In bed, I cocoon myself in blankets although it is too warm for them. Worn down, fearful, exhausted and angry, I cry hot tears until I’m in an uneasy sleep. A feverish dream.
In the dream, I have returned to the mansion. Or I never left. I am reading Le Jeune’s books, have been reading them a long time, maybe days, and learning things: names, relationships, dates, specific turns of phrase, though Gen always tells me you cannot read in dreams, though she hovers now over my shoulder and tries to talk me away from them. I feel wisps of her hair drop close to my face, feel her fingers playing my shoulder bones like they were her piano keys, but I cannot understand a word she says, or rather, as soon as she speaks, her words are unrecognizable, unregistered, unintelligible. Eventually, I understand that she is angry with me about something. Eventually, I also realize, she is gone.
And now I begin to look for her, now the dream turns anxious and smoky and dark. I flee the library, hoist myself to the basement window, but it is stuck in its frame and will not budge. I have to get out of the house the way someone who lives there would. Down the hallway empty as a mineshaft I run, dusty globe lamps in insect green passing endlessly overhead. At last the hallway ends, and there is a stair. Unlit. The steps creak beneath my feet, long disused. I climb up and up, growing hotter as I go and more frantic, shivering even as I sweat. I am exhausted, knees buckling, when I come to a door at the top of the stairs, and I remember the job of this long journey was to get out. This is my way out.
The knob doesn’t turn.
I throw all my weight behind it.
A sound like thunder—a terrible eruption of earth, I do not know from what—my ears ringing, the loudest noise I’ve ever heard. Though Gen says you cannot hear in dreams, either, that you first see a thing that must have made a noise, and you attribute the experience to it afterward. But I don’t know what the cause of this noise is, cannot in fact see anything where I still stand on the darkened stair, and the shock of it knocks me off my feet. I am tumbling down the staircase, legs tangling, arms stretched, trying to catch on something to stop the fall. But nothing will stop it. I am falling, dizzy, bruising, bloody and torn, continuously down in the dark.
Pari, I think I hear, but I am afraid to wake. I am sweating beneath the blankets, a smothering and inescapable heat, like being in the kitchen when my mother is using the stove and the oven both. It feels bad to breathe.
“Pari!” The bedroom door bangs open so loud I think for a moment it’s been knocked down. My mother stands in the doorway, pale, disheveled, the thin hairs along her hairline frizzing in different directions.
I topple out of bed still dizzy, half-dreaming, waiting for her to prove she is real. To tell me what is wrong and what we must do.
FIRE, cuts through our silence.
FIRE, from outside, from all quarters, surrounding the house—many voices, all shouting in panic, FIRE, FIRE, FIRE.
It takes a moment to really understand. When I do, my mother sees it and sidesteps quickly out of my path. I run down the stairs and out of the house, and she trails behind me.
The village is alive with heat, the sun smoked out but the sky amber. From the stables come the shrieks of spooked horses, the angry moaning of wrangled cows. People are leaving their homes with arms full of mementos, leaving the doors open behind them. They are hurrying past the inn, toward the road that has been barricaded off all summer long.
My mother and I stand watching—just watching. I finally spot the flicker of flames on the mountainside, the treetops sending up smoke, and I recall the disasters that plagued each of Le Jeune’s efforts. Something must have gone wrong on the mountain, at the mine. For the first time all summer I feel a twinge of worry for the men. I want to see them, their familiar nighttime exodus from the mountain, so many of them, filling up the dinner tables, like any other day. I want to see anyone who is going about their business as usual, but the village is already emptying out. The doors are open, but everyone inside has fled. The village has given up. They are getting set to leave.
Mom remains stuck in place on the stoop of the inn, clenching my hand firmly in both of hers. She is staring straight ahead at the fire on the mountain as if she can’t recognize what she is looking at.
“Everybody’s at the edge of town,” I say, shaking free my hand. “I need to see Gen.”
“I don’t guess there’s any stopping it,” she says absently. “Is there?”
Distantly, on the mountainside, a tree cracks, snaps, crashes down. The fire roars and then settles back to its business. Ash is on the air. Mom begins to cough.
“Come with me,” I say. “Come on.”
I lead her off the stoop, my arm across my shoulders. We clear the borders of the village, we draw out of the mountain’s shadow and emerge under the open sky. She feels limp in my arms; I drag her up time and again, hand firm on her back as she chokes back sobs, as neighbors hurry back and forth past us, carts and wheelbarrows in tow, hauling blankets, food, tools and belongings. The gathering point comes into view—a noisy, sweating, shifting, shadowy mass of people and animals and wagon hitches. We approach, one of the last to arrive. The crowd buries my struggling breath with its crying. Babies and old men and women, sheep and goats, all cry, plaintive, mourning their various emptinesses.
It is more people than I knew we had. The ones whose faces I see I can hardly recognize for soot or sorrow. It is as if I know none of them, as if this is the evacuation of a different town. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough to know them.
I press forward, calling for Gen, dragging my mother by the hand now, shoving past anyone in our path, until the murmur starts to spread and the people begin to clear us a path. I accept it without thanks, pulling my mother along; I am shaking, still breathing but running out of sound.
“Gen!” I call. “Gen!”
I cannot find her among them.
“Mom,” I say, “Mom, where’s Gen.”
She looks confused. “I don’t know. She’s the one who spread the word. She told Lani, and Lani told me.”
I find old Lani. “Where’s Gen,” I ask. She gives the same response as my mother, adds, “I was sure I’d find her with you,” and starts to fret.