Prince of My Long Nights

My Prince was a beautiful stove, glossy cream and turquoise enamel, with warming shelves, a firebox on the left and a hot-water reservoir curling up wing-like on the right. I have a Prince to keep me warm at night, I wrote to lovers back home. I warned you I’d never be the needy one, is what I wanted them to read. Mail only came three times a week to the one-room shack on my aunt and uncle’s land in the Wallowa foothills, where I’d retreated from a small-town mess of my own making, but I hurried down the lane to the mailbox each time.

A dial in the oven door read out the Prince’s temperature on a perplexingly idiosyncratic scale from 1 to 12. I asked my aunt for a thermometer, but she always went by feel. Keeping the oven at eight browned the bread nicely, I learned after underbaking two batches.

Every week my uncle unloaded the Prince’s firewood — old fenceposts or deadfall already bucked up — and although I’d convinced him to stop splitting it for me, I still hated burning all his hard work. The fenceposts were so dry, he could toss them down sideways and split them lengthwise with one smash, but I never got the hang of it and did them the slow way, tapping tentatively at their ends like they were dense Eastern hardwood. Wood wasn’t free, and really, a few sticks were plenty for coffee and keeping the frost away. But chary with the wood as I was, my Prince grew withdrawn and took up smoking. Morning after morning, smoke rolled through the shack until my Prince got burning hot enough to draw it up the chimney.
It wasn’t that I liked being cold, but the Prince was my only heat source, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask too much of him. Instead, I stuffed the walls with newspaper, stacked extra sleeping bags on the bed, even the quilt I was still stitching by hand. At night, I wore all the long johns I owned, three pairs of wool socks, a hat. As the water glass at my bedside froze over, the cats migrated from my feet to the exposed warmth of my nose. Their fur came in thick and plush and their breath made ice clouds in the moonlight.

In the mornings I stomped through the snow to the spring and held my bucket beneath the dripping icicles. My aunt and uncle already had their fire going — a healthy plume rose through the trees across the meadow. The cats tangled around my ankles as I laid in my kindling, lit the ponderosa cones and fanned the choking smoke.

No, I didn’t like being cold. But the cold was my fault for arriving too late in the fall. Uncle Hal had warned me the shack wasn’t winterized, the beautiful stove accustomed to a genteel retirement spent taking the chill off cool summer mornings. No need to put the Prince through his paces; I could get by with small fires, I figured.
But my Prince grew ever more recalcitrant. The wind is wrong, I thought. There’s an inversion, a thaw. I lit tinder in the pipe to coax a draft, flung open the doors and windows. No way to heat a house, but at least I could still make my coffee and drink it shivering on the porch while the shack aired out.

Finally, I broke down and admitted I was having trouble with the Prince. My uncle came down the next morning with some coffee for me. I footed the ladder for him and sipped coffee, anxious in my shame, while he climbed up on the roof and dug creosote out of the stovepipe. It rained down around me; caught in my hair; stunk with timid, unfulfilled promise. A slow fire is sooty, not thrifty. I knew that — I’d always stuffed the furnace full back home. But here my Prince was stoked with somebody else’s labor, and I’d presumed to be stingy with it.

I offered to host the daily shared supper with my aunt and uncle that night. I hauled the blankets from the bed and converted it into a table. All afternoon I cooked hot and steady with the Prince while the cats unrolled their bellies before the packed firebox. The iron of the stovetop glowed orange, and I stripped off my wool sweater and rolled up my sleeves. When the early darkness fell, I served up elk paprikash, golden loaves baked at 8 degrees Prince, sauerkraut and chocolate truffles like I’d made for lovers back home. My uncle brought a can of beer in each coat pocket, and we hushed our forks to hear the coyotes when the cats fluffed up and stared through the walls. “Stay by the fire, kitties,” my aunt said. “Those beasts are talking to you.”

Rosanna Nafziger Henderson’s most recent book is The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home: The Happy Luddite’s Guide to Domestic Self-Sufficiency. She blogs at paprikahead.com.