Cleansing Fires

Christmas, 1994 By Fred Brown

Fergus McGregor rocked in his chair, pulling the woolen blanket up over his knees. He stared intently into the fire, feeling its warmth. Light from the flames flicked orange scenes across his thin chest and gaunt face. Fergus, an old man now, knew that his days were about over and lately he had taken to long spells when he refused to talk to his family. It was hard for them to understand his pain and concern. He remembered the old days and thought of the time when he had to protect the fire.

Fergus McGregor had not always lived on top of Fire Mountain. He once was down with the city folks, as he called them, working in a cotton mill plant. In that time, he had lived out, though, away from town. He lived on a farm near a lake that was run by the government and the day the government men came to tell Fergus that he would have to move because the government was taking more of his land for floodwaters, he said something that stopped the entire federal government in its tracks. Just stopped it dead, like it had been pole axed.

“If I leave here, you’ll have to take me and my house. I can’t leave my fire.”

Well, I don’t have to tell you that at first, them government fellows thought my grandfather Fergus was touched in the head. After they stopped laughing, they said they would be back in a month and for Fergus to be ready to go. The government men said they would pay grandfather a fair amount for his land and his house and he could just move to more land.

The day they returned, they found Fergus McGregor sitting on his front porch. Rocking in his rocking chair.

“You all packed, Fergus,” one of the government men asked, winking at the others.

“Nope,” my grandfather said.

“Don’t intend on packing. Not until you tell me were it is you are going to move me, my house and my fire.”

Those government fellows, all of them skinny and dark-eyed, didn’t quite know what to do with that bit of information.

“Well, we told you to be ready to go when we come back. What is the matter with you.”

That’s when everyone learned that Fergus McGregor considered himself one of the rare and privileged people in this world. He was the keeper of the flame, he told them government fellows, and he wasn’t about to let the fire go out in his house for them, for anyone. He would as soon die right there protecting the flames as he would anything else on this earth.

That’s also when I first heard about the tradition that had been left to my family, the keepers of the flame.

Well, what happened next was downright funny. Those government boys returned. Only this time they came with a large flatbed moving truck. They spent several days jacking grandfather’s house up on these high-pressure jacks and then another several days backing that big flatbed truck underneath his house.

When the day came that they were to move him, Fergus was sitting on the front porch, just as pretty as you please. He was in his favorite rocking chair. When the pulled out, taking my grandfather’s house, he was still sitting on his front porch, rocking. The fire, inside in the hearth, was cracking and popping, just like always.

The moved Fergus atop a high mountain, where he bought some land. Said he might as well retire there now since they done moved his house. So, he quit the mill and took his pension and moved to a place called Raven’s Den Mountain. He bought the top of the mountain because he said the air was purer up there and he didn’t want to be bothered ever again by government men who wanted to disturb his life and his fire.

It is on the top of Raven’s Den that my memory of my grandfather comes into focus. He had moved there long before I was born. I went there with my folks some when I was young and then when I got to be old enough to go on my own, I would just take off walking and hike up the side of that tall, rocky mountain to see my grandfather.

The thing that always struck me about his home was that he always, I mean always, had a fire going. Didn’t matter if it was the hottest July or August on record, Fergus McGregor had a fire in the fireplace.

I asked him about it once and he just looked at me with those far away eyes of his and that’s when he told me about the keeper of the flames. The real story.             In his youth, Fergus had worked for the railroads coming into the mountains to transport coal to distant refining plants in West Virginia and Virginia. As a young man, Fergus was lean and strong and hard‑working. He had fathered many and had had but one wife. When she died, Fergus said there would never be another Naomi, and he wouldn’t bother looking. And, he didn’t.

Fergus spent his retirement in perfecting his love for trout fishing with a fly in mountain streams, streams small enough to pass for creeks rather than rivers. He called them “cricks,” in the old language. He delighted in telling his grandchildren stories that were passed down to him from his father and grandmother, who had gotten them from their parents and grandparents as well.

One day as he was sitting in front of his fire, I jumped into his lap. Being his favorite grandchild,Fergus didn’t mind, but it did surprise him a bit.             “Wha, child, you gave me a start.”

Fergus’s white and bold mustache looked like a paintbrush underneath his nose. I loved to see it wiggle when he talked.

“Tell me a story, grandpa.”

“Just any ol’ story will do.”

Fergus smiled, shuffled his legs and asked me to take a seat beside him.

“My legs get too cold these days. Can’t hold you in my lap like I used to when you were a baby.”

He caressed my head with a large, rough hand that had picked cotton, dug for coal and gold, worked in yarn mills, held the reins of bucking horses in Virginia rodeos, and even shot at other men in war.

His eyes, once ocean blue, had faded over time. They were light and growing dimmer. Fergus’s cheeks were not as ruddy as they once had been. He seemed breakable now. In his youth, Fergus McGregor had been a strong, fearless man. He was still fearless, but his strength was ebbing and now it took wool blankets and thick shirts to keep him warm. In his green growing days, Fergus McGregor had his tradition to keep him warm in the coldest of weather.             “Tell me the story about fire, grandpa.”

Old Fergus stared intently into the flames. It was as though he had disappeared into them.

“Fire,” he said. The very word warmed in his mouth, and left his lips like a flame.

“The old people said that fire was sacred. I remember once my grandfather telling me about Cloonie McGregor of Scotland . He was a clan chieftain before the clans were broken apart. That must have been in the 1600s.

“My grandfather, who was the great-great-great-great grandson of Cloonie McGregor, said that I must always take care of the fire we had in our home. He called it the cleansing fire.”             I inched closer to grandfather, looking up into his heavy eyes.

“What is a cleansing fire, grandpa?”

Fergus studied the flames. For a long time he said nothing. He was barely breathing.

“This goes far back into time,” Fergus began. He drifted, as if in a black cloud. I watched Fergus and noted the distinct smell of flowers. It wasn’t the usual house metallic smells of wood and old books. It was like being inside a shop full of chrysanthemums and roses and other petals that smelled like the colors of green, red, purple and orange.

Fergus slowly closed his eyes and leaned back in the aging rocker, the one that had been on the front porch the day when the government men came. I thought he was going to sleep. His eyes jumped and rolled in a kind of rapid eye movement sleep, but he wasn’t asleep at all.

Fergus McGregor had slipped into that stream of space where fact leaves off and fantasy begins, where wizards reside and muses make magic. The hearth fire crackled, as if it had a life of its own. Sparks flew as a log fell through its dying embers, joining the growing ashes, glowing and glimmering.

“Once in the gloaming of an afternoon,” Fergus began. I skidded closer to Fergus’s chair, using my heels to drag forward.             `

`Cloonie McGregor was called into the clan chieftain bog house. There, he was given the secrets of the cleansing fires and told when he must burn them. From that day on, Cloonie McGregor was looked upon as the next great chieftain of the McGregor clan. He had been awarded one of the highest honors in the clan, charge of the cleansing fires.”

Years later, Fergus went on, when Cloonie was in his seventh decade, he could be seen on top of a high overlook near where it was said the Clan McGregor had its beginnings. Using a black, oil soaked torch of some kind, Cloonie set a bundle of bushes, broad beams and logs ablaze. Winds on the precipice whipped the fire into a red roar.

When everyone looked again, Cloonie McGregor was gone. He had vanished in the flames, went up with the smoke. Standing behind him was Fergus’s great-grandfather, Robert McGregor. If he knew what happened to his father, Robert McGregor never said. He merely picked up the torch and carried it home, the flames leaping about his face.

“I am descended from Robert McGregor, just as you are descended from me,” Fergus said to me, my face now rosy with the fires that seemed to grow in intensity.

“Just like my father and his father and his father before him, I am going to tell you about the cleansing fires and its secret,” he said.

Fergus chuckled in his chest when he saw my eyes grow wide enough for the blaze in the hearth to be reflected in the dark center of my pupils.

“You see, this fire in front of you, is that very same fire that Cloonie McGregor used so many years ago.”

Fergus paused and leaned back in his chair. He rocked for a while, saying nothing. His breathing appeared slower, shallower. The fire in the hearth flickered and spit.

I added another log, fearing that Fergus was cold and had gone to sleep. But, Fergus was in that special place where fire starters and keepers of the flame of the McGregor clan had always gone: they called it  Fire Mountain.

Fergus shook in the shoulders.

“Now then, you must never let this fire go out. You have charge of it now, fire that began so long ago that no one, not even Cloonie knew of its origins.

“It is said that this fire first began in a Pict bog hut on the Scottish coast. Not much more is known, but embers of this fire were used to begin the first cleansing fires in Scotland. That much is known to this day.”

My eyes narrowed.

“Cleansing fires, grandpa? What are they?”

“Just as I told you. A cleansing fire was always started on the highest mountain that could be found. The fire was allowed to grow until all the countryside could see. And when the winds came, large tongues of flames leaped from that fire, out into the night.

“I remember seeing those fires as a boy. They looked like great bolts of lightning as they flashed into space, and out over the North Atlantic, into the mists.

“Oh, it was a sight, those big cleansing fires. The old people believed that the larger the fire, the bigger the flames, the more those flames would be flung into the night.

“The stronger the flame, the farther it could travel, and it is said that Cloonie McGregor’s fires could be seen for hundreds of miles around. Those flames fanned out over the countryside, burning and cleaning, bringing new life and the promise of a good future.

“It is said that Cloonie McGregor’s fires burned a hole in the night and turned darkness into light.”

Fergus was breathing hard. He put a hand to his heaving chest and felt his heart beating rapidly, almost too fast. He peered down at me.

“The cleansing fires let you walk in the light,” Fergus said. Again he paused.

“My father brought this fire with him from Scotland. It is the flames of Cloonie, from his Fire Mountain. Now, you are the one who must carry this on, giving fire to life.”

Fergus sighed deeply in his chest.

I grabbed grandfather’s hand. It felt cold, despite the fire that was billowing red hot now in the hearth.

I looked deeply into the flames and thought I saw a mountain and a man standing there, holding his arms aloft, his head high.

“Grandpa, look.”

Fergus McGregor was as still as stone.

Then he began talking again, with his eyes closed.

“It wasn’t that Cloonie wanted to go up in flames. He had to. He knew that the time for the end of the clans had come and that there would be no one to carry on the tradition of the cleansing fires.

“So, he left with the flames that night. Flew up into the nighttime like a spark, an orange, fiery tongue, leaping into the darkness.”

He patted my head and continued.

“You see, Cloonie was an old man, much like me now. He knew that he must sacrifice himself for a greater thing for his people. Cloonie knew that the clans would be scattered and that the people of the bogs would no longer be able to count on the chieftains for aide and comfort.             “So he decided that at his age, he would give himself to the fire, joining the flames of eternity.”

Fergus rested a moment. I peered into the rosy hue of his face and drank in the wisdom I found there. Fergus’s face was a web of wrinkles, but they were soft and not hard. They enhanced his face rather than take something away.

“By becoming the ashes, Cloonie took with him the secret of the cleansing fires,” Fergus said. When he spoke, I thought I heard the faint sounds of distant bagpipes.

“And now, that is the secret of the cleansing fires, lit so long ago, joined in body and soul by Cloonie Fergus, the last man to keep the ancient fires burning. With him went the old ways, but here is the true secret of the fire.

“It is that each succeeding generation must be better than the one before it. You must achieve and work hard and strive to be better than your mother and father, who went beyond anything I could have accomplished.”

I looked into the flames biting and licking the logs in a familiar way.

“That is why Cloonie joined the ancients that night. He took with him the last of the clan secrets, the secrets of the old fires, and gave them to the rest of us. And that is his message, that we must leave the coming generations better off than we were, to carry on the dream, to continue burning for the future.”             The blue in the flames intensified. I thought I saw Fergus’s face staring back inside the flames. For a the briefest of moments, Fergus thought he saw Cloonie McGregor standing on his fire mountain, building his bonfire for the Christmas season, to cleanse the air, to refresh the night, to send the message out that for any of us to do better, we all have to do better, and that we must concentrate on our children. The clan chieftains understood this, perhaps, best of all. Without the next generation, the clans were no more, and that is the how and the why they eventually disappeared, one by one, when the children no longer cared or obeyed the chiefs.

“Listen to the fire,” Fergus said, leaning down to his granddaughters face.

“Listen to the words of Cloonie McGregor and know that you have been handed this great gift, keeper of the flames that the fire that must reside in you, that lights your way, and gives you the energy to go on when it seems there are no more paths to take.

“The cleansing fires will make you strong, because they burn across time,” Fergus McGregor said, holding my hand as they stared into the hot flames.

After leaving my grandfather’s home that day on the top of Raven’s Den Mountain, I felt that something had changed. In me. I wasn’t the same.

The day Fergus died, I rushed to his home to make sure the fire was still burning and I did what my grandfather told me. I took a piece of the flame with me and set my own fire ablaze.

And it has burned inside of me since.

I looked up just in time to see one of my grandchildren, Melinda. She was the most adventuresome of all my grandkids.

“Tell me a story, grandpa,” she said.

I looked for a long time at the fire, burning brightly.

“Let me tell you about the keeper of the flames, Melinda.”

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About tennwriter

FRED BROWN is a retired Senior Writer for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. He has been a journalist for 45 years and is a member of the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame. He is a recipient of the Malcolm Law Trophy for Feature Writing and in 1983 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in Journalism to study at the University of Michigan. He has published both fiction and nonfiction. Brown has a B. A. Degree in English Literature from Presbyterian College. Other highlights of his career include: Books and Stories Authored: Marking Time: East Tennessee Historical Markers and the Stories Behind Them, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn. 2005. Discovering October Roads: Fall Colors and Geology in Rural East Tennessee, published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tenn., 2001. Co-authored with Harry Moore. The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith, published by John F. Blair Publishers, Winston-Salem, N.C., May, 2000. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald. Growing Up Southern: How the South Shapes Writers, published by Emerald House/Blue Ridge Publishing, Fall, 1997. Co-authored with his wife, Jeanne McDonald "We Can Eat Sparrows," New Millennium Writings, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Fall & Winter, 1996. "The Devil's Roost," Voices From the Valley, Knoxville Writer's Guild anthology, 1994. Snake-Handling Believers, 2 chapters in book by Dr. Thomas Burton, University of Tennessee Press, 1993. History of Commission on Religion in Appalachia, 1992-93. "Seniors: Telling Tales to Life's Upperclassmen," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, fall 1992. Coker Creek, Crossroads to History, history of a mountain community and its people near Tennessee-Georgia border, 1991. "Character Building," Storytelling Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, fall 1991. The Faces of East Tennessee, a history of East Tennessee Counties, 1990. "Tillman Cadle, Memories of the Coalfields," Now and Then, The Appalachian Magazine, Center for Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University, Vol. 7, No. 7, fall 1990. Trader Jon, a biography; Castle Books, Memphis, 1986. "Mining Reform," Sierra, Vol. 71, No. 5, September/October 1986.
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