Baby, don't you blight my fire
It wasn't a pure and cleansing flame, in fact it was more of a toxic smog, but at least it started the year in a memorable way.
Someone gave me a present at the end of last year. I don’t usually receive Christmas presents, largely because I don’t give them, but this wasn’t really a Christmas present, it was a gift of a different kind. It was a small, folded cardboard tube, tied with a thin, tasteful ribbon and accompanied by a written note.
“What I wish for you,” said the note, “is that you leave behind all the things you need to leave behind, and start a new year with a light and unburdened heart.”
That sounded pretty good, if a little low on practical instruction. Wait, there was more. What I had to do was make a good, strong fire, then throw the cardboard tube unopened into the inferno and watch as whatever was inside burned and the purifying flames liberated me from the past and nudged me toward a new beginning. Now this is the kind of thing that in others would cause me to quietly roll my eyes, but this wasn’t for someone else, this was for me and, while I don’t believe in magic, I do believe in the pleasures of symbolic acts and the galvanizing force of intention, so last week I dug up some firelighters and a pair of tongs and went outside to the Weber.
I staggered around the courtyard for a while, trying to find a place where I could either see or breathe, in either order.
I’m not really much of a braai guy. Someone gave me the Weber years ago and it took me six months to assemble the damn thing and then I used it once in 2015. There was still a mulch of ash and coal in the bottom and I stood blinking at it, wondering if I needed to clean it out before I made my good, strong fire. Surely purifying flames shouldn’t rise from the ashes of that time I overcooked a fillet? I should clean it, right? I should definitely clean it, but it was hot out there. It was one of those January days. Sweat rolled into my eyes. I wasn’t cleaning anything.
I laid out an architectural foundation of firelighters then went in search of wood. In the back of my pantry I found a couple of logs from that one winter when I thought I might use the fireplace. They were technologically advanced logs, made from a compressed sawdust or something, impregnated with some kind of flammable liquid. They were engineered to enable even the worst fire-maker in the world (me) to make a foolproof fire, but they’d been in the back of the pantry for years, in the dark and the damp, and some manner of strange chemical degradation must have taken place because when I lit the firelighters the logs didn’t burst into a good, strong fire, they smouldered and fumed and gave off great billows of thick, black smoke. It looked like I was burning a car in my back courtyard, that depressing and unhealthy stage of the car-fire when the flames have burnt through the bodywork and chassis and have reached the tyres.
A faceful of hot, black smoke on a 38-degree day encourages disorientation. I staggered around the courtyard for a while, trying to find a place where I could either see or breathe, in either order. Luckily I staggered into a terracotta pot and fell forward onto my face, because the air was relatively clear down there at ankle height. I lay on my belly for a spell, taking stock of my year so far. One good thing: I was briefly concerned that the neighbours might see the plumes of smoke and worry that some small oil refinery in my courtyard had been detonated, but fortunately I could see that the smoke was containing itself by funneling itself into my open bedroom window.
Finally I donned a diving mask and covered my face with a wet dishcloth and managed to lurch close enough to the hell-mouth, like Frodo on the edge of Mount Doom, to throw in the cardboard tube. I didn’t see it burn – I wouldn’t be able to see anything with any clarity for at least a day and half, no matter how many times I bathed my eyes in milk – but I fancied that I could feel it go.
I have smoke-seared lungs and heatstroke and a bedroom that smells like a Paleolithic cave, but that’s okay. Sometimes new beginnings make a mess, and the new year always carries some of the old year with it, and that’s not a bad thing. Happy new year to you. I hope we make it a good one.