**Winner of the May Flash Fiction contest on Devin O’Branagan’s writing forum***
We all knew what was coming; the signs were everywhere. The wingless creatures had disappeared days ago, bothered by the tingle of energy, the static before the storm, and the air had become so dry it was difficult to breathe, my skin coarse and flaky. And then, of course, there was the dream. We had all shared it the past few nights, the details described as whispers, soft as breezes. Lush fertile grass against a rough discoloured sky, clouds of black birds fleeing, blocking out the sun – and always the sense of someone watching, something we could not escape.
Some of my neighbours were afraid, trembling in their desire to flee, panicked that they could not escape. I stood strong and was not afraid. It ran through our veins, the knowledge that this could happen. No one knew when – decades or centuries might pass before it recurred – but there was no way to avoid it.
“A natural cycle,” Grandmother Birch had whispered, her fingers reaching out to stroke mine. “A change to be embraced.”
Her parents had grown out of the wreckage of last time, and it gave me hope that no matter what happened, it would not be the end but the start of something greater. Something strong and lasting like Grandmother Birch. Part of me was almost excited – not for what would happen to me, but what it would mean for the future. I could let myself ease into the wind and imagine, a hundred years from now, how perfect everything would be. So I braced myself.
The first rumble of thunder rolled across the sky, and prickles ran across the dryness of my skin. Lightning struck a few yards away and I felt ground buzz at my feet. The air took on a tanginess, like fruit without the sweetness. Despite my intention to be strong, my limbs trembled. Grandmother swayed closer with the wind to soothe me.
“Be not afraid, my seedling,” she said, a name she had called me all my days. “It’s all part of Her cycle.”
Another lightning strike and Grandmother Birch was no more than a blackened husk, her roots crackling with the glow of fire. Above my head, the birds took flight and rose like feathered clouds to black out the sun. I reached my limbs up to follow them, my last grasp of freedom before the flames licked across the brush and swallowed my roots, climbing my trunk to consume me. Around me my whole world burst into light, and the cycle came to a close. But it would restart, rejuvenated with what we left behind, and the forest would revive, new and whole.