We had all gone barefoot to cross the creek. Not because we needed to. We did it because it takes time to kick boots off, time to cross the creek, and more time to let numb feet dry, fill water bottles; gather ourselves and move.
"Fu – uk." Jeremiah sighed, his voice weighed down by Southern heritage and 2 hours of uphill stumble. He was still hung over from last night. Sweat seemed to leak from the man, a strange mixture of salt, water, and Wild Turkey. Ancient canyons carved through the grime of our past two nights in the woods. He was a thousand year old portrait, an elemental Dorian Gray.
I remember how he looked, before and after the fire. We had been gathering fallen twigs and branches as night fell, hoping to build a wood stack which would last us through our dinner and breakfast fire. We hadn’t picked the best place to scavenge for firewood. We were in a dip between two mountains, the intersection of the Appalachian trail and a unnamed trail leading to Vogel State Park. A fire must have burned through this wide crevasse years ago; trees were rare and stunted, our campsite was surrounded by a wide ring of chest high bushes and saw-toothed high grass.
Jeremiah made do with the few measly armfuls of wood my brother and I scavenged, built a “lean-to” style fire. Piles of twigs and scraps huddled against the only large branch we found, medium sized wood stretched over the fast burning tinder, still damp from the mountain air and leaning against the largest branch. I looked away when he finally set match to that Boy Scout-perfect pile. Jeremiah spent that night leaning into the fire, absorbing thick smoke, blowing clean oxygenated air against the coals. He had become half coal himself by morning. His thick hands left a smoky black signature against the empty bottle he still held.
Now, he stared at us through a mask which melted and cracked as sweat crept from his bandana.
“Too fucking right.” I agreed with him. That’s what you did, when half your brain was still floating in the bottle 3 miles behind you, and the other half had deserted you through weeping pores, vampire bugs, and the steady tromp of miles beneath your feet. “2500 feet in a mile, right?” Spoken from over my shoulder. I was busy unlacing boots and watching cool water stream past. We still carried a gallon of water between us, not enough for the day of hiking we had left.
My brother Adam was too busy eating to venture an answer. Jeremiah didn’t care.
“Pass me some of them Granola bars.” This was Jeremiah speaking to Adam.
“Fuck you. Get your own goddamn Granola.” Adam was mumbling through half a bar, spraying crumbs onto the creek below. They floated away quickly, carried on invisible water-tense vessels. Jeremiah had spoken of Viking burials at sea last night, watching us through pillars of fire.
The man shrugged slowly. He had burnt the last of his bars hours ago, illustrating some point about the truth of Indian burials, something about deep earth geology.
Jeremiah still stood as my brother and I dipped our feet in the water. I wondered if he was gathering strength to crouch, or perhaps to rummage in his pack for food.
The spring water was too cold to feel, carrying curiosity away, submerging past in the clear cave-born now. I felt it as a reflection of last night, a natural mirror of Jeremiah’s motion, remembered again as he absorbed the night around him, breathing flame into that past and future devouring fire.
“Fu – uk.” I slipped into the creek, the flame, the now. If I could, I might wonder if Jeremiah and Adam felt me join them.