From where I grew, another followed
From where I grew, another followed
I remember the fires. How they painted the sky like a bloodied sunrise in the east, swallowing the cold blue winter with withering heat.
The acrid smoke drew me out of my home, tunneled deep in the earth through the door of a hollow tree. Had I not been awake, the fires would have trapped me and many. I crawled from the hollow with eyes still sore from weeping—I’d felt the coming of the flames for weeks. And still, no one was wise to believe me. It is easier to smell the coming smoke when my eyes can see so far; moments that haven’t happened yet, but will soon enough. They always do.
My people put faith in the gods of known chance and entrust their souls to the hands of expected circumstance. It is not all bad, to live by the measured sway of the air, the timely turn of the season. But danger is the difference.
The air is changing.
The fire’s riders care not for custom. Hooves tramping verdant ground to ash, consuming, consuming. Not for need, but hunger. A flame’s gluttony is never satisfied and rarely stopped. They know of little else.
Many will die today, I thought, keeping low to the ground so the smoke couldn’t blind me, and their ignorance will follow them. My gut churned at the thought, though I knew it was true. It didn’t make leaving any more bearable.
Like something more beast than human, I crawled from tree to tree, scraping and knocking on the bark doors until those inside heard, pleading for them to come out and flee. Some answered and took their families far before the first wild flames reached their thresholds. Others refused and shoved me from their plots. “What will you have us fear, beguiled one?” they spat. In the back of my mind, I saw their beautiful oak doors turn to darkened soot. I wasted no time waiting for their change of mind. No need to linger for those who were already lost.
I ran with the hoards I managed to save, fast as we could to beat the riders that pursued us. A pang ran through my chest. Though I knew we were right to run, I longed to turn and face the flames. Wild as they were, they hungered for the peace they could never have. I’d watched for months in my mind as the fire’s riders consumed lands beyond this one with hope in their empty eyes. After this one, they thought, we will slow, we will be satisfied. We will be freed. But peace never did come to them. It never would.
We made it to the grasslands when the sun rose, cleaving the sky with unbearable light. The heat of it razed the back of my neck. I hurried the others on—“Keep going further and further now!”—when I heard her.
Beyond the gnashing of flames, the rider’s gorge—the gentle coo of a child just waking up.
I closed my eyes to look ahead and came up coughing. Even my mind grew dark with this smoke.
The child called again.
For a moment, some bitter part of me begrudged the fools I’d left behind. The ones who had taught me duty to the land and the people on it, though they cursed my gift of seeing. It wasn’t a choice to move without thought, and it never had been.
With something like hate in my heart, I turned away from the masses. The blistering air sucked me back into the forest, dragging me with guiding hands to the fallen tree where an infant lay just out of reach of her mother’s arms. The woman lay motionless, crushed by a twisted branch.
I took up the child and turned back in the direction of the grasslands. Just then, a large oak timbered and fell before me, walls of flame spreading and trapping. The roar of hooves was deafening. This I had not seen. I had not wanted to.
Stepping in circles made no difference. Until I saw before me, mere paces from her poor mother, the child’s home rising tall and strong. The branches were just beginning to alight with feasting sparks. Resolve replaced hate and I fell to my knees, clawing at the tree’s bark with my free hand until some crumbled free. I stuffed it into my mouth, swallowed, and began to pray. To the gods of circumstance. To the forest and trees. To the unnamable eye that saw through me. To take myself and the child, to hold us safe. Alive.
From my knees, roots sprung. They dug and gripped into the earth quicker than I could catch my breath. Upwards I unfolded. Along my arms I grew branches that wove taller until I could reach the flames above me. But, trying to grasp my hands and the bark of my face, they hissed away in steam. In the hollow knot where my womb once was, the baby slept, strangely calm amid the fires as if she did not hear their feasting at all.
I remained until the riders moved on and every tree around me burnt away. Until the child I cradled grew big enough to crawl from the hollow and turn over the soot-stained soil with her own hands to plant things new. I remained when she left—to find her own and be her own—and when she returned. I remained until her own children grew and she waned, tired and wise. Until she came to me and took from my bark.
I remained with her by my side, our leaves billowing, growing, dying.
And I will always remain. This I have seen.