She looked up at the night sky, shivering as the wind picked up and the tall, thin trees around her began to groan like giants awakened from a long slumber. A soft whisper turned into a loud hiss and the cold autumn air threw brown crisp leaves down at her in an effort to bring her attention back to the ground, but it wasn’t enough to break her upwards gaze. She crossed her arms to fend off the chill, took a deep breath and exhaled, releasing a dancing swirl of mist which quickly disappeared into the emptiness above.
A deep gravelly voice boomed in her head and her eyes darted from each flickering light in a panic. There was nothing between her and those stars; no walls, no ceiling, no shield of any kind. Her hand stretched out as if she could pluck them from the sky but, despite her lengthy arms, she found they were just out of reach. Her breath caught and she gasped for air. Her pulse quickened and sweat rolled over her forehead.
Her eyes dropped to the light coming from the shallow stone pit nearby. The gentle pop and crackling of tree sap coming from the logs on the fire in front of her caught her attention. Unfamiliar faces illuminated by the soft warm glow slowly began to come in to focus as she blinked in an effort to clear her weary eyes. She was sitting in a circle with them. She remembered now – this was her first time at camp. The girls around her were clapping their hands and singing; each one of them smiling, cheeks red from the icy air.
She shrank back into herself, bringing her knees up to her chest and once again wrapping her arms around her. She shuddered. The singing continued to ring out around her, becoming more and more muffled as her eyes got lost in the flames. She watched peacefully as the amber glow swayed back and forth.
“You ok?” the girl next to her suddenly asked, nudging her with a sharp elbow.
Once again, her gaze did not break. A small grin appeared on her face and her lips slowly parted to speak.
“Have you ever wondered what keeps the fire going?” she asked in a quiet voice. “There is wood. There is heat. There is light. But what is it? We can see it but we can’t touch it. It has no substance. Where does it come from? Does it even exist at all? Is it a ghost?” her voice wavered as she squinted at the light.
The laughter and singing stopped. The faces were staring now. The only sound filling the air was the crackle of the fire which, in itself, seemed to be getting brighter as the silence around them grew. She tried to avoid making eye contact with them but couldn’t help noticing them giggle and gawk at her. The moment seemed to last an eternity, but eventually the singing slowly started again and all sets of eyes slowly shifted away from her. Except one.
The girl sitting next to her was still staring. Her face was one of concern. After a time the girl slowly nodded her head.
“What’s your name, friend?” the girl asked. “My name’s Emma.”
She looked at the Emma blankly, the reflection of the flames still dancing in her eyes.
“Ann. Ann Amalie,” she answered in the same voice as before.
Emma turned for a brief moment to the still crackling fire, trying to see what Ann was seeing. The coals were beginning to glow a deep orange and, as she continued staring into the fire pit, something caught her eye. She squinted and leaned forward, trying for a closer look. For a moment she thought she saw…no. No. The light was playing tricks. She shook her head and turned back to Ann.
The log where Ann had been sitting was empty. Emma looked to the dark forest that surrounded her; the light from the fire illuminating the trees guarding the edge of the clearing. But the more time she spent looking, the trees, which had been restless moments ago, grew all the more still. The singing continued to echo through the crisp night air.
Ann was gone.
Published in NorthWord Magazine – Issue 22 – August 2020
Photo Credit: CJ Bowers