My Pa went away in the fall with our crop. Down to Pig's Eye Landing to get the best prices where the barges and mills met. When he came back he was different.
He was, dull. His eyes especially. Pa had used to tell stories, wonderful stories where he did all the voices. Now it was as if he'd forgotten how. He still knew them, but they were dull too. The knight fought but no longer swung his sword. The princess didn't scream for help anymore.
I'd heard at the schoolhouse that people could change if they got kicked in the head by a horse or a cow. I asked Pa if anything had happened to him in the city. It wasn't till the height of winter when we were all snowed in that I got him to tell me.
A man came up in Pierre's Tavern. "Good farmer. Might I share your table?"
Pa looked at the stranger's wide brimmed hat and coat that had once been nice but now was dust colored. "Not interested in any flim-flam tonic." He said.
The stranger smiled. "I am a merchant, yes but no flim-flam man. My name is Robert Tremblay. Beg pardon, I'm only wondering where to get the latest news from a practical man, being new into town and not having heard much of the wider world lately." Well, Pa just couldn't take to being called impractical, so he had the stranger sit down.
Pa told him of the grain blight from the early frost up north, recent crime dramas, rumors of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Afterward, Robert leaned back and sighed in satisfaction. "It's good to be up on the latest information, and you tell it well. Say, have you ever considered being a newspaper reporter?"
Pa was flattered until he realized the merchant hadn't even asked him his name. "I don't have the learning for that, Mister Tremblay," He muttered. "but you must be a genuine salesman. What do you sell if it's not flim-flam?"
"Mostly food tins from New York, the latest variety." The merchant said smoothly, deflecting the criticism. "They even make corned beef hash now."
That was impressive. Things like that were always in demand around here. "Hmph. Well if your prices are fair and you're willing to prove freshness, I'll take a look at your stock." Pa said.
"Certainly." Tremblay stood, gesturing to the exit. "I also have the latest innovation in fruit jars. We're thinking of calling them Mason Jars…"
Before settling up Tremblay pressed a piece of metal into my Pa's hand. A gift to make up for any awkwardness on his part, he said. A firestarter, based on the latest technology. At his urging my Pa tested it and found the brilliant white flame the metal shavings gave off more than adequate. Magnesium, the merchant said it was.
Pa didn't tell me that part of the story but I figured it out anyway. After he got back Pa would send me away whenever he started a fire. I didn't notice at first, but eventually I did and kept back behind a far corner, watching him strike flint to flame. The unnatural white glare was like lightning from a rock, making weird shadows that left little afterimages in your eyes, which was not pleasant. Still, when Pa had the hearth lit and orange flame was licking around the wood, he carefully made another pile of shavings from the firestarter and a snick, snick across the flint had another glaring strobe going in no time. Like he just wanted to watch it burn.
By then he was already pretty far gone, but I was too naive to put it together. He became so silent. You could ask all the questions you wanted and not get an answer. Feeding the animals and using that thing was all Pa did after a while, otherwise he stayed in bed like a hibernating bear. I tried hard to do the rest of the chores and keep the fire going but it didn't matter, the windows would shine with a too bright glow when I was outside. In the early darkness one night the wrongness of it and the not being able to do anything rushed in and I cried and cried.
Just when it felt hopeless, I thought of how people in the stories always made out somehow or other. They had hard things happen to them and they overcame it to solve their problems someday. I made a decision, that I would understand this problem. I would solve it one day. It made me feel better and I went back into the house to do what I had to, but I didn't know what that was and the wall of silence from Pa blanketed my young resolve and nothing changed.
When the firestarter hit the ground, it was terribly startling. A thunderclap upon the floor. I went over and saw it lying there, figuring Pa had dropped it in his sleep. When I picked it up though I saw he was awake and as our eyes met he suddenly sat up. He looked at me but… but nothing. That was all he did. Pa made no sound. I screamed, and there was a tightening around his eyes. I ran.
That night, hidden in the extra cattle blankets up in the hayloft I clutched the firestarter in my hand. It was warm from Pa's touch and I hadn't let it go, thinking that as long as it was kept away from him things would return to normal. I had solved the mystery. There were letters on it I could almost make out but they were just teaching us reading at the schoolhouse, so the letters remained a jumble.
I had many vivid dreams that night. When I awoke, there was a moment of perfect clarity where all of the events and stories were there in my head, but by the time I was up and about I was grasping to hold onto the most memorable ones as usual. I knew I should go send for the doctor like in one of my dreams, the one where Pa got all better. Yet when I went out, there was Pa up and feeding the cows which let me get in the house without any awkwardness. Later when we were together again he said, "You be good pumpkin." and I was so happy. He was getting better. He didn't say anything else though, so I told him his own story of the train robbery that I'd dreamt about last night and I did all the voices.
By the third morning, the firestarter was a cold lump upon waking. My head was so full of dreams that I had to sit for a while, putting things in order. I realized that I was looking off into space, just like Pa did so I got up, speaking to myself as I went down the ladder to prove I still could. He was in bed staring at the wall, so I sat by him and asked if he wanted me to tell Mother's story. We usually both tear up at the thought of telling it, but today it was just me. Pa gave no sign that he knew or cared and if he didn't remember Ma, was he really him anymore? How would we survive once the preserves ran out?
I cried again, till a knock at the door interrupted me. Maybe it was the neighbors coming to check on us since we hadn't been over. Instead there was a tall, filthy man in a no longer fancy tailed coat and hat on the stoop, damp from the late winter rain.
"Hello little girl." He said, a fake smile quickly put on his face. "Is this the Miller farm?"
I didn't answer, not knowing what to think of a stranger out here. He peered beyond me and spotted the figure in bed. "Oh dear." He muttered absently, pushing past me into the house, going straight over to my Pa. The man put his hands on him as I moved over, thinking, 'Stop! Who are you? Get out of our house!' but still not finding words to object as he turned back to me.
"My dear, you must listen. Your Father is very sick." He paused to let this sink in, then got down on one knee to put his face at my level. "I can help, but we must get him to a doctor. My wagon is at the top of the valley."
In my head, I thought, how easy for him. This is obviously the part of the story where the villain gets what they want so that all hope seems lost. Yet what can I possibly do?
He saw my hesitation. "What is the matter, girl? Why don't you speak?"
His gaze grew sharp, searching. Self conscious again, I put my hand in the pocket of my dress where it was to help with the fear. The man saw and grabbed my wrist, withdrawing the firestarter I hadn't had time to let go of. He took it and removed one of his gloves, holding it in his bare hand. It must have been as cold to him as it was to me now because he frowned and looked to Pa, then to me.
He was silent awhile, then said simply, "My name is Mr. Tremblay. This belongs to you." and handed the stump of the firestarter back.
I'm still not sure if accepting it was the worst mistake of my life or not.