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The Deuteronomy Fire

Margaret S. Bartley

1796-Adirondack Frontier

A Witch lives beneath the water. I can see her bony fingers grabbing tendrils of balsam that hang from the riverbank, then suck them under. In my belly sits the two-day devil called hunger. Now that devil wants me to join the Witch in her watery hell.

I refuse.

But where can we go from here? If only I had not been cajoled into guiding this holy man to Chestertown. But God does not give choices, only orders in the form of my wife's sharp tongue. I will tell the Reverend "No." Why risk limb and life crossing this wretched trough of Witch's water?

What then should we do? Sit and shiver? Perish from hunger? Oh foolish wife, you who sent me to this sodden hell with this man of God.

"What say you, Brother Kellogg?" the Reverend asks. "Dare we cross the river?"

My sore legs refuse to move on ground still covered in wet snow. I grab a branch and pull myself to standing. My knees and boots complain. I point to where water tears the banks.

"We cannot fight that current."

"Then we shall return to your home. By this Good Friday the river will subside. It is God's will that we not cross today."

"We are five days out!" I scream. In truth, I want to put my fingers round his bony neck, but God would damn me for such an act. "We have not eaten for two days. We will perish before we see lights again."

"The Lord always provides," the Reverend says, contentment on his face. He pulls a cloth-wrapped bundle from his bag. "See, we have a loaf of maple sugar, a gift for my wife from the congregation. By God's grace, it will sustain us."

"Perhaps." I look up at clouds so low they cling to the treetops, but the icy rain has slackened. "Perhaps we can cross by morning."

"You are most agreeable." The Reverend smiles as if he has just saved another soul from the flames of hell. "Let us seek shelter and build a fire."

He reaches for Simon's reins, but the old horse cares not for this holy man. The swayback pulls away and nuzzles thin snow, seeking moss and brown ferns.

"Back there." I point to the forest from whence we came. "Where the rocks rise above the river. We will be protected from the wind."

So we return along the deer trail, that narrow track no wider than a man's spread hand. In the rocky place I remembered, we find cover from melting limbs and weeping sky. The bare soil is sloped so no water dampens us as we make beds of green hemlock. The Reverend speaks softly to God while breaking limbs and piling them on dry earth.

But there is yet no reprieve, for we must find fuel to get us through the night. I break dead limbs from wizened trunks and return three times to our shelter. The Reverend, no man of the forest, picks up wet branches from the ground.

"There," he settles on a fallen log. "We have fuel aplenty. Let us give thanks to God for providing us this humble shelter."

Give thanks to my strong back, I think. It was God who sent the rain that condemns us to sit and shake until our bones near break.

"Oh Heavenly Father," the Reverend cries, with arms raised and eyes closed. "Sit with us and keep us safe from harm."

"Amen," I mutter.

"Save us from the savages who call this wilderness their home, and from the beasts who would devour us, and from the torrents that would sweep us away, and from the cold that causes teeth to rattle."

"Amen." My teeth are rattling, and my bones do ache.

"Save us from all manner of French Papists, and Spanish whores, and Anglicans, and Jews."

I doubt that such persons would venture into this God-forsaken wilderness. Surely, civilized heathens would stay in towns with cobbled streets and shops filled with roasted pig and warm bread. And a Spanish whore would provide welcome relief from this man's piety. Only true Christians like the Reverend, and fools like myself, would venture forth so ill prepared.

"Save us from the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, and the tax collectors."

I would equally welcome a tax collector with a flask of rum. Crossing my arms, I bow my head, not out of reverence but seeking a little warmth.

"Three days" was all he said. Three days to Chestertown and we would find shelter in his church. So I packed food enough for three days, not seven. Now five days out with only an axe and a bony horse, we still had two-days' journey once we crossed the Schroon.

"I must have warmth," I plead, hoping to break his incantation.

"And warmth we will have in plenty if we are not saved in his Holy Bosom."

"The fires of hell sound mighty appealing," I say, as I break dry twigs into a pile.

"Be careful what you pray for Brother. Hell's fire and damnation will be yours soon enough."

"What if there is no fire in hell?" I snap a stick across my knee. "Satan may be busy making mischief and let the fires of hell burn out."

"Think you so?" The Reverend peers at me through one black eye, like a crow spying a beetle.

"I will pray for fire from any source." I tuck my frozen fingers beneath my armpits.

"Have you tinder enough in your box?" The Reverend blinks before his face returns to its normal composure.

"A scrap is all."

"And dry I hope?"

I reach inside my jacket and find the pouch just above my belt. A tin box, warmed beside my body. My fingers fumble to open the lid, exposing a nest of birch bark cushioning flint and steel.

I crouch, shielding the little pile of kindling wood from a gust of damp air, then press the tip of hard flint into the tinder. The curve of the metal striker wraps around my fingers, solid and sure. I hit the stone with that shiny bit of steel. No spark again and again. A few bright bits fly forth, fall on damp earth, and expire.

"You need more tinder," the Reverend says.

I lean back, my legs and buttocks aching with the move. I am forty-five, old enough to be sitting by a warm hearth, smoking a pipe of Virginia tobacco, bouncing a grandson on my knee. This is a journey for a young man, one with a strong back and all his teeth.

"I need more tinder, or we will have no fire."

"Have you nothing else?" Now the Reverend sounds worried. His prayers of supplication did not include a request for dry wood shavings.

I strike again. A spark lies in the tinder nest, glowing bright as a thin line of smoke spirals up to meet my nose. In the blink of an eye, the bright bead is gone.

"God be damned." I care not for the Reverend's ears. "This tinder's as damp as a cockled whore."

"Brother!" The Reverend jumps up, flapping his arms like a barnyard hen. "Take not the Lord's name in vain. You will bring peril on us."

"Sit down, you fool." I cannot contain my rage. "Without fire we will die. God has seen fit to damn us already. Why should I withhold my opinion of him?"

"Because God is always merciful."

"God," I scream, throwing the striker to the ground. "God, do you hear me? Send us dry tinder or send us to hell."

A clot of wet snow falls to the ground.

"We are doomed." I sink back onto the log. "This is our final day."

The Reverend slides close and drapes his thin arm across my shoulders. I feel no warmth from his body. I pray that if I die I will go to hell where I can warm myself before the flames consume me.

"I have my book," the Reverend says. He pulls his Bible from his vest.

"I can bear --God's words-- no longer." My tongue is sluggish in my mouth.

"God provides." The Reverend's voice is a whisper. He holds the book before him, a volume covered in soft leather, oiled and well caressed. It bears no name or title, but looks sacred.

"Deuteronomy. Yes, Deuteronomy," he says softly. "God's message to the children of Israel wandering lost in the wilderness of Sinai."

I watch as he opens the book, thumbing through the pages. I am close enough to make out Leviticus, Numbers. He stops. In one quick motion he tears a page from the binding.

"Will this do?" He hands me the sheet.

"You want me . . . to burn the word of God?" I hold the page in my trembling hand.

"It is God's gift. Let us share his words before we cast them to the flames." He points to the page. "You read."

I hug my arms close to my sides and turn so the last gray light allows me to see.

'''These be the words which Moses spake unto all Israel on this side of Jordan in the wilderness.' You see, the Almighty knows we sit here by the River Schroon, lost in the wilderness, as were the children of Israel."

"Would that he could send us a burning bush," I say.

"But let me see." He takes the page and continues reading tales of the children of Israel, lost and wandering, as are we, seeking to cross the river, as are we, climbing a high mountain, as we have done this very day.

I close my eyes, not in prayer, for I have hope of redemption, but to try to control the shaking that has taken hold of me.

"'Then we turned and took our journey into the wilderness. The Lord spake saying, "You have compassed the mountain long enough, turn northward."' Is not your home to the north?" He hands me the leaf of paper.

"It is, with five mountains between us and hot food."

"This night we will let God provide."

With paper in hand, I make a pile of strips large enough to catch the spark. I bring the steel to bear, and bright bits fly forth, landing red hot on white paper. They grow large, black circles like spreading ink. Smoke rises in three places.

I kneel, my lips close to the tinder pile, blowing softly, like a lover on his lady's ear. "Come, little fire," I coax the tiny flame. "Burn."

The paper flares bright and yellow. I lean back and reach for dry twigs, but not fast enough.

The Reverend, a feverish glow on his face, cries out, "Thanks be to God," and throws a handful of wet hemlock on the little flame.

The fire dies.

"Eeeaggghh," I throw myself at the villain. Like a scarecrow knocked from his perch, the Reverend falls to the ground. "You have killed us. . . killed us." My frozen hands circle his neck.

"Forgive me, Brother," he gasps. "I will . . . give you . . . more paper."

"Give it to me." I fall back weakened from my attack. "I will kindle the flame. Limit your efforts to prayer."

"Yes, Brother."

Retreating, he locates the Holy Book, fallen to the ground in our melee. Stroking it while mumbling apologies to God, he settles on the log.

"Deuteronomy, chapter three, verse six. Hear his words."

"Give me the page." I reach for the book. "I have no patience for your preaching."

The Reverend pulls back, clutching the Bible. "Soon enough it will be yours, but I must devour God's words before condemning them to flames.

"Make quick."

"'And the Lord spoke, saying "Ye have wandered in the wilderness long enough. Remember how the Lord your – '""

"Now!" I grab the book from him. "Let him provide now!"

Heedless of his pleadings, I tear pages from the book. "This is God's gift." I shake ragged paper in his face. "Now we will see if God's word is good."

With frozen knees and aching hands, I crouch again, breathing on sparks that settle in my paper nest. "God, . . . if you are merciful, . . . let this fire take hold. . . . that we might live to see tomorrow."

My prayer is answered, and a tiny flame leaps forth, running up the edge of one paper ribbon then down the next. I feed my fire dry twigs, and it grows stronger. A finger of warmth reaches my face, and like man's most exquisite pleasure, it sends a shiver through my body.

"We are saved this night." I stand and watch the flames. The hungry fire devours the wood like a dog given the leg of a freshly killed hare. "We must remain watchful, lest the fire go out."

"Thanks be to God," the Reverend cries, his clasped hands held high.

And so we share our meager rations, a lump of sugar cut in two. Not satisfying to an empty belly, but better than eating snow.

The Reverend reads from the Bible while I make trips into the forest to gather wood. I return to find him rolled in his blanket beside the fire, sound coming from his nostrils loud enough to wake Beelzebub. So we pass the night, I sleeping only moments, waking to keep my precious fire fed, while God blesses his servant with the sleep of a child.

In the morning, we face the River Schroon again. But now my companion is bright and filled with the good humor that comes from sleep. I am foul.

"You ride the horse across," the Reverend says. "I will hold tight to his tail."

"No, you ride." I take my axe and survey saplings along the bank. "I will make a raft." I point to the rolling water that cuts away the bank and carries bits of leaf and root to the opposite shore. "I will lay and drift like flotsam to the other side."

"You are wise." His head bobs as if already water borne. " Let us be quick, and we may yet see Chestertown before nightfall."

My raft is thin, only knotted branches. I add thicker pieces to the bottom, lashing them with my belt. It would not bear my weight were I to stand, but on my belly I will swim like a frog.

"I will go first." There is no hesitation in his voice. He mounts Simon, then urges him toward the river. It bubbles greenish brown, with white flecks of Witch's spit. "When I reach yonder shore," he calls, "I will pull you from your raft."

I watch as wise Simon retreats. No fool, that horse, he does not wish to die. The Reverend digs his heels into the animal's flesh and Simon is forced down the slippery bank.

I offer no assistance as the Witch pulls them into the current. Simon struggles, his head held high. Water pushes up the Reverend's cloak as he sinks deeper, the saddle disappearing, the river to his armpits.

"Come, Brother," he cries. "I am nearly there."

I watch him no longer. I kneel and push my flimsy raft into the river. The cold attacks my flesh as the river pulls me forward. Before my feet can leave the bank, I flail like a wounded bird. My raft spins, tilting to one side. I try to paddle, but my sleeve catches on the mat of sticks. My legs are heavy, and I sink. The Witch is pulling me under.

I roll right and see only brown and green, then black and sky. Beneath me, my raft begins to fray. I kick hard but find no purchase. Ahead, I see the shore. So near. Too far.

Another branch attacks my face. I grab, miss, and grab again. I am across, but the Witch will not release me. She pulls me under. Cold water fills my nose. The limb snaps beneath my weight. I grab above the break and dig my toes into the bank.

"God, let me live," I cry and swallow water.

With that prayer, the Witch sets me free. I drag myself onto beautiful, solid, muddy earth. I'm alive.

I sneeze and cough, muddy water spilling from my mouth. Rain or tears drip from my eyes. I cannot see. I do not care. God, whom I have blasphemed and maligned, has heard me.

I push myself to kneeling, searching the shore for the Reverend and the horse. Simon stands beneath a hemlock, withers trembling, saddle empty. I look back at the Witch's trough and see only angry water.

"Reverend?" I cry, pulling myself up on trembling legs. "Where are you?" I stagger along the bank looking for signs of my companion. "Are you ashore?"

No answer.

I look across the river. Nothing, only mud and snow and water. Something dark draws down my eyes. I see black cloth caught fast on twisted roots. Swirling grey hair, pale skin, and curling fingers, he floats lifeless in the water. I drag the body of the man of God from the Witch's maw and sink beside him in the mud. His mouth hangs open, lips now whiter than tallow wax, deader than stone. He stares at heaven, but no spark of life remains. Protruding from his vest the Holy Book that could not save him, now a sodden mass. I look up at gray sky and dripping limbs, my feet and fingers wooden.

"God." I lay my cold hand over his eyes. Though I know he is dead, I do not want to see his face or feel his stare.

I look again towards heavens where the rain and God abide. A cold drop courses down my spine. I shiver. I am alive.

"God," I say in a voice that only he can hear. "Thank you for choosing me."