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Holocene  •  19 May 2021  •  Fiction

Ashen Woods

By Amelia Bussing
Content Warning: Death and PTSD
Ashen Woods

She stood in a graveyard‭.‬

The charred corpses of burnt-out pine spread out before her‭, ‬rows upon rows of bare‭, ‬sullen‭, ‬dead husks‭. ‬Treading upon lingering‭ ‬ashen soil‭, ‬she bit her lip and tried to keep her breathing even‭. ‬

They’re just trees‭,‬‭ ‬she told herself‭. ‬

She clenched her eyes shut‭, ‬and sucked in a deep breath‭. ‬It had been over a year‭, ‬yet she could still smell the smoke‭. ‬Taste it‭.‬‭ ‬Its weight conjured bitter memories‭, ‬images of orange skies and tears running down grimy cheeks‭. ‬

They’re just trees‭. ‬

She opened her eyes and looked across the blackened forest‭, ‬letting out a shaky breath‭. ‬There was a lump rising in her throat‭, ‬but she forced‭ ‬ it down‭. ‬She didn’t want to cry‭. ‬

She had grown up among them‭. ‬Growing‭, ‬as they did‭. ‬Playing in them‭ ‬when her father brought her along to work‭. ‬He often told her not to stray‭ ‬too far from the section they were logging‭, ‬but she always tried to go far enough so she couldn’t hear the screeching‭.‬

She would run through the undergrowth as the machines hummed in the distance‭. ‬She would make up stories and dance amongst the leaves as though she were a fairy‭. ‬Something about the forest always made her think of magic‭. ‬The wind whispered spells in her ears‭, ‬and she was sure that if she searched for long enough‭, ‬she would find pixies among the leaves‭. ‬

But the magic was long gone now‭. ‬The lies burnt away to reveal the harsh reality beneath‭; ‬land‭, ‬torn from its original greenery‭ ‬and barred from its native title‭. ‬

This forest was not supposed to be here‭. ‬

They’re just trees‭,‬‭ ‬she told herself again‭. ‬

But when she pulled her hand away from the trunk‭, ‬her palm was blackened‭, ‬and she was no longer so convinced‭. ‬These skeletons were lifeless‭. ‬Mere remnants of the forest they’d once been‭. ‬Were they even trees anymore‭? ‬

She wiped her hand over her jacket‭, ‬leaving traces of soot behind‭. ‬Her fingers were trembling‭, ‬and she tried to steady them by taking a deep breath and forcing her eyes shut‭. ‬

But when she closed them‭, ‬she saw the fire‭. ‬

Racing across the mountains‭, ‬burning through farmland‭, ‬state forest‭, ‬the bush‭, ‬grassy plains‭, ‬all the places she had grown up in‭. ‬

She remembered packing her valuables into a couple of suitcases before‭ ‬shoving them into the back of her dad’s ute‭. ‬She remembered clinging to the dogs’‭ ‬fur in the back seat as they yelped to be let loose‭. ‬The roads had been blocked back to back with hastily packed cars‭, ‬but no one was going anywhere fast‭. ‬She remembered listening to the radio‭, ‬waiting for news on when they might start moving again‭. ‬All the while‭, ‬planes hummed overhead as they circled back around to the battleground‭. ‬

Most of all‭, ‬she remembered the fear‭ ‬—‭ ‬absolute terror‭ ‬—‭ ‬crawling just beneath her skin‭. ‬

The memories surged to the surface‭, ‬and she struggled to keep her sobs‭ ‬contained‭. ‬She began to walk‭, ‬forcing herself forwards‭, ‬scrambling upwards‭. ‬The frigid morning air stung her cheeks‭, ‬and she focused on the feeling‭, ‬letting the biting cold bring her back to reality‭.‬

She reached the crest‭, ‬a clearing in the forest where the ground evened out‭, ‬and the burning in her chest gave way‭. ‬The sky stretched above her‭, ‬crystal clear and shockingly blue‭. ‬

And as her eyes fell‭, ‬she could see the mountains on the horizon‭. ‬

On the far ridge‭, ‬and she could see trees‭. ‬Real trees‭, ‬with leaves‭, ‬and branches‭, ‬and greenery crawling up the hill‭. ‬

There‭, ‬the eucalyptus grew‭. ‬

It had been burnt the same way the pine had‭. ‬She’d seen it with her own eyes‭. ‬And yet‭, ‬those trees were already changing‭. ‬Leaves‭, ‬growing through charred bark‭. ‬Fresh shoots growing alongside old giants‭. ‬Greenery slowly spreading‭. ‬

The fire didn’t destroy those trees‭. ‬It ushered in sleep‭. ‬Peace‭. ‬A moment‭ ‬of silence‭. ‬But then‭, ‬the bush woke up‭. ‬Born anew‭. ‬And life carried on‭. ‬

She felt her eyes sting‭, ‬felt the lump rising in her throat‭, ‬the past catching up to her‭, ‬burning across her skin‭. ‬

But this time‭, ‬she did not push it away‭. ‬She could not ignore it any longer‭.‬

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