The stoking began! Wood and wonder crashed into the red-hot fire ring from all permitted hands, from all sides, with whoops and hollers of utter satisfaction! The flames rose high into the night, fiery flakes fell around the stranger, and the people, or creatures, or whatever they were danced and swayed in the ecstasy of the stoking. It was grand and glorious monstrosity of heat and sacredness, and the interloper wanted so badly to be one of them, but was at least grateful for the warmth and the invitation to sit in and watch the magnificent procession. The men roared, the women cheered, and somewhere deep, down in the depths of the dirt, a delicious drumming of delight rumbled underfoot blending into the melee, as if even the earth itself approved of their fire and festival.
Then one of the revelers came to the weary sojourner with all kindness and sincerity in an attempt to somehow include the stranger into the stoking. The warmth and smoke of the fire enveloped the reveler and the stranger, mesmerized by the sights, sounds and smells agreed, quickly, without a moment’s hesitation, to participate. The stranger could not by rite stoke the fire, but they all insisted wholeheartedly that there was space for the stranger to participate in the celebration. If the stranger loved the band enough and chose to remain in the group there was a simple, albeit painful role that the stranger could join in. All the sojourner had to do, to stay with the merry men (or women or dwarfs, or whatever fanciful person-like creature comes to mind and suits the story) was insert a hand into the fire for a brief moment, long enough to let the flames lick at bare flesh and season the smoke with the flavor of the pain. The pain, the stranger was told, would only last a moment, and certainly there were others who participated in order to belong. Many souls willingly inserted their hands into the fire and their scents melded and mingled with the burning wood.
The stranger wondered how the others endured the burns, and asked if the fire hurt them as badly. They all carefully, thoughtfully, one might even say lovingly inspected the sojourner’s wounds. They compared it to other revelers, consulted with each other and concluded that the injury was minimal. The sojourner loved them for their care and concern and trusted their assessment. The pain afforded the stranger admission into the group, and the group was so, so good and welcoming and fun that the draw to be with them far outweighed the pain. The stranger stayed, the blisters did eventually scab over, the scars were reminders, as much as anything else, of the great stoking and eternal flames. The healing was slow but came in time so the stranger stayed with them, around the fire, watching and waiting for the next stoking.
As time drew near for another stoking, and always and ever with this band there would be a stoking, for the fire could never die, the sojourner knew this time what to do to participate. The stranger loved the band of revelers very much and enjoyed their company so much more than lonely wilderness travels and so foolishly hoped that maybe this time it wouldn’t hurt so bad. Maybe the scars from before had somehow strengthened or shielded the skin. Maybe the revelers had another way for sensitive souls to participate, or a magical elixir that could keep the burns from blistering, maybe the burning didn’t have to be so bad. The gathering began, the stoking was near and the stranger’s anxiety rose; but the wilderness was cold so flesh was again plunged into the fire as the men roared and women cheered and the earth resounded in triumph.
The blisters this time festered and infection set in deep. Not everyone had this trouble with the fire, and the stranger’s sensitivity perplexed everyone. Some arms passed through like a hand over a candle flame without so much as even singe mark of black, they were perfectly content to play their part in the procession. Others licked their wounds but recovered quickly, or at least seemed to. Not so much for the strange sojourner, the pain was devastating and was causing quite an uproar within the once merry band. The revelry, comradery and company couldn’t quite sooth the stranger’ pain and dimmed the glory of the stoking. The healing scars that time didn’t remind anyone of a glorious tradition nor help to honor those who kept the flame alive with the stoking, they only reminded everyone of the awkward, awful pain of the stranger. The stranger, aware of the bands efforts at inclusion, looked long at the scars and pondered the fire, the wilderness, the sacred ritual and all those sorts of philosophical musings that occur in the midst of pain and confusion.
They stoked again, the sojourner burned again but that time with pain fresh and furious, the sojourner retreated knowing the new festering blisters, over too many scars were the last that could be endured. The pain was too great but the stranger has come to truly love the group, and yet couldn’t continue to burn. So the stranger sat at the edge of the camp, on the precipice of a decision, exposed and vulnerable and utterly alone, knowing without a doubt that something must change.
And that is the story of the stoking and the stranger.