Children dashed about in the dark, oblivious to the cold. I pulled a scarf up over my head, regretting my decision to forego a hat. Families gathered, talking, with occasional glances to check on their kids. Some were easily tagged with those crazy sneakers that sport flashing lights in the soles. As the hour drew near, the kids who had been body-rolling down the grassy slope towards the trees began to move back to their parents.
The trees, shorn of their lights and garlands and ornaments, had been gathered throughout town as part of the Fire Department’s annual tree collection. For a few bucks, donated to the benevolent association, your tree could be picked up and added to the festivity.
The winds were quiet, the night warm and the bonfire was about to begin.
Working in the dark, firefighters had been preparing the massive pile of evergreens. Gasoline fumes cut through night. A fire truck stood ready. The crowd moved back, leaving cautious distance as the fire tenders took up position.
Last night was the close of Three Kings Day, the night of Epiphany. It was also a night with a moon, bright and watchful. I dug my hands deeper into my pockets. The trees formed a small green hill, maybe 100 feet in circumference, 20 feet high. It would be a perfect place in a mystery story to dispose of a body. I tossed that thought away as quickly as it came, since Ruth Rendell and John LeCarre both used a Guy Fawkes bonfire as a devious device. It was simply enough that it was the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and those of us who had braved the night were about to mark that fact.
I understand it has been a town tradition for about a decade, but I’m new here (less than five years) and it was my first bonfire. I hoped for a large lovely blaze. Perhaps there would be a countdown. It had the feeling of waiting for the fireworks on the 4th.
A firefighter touched a torch to a narrow path of gasoline that lead to the trees. Small flames raced the flammable line, hitting the accelerant soaked trees. WHOOOOSHH. Fire exploded through tinder dry limbs. It roared, soared orange-yellow, then red against the black sky. Cinders shone like black stars against the flames.
Children leaned in against their parents. Little ones sitting on the grass looked up. There were no ooohs and ahhhs. It was not sparkling, controlled display. It was a beast of a blast taking over the winter night. The firefighters tended the edges; the onlookers began to unbutton coats and remove hats as waves of heat found us. In less than 15 minutes, the pile of trees fell in on itself, burning bright. The firefighters would be there for hours after we left, tending the embers.
I walked with my husband back to our car, stunned silent by the fierce beauty of the fiery spectacle. I pulled my scarf back up over my head as the cold found me again.
Firefighter at bonfire photo by Art Campbell/The Groton Line