Aislin lifted the dirty leather flap on the cave’s entrance and peered out into the gloom of midday. It was unnaturally quiet. It always was. That was because everything was dead. For years now the soot had fallen like rain over their valley, enveloping everything in its filthy, black blanket. It had not always been that way, at one time it had been a beautiful, life-sustaining place then fissures had sprung up from the valley floor spewing black soot columns high into the air so that it fell back onto everything below.
When it first happened the people did not expect it to last long but after the first month, when the trees began dying, they fled in panic. Aislin gritted her teeth, all but a few had left in that first month, running over the hills to the dangers of another world even though The Creator had promised them that the places beyond held nothing for them. Then in the months to follow the remaining group dwindled further as many succumbed to death or fear. They were only one small family now, banished to the caves for the most part because the soot had started to burn their skin.
Aislin sighed heavily and let the flap drop, plunging the cave into its usual darkness. It had been a long time since she had seen any colour other than black. Streams and pools had been choked by it, trees had been painted in it, animals had fled from it – the entire world it seemed had turned to black. But then every now and again rain fell. Real rain that made them run from their cave and dance in the black sludge, cleaning them and quenching their thirst for a little while before the soot returned.
“Why do we stay here?” an old voice grumbled from the back of the cave. His voice like sandpaper and void of hope.
“You know why.” Aislin said gently, even though her own heart felt heavy. She pushed the feeling aside and conjured up the vision again in her mind.
It had been in that first month that Aislin had seen The Creator’s message. He had shown her a wooden bowl holding a flower. A lovely flower, such as the ones that grew in the valley but soon it wilted until nothing remained of it but ashes. Then from the ashes a single green leaf sprouted miraculously. A lush green leaf that soon gave rise to a multitude of buds and later magnificent flowers. The bowl had also changed and was now a brilliant gold bowl embellished with intricate patterns. It had seemed a simple picture but Aislin had an immediate sense of the incredible message – their valley would one day be replenished, in more abundance than before. She believed it without hesitation even though others spat in her face and told her such dreams were ludicrous.
Even those who had at first believed her, lost hope when that first month had come and gone. It was hard to see a lush green valley beyond the dead world their home had become. Still Aislin walked the valley every day without fail, looking for the single leaf The Creator had promised her.
“Are you going out today?” the old voice crackled in the small space.
“As I always do.” Aislin nodded.
“You should walk a new route today.” He suggested and Aislin smiled, perhaps he was not completely devoid of hope after all.
“Perhaps I will.” She said and took a deep breath before rushing out to meet the soot.
She would be black before she returned to the cave - smothered in the filth – but she didn’t mind as long as she had a purpose to be there, as long as she was staying true to the message the Creator had given her. Pulling her skins tighter around her face and neck and trying to ignore the light burning, she marched onward, her eyes always searching for the smallest glimpse of green.
At the edge of what used to be the forest something caught the corner of her eye. Something bright against the black. Her head snapped towards it and she sucked in her breath.
A single leaf.
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