Memories by the Fire


*Muse’s Note: This week’s story is by our fabulous returning guest writer, J.M.Whitty. You can read her other stories here.*


When I think of a campfire, it conjures up fragments of memories that fit together like a puzzle with irregular pieces. These memories are not stories, but rather glimpses of feelings and scents and the sound of a sizzling watermelon seed spit into the fire from metres away. Who wins that contest isn’t important – it’s fun to do something naughty. Spitting is not for girls after all.

Once, when my sister was very little, she fell near our fire at a KOA campground, putting her hands out to stop her fall. The grill marks have disappeared from her palms, but she is reminded of the pain and the sound and the smell every time she warms her hands on a weekday trip to her best friend’s cottage. She is always very cautious around fires; lingering memories in her subconscious probably remind her that they are dangerous beasts.

I don’t think I’ve ever started a fire. I know how to do it, in principle. I taught my sister how to layer the right materials in our own fireplace. We used to light a fire on weekends in the winter, to roast marshmallows and peel off their golden skins, shoving them in our mouths with sticky fingers. I always enjoyed that my siblings and I had a moment together, just us, focusing on our own tiny skewers while the TV blared. Did we watch movies? Shows? I don’t know. Maybe it was Survivor. We certainly watched the fire, grumbling at marshmallows that turned black and eating them anyway.

I don’t remember when our mum decided that real wood wasn’t an option anymore. My parents started buying a kind of compressed log that expanded like a slinky at the slightest touch of a flame. It ended our marshmallow evenings. The log’s artificialness stole something away from our fun. I think we were also convinced that it was releasing some kind of chemical into our sugary treats. They didn’t taste quite the same. My parents also started disliking the fires. ‘They give me a headache,’ started echoing in our living room. Maybe it was the logs. Maybe we grew out of it. Either way, the read wood never returned. Now, when I make my winter visit, I always think the fireplace looks lonely. It longs for the crackle of a freshly split log and the company of marshmallow roasters.

As kids, we used to spend weeks in the summer at my grandparents’ cabin, cooking over the fire, sitting around the fire, joking, laughing, and yelling. Maybe even singing. Probably not singing. At the cabin, the fire was always the centre of our universe. Everything we needed was sustained by it. ‘Food is ready!’ usually meant hot dogs.  I still love them. They are full of the kind of joyful childhood memories that only weird food can conjure. My dad always burnt them, but they were delicious nonetheless. Their skins were a little like overcooked marshmallows; if you overlooked the crispy outside, you’d be rewarded with a perfectly cooked centre. Those were happy days.

I moved next to the ocean when I was in university, and discovered a whole new type of fire – bonfires. These require no camping, no wilderness, no worrying about coyotes running next to your tent as you sleep. These were for drinking beer and laughing and flirting and first kisses in the firelight with your feet in the North Sea. Try not to get your jeans wet. Or look cold. Be cool, you can always warm your feet by the bonfire.

In the middle of the night on a windless evening, I once sat with a friend in the pitch black of the beach. We set off fireworks into the sky and drank bottles of wine dancing around an invisible bonfire the day after Bonfire Night. We had no wood, only cheap Tesco fireworks that were on offer. There were skeletal remains of fires everywhere. I don’t remember being cold. I remember the stars and the laughing and the ridiculousness of forgetting to bring firewood. But we didn’t need the real fire, only our imaginations.

I think often about fires – bonfires, campfires, Notre Dame Cathedral fires. They have a way of bringing people together even if it is to lament loss. There is a lot of power in a fire. They are the starting place for a story – Are You Afraid of the Dark? – and catalysts for renewal.

My grandparent’s plot of land, where the cabin lies, was ravaged by a forest fire that raged through the wilderness of Alberta for months. The cabin miraculously escaped damage, despite being constructed of all the flammable materials the 1970s could provide. It was shocking to see the little building so alone without the beautiful old forest that used to surround it. Charred trees were everywhere. Strangely the cabin was untouched, with a metre-wide strip of ground that wrapped around it, almost as if an invisible wall had kept it safe. We had lunch there, dusting off the old fire pit for a barbeque, using the burnt remnants of trees as firewood. The cabin stood there, looming above us like a tombstone for the forest.

I imagine the cabin holds all of our memories – my siblings’, my cousins’, our parents’, their parents’, and mine. Our campfire memories, like the cabin, are trapped in time, preserving their happiness and whatever sugar coating we have chosen to dust them with. The fire enabled the forest to regenerate, breaking open long-dormant seeds that have now, many years later, brought life back to land that was scorched clean. Our memories, in a way, were kept safe by the cabin, resting inside waiting to be revisited and revived. The rest of my memories by the fire, like the marshmallows of my parents’ house and the feeling of cold sand between my toes, are preserved in the vaults of my mind, waiting to be resurrected by the smell of cedar smoke, and laughter accompanied by the crackle of wood full of sap.


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