At our house we had about ten fruit trees all down the side of the vegetable garden. There were apple trees and plum trees and pear trees. Trees that had grass underneath and the grass we would have to cut in the summer. During the winter the tree branches, though bare, grew spindly up to the grey sky and the cold. Then dad would climb a ladder and prune the trees, and with his clippers cut at the branches and then hundreds of tree branches would fall on the ground hidden in the grass that had grown over the winter.
Dad then said I was to go pick up all the tree prunings and put them in the wheelbarrow and take them to where we had the bonfire at the end of the garden. This would be on a Saturday morning. I would reach down and pluck each branch off the ground until I had a bunch gathered, then carry it to the bonfire pile, or put a load into the wheelbarrow and carry them there.
I didn’t like picking up the sticks. They took so long to pick them up, tree after tree, and as I picked them up, I thought about other things to get over the boredom. I listened to the seagulls fly over the garden or the fog horns of ships out beyond Semiahmoo Bay. I dreamed stories of the wooden figures that were up by the fishpond, the deer and the bear, like they came alive, and wandered into the forest, making their way down to the beach. And I admired bits of the garden, the flower bed and the rocks down from the pond, and the small steps down beside them. Or sometimes there would be an eagle overhead, and there would be crows chasing it. I just knew about the bonfire at the foot of the garden, where Dad would burn leaves and the branches and other things sometimes.
The bonfire to be was a large pile at the end of the garden, near the trail down to the beach and near the old garden shed that was filled with dust that had the old fashioned lock. Near the trellis with the grape vines that hid a grassy place where sometimes in the summer as a child I would go hide for fun.
My Dad worked outside in his old school jacket, with tears in places although it still had the red letter on it. When all the branches had been collected, he lit the bonfire, starting it with some newspaper and some matches and then lit one bit of the pile that was drier that the other parts. Then when it got going a bit the smoke circled around inside the pile just peeking out and then the evergreen branches on the pile would crackle and spit and sometimes if we got the bonfire really going, we could see bits of the flicker of orange from up at the house. Sometimes I would be sitting at the kitchen table at lunch eating sandwiches and could look out the window and see it. The smoke and the fire would reach up as if reaching into the blue sky as if it belonged there instead of in the pile. Afterward, later that day or the next morning I would look at where the fire was and see the grey ashes, the skeletons of branches and anything that wouldn’t burn.
It was one day, years later in England I decided I would go somewhere, take a train trip, and I think it was 1992, or ’93. I took the train up to York, a somewhat long journey and I felt like England was a hill and the train was going up it a bit more and farther to the right. I had never been to York before. I went to the Minster, and it was being worked on as there was scaffolding all on the outside, but I had a wander inside and looked at all the stained glass. It was Bonfire Night and I had yet to experience later memories of Bonfire Nights at friends standing outside with the first of winter’s cold, gloved hands clutching a warm drink and coming home with my hair smelling of campfires. I was coming back from York on the train that night, and as the train went along in the dark, I could see the villages passing by, each with a bonfire, like a necklace with beads of fire.
It made me think of fires, of the leaves that had fallen, and the new buds that would grow on the trees instead of the thin wintery twigs that burned on the bonfire. In the winter, when the sea winds blew up the forested hill and hit the windows of the house, the branches were growing, only to be severed on that Saturday morning with me picking up sticks instead of watching Saturday morning TV.
This is a work of creative nonfiction; it contains no composite characters and no names have been changed. I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them, but I have taken some storytelling liberties, due to my interpretation of events, fading memory, lack of time machine, and need to cherry-pick some memories over others in order to express my thoughts within the story.