The house is noticeably colder when we get in, though the digital thermometer reads 68.4. December rain means highs in the 40s, even 50--not cold enough to keep a 24-hour fire in the stove. Colors along the backroads were all green and red. Green of lawn grass, that faded ruddy brown of dying-back marsh grass and leafless beech limbs. Still waiting for the white to cover it all.
I crank open the side hatch of the stove and a little cloud of ash and campfire perfume whirls out. I take three pages of newspaper, crumple each into a loose sphere, and lay them in a row across the primary airflow vent. Then I step out onto the side porch and reach into the box of thin, splintery wood shingles. I break one of the shingles in half lengthwise, leave one half in the box and bring the other inside. I half it again and rest both pieces on top of the paper. Next, I take two quartered pine logs from the bag by the door and set them as gently as I can on either side of the newspaper-shingle architecture.
The box of matches has a home on an upper shelf of the hutch by the chimney. I remove a stick and hesitate a moment, anticipating the satisfyingly analog rasp of phosphorus on sandpaper. It flares when I strike it, and I quickly jab the stick under a protruding corner of paper before it settles down. The flame spills out onto the paper like maple syrup, and I shut the hatch and twist the handle to lock it.
My part is done. I spin the living room recliner around to face the stove and watch what happens. Usually, the superbly engineered design of the woodstove takes over now: a draft of just the right intensity carries the fire from newspaper ball to newspaper ball. The splintery shingles catch, popping, and within minutes the flames have wrapped around the logs, growing until the entire cube of stove is one big orangey-yellow kaleidoscope.
But it's been stubborn lately. A buildup of soot is clogging the metal flue, cutting airflow, or ash has blocked the vents. Anyway, my best fire-starting skills yield only a crapshoot.
I sit in the recliner and, through the glass panel on the front of the stove, watch the flame reluctantly crawl along the row of newspaper. There's a pop or two from the shingle. And then nothing. A flicker. Then nothing.
I see gray on the bottom of the glass, the hardened, chalky accumulation of ash from past days, weeks, winters. But beyond that is dark, as black as the black glossy paint covering the exterior of the stove. I wait for two minutes, still nothing. Nothing.
There's no fire in there.
Another flicker. Five seconds of black. Then another.
It's coming faster now, flashes of flame from the back of the stove, somewhere underneath the pine log. It looks like lightning in a night sky. Lightning in a black box.
Maybe it'll catch.