I am a child. The world has become huge, but pieces of it still feel small and like they can belong to me in a way they can’t belong to anyone else. I am past all the illusions of youth, but I’ve learned to lie well enough to fool even myself when the need arises. Tonight, a night when everyone else is busy settling in to the cabin my parents have rented, I am left to my own devices. My parents are so busy with my youngest sibling that they don’t even notice me leave. Their usual hail of admonitions is absent as they talk about the next two weeks and the schedule we are all to stick to. Tonight, though, I have no schedule, excellent fire-making skills, an enormous pile of wood beside the bonfire pit, and a cloudless evening sky that I’ve been told will soon be filled with more stars than I have ever seen in my life.
I begin as the sun begins to dip toward the western horizon, a line made from hills that might be mountains, trees, and my indifference. I learned to build fires as a boy scout, the one skill I absorbed before the foolish irresponsibility of the other boys drove me away and the constant comparisons to my older brother brewed up a simmering disgust that will linger for years. As much as I dislike their source, I still follow the steps I was taught. Start small, with kindling and a frame to build on, let it grow and warm, and slowly build it larger, one log, one branch at a time. Anything the wrong size or shape is remedied quickly, snapped over my knee or broken against the wood chopping stump by a strength born from being trapped in a car for twenty-eight hours over two days with that same brother and one of his chief enablers.
It is the work of hours, but eventually it is the largest thing I have ever built. My family has come and gone in that time. A parent on an errand for some forgotten necessity, my younger siblings to admire and briefly enjoy my handiwork, the other parent to take in the space around this cabin and ostensibly to make sure I am safe. No words are exchanged with them, no cautions voiced. They know I will be safe and obey the rules they don’t need to repeat any longer. I do not acknowledge them, any of them, though I track their coming and going as this bonfire builds.
Eventually, the sun sets. The fire is too big and hot for anyone to approach. Someone voices the mild concern that it might ignite the trees far overhead with its heat and leaping flames, but no command is given. No reprimand extended. I am done building it, anyway. It is so hot that, if my hair were not buzzed short, it would have curled and burned by the occasional flare of heat on the wind. If I had enough body hair, it too would have vanished. No one can approach the fire to reach me beside it. I have acclimated to the heat as it built and never left the fire’s side. I am sweating freely in this heat, and I stay far enough away that I will not be hurt, but I enjoy this momentary space, this barrier of heat that prevents anyone from coming near me, from commanding me to attend to their whims.
As the moon rises, the fire begins to die. There is wood aplenty, yet, but I want to save that for another day. Another night. I know the process of seeing this fire safely to its end will be a matter of hours, and I know my parents will not let me stay up past midnight, so I have timed this fire’s life to dwindle around the time I will be sent to bed. My family is inside now, though, and I am left alone, so I move further from the fire. There is a rough blanket draped over a railing on the deck that I claim and lay on the ground. I rest atop it, feeling my sweating stop as my body cools away from the heat of the bonfire, and I stare up at the firelight reflected off the trees and the infinite stars beyond it all.
After a few minutes, I move the blanket into the field away from the bonfire. It has served its purpose, buying me freedom and occupation away from the demands my family places on me, and now I want to take a longer, unfettered look at a sky I have never seen before. I take it all in, seeing the Milky Way above me for the first time in my life and finally understanding why people are fascinated by the night sky. For a child of the suburbs–my fascination with the night had been focused on the glow of Chicago that is ever visible from one of the windows in my parents’ house–this is a moment that changes my life forever. Somehow, despite my limited knowledge of the wider world or lack of any experience outside the minor, cramped circumstances of my existence, I know that nothing will ever be the same after this moment.
It is glorious to behold and I think, for the first time, I feel what my parents have always told me is supposed to be the wonder and awe any good Catholic feels about God. I know I am a bad Catholic, though, unable to live up to the ideals they have instilled in me, unable to feel anything they describe as “Faith,” incapable of the type of selflessness and self-sacrifice they have taught me is my duty no matter how hard I try. But this thought is fleeting. I have long ago resigned myself to being inadequate in this regard, so I do not linger on it. Instead, I drink in the stars. I see what looks to my young eyes like a cloud of light smeared across the darkness. I see the halo around the moon and how it hides the stars behind it. I see individual satellites drifting across the sky, tracing paths all in the same direction, like a herd of little lights chasing each other through the night. I study the constellations I have learned by heart and make up new ones. I don’t create stories for these sights, though. Instead, I wonder at the stories they might hold within them, that they could tell me if only I knew how to listen.
Hours pass. The fire dwindles and dies. The stars shift through the sky as the world moves beneath me. No one comes to get me. No one sends me to bed. I know, somewhere amidst my wonder, that I have been forgotten again, that I will be woken up early by my family and that I will suffer for my lack of sleep as my parents pursue their busy schedule with us children in tow. But it is a single star, shining no brighter than the others, amidst a mind full and free for perhaps the first time in my life. Only as dawn’s light colors the eastern horizon do I make my way to bed. The blanket is put away, the ashes are spread evenly. All trace of my passage, occupation, and work are erased. My world might be different after this night, my awareness expanded as I saw something that connected me to all humanity, past and present, for the first time in my life, but the world I occupy is still the same. So I leave no trace, I settle into the bed I have been assigned, and I catch what sleep I can before I am forced back into the roles and places I was in before I made my own this night.
As I drift away, I take comfort in knowing that, with all traces hidden away and all signs erased, no one will be able to take this memory, this place I’ve made, from me. It will be mine forever.