Chapter 9 Summary
To his dismay, Brian discovers that although he has the basic elements to make a fire, actually getting one started is not easy. By striking the rock wall of his shelter with his hatchet, he has no trouble making sparks, but getting these sparks to ignite is another matter. Brian tries directing the sparks onto piles of dried grass and twigs, but they only sputter there and die. Thinking he needs something finer for fuel, he shreds the twenty-dollar bill in his pocket, but that does not work either.
Brian next gathers some of the light, paper-like bark of a nearby birch tree and brings back a baseball-size wad of the material into the shelter. He again strikes the rock, eliciting a stream of sparks that fall upon the bark and die—except for one, which seems to catch and glow for a moment before being extinguished. Brian concludes that he needs to make a nest in which the sparks can rest, so he goes out again to gather bark and returns with a ball of fluff the size of a grapefruit. He makes a depression in the middle of the ball with his thumb and positions the nest; this time, six or seven of the sparks find the fuel and smolder brightly before going out.
Brian knows he is close to solving the problem of making fire, so he continues to experiment. He thinks back to his science classes at school, trying to remember if his teachers ever explained what is needed to make a fire. He recalls that fire needs oxygen in addition to fuel. He makes another nest out of birch bark and strikes the rock with his hatchet. He then blows on the sparks as they come in contact with the fuel.
The first time Brian tries this, he blows too hard and snuffs out the sparks. He is more deliberate the second time, aiming the stream of his breath directly at the brightest spots in the nest. This time, the sparks take hold and move slowly up the pieces of bark. Before long, Brian has “a pocket of red as big as a quarter, a glowing red coal of heat,” which quickly bursts into flame.
Brian runs from the shelter to gather branches and sticks to keep the fire burning. When he has brought back enough, he regards the dancing flames and thinks happily, “I have a friend...named fire.” The curve of the rock forming the walls of his dwelling are perfectly formed so that the smoke from the fire is drawn up and out through the cracks in the roof. Brian reflects that not only will the fire provide heat, it will also keep creatures like the porcupine from coming through the door again.
As Brian enjoys his new “friend and...guard,” loneliness for human companionship engulfs him. He thinks about his parents and wonders what they are doing now; he wonders too, if his mother is with him.