She stepped into the small cave, grimacing at the scent. 'Bat-dung. Why does it have to stink so much?'
Regardless of the scent, the small cave was ideal. It was situated far enough from the father tree that she wouldn't be bothered by others, and near enough that she could make the trek on foot or wolf back in a matter of hours. Another added benefit was the proximity of water—an imperative when working with fire. The source at this location actually streamed from an opening in the shallow cave, trickling into the nearby hot springs.
The combination of bat-dung and the scent of rotting eggs really did make for a smelly cave, and Beetle almost changed her mind. 'No,' she thought. 'The location is perfect; I will get used to the smell.'
Beetle had chosen it as a good location to work with fire, and she'd decided the first thing to do would be to simply build one. She had brought several pieces of char from her last fire-building venture. Experience had taught her that the char would help the fire start more easily.
And so, Beetle began.
Taking the bundle off her back, she set it an arm’s reach away where it would be safe from both fire and water. She examined the items she had brought, laying them out with precision. A clay bowl for mixing, a pestle, some twine—mostly plain, dried twine, but some that had been coated in wax, a small tool used for digging, and a bandana, some spices, and a small bag of soured wine, which she had discovered to be very flammable. Finally, there were chars she had collected from the remains of the last fire she had built.
She smiled, then turned and began digging a small pit in which to build her fire. Speaking to herself, she began, “Today, I will determine the best use of materials for my fires. I will also practice working over the fire, stirring items in the bowl, seeing how hot the cave could get.” Beetle was glad no one was present to observe her. She had even left her wolf-friend behind—she was a good wolf, but she was skittish around fires, and she didn’t like Beetle to be near them either. “Better she’s back at the holt.”
Beetle was even more grateful that no one else was present. Though she was loved and accepted, she knew she was a bit “different.” Beetle found that her thoughts streamed a little more logically and a less in the "Now". When speaking her mind, she was too often very direct and not very tactful. She had also found that often, what she wanted to convey was not what she actually shared with others. She knew that others in the tribe did their own experiments, but Beetle was a bit more shy about hers, which was yet another reason she had sought out a small cave for more noticeable experiments. “I want to understand the world—and I don’t always want an audience.”
Digging the small pit was easier than she had expected. The ground was soft and gave way quickly. Beetle was soon satisfied. She found that her hands were covered in a yellowish dust, and she lifted them to her nose. “So that's the source of the rotting egg smell! Sulfur!”
The dirt was saturated with the yellow dust. Beetle had seen sulfur at the hot springs before, but she had never really experimented with it. Her mind began racing toward her next experiment, one that would include determining the properties of the smelly dust. She chose to hold those thoughts until later, because she wanted to finish her task.
A gentle breeze through the cave brought the almost-forgotten scent of bat dung back. She peered deeper into the cave, noticing heaps of it. It reminded her that bats lived in the cave. They were typically nocturnal, and she felt fairly certain they were not present, but she had to be sure. 'I don't want to light a fire and scare them. I'd rather have them fly out because of my presence than scared and choking on the smoke.'
She looked outside, found a long stick, then returned to the cave. She reached up with the stick, methodically moving it across the roof that was high above her. The sound of fluttering wings caused her to duck, and Beetle listened with satisfaction as several bats exited the cave. Satisfied that she would not be choking any animals, Beetle stepped back toward the front of the cave.
Beetle's stomach moved toward her throat at the feel and smell of bat dung. She gingerly extricated her foot from the small pile—“How long have bats lived in this cave?”—and moved to sit near it so she could clean her shoe.
As her line of sight neared the pile, Beetle's attention was drawn from the shoe to the pile. Her footstep had pushed away the top layers of bat dung and had exposed something— strange crystals she had never seen before. They looked almost like the large salt deposits she seen near the oceans, but Beetle knew this was not salt— was it?. It seemed to be the result of the decaying dung, and Beetle was not inclined to taste and see if it was the same sort of salt. “Bat salt probably doesn’t taste so good, anyway. I’ll just take some and try it by fire in a while.”
Knowing she now had two sources of curiosity within the cave, she felt her excitement rise. Reaching forward and ignoring the initial feeling of disgust that one experiences when reaching into a pile of bat dung, Beetle gathered two handfuls of the white crystals and carried them to where her belongings lay.
She decided to place the “bat salt” into the bowl, then sat down and peeled the shoe from her foot. She knew it would take a good washing, but she did not want to do that at the moment. “I have another pair back at the holt—maybe I should just burn these. They're old anyway.” The shoes had been worn thin, and the only reason she did not use the new pair that had been fashioned was that the old ones were so comfortable. Still, washing away the dung and “salt” would take more time, and drying the soaked shoe would take even longer.
Set on burning the shoes in the fire she would soon build, Beetle took a moment to rinse her feet in the trickling stream, then returned to building the fire. She set the charred coals into the bottom of the pit. Then she exited the cave and gathered some dried twigs for kindling and a few larger pieces of decaying log. She returned to the cave and set up the kindling and pieces of log, then smiled as she examined the pyre. Finally, she took the undrinkable "wine" and drizzled it over the pit.
Reaching into a small pocket, Beetle removed two pieces of flint. She squatted and struck the rocks, sending a spark into the pile.
Whoosh. A fire came to life.
Beetle smiled at the sight, happy for the warmth of the flame. She watched it for a time before she was satisfied that it would not burn out. Then, Beetle returned to her belongings. She removed a finely gound willow-bark powder and tossed some into the flames. They created small sparks of light that danced away from the fire, burning out before they hit the ground. She loved watching that happen.
She tried a few other spices, seeing what would happen when they were thrown into the fire, but none had as amusing an effect as the bark powder. She remembered the shoes and threw them in. Something on them caused a rather large spark and popping sound, and Beetle heard, then scented, then felt a char burning in her hair. She reached up, flicking it from her head. It died out as it slid down the wall of the cave.
Beetle stared at the fire in curiosity. “What happened? Dried leather does not burn in that manner!”
She watched the shoes as they twisted and burned, joining the ashes beneath them. The fire was slowly dying. She looked around. The only thing she hadn't tried burning was the strange crystals that came from the bat dung. She considered the bowl for a moment, then reached for and picked it up. Holding it before her, Beetle chose not to pour the bat-salt into the embers. Instead, she reached down, setting the bowl with its contents onto the fire. 'I wonder if the crystals will melt.'
After watching for a while, Beetle began to gather her things together. She re-wrapped the spices, the pestle, which hadn't been used, and other objects, leaving the bowl on the fire. She stood for a moment, stretching her back, then moved to retrieve the bowl. When she did, her foot caught on a small rock, and she stumbled, causing more sulfur powder to fall into the fire pit.
Righting herself, Beetle moved more carefully to retrieve the bowl. The salt-crystals had melted and the liquid was now boiling. Beetle wrapped the bandana around her hand, and reached out to pick up the bowl. The bandana was too thin, and the bowl was too hot, but she had raised it a little before realizing it, and dropped it while saying, "Ouch!"