The previous spring, Pa took me into the woods, about a quarter mile past the tree-line. All we took with us was his pack (filled with two blankets, jars of preserves, and dried beef), the shotgun, and the torch, which Pa never left the house without. We were about half-way to the site where we were going to make our camp when the noises began. Shrubs moved here and there as creatures unseen rubbed against them, rattling back and forth, as if communicating to each other. Pa switched the torch from one hand to the other along the path. He’d wave it a few times, switch hands, wave it again, and then switch again. He did this the whole way. A few times, the rattlers sounded close. A snapping twig or sharp, quick rattle would come from maybe fifteen or twenty feet out. I remember grabbing Pa’s hand, which he promptly pushed away. He looked down at me and held the torch up high.
“They’re afraid of fire,” he said. “You see?” He lowered the torch again, waved it to his right side. “As long as you have one of these, and it’s lit, you have nothing to be afraid of.” Still maintaining our quick stride, he handed the torch out to me. “You wanna try it?” I shook my head. He pulled it back. He didn’t appear upset, just, maybe, slightly disappointed. “Whelp,” he said. “You’re gonna have to learn, some time – and sooner you do the better off you’ll be.”
“Some time” ended up being a lot sooner than I expected. When we reached the clearing, Pa handed me the torch. I thought about declining, but the expression on his face dared me to, so I took it. After a quick lesson on how to properly walk around the clearing (changing directions frequently and randomly, always wave the torch towards the perimeter), he left me to it and began to pick up fallen limbs, bark, and dried leaves to get a fire going with. Now, I know the rattlers never came any closer to the clearing than they did the path. I know this. But it sure sounded like they had us surrounded. I’d switch positions, rush to one side of the clearing, wave the torch maniacally at a clump of ominous appearing vegetation, only to then hear crackling, or what sounded like low, sneaky, throat rattle whispers on the other side. So, I’d rush over there – repeat. I never knew a heart could beat so fast. I can’t explain the relief I felt when Pa took the torch.
“I got the fire started,” he said. “I’ll hold the freaks off, you gather some larger pieces of wood, pile them on.” Happily (but not daring to show it), I did as I was told. I collected a lot of wood too. By the time I finished, the flames of the fire licked at least three feet into the air. And there was plenty more wood to spare as well. I stacked it neatly next to the pit. Then, we laid out our blankets (really close to the pit) and Pa fetched the preserves and beef.
Long story-short, the rattlers never came close to us that night. We stayed until the sun came up, both of us extremely tired from all the pretending to sleep we did. Still, I learned the two important lessons I believe Pa wanted me to learn. First, they’re really afraid of fire. Second, never, ever, go anywhere without the torch.
So, there I was, sitting high up in a tree, staring down at a half eaten dead man, and listening to my savage brother’s growling throat clicking coming from not far enough away, without my Pa’s torch. And I think to myself, I’m so freaking dead.
The Rattlers aren’t very active during the day. I don’t think they like the sun much. They’re not afraid of it or anything like that. I think they just prefer the dark. The ones that killed the fat one, the dumb one, and the really dumb one were probably inside a cave or a hole somewhere, sleeping. The only reason I could think that Timmy wasn’t, was me. He was waiting for me to come down from the tree. The twisted way their legs turn out prevent them from being able to jump very high, so I had that to be thankful for. But, I couldn’t survive in a tree forever.
I started pulling on the branches around me, bending them, back and forth. Finally, one broke. I looked it over. It was long and sturdy. It would serve my purpose. Then, I pulled off the button down, wool shirt I was wearing, leaving me with only my undershirt on. Hands shivering from the morning cold, I wrapped the shirt around the top of the branch, then tied it off, tightening the knot with my teeth. Considering what I had to work with, it wasn’t too bad. I dug into my pocket, praying the match-box would be there. It wasn’t – of course. I checked my other pocket – nope. Change of plan. I looked over at the fire-pit, grey, smoky, ash was all there was. Not even a single red ember remained to light my shirt with. Another change of plan. My eyes darted around, spotted my burlap sack next to the log I’d been sitting on the previous evening. So, all I had to do was climb half way down the tree (without falling), Jump down the rest of the way (without breaking my leg, or ankle), sprint to my burlap sack (without tripping), then dig through said sack, find the match box, open it, pull out a match, look around frantically for something to strike it on, strike match on mystery object, then light shirt, there-by creating a make-shift, though extremely temporary torch which could potentially save my life. And I had to do all of that without being tackled to the ground, tore open, and devoured alive.
I’m so freaking dead, I thought, once more.
Whelp, like Pa said, I thought. “The sooner the better.” Though I really didn’t think he said it while contemplating my potential (probably eventual) violent death at the hands (and teeth) of my own brother. I leaned forward, looked one way, then the other. Then I held my breath, listening. The clearing was silent. It was time to go. I threw down the torch, it landed at the base of the tree, shirt-side up, then tilted to the dirt. Then I froze, listened. Still nothing – no rattling, no cracking limbs – which made feel a more at ease. Not completely at ease though, because it didn’t escape my notice that a few other sounds were missing as well. Birds, for instance. Small animals’ scurrying around. Other basic forest sounds. Still, better to get it over with. I climbed down to the top of the trunk (very slow), paused as long as my arms allowed me to hold on. And listened once more. It was still quiet.
To be continued…
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