Yesterday we had the first snow of the season--barely. We got just enough to fill the insides of the fallen leaves and of the curly kale that is still growing in the garden. But today the ice on the little fish pond stayed throughout the day, and when I got up from my afternoon nap I felt that special chill that comes over the house an hour or so before sunset.
At that time of day, in winter, I love to light a fire in the wood stove. And today, with the thermometer hovering around freezing and the skies gray and the woods and fields silent and dead, definitely qualified as winter. Plus, we'd had our chimney cleaned the day before. What better time to light the first fire of the season?
I went to the basement and brought up the box of kindling, the newspaper basket, the old crock where I keep my fireproof gloves. I bellowed “Leave it!” at Bisou as she sniffed the kindling (knowing her obsession with sticks, I figured I needed to make a strong first impression) and fetched in a load of firewood. I crumpled the newspaper, laid in the kindling and a log and, rejoicing in the knowledge that this season our two-year-old wood was finally bound to burn well, opened the damper and lit a match.
Phew! Gasp! Ugh! I backed away as an evil cloud of smoke flung itself at my head. What an idiot—I must have closed the damper instead of opening it. The damper on our stove is a mere iron handle, unlabeled, which closes in one direction, opens in the other. It's up to you to remember which is which.
Well, it had been seven months since I'd last lit a fire, and in the meantime my goat had given birth, a new puppy had come to live with us, a garden had been planted, harvested, and put to bed. Perhaps I'd forgotten which direction was “open”? Holding my breath, I pushed the handle the other way. More smoke billowed out. I slammed the stove doors shut, and smoke curled gracefully out of every crevice. I opened them, and a big gob of smoke hit me in the face like a fist.
There was only one thing to do: call the chimney sweep. While my husband saw to that, I went around opening windows and doors, and turning off the heat. The big dogs, delighted at this unexpected exposure to the critters getting ready for bed in the woods, barked frantically at the back door. Bisou, who likes her comforts, rushed all over the house, looking for a room that had some remnant of warmth. But as soon as she found one, I would run in and fling open the windows.
The chimney sweep said he'd be right over. While we waited, I called Bisou to my side and wrapped us both in an afghan. My eyelids kept sticking to my eyeballs, and there was a bitter taste in the back of my throat. Night fell. It got colder. We ate supper.
The chimney sweep, a scholarly-looking man with pale blue eyes behind glasses and a slight speech impediment, arrived with his big vacuum cleaner and many apologies. I gave him his privacy while he dealt with the blockage of soot—second time in 30 years, he said—that had caused the problem. Just to make sure everything was working right, he rebuilt the fire, lit it, and was gratified by how “clean” it burned. I thanked him profusely, he wished me a good evening and departed.
Now the fire in my stove is burning merrily and cheerfully and brightly, as a fire should. The big dogs are flattened out before it, and Bisou is snuggled up against me. Her coat is getting longer and redder by the day. She really does look like a flame.