The Light and the Smoke

Ella Knopp

All she could think about was the light and the smoke. The girl had first spotted it about a day ago after cresting a hill, and she’d nearly howled in elation. Her world was boulders and streams, pine and fir, hunger and heat. Soon, it would be over, she told herself as she hiked a leg over another rock ledge, ripping another hole in her once-blue cotton skirt. Her lungs were begging her to stop, and her parched throat demanded water, but she new she had to push on. Each hike, each climb was a step towards safety, towards comfort, and eventually home. The mountain sun beat down on her, and she watched as the sweat dripped down her nose and landed with a splat on the rock beneath her. The girl’s lips curled into a smile. Her brother always teased her for having a big nose. She wondered if she’d ever see him again.

Her gaze drifted upward into the forest, and she was surrounded by a cage of ponderosa trunks turned blood-red by the setting sun. A great, black bird of prey soared over head, screeching it’s lonely cry into the darkening world. Deer bounded soundlessly through the brush on the forest floor, eyes alive with fear as they searched for a safe place to spend the night. She too needed to find somewhere to sleep before the creatures of the night awakened, but that was only an echo, survival instinct pushed under by the shining beacon of hope that was the light and the smoke. The smoke was beginning to fade with the daylight, but the light began to show, an amber glow pulsing against the indigo night. The girl didn’t know what city it was, but she knew it had to be large. Salt Lake City? Denver? Wait, no that was in Colorado. She couldn’t have gotten that far. Could she?

She continued up the hill, each haggard breath tearing at the silence. She gasped when her foot plunged into night sky. The moon and the stars gently rippled with the motion. A pond. Her reflection stared back, a shadowed figure with aspen twigs for limbs, a hollow stomach, and cheekbones that sloped steep as a mountain. Absolutely beautiful, she thought. She was one of the prettiest girls who ever lived. Her mother constantly told her that she needed to be thinner if she was to find a husband, but now the girl was skinnier than her mother would ever be in her entire life. Ha! She giggled, spinning around in the water with delight until her foot slipped over a stone. She yelped, her ankle twisting and popping as she plunged into the icy water. She thrashed and kicked, struggling to stay afloat when she realized the water was less than 6 inches deep.

The girl sighed and lay back, rubbing her thumb against her palm as she stared at the light. Her family would be so happy to see her when she arrived at the city, which ever one it was. And impressed by how mature and gorgeous she had become. Her mother would celebrate her return by baking gooey cinnamon rolls that melted in the mouth and her father would announce her betrothal to a handsome, wealthy man. They wouldn’t live in a cabin anymore, but an enormous mansion filled with the finest of furnishings.

A sharp pain cut through the daydream, and she glanced down at her leg to find that her ankle was a red, swollen mass. She attempted to stand up, but her ankle wouldn’t allow it. She collapsed into the water once more. The stars and the forest around her blurred together as tears streamed down her cheek. She could barely move without some part of her body screaming. But the girl was no stranger to pain. No, she was not going to let a little scrape on her ankle stop her from seeing her family, from rising up to take the life that was coming to her. Her teeth ground together as she hauled herself onto her hands and knees, water dribbling from the shreds of  her skirt. She crawled out of the pond, ignoring the unpleasant tingle of pebbles and pine needles digging into her knees. Her eyes were glued to the soft orange glow in the sky, closer now than ever before. She inhaled deeply and her lungs filled with smoke. The scent had never been so welcome as it had in that moment.

Her muscles burned and her ankle throbbed as she dragged her self up the hill. She would see the city at the top, a beautiful vista of civilization. Just a little bit further. The glow became brighter, providing a clear path through the forest. She reached a large boulder, and her limbs nearly gave out at the sight of it. They would have to send up a rescue team to fetch her. If only she could get on the boulder where someone could see her. A scream tore from her throat as she gripped the boulder, shoving her chest on top of it. Her eyes drifted open, she hadn’t even realized they’d been shut. She found herself on the sharp edge of a steeply dropping outcrop. Up close, the radiance was more crimson than amber, and heat blasted against her face with a crackling fury. Great curtains of color fluttered against the black skeletons of trees while a heavy wind buffeted against the rock face. Tiny points of light drifted to the ground like snow, tearing even more holes in her clothes. She sighed in relief as she pulled the rest of her body on to the boulder. At the bottom of the cliff, her parents were waving and her brother grinned up at her. The girl spread out her arms like an eagle’s wings, heart solaced and free, and flew into the glimmering abyss.