The fire had long stopped. The trees stood pole thin. Black charcoal towers jutting slight from the ground and lancing the sky. They creaked, a faint echo of the torrid crackling fire that turned them from lush green plumes into these stilts. The ground was a powder of grey and black. I thought of the astronauts walking on the moon. I paced slowly between the trees, hoping not to drag my sleeves along their skins to become soiled with soot, but after five minutes I relinquished trying to avoid the trees and after fifteen minute I was indistinguishable from the charcoal trees...
The fire had long stopped. The trees stood pole thin. Black charcoal towers jutting slight from the ground and lancing the sky. They creaked, a faint echo of the torrid crackling fire that turned them from lush green plumes into these stilts. The ground was a powder of grey and black. I thought of the astronauts walking on the moon. I paced slowly between the trees, hoping not to drag my sleeves along their skins to become soiled with soot, but after five minutes I relinquished trying to avoid the trees and after fifteen minute I was indistinguishable from the charcoal trees.
I could only imagine how hot it was here, where I was walking.
As I meandered through the trees I’d poke my leather-work-gloved fingers into their brittle charcoal sides and firm rectangular blocks would tear, separate and fall into my hands or slip to the ashy ground. I leaned on a slight tree, maybe an arms lengths around, and I found I could tip the trees pretty easily. They’d crack and sigh and then fall lightly into spines which would then crack apart at multiple lumbars and nearly disintegrate into the ash ground.
I walked about a mile through this burnt-out forest, knocking and poking at trees, flattening them into ash. I figured I was making a new trail and imagined this same act being accomplished by ancient figures walking through a newly dead forest generations ago. I guessed these trees were a hundred or so years old. Either this land was clear cut by settlers or maybe a fire had cleared the land. I found more comfort in thinking it was a fire. I couldn’t fathom men destroying all of the native trees. The sun was setting and the air began to chill.
I turned to make my way back along the new track I had created. Instead I lost my way. The horizontal sun changed the look of everything. It could have been an entirely new, untouched charcoal forest.The trees appeared even more svelte, leaning towers that became think black stripes against the orange and purple sunsetting sky.
The wind picked up, as did the cracking sounds. White ash flecks lifted and flew in the air, into my mouth and eyes. It tasted bitter, it burned my eyes. I blinked my eyes clear and gaged my trajectory by the placement of the sun. I had the confidence I’d make it back, it might just take a bit longer than I had thought, but my time was my own. There was no one waiting on me that evening.
I decided to tilt and push over more trees in order to mark my trail. Just in case I was accidentally traveling in circles. By now I was covering in a thick coat of ash and charcoal. My hands and forearms, which were exposed up to my rolled-up sleeves, were pitch black to the point where they’d vanish into the night. The sun had set and it was getting harder to see.
I thought I spied a lamp further up a hill to my left. It could have been a house light or a far away street signal. Since I had no clear idea on how to escape this forest I decided to make this lamp my focal point, and use it as a north star. The sky had gone cloudy and there were no true stars to guide me.
The wind continued to pick up and the trees whistled and cracked. I could hear some trees collapse and dimly shatter. Far away I heard a sound much like popping corn. I walked further towards where I thought I’d seen the lamp, but it was gone. I put my hand to a tree at my left and was struck by its warmness.
At first, I pulled my hand away quickly, then returned it to enjoy the warmth. It was growing cold beyond the body heat I was creating from my trudging. I put my right hand on the tree in front of me and it too was warm. I placed both hands on the ground aside my feet and it was warm. I shuffled aside the ash and found flickers of embers slithering on and off in orange twinkling. I looked around hurriedly for kindling to ignite. I thought I could make it through the night if I had a little fire.
I bent and cracked small charcoal twigs from the trees within my arms length. I brushed more ash aside and placed the twigs on the fattest ember I could find. I then blew lightly on the heat until the coal caught a flame. The black twigs became white and then black again. They popped. I grabbed more twigs, breaking them down into small segments and kept adding them to the fire. I cracked apart longer branches into short logs and kept adding those and the flame grew higher. What a relief.
As I hunkered down by my little fire, and felt a great sense of relief, the wind picked up again and didn’t relent. Small, bright, but fading sparks, lifted from my fire and rose above me. From behind me I heard the popping again and what sounded like tiny roars. There was something inside me that both told me to be frightened and also be joyful. It’s hard to explain the emotion beyond that I knew I needed to turn around, but didn’t yet want to. I could now feel heat in the wind and I knew what I was going to see when I turned around. I stood slowly and turned to see a wall of orange fire engulfing the black sticks of trees. It was marching engulfing tree by tree, enveloping them into the orange. I stood in place for a moment. Amazed by the scale of it, the heat, the roaring. For a moment I thought of walking toward it, right into it, as if I could transcend into another world.
The heat was immense. With a short breath I turned quickly and jolted further up the hill. The fire didn’t approach me as I thought it would. I could now look down on it. It was probably ten yards across and five yards deep. A crescent moon of fire curving its way across the already dead forest of charcoal trees.
I continued to walk up the hill. The heat dissipated and the cold air came rushing back. I shivered and walked blindly into a grey chain link fence. I hopped over it and entered the playground of the elementary school a few towns over, where my cousins had gone. I walked around to the front of the school and sat on the stone steps there in the dark, rubbing the ash between my palms but it was endless. After a while I turned up the road towards my right, to the main intersection and found my way home.