Emeralds, ambers, and sapphires sparkle in pairs. Scintillating shimmer loops around us, weaving this way and that. A purr follows a buzz. A suppressed howl echoes, competing with a low chuckle. The forest comes alive in the darkest hour of the night.
What you see when the sun shines is not what you get at night. If you ever step into the darkest part of the forest, become one with it, surrender your heart and soul, you’ll feel magic flow through your veins.
A leopard strolls towards me, muscles relaxed after the heavy meal. The rabbits skitter away, disappearing behind the bushes.
“Cooper! Howdy, boy?” A tiny winged creature waves its wand at me, twirling and swaying in the cool breeze, flaunting its ability to move.
It is at times like this that I yearn to have legs. I want to dance, to jump, and run around the forest. What use is this long trunk if I cannot move? Don’t get me wrong. I love who I am. Not every being is capable of the task I’ve been handling for years. But I want more.
“Hello, little fella,” I call out as the creature darts through my branches, trying to reach the top. It isn’t an easy feat. I grow pretty tall. With my parents, siblings, and cousins surrounding me, it’s almost impossible to see the sky. Little streaks of light escape through, helping the tiny flowers bloom at our feet.
The sudden breeze tickles me. I laugh and look at my parents on either side. They grin and entwine their branches with mine.
I feel a tug at my roots. To my right, the branches of a tree create a wave-like motion. It’s a cousin, a senior, with a flair for drama. Rolling my eyes, I turn to track the progress of my tiny friend. The cousin tugs again. I ignore.
We’re all linked; at the top and under the soil. That’s how we survive when things go wrong, one way or another.
“I’m almost there!” The tiny creature teases me.
I shake a branch in response.
“Oww! That’s cheating, kiddo. Respect your elders.” It shakes a fist before flying away to play with a cousin of mine.
“Coop, oh, coop… you’re beautiful…” The nightingale sings, sitting on another branch.
I suppress a sigh.
Long ago, a wayward traveler lamenting the loss of her lover christened me Cooper. Young and smitten, I cherished the name for a while. Now, I’m stuck with it for a lifetime. Those of us who have names get them from humans. Some humans are considerate and don’t harm our barks. Others carve out names on the trunks, digging their knives deep into us. Humans have a strange way of showing love. They hurt those who love the most.
“Oh, my Gosh!!! It’s burning! We’re dying!” A monkey shrieks, rushing from the east end of the forest. “Fire! It’s killing us again!” The words bring an abrupt halt to the night’s celebrations. The thundering heartbeats echo in the silence.
“Run!” The roar breaks the spell, sending everyone into a flurry of panic. A gust of wind brings the faint smell of smoke.
“Not again,” The deer murmurs, her voice full of anguish.
Just a few months ago, a similar fire took thousands of lives. It is a friend of no one. Young or old, tree or animal or bird, nothing matters. The only thing the fire knows is to ride the red hot flames, wreaking havoc on the way. Losing friends is always painful. Watching them burn into ashes right in front of my eyes is horrible. Why do I have to live when the others perished?
“Cooper, stop it. It’s not in our hands. But there is one thing we can do.” My father’s strained voice brings me to the present.
“What can we do? We can’t even move!”
“But we can connect.” My father insists.
“We are the redwoods. We are fire-resistant.” My mother reminds me.
“If it’s a curse, it’s a boon too. We’ll do what we can.” My brother bumps against mine.
I nod, ready to help in any possible way.
“Ask the birds to move onto our kind. They’ll be safe. Monkeys, gorillas, chipmunks, cheetahs, all those who can get up a tree can be safe.”
We link our roots, one tree to another, sharing our thoughts across the forest. The redwoods, beeches, firs, and pines- we’re all one at this moment. Some of us will perish. My siblings may not survive. Only those older than two decades can survive the fire, that too, not always. Our barks should have grown thick enough to protect our tissues inside. But we’ll do what we can to help.
“Oh, Cooper, this shouldn’t be happening.” The tiny creature murmurs tears brimming in its eyes. I can see the smoke, thick and ominous floating towards us. The smell of destruction is getting stronger with each second.
“Why don’t you stop it then?” I snap.
“I don’t have the power. Do you think I’d let it happen? Would any of my kind let the fire consume everything if we can stop it?”
“Why do you carry that stupid wand then? Why the wings and the sparkle around you?”
It tumbles backward in the wind, away from my harsh tone.
“I’m so sorry, Cooper.” The words are a whisper as it flies into the thick fumes.
“Son, your anger isn’t going to help anyone.” My father’s voice is still low. Soft and gentle.
I try to take a deep breath and choke before releasing oxygen into the same atmosphere. We’ll need to keep pumping more and more oxygen. If the fire takes half the lives, the smoke does the rest. The lungs of animals and birds are different. They are sensitive and give up if too much smoke fills them. It’s a painful death either way.
“Cooper, they are coming your way. It’s getting hotter here.”
The frantic thoughts from a faraway relative scare me. “Send them fast… Stay safe.”
“Save them, Cooper.”
These are the last words that reach me. Birds flock around us, hiding in the branches. Monkeys crawl over, carrying babies; theirs and others. Time is of value, yet it comes to a still as more and more birds cry in fear of death.
The animals that cannot climb are running, tripping over each other in an attempt to get away, alive. I urge them to run faster. None of them respond, nor do I expect them to.
“It’s heading towards us!”
The warning fills me with dread. I can’t take my eyes off the red flames that seem to touch the sky. But there is no sky. All I see is the fire blazing through, consuming my friends with increasing greed. The black smoke surrounds us, separating us from the world.
The world never cares for any of us. We are useful tools that give them benefits. If anything happens to us, they’ll find another forest. Some may come to help, but it’s going to be too late by then.
“Hurry! Hide fast.” My mother and father shout in unison.
I gather strength to carry all of them. I can hold more. I will.
“Don’t go to ends of the branches. Stay close to the trunk! Close to the trunk!” We chant, warning the birds and animals until they can hear us through the haze of terror.
The first wave of heat hits us in the guts. The deep roots hold us firm from staggering in the onslaught. Wave after wave, the burning fire threatens to test our stamina and grit. We hold on tight even as the younger ones succumb. My senses swim. My branches sway. The animals hold for their dear lives.
“Cooper! Resist.” My sister orders. I don’t dare nod. The cries of the helpless animals vibrate around us. I try not to see them burn, not to let the smell of burned flesh seep into my tissues. I fail.
The flames climb up the trunks. They want to ravage us. The fragile birds fall into the fire. Babies lose balance and slip into the burning abyss. The others try to crawl higher. More animals get charred. It’s a game of cat and mouse between the living beings and a powerful element. Only one of them will win.
“Mother, don’t do this to us again. We aren’t the evil ones!” I rasp desperate. I can’t see death anymore. Why should we die when it is the humans who hurt her? How can she do this us; to her loyal children?
We all begin to pray, ask Mother to do something. An unexpected gust of wind tries to push the flames from us. It doesn’t work. The flames flicker and slither ahead, even more determined.
“Save your children!” I shriek in frustration. Why isn’t she responding?
Then, I feel it- a soft and moist touch on my leaves. Soon, the rain pours down on us with a force that hurts and soothes at the same time.
Dare I hope for a miracle?
“Oh, thank you, Mother.” My family murmurs. The animals and birds peek through the half-burned branches. Tears and raindrops stream down my trunk.
It’s not over yet. The fire doesn’t give up without a fight. Now, it’s a clash between two forces of Nature. They are both Mother’s children, just as we are. But stronger and competent than us.
I feel my roots being pulled apart. Seven feet away, a brother breaths his last as he crashes to the earth. How many lost lives do I have to mourn?
“Cooper, my wand may be useless, but my wings aren’t. I flew to the Lord and begged him to talk to Mother. He was considerate.” The tiny creature whispers, appearing out of nowhere.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble.
It nods, kisses me on a leaf, and flies off. “I’ll be back.”
The embers are still glowing at random places, waiting for a chance to ignite the flames again. The rainwater is pooling on the earth, sinking the embers once and for all.
A collective sigh reverberates around us. It is a sigh of relief, pain, and heartbreak. Those who don’t know us think we are incapable of feeling. If only they knew and cared to know the truth!
At last, the earth cracks to allow a sprout to stand straight. Despite the sun shining high above us, it takes weeks for life to grow from the seeds. At least the fire didn’t damage them. But the evidence of the attack will remain with us for decades.
We move our branches to let most of the rays touch the young ones. We need to build them for the next generation. The animals and birds fall back into the familiar routine. My family too settles into a rhythm. No matter what happens, life should go on, the wise say.
I can’t do it. I want to know why Mother did that to us. As the sky turns a mesmerizing shade of gold and red, I shudder. It reminds me of that night.
I wait for the sky to turn black. I want to see my glittering winged friends. It’s the only time I can forget the horror.
“You’ll have to move on to survive, son.” My mother tells me.
I stare at the twilight sky and ignore her. The minutes turn into hours.
“Cooper, kiddo, I’ve got news for you.” The tiny creature comes to sit on my branch.
“What’s it?” My voice is weary.
“I found the reason for the fire.”
My heart skips a beat.
“It’s not Mother. It’s humans.”
I curse, dismissing the glances in my direction. “How careless and useless they are! A burden on this earth.”
It shakes its head with a sigh. “Not careless; calculated. A deliberate attempt by twisted minds.”
In the deafening silence of the night, my wounds refuse to heal. I feel too old to live anymore.
Photo By: Skeeze
This is an entry for #InnsWoods, #Artales18, A Room8 writing event. Checkout the event guidelines here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/artales18
The event is sponsored by Manoj Paprikar, Author of Death at Midnight by ArtoonsInn room9 publications. Manoj Paprikar is a doctor by profession and a writer at heart. Through his latest venture with room9publications, he earnestly brings forth the plight of the medical profession that affects both the healthcare providers and patients at large.
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