Bonfire: early lexicographers... even Sam Johnson...
thought “bonfire” was derived from the French “bon,”
hence “good fire.” But it’s not. They were wrong.
It comes rather from the Middle English “bone fire,”
an open-air, community fire on which bones
were burned after a hunt or feast or celebration.
More darkly, church inquisitors would immolate
witches and heretics on these town “bone fires,”
along with their forbidden books and writings.
“Burning the bon,” my father called it cheerfully
during World War II when I was a boy of six or seven,
and together we cleaned up the autumn leaves.
Both of us, of course, were oblivious to the bone fires
of the Holocaust then raging in Europe as we raked
the leaves on 10th Avenue in Rochester, Minnesota.
In the cool October air, we would pull the crisp
orange and yellow piles to the curb and heap them
high in the street while our beagle Jim looked on.
Then, if the breeze was still, father would finish
the ceremony by touching a match to the leaf pile.
How it roared and crackled as the smoke rose!
Best of all, as the pile burned down and the leaves
burned up, gray billows climbing through the trees, was the
glorious, leaf bonfire aroma that filled the neighborhood.
No one called the cops. No roofs caught fire. No forests
exploded. Just the delicious smell of burning hardwood
leaves. Every neighbor on 10th Avenue did just the same.
A patch of black ash was all that remained when the
bonfires died. A small, city, water truck chugged by
once a week and sluiced the ashes to the corner grate.
In the autumn of my mind, the sweet aroma of “burning
bon” still lingers, though I am of the sere and yellow leaf
myself now... with my thin volume of dry, nostalgia leaves.
I watch the golden leaf bones drift down upon my lawn.
I can pretend they float like golden angels, but it’s clear
that gravity still rules. Gravity always gets the bones.
No one now will rake them to the curb and set them burning.
It is forbidden. No dogs will watch, no sweet aromas fill the air.
Hired men will load them with loud machines and truck them off.
In some municipal mulch pit, they will molder turning slowly to
sodden clay. The bones of us all share this option, I see.
Like gold leaf bones in bone fires, let us cheat gravity.