Colourlessly, dawn hung at the single window, ponderous and indifferent. Morley knew without opening his eyes snow had fallen, trapping frigid air within its embrace. He could hear it in the muffled silence and smell its tang, mingled with the sour odor of dead ashes.
Morley reluctantly peeled back blankets and rolled out of bed. Icy air hit his body, and he gasped, his breath rushing out in a steamy cloud. He pulled on his parka and boots and staggered to the fireplace.
With chilled fingers, he arranged moss, then added kindling and dry split pine and spruce. He extracted a sulphur match from the tin, struck it, and applied it to the tinder. Yellow ribbons flared, sparked, then, as if daunted by the cold, wavered and were extinguished.
Morley tucked more moss under the kindling and pulled out another match. His hands were numb, and he struggled as he struck again. As tenderly as he would a jewel, he held the tiny orange blaze to the moss.
Then, the inconceivable.
The tin tipped in his deadened fingers, releasing the matches in a cascade. They immediately combusted as they joined the fledgling fire and were consumed in a heated roar. Morley tried to rescue the matches, but it was too late, and the fire scorched his unfeeling hands. Disbelief contorting his face, he hurled the tin across the cabin, and the ricochet rattled hollowly.
Frantically, he decided what to do. Eat, warm up, then bring in more wood to keep the fire burning.
The water in the kettle was frozen, but Morley swung it over the fire, and soon, he was drinking tea and sopping up bacon grease with biscuits. A weak sun hovered on the horizon, providing enough Arctic hours for Morley to bring in a few armloads of firewood from the stack he’d cut in the fall.
Morley knelt before the fire, tossed on firewood, relieved, exultant. He made tea and ate, watching the fire, flames rhythmically dancing, a cadence of light and shadow...
When Morley awoke, it was dark. Panicked, he flew to the fireplace and blew. Nothing. He sifted through the ashes. Cold.
Morley curled up in bed, hopelessness clawing at his spirit, despair gnawing at reason, twin ravens of fear.
You’re going to die, you fool.
Morley leaped from the bed, flung open the door, and ran into the night. He stumbled, arose, drew in deep breaths of biting air, running until he collapsed. Crystals clung to his face, but he was oblivious, embracing the insidious softness of the snow’s bosom.
The moon rose, then bent over to kiss Morley, trailing tendrils of lover’s mist over his brow. Lovely warmth invaded his limbs, and he opened his eyes. He saw his beloved’s face peering passionately into his.
“Morley, one more dance, please?”
He tried to rise, but his leaden legs were dead things, his arms, lifeless stumps. A tear fell and he slept.
Hot pain roused him. Burning fire. Ah, the fire.
“Get up, Samuel Morley. No son of mine gives up." A man with a beard.
“Aye. Get up and start the fire.”
“But I dropped the matches, Father.”
“What of it? You know what to do.”
Morley squinted. The bearded man was gone; there was only an old spruce tree with snow-laden branches.
Morley rolled over and, unable to walk, crawled to the tree. His mind was thick, confused, but he had a vague remembrance. There was willow under the spruce, starved and dry. Gathering the pieces he needed, he crawled a few feet, then stopped, air struggling from his lungs in rasping gasps. He crawled a bit more, ice searing his knees, stinging his hands.
Finally, he sat in the cabin with his assortment of wood. He made a bow with green willow and a lace pulled from his boot. With stiff fingers, he whittled a drill, and twisted the lace around it. Another piece of dry willow became the bottom board, with a socket for the drill to set in.
Morley held a piece of poplar bark on top of the drill. Pushing the bow back and forth, he spun the drill, faster, faster. Morley began to sweat, a welcome discomfort.
Powder formed, then an ember. Carefully, Morley tipped the board onto moss and poplar bark lining. Acrid smoke wafted into Morley’s face.
It was indescribably sweet.
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