To build a fire

It’s cold. March 26, and I wake to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit.

The furnace started at 5 a.m., but it takes awhile to heat the old farmhouse. The weight of five blankets holds my warmth. A draft of cold from the attic brushes my face. The pull-down door stuck open since the contractor left Monday. I get up, pulling on loose sweats over fleece pajamas. Put the cat out. Take the dog out. Feed the dog. Ignore the cat scratching to come in. Start the coffee.

I crumple newspaper from Tuesday. We’re going through it fast. I crumple pages from a cheap book no one wants, paper from yesterday’s mail. I stir the ashes in the woodstove. Sifting, sifting. Not one coal. The woodpile is nearly gone. Down to that poplar. Poplar. Not worth the time to cut or stack. Let it rot. It won’t stay lit, doesn’t throw any heat and leaves only fine ash. Not even an ember.

I take the metal bucket and go out to the porch to fill it with kindling. No kindling. I don’t feel like chopping. I pull several sticks from the bushel basket I gathered in October when I imagined using them to start fun winter bonfires. Not many sticks left now, and not because of any bonfires.

I head to the garage, where there’s a pile of scrap wood from attic floorboards the contractor tore out. Dry, old pine. Antique. Cut from trees on this land when the house was built. Mismatched widths. Odd lengths. Some nearly 30 feet long. Many splintered as nails were yanked and pulled loose. I pick through small pieces, check for stray nails and fill my bucket.

Snowbanks are three feet high. I trudge back to the house, squinting at the morning sky. I wonder if it’ll stay sunny. Can’t see any clouds.

I let the cat in with me. He goes straight for the litter box. I sigh. Set down the bucket. Shrug off my parka, wipe my boots. Feed the cat. Give him fresh water. Pick up the bucket, and head to the woodstove. Push the draft wide open.

I re-twist papers that have uncrumpled. Scrape ashes into two furrows. Paper, twigs, sticks, a few pieces of old flooring. It feels weird to build the fire with bits of the house. Maybe that’s why these fires are so anemic: The house does not want to feed on itself. Cannibalism. I ignore a shiver and continue the task at hand. Toss a tissue and some lint from my pocket onto the pile. Last I put on a piece of, probably too big, wood. Hope it’s not poplar.

I get three kitchen matches. I like to light the paper in as many places as possible. Close the door. Lean back. Watch. The paper is consumed, sticks catch, splintered pine boards begin to crackle and pop.

Coffee smells good. I go fix myself a cup. Get oatmeal started. Put away last night’s dishes. It’s up to zero. I smile, wondering if we’ll get above freezing. I set my coffee down on the dining room table and take a look at the fire.

Damn. It’s just a glow of spent kindling, the one piece of wood, barely charred. I open the door, poke at embers; some wink out. I feed in a couple pieces of splintered pine, balance the charred log on them. Scrape tunnels in the ash for air to feed the flame. Add another small piece of wood. Shut the door.

All winter long, I was Fire King. Fire roared, heat rose, temperatures climbed. I considered it the highest compliment to be greeted with, “Oh, it’s so warm in here!” when family arrived home. Now. Now it’s March. The thrill is gone. And so is the hardwood. But winter is not.

Insulation is gone, too. Our October energy audit recommendations are being carried out. Last week all the useless old insulation was removed. Rockwool, fiberglass batting, untold generations of mouse nests, gone. Seventy-two bags. You’d think that much would have rated more than just R5. Dirty work cleaning the attic. Now we wait for new spray foam, some loose fill and other fixes. It’ll be nice to be able to keep more of the heat we pay for.

I see the family off to work and school. Warm up my cold coffee. Eat breakfast. When I look at the fire again, it’s out. I curse. Wait, a hint of flame on one piece. Gently I give it air, scraping ash, prop it up with a bit of pine, turn on the fan. Come on, come on. Maybe I should say a prayer. A prayer for spring weather. But I know exactly when it will get warm – the day after the house is fully insulated.

Melinda Walton lives in Saranac Lake.