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TITLE: The Smoke of a Distant Fire: Chapter One
By Jim McWhinnie
03/01/09
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For folks who find an affinity with the Lord while in the outdoors.
Beneath a skyscape of stars, within the cool of a late October night, midst the smoke of a hickory fire, I sat alone. Yet the aloneness began to fade the longer I lingered there, allowing my soul to drift into the soul of the universe about me and as the soul of the universe began to seep into mine. It was as if I were the only listener present in this vast eternity and the only other voice was the voice of that unseen Someone Else, the someone else who all human souls have always sensed was there, somewhere out there and, for some, in here.

I must correct myself, there was another heartbeat living nearby that night, another breath pacing its measure through time, a more primitive soul, a simpler soul, a purer soul, my blue-merle Sheltie, my fellow sojourner through this stretch of time. I'm not all that sure by what name he calls himself but I call him Bandit.

Through the years Bandit and I have somehow become tethered to one another; sometimes I walk down the road before me and he follows; sometimes he explores the woods around him and I venture along. But on that night, I smoked hand rolled cigarettes and he watched the sparks from the campfire rise into the night sky.

Later when our fire began to age, the night settled in closer and closer to Bandit and me, closer than it had ever come before. This is the account of that night.

Above the smoke that rose from dancing fire, the distant stars moved in their eternal courses. My mother had taught me the stories that the stars had told. They were the stories that night after night since ancient times, the stargazers told and retold, over and over again. I suppose it was our human instinct to imagine that first stirred some bored shepherds to sketch lines between the stars, creating illustrations on the ceiling over their world.

On that night of which I now speak, I began to tell Bandit the stories that were to be found in those stars above us. For the most part, I was remembering the story as it came from my mother's lips; yet, in another most important part, I could sense that I was adding my own imaginings to the ancient tale.

Bandit seemed to be listening to my yarns, tying the words that fell from my lips with the stars that hung above.

"Bandit, they say that the stars are slowly drifting apart and that one day the sky pictures will have to be redrawn."

Bandit never answers aloud when we have heart-to-hearts. Oh, maybe a little yip now and then, but usually he answers with a cock of the head, a sniff of the nose, a glance of his cool blue eyes, and sometimes with a drowsy resting of his head upon my knee.

"But the pictures, Bandit, they still look the same to me. What d'ya think? Does that not look a bear to you? And over there, is that not a hunter drawing his bow in a cosmic hunt?"
Bandit looks upward and then returns to me. As is my way, I spoke the thoughts of Bandit. "You agree? But what if we wrote our own stories, new stories about the stars?"

Bandit sneezed. I was not all that sure what his sneeze meant, but I went on - or I was about to go on when an owl made himself known by sending into the night that call that surely haunt those small creatures who scurry about in the nighttime woods.

Bandit rose to attention and his ears searched for the presence of the owl. He did not appear to be frightened, but he did appear to be cautious. Looking back, I should have listened to Bandit. Yes, I should have listened to Bandit, to be sure.

In silent flights from tree to tree, the owl did draw near --closer and closer until he was right upon us, gazing down with fire-lit, golden eyes.

The only fear in the moment was an unsettling anxiety fluttering in my gut. As for Bandit, he returned the owl's gaze as if there were some unspoken communication taking place between two souls far closer to their ancient source than was mine. As for the owl, he knew too well himself, his right to be there gazing down upon these intruders into his world. This was his acre in the forest; this was his hour in the night.

Those burning, blazing eyes began to set afire the thoughts latent within my soul. Like the rising sparks within the smoke, so came to life the forgotten fears about myself. "What right had I to be in the place? I was a creature of safely tended fireplaces, a creature in desperate need of shelter and cozy blankets in order to make it through the night. What right had I to face eye-to-eye this heartless hunter who stalks in silent savagery? I would most likely starve if left to my feeble human ways. I would need tools of death and I would use them clumsily if not desperately; whereas for this hunter who sat above us so self-assured, so stately, this night would simply be one more night in the living of his days. He had no fear of me. He was far more himself than I might ever hope to be.

And Bandit? I did not envy him in those moments when our souls were laid bare. I thought that he must be torn between the way he was meant to be and the way he had become to be. He was closer to the wild within him than was I. I had lured him into my world of human apprehension and human frailty and as I sensed the resurgence of the wild within my own soul, I wondered what might be rising in his soul.

On that night, the owl lingered long in his silent scrutiny of these two sojourners in his dark and silent world.
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