Fire is their fanfare. Soil turns to dust, grass grows brown and brittle. Trees become torches, illuminating our fear of what we know is coming. The flames don’t touch our settlement, but they encircle it, won’t let us leave. In a single night, our forest landscape is taken away, replaced with something new and unwelcoming, a vast flatness. When the fires choke and die, we know better than to feel relief. We know the fire brings the Stonewood Men. They emerge before dawn on the settlement’s edges. Striated knuckles crawl like ancient arachnids up from the hot earth, heave their hard boulder bodies into our world as we watch from the paper-thin cover of our dwellings. They grow fast, shooting up tall and thick around us, making our world narrower, grayer. By the time the sun rises, we are cast in darkest shadow, their root limbs crawling ever closer.
They come every handful of years, five, three, seven. They wait on children to be born who don’t remember, the elders say, wait on us to nurture our foolish seedlings of hope. Usually, we abandon our settlement the day they arrive. But every now and again the elders urge us to continue our lives in their presence for as long as we can bear it, hoping to outlast them, to have them tire of us. So we try coexisting, stepping over their crawling appendages, avoiding their cold stone eyes. But beneath their shadows our faces become leaden. To smile becomes as hard as holding your breath for the length of your mother’s lullaby, hard as unburying yourself from a grave dug too deep. Talk stops outside of necessities. “Bread,” we say to the storekeeper. “Milk.” The children won’t play games save for hide-and-go-seek, and even that turns joyless and more sinister—we all are seekers, but none of us wants to be found. We cling to our paper tokens more tightly. We become suspicious of those who live on the settlement’s outer rim. Foods taste blander, yet we can’t help but gorge ourselves, reducing our stores to next to nothing. Within days, we aren’t able to stand what we’re becoming, so once again we join hands and flee.
We keep a chronicle of our past attempts to shake them: We've left sacrifices behind as we fled—old papers, small animals, severed braids of hair. (Never children.) We've prayed to a variety of gods and devils the elders remember from before, and to several new ones they invented for this purpose. We’ve prayed to the Stonewood Men, too. We’ve watered their roots. We’ve dressed them in the costumes of our ancestors because surely they must have come to haunt us from that old world of flying machines and flammable tokens of power and boxes that carried human voices far beyond the horizon.
Nothing stops them from following us. Nothing breaks the cycle.
This is how we escape, this time as every time: As soon as the last of us has set foot outside the settlement and into the dead dirt of the burnt-down woods, the Stonewood Men catch fire. Like obscene, torturous crowns, flames lash into the sky from atop their heads, in anger or in mourning at our departure. They smolder, glow like cursed coals, and blow apart on the wind, turning the air into a bitter cauldron of ash and smoke that swallows us whole. We walk in thick grayness for days. We only have sight to the fingertips of our outstretched hands. We’ve learned to hold on to each other, to walk as an unbroken chain so as not to lose more than we already have. Some of us hold handles of trunks and wooden milk jugs, some ropes that lead the few cows we have left. Some hold torches, though not many—we distrust fire and are reluctant to carry it with us on this murky journey. Most of us hold hands. None walk alone. The Stonewood Men’s ashes whirl all around us, carrying them back to us on the wind like pollen.
Days later, the first feet will feel the relief of grass, of softer, moister earth. The first fingers will stretch, creaky and claw-like from days of tight holding on. Hands will touch living trees in relief and reverence. We will find a clearing. We will rest. We will weave new tents and mats from leaves and grasses, whittle new bowls and spoons, write down our stories anew from memory, and mourn all we’ve left behind, all that will be forgotten. The eldest will cry in relief, certain they will be gone by the time the Stonewood Men return. And in the night we will quietly wonder who they are and why they chase us, whether they come in hatred or in envy, whether they want to drag us back into a world long-lost, or whether they are trying to join us here in our small, circular existence where our most important power is that of holding on, in fierce desperation, to each other’s hands.