A Story in a Remote Winter Cabin – by Stephen Jones


He had been saying that he wanted rest for years. But now, now that it was in front of him, he felt restless. His eyes searched the regular repeating lines of the horizontal logs that made up the cabin wall – looking for something to occupy his mind. His gaze rested on an old poster, hung under a pair of cross-country skis that paralleled the sloping ceiling – implied motion. The happy, illustrated faces of the skiers felt distant in time and disposition.

His phone buzzed in his back pocket, but when he reached for it, it wasn’t there. He panicked for a moment, before remembering he had left it in the car he had parked a twenty minute hike away. No point anyway – there was no service, no internet, no power here. He considered for a moment the disturbing notion that his brain had told him his phone had rung when in fact it wasn’t even there. What else did his brain lie to him about?

The daylight turned ever so slightly bluer as the afternoon sun reflected off the snow through the surrounding trees. What were they? Birch? The waning day presented the question of the cold night ahead and he decided to bring in some logs for the wood-burning stove. It would take a while to knock the chill off this little room.

Building the fire felt routine somehow. Not that he had been here before. But it called back to a hundred fires he had built in times past, and connected him with the thousands and thousands of fires the generations before him had built. He watched, satisfied for the briefest moment, as the tender flame took hold in the kindling and tendrils of smoke worked their way through the layers of thin twigs and small sticks – all destined for the same end. Destruction? Perhaps.

A quick search through his bag brought up the Moka pot and some coffee grounds. Was it too late in the day for coffee? Does it matter? He shook his head and sighed. That was a question he didn’t want to get too close to these days.

The Moka pot sat still on the stove top. Waiting. The heat building slowly as layer upon layer of kindling in the stove let flame take hold. What had once been unachievable – a match lighting a log aflame – was becoming reality through the sacrifice of the graduated pieces of wood in between.

Sacrifice. A strange word. Did those sticks think it a sacrifice to let the flame travel from where it could be to where it must be? Was it an honor to give themselves over to the heat and light?

The strength of the flame was now such that the fire would draw its own air, and he reluctantly closed the glass door at the front of the stove. He could see it still, would soon feel its warmth, but somehow the transparent barrier seemed to remove him from the life of the little fire.

He reached instinctively for his phone, as he always did now at moments of transition. Strange how the brief panic of not finding it was quickly replaced by relief at not knowing what messages would be waiting there for him. He looked back to the Moka pot and wondered how long he would have to wait.

Should he make a list? Seemed like he always had a list. He used to think that he’d like to finish it – to cross everything off. But maybe she had been right – he didn’t really want that.

He imagined the water would be starting to lose at least the iciness of its chill now, in the bottom of the Moka pot. He looked at his boots, sitting by the door with frozen snow still clinging tightly to the soles. Slippers…there must be slippers here in the bag, or did he forget them? No, here they were. He rubbed his cold feet for a moment and felt the promise of warmth in the wool lining.

Candles…water…a meal to prepare on the stove…a lantern…what else did he need for night? “Hah!” he laughed at himself…another list.  

The fire was taking hold now – the first log was looking serious about generating some heat. The first twigs were memorialized in the growing heat and faint ash. He decided to sit. It was the first time he had sat in this cabin. The chair creaked uneasily as he lowered his body – more tired than he knew – into it. Small puffs of ancient dust released from the upholstery into the late sunlight slanting through the window.

His body was seated, but his soul was not settled. Reflection and pondering lay along the path he had set himself on, and these were unfamiliar trails. What secrets of the subconscious awaited him there? He had set his mind to finding out, but his unsettled self would not be so easily led toward something so dangerous. And it had tricks of its own.

The smell of the coffee brewing must have been what roused him. He hadn’t intended to sleep, but the sound of the coffee forced up by the steam through the grounds and into the top chamber of the pot – gurgling and whistling – ended any question of slumber.

It was dark now – it must have taken longer to brew than he’d expected. The room had lost the worst of the chill, and he took in the warm red glow and the cozy scent of the fresh coffee. The fire was healthy enough to see by and he added another log while eying the hot pot expectantly.

He poured a short mug for himself and wondered if he should light a candle against the dark. He realized that, through force of habit, he had saved back half for her. If his phone was there he might have snapped a picture for her and sent it: #thinkingofyou.

Sitting back down in the ancient chair, he held the warm cup of fresh coffee. He considered the coming night…what would he do? What would he think about? The thoughts that sought him out – the questions, the doubts, the fears – could be relentless. Relentless – a word that he had once used to describe himself: unrelenting, indefatigable, inspired, driven. Was that what it meant to succeed? And what happens when that youthful energy that propels success through the grounds of life like water through the coffee basket – when that energy is expended but the heat remains? And when you pour the coffee of success out for the world to consume and you are left empty? And can renewal even happen?

His stomach rescued him this time. It was time to prepare the food. Rhythm; the rhythm of home had accompanied him here, to this place far away. His candle – no, he decided on the lantern – kept away the darkness as the canned stew began to warm on the wood stove. His eyes searched the small bookshelf, looking for words that would let him lose himself – or perhaps preserve himself – through the dark night.  

Written in response to the Reedsy writing prompt: Set your story in a remote winter cabin with no electricity, internet, or phone service.