The Boy and His Sister, the Fire and the Snow
There was nothing to eat. This had been the case for untold days. They lived with fire. The boy instructed the girl on how to feed and keep alive the fire. He showed her the stack of wood, which he’d harvested from the forest, and he showed her the breadth of space and flow of air required to keep a flame flickering.
The boy slapped snow from a log and swung the shack door open, placed the log on the smoldering embers and waited with the girl, their frigid fingers warming but a little till the yellow flame caught. After a few minutes, he left the shack to stumble in the snow through the woods to check the traps.
The grey clouds seemed not to move and soon specks of white sifted in the air in front of the pines. It was thirty two miles to Truckee. The boy looked south, the route along the creek and down the gorge, snowed in and treacherous with ice. The snowsheds for the railroad cut a line across the distant mountains. Too far.
The first noose had been pulled down, but it held no jackrabbit. Their father had warned about the jackrabbits, saying they could die from rabbit starvation anyway. The boy wondered about this. He’d give anything for a jackrabbit now. The other traps had not been disturbed. Through the woods the snow lay a pale sheet crusted with ice. The only tracks were the boy’s. Grey divots where he’d walked yesterday dotted his path, the snow beginning to fill them in again.
At the lake, the boy hacheted out the scrim of ice that had formed in his fishing hole. The line came up free of bait, but the boy hadn’t energy to dig under the pine needles again in search of beetle grub. The boy’s breath came in ragged spurts, clouding the air.
By the time the boy returned to the shack the snow fell thick as porridge, flakes fat as crackers. How long since their father left them? If he remembered, the boy would cut another notch into the wall. Another day gone by.
Inside, the girl lay huddled under the blankets. The boy’s fingers were numbed. He stoked the fire, retrieved another log from outside and fed the flames.
He collapsed next to his sister and tried to wrap himself in with her, needing the heat of her body.
Neither spoke. What was there to talk about. The boy couldn’t bear to watch his sister’s lips, peeling from the chap of the cold, if she tried to form words. Her cheekbones had grown sharp under her eyes, and the wells of her eyes had darkened.
Through the night the wind whistled, rattling the wood planks that made the shack’s walls. The snow, frozen in the night air, pelted the planks like sand. At one point, the girl muttered the boy’s name, Matthew, Matthew, her voice thick with sleep. Must be dreaming. The boy pressed against the girl’s body.
In the dark still, the wind subsided. Unbeknownst to the boy, the coming dawn was greying the mountain ridges in the east. Freezing in the cold, the boy kicked up the blanket, rubbed his hands together. Em, the boy said. Em.
The girl lay stiffened as the wood slats she was laid upon. Her skin was as cold as the air he breathed in. The boy pulled his fingers back from her neck as if he had touched something hot. He breathed again, then he breathed again. He rolled her onto her back. She stared back but what he remembered of the life that had pulsed there was gone, the way she would watch, rapt as he pulled a whipping trout from the lake, the rainbow of its scales catching the summer sun. The boy’s tears were cold on his cold cheeks.
Outside, the boy slumped against the wall of the shack, against the pile of wood that was diminished and covered with a fresh dusting of icy snow. The boy palmed a handful of the snow and began to eat it. It was cold, and in his mouth it melted into nothing. The boy ate.
Jamie Iredell is the author of five books, the most recent of which is the novel, The Fat Kid. He lives in Atlanta.
A Song for Jamie