When I was younger, I used to spend some time up North. Hunting, fishing. Lonely work. Sometimes I‘d bump into some fella or other, out doing the same as me. Shooting things. Getting away from the world. We’d use shacks. Wooden floors, a place to make a fire, maybe a bed. Sometimes, you’d have to share.
This fella, Pete, he was a trader, not a hunter. But he was tall. Strong. And one thing about him. He’d burn Bibles.
‘Done it since I was a kid,’ he’d say. ‘They’re big books. Fat. Burn good.’ Then he’d laugh, chuck another one on the flames.
He’d carry them with him on the sledge, with the dog team. On the back there’d be a sack. In the sack, Bibles.
‘I sell ‘em,’ he’d say. ‘Back over Grice’s Town. God fearing folk, some of them over there. Read these damn Bibles every day.’ He’d smile, saying it. ‘So much reading going on, they fair wear them out. Every year, I take up a huge stack of new ‘uns. An’ I bring back a few of the old ‘uns, for burning fuel.’ He’d put an arm around me. ‘Keep me warm all the way back to Halliville.’
Pete’s laugh, it worried me. Out there, it’s best to keep quiet. Some animals, they don’t like to hear a human laugh. It strikes them they’re being mocked.
So Pete, he’d tell stories while the Bibles burned a red light onto the walls of the shack. He’d had a brother, hanged himself. Also, a dog he had as a kid, it gave birth to a puppy with six legs. One time, he told me this story about a girl he used to know. ‘No tongue,’ he said, sticking out his own, long, silvery-pink, and waggling. Then he mimed snipping at it with shears. ‘ I cut it right outta her, account of her sticking it down some other man’s throat.’ He’d laugh that wolf-baiting laugh of his. ‘Still, she kissed better without it,’ he’d say.
I never used to talk much to him. He was the type of fella don’t need anyone’s help in keeping company. All you had to do with a fella like Pete was listen. I was sorry for him, though. All his stories, all these hardships, bad luck. I wondered if it didn’t have anything to do with the word of the Lord, how he took warmth and pleasure from burning the scriptures. I never been one for praying, or church-going, but there’s some things a man knows is wrong.
One night, I was sleeping. I’d been hunting all day, made it back to the shack after dark. Empty. Then, in the dark middle of this night, the door bursts in, and it’s Pete. I hadn’t seen him in a year, more, but here he was again, same route, same sledge, same sack of books.
‘Hey,’ I said, but Pete, he was quiet, just mumbled something, felt in his sack and threw a Bible into the dying embers of the fire.
This shack, there was only one bed. You shared a shack, the latecomer slept on the floor, by rights. But this night, Pete, he comes over to the bed, climbs right in there with me. I was stripped down, just a long shirt on, and warm as could be under the blankets. Pete, he threw off his coat, tugged at his boots, then lay right in against me. His clothes came off like he was fighting a sack-full of cats.
‘You don’t mind,’ he said. ‘I got plenty these books to burn, but there ain’t nothing gonna keep me warm like sleeping next to a body.’
Like I said, I felt a mite sorry for Pete. His brother, dead. His dog, six-legged. His girl, mute. So I didn’t say anything. I just lay there, watching the word of the Lord dance in smoke and flames while Pete, he warmed himself against me until he fell asleep. It took a while, but a Bible, it takes a long time to burn, and I didn’t do a thing that whole night. Just lay there while Pete, he warmed himself.
I stopped the hunting later that year. A man gets to thinking when he spends so much time alone. He gets to wanting a woman, a family, a home. It’s not good for a fella, to be alone so much. Pete, I heard he burnt to death one night soon after, on that same route, Halliville to Grice’s Town. I guess a man can burn only so many Bibles ‘fore he gets all burnt up himself.