I see her through the smoke.
She is still. Too still.
My heart is not.
I sense the flames nearby, gulping everything that resides on the forest floor. This fire, like all others I have been unfortunate to witness, is unforgiving. Unflinching. I have observed many of my family perish, too slow to escape the burning fingers, engulfed in a blaze so powerful that ash rains for days and weeks and endless years in the forest and in my nightmares.
I will not let this fire take her.
Suddenly, there's a cracking sound so thunderous that I snort, leaping backward.
I swivel my head from side to side quickly, attempting to locate the source of the noise. I narrow my eyes. Only smoke and blurred trees and the solid, warm ground beneath me exist.
And then, a series of cracks and groans and whining fills the air. My head snaps upward. I whip around.
A tree falls behind me. The fire has finally consumed it. I bound out of the way as the trunk teeters, unstable. Slowly, so slowly, it begins to sink to the ground, the trunk cracking and burning. The raucous crash is frightening and humbling; I skip further away, toward her, as the fire begins to saunter closer to me. To us.
I prance across the forest floor to her, my lungs filled with smoke. I cannot breathe.
But I cannot breathe without her, either.
Over branches and rocks and tree roots. I see other rodents and animals and birds sprinting alongside me, their frightened cries accompanied by more falling trees and the roaring crackling of the flames.
Finally. She lies in front of me, still and––and––
No. She cannot be lifeless.
I nudge her with my nose hurriedly but softly. When she does not stir, I shove my nose against her flank––hard.
Movement. A twitch in her shoulder.
She must wake up.
I ram my head into her, digging my antlers beneath her body, lifting her head into the air for just a fraction of a second. It falls to the ground with a thump.
And her eyes open in shock.
She leaps upon her hooves so quickly that I step backward in surprise. She wobbles slightly on her rear legs, her front legs struggling to stay rooted to the earth. Quickly, she recovers, and meets my eyes. I see her own widen as she looks to the scene behind me. The flames flicker and dance in her beautiful, terrified pupils.
We do not have time to convey our joy at finding one another after so many weeks apart. We do not have time to celebrate.
We only have time to survive.
I nudge her with my antlers. She blinks in understanding, swiveling her lovely head in the air, her nose twitching. And then, she beings to run––fast.
I follow behind her closely, watching her hooves with concentration. They veer left and right and straight and curved––she endeavors to evade the flames.
I can only hope that she will.
The smoke is thick now. My eyes water. She drifts in and out of vision; I pump my legs faster, keeping so close to her my nose nearly bumps into her rear during several instances. If she notices, she does not convey it; she only runs faster, harder, deftly leaping over any obstacle in her path.
Other animals join our side. Animals we do not and could not expect––moose and bears and mountain lions. No soul hunts while fighting for survival; we are all kin now, desperately banding together to overcome the roaring flames licking at our heels, to find a life of natural order and love once again.
Some do not last. I wrench my eyes away when I see a wolverine fall, unable to clear a particularly thick tree trunk laying on the ground. She screams in pain at what I presume is a broken limb, preventing her from any chance of safety. I turn my head back only once as we run, just for a moment, to assess any chance of helping her. And as I look back to the pure horror spilled across her kind face, the fire encloses her in its grasp, and she is lost forever.
I tear my face away, back to my love, to the only aspect of this forest that gives me a reason to fight.
And then the heat is behind me. I can feel it.
I snarl ferociously to indicate the proximity of the flames. For a brief moment, my love glances back, and her eyes widen with a fear that shatters my heart. She bursts forward with a new bout of energy––a pace which I match.
A hill. My love careens up the steep side. My breathing becomes shallow and labored as I fight my way up the incline, the fear eating at me once again as the hot tendrils lick my hooves, taunting me. I see her slowing down, fighting to continue moving, struggling to make it up the bluff, beginning to stumble and sway and gasp for air––
There. I see it. At the corner of my eye. Just at the base of the steep cliff face on the right side of the hill.
An opening in the rock. A cave.
I nudge her rear forcefully in the direction of the cave. I see her head search wildly for the source of my touch; and then, I see her eyes lock onto the site of the cave. She veers toward it.
The energy is depleted from both of us. I watch as she stumbles now, swerving, unsteady and weak upon her hooves. Every few seconds, I nudge her rear, prompting her to right herself, to push forward, to fight, to––to––
My vision is hazy. Blurred.
The flames are everywhere.
For a moment, I see her there, ahead, just in front of the cave. I see her stumble. Fall.
My vision grows darker. The heat diminishes.
For a moment, there is only blackness.
And then light.
It becomes brighter.
I brace myself, preparing for the fire, for that agonizing blaze.
Brighter and brighter and warmer and warmer.
I open my eyes.
My love gazes down at me. She presses her nose to mine.
I lean into the warmth and light of her body, finally at peace; finally at home.