4:30 a.m. A barely audible humming wakes me from a deep sleep. It’s a faint yet unfamiliar sound. I am used to the quiet, to the ordinary sounds, so this new sound disturbs me. I am trying not to be worried, but I am and lie wide awake, listening. Yes, now I’m sure it’s not a sound I’ve heard before.
My house is old, an 1854 farm house and wood may swell or shrink, a floorboard creak, a piece of furniture, a door. I know these sounds. The daytime sounds are recognizable—a tractor ploughing feed-corn or baling hay, a truck speeding past, a dog barking. At night the quiet in my house becomes a friendly presence, and seems to me almost conscious. I feel that this house likes me and wishes me well and does not want to give me cause to worry without a reason.
I throw off the covers. Something is definitely wrong. Is it water? Did someone leave the spigot on outside? Is a toilet running somewhere in the house? Calm down. Don’t panic. I fly up the stairs to the third floor. What is it? Is it up here? That sound. I have to find out. I must diagnose the problem if I am to calm down. I check each faucet and toilet. No water running. I hurry back down the stairs and crawl back into bed, console myself, tell myself to get a grip. But there’s that sound. I can’t deny it. Something’s not right. Now, I really can’t sleep.
I’ll meditate, that’s what I’ll do—slow my breath, uncouple from this anxiety. I sit cross-legged and try to breathe, when suddenly I hear another noise. A pinging sound. My heart jumps. Now what? Is it this room? The old heart-pine planks? How could my house do this to me on a day like this?
Maybe I shouldn’t have had the wax removed from my ears at the clinic yesterday.
I hold my breath and listen. This sound is different. Bits of ice hitting the glass window panes. It’s hail! A sense of relief floods over me. Yet, it’s not the unidentified mysterious sound—the disturbing sound, the whir of inanimate distress sound. I uncross my legs and walk over to the cast iron radiator, touch its iron ribs. The iron is cool. Down the stairs I go into the living room. The thermostat reads sixty-eight degrees. The room registers sixty degrees.
The furnace boiler is not working! In the mudroom, yes, it is the furnace making that weird whirring and humming. The roads are covered with snow and ice and it’s 5 a.m.—too early to call the furnace man. Thank goodness I have a woodstove in my kitchen. But alas, no kindling and no newspaper to make a fire. The sticks in the yard are wet because of the recent rains.
The rooms are growing shivery cold. At least the lights are on. A stack of old New York Review of Books, headed for the recycle bin, lie in a pile next to the back door. I grab one and rip out a page, then another and another. The papery covers prove best for starting a fire.
I flip through the Review and notice authors, the books, an ads, especially one, Alfred Jarry’s “the Carnival of Being” announcing an exhibition. I love the word carnival and the word being. The pairing of those two words. A really cool title conjuring up everything and nothing. Titles, a writing teacher once told me, are the ‘gateway to the imagination.’
I save it. I tear out another page and stuff it into the stove. There’s a Janet Malcolm essay. Though I read it months ago, even underlined sentences, I have no recall of anything in the essay or even what it was about. Save that one. Now the ‘to read’ pile has grown larger than the pile ‘to burn.’
There is a moment when the fire might die; I search for a little twig or two in the bottom of the empty kindling basket and feed it to the sputtering flame. Rip out another page, twist it, tuck it into the stove. This time the flame flares up and crackles bright. I stretch out my hand and feel the air warming and take a deep breath.
What a lovely fire words create. The heating and cooling man should be up by now.
Share this post with your friends.