October 20, 2013
Sheila S. and I drove out to Farmer and Mrs. B’s last night, for his family’s annual bonfire. We arrived at sunset, the sky cloudless, a fiery, settling sun looking like molten steel, and stars popping out in the trailing arc of darkness. The tractor and wagon were set up, bales of hay placed in a rectangle on the wagon floor, for a series of hayrides.
In fifteen minutes, the sky was black and Venus and Mars hung bright in the west. There were adults of all ages and gangs of kids running across the fields (do not play hide-and-seek near the beehives) and playing on Farmer B’s newly-built swing set/slide. A bonfire was heating up the chill in the west field.
Young Marly, a granddaughter, was calling, “I want mores, I want mores!” She meant s’mores, but she knew what she wanted. And other grandchildren and their friends waved hotdog sticks like swords, calling for parental help, eager to dip skewed wieners into the fire. A son-in-law, Brian, had brought Peeps he had gotten last Easter. He was determined to roast the Peeps on the bonfire. The garage was set up as a food station, with tables laden with chili and breads and vegetables from the garden and sweets.
Brian’s son, Bryce, had brought a hockey goalie mask, playing the murderer from “Halloween,” the movie, hoping to scare the other kids, to no avail. “I can’t scare anybody,” Bryce proclaimed woefully. “Yeah,” I said, “but with the mask off you’re a chick magnet.” He ran screaming in mock horror. He didn’t know it, but girlfriends will be coming soon to the bonfire, for what is a fire if not a beacon, if not a lure, if not a universal rite.
And then the harvest moon rose above the house, one night removed from full but blazing nevertheless. We watched it and exclaimed; it seemed as though we could see it rising. This is the season of magic in the country; science need not rear its head and tell us what a moon is. This is the moon of the ancients, and we were sitting where they once wandered. We know this because Farmer B can scarcely dig a hole or a ditch without finding an Indian artifact.
Farmer B’s daughter, Melinda, brought Chinese lanterns to the party, and she lit them and up they rose, like hot air balloons, speeding east above the pole barn toward the moon. Even those simple toys seemed magical, drifting and burning down to ashes.
Mrs. B’s sister and her boyfriend were at the party. They live north on the lane, their farmhouse set on a high point of steep hills leading down to a creek. (I hunt for Indian artifacts in that creek, heavily wooded, cut deep into limestone formations and filled with geodes and flint and granite.) The boyfriend, in his late seventies, has nearly died from heart problems a few times lately, but here he was, uncharacteristically talkative and social, sixty pounds lighter, come back from death and pretty happy about it.
The owls and coyotes must have been watching us, but they were noiseless, holed up in the woods off to the west and north. Wolves and pumas and bobcats have been seen here. Perhaps they were hunkered down in the prairie grass surrounding us. Who knows what the bees, new to the farm, made of the gathering of the beekeeper’s people.
One animal was missing—the family dog. A black Labrador-and-mutt mix with down-dropped ears, she has been a fixture at parties large and small, for years. The grandkids could roughhouse with her; the cats could curl up and sleep with her. She would run joyfully and nose people’s hands for treats. On quieter nights, she would patrol the fields, never crossing the boundary of “her” property, emerging black from the blackness, for a tail scratch. I have spent many a night sitting under the pergola that runs along the back of the house—home to swarms of hummingbirds and mockingbirds and goldfinches—the dog’s head planted in my lamp, her tail thumping my leg, me talking to her and drinking beer, the night filled with sounds of tree frogs and peepers and cicadas. Tonight the dog laid on the living room floor, totally deaf, a mere skeleton, laboring for breath in her thirteenth year of life. I sat on the floor with her and she thumped her tail in recognition. I petted her, knowing this would be the last time. She stared into my soul, this sister of wolves. The cats same into the room, padding around their mate, staring, quiet. They knew.
We all know.
Sheila S. drove me home (I’m still in a sling from surgery), and we saw bonfires all along the bluffs, and corn mazes and signs hawking pumpkins and tomatoes.
And there is the bonfire of the heart, of the memory, of the time when you chased girls in the dark and stole kisses of fire. In Southwest Illinois, in the country, this is the season of shivery chill, of deep shadow shapes in the woods, of gleaming wild animal eyes along the highway, of the sharp smell of concord grapes, of rustling corn and bursting soybeans, of carved pumpkins’ garish grins and pumpkin guts and seeds, of ghosts of the Paleo people tracking wooly mammoths and the Venus-worshipping Mississippian mound builders, of sharper sound—mournful trains and barges plying the Three Rivers—of Monet-like landscapes, of “I can see my breath.”
Until you can’t.