Sunrise on the Solstice ~ the view from the Cave
The embers of the fire are barely visible as I crawl from my bed, eyes still gummed from sleep. Heat emanates from the fire-pit, but it’s lost its strength, and I’m aware I’m only just in time. The long night has chilled the cave to almost freezing, and the ashes in the fire-pit have scarcely any life left in them. I take a handful of finely split kindling, and I place a tiny piece on with great care, blowing softly to try and coax the dying fire back to flaming life. The cave is almost completely in darkness, only the reddish centre of the fire-pit gives any light. I banked up the fire before I settled to sleep, and before I lay down, I deliberately blew out the flame in the rough clay oil lamp that is usually left to burn all night. Only the fire was left, hidden under slabs of peat, an act of faith that it would stay alight through the longest night.
I blow, my face close to the warm ashes, but I can feel the heat dying away, and my heart sinks. If I cannot rekindle the fire, I may freeze to death. The fire is what keeps me alive, warms my body, cooks my food and scares away predators for whom a lone woman high in the mountains is a convenient meal otherwise.
I scoop the final whitened sticks that have some heat yet left in them, and scrape them together and lay more of the kindling onto the heap and blow. My breath raises ash, and I want to cough but I must keep blowing, steadily.
Just as I realise I cannot blow any more, the wood begins to glow read, then silently and softly explodes into flame. I cough, finally, and find I can breathe more easily now that the new wood is catching. I watch intently as the fire leaps from twig to twig, and at the right moment I begin to pile more on, bigger pieces steadily until the blaze is crackling away and I can sit back on my heels.
In the new light of the restored fire, I can see my own breath curling in the air in thick clouds. I am just in time, for the cave was becoming desperately cold. Beyond the cave entrance I can see the stars still, but they are fading and I know it is time. Dragging my warmest clothes around me, I pick up the cold lamp, and using a taper, I light it. The oil is animal fat, rendered until it is almost clear, and I have tried to mask the smell by adding pine resins.
Outside it is colder still. There’s a wide area beyond the cave mouth that is a half-moon of soft pale sand, but it’s lost under a layer of snow that crunches as I walk to the outside fire-pit. I have kept it mostly free of snow, digging it out, and a few days ago I dug out both snow and old ashes, and covered the area with pine branches lopped from trees near the path. There is a layer of snow on top of the deep green pine needles but I take care it does not fall into the circle of stones as I lift the branches away. Last night, before the final rays of sunlight were lost in the forest below, I laid a fire here, ready to light, and covered it again. I watched the light die in the sky, and felt my eyes become dark too.
The stars are going out as I watch. One by one they vanish until only the North Star is visible, her light fainter by the moment. At the point when the last star’s light is gone, I can see that the sky has become empty. The wind blows, edged with ice, and I glance at my oil lamp, set on one of the stones that surround the fire pit. The flame wavers but the wind does not extinguish it. The forest below is silent, except for the wind in the branches, and it is as if the whole cosmos is waiting. I can see an owl, waiting, perched on a branch high up, watching me but she is silent and still. Nothing moves.
My feet are becoming numb, encased in thick boots that keep the snow out but not all the cold, but I do not stamp them. Like the owl who keeps sentinel, I remain still and silent.
At the far eastern edge of the forest that spreads out below me seemingly without end, the sky has become paler. Pearlescent, with an icy pink glow, the horizon seems to warm, and the rose gives way seamlessly to deep red then orange, and as I take a deep breath, the very first rays of light beam across the frozen dark of the forest, and I kneel in the snow, touching the flame from the lamp to the kindling in the fire pit.
As the fire catches with a scent of pine and snow, the light reaches the semi-circle in front of my cave, and for a single moment, the flame of my fire and the flame of the newborn sun are one.
The sun stands still this day, and all else pivots upon it but I have lit my fire, against the long dark that is still to come. This day will endure and pass but all that come after it will be daily that tiny bit longer as the light grows and summer begins her journey back to the land. I go inside to tend my fire and to wait.