(Essay 5, Finite)
By gayla mills
Our fireplace is made of stone, and we watched it take shape even before our walls and floors were finished. Our contractor Peter built the fireplace, Peter with the curly brown hair and youthful smile, who’s also a musician and a painter. If the stone mason who was supposed to have come that week hadn’t been busy, Peter wouldn’t have been the one to see it through. He’s a master with stone and chisel, so it’s beautiful to look at and irregularly perfect in every way, in the way the stones fit neatly together, as if all those different shapes just effortlessly belonged next to and on top of one another, and in the way the grays are streaked and speckled with veins of blond, pumpkin, and cherry.
On top of the fireplace, as if it had always been there, rests a red oak mantel. Like everything else, it’s cut smaller than you might find in other houses, though it’s well suited to this one. It’s not there to impress. Instead it whispers to you to rest a water glass, a bass bow, or a flower vase on its solid top. Gene hewed that mantel from a fallen tree not far
from the house. He could’ve used his chainsaw and power sander. Instead he used axe and adz, hand crafting the tree into a new life. I put on a light coat of shellac, a resin made from insects, to let the natural reds and a few small worm holes shine.
For the first year the fireplace worked fine, its smoke removed by a serviceable chimney of cement block walls. We were waiting, though, for the day when we could pay to finish the exterior. We considered faux stone facing, which looked pretty close to the real thing in the Luck Stone showroom, but at significantly lower cost. But even if it appeared the same from a distance, how could plastic compare to rock? A timely gift from my dad made our choice easy, as was the decision to spend it on the chimney rather than a second car or a 401K.
So we found a local mason, Vinny Valentino, and we arranged to meet. Vinny met us in the parking lot of the local café wearing a tie dye tee and looking like an aging hippie. He showed us pictures of his work, which caused my throat to catch, and recommended getting rock directly from West Virginia rather than through the local showroom.
The fifteen ton truck arrived and dumped its load next to the house, the ground shaking from the impact. Over the months I watched Vinny and his grown sons climb the scaffold and hoist the heavy stones, six inches thick, along with sacks of mortar and five gallon buckets of water. The rock, torn from the earth, rose bit by bit, until it touched the sky forty feet up, the tallest chimney he had ever built. Before they took the scaffolding down, I dared to climb up it despite my fears, and I snapped a shot of the mountains in the distance, a view that would never exist again, for there would never be scaffolding at that height, in that position. The sapling below would grow branches in that spot and do its part to obscure that view too.
Later that summer, Dad came out to place his hands on the chimney, to look up at where it touched the sky, and to recognize another of his gifts.
Now as I sit on the couch and watch the flames twist and rise, I think of the men who built that place to tame the fire, with a frame of rock and oak made to last.
I figure the house will stand much longer than I will, though I plan to enjoy it for a few decades more. And Gene will be there too, to split the firewood, which I’ll haul when it’s seasoned into the basement, before we sit together and feel the warmth of the flames. And I’ll remember Peter, who crafted the fireplace, and Vinny, who hoisted the chimney, and all the others whom we got to know while we worked beside them, raising that house. By then we’ll have planted trees that grow tall, and I’ll harvest the fruit and nuts to make jams, juices, and pies to draw life from earth to soul.
It will be so sweet that I’ll weep when I let it all go, at the end.
Then someone else with no memories will take over the house and admire the fireplace, which will look so ancient, lovely, and mysterious.