I wish to be an ancestor of fire and how flames came to be, an ancestor of particular slants and dances of light wherein memory is born.
We are working in the half-light of a March dusk; the lambs run and jump as if they are born of sun reflected on ice. They rush to their mothers as their tails work furiously with joy as they suckle. Even then, as a boy, I somehow understood that those lambs, in that light, stood for hope and something greater than joy.
A few hundred yards to the south there are intermittent cracks of metal on wood, the unmistakable tone of my grandmother chopping wood. The small adobe house is at her back and the smoke of pine and aspen lingers above her home. At this distance, above the cacophony of dusk and putting the animals under the shed for the evening, I can hear my grandmother’s orphan lambs crying for their supper. She has them in a small pen next to the chicken coop and I am able to imagine them pressed against the chicken wire, their bleating a siren of hunger and of love for the only mother any of them have ever known.
My abuelita will take her load of wood, split thin as wrists and the length of her forearm. She will stoke the fire, and on the stovetop that shines of countless fires she will place the milk to warm. On Fridays she bakes bread and every Sunday she roasts a chicken; she seems made entirely of work, custom, and survival. I have so many ancestors that I carry with me, this evening, in this light, the dusk has brought me this memory of who I want to be. This is the ancestor I will be, like my grandmother working in the evening light. Did she know back then that she was teaching me to care for fallen and forgotten things?
I remember her most often at the woodpile. She works in the wood chips and dust of generations of split wood, looking for slivers of pine and aspen, discarded reeds she knows will take a flame from a single match. She collects what others do not notice. She places her find in a tin bucket. She saves what no one else uses or needs. Her cupboards are filled with homemade jelly and jars of buttons. Her actions tell me to collect everything; someday it will be of use. She precedes me, my ancestor. She is not, nor was she ever a writer. Her path for me is clear, a permeable memory separating her life from mine.
Some remember her as unhappy, even bitter. She let me brush fresh baked bread with melted butter. I am positive I can live off this memory, forever. I will be an ancestor of fire; that is what I was always meant to be, each flame a vault of memory, some made of love and others of anguish. I remember her working in the woodpile at dusk. One never imagines such a flame as exhaustible, youth conspires to render such things as permanent. That fire is love and that love is fire, and neither can be extinguished. Age, however, puts truth into everything; it is the tree as it falls. Truth is the enemy of memory. Truth is the well from which brokenness is pulled up in a tin bucket. Were it not for truth she might be baking bread for centuries, collecting sticks that will always take a flame and mending shirts, every missing button easily replaced. I am a grandchild of a woman that knew work as innate, necessary, a direct descendent of survival. Her faith was not made of prayer but of hope in collected things, rituals of kindness and patience.
I am told that I am an old spirit. I wonder sometimes how many generations I carry in me. Odd thoughts follow me like orphan lambs in single file behind their human mother. I wonder why I love the smell of smoke; why well water is sweetest when sipped; why lambs at their end thrash their legs as if running; is every jar of jelly so sweet as to be undefinable; must bread only be baked on Fridays; will a bucket filled with sticks light enough fires to last for centuries?
Her smile was a rare gift; I once compared it to an eclipse. I will be an ancestor of fire.
That is what I was always meant to be.
The orphan lambs call into the last of the light so she pours warm milk into 7-Up bottles, tops each of them with a black rubber nipple. She moves slowly. The green bottles clank and chant in yet another tin bucket. She carries more than just a meal to her lambs. They love her and their tails prove it is so. The fire in the kitchen burns. The lambs sing their bleats and baaahs into the dusk. She feeds them and they become full. It has been this way forever, only breath is older.
Where there is absence, bring to that place warm milk and love. Where others discard there is the work of living and saving, vessels of kindness born of ancient human shadows.
I am asked what kind of ancestor will I be. I struggle with the answer because I mistake it for asking about the future, but really it is calling me back to the places where I learned how to be.
In the distance of back then, the light is gone from the day. Everything has folded into purple and black. I imagine a single light; it glows in the vastness of memory. I hear wood split. Smoke ascends. I am a boy, again. I must have been helping the men lock up sheep for the evening, but just beyond the corral my ancestor is chopping wood, preparing for the night. The wood box is full. I am an ancestor of fire. Time has no limits. Seek, she tells me; collect everything; care for lost things; she compares love to bread baked in a wood burning stove. She has gone before me. This flame is sacred.
Ancestor of Fire, previously published with the Center for Humans and Nature
AARON A. ABEYTA is a Colorado native and professor of English and the Mayor of Antonito, Colorado, his hometown. He is the author of four collections of poetry and one novel. For his book, colcha, Abeyta received an American Book Award and the Colorado Book Award. In addition, his novel, Rise, Do Not be Afraid, was a finalist for the 2007 Colorado Book Award and El Premio Aztlan. Abeyta was awarded a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for poetry, and he is the former Poet Laureate of Colorado’s Western Slope, as named by the Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival. Abeyta is also a recipient of a Governor’s Creative Leadership Award for 2017. Aaron has over 100 publications including An Introduction to Poetry, 10th ed., Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, & Drama, 8th ed., Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, & Culture, The Leopold Outlook, Colorado Central Magazine, and others.