Here’s an irony for you: I’d rather be hot than cold, but I’d rather freeze than burn to death.
This thought came to me last night, as I lay shivering in my bed waiting for the sheets to warm up from my body heat and dreaming about a summer beach.
I absolutely hate being cold.
My thoughts then turned from my preference for heat, quite naturally, to one of my favorite poems, Fire and Ice by Robert Frost (reprinted here without permission other than the fact that I found it on the internet. I hope Mr. Frost and Garrison Keillor forgive me).
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
I’m not a poetry person and my tastes in poems is far from sophisticated. (I mean how cliché can I be, a Vermonter quoting Robert Frost?) But I really like this one.
And, maybe because of this poem or maybe because I can be morbid at times, I have put a great deal of thought into death by fire vs. death by ice.
Despite that fact that I prefer warm temperatures to cold ones, arid deserts to frozen tundra, the equator to the arctic circle, sunburn to frostbite, when I comes to death I would choose ice.
In fact, I’ve always had a fear of fire and of burning to death. Not a paralyzing fear, but an ongoing concern, to steal a phrase from the accountants.
I think this worry was born when a house across the street burned down when I was a little girl. I clearly remember sitting in my bedroom window, watching the fire trucks and police cars and chaos.
Right after that, I convinced my mother to help me create an emergency evacuation plan. Since we lived in a second floor apartment with only one exit, there wasn’t much to plan, although I did practice tying sheets together in case I had to go through a window.
I wonder if my mother was ever curious about why the corners of the sheets were all wrinkled and knotted up every morning.
The “plan” consisted of going out the front door, walking (not running!) down the stairs and meeting my mom under the giant pine tree located across the street.
I didn’t give any thought to how I could possibly get separated from my mother when I had to walk directly through her bedroom to get to the front door from my room, or that crossing a fairly busy street in the middle of the night (the fires always happened in the middle of the night in my scenarios) would be dangerous for a little kid.
All I cared about was not burning to death.
I think about it less often now, but to this day I can’t watch fire movies or fire station television shows. I’ve never seen Backdraft and only made it through one episode of Rescue Me.
On the other hand, freezing doesn’t seem so bad. Sure, you’re cold for a while but then you just fall asleep. When you compare it the pain of roasting alive, it’s an easy decision.
I embraced the romance, yes romance, of freezing to death after reading Jack London’s To Build a Fire in high school.
This story and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson are the only short stories I can recall reading in school although I’m sure we read others. And I think about those two stories more often than you might think.
In case you haven’t read it (And you can read it online here so you have absolutely no excuse. Here’s a link to The Lottery too. Go forth and read short fiction, my friends), To Build a Fire is about a man traveling by foot with a dog in the Yukon in seventy five degrees below zero weather.
He sinks through the snow into some water and has to build a fire in order to dry out his footwear.
But he foolishly builds the fire under a tree and the warmth of the fire melts the snow on the branches above him. The snow drops onto his fire and puts it out.
He knows he’s screwed and his mind goes through a series of tactics and strategies that could possibly save his life. He even decides to kill his dog, slit his body open and put his hands inside in order to warm them.
Luckily (for the dog who I like better than the human protagonist) the man has lost all motor control and can’t even draw or hold his knife, much less accomplish the task.
The story ends with the man picturing his friends finding his body in the snow, until he falls “into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.”
The dog waits by his side for a while even after it smells the death and then it heads for the camp “where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.”
After re-reading it just now, I’m shocked that this story stuck with me all these years. I’m not one for outdoors stories and if it hadn’t been required reading, I would have stopped reading when it got to the dog killing part.
The man’s panic in To Build a Fire is certainly not romantic and the whole feel of the piece is as stark and cold as the landscape, but then there’s that one line “into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” It’s a relief, to the man and the reader.
I can’t imagine that death by fire would be a relief. Painful? Excruciating? Yes. A relief? No.
And who in their right mind would choose to die in fiery agony over a “comfortable and satisfying sleep?”