The wood is wet. Sadly, this is not a euphemism. The wood is wet despite my purchasing of a large, sturdy and reinforced tarp the exact color of the Green Bay Packers. It’s wet despite my diligent carting of it via wheelbarrow down the steep, stony incline to the villa. It’s wet despite my careful stacking of it in neat piles according to shape and size on the villa’s porch. It’s wet despite my thoughtful piling of it next to—but not too near to—the tiny fireplace that burns said wood, my sole source of heat in this stony Tuscan lonesome.
That’s not strictly true, actually. There is water that is hot most of the time, or at least as often as there are sunny days, which here in Tuscany is usually. There is also a small, somewhat ineffective portable heater, likely German in origin, that I use sparingly in my large stony bedroom. I turn it on for an hour as I get into bed. It emits an orange glow that gives at least the affect of warmth, if not the experience of it.
When I returned to Gotham from Italy last June, I found myself in an abject funk of impressive length and weight. It was a Great Blue Whale of a funk, and I swam in its belly like Jonah for a good, painful six weeks. I was surrounded by funk, unable to press my fingers to anything but its solid, mucousy walls. A thick miasma of funk stood between me and my friends, me and my dog, me and my city, me and all that I had once remembered loving.
Clearly the only way to extricate my self from my funk was, I thought, to get back to Italy. I must eject myself out of this funky butt and find myself whence I came. Which is to say, here, in Italy, the land of loss. And thus I am living alone for five weeks in the middle of Nowhere, Tuscany, relying on a fireplace for heat.
This seventeenth-century villa has made yet more vexed my relationship with fire. I was very young, three or four, when my best friend’s house went up in flames. It stood two doors down from my own. I stood outside and watched it burn, as did the whole neighborhood. There are few flame-retardant metaphors for a quick swallowing up of a home by fire. There are beasts and there are juggernauts and there are giant jaws with gnashing flaming teeth. There are balls of fire and walls of fire and tunnels too. So many metaphors used so often, and all crumbled to ashy cliché.
My friend’s house was eaten by fire, consumed by it, nearly utterly. Her family watched, she in jammies; her parents in that interstitial state of dress that adults affect between work and bed. This generational clothing divide was mirrored by the people in the neighborhood who stood back and let the firemen do their work. The house burned bright, fast and black; it flamed out, like a marshmallow on a stick.
No surprise then my worrisome relationship with fire. About ten years later, my own house would catch fire—some faulty electrical connection in the baseboard heater would send a fast lick of flame up a wall, creating the possibility for an artful renovation. It was a happy accident, eventually, but the night it happened, I lay on the damp grass of my lawn in the black of an April night and wretched. There wasn’t much to do but give into the nausea.
The night I arrived here at the stony lonesome from Rome, I carried the groceries in with my friend, who had to drop and dash to take care of her multiple kids, and nervously lit a fire in the board-game-sized fireplace. The plan originally was to stay with here another friend, here in this beautiful, bohemian, rambling villa that telescopes out magically like the Weasley manse in Harry Potter. But this friend found a job up in Piemonte, and so it’s just me in this three-centuries-old five-bedroom house.
It is a beautiful house. The first thing I wanted to write about it was this phrase: I want to share this with you. This Montalcino sunset seen from the porch, all lambet apricot and lavender greys: I want to share this with you. These stone floors, old as my nation: I want to share these with you. These grapes growing on the arbor, steps from my door: I want to share them with you. This night sky speckled as a robin’s egg, this quiet that’s deep and inexorable as water, this air that’s fresher than homemade bread, this wide bed and its butter-thick down comforter: I want to share it with you.
It’s a testament to the searing, inescapable and tedious cold that this romantic vision lasted, oh, about five days. Not coincidentally, it ended the same day that I accidentally set a hillside on fire.
I’d say it wasn’t my fault, except that I grew up with wood stoves and ashes in Vermont. I know well and true not to throw out live embers. I’d say I thought all the ashes were out, but I wasn’t entirely certain, and I thought to myself as I threw the ashes on the compost pile that the soup-stock-spent vegetables I’d put on the pile at the same time would extinguish any embers. I might have seen a flash of orange; I might not have. In the hideous 20/20 that is hindsight, who can say.
I threw the compost and the ashes on the pile. I went out running. I returned, panting and sweaty and breathing rough, so I decided to cart yet more wood from the pile down to the house. As I approached the crest of the hill with the wheelbarrow, and I heard it. That snap, that pop, that crackle, those flames. And then I smelled smoke. And then I saw great fat billows of smoke wafting like a child’s drawing off the hill.
I ran down the hill, past the pomegranate tree, the persimmon tree, the vegetable garden, and I saw a sheet of fire from the compost pile rising up the hill, a great amber tiger of flame, about the area of a very spacious Manhattan studio. Vicious hot, the flames spread like wildfire because that’s exactly what it was. A wildfire, and I was perched on the brink of becoming the accidental arsonist Foxy Knoxy.
My Italian cellphone wasn’t working. And even if it had been, the Montalcino fire department is whimsical about answering phone calls. And even if someone did answer, there was no counting on their speaking English. And even if they did speak English, I didn’t know my address. I did a quick mental calculation of running back to the house and Skyping my friend to have her call for me. I fast imagined the Montalcino fire department showing up, some motley crew of hip-wader-booted Italians, and as fetching an image as it was, I shoved it out of my head and ran for the hose.
Which didn’t reach.
I saw a bucket abandoned by the apple tree, half full of water and bobbing with a few citrus fruits. I tossed the contents on the fire and heard a satisfying hiss. For an hour and a half, I ran back and forth toting buckets of water, foot by foot, bucket by bucket, ragged breath by ragged breath, putting out the fire. After about an hour, only the compost heap itself was smoldering. I took it apart, poured water on its archeological layers, and only then did I call my friend. She came over, surveyed the toasty mess, and phoned her friend on the local fire brigade.
“Mia amica ha avuto un piccola conflagrazione,” she said.
A little conflagration, indeed. I put it out, this fire. I started it, but I also extinguished it by myself, a snapping, blazing metaphor for how I’m living my life right now. I made it, I made it go away.
Today, almost two weeks later, my feet are cold and the ambient beauty of this legendary whatever has dimmed. There are, however, little tufts of green grass growing amidst the toasted black on the hillside. Looking forward with the great, panting eager, I’ve already made my reservation for my hotel in Rome, a city where any fire I come across won’t be made by me, a city with heat and hot water and well-dressed men. In two weeks, I’ll be there.
I’d like to share it with you.