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The harsh wind howled outside, but inside the hearth glowed warmly. There was a cottage; a solitary establishment in the deep taiga amid the pines and the snow and the dark. There was a lot of snow. Everything was covered with a counterpane of the white powder. It was cold. There was also a woman. A very old woman. Creased by time.
She sat next to the fire and stared at it. She saw shapes in the fire, memories and recollections that only she could know. The old, pine chair creaked as she shifted. Pinewood. He had loved to use pinewood. Everything was made of pinewood - the house, the furniture - everything.
The old woman was singing. She sang in a forlorn, esoteric language. It had a sad tune. It spoke of life withering away. Not rotting. No. Withering. Nothing rotted so far north - not memories, not love, not people, not animals. They just withered. Withered and stayed. She was withered. She was lonely. Withered for years now. Lonely for years now.
The song was long. She did not remember all of it. He used to sing it to her. She sang the chorus twice and stopped. The fire was dying. With a small sigh she hauled her withered frame off the chair and limped towards the fireplace. Muttering. Always muttering. Now that there was nobody to talk to. It kept her sane. Muttering. Singing.
There was firewood in a little cubbyhole next to the fireplace. Pinewood. Excellent for burning. Muttering, she bent down, old limbs. Protesting. She took a log out of the cubbyhole. She placed it carefully in the fire. She reached for another one. Her fingers found nothing. As the log caught fire, a thought crossed her mind. “The fire will not last. Or maybe it will. Hopefully.” She went back to her chair and sank into it. She was soon asleep.
She woke up with a start. She was shivering. She looked at the fire. It was almost out. “I must keep the fire running!” she thought. She remembered the books. Books meant nothing to her anymore. Her eyes were bad. With much effort, she lifted her withered body of the chair. There were lots of books. Old. Leather bound. Dusty. Grabbing an armful of them, she hobbled to the fire.
She watched the books burn. A single tear formed in her eye and trickled down her wrinkled cheek. Staining it. He used to be fond of books. They used to read together. Right here. In front of the fire.
She had no regrets. She had no use for books. The fire was necessary. The fire was kind. It was warm. The books were a small sacrifice. She had not read one for a long time.
She was back on her chair again. She did not sleep. She did not sing. She watched. She watched the flames. Flickering. Licking. Eating. She stared and she muttered. A singular spot at the heart of the fire caught her interest. It was black. Pure inky black. It did not flicker like the rest of the fire. It stayed. It seemed that all the warmth of the fire originated there. It was black. She kept staring at that point until it filled her vision.
The books lasted the whole night but when morning came, the fire was beginning to die out, but the darkness and the cold were not . Everything was dark at this time of the year. The sun neither rose nor set. She was trapped in a perpetual darkness, punctuated occasionally by the spectral lights of the north. Aurora Borealis. But she knew that somewhere in the future, summer would come and with it life. It had to. She had seen too many. Far too many. And she knew . Was she lucky? She supposed not. Everyone else was gone. Long gone.
Another tear formed in her eye. It stayed there.
Now the books were gone. She knew what she had to do. She got up and went to a closet standing at the corner of the room. She opened the door and put her hand inside. She felt the rough, warm cloth with her fingers. The furs. The jackets. They had made these together. She was extremely fond of them. She pulled them out. Back at the fireplace. She started dropping the clothes into the fire. One by one. She picked up the last one. She hesitated. It was lynx. He had made it for her right before.. before. With a cry, she dropped it into the fire. She was breathing heavily. Sacrifices had to be made. The fire demanded it. She had to obey. It was her lord. She could not let it die out. Even for a second.
She sank back into her chair. She sat and stared at the Fire. The black spot was gone. Along with it, the warmth. Replaced by heat. The Fire was no longer kind. It was cruel. But she was bound to it. She was addicted. She hated the heat, but hated the cold more. She wanted to break away but couldn't. She felt sapped. Sapped of strength and will power. The heat was all that remained.
This time she did not wait for the Fire to wane. She got up and in a sort of trance, she clutched her chair. She pulled on it. It made a loud scraping noise. Like a scream. It was soon burning. She grabbed another piece of furniture and fed it to the blaze - and another and another and another. It huge now, but she was in a thrall. “Can't-let-the-fire-die. Fire-must-not-die."
Stop. Suddenly she stopped. There was nothing left. The cottage was an empty shell. A discarded husk. Empty. She looked at herself. Her dress. She began to tear off her clothes. She flung them into that fiery maw. Layer upon layer. Thrown away.
She was naked. Exposed. Vulnerable. An immense exhaustion descended upon her. She had no energy. The Fire had drained her utterly. The heat was gone too. The flames now seemed cold. Pitiless. Demanding. But demanding what? She had given it everything. Everything she had. It did not release her.
There was a mirror lying on the floor. She looked at it. Looked at the Fire. Ghostly. Insatiable. Invulnerable. Hypnotizing. The black spot had returned. She looked back at her reflection. Small. Bent. White. Withered. Lonely. Suddenly she knew. Knew what needed to be done. Knew how to satisfy the Flame. A small smile formed on her lips. She chuckled softly. She straightened her back. She turned her head. She was facing the fire. There was a twinkle in her eye. Her smile was crazed. She felt younger. He was calling her.
She took a step forward.
San Francisco, California
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