Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Testing smoke alarms

Molly is like a cat sometimes we say. She is frequently underfoot, parking her body in front of your legs so you walk right into her side, or lying down on the floor exactly where you were about to step in that slow motion way she has.

When I work around the wood stove, tossing in more wood or stirring up the flames with the metal pipe we use as a poker, she paces behind me, sometimes rubs her face against my back and when I finally push her out of the way, she slides to the floor at my side, peeking at me under the open wood stove door. I glance at her and shake my head and explain for the millionth time, it is not safe to play around the fire.

She lies there one evening peering up at me, as I begin to clean out the wood stove. The sky has just darkened outside the windows but it is still warm enough outdoors to let the fire die down to coals and embers. I reach inside, scrape the shovel along the bricks that line the bottom, scoop up a pile of ash, white on top and grey beneath. I work around the coals still glowing brilliant orange, flecks of them fall away from the ash heaped on the tiny shovel. I bring it out carefully and dump it into the old metal bucket, worn thin in spots, dented and needing replaced.

It is a trick to find that perfect moment when the firewood has burned away to coals so the heat is not unbearable, but the coals are still alive with fire so I clean out the ash around them and I don’t have to start the fire again from scratch.

I wear an old pair of oven mitts on my hands and use a metal prod to shuffle the large orange chunks, rippling blue around the edges, from one side of the stove to the other and then reach in with the narrow shovel and scoop the ash out from underneath, then shuffle the coals back to the other side and scoop the ash from where they had just been sitting.

Heat snaps at my face where I kneel at the open door, it bites through the oven mitts at my fingers. Sometimes the surface of the mitt begins to smoke before I am done. Part way through I exchange the mitt on one hand for the other, the one with the shovel always thrust furthest into the midst of the heat, reaching for the very back of the stove.

I pull out a smoking lump from the fire and by the way the smoke purposefully rides the air currents I know it will not extinguish in the bucket. The bucket is three-quarters full, I am almost done, if I could just finish, I think, before the smoke alarm goes off. The smoke funnels straight up from the bucket, swirling in a plume towards the ceiling and I scoop a little faster.

“Hold on,” I say to the dogs, “I’m almost done.” And then the pierce of the smoke alarm slices through the house and all other sound is gone. I glance sideways at Molly, and can’t help but laugh a little to see her giant ears like sails are pinned flat to her head, her eyes narrow and she stares straight at me down her long nose.

“I know Molly,” I shout, as I shovel another scoop, “I’m almost done.”

I am still wearing my boots from when I retrieved the bucket from outside. There are puddles, I know, underneath my feet where I kneel by the fire. It will take more time than is necessary to remove my boots, run up the stairs, wrestle the smoke alarm off the wall and pop out the battery. If we can stand it for just a minute.

I can feel Murdoch’s presence behind me and Molly’s eyes boring into me. I am impressed they haven’t begun a riot. “I’m almost done,” I say again as the other smoke alarm on the second floor joins its screaming to the first. I drop the metal shovel on the ceramic tile, hastily close the door of the wood stove and grab the handle of the smoking bucket. “Okay, let’s go everyone,” I say and lunge at the outside door, throwing it open and waving the dogs outside, where they happily bound and I follow out into the dark and the cold that is refreshing, slamming the door behind me.

We can hear the muted blare of the alarms outside and I take my time to walk to the ash pile and dump the bucket, the orange embers sizzling into the snow beneath a black plume of particulate. I hold my breath and turn away. But when I look back the embers flare against the darkness and I imagine for a minute a piece of the sky has fallen to Earth.

The dogs meet me back at the door and I can hear the alarms have stopped. Inside the air is a thin haze, the smoke dispersed and just hanging there. I return to the stove as Molly lies down again at my feet, rake up the coals and toss in some wood, open the damper wide so the orange coals blaze brilliantly, and we wait for the fire to catch.

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