, uncomfortable heat.
“Can you face the whole, you puny little man?, ” it seemed to whisper. “Can you?”
“No madam, I cannot,” I loudly bellowed in my special high-octave screech, scaring the shit out of the locals besides me, who immediately ceased all conversation to stare.
Luckily, their surprise held long enough for me to flee back to my bed and sanity without further incident.
“Ah joy,” I thought as I snuggled deep into her. “I really need to close the windows before I sleep.”