It is the smoke that draws us there, but the fire that keeps us. You smell it first, lifting your head to nose the west wind and the soft ashy odor it brings into the apartment. I have been breathing it too, but like a dreamer—mind unconscious, for the moment, of what the body senses. Then “Do you smell something burning?” you ask, and suddenly I awake to it. Out on the back deck you sight the thick white clouds blowing at us on the middle currents of the great eastward windstorm we’ve been promised that day.
When you come back in the smoke comes with you. “There’s a fire somewhere,” you say, and there is no way to contradict the truth that the words are welcome. I almost laugh, you know. It is like hearing the grumble of a volcano in the distance—oh, far enough away that I know it would never touch me—and wanting the whole damn thing to blow so I can watch it blaze the sky right down. I step outside to find the world has turned a different color. Tiny cinders puff about, as if it is spring and all the cottonwood trees are burning and sloughing, burning and sloughing their seeds away.
I breathe this new version of air. It smells good: the spice and silver smell of burning wood, of food and warmth and comfort and hazard and all the history of hubris and devastation wrapped up in that same prickly whiff. I know it is wicked but I love the smoke. I suck it in, poison of course but still I want it to replace every molecule of oxygen in my lungs, wish for particles of smoke to be carried away on my blood like sooty diamonds so they can feed my tissues with proof of fire until I become a new thing, igneous in nature.
And now there are sirens: two, three, four? They scream into the clouds that billow toward us, but we cannot see the fire. “Do you want to go and find it?” I say, and you nod, and I smile because this, too, is wicked.
Although it is the fire I am looking for, when I see it I am surprised. We follow smoke and sirens two blocks westward; we reach a mad assembly of flashing lights and staring crowds; we stop at its heart and turn our heads to match all the other holy countenances that too are tracking what we sought. We are the last two poppies in an impromptu field of stalks. And what we see is what it was perfectly obvious must be there: a building on fire.
But still I am surprised. The fire advances and retreats in unpredictable ways, seems at first like nothing so much as a hot protean tide pulled by the moon. It flashes from windows, filling the space behind each pane with rufous light.
There are no screams, this is no house with sleeping child or cat or grandmother to be rescued from the flames, and as we stand transfixed you tell me the building is being renovated—or was, until this disaster—so it seems there is no one in danger from the fire’s lash. This feels like permission to adore it, but I haven’t waited for permission. It is not that the fire is beautiful, although it is: dazzlingly so. It is that it is so animate—quick and hot and above all vital against the stillness of the night, like a great flapping bird that might at any moment take off into the sky to inflame the moon.
I lean into you to watch the blaze and wonder what is in it that is missing from me, to make me so cold and slow. Why for years now I have felt that I cannot burn.
What allowed an object to catch fire, 18th-century chemists believed, was an undetectable substance it held inside itself: something that had no color, no form, no flavor, and no smell, but was, in its own way, eager to be free. Phlogiston, they called it, after the Greek word for flame. If a material was rich in phlogiston—charcoal, say, or oil, or phosphorus—then it had an inherent incendiary ability—a fire in the belly.
Under ordinary circumstances, phlogiston was trapped by its bonds to another substance: a sulky, chalky thing called calx. Like two ex-lovers in the habit of cohabiting, phlogiston was captive to calx and calx to phlogiston. But in the presence of heat, everything changed. Now phlogiston was released from its combinatory existence and could escape by itself in a blaze of glory. You could see it, then, leaving the talcum-white residue of calx behind like a crumbled shell. You could see it rising in masses of flame and smoke and ash. Nothing burned but for phlogiston; without it, there could be no fire.
When it was shown that some metals—having flamed themselves to powdery calx—weighed more than they did before, phlogiston was in jeopardy. But a few, to save it, said smiling that this meant it weighed less than nothing. When the matter of fire was trapped inside an object, you see, it lightened it. Ah then. What if? Perhaps what I lack is not a fiery heart, given to rages and conflagration, but an unseen effervescence: the very opposite of a burden.
I think of the woman who tells me I will never be happy until I stop collecting faults like pebbles. That to be fervently alive I have merely to be lighter in my mind. I want to tell her about phlogiston. In eighteenth-century terms you are correct, I will say. A life on fire, burning with passion and love, demands the matter of fire, and if such a thing exists then the form it takes is levity.
But no such thing exists.
I know the truth of the fire, that it is action and not object. That the flames and smoke I see are not what fire is made of but only a testimony to its affairs; that this blaze that rises before us tonight is a chemical reaction between atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon—and that yes, something is being released here, but it is no ethereal substance. No magical matter. Fire is as fire does.
We watch the burning building until it falls still and black under floods of water. The next day my coat smells of its smoke.