Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you light up the night for us;
and he is beautiful and jolly,
boisterous and strong.
Grizzo lay close to the fire. It was warm and inviting on a cool night, and like every campfire, it bore an invitation to mystery, and to communion. That Giovanni’s little dog was aware of this was no surprise. Giovanni, like every 12 year old boy at a campfire, practiced his fire twirling skills with the biggest stick he could find, much to his mother’s concern. I must confess, it was I who had gotten him started. I’d taken a twig and gotten its end glowing in the fire, and began to write my name and make golden glowing circles in the dark. Of course, the boy had to take it to the next level, and soon he held the biggest stick he could manage, both ends glowing in ember and spinning through his hands like a Samoan fire dancer.
Mariella prepared the water she had fetched and set the small metal pot next to the fire to boil. Some time in the next hour or so it would be bubbling. Armando gathered more wood from among the trees lining the hill on which we sat. Their camp rested in the field on a gentle slope, just off the path to the church of San Damiano, and their tent stood a few metres away. A clothes line stretched between the nearby row of trees, and a few shirts bounced in the breeze and glowed gold from the fire’s light. As Armando returned with another armful of wood, Grizzo pricked up his ears. I scratched those ears and petted his neck. Giovanni took a break from his stick twirling, and hunkered down to poke at the fire. The plastic rosary around his neck caught the firelight, the cross swaying thoughtfully and glowing faintly.
The sky was quiet, and the moon was hidden somewhere among the trees, and every now and then a fruit bat swooped past the edges of the firelight. To my left, and in the back of my mind, Francis sat with his closest friends, their faces smiling and lit with the same holy glow our own fire bestowed. No city lights lit the plains at the foot of their hill, but the same small city rested above the both of us, and the same small church sat at our feet.
This is why Francis loved Brother Fire so much, I thought. It’s inherently holy, and calms the spirit, and draws us together. And truly, of all the elements for which Saint Francis gave praise and thanks to God, it may be fire that best describes him. Boisterous and beautiful, playful and dangerous. Maybe this is why there are as many stories about Francis and fire as there are stories about birds and lepers and unexpected converts. (There was even that time when Francis himself seemed to be consumed and not burned, like the burning bush of Moses, by a fire that floated down from heaven. But that’s another story.)
Armando stretched out a small blanket that would eventually serve both as Mariella’s kitchen and our dinner table, and she began preparing tomatoes and other garnishes I couldn’t quite see in the dim light of the fire. At long last, the small pot of water had come to a boil, and Mariella began mixing it with cornmeal. Armando offered me wine. I gratefully accepted, and he poured it into a small plastic cup, and offered me a disposable chalice of deep, red joy.
“This wine is, ah, ‘Barberesco’,” he said.
“Ah,” I said. I recalled the photo we’d taken together earlier in the evening, of our little group of bearded tramps. If I could milk a joke a little further, especially one in a foreign language, I had to. “You mean ‘Barbosco’,” I mused, stroking my chin and recalling the term for a beard and a vagrant.
To my delight, Armando laughed loudly. “Barbosco!” And he repeated the bad pun for Mariella. “Italianitalianitalian, ‘Barbarosco’!” he said, and laughed again. Clearly, I’d struck gold with this one. I glanced over at the other campfire. Francis and the brothers were laughing, too.
Eventually Mariella’s meal was ready, and we bowed our heads and joined hands for a simple prayer of thanks, and four hands made the sign of the cross over four hearts, in common reverence. “Amen,” we said. (It works in every language.)
I tasted the cornmeal and tomato concoction. It was perhaps the best thing I’d tasted since I’d come to Italy. “This is very good,” I said, almost enraptured. “Um… Delizioso! What is this called?”
Armando translated my question for his wife. “Polenta,” she replied.
“Very old, Northern Italian meal,” Armando added.
“Polenta,” I repeated. “So good!”
Armando refilled my small cup of wine. Mine and Mariella’s and his own, and a little for Giovanni, too.
We sat back, satisfied, and enjoyed the night air. Armando arose and said, “One moment,” and disappeared into their tent. He returned, and in his hands was an old guitar, and an even older songbook full of folk songs. He opened the book, and found his glasses, and began to strum the chords to Blowin’ in the Wind. We stumbled through the words, his thick accent flavouring the lyrics like oregano.
I took the guitar and clumsily strummed through the one song I know, I Still Miss Someone. After some singular applause, I returned the guitar to Armando. He strained his eyes at the songbook and his mouth at the English words as I held the book for him, and we sang Kumbayah (yes, Kumbayah) and Down by the Riverside and the fragments of half a dozen other old songs.
As this small group of poverellos sang into the night under the Umbrian stars, I glanced again to my left. Francis and the brothers were singing, too.