the fire on the mountain

Throughout my childhood, my mom was my best teacher. This is generally true, but it was also literally true, because she led reading groups at my school for years. She used anthologies called Junior Great Books, and I don’t remember a lot of the stories, but there’s one I think about on days like today. It was a folk tale from Ethiopia about a man named Arha who stood all night at the top of the coldest mountain without clothes, fire, water, or food. Arha survived the night by watching a fire being tended in the distance, and imagining its warmth.

With the wind chill it’s currently -1°F outside. That’s the kind of cold that makes me remember Arha, and what he could have possibly imagined when looking at that fire so far from that wind-chapped peak.

I know what I’d think of. I’d think of Alexandria in summer and its swampy exhaustion. Or Girona in July and the bluest sky known to man. Or London in September and the quiet relief everywhere, pasty Brits in shorts and empty bikeshares.

I’d think of the radiator in my room and how grateful I am that our heating system has barely changed since this house was built in 1920.

I’d think of the fleece blankets my mom used to make when I was younger. She’d pick out two fleece prints at those enormous playgrounds called fabric stores and knot them into the warmest things known to man. Mine was bright red with flowers on one side and soccer balls on the other. I wonder where that blanket went.

We have a fireplace in our front room and an old-school chimney to go with it. When I was young, maybe about eight years old, we’d kindle fires there in the winter, and play chess and read Dickens and drink hot chocolate. When I was nine we had an electrical fire during my birthday party. We don’t kindle fires anymore. I can remember them well enough that it doesn’t feel like it has been ten years.

In Cholula, México, in the middle of August, I was saying goodbye to my summer-long friends around a bonfire while some counselor played reggaetón he probably shouldn’t have. All twelve or thirteen years of me were invigorated with the awe you only feel when experiencing strawberry-marshmallow s’mores for the first time. (The marshmallows were pink. Pink! What a time to be alive.) The next time I saw a bonfire like that, it was late May in high school, and the Spanish music made a reappearance. This time I was running and dancing with newly named novices and the seminarians were off having a soccer tournament just beyond the guitars.

I’ve been known to order extra hot coffee and hold it for hours until it’s lukewarm. I’ve also been known to drink hot lattés in the middle of June. For one thing, my blood just runs cold and I need the boost. But more importantly, I’m not willing to dilute God’s favorite bean-derived caffeinated wonder. Ice is for sissies and blasphemers.

The year after the house fire, we moved into an apartment a county over. My sister and I had to share a bed in the smaller of the two bedrooms. The comforter was thin and the nights were usually a little chilly, so even if we went to bed on opposite sides of the mattress we’d wake up right next to each other.

That’s the thing about the cold, it brings people together. I could pretend to be annoyed about everyone Instagramming their weather app and writing Facebook statuses about their own freezing tears. But I like the solidarity of extreme temperatures. It’s good for us to know we couldn’t survive on our own out there.

I think the part that got Arha through the night was knowing his friend was staying up with him, tending that fire, waiting for his return.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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