A lone western sandpiper flew through a dense forest. It was night and the bird was desperate. A cold spell hit and he could not find food. It was late. The bird shuddered, remembering the frost in the morning. His lady tried to keep warm over her few dozen eggs, but she felt like a pile of embers about to go out.
Spring was far less generous than previous years; it held onto its warmth like a miser. The sandpiper heard from his friend the blue jay that he did not want to get caught up in the winter winds last season; they were like a dry icy breath that could freeze anything. He could definitely believe it from the cold fronts he had felt down south. His wings had been like icicles, impenetrable fortresses of frost. He was still sweating, but as it dripped off his wings, it was forming beaming icicles. Still, he was too tired to stave off this type of weather.
He passed through the forest and into a clearing, but in the clearing, all he found was ruined white ash for miles. ‘Something bad must’ve happened,’ he thought. Diving down to check, he saw that embers glowed on the edges and remnants of stumps stuck out like spikes. In the center was the glowing butt of a cigarette.
The cigarette still smoldered like a dying sun. Although it was covered in a cage of leaves and branches, the sandpiper could still spot it. Someone must’ve smoked it halfway through. The bird looked around, and it was as silent as death.
Alongside the cigarette were a few dimes scintillating in the fire. The only other traces of humanity were an iron rod that held up the tatters of a tent burned beyond recognition and several pieces of litter pinned down by the mud. Galvanized tracts went off over the ridge like that of a four by four.
Everything was warm to the touch. He drew closer to the embers and then looked back at all the destruction and back again. The red radiance waxed and waned like a tide. It looked innocent enough. The bird pecked at the rubble to see what it hid, but a fire sprang up. As it engulfed him, he was flooded with a sense of warmth. When the bird looked back again, he wondered if the brilliant tide could’ve caused all this ruin.
The sandpiper leaned closer to the fire as it crackled. He tried to listen to its tale. The fire slipped through the breeze and could not be tamed. Once in a while, it would pop and sputter in a new direction. He was curious how it continued to burn on top of a barren stone.
He looked away, remembering how his home was dead cold; he couldn’t keep his head turned against the fire. It drew him in and made him desperate; it made him ponder how to snatch this precious heat. He tried to scoop it up on his bare wing, but fire lashed out against him, knocking him back. He needed to be slow and careful. He saw that the fire popped like boiling grease. He needed to be slow enough to avoid the sparks. Remembering his frostbitten wings, he knew he needed the fire now more than ever. It was worth the risk of getting burned.
The Sandpiper wrapped the twigs in a sheath of leaves and hung it over his back steadily, like he was recovering from a gaping wound. After a few stumbles… then careful steps… he took off flying.
Flying was a frighteningly bold task for the bird. He couldn’t keep the bundle of leaves tight and some of the burning twigs poked out. Sparks spit out onto the foliage below as the greenery smeared into the darker hues of night, leaving behind a trail of thin smoke. The sandpiper had to focus; as his wings numbed, his thoughts grew clearer as his world grew smaller, it was him against a world he didn’t understand. He could see his lady in the distance, but he could not tell if she was dead or alive.
Who knows how long it took him to get home, but when he finally arrived in his nest, he found his love huddled in the tree shivering from the cold. Worried, he unraveled his gift. It was the gift of fire: he had carried it many miles in a bowl of a few crumpled up leaves. He checked to see if it was still smoldering, and to his surprise fire sprang out between the leaves. It was a resilient fire, and he was ecstatic that it was going to last the night. He tucked it in a dry nook inside the tree and started to doze, and leaned over to snuggle with his wife. He wish he could show her what he brought home, but he didn’t want to wake her up. Nevertheless, he noticed that she definitely felt warmer and she sounded many times better than before; he was sure she would be proud of his fire.
The cold winds still whistled off the top of their hollow, but he realized that his family no longer had to worry about the cold. ‘If only all the other birds had fires in their homes as well, then no one would freeze,’ he thought. Every minute, the fire grew hotter. ‘They could all bring sticks over here and I could light them and pass them out like candles.’ He then imagined all the homes lit up ‘If everyone had a candle, this forest would be way less dark at night. A lot cozier too…’ He couldn’t keep himself from pushing closer to the fire, but he did not notice how it was burning back to life. He began to wonder about the trips he made every fall. ‘The fire’s doing its job so well, it almost feels like summer. If we had this warmth in winter, I don’t think any of us would take a trip south. That trip is too tiring…’
The bird fell asleep into a blissful dream, but his fire crackled on the dry brush. Then, a fierce wind swept through the inside the cavern and all the bark inside caught on fire. No one came out. His home turned into a violent furnace and it burned through the remnants of him and his family.
No one could tell where the fire started, because the ashes on the plains can swirl for miles in the wind. Black soot still covers the ground three inches deep and nothing has grown back. Winter is as bitter as it ever has been.