For a week the sky hangs gray with smoke. The farmers, the builders, the children, Gen and old Lani, the men, and my mother and me—all of us who can—wander the wreckage with scraps of bedsheet across our mouths and noses to keep out the ash, cleaning up the debris that is cool enough to handle and seeing what can be salvaged or reused. The men put their strength to use where strength can help, lifting fallen tree limbs, tearing down fences too broken to mend, chucking collapsed beams into ever-expanding piles. They teach me to raise a frame and thatch a roof. We build a shelter big enough to fit everyone.
It seems like no one talks. The animals too have fallen quiet, panicked by their sudden uprooting and return. For several days the cows hardly give. It is just as well, since Gen is not often there to tend them. She is making things we need, a long list of urgent items: clay bowls for eating and jugs for water, pits for cooking, pallets for sleeping, sewn of ruined clothes and stuffed with sawdust. I visit her with lunch I’ve cooked; sometimes she takes a break with me, and we exchange our limited news. Most days she is all work, and when I get frustrated for wanting to talk to her I try to remember she does what she does for the sake of the village. She does what others can’t.
Because some of the men were caught in the blast, and because they have lost their livelihood, we must care for and shelter them, though they have no money, though they never will. They become immediately less rowdy; they do not drink. They play quiet games of cards at night and go to bed as soon as the sun sets. I lay on a pallet between them and my mother, and it seems to me their snores have calmed.
As I lay trying to sleep I overhear a few of the men talking about leaving for the city. There is nothing here for them; it doesn't make much sense to stay. They will do their duty to help the village get back on its feet, and then they will be on their way.
On the morning I leave the village, Gen accompanies me to the end of the road. She does not talk much on the way. I rather expected her to. Perhaps she is all out of asking why. Perhaps she knows I am exhausted with answering.
I told Gen first, before my mother—maybe hoping for practice, or for advice. But my mother reacted nothing like Gen. Our last evening together stretched on tearful and long, Mom fighting with me, negotiating, but I would not change my mind, afraid of missing my chance. She was calmer when I met Gen at the door this morning with my bags, up already, busy with cooking. Distracted. I knew she would be, soon enough. Life goes on.
I wasn’t able to give either of them an ironclad reason. I told them what there is in the cities. How much culture and opportunity, how many more people. More books than in the library of the mansion. More treasures, too. I am eager for all of these things. Yet it rings hollow, somehow, and if my Mom does not recognize the toothlessness of my defenses, Gen does.
It is early enough that all the stars are out still, bright as diamond. A sky so clear like we haven’t seen it in a month. It feels, suddenly, like the town is going to be okay. Like I could stay, if I were determined. Because I guess I have been exaggerating. I guess we were not totally without connection. There is this cart ready to travel, there is the occasional courier, there were the teachers, there are the men. There are options here if all I want is a better life. I could buy or raise a horse and build my own cart; I could deliver mail and goods and medicine, see the world, come back at intervals. I could stay and become a teacher; gather the knowledge from the resources we have; send for books on what I don’t know; perform my own experiments, observations, excavations in this unobserved part of the world. I could do something important right here. Who is saying this place isn’t worth it?
One of the men harnesses the horse. Another loads my bags into the cart: one of them tools and medicines, one of them clothes and food. “Coming with us, I hear,” he says, and I confirm yes. “It’s a hard trip. Rain. Heat. Wild dogs. Poison spiders. Bandits. Bad sheriffs. Water sickness. No water.”
“I still want to go.”
He grins and slaps me on the back so hard I’m reeling. “Well, you’re young,” he says, securing the last of the load. “Sometimes there’s a little luck in that.” He heads to the front to check in with the driver. I settle into the back of the cart next to my bags.
“You’ll write sometime, won’t you?” says Gen. Her final question for me.
And I feel shocked that she’d ask it, because of course I will. That’s what I say to her: “Of course.”
The horse stamps once, ready. The man who isn’t driving unhitches us from the post and climbs into the back beside me.
I spin to look up front—we are leaving—and I swallow, hard; I wasn’t expecting us to pull away so soon. I thought it would take longer to leave. My stomach clenches, and I have the thought: There are two ropes, one hitched to the post that marks this town, and another, somewhere away, a place of prospects only, an imagined city, a place verifiable but almost wholly unknown, a half-truth, a stranger behind a door, and in the middle, me, hitched to both, drawn taut in both directions. I have resisted my whole life. I am giving up being an anchor. And maybe after I’m gone a while, this town will win its tug-of-war, and I’ll be back. After some time.
I think to give Gen this as my answer, and turn back as if she’ll be there, but we are jittering down the road, the land coursing lazily by. I rise up onto my knees, our coarse, familiar wind nearly stealing my hat, peering back at the hitching post, expecting Gen waiting there, watching after me—finding her gone; she is already turned back.