Author: Elaine Thomas

Somewhere, in a forest, lightning strikes a tree.

Elsewhere, in a cabin, a man tosses a log onto the fire. Startled, the man jumps backward, then laughs at himself. He knows any slight moisture left in wood as it cures can emit a high-pitched whistle when flames lick at it. He has heard the sound many times. Still, this one sounded almost like a scream. He shakes his head at his own silliness, adds more wood to the now roaring fire, warms his hands holding the palms forward in the glow, then turns both body and mind back to other ordinary tasks.

The crackling blaze and radiant heat of an open hearth keep the dark and the cold at bay. Thus has it been since the earliest primitive residents of this planet discovered fire, millions and millions of flames ago, a powerful and comforting presence through the centuries.

Smoke crawls up the chimney and surfaces into the air, where it dissipates, although not really. Instead Smoke hangs above the roof, spreading, waiting, knowing more will come. So, too, has it been since the earliest residents on this planet discovered fire.

Once free and floating there, Smoke evaluates its situation. There is no loneliness here. It knows other trees in other forests in other lands all around the planet will replicate its being, are replicating it. It knows new forms based on mass production and chemicals will join it. It knows the process will move across the universe, planet by planet, from caves to cabins to corporations. Smoke will not be alone long, at least not as it understands time. Such is progress, Smoke reflects, in a manner of thought as diffuse and unsubstantial as its very being.

More and more Smoke continues to be released and spread, joining all that has already been set free, over eons covering the surface of the world. As it slowly blocks any warmth and light from above, the planet’s residents respond just as Smoke knew they would. They struggle to control their environment. They seek their own benefit. They light more fires, burn more logs, destroy more forests and other resources in order to create warmth and light from below.

As Smoke accumulates in the air, the process speeds up. Residents of the planet cease to see the sun burning in the heavens, yet heat becomes trapped and magnified by Smoke. No one sleeps well as light breaks boundaries between night and day. Forest fires rage. Polar bears starve as habitats change. Choked plant life withers. Water and wetlands recede. Food becomes more and more difficult to grow or obtain, then impossible. Generation by generation, the planet grows dark and lifeless, enshrouded in Smoke.

In the mythology of the planet’s residents, the creator they pretended to worship once destroyed life through drowning, then promised on a rainbow that would never again happen. It would be fire next time, they prophesied, but they forgot that where there is fire there is Smoke. And after the fire Smoke remains.