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I thought I could see the reflection of her face in the campfire, distorted among tongues of orange and blue. When I turned to look at her, she was staring into it, as though she, too, could see the ghostly image. Outside the flames, her face was solid and pale. Only her eyes sparked and shifted with the smoldering of the logs.
“You okay?” I asked her absently, just to see if she would answer. I could tell she heard me; her eyes dilated underneath slightly furrowed eyebrows. It may have been that my question troubled her, but from the way she seemed to lean closer to the fire, some unseen force was clearly picking her brain. A single voice was speaking to her from the constant, flickering movement, and she sat before it like an awestruck child before a master.
Besides the crackling of dead, disintegrating logs, the rustling of a clan of trees filled the darkness, muffling, shielding us from unfamiliar, unsettling noises. We were safe from fear, close to the fire, but subject to a greater power. While other animals brashly existed around us, responding only to instinctive cues and desires, our lives were less certain. A single idle thought had the power to shape reality itself. Their worlds were unchanging, reliable, while ours wouldn’t sit still.
Falena’s stillness, apart from the fluidity of her eyes, shook me into standing. She didn’t glance up from the fire, but her mouth tightened as though she anticipated pain. My hands lingered around the dagger in my belt, itching for a sense of normalcy and power. As they brushed the rough animal skin of my forest-made trousers, the soreness my body retained from the day’s hunting came back to me. The gentle pain tethered my thoughts away from haphazard philosophy, urging me to sprint into the forest, away from the fire. Away from Falena, whose vacant yet intense stare unsettled the primal being inside me.
The voice of my instincts faded as I settled down closer to Falena, close enough to feel her heavy, labored breathing. She continued to read the fire; I simply looked into her stoic face, as though expecting a translation of whatever secrets were within the flames. Not finding any sign of revelation, I roughly grasped her shoulder in my calloused hand. I spoke her name once, clearly, as though commanding a wandering dog.
Falena calmly turned to me, our eyes a few inches apart. “I’m ok,” she whispered in a smooth voice. She understood my concern, but the hint of pity in her gentle eyes proved her pain. Contemplation had led her deep into the forests of her mind, leading her closer to a cosmic puzzle. The fire scared away the animal within her, leaving a beautiful, tortured mind. Falena glanced quickly at a moth fluttering nearby, dangerously seduced by the light of the fire, before submitting herself to the burning temptress.
A single chime of fear sounded within me, a pure desire to flee. Human reason became a stranger to my animal instincts, which took control of my supple limbs to sprint into the cold, dark forest. There, with the sound of the crackling, devouring fire drowned out by the trees, other voices took the opportunity to be heard. Squirrels shifted in their leaf-strewn nests, foxes paced slowly away from a possible threat. Their sounds of life calmed me, as did the power I felt among them. They each held the strength to live, some the strength to end other life. Life dependent on life, an absolute law, where idle thoughts could not intrude. Any deviation from natural law was tempered back into biological truth, survival of the fittest; there was no room for uncertain, self-defeating notions. Here, absolute power, free from reasoning or defeat.
Falena and I had spent that afternoon in this state of simple grace, drawing forth life by exercising our own. Our sleek steel knives were the only signs of our humanity. Beyond them, we were animals like the rest of the forest’s children, driven by survival. The fresh air and adrenaline was the panacea for our bodies and minds, ridding us of the poisons built up from our short time in the city that morning.
Even among civilization, Nature remained with us. We didn’t bother brushing the leaves out of our hair. We laughed shamelessly at the ridiculous fashions and behaviors of city dwellers, their obvious dependency on shallow notions of beauty and self-worth. These were things we found easily in our day-to-day lives: Nature was our ultimate beauty, which we became a part of, and survival was proof of our worth as hunters.
We didn’t know much of the city, only the location of the simple recreation shop. The sidewalk was just another game trail, leading us to where we could find what we needed. The elderly man behind the counter, squinting at the sunlight brought in by the open door, grinned at our familiar faces. He held out his shriveled hands to take our small stack of pelts, the only currency we knew. In return, he gave us two new knives, which we regarded with reverence and mystery. They were our tokens of this other world, which we took great pains to visit. We had been trained by others like us to find this shop, to bring the skins of certain animals. Even the time we came had to be precise, as only a few of the people who managed the shop would accept and understand us. They respected our way of life, or at least, they knew the value of the pelts we brought in. Even as their societies advanced beyond the need of animal products, those who valued tradition or luxury comprised a sizable market for fur. We didn’t completely understand this, but before this last visit to the city, we hadn’t questioned its ways. Our cross-dimensional dealings had been kept to a minimum.
This visit had made the difference. With the hunting knives had come a small box containing pieces of strange wood. We had assumed it was a gesture of courtesy from the old man, who nodded kindly as we noticed it, and had accepted it without knowing what it was. As we cooked our dinner that night, we planned to use the small pieces of wood for kindling. Falena reasoned that the oddity must have some other use we didn’t know of, but she agreed that we should burn it just the same, to get some use from it. She was a bit put off by the red ends of the wood pieces, afraid of what they meant. I assured her it wasn’t blood, but she was wary just the same.
She threw the first match into the fire cautiously, and laughed with surprise at the quickness with which it caught on fire. The red end of the wood seemed to burn especially bright. I reached for the box so I, too, could throw in one of the funny pieces of wood, but she kept the box to herself, marveling at it. Just as cautiously, she pressed a new match firmly against an unlit piece of wood, and sighed with disappointment when it did not so much as spark. I took the wood from her, upset that she wouldn’t share it. In my blind frustration, I swiped the match swiftly across the wood piece, trying to break the troublemaking red end off.
At the sight of the consequential flame, Falena didn’t laugh or shriek, but stare. I gasped in surprise, throwing the wood and match into the fire, and checked my hand for burn marks. I looked to Falena curiously, expecting her to giggle like she used to when I was frustrated. Her laughter, while even more frustrating at first, had grown to calm me. But she didn’t seem to respond to my incident with the matches. She gazed into the fire, her mouth soundlessly forming words I couldn’t distinguish.
As I cooked the fruit of our hunt, Falena didn’t seem to move. It was unlike her, who normally was perky and talkative around our nightly campfire. She ate solemnly, as though it was an obligation rather than a pleasure, never taking her eyes from the fire.
I returned to the fire a short time after my escape into the woods to find that Falena had moved. I could see the burn marks on her hands and face from where I was stood just outside the clearing, those on her face so bad that her eyes were welded shut. She was on her back, legs sprawled, as though caught by surprise. A thin line of blood made its casual way from the edge of her mouth to the earth.
The match had lit more than a piece of wood. The fire burned on, ever hungry, fueling its simple, man-made light.