Between Kindling and Ashes
By Joel Allyn
|My answer to the question all storytellers try not to ask themselves. Where do the ideas come from?|
The old man had forgotten where he was again. He studied his surroundings as he came out of his daze. The man remembered he had been staring into a roaring fire, which was now no more than a few glowing embers beneath a mound of red-lit ash. Overhead the pale moonlight was illuminating the clouds which lay over it, like a child’s flashlight through a sheet. Surveying the horizon he could only make out darker silhouettes that blotted out the stars, rolling along the pinpoints of twinkling light like solid waves rising above the flat packed earth. I’m back. A breeze cut through him and he felt a chill wrap around his heart and tighten its grip. He pulled his dingy blanket tighter around him but it did nothing against the wind’s insistence. Struggling to rise, pistons went off in his kneecaps and he felt a terrible strain on already sore muscles. It was like bending metal but he managed to get to his feet with a great effort.
Before searching for more kindling the old man wanted a drink, wanted more to feel the water wash through him, a great monsoon flooding the desert in the peak of a dry summer. Looking around in the darkness and remembered that he had no water. He‘d in fact forgotten the last time he’d even enjoyed the blessing of a drink, or a bite of anything for that matter, though hunger was not anywhere near the foreground of his desires. A river came into memory and held out hope he might stumble upon another when he moved on at first light. He would have to be content with that hope and ignore the grainy, pasty feeling that filled his cracked palate.
The barren plain stretched in all directions to the mountains on the distant horizon. As he began his search he regained his bearings some, at least enough to recall he had scavenged this desolate landscape before and had found little and less then, and none of it would burn. Then where did the fire come from? I had a fire, I did. I remember the warmth of the flames on my face and…wasn’t there somebody else here with me? Hadn’t they been the one who helped build the fire? He couldn’t be sure, but it sounded right. More importantly it felt right; there had been someone else, somebody who’d been drawn to the flames. So where had they gone and where were they now? Yet that seemed not to matter, the only thing he could do now was try to keep walking, keep combing the earth with his boots for anything that could burn, anything that would feed the ravenous flames he yearned for. The memory of the yellow beast’s bathing warmth kept him going but not for long, and eventually – though he knew it meant he would most likely freeze – he returned at a crawling pace to the soft glowing embers before they blinked out completely. He barely made it, and then collapsed beside the dying glow at its heart in a shivering pile of fitful coughs.
Sitting there for a great while with his head hung, he felt like weeping. But he knew there was not enough water left in him to waste on even a single salty drop, and so he instead let out a long low moan. To his own ear he sounded like a dying animal going into that eternal darkness with an exquisite slowness that bordered on torture. No help was requested from The Great Above, he knew the stars were indifferent and the cold distant moon would not be moved by his suffering. He rocked back and forth and pulled the blanket taught around his aching body, and kept making that low moan. The sound droning on and on and on into infinity until he could catch up with it there.
He couldn’t remember much that had come before and didn’t bother to waste what little precious energy remained on that task. Instead he searched his mind for a single tale, one that would last him until he gave out. It wouldn’t need to be a very long one. Memories returned of listening to stories, telling stories, writing stories. Tales that would come to him whole and breathing out of the abyss, and he just had to keep pace with his pen. Stories had power and real magic in them, they made him feel alive and they had never left his side no matter how wretched or honorable he had been, and he’d been his fair share of both. The old man wanted so desperately to have just one more now, one more to take his mind off the pain coursing through his brittle rotting form. They could warm him and comfort him even as the embers grew cold and blinked away entirely. One more. That was when he heard approaching footsteps crunching through the silence right in front of him.
* * *
The cloud over the moon had been shoved aside by that bitter wind, and the moonlight had returned to bathe this stranger in a soft white glow. The silhouette of a man now crouched down on the opposite side of the circle of stones. In one of the stranger’s hands were small dry branches, and in the other he held one of those silver lighters where the top popped open. Those particular lighters had always reminded the old man of an execution he’d witnessed, a botched decapitation left a criminal’s neck held on by just a sliver of flesh and muscle; it hung there bouncing against the torso for a moment before they snapped it back on and finished the job. He couldn’t even make out the man’s size clearly, but that silver rectangle shined in the lunar light. Until the man dropped the kindling branches over the red ashes, the old man feared he’d only imagined them.
“You don’t mind if I join you, do you, old timer?” A toneless voice said.
The man tried to say yes and thank you, to offer his name and get one in return, but when he opened his mouth he found nothing came out but that awful moan again, now more like a dry croak, but managed to nod. At least he’d die a little warmer thanks to this stranger. What a wonderful mercy.
“All right then, friend,” the stranger said.
He used his thumb and in one fluid motion partially decapitated the lighter and spun the wheel, it struck against the flint stone and birthed a beautiful golden dancer which floated atop the cold chrome. The stranger lowered it to the dried branches and dead grass, as he moved the flame slowly around at the base they took almost at once. After catching initially they burned much slower than the old man expected, as if waiting for something. Though the light was brighter now, the strangers face remained shadowed, concealed behind a thin veil of night. He began to speak and the old man noticed his voice change gradually from toneless to that of a younger man, a man no older than maybe thirty at the outside. The old man listened, soaking up the words and the small fire’s warmth.
“Strange bumping into somebody else in the middle of nothing. Yet that seems to be how it happens time and again for me. Was crossin over the plain by night to avoid that bitch of a sun, I ran outta water a day ago and couldn’t take no more travelin under it. Saw you, well saw a shadow actually, just bumblin around teeterin this way and that. Figured I’d take a rest and burn what little I’d gathered from beyond the southern hills there.” He threw his thumb over his right shoulder in the direction he’d come. He poked at the burning brush with a branch he hadn’t yet sacrificed and the old man saw the flame burning steadier now, and damned if he didn’t feel just a bit better. The stranger continued on with telling first where he’d been and that led to where he was going, what he’d seen and what he wanted to lay his eyes upon.
The old man noticed something odd, as the stranger recounted his story, his face had come into sharper focus. Odder still, as his features became more defined, so too did his voice. It was a big voice now, and the man now noticed the slightest inflection of a southern drawl as the stranger started dropping all his g’s. It was only then that he realized the kindling, which alone should have burned up in minutes, had only then really got going – disappearing into a growing flame. Must’ve been fighting the wind, that’s all. What else? Pushing the thought aside he tried to focus on the man’s tale, which he could tell was nearing its end, and it had been an interesting little tale too. Odd though it was the old man now felt as if he knew and understood the man before him as well as any friend he’d ever had, despite the fact he didn’t yet know his name. He was also surprised to find he felt a little better, a little stronger. As the small flames reached higher into the sky he felt less and less pain and fatigue. He only wished he had a drink to offer his new friend to repay him. Just one drink. That was when he heard from the east an encore of the sound of an approaching stranger.
* * *
The two men around the fire turned, as out of the eastern shadows a dark figure appeared on a pale horse. Squinting, the old man made out that the figure had already dismounted and was now fidgeting with some bag on the side of his horse.
“Hey guys, you mind if I joined you?”
And as if running into yet another person out in this vast nothing was the most natural thing in the world to him the first man replied, “Fine with me, but you gotta ask old timer here, it’s his fire.” My fire? It’s your kindling. His mouth was too dry to speak but he wouldn’t have said anything had he been able. Somehow he knew what the first man said was true – it was his fire, but they were feeding it – just as he’d known there had been someone here with him before, was sure of that now. A prisoner? He still couldn’t remember anything else and accepted he probably wouldn’t.
“Well, mister?” the figure inquired with a more defined voice – a younger and more timid voice- than he had first spoken with. The frail bundle in the dirty blanket simply nodded again and that was enough for the new arrival. “Okay then, here,” he said. “I got something for you, hold on a sec.” He turned and walked back over to his horse. A few moments later he approached the circle again, now with a double armful of small logs cut to size for firewood. Both of the new men saw the old man’s eyes fill with excitement and they shared a laugh.
“Well then, look at that old timer,” the first man said. “I bet you’re glad you invited him now, huh?”
The old man knew he was just kidding, but couldn’t help thinking briefly that he hadn’t invited either of them, despite how grateful he may be. The young man who came on horseback had seemed almost to hear this thought and just stood momentarily beside the dying flames.
“Whelp toss em’ on then, friend. Meager fuel supply was just finishing up here. Timing’s not half bad kid, name’s Mike Hansel by the way, what’s your handle son?”
He extended his thick hand, and for a second the kid –who had his arms fool of firewood-, looked flustered. Then after quickly placing the new logs into a standing pyramid shape over the wilting fire-flower, the newcomer dusted off his hands on his jeans, took the strong hand in his own and they shook.
“I’m Billy…well William, Bill Richardson. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hansel. And what’s your name mister?”
Bill looked to the old man, his eyebrows arched for an answer. The old storyteller saw this detail, even though he still couldn’t quite make out the new strangers face in the low light. He tried hard to provide an answer to the newcomers query, only managing to wheeze out something that sounded like wind whistling through an ancient keyhole before going into a fit of painful coughs. Bill looked to Mike with furrowed brow.
Mike waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “It’s fine, you got more outta him than me. Take a seat, kid. He just needs some water, best I can figure. Wish I had something for him.”
“Well I can help out there,” the kid said. A little less toneless with each sentence that passed from him, “Filled up my skins on the east bank just this morning.” The old man couldn’t believe his luck.
As Bill went to his pale horse and untied a skin the older man noticed that the wood was not catching as fast as it should. Again the flame crawled over it with the speed of molasses as if waiting for its cue. When Bill handed the old man the water skin it was so heavy that he almost dropped it. After an embarrassing and fumbling performance he failed to even bring it to his mouth. Looking almost shamed to do so, Bill took the skin and tipped it to the man’s mouth for him, and let the water slowly flow. The man sucked at the skin greedily and kept swallowing until his belly ached, but he didn’t care, the wondrous elixir ran through him and filled every crack and every pore with waking life again. When Bill took the skin away, pulled it away, the elder man let out a huge belch. The two men who’d joined him looked at one another again for the briefest of moments before both started laughing.
“Nice one, old timer” Mike said. Wiping tears from his eyes, “So you got a name for us now, friend?”
The elder man cleared his throat then swallowed. It felt spectacular to feel saliva in his mouth again. He took a breath in and spoke hoarsely, not able to recall the last time he had spoken anything aloud. For a moment he had to search his mind, but quickly found what he was looking for.
“Oswald” he said. Then after another quick scan of the attic, “Thornton. I’m Oswald Thornton,” he repeated again, as if reassuring himself it was correct.
“Okay then, Ozzy,” Mike said. “Nice to finally make yer acquaintance properly friend, that’s on me for not spillin my handle earlier. To be honest though, wasn’t sure you’d even make it long enough into the night to remember it tomorrow. You lookin loads better now though. Little fire an water work wonders apparently, huh.” It wasn’t a question.
And the story, your story, “Feeling better, thanks.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Thornton,” Bill Richardson said. He handed his skin to Mike and took a seat.
Bill told them both of his journey from the east and similar to before, as Bill’s tale unfolded the flames engulfed the wood he’d brought. His face came into sharper focus as the pyre –and Oswald- grew stronger. Oswald saw now that Bill really was just a kid pushing fourteen, maybe. When the kid was done the three of them sat in silence, watching the flames as they ate through the timber unmercifully.
Oswald’s belly started to cramp. Now that he had water in him again his bellyache seemed much more substantial and the hunger he had been able to ignore out of hopelessness came back with a fury.
As if reading his mind, Mike said, “Don’t imagine you got any food kid, huh?”
“No sir, sorry.” Bill said.
He actually sounded sorry, as if he felt he had failed his dear old friends of all of twenty minutes by only bringing them firewood and the first water either had drank in days.
“I came across the water by chance,” he said. “But no fish and I ran out of food myself what, three days back I think.”
As if on cue the boy’s stomach grumbled loud enough for the other two to hear, and then Oswald’s answered even louder in kind. The three of them broke up over this, it hurt Oswald tremendously to laugh but it felt great as well. The three men only stopped because they heard a noise just to west of them.
* * *
The woman from the west –Beverly Marsh, they later found out her name was – came out of the dark without apprehension and with food enough for all of them, “ But no water.” she said, so they shared what they had and she did the same. As she started to relay her journey to them her blonde locks came into focus, then her piercing blue eyes, her lips, one thing after the other glowing clearer and more defined in the growing firelight. Halfway through her story, Oswald felt the best he had in recent memory. Beverly was of an age somewhere between Mike and Bill’s it seemed, and her face had a hard kindness in it. Mike took out a flask and passed it around, handing it to Beverly first. Then he grabbed a few smokes he had apparently been saving for later and passed one around to each of them, taking the lighter’s head off once more to spark them. The three men smoked on full bellies, and listened to the girl’s tale.
When the tale was told a silence, not at all uncomfortable, rested between them. Oswald looked from one former stranger to the other and back again. He saw all of them clearly now in the roaring firelight, and it was only then that Oswald was able to truly see and appreciate Beverly’s rough beauty, Mikes stubbled, scarred but ever-smiling face, and innocent young Bill’s flawless features in all their glory. As the flames rose higher and higher, glowing brighter and brighter, it was then he finally put it together.
It’s the stories… feeding the fire, lighting the darkness… their stories. He cracked a huge smile and lay back against the ground with his hands folded behind his head, and before he knew it he had drifted off in that quiet.
He awoke again in a sort of daze as the stars came into focus, remembering at once the three new friends who’d joined him, and fueled the flames with their tales. In his excitement he sat up eagerly to share his epiphany with them, and his smile vanished. The mighty blaze had died down to wilting embers below ash, and his new friends were gone, but his renewed strength remained. Another cloud had rolled over the Moon which was now far removed from its former place in the sky – there was no sign of the sun. He leaned back upon his elbows and the smile slowly returned, growing even bigger than before.
Between kindling and ashes, the stories are born.
Oswald Thornton has come to this far seeing place before and he will come again, as long as he can remember how to get back. He sits eagerly awaiting the next group of characters to come to him whole and breathing from the abyss, to tell their tales, to come, and feed the fire.