Jayson blew out the invisible flame on a single, handmade stick-candle stuck deep into a fat mudpie. Wiping a tear from his eye, he muttered, “Happy Birthday to me,” under his breath. Standing up, he stared down at the mudpie for a moment before taking his well-worn boot and stomping through it. He tried to push the despair from his mind and got up to continue his hike. The sun was already getting high in the sky, and he wanted to make it back to the cave before nightfall.
It wasn’t even a cave, really. More of a dent in a huge, limestone cliff. There was a sharp, elongated overhang, though, which offered adequate enough protection from the weather. He’d been wandering through the woods, barely surviving from day to day, for nearly two long weeks before finally coming upon the isolated hollow. In close proximity was a fresh-water mountain spring. Through the clear ripples, Jayson had seen tadpoles, small Bluegill, and Brown Trout.
He wasn’t a proficient fisherman, but his dad had shown him the basics a handful of times. Still, having little tools, Jayson had to improvise. After a few hours of trial and error, he’d finally devised a makeshift fishing rod. In true cane-pole style, he’d spied a low-hanging branch on a nearby Crab-apple tree and set to breaking it off. Pulling the string from the hood on his windbreaker, he’d fastened it to the branch. He tied the other end to a small, fingertip-sized stick which he’d sharpened with his only tool – the pocket-knife he’d gotten from his older brother two years ago, on his tenth birthday.
His initial technique had been sloppily executed, and he didn’t catch a fish that first day. Still, finding the cave had encouraged him, and, the next day, after a full night’s sleep, he’d caught a baby Bluegill for breakfast. His elation was short-lived when he’d realized he had no way to cook the fish. Chastising himself, he’d let the poor thing go. Forcing down a few more crab-apples, which were actually fairly abundant in this area, Jayson had headed back out into the wilderness, in search of something – anything – that might help him make a fire. He had his pocket-knife and had wondered if he could make a spark with it. Swiping the flat of the blade against a few different rocks to no avail, he’d almost given up on the idea. Ready to chalk it off as Hollywood magic, he smacked the knife against a white-gray colored rock and almost missed the minuscule spark which hopped off and bounced away over the side.
The rock itself was massive. As Jayson, in his tired and weakened state, attempted to push the large stone back to the cave, he again looked up at the sun through the trees. He estimated about three hours until sunset and pushed himself harder, knowing he was already cutting it close. Though he’d been in these woods for over two weeks, he was still on high alert for any wild animals in his vicinity. After the first few days, he’d begun hearing low growls in the night and had since taken to sleeping in the trees. The low oak branches made for easy climbing. Now, he had the cave, and soon… fire.
The sun was just beginning to fall behind the horizon as Jayson made it back to ‘camp’. He smiled wryly to himself as the word popped into his head. Camping. He only wished this was one of their family camping trips – with smores, swimming, and sunburns. Shaking his head to dispel the thoughts, he set to work gathering supplies for the fire. He remembered something his father had once told him. “Always gather as much firewood as you think you’ll need, and then double it.” He took his father’s advice now, doubling up on his stock of dry, dead branches and twigs and stacking them under the sheltered overhang.
Finally, as the last rays of the sun were streaking across the sky, and the moon began to shine down its brilliant light, Jayson made a small pile of wood next to the giant white stone he’d set up right outside the shelter.
Taking out his pocket-knife, he shaved off thin shreds of a small twig into a pile onto the stone. When the pile was big enough, he fluffed it up to feel its density. There were plenty of soft fibers just ready to catch fire. Sucking in a deep breath, Jayson struck his knife onto the rock, hoping a spark would catch in the tinder. Nothing. Had he gotten a fire going on his first try, it would’ve been incredible odds. Not knowing this, he was so disheartened, he put the knife away and curled up against the wall of the cave, spending another night hungry and cold.
When he awoke early the next morning, he could see his breath in the air and knew he had to keep trying to start the fire. The tinder pile was where he’d left it, so he took out his knife and began to strike it against the rock. He fiddled with the angles until, finally, showers of sparks erupted from the blade, landed on the wood shavings, and burst into tiny flames before extinguishing into glowering cinders. Blowing lightly on the now-smoking bundle, Jayson lifted it gingerly into his hands. He dropped the smoking ball into the pile of sticks next to the rock and got down on all fours, blowing lightly and adding more bits of tinder until flames began to lick the sides of the woodpile.
As warmth engulfed his face, Jayson stood and thrust his closed fist into the air. “Whooo!” he shouted. He heard the wind carry his voice down the mountainous, wooded valley and was taken aback by how out of place it sounded. A flock of birds took off at his shout and were cawing their complaints back down to him. Looking up, Jayson eyed the dark birds circling overhead and watched as they descended into another tree, getting back to their breakfast, no doubt. He smiled slightly at the thought of indignant birds being upset by their meal being so rudely interrupted by a loud, bumbling human. The thought of the birds eating made his stomach turn and grumble loudly in protest. Now that he had a fire, Jayson was ready to catch another fish and have a decent meal. Grabbing up his makeshift rod, he headed to the stream.
He’d been amazed he’d caught anything the last time, as he hadn’t used any bait at all. Still, not wanting to rely on being so lucky again, Jayson decided to look for some worms. If nothing else, he could eat those. He squirmed at the thought and was even more determined to catch something. He spent ten minutes digging, finding nothing but a small beetle. Oh well, it’s better than nothing, he thought, and pinched the bug onto one end of the tiny sharpened stick he was using for a hook. The day was warming up rather quickly, and Jayson decided to wade out to a deeper part of the stream. He removed his shoes and socks, leaving them on the mossy rocks along the bank, and rolled up his pant legs. Sticking one foot into the water, he gasped at its chilliness. Still, he knew bigger fish would be in the deeper water. He was hungry. And, he had a fire, so he would be able to warm up after.
Wading into the deeper water, he brought the pole upright and flicked the line out as far as he could. Within moments, he felt a tug and his heart raced. His mouth watering at the prospect of a hot, filling meal, Jayson yanked on the pole and revealed his prize – a shiny, dark Smallmouth Bass. The whole fish was only about the length of his palm, but it was much bigger than the baby BlueGill he’d caught before, and he was perfectly happy with his catch.
As he trudged through the freezing water back to the shallows, he realized he was shaking from the cold. He’d heard of people dying from hypothermia and was immediately regretful he hadn’t thought of that before going into the icy water. Still, he had a fire, and now a fish. Gathering up his shoes and socks from the bank, he made his way back to the cave-side fire, relieved to see the orange flames still burning hot. He used his pocket-knife, once again, to descale and gut the fish before placing it on a small, flat rock near the fire.
As it cooked and sizzled, the smells reminded him of the first time he’d ever had fresh fish cooked over a fire. The nostalgia gave him a pang in his chest and he tried to push the memories back. They came to him anyway. The first time he’d gone camping, it had been with his whole family – mother, father, and older brother. It had been a pleasant enough experience. One in which he’d made many fond memories and learned a lot of new, outdoorsy skills. Hopefully, he could put those skills to use here – if not, he’d surely die.
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