Dead and Dying Light

We are moths, ribbons, wheel-spokes, and the fire is the hub. It is night. We’re far from the phosphorescent fairgrounds of the city and now the dark presses us between its pages like violets, daffodils, sprigs of baby’s breath. More than anything, I have been craving the nectar of an outdoor fire. The wood catches within seconds, though the logs are heavy and thick. This in itself feels like a gift. A little tender miracle. We look at each other and grin ourselves silly. We are drunk, it is night, the fire is too orange to be blue and the flap of its wings crumples the blank suburban silence.

I feel both light and full. For this weekend, we aren’t thinking about what keeps us hungry. What is my purpose? one of us will often intone from behind the cold digital glow of a poem at the dining room table. Never mind that we’re quoting a sentient robot from the irreverent cartoon show Rick and Morty—this is the central question that structures our student existence. Now, we’ve escaped ourselves, propped our empty shells at our desks and flocked to a house with parents asleep upstairs and fresh-squeezed orange juice in the fridge and a child’s drawing of a black dog framed on the wall facing the kitchen. There is a fire pit in the backyard, and beyond—a swathe of mown grass the size of a lap pool bordered by shoulder-high reeds tattered at the tips. Tomorrow, there will be bacon sweating fat into a plush paper towel. Tonight, there are s’mores.

We sit in a circle now under a sky rich with stars, eyes cradling tiny fires. I stab my marshmallow through the gut and nuzzle it into a glowing grotto beneath two overlapping logs. Safe here. The flames swerve around my bayonet like the inflatable men at gas stations, rippling and reaching but never licking skin. Eager and clumsy tongues.

A psychologist once studied delayed gratification by offering marshmallows to children. One treat now, two if you wait. The key to the perfect roasted marshmallow is patience. I sit with my knees pressed tight around the skewer as the night presses against me, and I wait. Some of the children, in an attempt to distract themselves from eating the marshmallow, would stroke its cottony skin as if it were a stuffed animal. Now, I watch as animal hide rusts in the oven heat of the embers like a time-lapse of a sunset. How often do you get to watch time pass? Color creeps in from without; the marshmallow goes russet at its edges until the entire luminous orb is burnished and bubbling. Once its insides go to jelly, I like to shove the marshmallow into the flame and char its skin like barbecued chicken. It erupts into a ball of fire. I heave air into my lungs and blow. Then the sweet smell of brimstone, a comet snuffed.

I remember, a few years back, a photo circulating on the Internet of a guy named Simon Turner roasting a marshmallow on the tip of a tent pole over a two-thousand-degree volcano, a bottle of Corona at his lips. In an interview with the Weather Channel, he said it was one of the most perfect marshmallows he’d ever tasted. What does Simon think it takes to be remembered? I wonder what he’d say if I told him our backyard bonfire is just as hot as his lava lake. You can tell the hottest part of a flame by the absence of color, a white halo around the crackling logs closest to the source of the burning. White heat can surpass 2,700 degrees and is defined as “the point at which a body becomes brightly incandescent.” The Latin verb incandescere literally meant “to glow white,” though we now use the word to describe any visible heat flush, all colors of glow. To be incandescent, light just has to be seen.

We devour our s’mores and remember the stars; we leap up from our chairs so suddenly that they rock back on their heels; now we’re sprinting into the field of grass beyond the fire and flopping into a pile like puppies. We lie on our backs ear-to-ear with our feet facing in opposite directions, a drunken zipper. I could cry. Above us, a shaken snow globe, glitter on velvet, sparks escaping through millions of pin-sized holes like goose down through a pillowcase.

The whitest stars are young and hot. A baby star—like a baby human—is not much more than a bundle of gas, which shrinks as it grows older, as gravity gathers those clouds of gas into its arms and tamps the bundle into a tight orb between its palms, a hot red snowball, a flaming marshmallow. This first step takes a million years. The star will shine for ten billion more. But starlight takes too long; many stars are gone by the time their glow reaches us hundreds of light-years later. Stars collapse time and space—the more powerful the telescope, the further we see into the past.

Lying there in a pile on the grass, we look and look at the light of dead things, a celestial scrapbook dating back trillions of years. A star smolders like a legacy. The sun is a star is an ember, and the earth is a giant ball of sugar crisping slowly, jelly at its core. I can’t stop laughing. Faced with the entire cosmos, what could be smaller than a s’more?

Now. I watch bolts of light crackle between each bright granule, a huge electric switchboard, an ancient static buzz. One of us sees a shooting star and I swell with pleasure even though it wasn’t me. I could wait four hundred light years for this. The pinpricks flicker and pulse; we heave great sighs in awe, we blow them out like candles.

Photo used under CC.