Amour on the Moor
- L. B. Walt -
Churning a path through stagnant ash and dust, Jack and Alice knew it was too late to turn back. The warmth of the air drifts by them and the sun falls behind clouds stained sepia by smoke. An opportunity like this is far too great for their curious minds to ignore.
Enthralled with excitement, they cycle eagerly beside one another, swapping playful glances as they ride past charred trunks of trees and smouldering scrub. The hills gradually retreat making way for the hollow marshlands where the remaining sunlight merges with the distant smoke, washing everything in a murky orange light.
“Hurry up Jack, we’re going to miss it,” taunts Alice, darting a mischievous glance behind her at Jack as she races ahead of him.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” pants Jack, catching her glance with smiling eyes. As he chases her he can hear her giggling ahead. They had always flirted this way, two competitive spirits brimming with limitless imagination. They always saw themselves as more than schoolyard lovers. This was more than just young love.
The landscape casts the perfect backdrop for their misadventure into adulthood. The provocation of danger, of a fire just passed, the cinders flicker and dance around them, fuelling their lust for each other into a frenzied pace.
“We’re here!” she chirps enthusiastically, dropping her bike on a small clearing beside a blackened tree trunk. She spins in the breeze, her arms outstretched as if she were trying to capture the smouldering sparks that fizzle and disappear around her. A few listless flakes of ash twirl and catch in Alice’s long dark hair.
A warm glow entices them further into the marsh and with rings of sweat around his shirt, Jack drops his bike next to Alice’s and moves closer to her. They watch as steam and cinders rise from the sunken earth; great chunks of dirt have subsided and slumped into cracked crevices that recede into a bleary mix of smoke, peat and dust. Into the distance, carcases of blackened tree trunks form chimneys that bellow smoke and cinders upwards, dissipating into a reddening sky.
“Check it out, the water’s all gone,” exclaims Jack, wiping the sweat from his brow. He slides an arm onto her shoulder and kisses her neck, savouring her salty perspiration on his lips as she wriggles out of his grasp.
“Come on!” she says flirting with her eyes, she takes him by the hand and pulls him in the direction of the steaming marsh.
“Let’s get closer and take a look,” she says, her girlish excitement overflowing into squeaks of playful joy. She skips with Jack in tow onto the cracked embankments beyond the smouldering border of the marsh.
Jack’s mind is pacing and his heart pounds with excitement. I never thought this would be the place, but this is it! he thinks to himself, following her down the narrow trail between the marshes where small shrubs and branches smoulder. He and Alice had been ‘steady’ for a few months now and in an attempt at contrived adulthood, the two had decided to take it slow and wait for the right moment. As charred reeds shimmer and dance in the residual heat, that moment now felt like it had arrived.
A few days earlier, whilst eavesdropping on some boys from school, they overheard that a huge wildfire had passed several miles behind their town. It had all but burnt itself out, but somewhere out near the moor, the fire had left molten husks of burnt tree trunks, their branches flickering with cinders in the fire’s wake.
“My dad said it was like a thousand candles all on the horizon,” one of the older boys had said. His father was a well-known firefighter in the area and his son had quickly learnt the captivation he could receive by embellishing his father’s stories to his school friends.
“Everything was melted with just the branches and trunks pointing up towards the sky. He said it was really beautiful, like an angel’s playground,” the boy had said with enough gusto to ensure anyone within earshot could have heard him.
Alice leads Jack by the hand further into the scorched moor, captivated by the impulse of that perfect moment - one shared by angels, man and woman - they were here to prove themselves. Surges of heat waver from the earth, distorting their sight into hazy patterns. They barely notice that their dampened clothes hang limply over their bodies. It is far more exciting than either had ever dreamed. The moment had arrived!
Aware that danger is all around them, neither would surrender it. They tuck and turn past the smouldering trunks and scrub that glow from golden cinders hidden within blackened husks. Their juvenile excitement overrides any imminent threat. They explore the elevated boundary of an embankment, enchanted by the unfamiliar terrain, kicking at shrubs that turn to dust and pour golden sparks into the darkened sky when struck.
This is so beautiful. So surreal, can this even be real? Alice wonders as she stops suddenly before a deeper crevice. Jack brushes against her and wraps a hand around her waist pulling her back slightly from the crumbling ledge. A small flare of sparks rises from the crevice as they feel the heat of each other’s bodies and he feels her heart beating close to his, quivering with nervous excitement from their touch. His hands begin to round the top of her lower hip.
“Can you feel the ground?” Alice asks, turning to catch Jack’s eye. She is coy, pulling his wandering hand back onto her waist.
“It feels like we’re floating,” she says, but Jack is too eager in the moment to register if the ground really is moving under his feet. Squinting from the small gusts of smoke, he steadies himself and concentrates, whilst never losing her gaze. He gives the ground a stomp beneath his feet.
“Hey, you’re right, I can feel it too!” he says excitedly, the last word releasing as a pubescent squeak. Alice smiles and leaps to a small ledge of smoking earth a few feet away.
Swooning from one bank of swollen earth to another, they lose track of time. Jack’s mind wanders to lessons of school Geology long past and half-forgotten. He doesn’t want to be the one to relinquish the night and her courageous soul leads him further and further into the glowing remains of the marshlands. Now, it is almost completely dark and Jack is getting worried. Can we even find our way back in the dark? he thinks to himself. Unable not to follow her, he realises he is powerless, succumbed to her adventurous soul. The heat is becoming unbearable.
“Where do you think all the water has gone?" Alice asks, releasing Jack from his brief bustle of thoughts. She makes a small jump from one embankment ledge to another. When she lands, the earth below rattles and cinders burst upwards from the crevice in a cloud of hazy steam and ash. Jack watches as the ash lifts and disappears into the murky skyline, flickering sparks as they yield to the night. The floor begins to crackle under every footstep.
“Who knows,” replies Jack, “maybe it all just evaporated in the fire.”
As the crevices become deeper between the embankments, the ground takes on a sponge-like quality, one that Alice is now relishing as she bounces from one ledge to the next. Each footstep lands with a dull thud that stirs deep below them, releasing crackling embers in her wake. With the sunset almost completely gone, Jack looks down one of the crevices and the earth withdraws into a deep, steaming gash, glowing with embers below. The water has indeed completely gone.
Jack looks toward Alice a few meters ahead, teasing him with her eyes to follow. Her finger taunts him to come closer as she steps backwards.
“Evaporated!’ she yells, her voice shrill with flirtation. Lifting the front of her dampened shirt, she teases him with the glimpse of her thin muscular stomach. Jack can feel his pulse racing.
Everything is moving in slow motion. Sparks and embers rise around them, crackling as they brush their sodden clothing. He tries to move, to scream out and caution her, but it’s too late. Drifting through the air, she smiles back at him oblivious to his cries. She has already jumped.
Alice propels through the air and the ledge shudders. Mistiming the landing, she creases forward on her knees and elbows. Jack sees a glimmer of shock list in her eyes, as her left sneaker tears a gash through the earth, gouging a great clump of dirt into the crevice, stoking the embers deep below. Sparks fill the air all around her as she clambers on the crumbling ledge. Her sneakers claw frantically at the barren sides as dirt trembles and falls into the crevice; steam and embers force their way around her body, up into the deep glowing red of the night sky. Within a split second, Alice has disappeared.
* * *
Jack arrived early at the hospital today, as he had so vigilantly every day since he was released. He takes his place on her bedside and tenderly kisses her on top of her forehead as a gentle intermittent blip retains a rhythmic tone, forever watchful of her vital signs, her guardian against danger. Daydreaming out of the window, he drifts restlessly between thoughts. It has been several days since the accident.
It had taken Jack several hours to carry Alice from the smouldering remains of the marsh. At first, she was conscious as he ran with her in his arms along the darkened path, trailing past the charred trunks and stagnant ash still drifting aimlessly through the night sky. Then, as he ran towards the dull orange throb of distant streetlights, her limp body lolled from side to side and he could feel her slipping away from him.
Only a few hours before, they had ridden with glee and a carefree eagerness. They had led each other deep into the throws of danger, which at the time, neither cared to acknowledge. In their minds, it would read as another story of two lovers blinded by their anticipation for one another; where nothing else mattered in their world, built only for two, they paraded forward with the courage and dedication that only love can hearten.
Petals of ash settled in the wake of Jack’s desperate footsteps as he struggled toward the roadside. It hurt as he ran and his body screamed for mercy but to stop would forever be more painful. Jack was determined not to let this story end that way for their love was stronger than anything he had ever experienced. Most of all, he wanted desperately to share his love with her again.
Gently, she opens her eyes and sees he is there. Curled in the arms of a chair as he hugs one knee to his chest, his other leg taps on the floor as he stares restlessly out of the window; the morning sun drapes him in a brilliant light that stings her eyes. She blinks slowly and a single tear forms in the corner of her eye. For a moment, things come into focus. I am alive and he is here with me.
Alice parts her lips and tries to speak, to make a tiny sound to alert him, “E..ap-” she rasps, as a tear rolls down her cheek. He turns from his daze and meets her eyes and quickly leaps to her side. Pushing his face to hers, he cradles the tear from her cheek with his bandaged hand. He is also crying, for she is alive. Tears stream down his cheeks to meet hers. He pulls her close and meets her eyes smiling back at him.
She squeaks “Ev-apor-ate” and it’s like not a moment has passed without her.