fire

Once there was a girl who liked to go camping in the woods. She spent her days exploring, collecting wildflowers and kindling, and listening to the noises of the forest. Sometimes she brought things she found back to her camp: feathers, smooth river rocks, a pretty piece of broken eggshell. Sometimes she brought back nothing at all.

One evening as she was drifting off to sleep, she heard the sound of twigs snapping just beyond the clearing. "Who's there?" she cried out, surprised but not frightened. At first, there was no answer. The girl kept still and listened, her senses keen from the many nights she'd spent alone in the wilderness.

A moment later, a voice called out from the darkness: "Put out your fire!"

The girl sat up where she lay, clutching her blanket tightly around her.  She cocked her head in the direction of the voice. "Where are you?" she called back, shivering slightly. "I can't see you!"

"Put out your fire!" the voice repeated roughly. The girl stood, letting the blanket drop, and walked toward where she thought she'd heard the voice. She squinted into the black, but she could see nothing. Yet the hairs prickling on the back of her neck told her that someone was close.

"I can't put it out," she answered, peering about for the visitor. "It keeps me warm at night, and safe." The girl took a cautious step forward. "Would you...would you like to join me?"

"No," the voice responded flatly. "I don't like the smoke. Put it out!"

The girl frowned, and glanced back at the small fire she'd made. The night was clear and calm; no wind disturbed the smoke, which disappeared into the sky in a straight, silky column. "But," said the girl, "that's not possible. And anyway, if it does bother you, why don't you move further away? The mountain is wide; surely there's enough room for us to get clear of one another." As she spoke, the girl stepped softly forward, straining to see whom she spoke to in the frigid night air.

"It's too bright," answered the voice, ignoring her response. "I can see the light from miles away. Put it out!"

With her arms held out in front of her, the girl walked forward in the dark again. She wasn't afraid, but she wished for daylight so that she could see her mysterious guest. "Well that's just silly," she replied, more to herself than anything, for she was tiring of this game of cloak and dagger. "If the light bothers you, you can just look away, or close your eyes."

The voice was silent.

It was then that the girl noticed how far she'd wandered from her camp. She realized she was cold, and she suddenly longed to be back near the flames she'd carefully nursed from sparks, nestled cozily beneath the stars.

The girl turned and walked away from the voice in the wood. "I'm going back to my fire now," she called over her shoulder. "You can join me if you'd like, or go build your own, or leave the forest altogether. It's up to you."

A few paces later, and she felt warmth on her skin again. She sat on the ground, cross-legged, and inched up closer to the fire. She held her palms out flat, luxuriating in the waves of radiating heat. She poked a small branch into the flames, stirring them back to life. She watched the embers split and glow, orange and black, beautiful and dangerous. The girl stared into the fire for a long time, thinking about the strange conversation she'd just had.

When a noise in the woods broke her daze a little while later, she decided to stay put, to stay silent, and to tend to the thing that was keeping her alive in the icy winter night. There was plenty of warmth for anyone who wanted to join her, but she was done chasing voices in the dark.