Distant Fire of Winter Stars

Five miles from town, just me, my rifle, the deer blind, the white field getting deeper the more powder falls. Here’s me in a pile of myself, one foot corked at a ninety-degree angle, still caught in the bottom rung of the slick ladder. There’s the vast pale dark held up by the skinny pines reaching into the nowhere.

All the whistling, all the roar, my rifle already buried in the fresh white, my face windburnt, hands like lifeless fans of coral under my gloves. Get one free, pull the heel of the glove by my teeth. Search for my phone, bite tongue, taste iron, stay angry, don’t let the dark in the corners of my vision spread. Phone’s dead, of course.

What was it Dad always said? You can borrow time, but only from yourself.

My backpack gathers snow a body’s length out of reach. Inside there’s handwarmers, a roadflare, bullets, a first aid kit, Dad’s flask. The first step of this delicate procedure must be agony: lifting my twisted ankle from the rung. How can something numb hurt so much? Frozen crust of flesh around a core of molten pain. How can a leg be so heavy?

I recall when I was nine, the first time I found Dad ragdolled on the floor of the garage with one of his weird books splayed on his stomach, and I tried to turn him over, tried to lift that continent of surly fat and muscle and beard.

Life doesn’t like being played with, is what he said when woke up.

Dad could fix everything. Car radios, bicycle chains, eyeglasses, shoes, everything. Just not himself. At twelve years old he told me from his hospital bed, Everyone has their time, and then he breathed into his silver flask and slipped it to me quick, before the nurses could see.

The snow and my own weight fight me for every inch on the way to the backpack. My thumb sticks to the zipper, and the zipper takes its tithe of skin when I rip it free.

Funniest thing when I find Dad’s old flask under the granola bars. It’s warm. Shouldn’t steel be cold? Shouldn’t it stick to my hand like the zipper? I’ve never drunk what’s inside, never even twisted the cap. Just kept it with me, hid first in my box of secret treasures, and then kept in my first car’s glovebox, and then dropped in my hunting bag for whatever piece of luck he wanted me to have.

Dad was a Kentucky bourbon man, but now when I unscrew the cap—stubbled with just a salting of rust—the smell that oozes out surely isn’t bourbon. And what leaks into the snow isn’t the sweet amber of corn mash.

Darkness fattens around the corners of my eyes. How do such skinny pines hold up so much sky?

I remember to open my eyes. The world has turned, or rather I have, sat up now, my back to a tree. Fireglow kisses the feeling back into my face. Resin hisses and branches whine as they bend and snap.

There’s a man across from me. Big as I am, just my same age or thereabouts. Even looks like me, except his beard is wilder. He tends the small fire with a pine branch. It’s when he smiles, and mirth etches little white crinkles around the rims of his eyes that I know.

What are you doing here?

He smiles wider; shows a wall of nicotine yellow. I’d ask you the same, kiddo. Seems pretty stupid to come out alone in this weather.

Who do you think you are—my Dad?

We both laugh; me weakly, he with vigor and so much fire in his belly that a dead man shouldn’t have.

You built this fire?

And splinted your leg. You should be able to walk on it, just favor the right.

How are you here?

It’s like I always said, you can borrow time, but only from yourself.

Dad reaches across the fire and hands me the flask. He shakes it so I hear there’s still a little something left in there. Some of his life, reserved for a time of need.

Son, there are always ways around these things, if you know what you’re doing, and you’re willing to give something up.

I think about how Mom raged after he said no to chemo, and suddenly my hand finds feeling enough to make a fist.

You left us. You let the cancer take you away from us.

He doesn’t reply straight away, like there’s years of silence needs sifting through. I gave up a little time, he says. Gave up a little of what I had left so I could be there when you got grown and needed me. Listen. I can keep this fire going till morning, but when dawn comes, you’re on your own. There’s the Fish and Wildlife office a mile from here, due west. You know your directions, don’t you? I taught you that, at least.

I blink to keep the dark away. I’d shout at him if I could. Outside the fire’s reach is nothing but a ravenous dark. Above my head is all black except for a few cold stars. I see me mirrored on his eyes. There’s me, grown man but still a boy so much smaller than this man my same height.

I won’t make it that far, Dad.

Hush, boy. You’ll feel stronger in the morning.

What if I don’t?

You’ll have to. Now rest up. I’ll keep this fire tended; I’ll keep the dark off you till sunup.

I rest my head against the tree and let my eyes flutter shut while the hissing resin sings from the wood. Against the weight of my lids I peek open a last time, expecting it to be nothing but dark, but the fire’s still there, and so is he.


FFO: We loved the sense of isolation and almost otherworldliness the wintery forest seems to take on for the narrator in this story. Was this story written with a particular real-world location in mind?

JLD: It’s not based on any one location, more an aggregation of memories both real and created, that is, things I actually remember and things I’ve been told. When I was very small, living in Indiana, I fell into a hole in the snow, and would have died had my grandfather not found me and pulled me out of it. So there’s the attempt at reconstructing that secondhand memory, and then there’s my recollections of going hunting with my dad in Mossyhead, Florida, where it never snows but it does get bitterly cold….

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