I remember the day we left the great tree.
The valley was as beautiful as it always was: morning broke over the forest, the sun reaching down between the thick leaves of the tall trees. The birds were awake, long before us, as usual, casually chatting about the day ahead, stretching their wings before taking flight.
In our small home in the great tree, my mother was boiling warm milk, my father was fetching honey from the pantry, and my sisters and I were comfortably asleep in our tiny beds.
When the sun had fully risen, Father came in to wake us, quietly nudging our round faces with his paw, lingering longer on my youngest sister, Lima.
Naia, my middle sister opened her eyes sleepily, rubbing them and yawning. I was the first to sit up, I remember, Father was telling me to wash up for breakfast before he left the room quietly.
We sat altogether, eating breakfast at the kitchen table as we always did. Father was telling us about his adventures again, the places he’d seen, the things he’d done and eaten. Mother was smiling in amusement, occasionally gently confirming, or correcting some fact or situation that Father spoke of.
It was just as we’d all finished breakfast that we heard a noise outside. It was unusual to hear that much activity that early in the morning. Mother, Naia and Lima cleared the table slowly, peering outside the kitchen window curiously. Father stood up from the table and headed for the front door, I followed behind him eagerly, as I always did.
He opened it gingerly and stepped out into the sunlight.
“Well, well,” he exclaimed into the forage. “What’s all this then?”
I stood at the threshold, looking around curiously.
Something was wrong.
Our house was on the top of a steep little hill, and today, there were many, many animals perched outside on the grassy knoll, some staring down below, some staring ahead at the horizon. As if by instinct, Father and I both glanced down the hill, starting at the sight. More animals were clambering up towards us, hurrying and scurrying, twittering, chirping, and flapping energetically.
Something was wrong.
Father stepped out further into the knoll, I raised myself on my hind legs to follow but Mother caught me suddenly by the nape of my neck.
“Wait inside, Ola,” she said quietly. I drew back at her instruction, noticing that her eyes were wide, her pupils dilated. Her nostrils twitched rapidly as she brushed past me, stepping out into the grass gently, to mingle with the crowd.
My sisters and I stared outside, our big eyes widening at the unusual sight.
“What’s going on?” Lima asked loudly. She was shorter than us and struggled to see over our bushy heads crammed together in the small doorway.
“Why are there so many animals here?” Naia exclaimed in surprise. “What could they all want?”
“Quiet, you two!” I scolded. “I’m trying to listen.” Naia fell silent but continued to stare into the burgeoning crowd of feathered and furry.
I stepped over the threshold slightly and raised my ears.
“…something coming from the east,” a deer said, raising her hoof.
“I saw it too,” a small finch replied, perched on her back, flapping his wings in agitation.
There was a raised murmuring, the herd were all speaking over each other now.
“…warm and hot, swarming over the hill..”
“…the trees fell open, turned black and became dust I tell you!”
“…saw a thick, grey haze, it was hard to breathe, so we swam over what’s left of the river…”
Suddenly, a great commotion interrupted the chatter. The animals let out squeaks and squawks, those who could fly raised their wings in alarm. Those on the ground lifted their paws and hooves in a hurry, moving further back into the knoll, some trotting off to the sides, making themselves invisible.
Naia let out a loud gasp and lowered her body. I turned my head to face what she’d seen and inhaled nervously.
Something was definitely wrong.
“What is it? Oh, what is it!” Lima cried impatiently. I opened my mouth to speak but closed it quickly. Naia and I instinctively stepped back, pushing Lima into the house. She squealed in surprise falling over.
Racing past her into the living room, I pulled back the curtains to look outside, Naia propped herself up next to me, as we smashed our faces together, both out of breath.
We could hear Lima scurrying behind us, clambering onto the arm of the sofa to get a better look. “What’s the big idea-” she began.
Naia reached out swiftly and placed a paw over Lima’s small nuzzle, silencing her.
“Be quiet,” I whispered anxiously. Naia used her other paw to point outside, and, as Lima peered, her eyes opened wide in fear. She
lowered her head quickly and shifted closer to Naia with a shiver.
Outside, someone asked suddenly, “Why are you here?”
Naia, Lima, and I inhaled in surprise. It was Father who spoke.
He’d stepped forward, into the patch of sunlight, standing on his hind legs perfectly still, his voice perfectly calm.
The animals cowering behind him moved edgily, eyes casting nervous, sideways glances at the new arrivals at the edge of the knoll: packs of wolves, foxes, bears, and their families crowded around, casting an uncomfortable shadow over the grass. They too seemed restless, I thought, some were pawing at the ground in front of them, looking back over their shoulders anxiously.
“We wish to pass up to the top,” a wolf said at last. Her voice seemed to carry all the way back into the silence of the forest.
Lima let out a breath as Mother stepped forward, rising steadily next to Father.
“What is behind you?” she asked, clear and calm. “What is…the danger?”
The predators shuffled anxiously, their cubs and pups moved closer together.
“It is a great hot blaze,” the wolf replied. I would learn later that her name was Seri.
“A long, never-ending lash of thick, black air precedes and follows it. The burn turns everything it touches to dust, destroying it forever.”
There was a strange hush over the knoll now, a stillness that we never knew. The sun was travelling over the sky, a slight breeze rustled the leaves above, casting shadows over the faces of my parents.
I saw my mother’s tail twitch at Seri’s words. I saw my father’s muzzle tense up.
“We must all go to the top,” a bear called out suddenly, his voice booming in the strange quiet. It startled some of the young critters, their wings rustled in discomfort, snouts trembled, and tails rose in alarm.
A wave of movement saw the animals shifting their babies closer to them. The predators noticed the action and lowered their heads and eyes unhappily.
“There is little time,” Seri said motioning her head over her shoulder. “The blaze grows quickly. The longer we wait, the faster it approaches.”
“We must go to the top,” the bear repeated, louder this time. The prey shivered restlessly.
“We must be quick,” a fox exclaimed suddenly, stepping forward from the side. His small eyes flickered over their faces.
“The blister passed over the river as though it was wind, and like wind, it can reach the top of this hill too!”
The predators gave a low growl of agreement, moving forward slightly. Some of the animals at the far end of the knoll had turned to run, clambering awkwardly, their hooves and paws thudding on the ground.
Seri was staring at Mother and Father, her eyes were earnest I thought, but Mother and Father were looking at one another – and then – they cast their gaze over to our house, directly at the window where Naia, Lima and I watched. My eyes met Mother’s and I saw, for the first time, fear.
I pulled back from the window suddenly, breathing rapidly, and reaching out my paws for my sisters. “Come away!” I cried. “Come away, we have to act quickly!”
Lima stumbled off the edge of the sofa, Naia caught her instinctively and set her straight. I was looking around at the house gazing but not really seeing. My mind was full.
“Go to our room Lima,” I instructed, my voice shaking. “Pack our clothes, three packs for each of us.”
“But why-” Lima began.
“We’ll explain later!” Naia said tearing her eyes away from me, catching on. “Hurry Lima, do as Ola says.”
Lima squealed in complaint but hopped away on all fours hurriedly. Naia turned to me for instruction.
“Go to Father and Mother’s room and do the same,” I said promptly.
She nodded, stepped forward and paused. “What will you do?”
“I’m going to the kitchen,” I said turning away from her quickly. “I’ll pack food. Take anything you think might be useful.”
Outside, through the kitchen window, I saw the conversation between the animals become more animated. A lot more prey had dispersed, there was a great big commotion in the distance as they headed up the hill.
Some animals, two owls, a deer and her stag, and Mother and Father were still perched on the edge of the knoll speaking to the predators. Families of bears, wolves and foxes had passed our house now, they moved slowly behind the troop ahead.
I, meanwhile, opened the pantry cupboard swiftly, grabbing at our stores: bread, cheese, nuts, fruit. I packed them into cloth, my ears raising as I heard Father’s voice outside.
“…agree then? We are all in danger. We cannot survive the blaze if we do not work together to reach the top.”
An audible murmur amongst the party.
“Of course, we will not attack-” someone growled in reply.
“Attack!” an owl cried, the sound of feathers ruffling. A low bark.
“There will be no violence here,” Seri’s voice spoke over their commotion. “Not today. We must put these impulses aside for the sake of all our survival.”
More murmuring, this time, it seemed, in agreement.
I glanced at the kitchen table, the remains of our breakfast were still evident. In our bedrooms, I could hear my sisters’ hurried hops and shuffles. I opened the cupboard next to the sink and pulled out two empty bottles. I filled one with water, hopped to the table, and filled the other with milk from the jug. I stopped them both and placed them alongside the small package of food.
I heard my mother’s familiar steps nearing the house, but something was wrong. She was coughing.
“Mother?” I called anxiously from the kitchen, hurrying to meet her at the entrance. “Mother, what’s wrong?”
I pulled open the front door quickly and gasped. The air had turned grey outside, the sun had faded away. Through the haze, I heard Mother’s cough again, longer this time. Slowly, she emerged from the smog, her figure like a shadow passing through the door.
“Ola!” she gasped. I hopped to her, the force of my leap almost knocking her down. She caught me, steady as she always was, and held onto me tightly.
“Where are your sisters?” she said calmly but urgently. Before I could reply, I heard them thudding towards us. I felt the warmth of their fur crush into mine, pushing me further into Mother’s chest.
“Mother! What’s happened? Oh, Mother!” Lima was sobbing.
My mother held us, her arms reaching around us effortlessly. She enclosed us to her as she spoke quickly this time.
“Girls, listen to me. There’s a great danger coming. We must leave the house and head to the very top of the hill.”
“We – we know,” I cried in a muffled voice, pulling back slightly, and looking up into Mother’s face.
“We heard the animals speaking…the predators,” Naia said gulping in fear, “they spoke of a great danger…”
“We were listening at the window Mother!” Lima squeaked; her round face wet from her tears.
“Very well, very well,” Mother said stroking Lima’s head reassuringly.
“We’ve started packing things-” I began.
“Yes! Clothes!” Naia exclaimed pointing to the bedrooms.
“Toys!” Lima cried out.
“Girls, girls,” my mother spoke soothingly. “You’ve done very well, and I’m very proud of you. Go now and fetch them quickly. I’m afraid the toys are quite out of the question, Lima dear,” she finished firmly.
Lima opened her mouth to protest but a sob escaped instead.
I felt the sudden vibrations of Father’s footsteps. Exclaiming, I untangled myself from the others and hopped quickly to the door.
“Father!” I called out anxiously. “Father, are you there?”
It was all happening quickly then. The air was thick with dirty, grey smoke. A whiff washed over the threshold; my eyes teared up as it sunk from the sky, settling in front of my face. Black specks of dust landed on my fur, smudging as I recoiled in surprise.
“Ola!” I heard Father’s voice call out to me. He was coughing. I peered through the thickness until his figure appeared suddenly and hurriedly before me.
“Ola!” he exclaimed in surprise.
“Father!” I cried reaching out to grab him as he entered the house.
“M-mother told us w-what’s happened,” I was talking quickly. Father’s fur felt warm against mine, warmer than usual.
“Well, well,” Father replied, gently peeling me away from him and spinning me around. “Then you know we must hurry!”
I nodded, wiping tears from my eyes, stepping along.
Inside, my sisters were waiting anxiously at the entrance. Mother emerged from the kitchen as Father pulled out his handkerchief.
“We’ll all be needing one of these,” he said waving it over his head.
“I have one each for you three,” Mother said, prepared as usual. We took them from her quickly, wrapping them over our heads.
“I think we’re ready to go, Dear,” Mother said, scanning the house and turning to Father. He nodded.
I thought then, that I saw something pass between them, something unspoken, a suppressed sadness, that I could not possibly understand at that moment.
They herded us out swiftly and orderly, Father in front leading the way, Mother at the back holding onto to Lima’s small shoulders as she trembled against Naia in the middle – who looked around in shock at the smoky sky. Father and Mother walked along without looking back, knowing that behind us in the near distance, the sky had transformed into a bright, glowing orange.
As we clambered up the hillside, hurrying for the clearer sky above, a sudden knowledge startled me: I turned to glance over my shoulder at the great tree where our house was. The smoke had travelled well over the hill, the blaze of the wildfire was visible from our height now, flames consuming the green without hesitation.
Blinking, I saw a stray streak of hot yellow swim over our doorstep, enveloping it completely in a flash of red and orange. My heart thudded as I breathed in and out, eyes tearing up.
I knew then, that we would never return home.