BRIAN FOUND it was a long way from sparks to fire.
Clearly there had to be something for the sparks to ignite, some kind of tinder or kindling—but what? He brought some dried grass in, tapped sparks into it and watched them die. He tried small twigs, break- ing them into little pieces, but that was worse than the grass. Then he tried a combination of the two, grass and twigs.
Nothing. He had no trouble getting sparks, but the tiny bits of hot stone or metal—he couldn't tell which they were—just sputtered and died.
He settled back on his haunches in exasperation, looking at the pitiful clump of grass and twigs. He needed something finer, something soft and fine and fluffy to catch the bits of fire.
Shredded paper would be nice, but he had no paper. "So close," he said aloud, "so close..."
He put the hatchet back in his belt and went out of the shelter, limping on his sore leg. There had to be something, had to be. Man had made fire. There had been fire for thousands, millions of years. There had to be a way. He dug in his pockets and found the twenty-dollar bill in his wallet. Paper. Worthless paper out here. But if he could get a fire going. He ripped the twenty into tiny pieces, made a pile of pieces, and hit sparks into them. Nothing happened. They just wouldn't take the sparks. But there had to be a way—some way to do it Not twenty feet to his right, leaning out over the water were birches and he stood looking at them for a full half-minute before they registered on his mind. They were a beautiful white with bark like clean, slightly speckled paper . Paper. He moved to the trees. Where the bark was peeling from the trunks it lifted in tiny tendrils, almost fluffs. Brian plucked some of them loose, rolled them in his fingers. They seemed flammable, dry and nearly powdery. He pulled and twisted bits off the trees, packing them in one hand while he picked them with the other, picking and gathering until he had a wad close to the size of a baseball.
Then he went back into the shelter and arranged the ball of birchbark peelings at the base of the black rock. As an afterthought he threw in the remains of the twenty-dollar bill. He struck and a stream of sparks fell into the bark and quickly died. But this time one spark fell on one small hair of dry bark— almost a thread of bark—and seemed to glow a bit brighter before it died. The material had to be finer. There had to be a soft and incredibly fine nest for the sparks.
I must make a home for the sparks, he thought. A perfect home or they won't stay, they won't make fire.
He started ripping the bark, using his fingernails at first, and when that didn't work he used the sharp edge of the hatchet, cutting the bark in thin slivers, hairs so fine they were almost not there. It was painstaking work, slow work, and he stayed with it for over two hours. Twice he stopped for a handful of berries and once to go to the lake for a drink. Then back to work, the sun on his back, until at last he had a ball of fluff as big as a grapefruit—dry birchbark fluff.
He positioned his spark nest—as he thought of it—at the base of the rock, used his thumb to make a small depression in the middle, and slammed the back of the hatchet down across the black rock. A cloud of sparks rained down, most of them missing the nest, but some, perhaps thirty or so, hit in the depression and of those six or seven found fuel and grew, smoldered and caused the bark to take on the red glow.
Then they went out.
Close—he was close. He repositioned the nest, made a new and smaller dent with his thumb, and struck again.
More sparks, a slight glow, then nothing.
It's me, he thought. I'm doing something wrong. I do not know this—a cave dweller would have had a fire by now, a Cro-Magnon man would have a fire by now—but I don't know this. I don't know how to make a fire. Maybe not enough sparks. He settled the nest in place once more and hit the rock with a series of blows, as fast as he could. The sparks poured like a golden waterfall. At first they seemed to take, there were several, many sparks that found life and took briefly, but they all died.
Starved. He leaned back. They are like me. They are starving. It wasn't quantity, there were plenty of sparks, but they needed more.
I would kill, he thought suddenly, for a book of matches. Just one book. Just one match. I would kill. What makes fire? He thought back to school. To all those science classes. Had he ever learned what made a fire? Did a teacher ever stand up there and say, "This is what makes a fire. " He shook his head, tried to focus his thoughts. What did it take? You have to have fuel, he thought—and he had that. The bark was fuel. Oxygen—there had to be air. He needed to add air. He had to fan on it, blow on it. He made the nest ready again, held the hatchet backward, tensed, and struck four quick blows.
Sparks came down and he leaned forward as fast as he could and blew. Too hard. There was a bright, almost intense glow, and then it was gone. He had blown it out. Another set of strikes, more sparks. He leaned and blew, but gently this time, holding back and aiming the stream of air from his mouth to hit the brightest spot. Five or six sparks had fallen in a tight mass of bark hair and Brian centered his efforts there.
The sparks grew with his gentle breath. The red glow moved from the sparks themselves into the bark, moved and grew and became worms, glowing red worms that crawled up the bark hairs and caught other threads of bark and grew until there was a pocket of red as big as a quarter, a glowing red coal of heat. And when he ran out of breath and paused to inhale, the red ball suddenly burst into flame.
"Fire!" He yelled. "I've got fire! I've got it, I've got it, I've got it..."
But the flames were thick and oily and burning fast, consuming the ball of bark as fast as if it were gasoline. He had to feed the flames, keep them going. Working as fast as he could he carefully placed the dried grass and wood pieces he had tried at first on top of the bark and was gratified to see them take.
But they would go fast. He needed more, and more. He could not let the flames go out.
He ran from the shelter to die pines and started breaking off the low, dead small limbs. These he threw in the shelter, went back for more, threw those in, and squatted to break and feed the hungry flames. When the small wood was going well he went out and found larger wood and did not relax until that was going. Then he leaned back against the wood brace of his door opening and smiled. I have a friend, he thought—I have a friend now.
A hungry friend, but a good one. I have a friend named fire
The curve of the rock back made an almost perfect drawing flue that carried the smoke up through the cracks of the roof but held the heat. If he kept the fire small it would be perfect and would keep anything like the porcupine from coming through the door again. A friend and a guard, he thought. So much from a little spark. A friend and a guard from a tiny spark. He looked around and wished he had somebody to tell this thing, to show this thing he had done.
But there was nobody
Nothing but the trees and the sun and the breeze and the lake. Nobody. And he thought, rolling thoughts, with the smoke curling up over his head and the smile still half on his face he thought: I wonder what they're doing now. I wonder what my father is doing now. I wonder what my mother is doing now . I wonder if she is with him.