This is a short story I entered in a contest run by the Hemingway family last year. It didn't win, but I still like it, so I posted it here. It's different than most of my stuff - more of a slice-of-life kind of thing that is meant to be symbolic. I hope you enjoy it.
"Everyone must face the night," George's father said.
"But I don't like the night," George replied. "It's dark out there, and something keeps making strange noises."
"Those are merely creatures of the night, and you must eventually confront them."
George was a sturdy boy nearing 16, with shoulder length brown hair and a frame that hadn't yet filled out. The loincloth he wore covered what it needed to, while a layer of dirt seemed to cover the rest of him.
He poked at the fire with a stick. Sparks rose towards the roof of the cave, and George stared sullenly at the flames. His father had recently been pushing him hard to go out into the night, but the fire was so warm and comfortable that George didn't want to. It was different in the daytime when he could see what was coming, but the dark made him nervous.
As it always did, the fire burned until sunlight flooded the cave's entrance. Now that it was light again, George had nothing to fear. He could see where he was going, and he could identify all the noises of the forest - sharp chirps were birds, loud grunting came from the apes, and the occasional growl emanated from the jungle cats that roamed for prey. Yes, in the daylight, he knew what to avoid and how to stay safe.
The grownups talked a lot about the dark of night. George's father mentioned it could be cold and contain surprises. George's own brother had gone into the night a few years back and never came back, so he wondered why anyone would ever willingly venture into such a nightmare.
Today his father took him fishing by the stream at the base of a nearby hill. The water flowed freely after recent rain, and the fish proved easy to catch. The boy felt like he didn't have a care in the world. In the midst of this relaxation, his father broke the silence with that disturbing topic again.
"George, your time of ascension is near. You must venture into the darkness."
"I don't want to," George pouted. "I get all I need from the fire and daylight. Our cave is well lit and I have all I could ever want."
"Every man must confront that which he fears. It is not our lot in life to stay comfortable."
"But Stephen went into the night and we haven't seen him since," George countered. "What if he was eaten by the puma? What if he slipped on rocks by the waterfall and plunged into the river?"
George's father dipped his fishing line back into the stream. "I have faith that your brother is making his way in this world, and if God sees fit to bring him back to us, we'll see him again. If he is unable to handle moving around and living in the night, then we can but pray for his spirit."
"But the fire is warm," George protested. "It keeps away the predators and lets us see so that we don't fall."
"Only because your mother and I make that fire for you each night."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Son, I mastered the night long ago. I conquered it by building our fire each evening, but I have enough confidence in my abilities that can survive in the night if need be."
Shaking his head, George went back to his line. He decided he would never go into the night on his own. If he could help it, he would never go into the night at all.
It had been a good haul - the fish tasted fine, and all three of them ate until their bellies were full. George poked at the fire with his stick and noticed it was growing small, but he got a nasty surprise when he reached for another piece of wood - there was none to be found.
"Father," he said in a trembling voice, "we're out of wood."
"Oh, we must've forgotten it this afternoon. No matter - we'll just get some more."
George was nervous. They'd never run out of firewood before, and the sun was already down. He hoped that his father could return with enough wood to stave off the night before the light died. That was when the evening's second nasty surprise reared its ugly head.
"George," his father said, "I want you to accompany me."
The boy's insides went queasy. "Why do I need to go? Can't you just make multiple trips?"
Stern lines set into his father's face. "I'm getting old, and my footing isn't as sure as it once was. I need help to get enough to last the night. If you won't help, I'll have to wait until morning."
"B-but the fire will go out," George stammered.
"You have a keen eye," his father countered. "Come - it won't take long."
George's hands shook. His father walked to the cave's entrance and looked back expectantly. The boy took a tentative step, and then another. When he reached his father's side, the older man turned and walked into the darkness.
He was determined to stay close enough so he could keep an eye on his father and not get lost. The ground was moist and the footing uncertain, so his eyes darted between the ground and his father's shoulders as they moved into the night.
After a few minutes, George said, "Where are we going? There's wood right by the cave."
"You forget that we had rain two nights ago. The wood around our cave is wet and unsuitable to burn. We need to head into the hillside where the clouds never went."
He hadn't counted on this. The trip into darkness was supposed to be quick so that he could again be warmed by the fire. That they would be surrounded by black concerned him.
The journey took over an hour, and his father held him by the hand as they walked. George slipped in the mud or on the occasional rock, but his footing grew more firm as his eyes adjusted. As they reached the hillside above the clouds, his father let go.
George's fingers instinctively flexed without the firm grip of his father, but he kept his eyes on the older man. When they reached a pile of dry brush, George's father turned to him and said, "How much wood have you picked up, son?"
Even in the dark, George could tell his father's face hardened. "We won't get near enough if you focus solely on me. Look around and explore so we can get what we need."
"Yes, father," George replied, his eyes licking the ground.
Once he started looking around, George began finding what they came for. He picked up smaller twigs but soon realized those would serve little purpose beyond kindling. He began to grab larger pieces, checking for the holes that would allow air flow so the fire could burn longer.
After a few minutes, he lost track of his father, and as long as he was immersed in picking up wood, that didn't matter. However, once his hands were full, he looked around.
The wood clattered to his feet as his heart leapt into his throat. He squinted, hoping that he could look through the opaque curtain of night and locate the other man. Although his vision had gotten better, the night overpowered his eyes.
"Father!" he called.
The only answer he got was the hooting of an owl. Things seemed very still. George stood like the night itself was holding him in place.
Calm down, he thought. He's out there. Just listen for him.
His stillness now had less to do with fear and more to do with trying to pinpoint his father. The owl hooted once more, but there was nothing that sounded familiar. Surely the man would be looking for him, calling out for him as he'd called for his father.
Seconds wore into minutes. George became more accustomed to the sounds of the night, but none of them were his father. He now faced a dilemma - risk facing creatures of the night by staying here, or try to find his way home.
He broke from his spot and waded through the dry grass. His footstep were unsure since he was without a guide. He'd been on this hilltop plenty of times, but those times were always in daylight, so he found it disconcerting to be unable to see much.
The moon hung in a sliver on the horizon, providing little help. As George ventured along the edge of the hill, the dark outline of some unknown thing rose in front of him. George saw spindly arms reaching for him. Those arms drew back a little before lunging once more.
However, George soon realized that the figure was little more than a tree devoid of leaves. The tree swayed in the wind, and he soon laughed about his foolishness. He ventured on.
"Father!" he called out again. Again he was met by silence.
What is his father had fallen? Worse yet, what if his father had been taken by the puma or some other creature of the night? Who would gather the wood and hunt for his family? George had accompanied the man and knew what to do, but he'd never had to forage alone. Would he be able to provide for his mother if his father failed to return?
He searched for another half an hour before starting the journey home. He'd called for his father several more times and gotten the same silence each time. Either his father had decided to return home, or he'd fallen prey to something in the night and George would find his remains in the morning...if ever.
The top of the hill had been barren, except for the occasional tree and sea of dry grass, but the woods he now reentered were a tangled mass of branches and blackness. A limb he couldn't see hit him in the face and George fell onto the wet ground.
There was a click-click-clicking noise nearby. George froze again and waited until it faded. The night flittered through the trees, giving George very little to navigate by. Even though he knew the way by heart, his footing was unsteady at night. Each step felt like a long day's march, and the muddy ground pressed into his feet as much as the night pressed into his eyes.
George grabbed branches and the occasional tree trunk for balance. He thought he remembered the way, but he couldn't tell if the misshapen rock he just touched was the one by his favorite reading spot or the one that led to the river. He pressed on.
Eventually, the ground became more steep and George stumbled further. He knew he'd passed the trail leading home and would have to go back up the hill when his feet found water.
The water came to his knees, and he knew he was in the stream they used for fishing. It was cold and rushed past him, but he found comfort in knowing where he was. As he was about to climb the bank and go back up the hill, something silver caught his eye. Whatever it was darted downstream and out of sight.
However, another silver flash came towards him, so George stayed still and peered into the water. It soon became evident it was a fish he'd never seen before.
The fish glinted in a way it shouldn't have been able to without light. It was twice as big as anything George had seen in the daytime, and he wondered how long his family could feast on such a creature.
Absurd, he thought. Why would anyone want to fish at night?
To catch fish that big, he thought as he took another look. He didn't have the tools to grab the fish now, but he made a mental note to come back later. Wait until his father heard about this!
Still unsteady, he grabbed a tree branch that hung over the stream and pulled himself out of the water. As he regained his balance, he felt something odd in his hand. Whatever was on the branch he'd grabbed was round and hard.
He stripped the branch of several of these round objects. Rolling them around in his palm, he finally brought them up to his nose and sniffed. Berries!
He loved berries. They were a treat he enjoyed after a meal of fish or chicken, but his father or mother had always gathered them until now. George was sure that lots more trees carried them, but he'd never thought to look above his head before. He'd have to remember this - now he would be able to enjoy berries whenever he wanted.
Munching on a handful of berries, he strength returned. Yes, the wet leaves and mud still pressed into his skin, but he felt more able to shake them off.
There was a low rumble to his front. He froze again. The throaty growl warned him it was an ocelot or some other small predator. Such creatures could be aggressive, and their teeth would rip through his skin with the ease of a carving stone.
Night continued to hide the animal, but George strained and felt it was somewhere just up the hill. If he was where he thought, there should be a small cache of rocks up ahead, and they might provide enough cover to hide him.
He didn't want to move too fast, for he knew quick footsteps would give him away. It was fortunate there was a cross breeze blowing down the hill down, so the animal shouldn't have been able to catch his scent. Finally reaching the small field of rocks, George knelt behind one of the larger stones. If the creature found him, he'd have to pick up one of the rocks and fight it off.
However, it never found him. George heard it growl again before heading back up the hill, apparently on the trail of some other thing that wasn't as careful. He said a silent prayer and headed back into the woods.
The rest of the way was slippery, and George twisted his ankle more than once, but he finally saw the soft glow of his family's cave. He moved towards it, brushing tree limbs and leaves aside as he made his way.
He was dirty and tired, and he knew that only another hour or two remained until the sun broke the horizon. Still, his mother and father weren't asleep. His mother sewed a couple of pieces of fur together while his father stared into the fire.
"I made it back," George panted.
His father looked up and smiled. The man stood and looked at his boy. "I knew you would."
George trudged into the cave and plopped down by the fire. "What a night."
"Yes, but you survived." His father looked at him. "Did you bring back any firewood?"
George looked up at his father, his eyes wide. "Firewood? I barely returned with my flesh still on my bones."
"As might be, but a man must be able to bring things back from the night as well as brave it."
George's mouth was agape. Didn't his father realize what he'd been through?
"I dropped the wood when I couldn't f-find you," he fumbled. "I thought survival was enough."
"Enough for now," his father reassured him. "In time, you'll have to come back with more. Once you're in a cave of your own, you'll have no choice."
It slowly dawned on George what had happened. "You meant for this to happen, didn't you? Why?"
"Because each man must face the night."
"But I could've died!"
"You didn't," his father noted. "And there were things you discovered out there."
George rubbed his neck. He didn't want to admit he learned anything, but he found his voice betrayed him before he could catch it. "I saw the biggest fish I ever have."
"Yes, they spawn at night. This is the time to bring in the best catches."
"And the berries - I found berries."
"A nice treat. Maybe now you can get your own instead of relying on us."
"But there was an ocelot!" George protested. "It nearly found me."
"If it had found you, what would you have done?"
"I would've fought it.".
His father sat down and placed an arm around his son. "You'd have reacted as I expect any man would have. Further, it didn't find you - you figured out how to get away and survive to face it again someday. You learned much on your first foray into the night, much as your brother did. In the coming days, you'll make another foray, and your confidence will grow with each step. Maybe next time, you can even remember to bring back firewood."
George looked at the fire, high and bright. To the left of the fire was a large pile of branches.
"Where did all that come from?" he asked.
"Wouldn't you know it, but it turns out that there was some in the back of the cave. However, it's getting low, and we'll need more tomorrow."
"Maybe you can get the wood and I can try to get a fish."
His father smiled. "One step at a time, George. One day you'll own the night. For the moment, take comfort in simply having survived it."
George fell back on the fur laid down by his mother. As firelight reflected off the ceiling, he reflected on his adventure. His father had been right - the night was a challenge, but one he'd faced well. Next time, he'd do even better. The prospect both thrilled and frightened him. And although he didn't think the fear would ever completely retreat, it would lessen in time, and he would master it.
He had no choice.