Dead Land

The hard white light was followed by a noise that pulled the air from their lungs. The horizon in the west glowed orange. Several were missing. They turned to those who knew about such things but their answers were cryptic. A few brave ones set out towards the glow. The glow intensified throughout the night.

In the dim morning light they could see smoke and dust on the horizon to the west. It formed a wall of grotesque twisting shapes that slowly changed colour from orange to pale yellow and clawed at the sky. Below the wall they could see dark shapes moving. This was familiar and they knew they had to run once the ground started to shake. They ran for the river.

The sky turned black with birds. The thumping of their wings sounded like the racing heart of a pursued animal. They were quickly followed by hares, foxes, deer and coyotes — predator and prey running side-by-side as they darted through the tall grass. Then came the bison. Their massive dark forms rocking back and forth in their stiff gallop as they trampled slower moving species into the churned earth. Some animals headed to the river and tried to cross but were quickly swept away by the current. Others ran along the bank. The humans knew the best crossing points, but some had not been able to outrun the bison. Their small band had suffered losses.

They crossed the river and waited and watched. At night, the glow hung low over the land and billowed and moved like smoke. During the day, the glow would fade but the earth continued to scorch as the invisible force moved over the land. The prairie grasses, shrubs, and bushes blackened and crumbled and the earth baked and cracked under a pulpy paper sky. It did not cross the river.

They followed the glow and scorched earth from across the river for four days and nights. On the fifth day, they found the edge where the living met the dead. They crossed the river and followed the edge. The glow was no longer visible at night. They did not cross the line. Neither did the animals.

Some wanted to enter the dead land to search for the brave ones and those who went missing the night of the great light and sound. Others considered them dead and believed those who entered the dead land would also die. They pointed to the animals of the land and sky who did not cross the invisible barrier — it was foolish to cross the line. There was much anger and sadness on the sixth day.

As the sixth night approached, darkness slowly crept across the dull grey sky and mixed with cracks of light that broke through the ragged edges on the horizon and turned the sky into a boiling mass of grey and orange. The ones who knew of such things called it a bad omen. They listened to the warning and moved away from the edge of the dead land for the night. The dead land twinkled with lights.

They stood in silence watching the lights. The intense white lights danced and spun like sparks from a fire against the black abyss. The lights whispered to the watchers. Those who stepped forward and crossed the line were quickly enveloped by the abyss.

As twilight turned to a crisp and clear morning, a solitary figure sat cross-legged at the dead land’s edge. His eyes were wide open and his breathing deep and rhythmic. In the distance a copse of blackened and gnarled trees topped a small hill. A large black mass seemed to boil up from the ground and then charge down the hill toward the cross-legged figure. Again the ground shook, but the figure did not move. He changed his gaze to look directly at the monstrous shape charging towards him — his face showed no emotion. The shape grunted and growled as it descended the hill, its shape shifting as it moved. At the dead land’s edge it stopped and stared deep into the eyes of the figure. The large bear huffed and growled. The figure stared deep into the eyes of the bear, his breathing rhythmic, his body unmoving. The bear reared to its full height and roared, but the figure did not break his gaze. The bear sat on its haunches and the two figures sat motionless staring at each other.

Day turned to night. The lights from the night before twinkled in the bear’s eyes. The figure did not move. In the pre-dawn darkness, the bear moved forward to cross the line and quietly blew into fragments of black smoke that swirled up into the brightening sky. The figure did not move.

When the sun had reached its zenith, the figure stood, closed his eyes, placed his hands together as if in prayer, and bowed towards the hill. He opened his eyes and lights twinkled in the black abyss of his eyes. Before turning to leave, he made a symbol in the air that momentarily lingered as pale green light.