The Trail, scene four
It was still very dark when he woke, but the cold morning air kept him inside his bag. The traffic moved sporadically above him, but the crickets were too cold to call. It was still early summer, so he figured he must be at some altitude for such a chill to be in the air. He watched the eastern horizon in between bouts of drifting off, and he wished he’d thought his food situation through better than he had. His stomach gnawed at him in need of food, but there wasn’t much to easily eat. By the time the horizon had turned from deep lavender to vermillion he couldn’t take it anymore. He climbed out of the bag, shivering, and teeth chattering. His shoes felt cold and stiff. He laced them quickly and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head and sucked his hands up inside his sleeves like a turtle hiding in its shell. He had a long sleeved t-shirt in his bag, he dug it out and pulled it on over the hooded sweatshirt. It wasn’t big enough, and should have been worn on the inside, but that would have meant that he would have had to take the hoodie off in the cold air, and he had no intention of doing that. He walked out from under the bridge and started looking for firewood. He broke a few branches from the cottonwood and also gathered an armful of dead willows. He dropped the wood in a pile and used his heel to scrape a depression in the gravel. What do I use to kindle this? He looked around and everything was either damp or not small enough to put a match to. An idea struck him, and he returned to the cottonwood with the hatchet. He split the bark open with a few blows and then pried it back. Inside was a layer of papery, light material. He stripped a wad the size of a softball out and carried it back to the fire. He built a little log cabin around the wad, using the finest of the willows. Then he gathered enough rocks to make a little tower on each side of the fire. He took out the boyscout kit and unlocked the little pot and folded out the metal carrying handle, and he also grabbed the metal kabob skewers. He went to the stream and filled the pot with water and hung it from the skewer directly above the fire, balanced between the little rock towers on each side. He struck a lighter and held it under the kindling. It took a few seconds for a dull blue flame to start moving through the ball of material from the cottonwood. He got on his hands and knees and blew on the flame until it got enough oxygen for the smoke pouring up to turn into yellow flames. He fed more and more wood progressively onto the fire until it was burning hot. The horizon was turning a pale yellow, but the sun still hadn’t risen. He was anxious for sunlight and the warmth it would bring. He banked the biggest pieces of wood under the pot, and then took his fishing gear from the little plastic box. The line was on a spool and he pushed the other metal kabob stick through it to act as a spindle. He tied a small hook to the end of the line and a foot up from that, a heavy sinker. There were big smooth white river rocks lining the river, and he turned a dozen of them over before finding a wiggling red worm. He grabbed it, broke it in half, and threaded one half onto the hook. A pool formed against the round, smooth pilings of the bridge, and the jade water looked deep enough to hold fish. He held the skewer with one hand and with the other he whirled the heavy sinker in circles like the old cowboys did with a lariat, before letting it fly out into the pool. The spool unwound just enough line before coming loose and tangling. He took a few seconds and untangled the rats nest and then sat on a big chunk of broken rock. He held the line delicately between thumb and forefinger as he waited for a bite. He was extremely hungry, and he thought about the men and women who had only subsisted on what they could catch or find. I’d have starved to death, he thought. He looked back over at the fire and could see steam starting to rise from the little pot. If nothing else it’ll be ramen and sardines. He watched a group of water striders make their way up the edge of the stream a few inches, and then let the invisible current carry them back down. They repeated the same pattern over and over. He wondered if that’s how humans would appear to a superior intelligence. Up early, out to work, home, and then repeat every day forever. The rock he sat on was cold, and he could feel the chill of it creeping through his pants and numbing his butt. He was already sore all over from doing things he never did in regular life, the miles of walking, laying on the hard floor of the boxcar, and the cement abutment he’d slept on the previous night, and all the sawing and hatchet swinging. He watched the pot out of the corner of his eye, it was boiling hard enough that little droplets of water escaped and fell into the fire creating a hiss and a little flareup of flames where they fell. The hell with it, ramen and sardines it is. He stood and was just beginning to wrap the line back onto the spool, when he felt a gentle thump, and could feel the line move away.. He struck back hard and could instantly feel the frantic wriggling of a fish pulling wildly against his hand, like a flag in a windstorm. Hand over hand he pulled the fish in until it was flopping on the shore, gray pieces of gravel stuck to its wet sides. He pinned it to the ground and picked up a baseball sized rock and dispatched it quickly. The fish was a chunky white sucker 15 inches long. Quickly he wound up the fishing line and put it away, then he expertly fileted the fish and removed the skin. As a butcher he was extremely deft with a knife. He threw the head and entrails into the little river, coons have to eat too. He washed the filets and seasoned them with salt and pepper, before using the kabob to skewer them and hang them over the fire. He got out his tin camp cup and shook some instant coffee and sugar into the cup and filled it with scorching water, then he dropped a pack of ramen noodles into the boiling water. The sun was just beginning to crest the horizon when he finally settled down with crossed legs by the fire. The coffee was like medicine, and the thought that he would be eating his first conquest felt amazing. He thought of a camping trip to fish a lake with his parents he’d gone on when he was a kid. They’d caught fish in the predawn darkness and they’d eaten them at just about sunrise, just as he was about to do. The memory would have been amazing, but it was ruined by the fact that they still had no idea where he was. Would it have been that difficult to just tell them what you were going to do you fucking idiot? But then as he sat and watched water sizzle from the filets and run down to the bottom of the meat before dropping with a quick hiss into the fire, he answered his own question. Yes it would have been that difficult, it absolutely would have been. Again he could hear his mom, “Thomas, why would you throw everything away? I can understand that you need some time. Dad and I can help. We’ll buy you a plane ticket anywhere you want to go. Take a couple weeks, straighten things out, but for God’s sake, don’t destroy everything you’ve worked so hard for, you’re being dramatic.” And his dad would agree, “She’s right Tommy. Listen to her, she’s talking sense.” Had he told them, they almost certainly would have found a way to stop him. He’d have stayed and muddled around miserably for years in a place he didn’t like, with people he didn’t care for, doing a job he detested, for people he couldn’t stand…and all the while having to watch her get the best of everything. He sipped the hot coffee and stared at the hot orange coals of the burnt willows absentmindedly. No, that was the only way it could have been done. But they still deserved to know he was okay, he felt bad about that. He put it from his mind. The fish was done. He slipped the filets onto his dish and lowered the pot of ramen to the ground in front of him. He relished every bite even though the fish was filled with little bones. As he came to each bone, he spit them into his fingers and laid them in a row on a smooth gray stone beside him. When he was done eating he filled the pot with water and boiled it again, then set it cautiously into the cold water of the stream, careful not to get river water mixed in. When it had cooled, he filled his water bottle and then filled the pot with water to kill the fire. He washed his dishes, packed everything away, and then walked out from under the bridge. The thought of what to do next hadn’t even entered his mind. He stood and looked out at the landscape, like a frontiersman about to forge a new trail, and he was.