Babysitting fires

There was little light by the time we finished. The dullness of the overcast day, another day when Southern winds brought clouds of desert dust to settle over us from the Sahara, now gave way to the thickening darkness of dusk and made the bonfire glow even brighter.
    ‘I have to go,’ Yiannis told me, gathering up his chainsaw and his knife and a plastic tub of petrol, and shaking the ashes off his hat before putting it on. ‘Stay a while. Have a cigarette. Watch the fire; make sure everything burns away.’
    Babysitting the fire, I thought, but I didn’t say it. There is no word for babysitting in Greek. I nodded, instead, from a small distance away, still collecting loose twigs from among the nettles, which have grown to gigantic proportions and sting even through your clothes. Underneath, livid skin and deeper down feelings to match: irritated, raw, unprotected despite the layers. Stung. But this work we’d just done helped. It soothed. The burning of things helped. The flames.
    Before he left, Yiannis kicked a few smouldering branches that had escaped to the perimeter of the bonfire back into its centre; he had his work boots on, that allow for such actions. Mine would have melted: Pull & Bear do not make boots for stomping on fires. I was envious, once again, as I often am, of Yiannis’ gear, of his preparedness, of how he knows what he needs to navigate this life, this wilderness, the tall grasses and the rocky, treacherous hills, these fires that we set. Aware, once again, of how ill-equipped I am, in comparison. How I’m just winging it, in high-street boots and too-thin jeans, and clumsy in my eagerness to fit in.
    ‘There,’ Yiannis said.
    I picked up another twig and tossed it onto the fire.
    ‘Thank you,’ I muttered. I didn’t watch him go. Yiannis may burn bright in my world, in his own way but, by now, I was all about the flames.

We’d started pruning this almond tree months ago, before Christmas. It was old and overgrown and dead in places, draining itself to support too many branches, too many possibilities reaching up and out and coming to nothing. Uncared for, untouched for years. Yiannis had shaken his head and sighed. The state of the tree almost a personal affront.
    ‘Look,’ he’d said. ‘Just look at it.’
    I looked as instructed, while he climbed up its trunk and motioned me to pass him the chainsaw. Ruthlessly, he pushed the blade into the flesh of the tree, and sent branch after branch, whole trees in themselves, crashing down with a thud and a sprinkling of woodchip confetti. Ruthlessly, but not mindlessly: every now and again, he’d stop and contemplate another branch, tilt his head and sigh, and then shift up or down or sideways, maintaining a precarious balance that makes me hold my breath every time, and apply the chainsaw again. Reducing this giant to a collection of stumps. A desolate sight, if you don’t know.
    I’d always thought of pruning as a cosmetic procedure. But it’s surgery, it’s critical; on this scale, as devastating as it looks, it’s saving a life. It’s the toughest kind of love, love with a chainsaw, but it’s exactly the kind of love that’s needed. I never knew; I’d never had cause to think about it before. Yiannis says plants and trees direct twice as much energy to dead branches as to living ones: think about that for a moment. Think about how much energy we expend to keep dead things attached, how much of ourselves we put into sustaining them. Perhaps we all need a man with a chainsaw to come along and ruthlessly rid us of the dead weight. Perhaps, for all our romantic notions and our greenhouse-grown flowers, we are all crying out for a tougher kind of love.

My task begins when Yiannis jumps down from the tree and takes the chainsaw to the felled branches, separating the ends, the bonfire fodder, from the sturdier parts that we’ll keep for firewood. We already have the fire going at this stage, and it’s my job to feed it, pulling the gnarly branches away from the tangle and tossing them onto the flames. I’m slower than I could be, although I’ve gotten better with practice, because of my pyromania. I say that as a joke, between us, and Yiannis laughs when he’s in the mood for my jokes, but there is something in it: a compulsion, a draw, something that has me stopping and staring at the fire every time I feed it another armful of twigs. I cannot turn away, not easily.
    We couldn’t get the fire going that time, before Christmas. It happens: not all fires want to be lit. It was weird weather, uncooperative, undecided. The wind kept changing direction, then dying down completely before raising violent gusts that had us running away from flying embers, but did nothing to stoke the flames. And almond wood is notoriously hard to burn. We gave up, halfway, intending to return the next day, but we never did, until now. When we were greeted by the result of our neglect. Bits of tree everywhere, half buried in the giant nettles, and the pruning itself not quite finished.
    ‘Oh, fuck,’ said Yiannis. ‘Is this the state we left it in?’
    ‘Yep,’ I confirmed. ‘Apparently it is.’
    But the fire gods were on our side this time around. And soon, after some breath-stopping rearranging of burning wood on Yiannis’ part and scavenging of flammable materials on mine, we had a beautiful raging inferno, ready to consume all of our offerings. To reduce all of our troubles to ash.

They used to frighten me, these bonfires. The recklessness, the absolute insanity of starting a fire in a field, on a dry, windy island; the illusion of control. The infinite possibilities of losing an entire village to one false move, one gust, one flaming twig blown the wrong way. I’d never have the audacity to start one myself, even now, all these months and all these fires later. I always stand aside, respectfully, and let Yiannis do his magic. And even when it comes to stoking it, I take my cues from him, two steps back and clutching handfuls of straw, watching him and the fire for clues, waiting for a nod or a shake of the head, never approaching until he bids me forward. Respect where it is due, and knowing where your place is: neither is small or easy to learn. But my place has never been on the front line, and not all of us can be firestarters. I have a different role to play and once those flames get going, they are all mine.
    The illusion of control, coupled with the absolute knowing that it is only temporary, that it is only until the fire decides otherwise. The mesmeric proximity to a force so primal, so powerful that it can reduce your entire world to nothing on a whim. Respect that’s very close to fear, and the new-found courage to stand in front of a fire that’s almost twice your height, and throw half a tree onto it to make it grow taller. It used to frighten me, too, this process, this task that I knew I wasn’t equal to. Nothing in my former life had prepared me for this one. But I know what I’m doing now; I’ve worked out the jigsaw quality of this game, the mad game of flaming Tetris that we play. I know how to angle the branches and how much force I need to put behind my throws; I know how close I can get and when to stand back, when to wait and let the fire settle and how to watch for changes in the wind. All these months and all these fires later, and I can do it unsupervised, and Yiannis can keep his eyes on his chainsaw and only glance over occasionally to make sure I haven’t set myself alight. Because I, too, can be dangerous if left unattended, thoughts instead of flames consuming me to the point of destruction, reducing my entire world to nothing on a whim, subject to even the smallest changes in the wind. Or I can burn, bright and steady and beautiful, light and warmth for those who know how close to get and how to stoke me right.
    That’s what we all are, that’s all we are: fires. Forces of healing and of destruction, primal creatures that contain all the possibilities and all the dangers. And firestarters, too, pyromaniacs, and guardians of the flames, babysitting the fires that we set to light up our lives, not controlled and not in control despite the illusion that we live by, the tacit agreement that we will set each other alight but not be consumed. Mesmerised by the flames. Gentle in love and tougher in love and devastating, at times, when we need to be, to save our own lives. Unprepared and ill-equipped despite all of our gear, playing a game that we don’t quite understand, playing with fire, literally, and getting burned, sometimes, when we get too close, or letting the flames die down because we didn’t have the courage to approach: clumsy in our eagerness to find our place. That’s all we are, that’s all we’re doing: winging it. Babysitting fires that we set ourselves and hoping that someone, somewhere, is glancing over every now and again, to make sure we don’t go up in flames.

Author: Daphne Kapsali

Daphne lives in Sifnos, where she writes books and collects firewood to get her through the winter. She is the author of "100 days of solitude" and another seven books, all available from Amazon.