“Last Match Fires”

The sky is metal and gold behind ragged clouds. Word of God type stuff, he says, crouching on his knees. Beneath his hands are piles of tinder; crushed stalks of cheatgrass and pine needles, a bundle of dry twigs, the raw-paper insides of birchbark curled in white shavings on the ground. He bends over the piles while she watches. She holds his wool zipup behind him, scoops out a shallow space of quiet air from the wind. She smells sage and the salt-hued musk of his body through his wet clothes. He crumples receipts from his pocket, dirt-fingers kneading and mincing the fibers. Then it’s the matchbox, the deep breath, and a calm that holds the moment. Despite the cold, his hands don’t shake. Her eyes drift upstream towards the place where the horizon splits, the light there pulsing like the afterglow of a cameraflash, and she listens for the sound of the strike.

*

His charm is the charm of the lucky. She’d come to understand this once the see-saw cycle of their early years together had settled into a rhythm. They used to hitchhike together – leave the car by the riverside and then thumb their way back at the end of a long day of paddling. Once, coming off a canoe trip in western Mississippi, they stood in the twilight along a one-lane highway and flagged down a trucker who’d just been released from Angola for cutting his wife. Several years later, he talked a burglar out of their house in the middle of the night, laughing even as he did so, his smile hooded in moonshadow. They’d moved their stocks before the crash. They’d stayed through the storm but escaped New Orleans as the canal walls crumbled. She’d come to a sense of this pattern as a way of being, some deeper trust in the fabric of a world that ushered danger just beyond the borders of his path, but it was not an easy trust. She knew – or felt she knew – this light in his eyes as a foolish, fearless thing. She knew it as the purest detail of his person, the very thing that led him off to the backwoods without a map, to the courtroom without an appointment, to the roadside alone at twilight with his thumb splayed casually in the air. But it was a tiresome promise too. It whispered to her after each near-escape. In eddies of adrenaline, in the late hours, that eyelight became a reminder that nothing would ever quite be settled, nothing ever quite still.

*

Here, by the river, the tinder nest holds the flame. Wrinkles on his face deepen and stretch, his cheeks bright and dark again as he puffs air softly into the bundle. He piles sticks into a teepee and sings senseless words as if he were putting the fire to sleep. She settles down behind him, her arms around his midsection, feeling his breath vibrate through her skin. The wind turns and sparks scatter into the wool of his jacket. She looks back upriver to the horizon, past their overturned canoe hoisted into the junipers along the shore. The ridge is now black and backlit. Later, when their clothes are dry and a nightsong of insects closes in around them, she will dream and see his face once again by the fire, concentrating, poised to breathe into the tinder bundle. She dream and she will see, for an instant that strays out of time, a strange recomposition, some terrible sadness like an oil drop slipping across his eyes, there and gone again, when the match strike burns to life.

About Gabriel Houck

Gabriel Houck is originally from New Orleans, and studies in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has MFAs in writing from the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Iowa, and his work appears in Drunken Boat, Flyway, Spectrum, Sweet, Western Humanities Review, American Literary Review, Grist, PANK, The Pinch, Moon City Review, The Adirondack Review, Fourteen Hills, Lunch Ticket, and Mid American Review, where he was lucky enough to win the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize. He is currently working on his first short story collection, along with a nonfiction manuscript about a creationist museum in Kentucky.



  • Douglas Campbell

    Nicely done, Gabriel. Vividly written, and gets under the skin of life.