"The Fire Keeper"
from Emerge Literary Journal
During this first year of the darkness, all the kids in our block looked forward to our birthdays even more than we looked forward to morning. Not every day had a birthday. And despite the little gifts we were able to make for each other, despite being allowed first choice from the stew pot at meal times, it was nightfall that the birthday girl – and the rest of us – really anticipated all day when my father, the Fire Keeper, took out his magic box, slid it open, and removed one tiny, red-tipped stick, presented it to the celebrated, and held out the strike pad on the box’s side. The gift of fire, he would tell us, all sitting in a circle, was what kept us alive, and birthdays were a celebration of that life; each child on her birthday received one little flame on its tiny stick, to do with it whatever she wished. Some held it, felt its warmth in their hands; some carried it around the circle, letting us all see it up close; others lit candles with it, to take back to their own shelters.
My father had found the box, he said, the day the darkness began, dug it out of the rubble. Possessing the firesticks gave him standing in our little community, but he never used them himself, even as the Fire Keeper. He was a master, and there had yet to be a day when he couldn’t light the communal fire at dusk with a flint or with just the wood itself. I’d watched him toil over the smoking tinder in high winds; I’d watched him use his own tarp to keep his wood supply dry while he sat in the rain. But however long he left me alone in our tent, he always had the fire going by nightfall.
Today is my birthday. When my father presents me with my firestick, I reach out and take both it and the box, and my father lets me because I am his. And I strike the red tip on the rough pad and feel the heat on my fingers, the glow on my face, which I know displays the same awe I have seen on every other birthday girl’s face. We are sitting around the communal stew pot, which still sits cold, the wood beneath it still damp from the morning’s rain, my father looking to have a long, frustrating evening away from me getting it lit.
Shaking off the spell this tiny flame has cast over me, I stand up, step forward, and kneel beside the stew cauldron to lower the flame into the tinder. I have watched my father do this a hundred times with other wood and other flames, and know where to light. I smile as the fire takes to the hissing wood, I smile seeing my father smile, knowing that now the Fire Keeper’s task is finished early, his gift returned and returned again because tonight I’ll have him to myself.
(c 2012 Matthew Brennan)