My father taught me to love aromatic wood. Together we would split logs for our nightly fires, and in-between the grunt of the falling hammer and the reluctant crack of splits along the grain, he would comment on the qualities of the wood. Pine is soft, and burns fast and bright. Oak burns slowly, but its bark catches fast. Our favorite was cedar. Cedar trees grow quickly, and because they grow so fast, their roots are shallow. Windstorms often tumble entire rows down. Several years ago, my father found a young cedar sapling lying in a field, and he brought it back to our garage with the intention of someday fashioning a walking stick. Cedars are poisonous trees and are therefore favored for furniture because they repel insects. We loved cedar because it smelled like the warmth of a fire.
When I came home for Christmas, my father told us he needed heart surgery. He had a heart murmur - the result of a traitorous valve that turned against him.
My mother went with him to the hospital, leaving me to stay home and take care of my sisters. Whenever I tired of dishes and cleaning and their bickering, I went outside with a hammer and wedge to gather fuel for the hearth. I built a fire every morning, and every evening I closed the grate, smothering the smoldering embers. One night my sisters went to bed early, and I made a pot of coffee and found a book to read in the searing, starving light.
In the grate I found only embers, and I noticed only then that the cradle by the hearth was empty. There was nothing left to burn, but I was determined to have a flame. So walked into the garage and found my father’s walking stick leaning against the wall. I tried to snap it over my knee, but it was too hardy. So I grabbed a saw and ripped it slowly in half, and the teeth of the saw burned friction into sawdust, and a mist of cedar fell everywhere around me, soft, red flecks that filled my flared nostrils with the smell of pencils, of wardrobes, of chests, dressers, of the breakfast room table, and of my father.
As I opened my book in the flickering shame of that night’s fire, the phone rang. It was my mom. She wanted me to know that Dad had been able to walk on his own that day. As we spoke, I learned that old wood burns in a single, angry instant of furious cracks and bursts of violent sparks, and leaves no trace behind, not even ash, but the ashes of ash, and the knowledge that I had burned my father’s walking stick.