I fed my last birch branch to the hungry flames and watched as the dry curls of white and black bark shriveled into dark ringlets of spark and ash. The fire swelled brighter, pushing back the creeping tendrils of night with its flickering wash of yellow and red light. A welcome burst of warmth poured over my face and hands as I pulled my blanket more tightly around myself and settled down on my haunches to watch the flames and wait out the long night.
The branch did not last long.
Soon the cheerful flames died away and the fire settled into a crimson bed of coals. Their glowing heat still warmed me, but my unsettled mind continually traced dim outlines of long forgotten shames in the shapes of the embers, whispered distant echoes of ancient lies into my ears with the soft hissing of oiling sap, and teased at the skin of my back and neck with the cold fingers of shadowy terrors that crept up behind in the thickening darkness. I shook myself, pulling my mind back to the present, and shrugged my blanket from my shoulders. It fell beside the hatchet, bow saw, and coil of heavy sisal rope that rested on a flat stone to my right. I lifted the saw and stepped away from the fire to cut another limb from the fallen tree that rested some twenty feet out in the darkness.
The saw bit deeply into the soft, dry wood of the old birch. It didn’t take long for me to cut the single remaining branch into five short lengths, which I quickly carried back to my little campsite and fed to the fire. The heat of the embers licked at the tinder of the bark, grew into bright flames, and began to gnaw on the wood within. This would not last long, I knew. My last load of wood had burned up in only half an hour and, if the ascension of Orion to only four fingers above the horizon was any indication, it was not even midnight yet. If I was to survive the night I would need to find another source of small branches, or find something to prop up the trunk of the fallen tree so I could cut it into logs.
I turned my back to the fire and gazed out across the starlit ocean. The chilly breeze carried the salty scent of it across the narrow rocky beach to mingle with the thick sweet odor of hemlock and pine surrounding the clearing where I had built my fire. In the distance I could see the shadowy outline of the next island. The candidate who had been dropped there for his night of solitude had built such a large bonfire on the far side that the yellow glow of it made the pine trees stand out in jagged black spikes between the burning ocean and glowing sky.
Three hours before, my sponsor had paddled us to this island in a canoe and gathered a small pile of driftwood as I used his torch to collect enough pine needles and mermaid’s purses to tinder a fire. He had watched in approving silence as I built the fire and lit it with a single match. Once the fire was burning steadily, he took back his torch, showed me where he had laid out the few supplies I was to be allowed for the night, then led me back to the beach where his canoe waited.