It’s bitterly cold and we are in trouble. Snow falls from the sky; not hard, it’s soft and almost floating. It should be lovely and when we had our fire it was good to sit in the cave and watch it. Then we had terrible luck. Tree, who carried the coals near the end of the line, was taken by a huge, bounding rock.
The sky cried out and let loose a heaving mountainside. We all scrambled but Tree and two others were not quick enough. When we looked to see where he was and perhaps recover the coals our luck continued bad. The bodies were gone, buried beneath rocks and snow. The mountain, it seemed, had swallowed them. River, are you safe, we cried, for River also carried the coals and burning lichen, that smoulders for whole days and kept our fires. You always have two to carry the fire.
‘I am here,’ she said, and took a step out of the line that had been winding its way ‘round the cliffs. That, it seemed, was the signal for the big cat. It came soft and low, not roaring, as is their way, and River was killed with one mighty blow, plucked from the path, and the cat,dropping like some controlled demon, fell with intent down a path impossible for us to follow. River was gone, gone.
Our fire was gone.
Now, amid the drifting motes of snow, we slither up a rise and peer over at the new ones. We’ve known of them for months but our valley is wide and long and because they are a small group who do not poach on our hunting grounds, we have not bothered with them. And we are too large a group for them to bother us.
‘They will have fire’ Sun had said earlier.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘We shall take theirs,’ Sun said.
‘Yes,’ I said and the others around grunted their agreement. I am the oldest but that does not give me the rights to make the decision. It is always communal, an important decision. But they listen to me and to Sun, who is nearly as old as I, and we know that without fire life will be hard. Perhaps impossible.
They have a good home, these new comers. The cave has a slit in its roof and the smoke, thin, light and aromatic, emerges as an almost invisible disturbance in the air. It is a good cave; easy to defend. ‘We cannot take them and their fire in the night,’ Sun says. We all nod. The cave’s mouth glows just a little, warm and inviting. Come in from the cold, sleep safe, I will guard you, their fire is saying.
Tonight we shall sleep in our make-shift shelters nearby and be uncomfortable. There’ll be no talk and no stories and laughter as Seed mimics the dozy sheep that nearly falls from a cliff or an otter catching trout. No talk of where the stars come from, nor of the winds or the blazing reminders of things past that sometimes fall across the sky. No Breeze’s songs, that he accompanies with staccato taps on his rhythm stick. Bull plays a gourd, bthmn-bthmn-bthmn and sometimes I take the sweet harp I have made from an elk’s horn, strung with its gut’s tendons, and I too saw out a reedy accompaniment. Not now.
We have slipped down the rise and talk in whispers. Sun, who knows the hunt, plans it. If they are like us they will leave the fire with an older guardian or perhaps even a child, as we sometimes do, and one or two to guard the camp. In the pre-dawn the rest will go out after the herds that now range on the lower slopes and are easy to hunt. It is what we would do. It is what we had been doing when the mountain took Tree and the big cat took River.
And so we wait, in the cold night. The snow has stopped and it is colder and I cannot sleep. Soot, my son, named for the product of fires beside which his parents had slept, huddles beside me, shivering in his dreams. I do not think he is dreaming of fire, for surely then he would not shiver so. I think of fire, of what it means to us. Everything, I decide.
It is surely cold, colder than I can remember. I wonder what fire may mean to others. I cannot know their minds but I think it must be the same for others. It is warmth and food and laughter and stories that keep the dark at bay. That is why we protect it and keep it in two places, far apart so that if one is lost we shall have time to make another. Until yesterday (it must be yesterday by now) and cruel luck took both. Both gone, within a heart’s beat. I know we must kill the strangers in the morning, for no-one gives anything willingly in this world. We must take their fire.
Time passes and then… I do not know why but I am suddenly standing. Poor Soot shivers even more and I know we must have fire. But must we kill, some part of me is saying. The moon guides me, up the rise and over the lip of their home. I have my hands in the air, they will see I carry no weapons and I wonder if we can make each other understood. Will I have time to even mime my question or will a spear come down out of the dark and carry me away to be a blazing light across the night sky? I let my silhouette stand on the horizon so they will see me long before I am close enough for that spear and I walk, hands up, down towards their cave.
And there are voices, different but with words I understand. But fear has made them insensible to me. Then a voice comes down and the words stand clear and I almost laugh.
‘What are you doing, old woman?’
‘We have lost our fire’ I tell that voice, a man’s but it is not calling out a warning, it is just curious. ‘Can we relight it from yours?’
‘Surely,’ the voice says, ‘Come down.’