I have always loved the smell of hard-won warmth: dusty blankets, savory stew, all the various fragrances that can be distilled in a pot of boiling water. One day in late September I was out gathering plums in the rain, when I smelled a campfire burning through the petrichor. I walked through the mist until I could feel its heat. Warming a pair of well-worn hands over the flames, sat an old man with a long beard and a mysterious grey cloak. He was peering into the fire with a strange intensity, I stood there for several minutes before he looked up.
He smiled kindly, “Come sit.” He gestured to the bare wet earth across from him. I was cold and I couldn’t resist the lovely smell of heat, so I joined him without saying a word. We sat in silence for a while, breathing in the warm air.
“What do you have in your bag?”
“Plums.” I responded, holding up the canvas sack so he could see the purple fruit stains.
“They look like nice plums.” I nodded.
The rain started to come down heavier. The fire hissed under the heavy drops. I pulled the light jacket I was wearing over my head and scooted closer to the flailing flames. I thought about the golden sun that had filled the sky that morning and the summer I had spent swimming in the river. I thought about why the old man had built a fire on the edge of our orchard; about why I was sitting by his fire instead of picking plums. I stared into the forest on our left, imagining the old man with his fey eyes and grey cloak was a creature of tree shadow, one of the dark shapes that came alive with the coming of winter, complaining of aching bones, only to steal all the warmth from a generous hearth with long sinewy fingers. But the old man hadn’t complained, hadn’t weedled, or plastered on a fake hungry grin; he had hardly even spoken.
I took a brave breath. “Would you like a plum sir?” He looked up, startled. I offered him a piece of fruit, holding it out across the fire. I hoped he would take it soon. My arm was beginning to burn. His frozen features, softened into an expression that was almost melancholy.
“Thank you. But this fire is satisfying enough.” I thought that was a strange response, but I didn’t question it. I simply put the plum back in my bag. I wasn't supposed to eat any of the fruit anyway. Though now I had started asking, I found the questions came easier.
“Where are you from?” I asked. The fire had been reduced to a pile of glowing embers that were burning solemnly in defiance of the downpour.
The old man tucked away his beard, then prodded the fire with a stick, hoping to give it some life. He pointed to the forest. My heart started to beat faster.
“Away that way, beyond the wood.” I relaxed, picking up my own stick. The sticks didn't help much. The fire soon died and the old man wrapped his wool clock around himself and retreated into the trees, smiling instead of saying his goodbye.