Playing at survival

We hiked up to the lake, and picked our way through the warren of trails along the edge to what we deemed was a good camping spot. The sun was setting, catching the hooked peak of the rock face opposite us. Louis got out his tent, and I asked if he needed help setting it up. No, it’s fine, he said. Then I’ll make a fire, I said. I scrounged around in the shadow of the mountain scrub for what I needed, collecting what seemed to be a rather paltry heap of small twigs with dead needles attached, one fallen log, and part of a rotting, damp trunk, which made a line in the dirt when I drug it back to camp. I squatted by the ring of rocks built at some earlier time, leveled the ashes, methodically constructed a tipi out of the bits, forked stick on forked stick, dry needles in the hollow of the mound, and set the log above it on the rocks, placed the wet trunk to the side, where it would dry from the heat of the fire. I lit a match, angled it down so the flame rose higher, caught the needles once, twice, and watched the thing start to crackle. Louis finished setting up the tent and turned around as flame leapt upwards and set the log ablaze. “Nice fire,” he said. “I did it with one match,” I announced somewhat smugly, although I was secretly more impressed at the flammable quality of the beneedled twigs than my own skill. We made dinner slowly: a motley assortment of instant potatoes from the store; beef stew and pound cake from an MRE, and then we roasted kosher hot dogs over the coals. We cleaned up and I hung the bags of uneaten food on a tree outside camp. It was dark by then, and getting cold, so we crawled in the tent, into our respective sleeping bags, talked for awhile, and then tried to sleep. “It’s so quiet,” Louis remarked drowsily.

And then I lifted my head and listened. It was not quiet. Something, out there, was going clomp, clomp… clomp clomp clomp. Louis saw me tense, in the moonlight filtered through the tent, and lifted his own head. He heard it, too, and his first instinct was to roll over, put his arm over me and half-cover me with his body, draw his knife, and point it at the tent opening. From the crook of his arm, I tried to remember when someone had last made any motion to protect me to the possible detriment of his own self; to challenge whatever came at me with the force of his fierceness, up to his whole life, even symbolically. I could think of nothing, unless I cast back to my childhood. And at the same time, I tried to decide what he (or we) would have a better chance of fending off: Crazy North Idaho Drunks Out For A Good Time, A Fat September Grizzly Bear, or (less likely, but still possible, given our location) A Pack of Wolves. Clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp. We held our breath, waiting. It got a bit quieter, and I told him I wanted out of the cloister of the tent; wanted to know what it was; wanted to face it in the open. So we put on our shoes, and crawled outside, and we stood together behind a large boulder, scanning the line of trees with our headlamps, both of us with knives in hand. Here was this well-muscled, bearded man beside me, wearing shorts, wool socks and combat boots, a dog tag from wartime still rammed into the laces of the left foot. If I were going to pick someone to fight against an unseen foe with nothing but a hunting knife, he wasn’t a bad choice. Only his hearing was damaged from the blasts of artillery shells, so I would have to be his ears. And when I heard something in the underbrush, I pointed. Louis stepped in front of me, and his headlamp caught the white eyes of a large creature not far away.

“It’s a deer,” he said. And we both let out our breath and laughed a little. “Go away!” said Louis, waving his arms. The deer turned tail and loped off, clomp clomp, clomp clomp.

We crawled back inside the tent, and Louis promptly fell asleep. I, however, heard the deer (or perhaps another, unless it was something else) come back repeatedly, and between that and the hard ground, found it difficult to sleep until dawn began to break, when I could tell myself that nocturnal animals would be bedding down. Everyone knows that the monsters under the bed are afraid of light. So I slept for a few hours, my head burrowed into my sleeping bag the way I used to burrow into my blanket when I was six years old and afraid of pirates.

Later, I told Louis how much I appreciated his protectiveness; that he could be so protective, but he let me be independent too; let me be myself; half girly-girl and half fighter, even in quick-paced possible life-or-death. And in return, he told me that he liked that I could make a fire. I laughed at that.

“Have you ever seen The Road?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said “I didn’t like it. It was depressing.”

“Well,” he said “sometimes, I think the world could end up like that. And it’s nice to know that you can make fire.”

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