“There is no death in this wood, there is only permanence…”
A Shortcut Through the Ashen Wood
Black obelisks of despair, each and every last one of ‘em, all capped with lumpy, oblique domes of ash precariously settled upon their burnt branches, brittle like old bones. Those are the real danger, see, the ash is just a byproduct, a sort of symptom of the real problem… although it just now occurs to Howie that all this ash had to come from somewhere else. It couldn’t have burned, floated up, and then settled right back down.
“Not all of it could have, anyway.” Howie cannot see his destination but he knows he’s moving in the right direction, he is without a doubt on his way home. “It had to drift in from somewhere else for it to settle on the trees like this.”
Howie had to take his backpack off to enter the ashen wood, he has it dangling without sway between his legs. It’s forcing him to walk like a gorilla-crab hybrid creature but this is advantageous, this is a win for Howie, walking like a hybrid only makes it easier to maneuver through this maze of charcoal stakes, but it’s less of a maze and more of a game of vault robbers, isn’t it? Don’t touch the invisible wires, kids, one brush of your ass against one of these trees and all that ash comes tumbling down.
“And then what, Howie?” Howie asks himself quietly as he takes yet another calculated sidestep through the ashen wood. “What happens during the ash avalanche? The ashvalanche, the avalanash, the… ashvalanche, huh Howie?” Surprisingly enough it’s easier to breathe in the ashen wood than it was out on Cannonball. Howie’s not stirring up nearly as many clouds with his movements. “What happens when there’s no more air to breathe, only ash?”
The ashen wood does not give Howie an answer.
“A shortcut through the ashen wood…” he mumbles spitefully to himself. “It was a great idea last night, it got me to the church. It worked great when the wood wasn’t so damn ashen.” Sidestep after silent sidestep after silent sidestep. The forest is starting to get less dense, he must be getting close. “It thins out along Cannonball Road as it approaches the center of town,” Howie reminds himself, then supports his claim with, “I heard that once on the radio, I think. It looks like a rift from above.” Sidestep. “If you were to–” sidestep “–fly over with a plane.” Sidestep. “That is.” Sidestep.
A tickle in Howie’s throat that he’s been ignoring for the past few minutes drinks a magic potion and mutates into a cough just small enough to stop the ‘man dead in his tracks. Howie’s backpack carries the momentum in a gentle sway, the straps flailing wildly and teasing the scorched trunk immediately to Howie’s back. The tree he didn’t notice until he stopped to fight the cough, the tree he needs to move away from as soon as he can for though Howie “Hoots” McGee is fighting as valiantly as ever, this battle with the impending cough is not one he’s going to win. The war is yet to be decided – he’s on the way home now, closer than he’s ever been – but this battle isn’t the war. This battle can be thrown, the consequences won’t be severe… so long as I don’t back into that tree.”
Howie, with little borks of cough busting through the barrier he’s installed in the back of his throat, sidesteps backwards, placing his boot in the exact hole it made on his way into the wood. He repeats with his other boot, then his first boot, again, then again, then again. Engaged in combat with the cough and a horrific pain in his neck, Howie’s craned his neck back to look over his shoulder and there doesn’t seem to be a tree there anymore but he can’t quite tell, his contacts are smudged up from all the ashes and he’s been ignoring it up to this point but he can’t pretend it’s all right anymore, “God fucking damnit I can’t see! ”
Although Howie cannot clap his hands to his mouth, he achieves the same effect by simply biting his tongue. Avalanches can be caused by sound, entire mountainside villages often go to waste because of one loud-mouthed asshole, and considering how snow is heavy enough to at least make some noise when it’s stepped upon, ash can surely do the same. Slowly Howie turns his head upward and looks at the canopy of the ashen wood. Everything is still, everything is silent. There is no death in this wood, there is only permanence, stillness, the very essence of pause. This is not the real world, it cannot be; this is some form of purgatory, Howie was sent here with the Sisters Three. Perhaps he did something to the nuns… or perhaps they found him in the church and murdered him, then they all turned on each other and now they’re all here in the ashiest purgatory on this side of Shit’s Creek.
“I left them behind,” Howie reminds himself just loud enough for himself to hear. “I chose to leave them behind so I could die in this forest.” Time stopped passing a long while ago. “To die alone in the ashen wood.”
Howie “Hoots” McGee straightens up with the speed and discipline of a Shaolin monk and sprints off in the direction from which he came. The ashfall, approaching through the pale from the end of Rosebud Avenue, didn’t make a sound as it plunged through the deaded wood, but the branches torn down in its wrath did. The illness of the forest, the weakened infrastructure, the brittle burnt branches just begging to be broken under the weight of the immaterial ashes they hold are only a problem to a certain point; they can’t simply break by themselves. The ashes aren’t heavy enough, as proven by the appearance of Howie’s new ashen world. The ashfall needs a catalyst, a rippling airwave perhaps, or maybe a fallen raindrop.
As Howie tears through the ashen wood back to the spot where he crept in off the side of Cannonball Road his mind is emptied seemingly by an outside force and filled with visions of rain and maelstrom haunted by clear and vivid images of the ash coagulating with the acidic rain and forming a caustic paste that eats through everything it touches, that consumes the little remains of the world so the planet may flush its system clean and start anew. Fresh devastation is always a good thing; from entropy rises novelty, ladies’n’germs! Through the fire comes the ashes from which the phoenix takes flight!
“God is good!” Howie shouts out hysterically as dirty blood, potent adrenaline, and other bodily narcotics rage through his veins without making a sound. He cannot hear his heartbeat nor can he feel it in his temples; his lungs are not clear but he’s not breathing to full capacity as it is, he’s taking short, measured breaths. Keeping the tank full by topping it off gasp after gasp. The crinkling of the charcoal collapsing behind him is the only sound Howie can hear, the hand of the Lord at his back the only touch he can sense. “Good is good, I’m going to make it!”
The end of the ashen tunnel is in sight. Howie leaps and turns his body sideways, arms and legs splayed out like a detonated firework, and slips through the narrow alley between two burned trunks which were collapsing into one another from the weight of the ashvalanche.
“I can see it, I’m right there!”
Howie picks up speed from nowhere; his will alone does not move the human’s legs through this crumbling ashen wood.
“I’m coming, Yahn! I’m going to make it home!”
Tepid cakey ash plunges down the back of Howie’s hooded sweatshirt, forever ruining his breathing mask and instilling crippling doubt into his system in a large, irresponsible dose. The treeline is right before his eyes, Howie can see the trenches his ankles cut through the ash. Cannonball Road is just within diving distance. The ashfall tugs at Howie’s heels with hands made of broken fingers.
“I’m not going to make it.”
Howie dives, tossing his backpack ahead of him with all his might. He doesn’t see it land; the hoary phantom of murky ash and shattered cinder swallows him whole.
Hello Commons, this has been the third subchapter of the second chapter of Flowers, a novel about a man who smokes the last of his pot.
Flowers is part of the Third Spiral, an anthology of sorts called The Here and Now which is comprised of stories told from the various planes of Existence.
Flowers is available to read for free in its entirety on my website. Click here to check it out.
I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.
If you like Flowers and would like to help support my work, click here and buy an autographed copy of the book (or anything else!) from my store. Alternatively, you can snag a cheaper (and unsigned) copy from Amazon by clicking here.
Be well Commons~