We watched it burn from the hills to the east. We saw flames and plumes devour the landscape we knew and held dear. Black and other unfamiliar hues now spread throughout the woods where we had once walked under canopies of green. Forest cleared to timber cleared to cinders.
The town was gone but the flames kept moving, almost as fast as the human exodus that had preceded it. “I heard it was a couple of college kids making a bonfire”, “no, it was a lightning strike” some chimed in, while others speculated more on what would be lost rather than what caused one to think of it. We were all there, but the physical impact was still registered, only transferred from one material form to the other. The year had been dry and while winter was on its way, there was no stopping a spark jumping to brush, then to log, and finally to us and our place in the world, nestled into the tapestry of waiting fuel that would eventually swallow what we had built.
The air grew cold with less wind, so the fire stopped, but the burns lingered. Scattered remnants of meadows dotted the terrain like unscarred patches of tissue pressed up against char.
When the time for news passed, the others left, but we picked through the ash and rubble in search of family albums, jewelry, and anything else that might remain. Futile for the most part, although we were all still alive, but that is like comparing survival alone to what is worth living for after, what we had built.
The snow came soon, almost an insult after the fact. The snags poked through the bandage of white like a wound trying to cleanse itself. At least we had somewhere to lie down, but home was a far place from the land we rested upon now. Old growth fell away like matchsticks and we knew that most of us wouldn’t be around long enough to see any of it as it had been.
Time yielded to weeks, months, and eventually years. The children witnessed the evidence daily, even if they had no remembrance of the event itself. Things grew, the grass then the brush, but still not the trees. Meanwhile all of the houses had been rebuilt in the generic style that had come to define the new west. The settlements helped some of us, but others just moved on and tried to get a fresh start. “I hear that those college kids felt pretty terrible (it was them in fact), and that one of them wasn’t doing too well.” He drinks in an attempt to forget, but the land won’t let him.
Years turned to decades, and only a few of us could think back far enough, but the image of it all would never fade. Now I’m the last one left, and I think I finally see something out there on the horizon. I can feel it more than describe it, but I know one day long after all of us have disappeared, those woods will come back whether we’re here to walk through them or not.
Jim Sienkiewicz 2010