A Christmas Fire

The Burning

It looks odd hanging there above the graceful works of fly rod royalty. Above the rich caramel-hued Granger Register. Above the stunning blonde HL Leonard Catskill. Above works of bamboo art, though their soiled cork grips suggest they are more than just pretty things. Whatever their utility, they are lovely to look at. Yet there it sits, elevated to the place of honor. The place of significance. It can only be that it has a story.

It was two days 'till Christmas and colder than a teacher’s tit. At least that’s what Johnny Culver said in the coatroom, making Nate and all of the other 5th graders giggle hysterically and check over their shoulders to be sure Miss Anderson wasn’t within earshot. Nate’s little brother, Timmy, heard it too and laughed the loudest, though it was certain that he didn’t get the joke. But that lack of understanding didn't stop him from repeating it later in the lunchroom and earning Johnny another trip to Principle Dan’s office. Third time this week and it was only Tuesday. Nate wondered if such things were tracked. If so, Johnny was surely on school record pace. As Miss Anderson dragged him down the hallway, Johnny glared back and pointed his stubby finger at Timmy. Everyone knew what that meant. And while Nate felt powerless to stop it, he was inclined to look the other way when it happened.

Timmy was Nate’s cross to bear. Two years younger, but four behind him in grade, Nate’s little brother made life miserable. Most folks politely called the child slow. Aunt Martha said there’d been problems when he was born. An imbecile cord, or something like that. Dad once suggested, after a beer too many, that the boy’d simply thrown snake eyes in the genetic crapshoot of life. It had earned him a sharp glance from Mother and a night on the couch. She called Timmy her special angel and treated him that way. Johnny Culver used ugly, mean terms which all of the kids repeated. Nate wasn’t sure what to believe. He only knew that having Timmy around was hard.

Apart from his rudeness, Johnny had been right. It was cold. The walk home from the bus stop had been brutal and Timmy’s foot-dragging and whining had only prolonged the agony. Timmy hated the harsh weather but Nate could never convince him that hurrying held the answer. The big baby would grumble, then slow, and, when chilly enough, simply sit down and cry. Nate got him home, this time, only with the assurance that school was out for Christmas break and they could stay inside for the next several days. They could stay close to the fire.

Timmy loved the fire. He would sit in front of it for hours watching the flames lick the sides of the stone fireplace, the sparks swirl and rise with the draw, and the hard, heavy wood transform into soft glowing embers. It was magic. But it was work, too, and feeding the main source of winter warmth was a fulltime, family job. Dad found, cut, and split the downfalls from around the farm year-round. Mother and Nate helped stack the cords and kept a steady supply moving from the neat backyard woodpiles to the bin on the porch, and, finally, to the hearth. Timmy’s job was the gathering of kindling.

With school in recess, the boys relaxed. An evening without homework was an evening to savor. While the cold wind whispered with soft voices through the myriad crannies in the old farmhouse walls, Nate leafed casually through his stack of comics and Timmy settled in front of the fireplace, transfixed. Mother's gentle caroling drifted in from the kitchen, decking the halls as she washed dinner’s dishes. Dad sat at the kitchen table, shuffling, then staring at, then shuffling again several stacks of important looking papers. And muttering.

It was also the boy’s responsibility to keep the fire going and, if left on his own, Timmy would let it dwindle to ashes, hypnotized by the process. Nate reached out with his foot and nudged his brother, releasing him from his trance, and told him to get more wood for the blaze before Dad took notice. Timmy whined about having to go out on the cold porch, but it was his turn (or so Nate said) and he reluctantly headed for the coat closet. Nate returned to his browsing.

After a few minutes, Timmy was back at the hearth, watching the blaze and an odd smell began to drift through the room. Dad looked up. “What’s that?”

Nate shrugged.

“Just put some wood on the fire” replied Timmy, looking a little unsure of himself.

Dad frowned. “Which pile did you get it from, son?”

Timmy withered. “When I was getting my coat I found some wood in the closet, Dad. I used that in the fire.”

The color drained from Dad’s face. Nate knew why, but he wasn’t supposed to.

The Queen

Nate had been a fisherman since before he could remember. Dad had a small cane pole ready for him the day he could sit upright and for his fifth birthday he'd received a shiny new Shakespeare Wonderod. The fiberglass beauty became Nate’s constant companion and together they’d fished every trickle in the county. The Wonderod was shortened a few inches, courtesy of a tumble in Archers Pass when he was seven, but Dad had replaced the tip guide, making it as good as new. Nate reckoned he’d use it forever. That changed the day he found himself in Widow Harper’s tool shed.

Nate never knew Mr. Harper. He’d only seen the faded brown photos of the lean, smiling man displayed in the tidy front room when he collected his quarter and glass of lemonade after mowing the widow’s front patch. It was hard to imagine the handsome young gentleman in the pictures married to the wrinkled old neighbor lady, but Nate supposed love burned funny sometimes. That's what Mother always said, anyway, usually after Dad had done something silly. Nate mowed every week during the summer, mostly just stirring up dust, but Widow Harper appreciated it and treated him kindly enough. Twenty–five cents was good money.

The old woman’s reel mower was always out by the porch steps when he arrived and that’s where he left it when he was done, at her request. The tool shed where he supposed it was kept seemed off limits, though she had never exactly said so. But one muggy day, mid-mow, the wind kicked up a storm and the widow called from the kitchen door, urging Nate to hurry and put the mower in the building. It was rusty enough already. With fat drops and the flicker of lightning at his heels, he raced through the back yard to the once sturdy structure, tripped over the threshold, and tumbled into the darkness.

The shed smelled of age. Nate dusted himself off and, as his eyes adjusted to the faint light, he discovered, against the far wall, a small workbench that held a collection of small, rusting implements, reminding him of Doc Davis’ dental tools. There were shelves holding rows of colored threads, bags of molding feathers and strips of animal fur, and packages upon packages of Eagle Claw fishhooks. More fishhooks than Nate could use in a hundred years. Under the bench sat grocery sacks of musty smelling magazines. Outdoor Life. Field and Stream. Sports Afield. Years’ worth.

Above the workbench hung a calendar from 1937. He’d never seen a barn calendar that wasn't some combination of cars, farm tools, and buxom young women with sleepy expressions and not many clothes. He liked those other calendars, but this one tugged at him in a different way. Each month presented a fantastic view of breathtaking waters, men in odd apparel, and incredibly beautiful fish. Scenes that fired Nate's imagination and quickened his fisherman's pulse.

And above the calendar, resting on two heavy nails, was a fishing pole like he’d never seen before. A pole like those held by the oddly dressed men. Even through its cobweb coat Nate knew it was beautiful. Longer than he was tall, and elegant. Smooth tapered cork handle. Delicate bent silver line guides instead of heavy rings like those on the suddenly clunky Wonderod. And hand written in dark ink, near the bottom of the pole, were the words “Tonka Queen.

For the remainder of the summer, Nate made sure to put the mower back in the shed when done with his chore rather than leave it by the steps. Widow Harper didn’t appear to mind. In fact, she had a gentle, knowing smile when he’d finally come back around for his quarter and cold drink. A smile that he’d never noticed before.

Nate’s fishing was changed by his discovery. He turned the Wonderod upside down, taped on an old bait casting reel that he’d found in Dad’s spare parts box, and loaded it with a length of heavy, waxed kite string. The other boys laughed so he took to fishing alone and found that he liked it that way. For the rest of the summer each sunfish was a monster western rainbow, each chub a splendid Catskill brook trout, each bass a glistening Alaskan salmon. Just like on the calendar. Just like in the magazines. It was an enchanted fishing summer and it ended too soon. But then, summers always do.

From the time he was six, after Johnny Culver had spilled the beans about the jolly old elf, Mother had warned Nate about looking for his Christmas presents. “You’ll spoil the surprise,” she’d say with a somber tone and a not-quite-convincing serious face. She swore that if she caught him poking around, it would be the last Christmas gift he’d ever receive. Nate always nodded, and kept poking. What Mother didn’t understand was that the thrill of the search, like the probing of new waters, is in the blood.

As Christmas approached, he found it. Tucked deep in the back of the coat closet, hidden amongst the smooth wooden dowels that Dad used to plug "them damn" carpenter bee holes, Nate found the rod. He recognized it immediately, right down to the stain pattern on the cork. The Tonka Queen.

Nate would one day learn that Old Widow Harper had given Dad the Queen, asking only that it find its way into Nate's hands for Christmas. Being a proud man, Dad had put new shingles on the widow's chicken coop roof in return. He needn't have. For immediately upon Nate's return from that first visit to the tool shed, the widow had recognized the look in his eyes. She’d seen it, years before, in eyes of a lean, smiling man. Seeing it again had warmed her heart. Seeing it again had made her cry. She'd been grateful for both.

Timmy withered. “When I was getting my coat I found some wood in the closet, Dad. I used that in the fire. The color drained from Dad's face...

Dad recovered quickly and stepped to the fire, blocking the view of the hearth. “Nathan, go help your mother finish those dishes.” Nate paused, wanted to protest, but knew better than to argue when his given name had been used. Besides, he couldn’t admit to knowing what was going on. Dad had tried to block the view, but Nate had seen enough. He had seen the small armload of burning dowels. He had seen the odd blue flame and the reflection of small metal pieces in the glowing coals. He had seen the curl of bamboo. Holding back tears, Nate turned and stumbled into the kitchen.

“What’s wrong, Nate?” Mother asked as he came through the doorway. “Nothing,” he replied through gritted teeth.


The Search

“I don’t know what to do. There’s no time and there’s no money.”
“He asks for so little.”
“He’s growing up. It’s time he understood.”
“But he’s still just a boy.”
“I know, but he needs to learn that life’s hard here.”

The kitchen clock’s monotonous movement ticked through the house.

“Maybe I’ll make him a special batch of snickerdoodles. He loves them so.”

The wind rattled the bedroom pane.

“Yes. Yes, he does.”

Nate, upstairs, buried his head under the pillow, unable to eavesdrop any longer, and, after a long, long time, fell asleep.

Christmas Eve dawned cold and clear, though the agitated yard birds hinted that fouler weather was on the way. Nate avoided Timmy all morning; not easily done in the confines of the small farmhouse. When he couldn’t get away from him physically, Nate simply pretended he wasn’t there.

After a late breakfast of cinnamoned oatmeal and dried granny smiths, Dad went out to the barn to drop alfalfa bales in preparation for the coming week and Mother wrapped up in her big woolen coat for a trip to Sweet’s dairy. She said that she needed a bit more butter for some special holiday treats. Once bundled against the cold, she kissed each boy on the head and started down the road. With their parents away, Nate settled near the fire, thumbing through his comics without much enthusiasm, while Timmy fluttered about, bubbling with Christmas Eve energy, seemingly unaware of how he’d ruined Nate’s life.

Timmy’s quirks were impossible for Nate to understand. His fixations with the family fire, his behavior at school, none of it made sense. Timmy didn’t even like to fish. Dad would take the boys out often, after the chores were done, and explore the small streams and ponds that littered the county. Dad taught Nate where to look for fish and how to catch them. More importantly, he taught Nate to appreciate them and to enjoy the simple pleasures of their pursuit. The lessons were wasted on Timmy.

Timmy didn’t have the attention span for fishing. He’d sit for a moment, then begin to dig, often prying up rocks or roots and pitching them into the water, spurring immediate and harsh responses from the serious anglers. Chastised, Timmy would wander away, soon to be out of eyesight in the streamside thickets, heavy woods, or surrounding hills. After a couple of scares, Dad found three whistles, each with a different pitch, and Mother had woven lanyards from coarse baling twine. The boys didn’t go fishing without them hanging around their necks.

Those times that Timmy would disappear or Nate would separate to fish around a bend, Dad would blow his whistle three times. The boys would respond, also with three blasts, and the far-flung parties would gravitate towards one another, tweet by tweet, like some odd flock of canaries. Timmy thought it was a game. But constantly finding him took time away from fishing, so it galled Nate all the more that he had destroyed the Tonka Queen.

As the morning wore on, Timmy clamored constantly for Nate’s attention, asking random, bothersome questions which Nate pointedly ignored. But the interruptions finally became too much. Nate spun on his little brother, wanting to blast him for the destruction of the rod, but knew, if he did, that Mother would find out. She’d know that he had been snooping again. “I can’t wait ‘till we get back to school,” Nate blurted instead. “I’ll help hold you down so Johnny Culver can beat the snot out of you.” Nate scooped up his comics and stomped up the stairs, away from the warm fire. Being in the cold was better than being with Timmy.

Lunch time approached, Mother returned from the dairy and Dad came in from the yard. Nate trudged down the steps, to be met with puzzled stares.

Where’s Timmy?

The rest of the day was a blur. Mother cried. Dad raced about, searching every inch of the homestead, then called the sheriff down in Mossy. Word got out fast. Concerned women came and went, wringing their hands and trying their best to comfort Mother. Loud men shouted instructions and raced off in their trucks along Highway 5 or set out on foot into the surrounding woods, only to return shaking their heads. Doors opened and closed. Doc Davis even brought his fancy hunting dogs, gave them a sniff of Timmy’s checkered pajamas, and turned them loose. But the hounds only added to the confusion by racing around the yard, barking and scattering the chickens while Doc yelled at them to hunt.

The day wore on. Dusk arrived. The temperature began to drop. Timmy was nowhere to be found. The search became more urgent, but darkness made it difficult. Everyone knew Timmy’s dislike of the cold and his habit of simply giving up when he was uncomfortable. He’d be a huddled small thing to find out there in the night. Hope slipped away with the sun and the searchers became more somber. The shouts turned to whispers.

And Nate knew that it was his fault. He’d driven his little brother away because of a stupid fishing pole. He didn’t want the Queen any longer. He didn’t want anything except for his little brother to be found. Nate sat frozen in Timmy’s place on the hearth, holding back tears and watching the fire burn to embers.

The forlorn triple-trill of Dad’s whistle echoed in the dark distance.

The Gift

No one found Timmy that Christmas Eve. None of the searching men, worried women, or barking dogs. Even Dad’s ceaseless scour of the surrounding countryside went fruitless. Instead, the desperate search for Nate’s younger brother ended as many such searches do; with a soft bump on the back step and a child’s surprise at the fuss that ensues when he walks in the door. The boy’s return felt no less miraculous for of its simplicity.

Though shivering and dirty, Timmy appeared unharmed. In truth, he was more endangered by Mother’s crushing embrace than by anything he had experienced during his lengthy disappearance. And he answered all questions regarding his whereabouts by saying only that he was cold and hungry. But Nate knew where he had been. For lost in the chaos of Timmy’s return was the fact that he hadn’t come home empty-handed.

Dad and the boys had been there one long, lazy summer day, ages ago. Across the back pasture, along the Wilson’s fence line, and down along Moses Creek to where it dumps into the Big Pine. Downstream, through the brambles along the edge of Jarret’s Farm where the big shepherd mutts chase anything that dared to enter their domain. Across the shallow riffles, next to the ancient plot of headstones, worn smooth by the years, and around the next two bends. Miles away. They’d made a day of it. Dad and Nate had fished the deep hole under the massive river oaks.

Timmy had gotten lost. The whistles pulled them all together in the midst of an oddity for these parts. They found one another in a stand of bamboo. How it had gotten started there, no one was sure, but it thrived, as bamboo always seems to once it gets its roots.

So after the hubbub died down, after the searchers were thanked and returned to their homes to squeeze their own children (who, of course, didn’t understand), after the flow of Mother’ tears abated, just a bit, and she loosed her bear hug, Nate and Timmy sat side-by-side on the hearth with cups of hot cocoa and a plate of cookies, staring quietly, together, into the fire.

And while Nate was overwhelmed by Timmy’s present, yet to be given, the nine-foot, ramrod straight, length of bamboo that lay outside the back door, as dirty and scratched from its long, rugged trip home as was its provider, the replacement for the Tonka Queen was not the only, or most lasting, gift that Nate’s brother gave him that year.

Not even close.

It looks odd hanging there above the graceful works of fly rod royalty; that rough, dirty bamboo stalk. But while the beautiful, refined instruments below it may have stories of their own, none match the memories held within the raw spear. Within it lies the memory of a snap straight right that bloodied a neighborhood bully’s nose one New Years Day, the power of a father’s guidance sent into the darkness on the wings of a canary’s song, the warmth of a mother’s embrace, and the realization that one doesn’t need to understand to love.

All this hangs above the hearth within the core of the old stick. It can also be seen in the fire below, if one looks long enough. That is, if one has taken to heart a brother’s greatest gift; the ability to see into the Christmas fire.

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