I wish to be an ancestor of fire and how flames came to be, an ancestor of particular slants and dances of light. 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 and 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. 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 a forearm. She will stoke the ﬁre and, on the steel 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. 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, 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 finds 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.
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. My abuelita’s 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?
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.
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. 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. I am an ancestor of ﬁre. Time has no limits.
Published on 22 September 2017