The Burnt Muse | Harshita Lall


The Burnt Muse

Harshita Lall

The Collateral Landscape Award

The dead leaves crunched under my feet as I walked. Gnarled roots traversed along the damp ground, interlocked to form a many-fingered hand with fingers outstretched in unison. I looked at my beloved ground which lay dead all around me. I could hear the distant river, choked with ash and rubble, unable to breathe.

The wind wailed at the sight of the dead trees that had once caressed it, their bare arms unable to hide their nakedness. I started walking towards the gigantic carcass of a tree. With each step, the colors of my memories started filling in the deadness around me. I stopped in front of the tree’s trunk and looked up.

A lush green umbrella with holes to let the sunlight in. The naughty sun danced beyond, slowly wiggling through the thick foliage, attempting to touch me. I tried gripping the trees’ trunk with my child’s arms, almost losing my balance. With great effort, I pulled myself onto the branch of the Great Tree, feeling like the king of the world. I could see the acres of green that spread like a carpet to meet the river at the horizon. It felt as though nothing would ever be able to touch me, no danger, no evil and certainly not the man.

I dreaded evenfall. That meant time to go back to the house. That is how I always thought of it: house, not home. Home was here, among the trees, with clean sweet river water to drink, juicy fruit to eat, cool shades to sleep under. At the house, I was starved, wishing for it to stop.

I was brought into that house when I was one. I never knew my parents. I cannot recall their faces; the memories are like colors mixed in water and stirred. I grew up in that house, under the man who calls himself my step-father. He is a big man, shaped like a tree trunk. His eyes are small and beady. He never smiles. I started “helping” with his business since I was five. Sawing at the mill upon chopping the wood was what I hated the most. Chopping and sawing my beloved trees felt like treason of the highest order. No wonder the trees responded by attacking my lungs and eyes, making me cough in an asthmatic attack that would leave me weak with tears in my eyes. I did not blame them.

I only blamed him, and others like him that took the axe to wood and whip to me, hacking till we cracked. On one such whipping session, I ran away to the only mother I had ever known, The Forest. It poured that night. I was soaked to my skin, the wind whipping me further. The cold seemed to seep into my soul, tearing at me from the inside.

My knees gave way as I struggled to lift my hands. I could not see much; my dim eyes were blinded by the rain. Something possessed me as I crawled towards the rain, with no battered foliage to protect me. The rain felt like a thousand needles trying to pierce me. Suddenly, I heard a rumble. I crouched there, shivering, with a kind of dread only children can feel. The branch above me started to quiver, screaming to match the howling wind. Like a bright shadow on a wall, it fell on top of me. A flash of lightening that struck the tree as it fell. Within a split second, it lay on the ground, inches from me, split into two and ablaze. The abrupt fire filled the world with light and suddenly, I could see. The tree had died saving me.

A light patter on my cheeks woke me from the repose of my memories. Everything faded back to black, gray and ash again. Rain started to fall, beating at my face through the naked remains of the Great Tree. Hate and grief filled my heart at once. The forest had been razed to the ground. Nothing was left, except memories.

Footsteps thumped behind me. I turned to see a tall man in boots, with his hood pulled up to ward off the rain. “Good news”, he said, “I took a count. There have been no casualties in the forest fire, and we have clearance to start construction from tomorrow.” His grin saw nothing. He was wrong; there had been too many casualities.

He would never know what the forest had meant to me.

The Collateral Landscape Award