A mutual appreciation for verse had glued them together in their youth. Through the same channel now, they purged the sediment which had accumulated over their bruised hearts since. For several days, they only sat beside a snapping campfire, scribbling feverishly into their respective notebooks.
After this therapeutic evacuation, they began to find inspiration in love and nature again. Harrison would spend hours at the water casting lines- into the basin, or into the fanning pages of his notebook. With patience and luck, something would catch.
He woke early one morning, and took a moment’s notice for the way the white sun illustrated his wife’s features. He stoked the fire and followed the stream halfway to the creek where he usually fished. He only meant to step off path for a moment. A wild turkey, the color of eggnog and pepper, rambled between trees in the most appetizing way. Being November, Harrison thought it a stroke of great luck and followed it with a heavy stick. When he realized he had lost sight of all his usual landmarks, he let go the idea of Thanksgiving dinner and tried to retrace his footsteps, walked too long, stopped, back- tracked. He could hear wind zipping through the pine trees, rustling, snapping. The turkey mocked him, har-har, as it trotted off unscathed, puffing its meaty chest in victory.
Barely discernible, under the woodpecker and the sparrows and the cicadas, came the murmur of distant water. He just had to follow. He walked toward the little trickle, stopping now and then to listen. Why didn’t he bring a map? He should have at least dropped some bread crumbs.
As the light faded, Harrison made a small fire. He sat in the dirt and checked his pack: Three crab apples, tin hooks, two matches, and his notebook. The wire was loose and stabby, and his most lovely sonnet was stained with bean sauce. It reminded him of the Velveteen Rabbit becoming shabby, but Real. He poured through the pages, partially to pass the time but mostly for their company and warmth. He made a few small revisions where a more savory word occurred: Mellifluous. Inglenook. Some words were so gratifying to Harrison, he could sip them like nectar and follow them straight to Heaven. He tucked the treasured paper away safely and leaned back.
He woke some time later with a soaked jacket and no fire. It was a torrential rain, heavy as pennies. The ground burst forth veins of foaming precipitation, strong enough to set sail a curled leaf. Clouds covered the sky, no winking star lanterns, and no firelight either. No darkness in the world is blacker than that which can be found during a solitary, moonless night in the woods.
The sun rose slate red in the morning. Still, the sky wept. Harrison splashed his boots through a mat of slick leaves, no longer able to follow the sound of water. An orgy of fungus gnats hung low, seeking shelter under his eyelids. His thoughts turned to his wife. He wondered if the tent had flooded. (Probably.) No way her fire was viable, not in this wash. At least she had food- his stomach pulled nervously. The sour crab apples were not a bit appetizing but he threw one into his gut anyway, if only to occupy it for a while. At least it could stop gnawing at itself.
The first step to surviving in the wild is to secure water. Nature had taken care of that in abundance. “Step two. Make shelter,” Harrison selected two narrow Sycamores to serve as infrastructure. When his drenched jeans became heavy and chafed, he stripped and scoured the ground in his underwear. He secured two Y shaped branches, and anchored them to the trunks in a sturdy (hopefully lasting) embrace. Rain poured down the contours of his face in solid streams now and for the first time, he shivered. He made haste, leaning sticks and branches onto the simple foundation. He crawled under the shelter, rubbed his aching knee, and shivered again. Not much he could do but ride out the storm. He opened up his notebook and thought about warmer things: bonfires, coffee, city lights, candles. More than anything, he visualized his wife’s face, flushed, eyes twinkling like Christmas lights.
When the woods again turned pitch black, Harrison tucked the notebook into his pack and used it as a pillow. The cold pierced straight through his damp jacket, his skin. His fingers hardened and curled, even as they squeezed into the hollows of his armpits. He pulled his jacket up over his face and breathed to thaw his nose, clenching and unclenching his stomach until he succumbed to exhaustion.
He woke to a rattling sound in close proximity. His senses sharpened and it became louder, coming from within the shelter. He resisted the instinct to surge from the tent and backed out cautiously instead. He winced at the brightness outside. The pounding rain had matured to a quiet, heavy snow. Branches gleamed with ice, assaulting his eyes, which he closed and refocused. The rattling was closer than ever. It dawned on him that it could not be a rattlesnake. Not in the early winter, and not in the Adirondack mountains. He let out a tense gust of breath that he’d been holding onto, unaware. Still, the chattering was unrelentless, thundering in his skull like hammers.
Like teeth, he realized, and the adrenaline that had overwhelmed the stinging chill quickly drained. He nearly collapsed into a pile of knocking bones and chattering teeth. “F-Fire,” he told himself, and his raspy voice imitated his old man so closely that he kept on: “You’re okay, Harry, my boy. Just k-keep your head about you.” He lurched forward, gathering a handful of sticks for kindling. He dropped to his knees and gathered up his pile of sticks and pine needles. Everything was sopping wet or bathed in ice. It would never catch.
Harrison’s numb fingers fumbled for his notebook. He tore the few blank pages out, and clumsily lit a match. Each page bought twenty seconds of brilliant warmth, which he used in quick succession until they were a pile of cool ash. The sodden wood was no closer to catching blaze. Harrison paused, holding his life’s work in his left hand, and his last match in the right.
It occurred to him that freezing to death, here, in this moment might elevate the work into an emblem of his tragic end. Or- probably- both the poetry and the man would simply decay, unnoticed, in the lonely mountain. In an act of self preservation, his hand decided for him and and lit the first poem on fire. His thoughts turned again to his wife, as he burned his Sacred Storms and Face of God. He prayed for her warmth and that he might see her again.
For the next hour, his body thawed as he witnessed his words (and they were only words, after all) bursting into swift flashes of warmth; lines of prose became lines of smoke, which his eyes followed- until they caught glimpse of some distant waving coil.
As Harrison stood and took a few steps forward, the signal faded. Then, abruptly, the smoke appeared again, in fleeting streaks. With each twist of smoke, his pace accelerated, through brush and thick mud, until he found himself flying past landmarks he recognized- the fallen hickory, the low hanging beehive, the enormous patch of sharp purple thistles. The rivulet. The campsite.
His wife looked like an angel, glowing before her own last blazing haiku, waving it in the air. And how could he ever be lost? He could sip her like nectar and follow her straight to heaven.