Fire is an Oxymoron - Part 1
Fire is an oxymoron. Everything it does is a contradiction. It whispers, and screams and roars. It dances, and waves and spasms. It is common, but impossible to make. It is light, and it is darkness. It begets life, and then, it destroys it.
The fire sparked orange and Lara felt her heart jump in her chest as an ember shot out, it’s glowing red teeth brushing her arm. Thin wisps of smoke curled towards the stars and entwined themselves in her fingers, dancing between Lara’s knuckles and around her azure veins, before vanishing into the night. Lara huddled closer and hitched her skirt up around her knees. It was long and flowery, covered with sequins and tiny, plastic jewels. It gathered around her ankles, bunching up as they touched her grubby feet. The vibrant ribbons in her hair spiralled downwards and the braid that fell down her back tickled her shoulder blades. In her pocket, she could feel the box, the box that had been keeping her alive.
To her right, Cojo whined. He pawed at the ground, his black snout dipped towards the earth. He was shivering. Lara patted him on the head and turned back to the fire. She was so cold. Every ounce of her body was shivering and quivering against the wind, and all she could feel in her bones was the harsh nip of the coming winter. The ground was hard with frost, and the dew on the grass had turned into frozen bullets. She would have to get shelter soon. No more staying out here, surrounded by trees and shrub and soft, green grass. No more waking up to the sound of birds, or the gentle padding of deer’s hooves on the undergrowth. No. She would have to find shelter in there. The city.
Lara glanced at the huge, towering walls in the distance. They bordered the city, wrapping around it like a coiled snake and turning it into a medieval fortress. Cannons lined their edges and huge torches blazed on the lookout posts, bathing the night in a yellow glow. The only fire in the city. The flames licked the sky, curving round the stars like mouths. Lara looked down at her meagre fire and sighed. It was too cold. She had been putting it off for too long. She needed to go to the city. Tonight.
Lara stood up and grabbed a branch off the ground. Dipping it into the fire, she waited until it had caught and then gently hit Cojo on the side. “Come on, boy. We need to go.” Cojo whined again and forced himself upwards. He was a black whippet, with white speckles covering his streamlined body. He was fast, but, unfortunately, he was also very lazy. He swayed on his feet and licked his snout. His soft brown eyes stared up at Lara’s and she nodded at him. “I know, boy. But we need to go.” Cojo dipped his head again and Lara felt a pang of pity in her chest. He would be taken off of her when she went to the city, and she would probably never see him again. She would get a new one when she left, but it wouldn’t be the same one. Her last dog had been a tawny greyhound, and the one before that was a long, sleek wolfhound. It didn’t matter. They were always Cojo to her.
Kicking dirt onto the fire, Lara covered her face with a headscarf that had been tied around her waist. Smoke blew through the thin fabric and suddenly, the night engulfed the forest, leaving only the wavering glow of her torch to light the clearing. Lara bent down and tapped Cojo on the rump. He started forward, and together they trotted into the trees.
Leafy braches snapped down and hit Lara in the face, whipping her as she marched through the thicket. She knew her way through the forest backwards - it was easy, once you knew the paths - but it didn’t stop the forest from spreading and growing through her walkways. The torch helped a little bit, but not enough. Not nearly enough. Embers flew from the stick and landed on the path, glowing feebly before being smothered by the grass and the fallen leaves. The path wound round and round, dipping and soaring over rocks and ditches. Cojo pressed his face into Lara’s thigh as they walked, and Lara placed her hand on Cojo’s back, her fingers rippling over the small hairs. She could smell meat sizzling, bread cooking and her mouth began to water. It had been days since she had last had proper food. Living it the forest was lovely - no one stared at her, gawped at her - but the food was vile. The berries were sour and the snakes that slithered between the leaves were thin and bitter on her tongue. The food was at least palatable in the city.
Half an hour into her walk and Lara glanced up off the overgrown path. Her eyes widened. They were so close. She could see the guard’s red uniforms and the glint of their swords in the moonlight. The walls had swelled and grown, and now she could see the individual sandstone bricks that made up their bulk.
Lara paused and let the torch drop to the ground. It took less than a minute for the dwindling flames to die out completely. The fire was gone.
Lara took the headscarf off and tied it tighter round her head, wrapping it around her mouth and nose. Her eyes, a shining brown, were left untouched in the sea of heaving fabric that rose up and down over the contours of her face. Lara tied it behind her head and tapped Cojo on the rump again. He started forward and jumped over a branch. She could barely see anything now, and the fabric that was bunching up in front of her face wasn’t helping. It would be easier to take it off, but she couldn’t. Not with a face like hers. Not when she was so recognizable.
The guards came into view and Lara halted a few metres in front of them. One of them looked her up and down. “What is the purpose of your journey to Erlion?”
Lara gulped and looked downwards at the ground. “I am here to stay the winter.” She could feel the guards looking at her, inspecting her gypsy clothes, her muddy ankles, her naked toes, her long brown braid. She could feel them weighing her up, like she was cattle in a market. Bile rose in her throat and she choked it down. She could do this. She could fight the crushing defeat that was pushing her down. She could do it. She had to.
What seemed like an age later, the guard stepped aside. “You may pass, but I’ll need your dog.”
Lara nodded and glanced down at Cojo. His tail was wagging and his eyes were alive with light. She smiled at him and knelt down to his level. She reached forward and placed a tender kiss on his forehead. She swallowed and stood back up. “You can take him.”
The guard snapped his fingers. Cojo strolled over to him and stood by his side, his head pressed against the guard’s knee. He had done this before, with other owners. He must have. All dogs were from the city and they were trained from birth to come to a guard’s sharp, swift click. He would go to a new owner and Lara would get another dog. She would name it Cojo, and the cycle would repeat itself. Goodbye, hello, goodbye, over and over again. Lara felt a flush of pink rise to her cheeks and she started walking forward. She had liked that Cojo. He was nice and loyal, and he was a good hunter. That, and he was a friend.
Lara walked through the heavy metal gates and into the city. It was crowded and bustling, even at this time of night. People were walking and talking, carrying huge piles of food and supplies. Some were smiling, some were frowning, some had lips pulled in a thin line. Some had wrinkles, crevasses as deep as the ocean floor, and others hand smooth cheeks and dimples. Some were rich, and some wore rags. Some had shoes, some didn’t. The variety was astounding, and Lara felt the need to stand and watch for a while. She did it every single time she came to the city - she watched. The forest was quiet and empty; the city was noisy and busy, a beehive of activity. Lara watched a small child run past her and a small smile flitted across her face. Shelter. Food. Warmth.
Strolling into the bowels of the city, Lara turned down into a side street. The sky was a blanket of velvet studded with glowing sequins and looking up made her feel smaller, delicate. She wished she still had Cojo with her. But dogs weren’t allowed in the city, bar the official kennels. They were contained, just like the fire.
Lara turned left again, into a tiny narrow alleyway. It was dark and Lara felt a shiver tickle her spine. The hostel she usually stayed at was round the corner, but the path seemed longer this time. The noises of the square and the entrance behind her ha d faded, and all that was left was an ominous silence that choked the sound in Lara’s throat. She lifted her skirt and kept walking. The headscarf blew around her nostrils and she could feel a fly crawling over her mouth, but she didn’t care. All she could focus on was shelter. She was used to being out alone, but Cojo was always with her. Now, for the first time in over five years, she was alone.