The Time for Fire
I didn’t answer her.
Neither of us moved.
The awkward silence hung in the room like a mountain fog that clings to your legs as you walk through it.
—Who is this person and how does she know my name and how do I keep myself from sounding like a crazy person?
A million thoughts sliced through my mind, and they all seemed to ask the same questions repeatedly. The night seemed to be sliding away from me. I’d wanted some peace and quiet. All I’d gotten was a bear invasion and a bizarrely dressed young woman who just happened to know my name, oh, and a pack of wolves.
Finally, I took a step towards the kitchen, away from her, and tried to sound like I wasn’t freaking out: “And you are?”
She adjusted Grandma’s quilt, pulling it tight around her shoulders and looked down into the hardwood floor then back up and breathed deep.
When she spoke, her words fell out of her mouth in a paced form, like the ones in her journal. She talked with a rounded cadence that sounded like the most beautiful British accent—or at least I guessed so. As beautiful as her voice sounded, the way she spoke cut into me. Not with harsh words or tone, but with what I imagined truth sounded like.
“You don’t remember me because you are not looking. And like all the rest of the people I’ve encountered in my travels, you expected something different. The sensuality and not the fear, a gratification not a longing, pleasure instead of joy.”
“So, you don’t have a name?” I said, my words rammed through the poetry of her voice and words like a sledgehammer. I didn’t want to sound like that but couldn’t help it and didn’t know why.
“You know who I am, Will, but lack the courage to admit it.”
“Before an hour ago I’d never seen you in my life.”
“Before an hour ago your cheerless heart nearly drowned you in an ocean of mercenary gloom. Now is the time for fire, Will! Not for the nonchalance of melancholy. Can you not gather the courage to look upon me with true eyes? Have I taught you nothing all these years?”
“Huh? What are you talking about? Did we attend the same college or something?” I said, semi-laughing half out of indignation and half out of nervous shock. “Were you one of Jack’s students as well? Have you been following me? You’ll have to pardon my scepticism here. I just carried you through the snowy mud after nearly killing you with my uncle’s rifle so I’m a little off of my ‘Oh, I remember you!’ game.”
My words flung out of my mouth, thoughtless and bare. I could tell the girl felt the same about my harsh demeanor. She bowed her head and adjusted once more under Grandma’s quilt.
“A hush. Don’t you remember?” She spoke now in the quiet tone of a friend trying to remember a treasured memory with another friend. “I was there that morning when you and your brother camped in the pine grove. Eight inches of snow on the ground with six more on the way. You two, lost. Boys with your machine. You dug out the snow, collected wood, and built a fire. You ate and drank. You laughed, and your joy carried up into the pines—they quivered with glee. Then, the cold came heavy.
“You woke early, before your brother and the dawn; the night’s fire smoldered; you poked the coals and watched the flame rise up and dance. Quietly you placed more dry branches over the flames. And you sat on a rock and listened.
“Pop, crack, snap, in the twilight. Each sound, you felt. The sun rose behind winter clouds, lighting them pearl. And the hush. So quiet. You didn’t move. And you listened. I loved when you listened, Will.
“The quiet surrounded your ever-attentive ears teaching you the truth of coals kindled. Then, a flake. And another. More.
“An even fall tumbled through the pines. The smoke rose. The snow fell. You held your breath.
“Then, quiet footsteps? Hoof steps? What was coming?”
She paused and wriggled again in Grandma’s quilt. A look of satisfaction eased its way across her face as she delighted in the storytelling.
“A lone deer walked to the edge of your makeshift camp. It looked at you and continued, out of sight. The careful crunch of the deer’s gate. The nothing sound of falling snow. The inaudible dance of the morning fire. Your own breathing. No stress from this anxious world. Only the moment. A hush.
“A moment bottled up, private and wonderful. ‘Yes, you are always everywhere. But I, hunting in such immeasurable forests,’ says your favorite poet. And there I was—your prize, and you held me with your gaze and heart and soul. I was your lovely, your gasp, your hush, your mystery blowing through the woods. And you were my young one, my innocent, my warrior poet. But now …”
She paused with hurt trailing off in her voice. Her words hovered over me like the joy of an old song remembered. Only I couldn’t remember.
“But now, you no longer chase me with your little boy eyes? You quit the hunt, Will. The adventure turned mundane, and you decided to grow up. Now the man falls into the coffin of the grown-up world. And the scarring place rises now. It ever so much rises in you to the point where you hold the scars like you used to hold me. They are much lighter than I am. The bitter-sweetness of calamity. The root of pain. You eat of the root and have gone blind. And you no longer see me.”
She was a stranger but spoke with the words of a loved one. And the memory, so vivid and plain to her. To me, grey and dim.
The weight of her words hit me like a cold brick to the face—stinging, sharp, and heavy. Their force knocked me woozy. But even more. They fell to my ears with a tingling. They made me feel like I did when I unsheathed the sword. I could hardly stand beneath the heaviness of her words.
The mass and cadence of her words drove me down. I stumbled forward to one knee. I reached for the floor to try and regain my balance, but fell on my chest, my arms outstretched, my palms pushing down on the floor. I tried to get up but couldn’t.
The pine grove with my brother—the vision of the fire that night.
I remembered how we laughed and for hours forgot about the world pushing in on us—our responsibilities, our deadlines and demands. For one night we let ourselves be lost in the woods.
And it was beautiful.
And the morning snowfall.
I could see a bit of the grey morning in my memory. I could feel the warmth of the early flames. I could hear the wood pop and crack. And then something out in the dark edge of the morning, beyond the firs and hemlocks. In the memory, I thought I saw black hair or was it the dark winter coat of a deer. I couldn’t tell. And I began to whisper into the floorboards.
“What is it? I can see the … but the … the memory is so dim. I can’t see it all.”
Then I coughed hard and choked on a sob.
“What is going on?” I said to her from the floor, paralyzed. “How could you know that … all of that. The story, about me and my brother, the forest, and the snow? How?”
My neck hung low as I pressed my forehead into the floor trying to steady myself beneath whatever it was that was pressing into me.
My chest hurt.
I closed my eyes, and the memory came on again with full force.
All I could think about was the morning in the snow and the very real sense of something sacred. I cried that morning, the good kind of cry.
I always felt sorrow when it snowed. But not that morning.
I’d forgotten that. Why?
Something else accompanied the snow that morning in the woods. Something like taking Holy Communion for the first time. I could still smell the pine and fire. And I could hear the quiet steps of the deer, or whatever it was moving through the trees, stepping through the ever fall of snow.
It was a moment that found me. My brother and I happened upon the grove, the time, the space, because we were lost in the woods. We loved being lost in the woods. When we were young boys we’d run into the cornfields playing army and wearing camouflage. We loved the hugeness of the fields and the green. We lost ourselves among those rows and in our imaginations. We were young and unafraid.
I was young, too, in my heart—naïve even. I thought the world’s moments, time itself, was comprised of moments unrehearsed. I felt their power. I knew them as part of me.
In that moment I felt the surety of my relationship with the pines and snow and deer and yet I could see past them, and I could hold glory even as it melted on my hands and on the hide of the deer.
When I opened my eyes, I saw her feet. I looked up to find her standing over me without Grandma’s quilt.
I fell backwards and scrambled to get up. I looked away, towards the front door.
“Where’s the quilt?” I shouted at her through my sobs.
When I looked again, she stepped toward me. I turned my back on her and tried to embrace the front door, my arms stretching out against the door and the wall.
“Will you not look at me? In snow, fireside, quilt hidden—I came to you when you called. I came gleaming. I came quiet. I came crying. I came blasting. Now here in this half-light, and you do not recognize me?”
I shielded my eyes with my forearm and pressed myself further into the door.
My wit was gone, gobbled up in the moment. I heard her turn from me and walk back to the hearth, padding along the hardwood floor. I turned towards the light to see her face the fire and warm her hands.
The shadows gathered in her form. Her hair fell full and dry down the length of her willowy back—a shadow of tangle. Her skin was dark like a desert tent yet looked smooth.
—To touch it, I thought as I wiped my eyes.
Her form drank the room. I could see her outline in the affecting light, her elegance catching the glow. I remembered how her skin felt, soft like glassy water.
And at that moment, watching her by the fire, something insidious rose in me. Unchecked desire.
I wanted her.
I felt focused, suddenly aware of her charm. My mind worked to manipulate words. My muscles worked to get up and get near.
What would I say? How would I move? Did she feel it too? The shadow, fire, snow of it all?
I stood up and walked towards the fire. She did not move.
—Ah, an invitation? I thought. She wanted me to move towards her. The summons felt real and deep and gratifying.
—She did feel it. Didn’t she? I thought, convincing myself of the lie birthing in my heart. I kept my approach, moving towards her in the dark glow of the cabin.
Thoughts raced through my mind. I could feel desire tingling in my hands. I was behind her now. I reached out and placed my hands on her shoulders.
The rafters of the cabin scattered all over my vision and the fire glow kept flickering madly.
I was on the floor, lying on my back.
The rafters settled into their place. The ceiling slowly came into focus, and I saw her step into the frame of my vision. She faced me. Her sylphlike form was captured in the grey of the room backlit by fire.
She held something using both hands. Was it the sword?
It was. It rang with blue light. I sensed the light, but not like before. I wanted to disappear into the floor. I wanted to flee from it into the shadows. I was not the sword-bearer this time. I was the intruder.
Then I felt warm, or, rather, a warmth inching down my head and neck.
—I’m bleeding, I thought as I tried to stay conscious.
And the warmth settled in my ear.
—She struck me.
The room pulsed with light, blue, fire, orange, ceiling. I was fighting to stay, to see.
She hovered above me magnificent and dark, blade in hand.
I was dying.
She stepped over me and disappeared into the dark gathering in my eyes, blue-blazing sword drawn. Then she reappeared, her face inches from mine.
Her eyes. I saw her eyes just before I—so blue. Fierce. She bent low and whispered into my ear. “Will. Can’t you see …?”
I must confess two things to you. First, I too experienced something quite like Will’s encounter with the journal. And second, the pages to follow proved hard for me to order in the story.
First, the journal. It was the end of the first full day with the journal. I had slept on the floor near the fireplace. It seemed the safest place to rest and, frankly, I did not care to explore the house any further at that point. After tea and some bread, I took the journal outside and walked the grounds of the old estate house. Nothing fancy about the grounds, just open rolling grass to the edge of the woods. The grass was lush and begged me to lay down and rest in the cool autumn air.
So, I threw myself on the grass. The sun was warm, the air brisk. And I felt my eyelids getting heavy. I raised the journal above me, squinting into the pages. The page, the exact one from above, was the first page behind the loose pages in the front of the journal, which we’ll explore later in more detail. I read aloud because it’s one of my habits when researching and writing. I like hearing the words, their cadence and movement.
As I read the opening words of the entry, light fell from the pages in a kind of dust. At first, I thought it was something in the air, like bits of dying leaves or something. The light dust fell on my face and quickened my heart and eyes and mind. I couldn’t move my arms as the dust flew above me and the journal in an extravagant display of shimmer. The trees danced but there was no wind, as the words of the journal fell from the page and into images cast against the dark canvas of the swaying trees.
I saw the young woman running from the gruesome-looking bear just as Will did. And I saw Will pick her up and out of the freezing rain. And I heard the girl say, “Snow …” In an instant, the light dust vanished and the journal fell from my hands and landed on my nose. I grimaced and turned over and scrambled up to my feet and walked circles around the journal for several minutes trying to calm down.
The previous night’s events, however, tempered me for this I suppose. Though who is ever ready to encounter “light-magic” from an ancient journal? I’m sure you’d encounter the same thing as me and Will should you ever happen upon this little tome. I was riveted from that point on. Though I did read on with a wary eye and in an upright position—didn’t want to drop the book on my face again.
Now, the pages. At first, I believed the pages which follow in what I’ve labelled “Chapter Six” to be Will’s recounting of past experiences. And that is true, but only partially. You’ll note the flow soon enough, but it took me some time to determine their place in the story as they were crammed into place, like so many other stray pages found throughout the book.
I note this difficulty more for my own records than for your benefit. But I suppose there’s an insight to be gained from the compiling of a story when one discovers the contents to be extrapolated from a handmade leather journal that is possessed with “light-magic” and retained from a person who vanished into fire.
To be continued …
Join me for the next instalment, “Chapter 6: Don’t You See.”
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