Slash & Burn

There. He heard it again. 

Help–

Unclear and distant but there nevertheless.

He started running towards it and found himself transported beside the dying man. He knelt before the man who, for a person who was dying, was lying in a peculiar position on the ground. The man’s limbs, pale and flimsy, were still thrashing about, splattering lumps of mud in every direction, soiling his clothes. The way the head moved terrified him most of all. An engorged, deformed shape of a head was spasming violently. He couldn’t see the man’s eyes, for the head was turned towards the ground. He must put an end to this, he thought. No human being should have to die this way.

He clutched at the man’s shirt, but without warning, a vine erupted from beneath the man, coiling around his body over and over again. More vines punctured through the soil until suddenly, he was facing a black abyss that had appeared before him, taking the man down with it. The vines had burst into flames, sending a thick plume of smoke and a dreadful smell of singeing flesh up into the air. A sudden gust of wind sent Basil falling backwards. “Protect us,” the wind seemed to say. And then everything went black.

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Basil Forst woke up drenched and panting. Releasing the tent bedding from his clutch, he saw the colour slowly returning to his knuckles under the pale glow of his lamp.

“Somebody shut that thing off!” An irritated shout erupted several tents away. A portable radio was spewing out the latest update on President Jair Bolsonaro’s pledge to make room in the Amazon for Brazil’s agribusiness. 

The clock read 4:07 am. Basil sighed.

He thought it absurd for someone to listen to political debates at 4 in the morning. He knew Bolsonaro well, his father worked under him as a far-right activist. His father used to take him on trips to the Amazon as a child, searching for rare-sighted tribes while eating freshly-picked exotic fruits. Those days were long gone, and so were his father’s passion for the rainforest. Basil rarely saw his father anymore and understood that the longer his father worked under the President, the sooner the Amazon would be destroyed, which is one of the reasons he decided to go to visit the rainforest by himself for the first time. 

Well, not technically by himself. He remembered filling in the brightly coloured Amazonian Adventure sign up page that promised its campers the best tour of the Amazon. As Basil packed the day before his departure, he couldn’t help but feel there was an apocryphal quality to the tour he was about to go on- The last few days of the tour fell on the last days of President Bolsonaro’s 60-day ban of setting legal fires to clear land. 

In addition, Basil had his doubts on how professional the tour instructor was. A short, moustached fellow with a gold tooth in an oversized camo outfit, Aberto Costanza probably stole his campers’ money and hid it in his many vest pockets. A wild guess, but the more Basil thought about it, the more convinced he became. Yes, he needed to see the forest one last time. 

He groggily searched for his flashlight, tore open his tent zip and stepped out into a coal-black world. 

“What time is it?” Yawning, a tall man emerged from the tent opposite where Basil stood, furiously rubbing his right eye. 

A woman in yellow pyjamas emerged from another tent with a gigantic flashlight. With one hand on her hip, she clicked her tongue in disgust. “Well, isn’t this just fantastic?” she said. “The Amazon looks even more beautiful at night. Who knows what’s lurking out there? Bats, snakes, creepy crawlies…”

More campers were emerging from their tents, shuffling uncomfortably in the dark as the cool Amazonian air grazed their skin. Each brought a flashlight, swiveling spheres of light across the forest. It was an orchestra of tiny UFO lights in the heart of the jungle. Amidst the sudden illumination, Basil noticed that most of them were covering their noses with their other hand.

First, the smell. Second, the coughs. Then, the– 

“Everybody get the hell out of here!” Aberto commanded, zipping open tents in a flurry to make sure no one was left behind. “Take no belongings with you and go to the main camp up north!”

The sight was horrifying. A wall of flames had engulfed the trees in the distance, shooting up sparks into the sky. It was the unmistakable spread of an illegal wildfire. Basil was already running with the others. They tore through the dense forest, catching bruises from every stumble and graze and scratch. 

You’ll be standing tomorrow over the burned ground and I wonder if you’ll recognize your son’s ashes, Dad, Basil thought. 

By now, the fire was closing in on them. A few of the campers shrieked as glowing tongues of fire licked at their heels. Basil stopped briefly. He didn’t care if he lost the rest. He had broken into a cold sweat. 

Somewhere in the distance, a faint cry for help. “Anybody, please!” The cry got louder with each step he took.

He swatted at the vines and branches that grazed his face. Their leathery touch and hard spines felt like spider legs running across Basil’s face, while the warmth of the fire on his back was a constant reminder of its presence.

He reached a small burnt clearing and found at its centre a man choking heavily on the ground. Basil sensed that there was someone–or something–else in the clearing, but he could not see anything. A chill overcame him as he recognised the stranger on the ground. 

“Mr. Costanza?” He rushed towards him. 

“Hel-” Aberto bent towards the ground, moustache twitching as his choking worsened. “Smoke. Get-“

Without warning, Aberto wrenched at the weeds and soil with both hands. As the man before him started heaving, Basil realised with amounting horror that his nightmare was coming to life. He slowly backed away, trembling at the sight. But unlike his dream, Aberto, with his wild, uncontrolled spasms and low guttural sounds, lunged towards Basil with a ferocity that could only be attributed to a wild animal.

The last thing he remembered was a collage of fragmented memories that didn’t seem to be his: ash filling up the space all around him, grey flakes dancing in an orange-lit dusky sky, and the war-bonnet-clad heads of a tribe carrying several urns towards the trees, an immolation of some sort. He remembered shooting up towards the night sky.

The stiffness of his body that had begun to swell and the height between his head and the ground scared Basil to his very core. He couldn’t feel his spine anymore, and what was once feet were now fibrous roots planted firmly into the depths of the Amazon.

“Basil, don’t be afraid,” the Wind gently spoke in the ancient tongue he had heard before. “You belong with us now.”

“Wh-why can’t I stop growing? Why me?” He stuttered.

“You will help us save everything from obliteration. Our greatest revenge requires the help of all like-minded beings.”

Basil was now at least 160 feet above the rainforest. Below, the smoke billowed through the black ecosystem; charred timber, ashy soil, and a charcoal forest floor. He breathed with a strange voracious desire for clean air and drank from the Earth with equal ferocity.

“Why a tree?”

The Wind laughed loudly, sending thunderous echoes across the still sky and the roar below. It no longer spoke in a gentle tone, “They can burn us and our home. But when we are destroyed, a dark, toxic world will be left behind. We will release all the carbon dioxide they fed us. And they too will burn.”

The other trees shook in agreement. Their leaves rustled in the wind and branches snapped like they were high-fiving each other. A 160-feet army of soldiers that stood bold and proud; protectors of the Earth, the ecosystem, and the right to restoration.

Basil couldn’t help but be revived by the spirit of their cause and joined their chants as the saffron-yellow Sun announced its presence, taunting its arch-enemy below. There were two flaming balls, one in the sky and one on Earth, and as he looked upon the horizon where the two met, he wondered which one was brighter.

Illustration: We Are Burning Our Home, by Erel Matita