The real God of fire

We’ve now reached that stage in the winter when each of my family’s four cats sits like the Sphinx, head up, paws straight before her, facing the wood stove as it heats the den, the kitchen and the library in which I write. My friend Adam Turteltaub once saw the cats sit like this and remarked, “They think the wood stove’s a god, you know. They’re worshipping it.”

He may be right. This time of year, I think pretty highly of the wood stove, too.

But there are a lot of reasons why I like the contraption that transcend its most obvious purpose.

First of all, it has helped me to get to know my neighbors, especially the folks in the Lincoln Volunteer Fire Company. Sure, we haven’t had a chimney fire in 15 years, but in those first winters when we were heating with wood, we had three. And the wonderful thing about my neighbors who fight fires isn’t merely their competence, it’s their patience and camaraderie. They do good work and they do it cheerfully. I will never forget standing in my driveway around midnight one Saturday night in January with my next-door neighbor Jim Brown as the two of us gazed up at the peak of my Metalbestos chimney.

“What do you think, Jim?” I asked. “Is that a chimney fire?”

And Jim nodded sagely and said, “See those flames peaking out of the top? That’s usually a sign you have yourself a chimney fire.”

That was way back in 1995, and it was the last of our chimney fires (Some people thus think I’m due, but I hope not). We clean the chimney twice a year and after that third chimney fire, we changed the configuration of the Metalbestos chimney itself. The one that was put in when we bought the wood stove made two tight turns, first on the second floor of the house and then in the attic. The creosote would cake to the sides of the chimney in those spots and the next thing I knew, I was asking a bunch of volunteer firefighters if they wanted any coffee.

But I also like stacking wood in the summer, a part of the preparation for burning it in the winter. Thomas Moore, author of “Care of the Soul,” has described how he derives enormous satisfaction from washing the family dishes by hand. It’s a task that is giving and it’s a task that allows his mind the chance to roam as he works. I feel the same way about stacking wood. I’ve figured out a lot about characters in my novels while angling a few cords so it has the best chance to dry in time for the burning season. I have also solved a lot of personal problems in my life while putting in wood, such as making peace with the reality that I am never going to be a serious contender on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

In addition, I savor the way the wood stove efficiently dries the clothes that become saturated with ice and snow as my wife or I shovel the walkway or roof or when we return from an afternoon of cross-country skiing. Most winter days, the cats will have to nudge their way past a pair of boots or wet gloves to find the perfect spot by the stove.

But the most important gift that we derive from the soapstone box is this: It is indeed the family hearth, with all that word connotes in terms of warmth and comfort and family. Our house doesn’t have a fireplace but it has that stove, and when the winter sets in, the wood stove is where we tend to congregate. My cats might not show great common sense: To wit, only two know their names and all four seem to believe that if you stare at a door long enough, it will open.

But they do choose their gods well.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 10, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.