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.