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Watch It Burn / Kaleigh Walter

The hunting cabin was just over the border. Sparrow crossed at International Falls, where the familiar stench of rot from the community’s paper mill drifted in the December air. The sky was a wool blanket, the scratchy kind, and he wanted to tear through it to find true blue. He yawned. There would be no such luck.

As night fell, Sparrow turned from the two-lane highway onto a dirt road. The naked oak and poplar trees were transformed into paintbrushes, absorbing ink from the black air. He parked his car out front and grabbed his bag and the sack of groceries he’d purchased at the gas station—white bread, peanut butter, milk, and a box of matches. Outside, the cabin was simple and often missed behind a grove of pine trees. There, then gone. Inside, the cabin was hollow. It was built as a hideout, constructed by his grandfather and utilitarian in its ambition. Sink and minifridge in one corner, wood-burning stove in the other, and a cot between them. There were usually other things, a card table with a dusty puzzle and a couple of camp chairs, but those were gone. Sparrow would have looked for them, but the cabin’s only closet was too small to hide anything. Uncle Steve must’ve taken them back with him, Sparrow thought, as he put away his milk. The juniper air split around the cabin, filling the nooks and nail holes. Sparrow shivered and used his matches to build a fire. The wood caught easily; the riven oak beneath the tarp on the porch was nice and dry.

He made a sandwich, sat on the cot, and watched the flames the way one might watch television. He almost forgot her. The way she’d looked in the conference room that morning. Wearing a black dress with her hair down the way he liked. Smiling because she got what she wanted. She would’ve looked like a funeral mourner except for that smile. His fault, she said. Now, she had the house. All’s fair and all that.

He leaned back, eyes parallel with the stove. Mounds of white and gray ash swirled behind the glass, and now and then, he caught a storm of neon rain. It reminded him of his older sister’s snow globe, the one he used to steal, shake, and repeat so the glitter never settled, dooming the residents of the North Pole to a beautiful but destructive life.


Sparrow awoke. He was hot; sweat dripped along his neck into his winter jacket. The fire sweltered inside its metal cage. He sat up. Something had stirred him. A sound. He gazed around.

He was not alone.

Two yellow eyes—bright, full moons—hovered in the cabin’s lone window. An owl. Huge and dark like it was made of shadow. The features of its regal face were half alight like a Rembrandt painting. Sparrow wasn’t a bird watcher, despite his name, so the owl’s species was unknown to him. Great Horned, perhaps. It flapped its large wings and tapped its beak against the glass. Its sharp mouth rapidly opened and shut. As if speaking.


Sparrow rose and walked to the window. The owl rapped on the glass again, so he gently undid the latch and lifted the pane. Winter air stole into the cabin like a bandit, but the owl remained. It floated before him and spoke again, clear as a song. It complimented Sparrow’s great fire and asked if it could spare a flame or two.


“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Sparrow said, scratching his head. “How would you carry it?”

In its beak.

“Won’t it burn you?”

The owl assured him it wouldn’t.


“What do you want it for?”


Its family is cold. Please, even the smallest twig would help.


“I don’t know. It seems risky. What if the whole forest burns down? I can’t have that on my conscience.”


The owl leveled its glowing eyes with Sparrow’s dun-colored ones—a mystery churned in them like the fog of a crystal ball. He swallowed, still as a man condemned. Then it flapped its vast wings so the rush of crisp air wrapped around his limbs. He wriggled, but the owl backed away from the window and rose, immediately lost to the dark sky.


Sparrow slammed the window shut, double-checking the latch and then the front door. Back on his cot, Sparrow likened the whole thing to a dream. That was the only explanation. He closed his eyes and slept.


The man woke with the brush of dawn on his face and dreams painted on his eyelids. Sparrow shivered, reaching stiff hands up to his frozen cheeks. The stove had cooled in the night. He swung his legs out from the cot and stood, but something crushed underfoot. The sound sliced him fully awake. Glass. Embedded in the soles of his boots. He blinked. The window was shattered. Shards were everywhere, scattered like glitter across the floor.         

It wasn’t just the window, he realized, but the pane in the stove was broken, too. Punched from the outside in. Sparrow examined his knuckles, but they were bloodless. He smelled smoke and pine. It was overwhelming and sticky, like breathing cough syrup. Sparrow stepped closer to the window, each step tender, intentional.  


The grove of juniper trees that encircled the old cabin like a halo was gone. Every needle had been scorched, every branch consumed. Carbon and hydrogen reduced to a ring of embers atop the dirt.


Sparrow crossed the cabin, grabbed the book of matches, and darted out the door, grinding glass into the earth. He lit a match—the fleeting sulphury scent in his nose—and threw it into the brush.

It did not catch.

He lit another, then another, tossing them into the piles of dead leaves and fallen twigs.

They did not catch.


His fault, he knew.


Only one remained. It lit as easily as the others. An orange flame created to be a conduit of passion or pain. Sparrow threw it at the hunting cabin.

It caught.


KALEIGH WALTER is a poet, prose writer, and nonprofit fundraiser living in Minneapolis. She holds an MFA from Concordia University, St. Paul, and she's working on her first novel. Her work is featured or forthcoming in West Trestle Review and Book of Matches. Twitter/X: @KaleighWalter, Instagram: @kaleigh_walter.


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