It won't be too long before dawn, as I write this. If it were still the high point of summer--I'm having trouble internalizing the idea that it isn't anymore, hasn't been for some time--it'd be dawn already, four-twenty in the morning. As it is it could be any dark hour, if the stillness didn't betray the sunrise coming.

At this point, October of 1997, late (I should hope) in my college career, I live in a basement room in a house; I share a kitchen and bathroom with four other men, and we use the back door to get in.

The kitchen window faces the back yard of the next house; it has a lot of youngish trees in it, and last year it was covered with low underbrush; nobody spent time there, except Nala the dog, whom I rather miss. The ground was cleared by the new tenants, a group of young women, and some guy with a truck I think they hired. The women and their friends sit at tables in the yard, some evenings, with candles in glass and so forth, music playing. All in all I like having them there; they're all awfully pretty, after all, and the men who lived there before never did much other than open the door to yell at poor Nala for no real reason.

Right now my sleep schedule is all turned around; typically I wake in midafternoon and go to sleep just after dawn, with luck a little earlier tonight. So just now I was up in the kitchen getting a bit to eat, some soup and bread. And I must have noticed pretty much immediately when one of the women lit a fire on the ground outside.

When I turned my head there was only a little flare in the middle of a ring of old squared stones; I was only beginning to realize what I was watching when it spread very quickly to a substantial size, with flames leaping remarkably high for a little while before they settled down. I gather she'd used lighter fluid, and liberally; I saw a can behind her where she sat, her back to her house. It was the blonde woman, not the one I see most often, and she just sat looking at the fire with that ruddy light playing over her face from below.

I have no idea whether she was aware of me, though it's hard to imagine she wasn't. I felt bad being there at a time when evidently she wanted to be alone for a while, and an hour when solitude should be easy. But I watched, serving myself more soup, to see what she would do. So hard, anyway, not to watch a lovely young woman once you know she's there.

And she did nothing, really. She sat, and she stared at the flames, and I sat in the lighted window of a dirty kitchen, and ladled soup out of a pot on an electric stove. She didn't need the warmth, or the light--she'd just have stayed inside--and she wasn't cooking.

We always talk about the use of fire as the basis of our racial identity, almost, or at least the first miracle of our technology, somehow the cornerstone of what makes us what we are. But we barely ever see it, much less use it. And when it is present--for whatever reason--who is there who doesn't feel the urge just to sit and stare? So hard not to. That isn't really part of the cultural myth of fire, as far as I've noticed, but it seems to me to be a nearly universal reaction.

Is it just because it's bright and moving in the darkness that our eyes are held by it? Do we miss it? Or was it always as fascinating as it is now? Maybe it's the fear of it: from the first people who domesticated it to the complacent citizens of our modern age, maybe we've all just been watching over it to keep it from getting away.

She just watched it burn itself out--there wasn't much wood in there to begin with, it just ran for fifteen or twenty minutes and died away. And then her boot was moving in the embers, a darkness marked only by the little spray of sparks that flew from each stomp of her foot. And when there wasn't anything left to see, she walked back into the house, and not long later a light went out.

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