Kyla Hanington

Moss grows on the north side of trees. Trees are all that she can see, trees and the gaps between them, the nothing space. Space is what drove her to woods in the first place. Place was hard to find at her home, the place it should have been easy. Easy to feel in the way, a bother, trouble. Trouble is, it’s harder to survive alone in the woods than back home, her imagination suggested to her. Her drenched clothes cling to her skin. Skin can make shelter, she knows, but that involves hunting. Hunting requires skill and knowledge. Knowledge she has; like every other kid she’s read Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain.

Mountain lions creep in trees overhead and wait until you pass underneath to pounce upon your back. Back home she was warned about this at school. School hikes into the woods were creepy; all the kids clustered together anxiously looking overhead for cougars ready to pounce on top of them while the teachers strode buoyantly up ahead. Ahead there’s a thick cluster of trees and she wishes now she had a classmate to shuffle closer beside.

Beside the thick tree she’s chosen for shelter, she stacks up branch after branch, intending to make a lean-to this way. Way easier than hunting and skinning an animal, like a deer. Deer run fast, and she is slow. Slowwww, her older sisters call her when they think she’s not listening. Listening, she hears creaking from somewhere in the woods, as though a branch has snapped beneath a foot. Foot falls could mean bears. Bears mean death. Death means death, but also means an end of being wet and cold. Cold, wet, hungry, and getting afraid, she is no longer certain she can survive in the wild forever, or if she even wants to.

To reach the woods, she had to cross the river. River rocks are slippery, but she has crossed them many a time. Time was she was afraid of the river, years ago, before she grew up and got old. Old enough to cross the river by herself, she told herself crossly, when her foot slipped and she fell in. In her imagination, all those times she lay awake at night planning this, she’d never fallen in the river and started the whole thing drenched to the bone.

Bone cold Sam Gribley made himself a fire, she remembers. Remembers, too, that Sam brought flint and steel with him when he ran away, and she brought only four granola bars, an extra pair of warm socks, and a lighter. Lighter sticks first to build a fire, she reminds herself, then some thicker twigs.

Twigs snap again, far off in the woods. Woods surround her and make noon feel as though evening is fast approaching. Approaching the thick stand of trees, she glances up to check for cougars, then scoops to gather up fallen leaves and sticks for tinder. Tinder needs to stay dry, so she can’t fill her soaking pockets with it and must instead make trip after trip, from the start of her makeshift lean-to to the thick grove of trees and back again. Again and again she makes the trip until she has a thick pile of brush to light.

Light the fire, then take off your clothes to dry. Dry clothes will fix this new life in the woods, a life that almost appeared doomed from its watery start. Start the fire, she coaches herself, and all this will be better.

Better conditions for a fire she can’t imagine; it’s been a dry summer, that’s what her Dad has said over and over. Over the radio periodically came reports of lightning strikes on the mountain; Dad would stand up and rush out of the house to help put out the fires. Fires brought water bombers to the lake by the house; she and her sisters would stand on the porch and watch the bombers descend to the surface of the lake, scoop up water, and rise again with bellies full.

Full now of confidence, she strips off her clothes and hangs them over the branches of saplings near the brush pile she’s created in this spot, carefully chosen. Chosen because it’s close to where she’s going to build the lean-to, so she can sit in its shelter and be warmed by the fire; and chosen because there are wonderful overhanging branches to throw her clothes over. Over the fire, where they will dry and become crisp and warm.

Warm summers give way to rainy autumns which gave way to November’s icy frost. Frost will not even matter; by that time, the lean-to will be almost a house, and she will be masterful at lighting fires. Fires will bring animals to her; in order to stay warm in winter, they will gather around her little home. Home: inviting, safe, warm; she knows the animals will come, and when they do, she will tame one. One wolf, perhaps, with a shaggy face and friendly eyes. Eyes that light up when they see her, not eyes that get pinchy and frustrated like her sisters’.

Sisters are awful. Awful, like skunks' spray and Brussel sprouts. “Sprouts,” her Dad calls the lot of them, his little sprouts, as though sprouts are something good and not something poisonous in your mouth.

Mouth set with determination, she crouches down to the brush pile and presses down hard on the lighter, which does nothing other than hurt her thumb. Thumb extended, she tries again and again, until there is a small bruise on her thumb and still, no flame. Flame eludes her, even though a couple of times the lighter sparked, and even though she has seen her father and older sisters use the lighter over and over again.

Again, she tries to light the little pile of brush. Brush will burn quickly, and at her side she has a pile of larger sticks ready. Ready or not, she says, and gives the lighter one triumphant flick. Flick! Flick, and flame bursts forth; she touches it gently to the leaves, willing it not to go out.

Out of bed once, sleepless, she came downstairs to find her father setting logs in the fire place, to be ready for the morning, he explained. Explained to her then, just the two of them awake together by some miracle, how to set a fire. Fire is built slowly, he told her, first the small sticks, then gradually, layers of thicker and thicker logs, once you know the fire is going well.

Well, I’ve done it, she thinks proudly, watching the little pile of brush burn and slowly, slowly, adding larger and larger twigs to it. It will soon be large enough to warm her clothes, to dry them, and then to eat them, while the little girl stands and swats at the increasing flames. Flames and smoke will be spotted soon enough and a call will be put out over the radio.

Radio chatter will call the girl’s father; he will rise quickly and go outside. Outside, the older sisters will gather on the deck to watch the water bombers lumber laden from the lake to circle over the woods and dump their heavy loads of water on a forest fire birthed seemingly out of nowhere. Nowhere can the girl be found; the sisters call for her and wonder why she is missing such a scene, and so close to home!

Home, the father will return from the fire, ashen. Ashen clothes, ashen face, ashen heart. Heart-broken, he will tell the older sisters about a naked thing found burned in the woods, next to black splinters where trees used to be, where a small adventurer may once have made a pillow out of moss.

Author Portrait

Kyla Hanington is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on Canada’s public radio, CBC. Moss was written as an experiment in form: the first word of each sentence the same as the last word in the preceding sentence, and the title taken from the final word of the piece. Currently an MFA in Creative Writing student at Mississippi University for Women, she is working on her first collection of short stories. When not writing, she likes to kayak.

View the website of Kyla Hanington