Building a Fire
They lived in the country now. His father had sold their house down by the school and used the money for a down payment on the small log house and surrounding woodland twenty minutes south of town. The long dirt road they lived off of was lined with trees on both sides, and their driveway appeared suddenly as a slight break in the otherwise seamless wall of browns and greens, trunks and leaves, little more than a narrow, unpaved trail, which wound it’s way unevenly over a quarter mile through the woods before opening up to the large, cleared lot where their new home sat.
It wasn’t much, their little cabin. Besides the two bedrooms and small bathroom they had one room that served as the kitchen, dining room, and living room. They didn’t have much inside the cabin either. They’d bought the place near the end of April, and before moving his father had thrown a weekend-long garage sale, putting an ad in the local index, selling all the things neither of them wanted, keeping only their clothes, a few pots, pans, and utensils from the kitchen, and his tools, guns, and fishing tackle from the garage. The lack of clutter meant there was never much tidying up to do, and so Jackie was left each day with little by way to occupy him around the house. It was summer now, which meant he was often alone as his father worked ten-hour shifts at the foundry and was gone early each morning until late afternoon. Being outside, he found, was the only thing that helped pass the time. So taking the binoculars his father had given him Jackie would go out walking the woods each day trying to fill the hours until his old man returned from work.
Though they owned almost a square mile of the surrounding forest—nearly a thousand acres—Jackie was careful during the day to abide his father’s warning to stay in the shallow parts of the woods, always remaining in view of the clearing. Peeking around the dense brush and low hanging branches, Jackie observed the life of the forest. His father had given him a small guidebook detailing the different species of plant and wildlife specific to the area, and with practice he’d learned to tell the trees by their leaves and the birds by their calls and could even mimic some by whistling.
It was on a late June morning, when crouched near the edge of the forest with his binoculars, Jackie spied the small nest situated in the crook of a tall Elm. Stepping quietly through the brush he approached the tree. The nest was about twenty feet up and Jackie ascended with ease. Reaching eye level, Jackie saw inside the nest were three eggs nestled comfortably together, each a distinctly beautiful shade of blue; Robin’s eggs, he knew from the picture in his little guidebook. Studying them closely, he set his hand on them, feeling their warmth and contour beneath his fingers. He’d heard the distinct call of a Robin a short time earlier, the deep, throaty chirping somewhere off in the trees, and wondered whether it might’ve been their mother he’d heard. Thinking of their mother, Jackie suddenly recollected something his own mother had once told him, a warning about disturbing a bird’s nest. She’d said never to touch an egg or baby bird because the mother would smell the human on it and immediately abandon it. A sudden anxiety gripped him, and he looked fearfully at the three small eggs. His first instinct was to wipe them off. That seeming foolish, he thought of taking them back to the house and washing them in the sink. Feeling even more foolish, realizing the mother bird could be back at any moment—might even be watching him now—he quickly climbed down. Retreating a ways, Jackie snuck peeks at the nest from behind a large oak nearby. There was no sign of the mother bird, and eventually Jackie slowly picked his way out of the woods, heading back to the house.
When his father, Jack Shelley Sr., got home later that afternoon, Jackie was waiting on the front porch. Before going out to start some yard work, his father made them their usual snack, bologna sandwiches with mustard, and the two of them sat together at the kitchen table, quietly eating. After a few minutes, his father asked him how his day went, and Jackie confided in his father about the eggs. When he’d finished, his father shook his head.
“Pile,” he said through a bite of sandwich, shaking his head. “Birds can’t barely smell. That’s just somethin’ people say to keep kids from foolin’ with wild birds. Where’d you get that from anyway?”
Jackie quickly looked away, taking a large bite of his sandwich, and his father sat back. After a moment he stood up and put his plate in the sink.
“Finish your sandwich,” he said. “We’ll go see about that nest.”
Jackie ate the rest of his sandwich quickly, and leading his father the short distance into the woods, brought them quietly to a stop by the large oak where he’d hidden earlier. Taking the binoculars, Jack Sr. focused them for a closer a look, and after a few seconds, smiled. He nodded to Jackie, handing him the binoculars, and peering through the lenses Jackie could see the head of the mother bird, clearly visible above the rim of her nest, her head alertly swiveling, diligently keeping a look out. His father put his hand on Jackie’s shoulder and Jackie felt relieved, almost happy.
When they got back his father surprised him; they were putting off the yard work until tomorrow. Instead his father went to the shed and brought out the fishing tackle. Laying it out on the kitchen table his father helped him to spool the reel, and after they drove down to the river. The two of them stood alone in the middle of the river as the current swirled about them, eddies forming around their legs and around the big rocks near the shore that peeked just above the surface. They fished his father’s rod since it was the only one they had, taking turns passing it back and forth. They stayed until sunset, and by the time they left they’d filled up their pail with several small-mouth bass his father dubbed “the keepers.”
When they got home his father guided him as he scaled and gutted their fish, then cut the filets. Though it was nearly dark his father got a shovel and hastily dug a pit while Jackie found some large rocks and lined the outside when it was finished. They built a nest of dry sticks and wood shavings, arranging a few pieces of split cedar over top in pyramidal fashion, and his father showed him how to kindle the spark from the flint into an ember by gently blowing to ignite the tinder of birch bark shavings, a small flame taking hold, growing by the second. Once the fire was going his father cooked the fish in a cast-iron skillet over the flames, holding the handle with a towel. When they’d finished eating and the fire had died down they roasted marshmallows. And when that was done, they sat back together watching the fire, and Jackie listened to sounds of the woods at night:
Crickets chirped; cicada droned; a solitary horned owl hooted.
Sneaking a sideways glance at his father, Jackie thought again of the eggs.
“After they hatch,” he asked. “How long do baby birds stay with their mom?”
“Not long. Couple weeks.”
“A month maybe. But they’ll be on their own after that.”
“How do they eat though?”
His father shrugged.
“Sometimes they’ll follow their ma around a while, beggin’ food off her. But most of ‘em can find food for themselves at a month.”
“What do they eat?”
“Bugs and seeds mostly.”
In the silence that followed Jackie considered that, a month; he was nine and had only really learned how to fish that afternoon.
“Why do humans stay so long with their parents?” he asked tentatively.
His father shifted beside him.
“More to learn, I guess,” he said gruffly.
“I’m glad I have you to learn from. You know everything.”
His father, who’d stiffened slightly beside him, relaxed and gave a short, hoarse laugh, and put his arm around his son, and they sat for a long time after, the two of them watching the fire they’d made.