To Build Fire

Fiction by | February 3, 2008

When I was sixteen at the old house, I used to sit on our wooden chair behind her and watch how she built fire with kerosene, wood, and pieces of folded paper. She would bend low enough, reaching for the fireplace, and I could see her spine arching downwards like a bamboo on a windy day, while behind her white head where I could not see much what happened, a light-blue smoke rose up to the sooted roof along with some ashes flying for escape through the slits on our wall.

She had told me once how to do it when Tatay was not yet around from work. We were alone inside the house and she began preparing rice to cook for dinner. Nanay Pacita sat on bended knees and looked for dry sticks under the fireplace. Tatay had split them outside days ago when there was still no job for him downtown. He had busied himself repairing the old electric fan, pounding wooden shelves for my books, and carrying large containers of water from the nearby pump. He preferred walking alone and whistling his own tunes of the sixties and once in a while, I would hand him a glass of water, which he would down in a single gulp and return to me.

Two years had passed since I left the house and stayed in a Baptist church compound at Matina where I grew up as a child. I used to say I hated my old place because it stood in the outskirts of Tugbok, too far from my new place. There were no concrete pavements there and during rainy season, we needed to tiptoe on wet ground and avoid countless potholes, trying not to get our shoes muddy on the way downtown. There was no electricity back at the old house and plumbing was difficult. Nanay said it would be better if I were sent somewhere else where I could read and spare myself from too much housework.

“You’ll need to move out so you won’t feel too tired for school,” Nanay said that evening before I left. “That means I’m expecting you to behave at your new place and have good grades.”

Nanay has stood as my mother for as long as I can remember. She is seventy-four years old now with hair in a combination of black and mostly white strands. She once had long hair that reached down her breeches but she cut it short after realizing that she was too old to bother taking care of long hair. She has round, simple eyes punctuated by a few lines, and high cheekbones covered with wrinkles. Her voice is sharp but its tone is more comforting than threatening.

She too had moved out of the house the day she found a job in a cafeteria somewhere downtown in Jacinto. She worked as a waitress along with other young employees and was glad to be treated with respect like a mother. Sometimes I would visit her, always with a kiss on her cold cheeks which smelled of fish. I would notice how thin she had become whenever I would wrap my arms around her. She too noticed how tall I had grown and I would laugh every time she said I smelled good and that even my cologne had changed.

That afternoon at the old house, the sky was a clear blue canvas with a few clouds, and the house was warm with smoke and sunlight. After cleaning the rice grains and taking approximate measurements of the water line by the first bend of her knuckles, Nanay put the lid on the cooking pot, gathered firewood, and taught me how to build fire.

“First, dip the end of the wood in the kerosene, then light a matchstick and place its glow on the wood,” Nanay said, holding a stick in her hand. The smell of both kerosene and the smoke from the matchstick fumed around the fireplace. Nanay placed the wood down and I watched her gather more firewood.

“Place each stick on top of each other like a bonfire and make sure that you leave spaces in between them so that the air goes through the fire. Then slowly place pieces of folded paper to sustain the fire. Sometimes, you have to blow it gently so that the glow remains. See?” Nanay drew her head near the burning wood and blew gently until the black burnt woods’ ashes glared and sparked tiny flames. Soon afterwards, she placed the cooking pot on the fire and cleaned the fish in the sink, leaving me to watch the fire in case it went out.

I learned to blow the fire gently by releasing a slow and steady breath. However, my eyes and nose did not catch up with the lesson. They remained idle and did not want to learn. My eyes started to water every time smoke passed my vision and it seemed to melt my eyes with tears. Minutes later, I dozed around the house feeling light-headed, sneezing uncontrollably until I felt weak and tired.

Nanay preferred cooking everything under burning firewood. “Whatever you cook,” she said, “will taste better when you use wood for fire, especially when cooking rice.” Sometimes, I would help her gather dry sticks or light a matchstick, and sometimes too, I would build the fire with her help. I would be on the brink of giving up but she would refuse to be defeated, and insisted that I do it. In the end, it was she who finished the job while I sat down behind her, not paying much attention to every word she said.

The months and years that passed dwindled like sand in an hourglass and slowly I forgot that an old house stood somewhere where this memory began. Tatay still lives there, with King, our white dog, and a few roosters and chickens. That old house stood among tall grass and untamed shrubbery, with countless coconut trees looming behind. I remembered there were only ten houses that stood on the wide lot. I have not heard from Nanay and Tatay anything that might have been new about that place. The image of the dilapidated house seemed to me a dream, waiting to be forgotten.

“Start cooking at around five,” Nanay said that afternoon I came back to the old house, and she went out the door. “By the time your Tatay arrives, the rice would still be warm to eat.”

I decided to pay them a visit, just a day or two. That day, she left me the instruction in a spur, said she had to leave the house early in the afternoon and did not know if she would be home sooner. Anyway, she said earlier, she had taught me how to build the fire. Nanay assured me that the process was simple and that I would learn to do it quickly.

At exactly five, I started cleaning the rice, rinsing it meticulously and feeling the grains against my palms. I poured the cloudy water out, replaced it, and did the process thrice until I felt it clean enough. I measured the water line until it reached the first bend of my knuckle the way Nanay did it. I covered the pot with the lid.

I started gathering pieces of dry sticks and laid them on the fireplace. The kerosene jar near the wall was left open. Picking up one stick, I dipped its end inside the jar, placed it on the space where ashes were gathered, and lit a matchstick. Slowly, the fire started to grow and I started piling the rest of the wood like a bonfire, leaving spaces in between to let the air pass through. I bent downwards and blew on the burning embers gently while adding pieces of rolled up paper to sustain its glow. It did burn. I placed the pot on the fire and watched it closely. Minutes later, the fire went out.

Dipping one stick in the kerosene, I repeated the whole tedious process, but the fire went out again and again. My head was dripping with sweat and as I looked outside, the sky was beginning to get dark. Tatay would be home soon and I had not cooked the rice yet. In the silence, I stood tired and helpless with the matchbox clutched in my hand, and realized I needed Nanay to help me build my own fire, after all. Irritated, I threw the matchbox on the floor and gave the fire one huge blow as ashes flew everywhere, blazing as they all floated and landed back on the fireplace and died.

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