As time passed, so did the heat and the flames that surrounded Rena. The flames that had licked their way up the church tower were slowly retreating as they found less and less material to latch on to. Rena still sat on the ground, her legs cold and wet from the muddy road while her mouth and eyes were dry and prickling from the heat. Her own heart resounded louder in her ears than the crackling of the fire.
None of this felt real. Not what her eyes could see, or her skin could feel, or her nose could smell. But she couldn’t claim that it felt like a nightmare either. A nightmare would have ended by now. She would have woken up, drenched in sweat, and her mother would have come over to comfort her. She wouldn’t have sat on the ground for so long that the setting sun had turned the sky orange.
The church tower suddenly collapsed in on itself, taking the rooms the town had built in it four years ago down with it, sending out a cloud of ashes into the sky with a loud, dull crash. A wave of heat hit Rena a heartbeat later, drawing her out of her catatonic state. She closed her eyes tightly and turned her face away, her hand coming up to cup around her nose so she wouldn’t breath in the ashes that had been stirred up. She drew her face towards her lap, waiting for the blast to wash over her and the ashes to settle again.
After a moment, she carefully opened one eye, peaking out towards the ruins in front of her. She sat upright again as she saw that the dust had settled, lifting her hand away from her face but not dropping it to her lap just yet. The thought suddenly crossed her mind that she couldn’t even recognise the outline of her village anymore. The church tower was in ruin, Jesper’s house was gone, only a handful of rooftops remained standing, and the two poles with the colorful ribbons tied between them that marked the entrance to the village were long gone. It suddenly hit her that she would never see these buildings again and she would have never thought that she could miss buildings or the wheat fields on the other side of the village, or even the annoying stray goats and pigs that roamed through the streets, but her heart clenched tighter with every new image that popped into her head that she would never get to see again.
Bile rose up her throat and she couldn’t stop herself from retching on the ground in front of her, the acid burning her insides. Her trembling hand came to rest lightly on her lips, her fingers ice cold against the burning skin of her face.
She pushed herself up and away from the foul smell of her vomit. Her beige dress was caked in mud, falling heavily around her legs. She wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her chest tightly. She looked out over the village, her breaths coming in shaky and shallow. She turned around to look at the forest around her, her arms drawing tighter. Her surroundings were getting dimmer and soon the light of the sun wouldn’t reach through the foliage of the trees anymore. She stared at the road behind her, still looking exactly like it used to, and started to wonder what she was supposed to do. She couldn’t stay here on the road forever, she doubted anyone was about to come help her. She wondered if anyone from the surrounding villages had even noticed the fire. The smoke had probably been visible a long ways away but villages here were far away, especially on this side of the village. If she wanted to reach the nearest village she would have to cross the ruined remains of her town or go through the dark forest.
But was that actually what she wanted? To just reach the next village? And then what? Ask them for help? Find a place to stay? Start a new life and forget about all of this?
A thought suddenly struck her and her head whipped around, her eyes wide. In the time she would need to get help, wild animals could come in and defile the remains of everyone in the village. She looked up to the tops of the trees around her, looking out for crows, but in the dim light she couldn’t make sure that there were none around. Her breathing started to pick up. She couldn’t leave without burying the dead bodies first but her body revolted against the thought of entering the village. She knew it was dangerous and she knew that she would never be able to forget what she would see once she stepped closer, but still, she had known these people, and she wouldn’t let wild animals defile their physical remains. And in the back of her mind she thought that maybe, just maybe, she would find someone who was still alive, someone who needed her help.
She slowly lifted a foot and stepped forward, her shoe sliding through the mud. Her legs felt weak, as if she could fall over at any second, but she pushed forward, eyes fixed on the first pillar that remained of Jesper’s house. She forced herself to look forward, to not look down at the rubble. She approached the house, her eyes fixed on the diminishing orange specks dancing around on the burnt wood.
“H-hello,” she croaked out, her throat too dry to yell.
She finally looked down at the mess that remained of the house. She couldn’t recognise much in between the piles of ash and debris, except that the stairs to the second floor were still sticking out of the ruin. She walked up to the edge of the pile, trying to find a spot where she could step onto without hurting herself. She carefully placed a foot onto what seemed like a flat enough surface but as she put more weight onto the foot something started to creak and shift and she quickly took her foot away from the spot again. Her footprint was clearly visible in the ashes, as if she had stepped onto a thin sheet of snow.
She looked up over the ruin again, unsure of what she was supposed to do.
“Hello?” she called out again, louder this time, but only silence answered.
She waited an instant, trying to figure out whether she could hear something move underneath the rubble.
Suddenly, one of the remaining pillars collapsed onto the rest of the remains of the house, sending up a big pile of ashes and debris, and Rena had to step back, turn around and crouch to get away from the dust. She covered her face with her hands but still enough reached her lungs that she fell into a coughing fit. It took her a moment before she had recovered and could stand up again. She turned around, stepping further away from the house, and looked at the house to assess the situation, shaking the ashes out of her hair with one hand. She wished that she could be brave enough to rummage through the debris for signs of life, but it would be much too dangerous and if she got hurt now she wouldn’t be able to go to the next village and get help.
She stepped away and turned around, wrapping her arms around herself again, and walked down the street passing the houses that lay in complete ruins in search of one that hadn’t collapsed yet. Her eyes were wide open, unblinking, tears quietly streaming down her face again. From the corners of her eyes she could see what remained of her village. How the front of Maggie’s soap shop still stood upright even though there was only debris behind the windows and she could see the sky through them. How the produce stands in front of the ruins of the food store remained untouched, the vegetables and fruits covered in ash. How the home of her childhood friend whom she hadn’t talked to in years was nothing more than a smoldering mass.
She came up to the church, flames still weakly curling up from its remains, what was left of the tower spread out over the street around the church. Small pieces of paper were floating through the air and covering the ground, some empty, some with printed letters, and some with the shaky script of children’s handwriting. Her father always told her how proud the town had been after finally being able to convert the old church building into a school. When he was a child, he had to walk two towns over to go to school. None of his children realised how lucky they were to live right next to the school. And now all of these efforts had gone up in flames, only memories remaining in Rena’s mind. All the songs she had sung in class, all the games she had played in the courtyard, all the pages she had cursed at while learning to write. She was the only one left to remember them.
Her foot stepped on something hard and Rena stopped, her head looking down before she could tell herself that it might not be a good idea. Her muddy shoe covered whatever she had stepped on. She carefully stepped back, revealing what looked like a wooden figurine, a bird of some sort, the body long and pointed with the wings spread out to its side, almost like a cross. She frowned down at it. She’d never seen a figurine like that. It looked too simple and flat for something you would buy as a toy for a child, but it also looked too smooth for a home-made toy. She reached down and picked it up, swiping the mud away with the skirt of her dress. The wood was dark and looked burned, but the burning looked controlled, not like it had been laying in a fire. Something was carved on its front, from the tip of one wing to the next. It almost looked like letters but it wasn’t any script that she could read, just straight lines connected through triangles that didn’t look like anything she had ever seen. She wondered if it was a keepsake from a foreign country. Something someone had brought back with them after a business trip or from the war back in the days before she was born.
She clutched it to her chest, one arm still wrapped around herself, and looked out over the ruins around her. She saw another figurine stick out of the mud near the church but as her eyes wandered further they landed on something rounder, something redder. Behind the figurine, sticking out of the rubble from the church, was a hand. Her body went still, her grasp on the figurine tightening, and she couldn’t take her eyes from it. Her blood rushed to her ears, her heartbeat drowning out any other sounds. She held her breath until she couldn’t take it anymore, her lungs burning and clenching, and she had to take in a deep breath. She started coughing and the bile threatened to claw its way up her throat again.
She looked up at the sky, begging her body to calm down again. Above her, ash of paper fragments glinted in the last remains of sunlight. She had to keep moving or she would soon lose all daylight. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, regretting it right away as the pungent smell around her made itself known again.
She stepped forward and opened her eyes again, keeping them fixed on the hand, determined to help whoever was stuck underneath the debris of the church. She stepped past two other bird figurines that had been stuck in the mud. As she approached the hand her whole body started to shake and go stiff at the same time. She stopped in front of the hand, looking down at the red flesh the fire had exposed, flecks of ashes covering the open wounds. Whoever the hand belonged to was stuck underneath a thick wooden beam, their body hidden underneath the rubble.
“Don’t worry, I’m here to help,” she told the hand. “Everything’s going to be alright. I’ll get you out of here and then we can look for anyone else together.”
The words failed to reassure even herself as she crouched down and reached a hand out, forcing it to advance and touch the wooden beam that was trapping the hand. Her hand was shaking so badly that it took her a while before her fingers could actually touch the wood. Its surface was still warm. She breathed in and the stench of burning flooded her senses that she had to turn around and throw up again even though her stomach was empty and the only liquid that came out was burning acid. She started sobbing, her hand covering her mouth, the other clenching down on the ground, her fingers digging through the layers of ash and debris and gravel.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered over and over and she got up.
She turned back to the hand, eyes wide, looking over the ruins of the church, her eyes wandering past towards the houses that used to stand behind it and towards where her own house should have been. Her gaze went back down towards the hand and slowly, stiffly, she reached back down, holding her breath while both her hands came to grip the edge of the beam. She tried to lift it but her whole body hurt and her muscles were too cramped and the beam didn’t even creak with her effort. She stood back up and turned away to breathe in, before turning around and trying again, putting all of her remaining force into the attempt. This time she managed to lift up the beam, not enough for anyone to be able to crawl out but enough that the other beams lying on top of it shifted and moved and the one she was holding on to slid back, making her lose her footing and fall on top of it. She tried to catch herself and push herself back up but her shoe slipped on the layer of ash on the ground and she fell to the ground, bumping her elbow on a sharp rock that was sticking out of the ground.
The wooden beam had fallen onto the arm again and because of its displaced location the arm was now sticking up towards the sky, the edge of the beam burying into the soft flesh of the forearm.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” Rena muttered and scrambled towards the beam again, pushing against it to try to move it backwards, but all she achieved was that the wound where the beam was digging into the flesh opened up wider and revealed the bone, trickles of blood falling down onto the ground.
“No, no, no,” Rena muttered, her hands reaching towards the wound but never quite touching it, unsure what she should do.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” she repeated over and over as she backed away and scrambled upright, her breaths coming in quick and ragged.
She had thought she would be strong enough. That she would be able to help them and bury them, to give them the dignity they deserved after death, but she couldn’t do it. She didn’t have the strength or the knowledge on how to accomplish something like that. Her heart ached too much. Never in her life had she felt this much and this little at the same time. Like her entire being was composed of so much sadness that there was no space left for anything else. She turned around and walked towards the street again, rushing past all the remaining houses and darting towards the village’s second exit, the one that was closer to a neighbouring village. She would need to get help but most importantly she would need to find somewhere where she could lie down and rest. Lie down and forget what had happened, even if only for a little while.
She stumbled over the road as the sun set and the moon rose, barely visible in the orange sky, her arms tightly wrapped around her chest. She stared out into the nothingness in front of her, her eyes not actually taking in anything until she heard something approaching, something that almost sounded like a badly made machine, with a lot of clanking and humming and buzzing. She looked at the end of the road in confusion and saw a light approach, slowly, and as her eyes adjusted she could make out the outline of a caravan, but where there should have been horses there was nothing. A chimney seemed to jut out of the wagon’s rear, smoke coming out of it in thick clouds. In the front, in the driver seat, sat a person, their hair and beard making them look like another cloud. Rena stopped in the middle of the road, unsure what to do with this approaching contraption, unsure whether she wanted company at the moment or not.
“Oh, hello there,” the man called out to her in surprise before she could make a decision and the wagon slowly came to a halt with a loud screech.