A Flame in the Cold Night

Nov 22nd, 2022 (edited)
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  1. A Flame in the Cold Night
  3. Working the evening shift was a balancing act. If you left too soon, you’d be clocking out before your shift ended, and that was trouble since the shifts weren’t flexible. Leave too late though, and you’d miss the last bus. By some genius stroke of civil engineering or city planning or whatever arcane art it was that decided the timetables by which public transportation ran, the last bus on the line would be at the stop next to the big mail sorting centre at 22:01, when his shift ended at 22:00. This meant that if you had all your belongings on your person when the night shift workers were coming in, it would be theoretically possible to make a mad dash outside after clocking out and if there was low traffic, you’d make it across the road to the side where the bus stop was.
  4. Tonight was not one of those perfect nights. The stars did not align, and Colin made it out of the sorting centre’s doors just in time to watch the taillights of the last bus disappearing into the night. He cursed, because this meant he’d have to walk a mile and a half to the nearest stop where he could still catch a bus.
  5. It was snowing lightly, the soft, light kind of snow that clung to you and piled up on you and melted from your body heat if you weren’t properly insulated. Those first few nights when he’d been at work wearing an ordinary hoodie over his shirt, and when subjected to these conditions that had gotten wet from snowmelt, which had in turn made the trek an absolute misery. He’d wizened up since and now wore a proper jacket.
  6. Colin’s circumstances were thus: a WASP left unemployed due to circumstances beyond his control, he had obtained a two week stint sorting Christmas cards for the post office, work that was conducted at a facility separate from the main sorting centre due to issues of space from the massive influx of material. The work paid 11.82 an hour for 8 hours of work a day for 10 days. He could’ve taken more shifts, but there was absolutely no desire in him to do so due to the impracticality of travel, which even in ideal circumstances took him and hour and a half one way, even longer when he missed the bus at night. This meant he worked around 11-12 hours every day for less than an even 100. To add insult to injury, there was another such facility within a 15-minute walk from where he lived, where he’d applied for the same job, but hadn’t gotten it.
  7. Still, a man must be grateful for work, any work. So long as it wasn’t telemarketing or something else that bothered people. Colin pulled up his collars, stuck his hands in his pockets and with his head low he walked with quick, aggressive strides down the road, the red lights of the bus mocking him in the distance, as it had stopped at a red light. Red, red everywhere. The colour of Christmas. Red in the ass-ends of cars, red in the old, downright ancient streetlights, red in the cards, red in the face of his supervisor as she drank booze in the backroom again – being a Red Oni, this was not only normal but perfectly legal for her to do at work – and red on his own cheeks as the cold nipped at them.
  8. Damn cold. Damn snow. It was so beautiful when you were a kid, hell, even as an adult if you got to stay indoors at night and only came out to admire the winter wonderland in controlled bursts, little excursions where you yourself held dominion over your exposure to the elements. Colin was well enough when walking, but he knew he’d get chilly again when he had to wait for the bus. And this was the catch in the whole thing: if he dressed more warmly, it would take him longer to get dressed, thus decreasing his chances of catching the last bus and forcing him to make these walks, and prudence told him that the ideal was catching it, thus dressing light enough that you didn’t need to go change.
  9. There was more red to the right now, red he hadn’t seen before. Orange, maybe. A light anyway, between the firs. Then it was gone, and he jotted it down to being tired and lowered his head again and get trudging and felt some of the gravel on the road sink into the sole of his shoe, which had grown brittle with age and he cursed because those sharp little stones could work their way through the shoe and then snow would get in too, and he’d have to buy new ones and he wasn’t making the kind of money you could just buy new shoes with whenever you wanted to.
  10. He stopped, lifted his foot up and balancing like a stork he dug around the bottom of his shoe, looking for the stone but his gloves were too thick and he couldn’t get it done and he was in that spot between two lampposts where the two lights were at their dimmest and he just couldn’t find the damn thing so he took off one glove and put it in his mouth and dug the stone out with his middle finger and put his glove back on. When he put down his foot and lifted his head he saw the glow again, a warm, bright glow now just right there, plain as day to see and lighting up the tree line and he was taken aback because he didn’t know what it was, but saw that it fluttered like a fire and made him think of a fireplace and the crackle of sticks as they were burned up and all the comfort this brought to a human and he was not afraid but curious.
  11. The light disappeared behind the trees again and the glow faded as it went deeper behind the firs, they were called Douglas firs, he knew this from watching Twin Peaks and that was the kind of trees they were, and his mind was clear on this fact as if it made it all better to know what kind of trees they were even if he didn’t know what the glow had been or why it moved like it did but he was sure it was fire, natural or otherwise, and was unsure how to proceed.
  12. It was late and he was tired and he was cold and he was unhappy, so reason dictated he should go home and the sooner the better, but he was also curious now and curiosity may have killed the cat but it took man to the Moon and he was a man so he should be curious, he was tired but he remembered his daddy had told him that once upon a December, not this December but the one he’d tried to catch Santa and had learned the presents weren’t brought to their house by the real Santa but just Miss Krampus in a fake beard which was silly because she sounded nothing like Santa and didn’t even drink cola but they had a fireplace and the logs they’d burned in there had crackled so nice and when all the electric lights were turned out and only the fireplace and the candles lit up the house he’d felt like he was in some magical place not at all his home and he wanted to go there again, and maybe that glow in the woods led to that place.
  13. Thinking like this, Colin became certain he was so tired he was starting to hallucinate, because surely no sane man would think to crest that hill and go into the woods chasing a strange light when he was cold and tired and liable to pass out and he still had work tomorrow and the day after and on and on.
  14. But Colin was not convinced he was so tired that he’d pass out, he was just tired of his circumstances, so he got off the road and stepped into the snow bank and began to walk toward the woods, and the snow carried him like he was an Elf on a diet until he reached the incline, where his foot went through the crunchy surface and sank him halfway down his shin and let cold and hard bits of snow make their way into his shoe and around his ankle in little pellets, and once again he had to stand on one foot as he fished out those pellets.
  15. At this point the should’ve stopped, he knew it, but he didn’t stop because he’d already reached the hill and a man must climb any hill he comes to, because only that way can he truly know he is master of himself and his surroundings, and he didn’t know why he thought that but he climbed up and carved a path where each step plunged him into the snow, sometimes deeper and sometimes not so deep, but he made slow progress and his breath grew heavy and then he was starting to sweat, felt the trickle of it down his back, and yet his ankles and hands and thighs felt cold despite that, and he was tired of the state of his dress as well as his circumstances, but he made it to the top and surveyed his surroundings and was satisfied he had at least climbed the hill.
  16. There was no glow up here for him to see, but there was in the air and in the chill wind a scent of smoke, the kind that comes from long-dry birch, the most beautiful smell any smoke could carry that came from wood and not from meat, and smells bring back memories far stronger than those gained by sight or sound or feel or taste. To Colin those scents were from watching his parents or older siblings chop wood, memories of winters spent in the countryside, in the old family farm that had been left empty when his grandparents couldn’t manage farming anymore due to the ravages of ages and moved out. The rest of the family had gone there every summer since to tend to it, and in the fall and spring and eventually even in winter, and some of the most beautiful family holidays had been spent in those houses, and Colin had gone on adventures in the wintery woods not at all unlike the ones he found himself in now, and he’d found the tracks of rabbits and deer and seen otters sliding down a riverbank into the dark waters and climbing up to slide down again and at the end of each day he’d returned to smell the smoke from the chimney and had known which kind of wood was being burned.
  17. An adventure. An excursion. Colin wasn’t averse to the idea. Adult responsibilities had denied him such things for a long time. Work was drudgery to him, almost too much to endure if not in body then at least in spirit. He went deeper into the woods, following his nose, chasing that scent of birch smoke, and between the trees he heard the wind still but no longer felt its bite, and above his head the tops of the trees wove and bopped and danced to the tune of the wind and he was happy to hear it, for it made him feel less alone in the dark, and dark it was because the streetlights no longer reached him where he was, and he only saw anything thanks to the snow.
  18. The scent grew stronger and stronger and after a while he saw the glow again and thought it had a shape to it, and he thought he heard a whisper in the wind asking him to come closer, but maybe that was just the call of adventure, he wasn’t sure. It had been so long since he’d heard that call, he hardly recognized it anymore. But like riding a bike, the answer to that call is never forgotten and he rushed ahead and got his face slapped by low-hanging branches and then he was close enough to see that the glow was a fire next to another fire and the one fire burned birch and the other was the shape of a woman, and that woman was lithe and sleek like a pole-vaulter, and she was beckoning him closer not in the abstract but quite physically, the gesture was not open to interpretation, and Colin took the invitation.
  19. Emerging from behind the last of the trees to a clearing with some big stones around it and mats of cut fir and spruce branches and a piles of firewood under an awning of the same make, and in the middle of it was the big fire and next to it the woman-fire or the fire-woman, and Colin’s mind understood that this was an elemental spirit like he’d heard about but had never seen before.
  20. “You look cold,” the fire-woman said, cracked a branch in half against her knee which looked more solid by the minute, and dropped the branch into the fire, already burning from her touch.
  21. “I am,” Colin answered and sniffled a little, only now realizing his nose was runny.
  22. “Come by the fire.”
  23. Colin did so and crouched by it, the glow feeling so pleasant to him, the sound and smell of it exactly as he’d thought it would be.
  24. “I’ve been watching you, some nights,” the woman said. An Ignis. That’s what you called her kind.
  25. “Why?” he asked, looking in turn at the fire she’d made and the fire she was and both were pleasing to the eye and not covered up much.
  26. “You always look so cold. One night you were chasing that bus, you were running after it, do you remember that?”
  27. “Yes.”
  28. “On the side of that bus it said ‘If you’re cold, they’re cold’, and that made me feel so bad for you. I can warm up anytime I want. You can’t. Not outside. Not like I can.”
  29. “You make fires.”
  30. “Yes.”
  31. “Is this legal?”
  32. “Not for humans, but my fire won’t spread out of control.”
  33. “Figures. Sometimes I feel like laws only exist to keep me down.”
  34. “It’s a different kind of fire from what you make.”
  35. Colin took off both his gloves, warmed his hands and rubbed them to his face. It felt good, just like cooling down your face in the summer felt good. When he took off his hands and opened his eyes, he saw the Ignis crouched in the fire before her, smiling and holding out her hands. He held out his and she took them and he took hers and even the memory of being cold left him.
  36. “Feel better?” she asked.
  37. “Much.”
  38. “You can come here every night, if you have to.”
  39. “I don’t want to impose.”
  40. “I’m a spirit. I give warmth. It’s no imposition.”
  41. “But you’d have to wait around for me.”
  42. The Ignis grinned.
  43. “Fire needs fuel. I get around. See that axe?”
  44. She nodded her head and with great effort Colin pulled his eyes from hers and looked at the axe leaning to the pile of wood.
  45. “You chop it all yourself?”
  46. “Helps me keep in shape.”
  47. “Didn’t you say you were a spirit?”
  48. “Sure but feels these biceps though.”
  49. She guided his hands and true enough, she was hard as iron. She went on to talk about core exercises and asked him to punch her abs, but he refused. At any rate he grew warm enough to take off his hat and jacket she convinced him to swing the axe a few times, and it was well made and light on the upswing but heavy coming down, and she said she called it Terminus Est and laughed, and he said he didn’t understand the joke and she laughed even harder and told him it was something the Pringles guy wrote once, but he didn’t know the Pringles guy ever wrote anything and made a mental note to himself to check up on that in case she was making fun of him.
  50. They talked for a while and he complained about his work and how it didn’t pay well and how it was hard and how travel was the worst part, and she said that she would like if he would bring her a Christmas card the next day because she was a spirit with no fixed address so nobody could send her one, and he promised to do so.
  51. When Colin left the woods he felt better than he had for ages and he wasn’t cold even when waiting for the bus, but he thought he heard the wind whisper something, and he thought back on how it had called his name and the voice had been different from that of the Ignis, and he realized that there were also spirits of wind, a Sylph, and that maybe it had been one of them that had worked to bring him there that night, and that maybe he should bring two cards just in case, but he didn’t know who to write them to because he realized also that he hadn’t asked for any names.
  52. “I don’t even know your names,” he whispered to the night, and on the wind returned the name of the wind and the name of the fire and he remembered them well and wrote them into cards the next day and at 22:01 he wasn’t making his way to the bus stop but to the woods with two cards in his pocket made out to those names with the intent to bring a little spirit of his own, some of the Christmas kind and some he’d asked his supervisor for, because as strong as the spirit of Christmas is, there’s stronger spirits that are also very fine to share in good company.
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