At that time of the year marked out by the Christian calendar as a time of feasting and rejoicing, a traveller arrived at this loneliest of spots, seeking perhaps no more than shelter for the night. The weather was cold; the daylight hours were short and, at this place, inclined to be dark. The wind had ceased when he arrived, but the air seemed to wrap itself thickly around the rocks and trees in the shallow dell, and the low clouds hung like the tattered and fraying old tapestries in a gloomy cathedral that I have heard spoken of by other travellers, during the long, long years of my life. There is no work by man in this place, but the gently sloping sides and the strong, ancient trees might give some protection from the weather.
The traveller was old. I could see that he had lived through many summers and winters, and was approaching the nadir of his life. He had displayed an admirable tenacity in reaching this place on foot, and I was inclined to respect him for this. The path through the hills would have led him many long miles since he last passed through a village of men. As he must be his own beast of burden, he did not carry very much with him. A single bag, a sack I suppose, was dropped to the ground and he followed it slowly, joints and muscles struggling with the effort. For a while, which did not seem very long to me, he sat beside this burden, his cloak pulled tightly around him, and then as the darkness began to close in further, he opened the sack to remove a blanket and a few other items that I could not recognise.
He then spent a while gathering together many of the dead twigs and branches that were scattered around this place, which I did not mind, although it was obvious to me what he wanted them for. There was a storm coming that night, although it was most unlikely that he would know this, and he would want fire against the cold and the rain. He worked steadily as dusk fell, preparing everything that he would need, and then there was a clicking and scraping of metal against stone, and sparks flared and died suddenly in the night; tiny cousins of the stars that the Creator on occasion sees fit to make fall to earth. Soon, I saw some of these stars lingering and growing amongst the tinder, and the old man’s face glowed orange as he knelt down to blow them gently, teasing the tiny flames into life.
He did not seem to eat, but later he drank something from a small bag made from animal skin that caused him to relax and he leaned back against the trunk, his blanket now wrapped around him over his cloak, staring into the depths of the firelight. He awoke as the storm began to rage, and I was surprised at how quickly he got to his feet. He seemed to work madly, feverishly, piling branch after branch upon the fire until the flames swirled around in the wind, high and hot and strong, flickering in turn out into the darkness, and then licking against the tree trunks or surging up into the canopy. Still he piled on the wood that he had gathered.
The iron discipline that bonds us all together can do nothing to prevent us from feeling hatred and fear, and it was this, our eternal fear of fire and our hatred of these creatures which loosened these bonds for a moment. It was only a fleeting moment, and then the world settled back into its eternal rhythm. All that had changed was the branch that pinned the old man to his pyre.
We are so strong.