Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fiction #73: Christopher Shilts

Fire Built

I poured some gas onto the burning twigs. Mike made a quick sweep of the nearby trees pulling off branches and picking up those that had already fallen. He stayed close to camp, but he was hard to see through the falling snow. We already had a secured clear tarp over a rope strung between two trees where we kept Mike’s pack. The sky was gray, almost black, but the whiteness of the snow brightened our little scene. I knew it was middle to late afternoon.  Mike sat down next to me and asked, “How’s the ankle.” Snow fell steadily.

I looked at him, smiled, and said, “It hurts.  I can’t take off my boot.”

“Can you wiggle it around?”

I lifted up my foot and tried to shake it around.  I looked again at Mike.  I had little mobility.  And it hurt. 

“I can wiggle my toes.”

“You positioned okay against your pack?”

I nodded.

“Look, I can try to make a travois.  Haul you out of here.”

“We’re good,” I said.  “We’ve got fire, food, and endless snow to melt and drink.”

Mike moved back to the other side of the fire.  He picked up some bigger sticks, logs almost, and put them on.  He squatted and looked at the fire.  The orange flames got narrow at the top and disappeared into the falling snow.  The smoke rose up and leaned with the wind.

Mike finally said,  “Maybe I’ll just go.  Take what I need to get to the ranger station.”

“Rule number one, Mike.  We stay put.  The ranger station knows our itinerary.  Panic leads to bad decisions.  It won’t snow forever.”

He dropped his head.  Then he twitched.

“Did you hear that?”

“Just wind.”

“I heard a sound.  A whistle.”

“It’s just the wind. “

“It’s a whistle, man.”

Then I heard it.  It was indeed a whistle.  We stared at each other.  “We have to check it out, don’t we?”  Mike asked.

“I’m in no position to help.  Besides, people die when they’re trying to save lives.”

Mike was determined to go into the thicket.  I didn’t think it was smart, but there was little I could do to stop him.  He assured me that he’d be careful and that he’d come back. 

“I’ve got the food and the fire, dude.”

Twice while he was gone I leaned toward the pile of sticks and logs to load the fire.  When he returned, he held a man around his shoulders, fireman style.   There were spots of snow on Mike’s knees and elbows left behind from when he must’ve fallen.

Mike bent at the hips and maneuvered the man over his head and onto the snow near the fire.  “Can you sit up?” Mike asked the man.  He did so.  Mike said,  ‘Put your hands on my back.  No, my bare back. It’s okay.  Pull my shirt up.”

The man’s hands were gloveless.  His fingers were black and swollen. He fumbled with Mike’s shirt.  Mike took him by the wrists and brought the man’s hands to his stomach.  The frost bit man looked at me then to Mike and said, “You need to get me to the ranger station.”

“We don’t go to ranger stations.  Rangers come to us.  You’ll die before you get there.  Worse, I’ll die, too.  Wiseass over there”--he pointed at me--“wiseass with the broken ankle will be the only one who survives because he’ll have the fire and the food.”

I threw my hands up and nodded my head in agreement.  Mike looked back at the man.  He shivered.

“Mike, he’s shivering pretty bad.”

“Hypothermia?”

I reached back to the top of my pack and was able to unfasten my sleeping bag.  I pulled it off and threw it toward the tarp.

“We can take turns,” I said.

“All right.”  Mike agreed.

I leaned over and crawled under the tarp with the sleeping bag.  I unstuffed it and got in it and began to undress.  My pants were below my knees before I remembered that I couldn’t budge my boot.  I let it be.  I left the rest of my clothes at the bottom of the bag.  I yelled out to the man, “Listen, we’re going to take your clothes off, and you’re going to get in this bag with me.”

Through the tarp, I could see him shake his head.

“You don’t do it,” Mike said, “you die.  You’re on my conscience now.  Mike bent low and picked him up and carried him to the tarp and helped him into the sleeping bag.  Once in the bag, Mike helped me with the undressing of the man.  When we pulled his boots and socks off, his toes, as I had suspected, resembled his fingers.  He’d lose his hands and feet.  Mike zipped us both into the bag and returned to the fire.  I heard him throw on another log.

I heard the man snort, then, a beginning of a cry.

“My name’s Aaron,” he whispered.

Mike puttered around the fire, and the fire was swollen and fantastic.  He boiled water.

“I found some ground coffee in my inside coat pocket,” he announced.  “Coffee is the family business.”

I don’t remember falling asleep, but when Mike roused me, it was dark.  The man still shivered, but less violently.

I dressed and crawled out of the bag, and Mike crawled in and stripped.  Back by the fire, I forced myself to stay awake.  The snow continued to fall, but it had slowed just a bit.  I was within reach of the logs and the fire.  We had two sixty-pound bags of food and supplies, we had a bright and brilliant fire, and Aaron was going to live.

My ankle would heel. 

*

Christopher Shilts writes: "I am an English Teacher at the Pingry School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.  I have  taught for twenty-seven years, seventeen at Pingry.  I also serve as the head football coach and as an assistant track coach.  I am the father of three daughters, Maddy (17), Carson (13), and Sydney (11), and one son, Joe (15).  I have been married to my wife Cathy Hamm for nineteen years.  I am a baseball fan first, Tigers’s fan second.  I wrote “Fire Built” at Kenyon College, summer of 2016."

Photo credit: Maddy Shilts.

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