1472 words (5 minute read)

Excerpt: Building a Fire


Another unearthly shriek from my neighbor interrupted the aftermath of my encounter with my captor. I watched the large, spindly creature swirl its way up a tree. It shrieked again at the group of visitors clustered around its cage.

Someone must have made eye contact. The creature leapt off its tree, right towards the watching group, and smacked heavily into the invisible wall. It slid down in the flattened, ungainly position that was just as comical as I had witnessed before. Hitting the sticky, blue ground of its habitat, it shook its head lightly and crept into the background to sulk.

I took a step back as if I had been hit in the chest with a battering ram. That’s how I looked to them. A stupid animal, too dumb to know any better, too wild to act civilized—to act human.

Except these people weren’t human. And I was not an animal.

I felt sorry for the creature across the hall. I wondered if it was as aware of its degradation as me. Perhaps it was, but for all the similarities of our conditions, even in our reactions to our captivity, there was a striking difference between me and it. The yellow and red creature was not intelligent enough to remember that the invisible barrier existed. Every time it was aggravated, it would leap at the wall, and every time, it was shocked when it collided with a solid surface.

I was clearly more intelligent than the creature across the hall. Why these people couldn’t see that, I didn’t know, but hurling dirt clods and shouting obscenities was not going to convince them.

My brain struck flint to cause a dazzling, mental spark, and I turned around and marched to the shelter. I reached the left side of it, braced my foot against one of the wooden panels, and got a good grip on the one beside it. I pulled.


I stumbled back. A broken strip of wood was in my hands.

“Perfect,” I praised, and dug a fingernail into the dry meat. It left an indent; the wood was soft enough to make a hole.

I grinned and felt a swell of hope as I pulled at another section of my structure. Soon, the air was full of the sharp cracks and snaps of splintered wood.

I could feel the pressure of many watching eyes, growing in number as people lingered to watch my activities.

“Keep staring,” I muttered ruefully. I wanted a large audience.

I scrambled to the top of my shelter’s pale pink roof. Though the fern-like foliage which had once covered my habitat was gone, its dried roots remained as thatch. It would make due for the rope I needed. I found one that was long and strong enough, and then gathered small tufts of thatch.

I looked down. Broken pieces of wood were scattered inside my shelter and on the lawn, discarded in my hasty search for the correct pieces for my purpose. It looked a mess, but that was alright with me. Maybe it would piss off Boss. At this point, I didn’t care about the repercussions.

I jumped down, gathered my choice pieces of wood from a pile, and walked to an open space right in front of my audience. I sat and placed a thin, flat strip of wood on the ground. I put a somewhat thicker piece on top of it, making sure the quarter-sized hole I had pecked out was aligned over the first piece.

I picked up a long, slightly bowed stick and lashed the rope into tight knots to either end. I then took a roughly eight-inch-long stick and looped it tightly in the middle of the rope until the connection felt taut in my hand. I turned the short stick upright and notched it into the hole in the base board. I placed a final, rounded piece of wood on top of the stick to create a handhold.

I took a breath, and then put my right knee on the ground and my left foot on top of the board. I gripped the handhold and pushed my shin heavily on my wrist. I drew back my other hand and began to rapidly run the bow back and forth across the stick. The stick twirled in the hole. I breathed steadily, in and out, in and out, as I put all my energy into creating friction.

I silently thanked my teacher of the wilderness survival course that I had once taken for college credit for this priceless skill. I had never had the need to use a bow drill in a true survival situation, but I decided this unquestionably fell under that category. While the current need for the contraption was far different from what I had ever anticipated, I could only hope it would do me some good now.

A wisp of smoke issued from the hole, and I heard sounds of approval and curiosity from my watchers. I stopped drilling and set my implements aside. The hole was charred black at the edges.

I gently lifted the piece of wood to see the flatter piece beneath. A black powder fed a thin stream of smoke into my nostrils. My heart leapt with hope, but I worked with slow and steady hands to lift the newborn coal and pour it into my packet of thatch tinder.

It hit the thatch with a tiny crackle. More smoke wafted from the tinder, and I pursed my lips and blew a thin stream of air into its heart. A flare of orange licked the thatch within. I pulled away and tilted the tinder packet until a burst of flame swept into open sight.

Gasps reached my ears. I looked up and smiled at my audience, nodding vigorously and pointing to the flame in my hand.

“See?” I said excitedly. I sidled carefully to a nearby tripod of wood I had prepared and placed the burning tinder within. More thatch and twigs inside caught flame. Soon, I had a small campfire crackling away in my enclosure.

I stood and placed a firm hand on my chest. I then pointed at the fire.

Man made fire. It was, in an ancient sense, what separated us from beasts.

Grand smiles and open applause greeted my action. They actually clapped their hands, such a human gesture. But their enthusiasm was laced with humor, and many clucked their tongues again in a sound I knew expressed endearment.

I frowned and approached the barrier.

“What is wrong with you people?” I demanded. I waved my arms frantically from them, to me, to the fire, but no one was listening anymore. The show was over, and people began to drift off to see what antics my beastly neighbors were getting up to.

“No!” I shouted. “No, come back! Look what I did! I made this!” I gestured again to the fire. Then I pounded my fists against the barrier, trying desperately to get the attention of those who remained, but my renewed aggression bored them, and they were gone.

“No,” I said, stumbling back. “How can they—I’m not...”

I stared at my fire, hopeless.

A crack of thunder jolted a buzz of nerves down my spine. Rain poured down. My fire sputtered out. I was instantly soaked. I walked numbly to my shelter and slumped to the bed. I stared at the floor.

I didn’t know how long I sat there, but eventually, the lights outside dimmed. The rain continued. I was alone.

Then Boss strode into view, and his expression made everything worse.

He sneered at me, his arms crossed. No longer angry as he had been earlier, now, he was cocky. He spoke and gestured to me, to the treeless lawn, to the exposed toilet—which I had forgone eating and drinking that day to avoid—and to the deluge of rain. Although I could not understand a word, his condescending meaning was perfectly clear:

“This is what you get for misbehaving.”

I felt my lips twitch and my nostrils flare as my face contorted in rage. I scrambled onto the ground and grasped a fistful of sloppy mud and hurled it at his face. It smacked into the invisible wall and slid down the barrier. He laughed in amusement, with a curled lip of disgust, and left me to my misery.

I stumbled back and hit the bed with the backs of my thighs. I fell into it and curled up on my side, hugging my knees as the cold rain trickled down onto my skin through the leaks in the thatch I had created.

“I want Dad,” my voice crumbled. I wanted Grandma, and I wanted Abuelo and Abuela. I wanted Crispin, and even good old Elias Smith at my museum. I wanted home.

Next Chapter: Excerpt: Flourishing Day