One of the lovely things about Nashville are the times in autumn when it is warm and sunny all day long, but just cool enough at night that a fire in the evening will warm the whole house all night. Maggie Wilson, who had just turned ten, was staying with her grandparents out in Donelson. For the most part, she was bored.
If she complained, her granny would put a dust cloth or a broom in her hand and she’d be set to doing chores. If she just kept quiet and out of the way, she might spend a whole Saturday afternoon hidden under an old magnolia reading, or watching inchworms in the garden.
In the evenings, she would help her Paw Paw build a fire in the big old brick fireplace in the living room. He always aimed to for a one-match fire, but rarely did they achieve it.
Once the fire was going, though, Maggie would spend all evening, she and the dog, just watching the flames dance and the embers glow.
One evening, as the fire was dying down, Maggie thought she saw a face in the red coals. She closed her eyes, in a long blink, then opened one, then the other, to try to see if it was a trick of the light.
She was not sure.
“Granny?” she turned to get her grandmother’s opinion, but her grandmother, a Duratt before she was married, was already asleep in the recliner.
When Maggie turned back to the flames, the face was gone.
It was a few weeks before she saw the face again, though, this time, it seemed more defined, more clearly a man, with a rugged face. This time, she poked the coals with the fire poker and they fell apart, taking the illusion with it.
And then, she thought she caught glimpses of him quite often, not just a face, but she would swear she saw a whole, tiny figure, sometimes, moving.
Even still, she had often been told she “had an active imagination,” and so she figured that she was just actively imagining it.
And then, one day, she saw the face take form, almost human size, and the coal-red eyes opened, and the coal red mouth opened and the man said something. She leaned in to try to hear, and her Paw Paw startled and yelled, “Maggie Wilson! Get your head out of that fire.”
When Maggie’s dad got home on leave, she babbled at him nonstop for at least two hours–from the airport, to the house, through dinner, and even while her ice cream melted on the spoon.
“And the man in the fire wants to talk to me,” she said. Her father and grandparents had, until that sentence, been politely and somewhat delightedly tuning her out. It was good to spend time with each other and good to not have to come up with anything to say right away. The mention of the man in the fire caught their attention.
“What’s that, honey?” Her dad said.
“The man in the fire. He’s always talking to me.”
Her dad took a long time to ask his next question, “And what’s he say?”
“I don’t know,” she said, thoughtfully, “I can barely hear him. He’s so quiet. But I think he wants me to help him out.”
“Out?” her grandmother said. “Help him out or help him get out?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. A look passed among the three adults, over Maggie’s head, beyond her notice.
There were no fires until after her father was gone again. But one night, during the dark of the moon, Granny Wilson sat Maggie down in front of a dying fire and said, “Tell me when you see him.”
They waited, but not so long as you’d think, and there he was, first a small figure, running through a glowing fiery forest. Then, after a shift of logs, a full face, his mouth moving.
“Granny, Granny,” Maggie said, “Here he is.”
And her Granny leaned over, sprinkling first a fistful of salt into the embers, and following it up with the remnants of her tea. She spoke something softly–Laisse la seule–and the fire went out.
“A dying fire is the Devil’s doorway,” she said to Maggie.
The next day, her grandfather bricked up the fireplace.