As Louisa stumbled through the smoke and crackling trunks, she tried to keep her thoughts on happy things.
The feel of a popsicle melting on her tongue, or the bright burst of a lemon’s scent when it’s first cut. Of the bubbles rising around her body when she plunged into her parent’s pool as a child. Of reigniting her brother’s birthday candles again and again, making him think they were magic ones, when all along the magic came from her.
The smoke burned her throat, and stung her eyes, but still she plodded on, her soot-streaked hands raised in defense, in prayer, in a plea. For the wildfires had come again, and only she had answered the call.
At least, she thought she was the only one.
She didn’t like the term fire-eater, as it implied an open-mouthed mustachioed guy (for it was usually a guy) in a too-revealing man-kini bellowing from the center ring of some dodgy travelling circus. Or perhaps someone on stilts at a street fair, chugging kerosene and spitting forth clouds of weak flame.
She didn’t eat fire, exactly. She consumed it, absorbed it, and its power.
And the wildfires were beginning to rage longer, and fiercer, than ever before. The country was burning, the animals were scarred and long-fled, the remaining trees blackened beyond life. The fire department, and the inmates conscripted to help – though numerous – could only do so much.
Louisa knew the risk of coming out in the open. She had heard of someone else with her powers being attacked and vilified in Australia, but how could she sit by, safely in a nearby state, when her neighbors were facing the destruction of their homes?
She reached the heart of the forest fire, where the flames licked white hot all around, and the soles of her shoes melted on the scorching earth. Sweat ran from her skin and evaporated instantly, but still she stood, in the maelstrom of fire, feeling the heat coursing through her blood, through the marrow of her bones, and extended her hands further.
The flames whipped up into the air, circling into a vortex of red and yellow, howling in its never-ending hunt for more oxygen, more fuel.
Just what her mother had scolded her for, when she could chew and swallow hot pepper after pepper without shedding a tear. What her grandmother had celebrated, as she spooned more curry onto her plate, and the rest of the family sat fanning themselves, wide-eyed.
The heat didn’t faze her. It never had.
But the destruction of the land, of the Earth itself, did.
She grimaced as the flames licked the tips of her fingers, and her flesh began to melt.
This was it. She would absorb the heart of the wildfire, and be consigned to ash, just like the rest of this once mighty forest. But if it would save lives, and the rest of the trees, some of the last forest for hundreds of miles, then so be it. The adults hadn’t done enough to stop the worst of it. They just kept exploiting the Earth, until the tipping point was long past, and the younger generations could only watch in horror. Here there were fires. Elsewhere there were floods, or blizzards, or droughts.
She would not sit and do nothing anymore.
A firefighting plane groaned overhead, dropping its cargo of water. It wouldn’t be enough.
She breathed in, the ash and smoke filling her lungs, choking her, then brought her hands in together, reining in the vortex until it consumed her. Her blood sang, her soul had reached its boiling point, and her body absorbed all of the flames. She screamed.
The water fell at that instant, and the flames hissed and dissipated – as did she.
Smoke rose, curling up to the clearing sky.
The forest was quiet now. Life would return.
But so would the flames.
Meredith is a writer and art historian who loves to obsess over books, films, TV shows and music. She writes adult historical fiction and is currently working on a series set during the 17th-century Scottish Civil Wars, as well as a stand-alone set at the end of the American Revolution. You can read all of her Muses stories here.