Lessons of the World
"Fire- Part 1"
March 8th, 2018-March 25th, 2018
Deep in the heart of the mysterious, wooded, and highly misunderstood landmass known as Mississippi, tucked between the hillbilly foothills of Alabama and the alligator bayous of Louisiana, the blanket velvet of night fell swiftly across the piney woods.
As the last orange rays of the suns dying light were snuffed out over the horizon, there was a bright flash, then a spark, then a small flower of flame blossomed within the pile of shredding kindling. Thin wisps of gray smoke curled slowly into the air. Wood smoke and tangy scents mixed and mingled together as the flames grew, devouring dry pine needles and twigs alike without a second thought. Every now and then a bright white sizzle flashed up as the fire caught a pocket of sticky pine sap. Soon, warm orange light flooded the small campsite, illuminating the two figures hunched over the fire like a pair of gargoyles.
"Ah, fire, the sunlight of man," nodded the older of the two, rubbing his gnarled hands over the flames. "There is just nothing quite like it, is there?"
"What about electricity, sensei?" answered the other, a young man of just a score of winters. "That's man-made, too."
Ancient Wen cast a baleful eye towards his young student. Sometimes when he posed a question, he wished that an answer wouldn't immediately follow. He sighed. Of course, sometimes people didn't understand the purpose of rhetorical questions and their place in this world. The old man knit his fingers together in thought, closing his eyes. But, then again, he did train his apprentice to answer when asked. So, if it was anyone's fault, it was his.
Wen mentally shrugged and decided to go with it. "Well, if you put it like that, then sure. Excellent point, young Joseph."
"Thank you, sensei," Joseph nodded. He snapped a bundle of twigs and carefully arranged them in a circle around the fire. Within seconds they were devoured by the hungry flames. He continued feeding the fire small twigs until a nice sized pile of coals had grown within its base. Grabbing a skillet, he looked at Wen, "Do you want anything in particular for supper, sensei?"
As if on cue, Ancient Wen's stomach grumbled quietly. The old man rubbed his midriff and grinned ruefully. "Seems like it is time for supper." He studied the cast iron skillet in Joseph's massive hand. "Why not something simple, young Joseph? Maybe just breakfast for supper?"
Joseph nodded. "That sounds wonderful."
There was just something about having breakfast for supper that made it seem more delicious than it really was. Maybe it was due to the fact that the mind was more awake at that point in the day, and the senses were more acute and active. Plus, how could one pass up a second breakfast? After all, breakfast was the most important meal of the day, so why not make it a double.
"But, before you start cooking, young Joseph," Ancient Wen said, "there is something of importance we must discuss."
Joseph cocked an eyebrow at his teacher, scrubbing out the bottom of the skillet of with the hem of his gray apprentice robes. The cloth came away black, but that was simply the nature of well-used cast iron. "What's up, sensei?"
"Perhaps you would want to learn about the next lesson of life?"
The old man tossed the question out there like an angler does a fishing line, teasing a nearby fish. There was a method to capturing a student's attention and keeping it. Ancient Wen studied Joseph's face. He saw that little flash of interest spark deep within the young man's emerald green eyes, that curiosity only a student could hope to have. Now, he just needed to set the hook and reel in his catch…
"Mhm," said Wen, pushing the brim of his bamboo pan hat back with the pad of his thumb. "It's about time for another one."
Joseph carefully the skillet down beside him. There was no denying the fact that his interest was fully peaked. "What is the lesson on, sensei?"
"Fire, young Joseph," answered Ancient Wen, sweeping a hand over the campfire. Tendrils of smoke whooshed away, and the orange glow illuminated his dark beetle black eyes. "One of the most important things Mother Nature has ever gifted to Man."
The fire crackled loudly, and a shower of sparks rose high into the sky. Coincidence or not, Joseph felt a shiver run up his spine. Talk about perfect timing… Wen grinned mentally, appreciating the effect. Nature just had a way of working out perfectly sometimes.
Leaning forwards, Wen reached out and pulled a smoldering stick from the flames; one end of it smoldered angrily in the night time darkness. Joseph couldn't help but be reminded of all the homemade cigarettes Wen would smoke out of boredom. Wen brought the stick close to his face and gently blew on the burning tip. It brightened immensely, twinkling to almost a white-hot flame. Joseph was lost within its searing light. Something moved deep within its glowing form, something mystical, magical, not of this world but yet still fully apart of it.
SNAP! SNAP! SNAP!
Joseph snapped back to reality. He saw his teacher staring at him from across the fire, fingers still in the snapping position, face captured by bemusement. Joseph felt his cheeks grow hot not from the campfire but from embarrassment.
"Are you alright there, young Joseph?" Ancient Wen chuckled. "I know fire and flames are quite an interesting subject matter, but at least allow me to get to the meat and potatoes of the lesson first before you get lost in translation."
Joseph's cheeks burned even more, but he let the comment slide. "Sorry, sensei. As you were saying?"
"As I was saying," paused Wen, flicking a tiny bit of ash off the twig, "Fire is one of the most important things Mas ever encountered upon this little marble of blue and green we call home. For countless eons upon eons fire provided many things we humans took for granted: Warmth, a feeling a safety, a means to cook food. The list could go on and on until you're an old man like me, young Joseph." He stuck the stick back into the fire. "Fire, however, despite all of its benefits it brings to Man, also possesses a dangerous side, as you can probably easily see."
"Like wildfires?" Joseph added.
"Exactly. Exactly like that. Excellent point, young Joseph," Wen replied, nodding. "Fire is one of the Four Pillars of Life, along with its siblings Earth, Water, and Air, and, just like its siblings, it can never quite be tamed by Man, only merely controlled." The old man waved his hands in vague circles in front of his face. "Fire acts quite wild and is incredibly carefree, like a young child outside playing, free of all outside distractions. Plus, fire is always hungry and has an appetite for anything it can sink its teeth into."
Joseph stuck a few more twigs on the coals to keep them burning gently. Tiny tongues of flame began to lick at the fresh wood, as if to prove Wen's point. "So, what you're saying is, sensei, is that Man never really has a full control on fire or any of the elements for that matter? Man can only contain them."
"Yes. For the only things to truly control and contain Fire, Earth, Air, and Water are each other. There must always be a balance between the four, otherwise Mother Nature will take her course to sort things back out and ensure the balance is returned."
Joseph pursed his lips together, nodding. So far the lesson had made sense, but something was nagging him, like a bad piece of potato. He drew his knees up close to his chest and wrapped his arms around them tightly. "I'm following, I think, sensei, but one thing seems to be bothering me. You said that the only beings in the universe that can control the Four Pillars are each other, but how does one go about containing Fire? Like on a personal level. Without the aid of the other Pillars."
Ancient Wen drew another burning twig from the fire and held it up. "Excellent question, young Joseph, excellent question indeed. When it comes to Man controlling Fire, he can only partially control, and even then it takes years of mental practice to fully master it. But, it's quite simple, actually."
The old man held the twig between two fingers of one hand, and with the other, he placed his index finger close to it. So close that Joseph nearly thought he was going to burn himself. However, at the last moment, Wen pulled his hand away, and thin, swirling tendril of orange and yellow flame followed after his finger. The flame snaked its way around his hand until it settled into a little tongue on the tip of his index finger. Joseph watched it flicker, like a candle in the breeze.
"See how the flame stays upon me finger yet does not burn me?"
Joseph nodded dumbly, wincing ever so slightly.
Wen grinned, glad he could still blow his student's mind every now and then.
"Now, watch very carefully."
Wen's index finger curled shut, like an octopus arm. The little tongue of fire skipped high into the air and landed perfectly on the tip of his thumb. Snapping his thumb hard, he sent the flame skittering across his palm to his pinkie and back again. There was an audible thump as Joseph's jaw smacked against his chest.
"Pretty cool, right?" Wen asked, flicking the flame back into the fire. It hissed quietly as it vanished within the coals.
"How did you do that?" Joseph gaped. He was utterly flabbergasted. He knew Wen was incredibly tough, but even he should still get burned.
Ancient Wen settled back onto his bottom and smirked. Hook, line, and sinker, he thought. Just as it should be. "Well, if you must know, young Joseph, that brings us to the next portion of the lesson on Fire."
Joseph chewed on his bottom lip, hungry for more details.
"You see, while Man cannot fully control or contain Fire, he can do so to some extent through mental concentration and focusing of his emotions and then channeling those emotions into the physical body," Wen explained slowly and carefully so he wouldn't lose his student. "Think like channeling water through a wheel to provide power for a mill. You focus it and then guide it along." He sniffed and snapped his fingers. There was a sharp pop like a firecracker exploding, and a second tongue of flame leaped out of the fire and lighted on his open palm. "Now, what emotions would you think register best with Fire, young Joseph?"
Joseph mulled the question over. What emotions best represent Fire? He couldn't deny how the facts stuck out at him like a sore thumb. It was almost as if Wen had just asked him a question straight out of any generic literature class study book.
"Anger for one, sensei," the young man replied steadily, nodding to himself. "And passion. Like love and lust and all that stuff."
A curious raised brow creased Wen's forehead. Perhaps that question had been just a tad bit easy… Or maybe Joseph had been doing some thinking for himself for a change? Either way, the boy was spot on.
"And you'd be correct, young Joseph." Wen idly tossed the flame from hand to hand. Joseph's eyes never left it. "Fire encompasses heat, and those two emotions, anger and passion, both deal with heat. You've heard of white hot jealousy and being caught in the burning fires of love, yes? Well that is exactly where those two sayings stem from. Fire."
"So is it like when we studied the control of Earth, sensei?" Joseph posed. He paused for a second, thinking back. "Where we focused light thoughts into our feet and hands in order to draw up the Earth and throw off its natural balance?"
"To a degree, yes. Save thinking light thoughts, we must draw out our memories of passion or anger."
Joseph squinted. He eyed his sensei hard. "That doesn't seem so hard then."
A stern look flashed across Wen's weathered face, turning it hard. He snapped his fingers, and the tongue of flame shot up with a roar. "And you couldn't be more wrong, young Joseph. Never assume anything isn't hard or difficult when you are yet to know the full details of it."
Joseph yelped and leapt back from the fire as the flames guttered high.
But, as fast as they rose, the flames died back down to gentle flickering. Wen let out a slow, easy breath. "There is quite the difference between the fires of passion and the fires of anger. And not knowing that difference or learning how to fully control those fires can lead to some… dare I say… crispy results."
Thoroughly cowed, Joseph simply shook his head in silent agreement. There was always a catch with these lessons, no matter what. Nothing but silence and the muted crackling of the campfire separated the pair. Joseph patiently waited for Wen to continue.
Wen let his expression soften as he twirled the tongue of flame around his palm, like it was some flashy top. "Now, he is where we begin the testing phase of this lesson. Or the first part, at least. In order to save you the pain of being burned, I'm going to guide you along step by step, young Joseph. Simply because I do not think we have enough aloe on hand if this turns sour on us."
Joseph gulped. Pain never really bothered him before. He'd grown up tough, back on the family farm, and his training under Wen over the years had hardened him up greatly. However, the way his sensei was so keen on guiding him through this test set him on edge. Could one wrong move really turn out as bad as Wen let on to be? He gulped again; he didn't want to find out.
"We shall begin with the safer of the pair, passion," Ancient Wen began. "And the reason we'll begin with passion is simply due to the fact that the flames should only get about yay big." He indicated the flame dancing on his palm.
A thought suddenly struck the old man in the forebrain like a well thrown stone. "Young Joseph, we still have those heavy wool blankets lying around, right? The ones we use in winter, yes?"
Joseph blinked, confused, then nodded. "Uh, yeah. We should…" He hiked a thumb over his shoulder. "They're tucked away in the hollow pine tree we use for storage."
"Good. Good. Bring one please. Just in case."
The firmness to Wen's tone made Joseph go at once. Within a minute or two he had returned with an armful of a heavy plaid blanket that even a man of Joseph's brawny, muscly stature struggled to carry.
"What do we need with this musty old thing, sensei?"
Wen watched Joseph toss the blanket down. It landed with a weighty whump. "Oh… just a necessary precaution, young Joseph. No need to worry."
"Now, focus, please," Ancient Wen commanded. "When it comes to learning control over Fire, we always start with passion due to the muted qualities the emotion brings upon the human body. It's sort of an all over effect. Leaves you warm and tingly from your head to your toes." He flicked the flame to his sandaled feet where it landed on his big toe. Joseph grimaced, noticing the yellow tinge to the old man's toe nails. "And it is this muted, watered down effect that allows one to create a tiny, weak flame, so that in the case of accidents, everything can be put out quickly and easily."
Eyes glancing at the blanket, Joseph licked his lips, asking, "And how do you channel passion into thoughtform?"
"Just think of something your fond of, young Joseph," replied Wen. He sat up and leaned close to his apprentice. "Here. Allow me. Watch carefully."
The tongue of fire leaped back to Wen's palm. He held it up for him to see; Joseph watched intently.
"First, steel yourself with confidence that you will not get burned. This forms a sort of coolness barrier between your skin and the flame itself. Wen pointed at the miniscule gap between his palm and the bottom of the flame. "See? Think like the glass found covering the front of a fireplace. No flames escape it." Wen paused for a second, musing quietly. "Or like that old saying from long ago: Man who walk through rain with confidence not get wet."
Joseph simply nodded along. He understood the references easily enough.
Wen sucked in a quiet breath. "Now, for the second step, you must capture a warm thought in your mind and grasp it tightly. Like a miser with a copper coin. Do not let it go. Especially when you have the flame in your possession. Otherwise you'll lose control of it, and it will vanish." The old man glanced at the blanket a few feet away. "Hopefully anyway."
Joseph studied the flame, lost once more in the dancing mix of orange, yellow, and white. He could feel its heat gently caressing his cheeks. A bead of sweat stained his forehead. "Sensei? Mind if I ask a question?"
"Sure, young Joseph. Questions are always appreciated."
"Mind if I ask what your warm thought is?"
Ancient Wen cocked his ever so slightly to the side. This profound question caught him off guard. It wasn't like Joseph to pry into his personal life like that. Wen blinked and looked at his student, deciding to give him just a glance into his past. "Well, if you must know, the warm thought I'm using for this example deals with when I was but a boy. My father had gifted with a companion on my tenth birthday. A bright red chicken named Rita. Rita and I were the closest of friends until… well…" Wen bit his lip hard to keep himself from stuttering, shutting himself up. "Well, that's besides the point. Anyway, you get the picture, right, young Joseph? The thought needs to make you feel warm and happy. It needs to be a strong one."
"I think I can pull one out, sensei," replied Joseph quietly.
Wen's description of his thought has quite terse, but there was no denying the strong feelings radiating from out, like the sun's rays on a hot summer day. Plus, he witnessed the flame flicker ever so slightly. Joseph pieced together that that was what happened when one's connection between the thought and the flame was broken, even if ever so slightly. And still further he could hear the pain in his sensei's voice when he mentioned Rita for the final time. Curious thoughts as to the fate of Rita flooded his mind, but Joseph let them slide away to be asked another day.
Now was the time to focus on the lesson.
"Go ahead, young Joseph," Wen encouraged. He held the flame out to his young apprentice.
Joseph glanced between the small flame and his sensei's dark eyes. Feeling the heat seemed to bolster him with confidence. Besides, didn't he normally catch on pretty quickly with these lessons? At least, he felt so.
Swallowing, Joseph zeroed in hard on the flame until it he developed tunnel vision. Nothing distracted him from the tongue of fire, save for his own mind, peeling back various layers of memories, one by one, like the layers of an onion. An eyelid twitched. Sweat popped out on his forehead out of concentration. This thought needed to be one that left him with feelings of love and happiness. Memories drifted by slowly. Joseph chewed on his lip. Why was this harder than he thought?
Suddenly, one memory caught his attention.
He saw it, that old beat-up white Nissan truck rumbling down the dusty farm road. That little old man sitting on a phone book behind the wheel, barely seeing above the dashboard. He saw the hulking figure of his father embracing the man in a warm hug, and both men were smiling wide, laughing. Uncle Wen had come down from one of his travels for a visit.
A small smile upturned the corners of Joseph's mouth ever so slightly.
It was the day that Wen had chosen him as his apprentice.
There! Mental cords of steel latched onto the memory, keeping it stable, so he could focus on it. As he relived the memory, he couldn't help but feel a warm, tingly sensation run across his scalp and ease its way into his body. Warm and fuzzy and happy… this must be what Sensei was talking about, this cozy feeling.
Wen caught the smile and smiled himself. Joseph must have found his memory, he thought. He wondered what it could possibly be, curious as he was, but decided to leave him be for now. That was for Joseph alone.
Quietly, the old man said, "Young Joseph, are you ready for the next step?"
Joseph slowly dragged his eyes away from the dazzling flame, blinking. He squinted water out of the corners of his eyes. "Yes, sensei." There was a hint of expectation in his voice.
"Alright," replied Wen. "Hold out your palm."
With the speed of a glacier, Joseph held up his hand, palm flat open. It was clammy with nervous sweat. Wen pinched the flame between his thumb and forefinger and held it a few inches above Joseph's palm. Then, he dropped it. Simple as that.
Both men watched in anticipation as the little ball of fire plummeted downwards. Joseph's first instinct was to pull away, remove his hand from danger, but will won out over body. He needed to do this, to trust himself, his sensei…
"Well, well, well, looks like you picked an excellent memory then, young Joseph."
Joseph clenched his jaw tightly to keep it from falling on his chest. He stared in awe at the tongue of flame flickering away on his palm. There should be burning pain, but all he noticed was a calm, cooling sensation in his hand. The protection of confidence, the young apprentice thought. He grinned from ear to ear, holding the flame up.
Wen nodded approvingly. "Excellent, excellent. Now, try to…" He waggled his fingers.
Joseph understood. He bit his lip and focused a little harder. Carefully, he tilted his palm down until the flame rolled towards his fingers. It stopped on the tip of his index finger and stayed there, balanced like a spoon. An amazed "wow" slipped from his lips.
"Seems you're a natural, young Joseph," Wen said. "Looks like you have an easy grip on things. Now it'll only take time and practice to master your handle of Fire. Lots of both."
"As usual," Joseph laughed.
For but a moment, the compliment distracted Joseph from his memory, and the flame bit hard into the tip of his finger. Yelping, he attempted to flick the fire away. It simply vanished with a puff.
Wen cocked an eyebrow. "Are you okay?"
Joseph popped the singed, smarting digit into his mouth and sucked on it. He pouted, the fun ruined. "Yeah… I guess my concentration slipped. Boy, that doesn't take long to kick in."
"No, that's the dangers of playing with Fire. Its hunger fuels it need to dig into anything it can," said Ancient Wen. "But, for your first time, I am quite impressed, really. That was quite impressive. Not many of my apprentices in the past could handle it on their first go like you did." He sniffed. "Many either panicked and moved away or lost their memory and were immediately burned."
Joseph took the praise with a stoic grin. He enjoyed hearing how well he was doing in his studies when compared to Wen's past apprentices. "Thank you, sensei."
"Now, before you cocky and let it all go to your head," Wen looked at the campfire and iron skillet, "why don't you get started on supper? I'm quite famished."
"Breakfast still?" Joseph asked, pawing at his suddenly rumbling tummy.