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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(November 15, 2009)

Fall's First Fire: A Halloween Story
by Abbot John

As I look back now with the long view of a week's hindsight, I gain a new perspective on the peculiar things that happened in my house on Halloween. It is all so vivid in my memory that I can almost hear Walter Cronkite's sonorous voice intone, "... filled with those events that alter and illuminate our time, and You Are There."

As a TV show I don't think You Are There got very far, but no matter. It doesn't have anything to do with my story anyway. In my house, on Halloween, I was there. So were my wife Nanci, son David, and two dogs, "nameless here forevermore." My wife was upstairs bathing; my son was in the basement doing whatever it is that a LCD screen allows young men - with new degrees in psychology and as yet no job - to do; my dogs were with me, and I was somewhere in Istanbul with Eric Ambler as he searched for A Coffin For Dimitrios. The book, however, engaging, could not prevent me from noticing the door bell's warning that trick-or-treaters were on the outside step. Although, to be honest, the dogs began yapping the instant someone tread on the walkway up to the door.

Yes, it was rainy and dreary and yes I felt weak and weary but these days, at my age, one can hardly read anything into that. There was no raven by my door and certainly not one that spoke of "nevermore" and in any case I keep a bust of Buddha by that door.

It was as peaceful a night as Halloween ever gets as we each tried to find new and believable ways to excuse ourselves from taking a turn answering the door whenever the dear children rang. I had just answered the door and resumed my comfortable position in the den, when that little petite woman upstairs used her banshee voice to suggest, "You get the next one! I've got a headache and those damned dogs are driving me nuts."

I protested strenuously, "I just took a turn. Why can't you be more amenable to these nice annual rituals."

Her answer was swift: "My hair is wet and you keep that room so bloody cold steam comes out when you speak. You're the priest. Rituals are your game."

I pretended ignorance. "Where's that son of ours? In the basement on his computer?"

"Well get him and stop bothering me." With this terminating remark, the voice of "She... who must be obeyed" travelled through the duct work, and in the basement our son heard the voice. Having heard, he could do naught but respond. He therefore decided that since he was now certifiably wise in the ways of the human mind, he would ease the atmosphere and correct the imbalances he sensed. He would perform the ritual that attends starting the Fall's First Indoor Fire. Had he communicated his intentions to me, I would have explained that rituals are meant to "handed down". No matter how educated we are there are certain steps that need to be followed if those fires are to be successful in correcting imbalances and easing atmospheres.

For my own part, my attention was too divided to anticipate any imminent danger. The dogs were barking, the banshee's howls were still ringing in my ears as was the door bell; and all were more than enough to cause me to retire as quickly as possible to the den where I sat, read, and waited for the last knock to come. It was at this point that my story begins.

First, a word about rituals. One does not have to be religious to appreciate the value of ritual. By following given rules, protocols, and procedures, knowledge is passed down through the ranks. Father to son or high priest to tyro - it is an orderly way that instills a sense of security. There is a method in tradition.

Some lives are filled with ritual. Others are filled with the odds and ends of unstructured chaos.

In the days of my rural youth, Fall was as a much a time for cleaning and repairing as Spring. I much preferred the Fall since it contained many more elements of destruction and mystery, which, for those of my temperament, were more enticing than the fragile promises of Spring that appealed to a different, more optimistic group.

We had a ritual for lighting the Fall's First Fire, indoors, in the fireplace, and outdoors, in the back yard where we assembled a great gathering of leaves and other assorted combustibles to create that pyromaniacal delight, A Bonfire.

The word "bonfire" most certainly must be an English - French compound meaning "good fire" - although I have no etymological proof as such and am too lazy to research it.

Regardless of its linguistic origins, a bonfire is illegal in my county. Fire codes are no respecters of tradition. Ever since, some fifteen years ago, I got a personal visit from the Fire Marshall about the unpleasantness of backyard bonfires, I dumped the whole ceremonial business about First Fires. As a result of my being ritually remiss, our son proceeded on good will alone.

As the dogs yapped, I answered the bell and found myself confronted with a tsunami of trick-or-treaters. I did not hear the logs being positioned in the fireplace grate. I did not even hear the snaps and crackles of wood sparking to life. It wasn't until I finished with the tots and closed the front door that I began to smell wood burning, not like wafts of fragrance, but like paint blistering in a house burning down. My wife, having picked up the scent, was bounding down the stairs.

I yelled out to my college graduate son, "Did you open the flue?"

From the garage I heard his voice yell back, "What's a flue?"

The three of us converged in the den. At least I believe it was the den. It was much darker than I remembered it. A swirling, ascending smoke rose from the fireplace, climbed the walls, and hugged the ceiling.

There was a noticeable lack of ceremonial discipline. My son had grabbed the fireplace tongs and was trying to lift the burning logs from the fire. My wife was screaming something about his mental capacities; and it was here, precisely here, that your humble Abbot, in a calm Zen voice, told his son to leave the logs in the fire and to back away. Braving the flames, I reached into the fireplace and opened the flue. The cool autumn air sucked the smoke up the chimney as if it were rewinding a video tape.

I began to receive a variety of expressions of gratitude from my loved ones. These are necessary responses which, however sincere, never seem to last. I did not have long to bask in the glory of my Zen-like calm - my finely measured response to crisis.

I smiled as my son muttered, "A flue. I'll be damned. You learn something new every day."

We were both smugly satisfied when, without any prompting from me, he opened a window and went to fetch more wood for the ritual fire. To complete the clearing out of smoke, my wife went to open the kitchen door. I sat back into my easy chair and tried to rejoin Mr. Ambler's search for the elusive Dimitrios; and after a brief moment during which the entire fireplace scene recalibrated itself, my wife screamed in the kitchen - not in anger but in unmistakable fear.

I didn't move from my Zen-couch. I told myself that I'd heard this scream hundreds of times before. It was the "I see a spider scream" and I was not going to allow my mind to move in reaction to it. My son, however, sensing his now certifiable authority, bolted towards the kitchen as all good knights are taught to do. Within two seconds they were both screaming and yelling and stamping the floor. I did not move - not because I didn't want to help - but because I saw what they were screaming about. What seemed to be a few thousand wasps or bees had circled them. My wife was barefoot and the insects were attacking her ankles, causing her to stamp her feet like a frenzied flamenco dancer. As my son tried to slap them away or crush them underfoot, they attacked him. Wife, son, and a few thousand little Messerschmitts swarmed into the den. In the ensuing flak and flailing, my reading lamp was overturned and broken.

The first fire of autumn that had been started, I must remind you, without following the proper ritual, had caused the chill wintry air to warm considerably in and near the fireplace. The smoke that was not allowed to make its initial slow escape now had made a furious charge up, out, and around the environs of the chimney. Where the insects had made their home I did not know. I knew only that they were invading mine. I managed to switch on the overhead lights and ran for the Raid although I doubted that I would have the heart to spray my family.

Who knows the ways of wasps?

The den's overhead lights are actually recessed lights in the ceiling surrounding the fireplace. Now, I assume that when the heat and smoke first disturbed the wasps and they began to swarm, they naturally followed the draft that my wife created when she opened the door. They flew down into the kitchen where wife and son kindly led them into the den. But then, amazingly, the recessed lights seemed to hold a greater attraction for them than my slapping, stamping family. A good 90% of them disappeared into the recesses of the fixtures. The room, except for the continuing firelight, grew darker what with all of them hugging the bulbs.

The remaining 10% still circled my wife's ankles. As she violently danced and I sprayed her feet, my son brought the step ladder from the garage so that I could anoint the wasp-covered bulbs.

As the first wave of Raid hit the hot bulbs, the wasps, as instantaneously as a school of fish, reversed course and began to fly around the room. The kitchen door was still open and I suppose that the draft now contained the smells of their former abode because in another instant they all headed for the chimney, choosing in their haste an inopportune route: the fireplace. But the screen was up and this obstacle they could not negotiate.

I was fascinated at what I was seeing. As the wasps organized their swarm into a kind of squadron, they dived straight at the screen, and between the fire's heat, Raid, screams, and maybe their fatigue, they sort of slid down dead onto the hearth in what amounted to a mass suicide.

While the anti-histamine was being doled out, I got a dust pan and brush; and with due ceremony, I swept up their tender bodies.

Humming Bird