I wish I knew the rules here

By Isaac Williamson

This year’s festival theme was Campfire Stories; the stories submitted for the contest had to include the phrase ‘camp’ and/or ‘fire. Judges were Luna Lee from Parallel Aotearoa and editor Damien Levi. Williamson’s story won the overall prize.

There was a campfire nestled in the tall grass. There was always a campfire in the grass, it was the only thing that was always there. 

From a distance, the light could easily be lost, as the coastal winds caused the flames to gutter and dim. Up close, it felt like a haven from the chaos of the world around me. Light from the fire soaked into the tall stems of salt-bleached tussock, giving it a substance that the breeze wove together into a small, golden nest, perched in the dunes. 

I trudged my way towards the familiar refuge, the heavy lifting steps required to ascend the shifting sands stealing away the last of my strength. The grass was only as high as the middle of my thighs, offering little resistance even as it gifted me with a thousand tiny cuts, which I would only feel with the next wash of salty ocean spray. 

I pushed my way into the glowing safety of the firelight and finally collapsed into the soft embrace of the sand. Grains filled my hair and trickled into my clothes, still warm from the baking heat of the day. I had long since given away any sense of irritation this could bring; instead, I found a familiar comfort in the way it accepted me into its shapeless folds. I suspected that one day I would sink so deep into the cooling sand that I would never rise again. Every time I returned here, it felt more and more inevitable. 

For a moment, I was subsumed beneath the sound of waves crashing in the distance and the gentle susurration of dune grass in the wind. Caught between this immense weight of calming sensations, I lost myself, becoming simply a transition beneath the earth and the sky and the water. Here, I felt safe; here, I felt whole. 

“You’re back again.” 

The stranger by the fire spoke in a tone I could only think of as timeless, like the moment his words reached my ears they had always been there, and always would be.  

The stranger waited for me at the fire, the only other constant I had known in this place. Sometimes he wouldn’t speak, just sit and keep me company till sleep took me, but more often than not he would open with this particular observation. 

“Mmm Hmm,” I mumbled, eyes closed, as I dug my fingertips through little channels in the sand. 

“You are not angry this time.” 

“Should I be?”

“You always used to be.”

I snorted. “I’m too tired to be angry any more.” 

“Maybe that means you are growing.”

“Or maybe I’m just getting older.”

Silence ruled again for a while, a silence filled with the sounds of swell against the shore, wind sweeping through the dunes, and the thunderous rumble of distant city blocks eroding and crashing into the ocean. Eventually I broke it. The stranger’s silence was not my own. It  felt like a yawning chasm and something in me felt compelled to try and fill it. 

“Do you know how often I’ve been here?”

“Do you?”

“No, that’s why I asked.”

Silence, as always. The stranger rarely answered questions. The desire to sleep threatened to overwhelm me, but I knew if it did then the world would reshape itself in the night and I would once again be lost. To stave off the inevitable, I began to talk.

“I just wish I could learn the rules. Or even what game I’m playing. I’ve been through this so many times, so many that even you don’t know, and I’m tired of trying to figure out where to even start.” 

“I did not say that I do not know.”

“No, but you wouldn’t tell me, so what does the difference matter?”

I opened my eyes, prising their leaden lids apart, and looked at the sky. It was a cloudless evening and, even with the ambient light from the fire, the stars were clearly visible against the deepening purple of the void beyond. They were, as they were most nights, arranged in strings and whorls completely unlike the night before. 

“I used to look for constellations, you know, like maybe I’d figure out the pattern and I could—I don’t know—navigate by them or something. Sometimes I wonder if they knew that, and would wait till I almost had it figured out before they changed again.”

“You think this world is against you?” His voice was almost sad, but even that I didn’t know if I could trust. 

“It’s hard not to feel like it.” I waited for another comment but none were forthcoming, so I continued, driving deeper into the conversational chasm.

“Today I found a place where the rain fell upwards. Occasionally I go into the city, even if it still scares me. I like to wander unfamiliar streets, hoping against all hope that I might suddenly find myself somewhere I have been before. I wonder who lived there, who built it, why they left. Maybe they’re all still out there, lost like me. I see footprints sometimes, washing away in the tide, and shapes in the distance that could be people until I get closer. I wonder occasionally if it’s you, watching me stumble and stagger through the rising waters, clinging to the crumbling remains till I am washed away and drowned. But then I wonder how you could also be here, waiting for me when I am stranded on the shore.” 

The stranger said nothing, unless he spoke in the crackle and pop of burning driftwood, and I didn’t know how to speak that language.

“I found the rain in a room with peeling wallpaper printed with roses. Water seeped through cracks in the concrete floor, fractures opened by creeping vines, then left as salt claimed their roots. It pooled and dripped upwards, not playing in reverse but actually falling towards the ceiling, where it collected in a dark, heavy looking mass. The ripples of a hundred rain drops filled its surface, meeting in peaks and valleys and lapping against the wallpaper. I didn’t understand it, though that has become a familiar feeling, but I wish I did. It was beautiful and sad, and I was struck by the feeling that maybe I was the one who was upside down, like maybe my whole world and everywhere I stepped was simply going against the flow of this one space. 

“Then, just as I began to come to terms with this new world, it ended. The rain stopped falling. The water fell from the ceiling and swept me from that place, churning and tumbling, till I found myself sodden and lost in the ruins of some else’s city once again. I wonder, did I cause that? By trying to understand, did I intrude and break some unseen yet sacred ritual? Or would it always have chosen that moment to fall, unseen and unheard by anyone?”

I could feel the sand beneath me growing cool and damp, my body drinking away the warmth of the day and replacing it with dew drops of humid sea breeze. Beside me, the fire had slumped into a pile of deep crimson coals that would hold the last gasps of their furnace-like heat long enough to carry me through the night. 

The stranger sat where he always sat, unmoving and lost in the lengthening shadows. 

“Do you think you will ever understand?”

“Dunno, probably not.” I slurred the words, sleep sinking its long knife between my vertebrae.

“So why do you keep trying?”

“What else is there?”

“You could stay here, this never changes, I am always here.”

“To sink into the sand and sleep, safe against the world? It’s certainly tempting.” 

I rolled over, wiggling a recess beneath me, shaping my bed for the night. 

“But then I’d never see who leaves the footprints, or who watches me from a distance. There is beauty here, even if it scares me to seek it out. Maybe that’s all there is, surviving each day so that I might see the next time the rain falls upwards.”

“Indeed,” the stranger intoned, his unwavering tone the last thing I heard as exhaustion overtook me, “maybe next time.”