It was October. Autumn painted her radiant way across the mountains. The hillsides were ablaze with the dappled colors of yellow beeches and fiery red maples. They looked like a patchwork quilt. Yellow, gold and orange-red pieces held together by the dark green of cedar trees. Sliver maples wrapped a soft metallic luster along the edges of everything. High winds filled the air with multicolored confetti. It was magical. Warm days had given way to cool nights and the smell of ice was in the air. Time to slow down a bit and stay close to home and hearth.
My brother was a proud hunter. He killed for the sport of it. Me, I found it barbaric and distasteful. The only time he let me go with him, I ran through the woods as fast as I could yelling at the top of my voice. “Run squirrels, he’s going to kill you!” Needless to say, I never went again. That was fine by me. At least I had the opportunity to defend the poor innocent creatures.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, squirrels drove me to Jeff’s house. Jeff Stephens was my best friend. Well, until high school, when puberty drove him to girls and me to an underworld of secrets. Even then, I never had to pretend to be anybody but me when I was with him. We spent our free time in the mountains, swinging from grape vines, landing in mining breaks, sighting fox and bobcat.
Earlier in the day, my brother came home with at least eight squirrels tied around his waist. I screamed, and he chased me out into the street. I ran. I was small and faster than him. I knew as soon as I saw those squirrels what was happening. My brother would skin and gut them, and mom would make squirrel dumplings and gravy for supper.
Jeff’s mom, Ruby, always knew when the squirrels were boiling. She could tell by the urgent way I ran I into her kitchen. “Squirrels again”? She would ask laughingly. I preferred the pinto beans, cornbread and cold sweet milk in her kitchen than even the thought of eating game.
A pot bellied stove in the center of the Stephens’ house glowed with a bright fiery translucence. The room was thick with heat and coal smoke. Old lady Stephens sat on a rocking chair in a corner across from the stove. She looked to be asleep. I never knew her to speak. She kind of shuffled around from room to room, chore-to-chore, always crisp and starched in her apron and bonnet. I smiled at the way she rolled down her stockings so her skeletal legs could warm, a tiny almost unseen presence in the chatter of the Stephens family.
Jeff and I were sitting on the floor of his upstairs bedroom when it happened. We heard a loud crackle and a thump. We ran downstairs. The stove door had broken away from its hinges, landing on the wooden floor. Just as we reached the doorway, we saw old lady Stephens get up from her chair, walk over, pick up the red-hot door with her bare hands, put it down on the metal floor protector the stove was sitting on, go back to her chair, sit down and close her eyes as if nothing had happened. We were breathless. How did she do that? It sent us running back upstairs in disbelief. For a few moments, we just stared at each other not sure what to say. That night I went home and told my family what had happened. Everyone but my mother laughed. Later, she would tell me more about fire.