Monday, July 25, 2005

Chapter 4: Through the Vacuum

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The night I heard the story of Lorelei was long, as long as any I remember. Lying in bed, I kept thinking of the possible implications of Lorelei’s story on my own questions. Her mystery haunted me with its similarities to my life and its profound foreboding. It tortured me for hours as I stared at the ceiling, sleepless, imagining that my brother was asleep in the room next to mine, down the hall from my mother and father. All of us at peace for the night. Only the truth was that I was not at peace at all, and they were gone, eternally.

Uncle Lee proved an artful storyteller, full of details and rich description. His intelligence was impressive, and deceiving for an old codger in a one-horse town. He took my mind and my imagination for the length of the tale, and I didn’t speak for a while after the story. I just sat, foggy-eyed and thinking, gazing through the tobacco smoke that wafted from his pipe.

After an amount of time for which I cannot account, Uncle Lee stood and asked me if I would like to return the next day for another conversation. He said there was something else he wanted to say about the alm, but he did not elaborate. I returned home in a chilling October drizzle, tipped with the frosts of a fast approaching winter. It would be a long time before I had that second conversation with Uncle Lee, or at least, a long time in this world.

As I lay, cold sweat moistening my back and chest, the night around me grew quiet, and all I could hear was my unsteady breathing. Then I felt it, discomforting but familiar. The thrumming vibration, distinct from any other sensation. I pulled up the covers and saw the faint glow. My feel were whirring, ankles blurred and tickling. Suddenly, a piercing wail held sway over everything. The sound exploded into my quarters, seeming to shake the dust from the wall corners. A siren. My unfeeling call to duty.

I leapt from the bed without a second thought, throwing on my clothes and racing down the hall, stopping a half second to grab my gear. By the time I reached the street, two other firemen were haphazardly throwing on their hardhats and strapping up their suit suspenders. I saw another man in the tower, winding the siren and furiously pulling the bell toll. We hitched the horses and tore off into the night, following the smoke that rose in the air over the crosshatched rooftops and chimneys of the northern hamlet that was my home.

Townhall. The large auditorium that, by day, housed municipal authority and historical records, and at night, more than its share of drunks, gamblers and corrupt policymakers. The building was ablaze and dozens of villagers gathered in the street, pointing, crying, shrieking. We hooked up the rig to the townhall’s ample well and began to pump water on the unsympathetic blaze.

It was clear to me that this fire would not be quenched, so I began giving instructions to any who would listen that we needed to do our best to fireproof the surrounding buildings. Most looked at me with horror and confusion, but several men sprung into action, moving carts and pulling curtains from windows. We aimed the water at these buildings, intending only to keep the blaze from spreading. It was a difficult decision for these simple men and women to accept, but the townhall was a lost cause.

Then a women, her face ash-covered and tear-streaked, came crying and pulling on my shirtsleeves. “Help!” she wailed. “Mayor Freeman is still inside, along with two or three others. The card games were on tonight. Help them please!” She was shaking. Others turned their glances to me, and more cried out. They turned their collective hopes over to me. They believed I could save the men trapped inside. Me and only me.

I took a deep breath and buttoned up my coat, pulling my rubber necking over my chin. Grabbing two waterskins, I sprinted into the inferno, not stopping to fear my oldest foe. In the foyer, my nostril hairs were singed with the first breath I took in. Smoke curled around everything, and the books and furniture of the large room raged with darkness, heat and hatred. Everything teetered and fell. Gusts of flame shot across the room in flowing, rapid bursts. I ducked and rolled, jumped and parried, moving through the front room like a crazy man, beset by an invisible attacker whose punches disappeared into crackling explosion. I recall being comfortable with the notion that my entrance into this fiery maelstrom was a one-way ticket.

I kicked down a crumbling door and jumped aside as another fireball hurled over my head. I could feel my perspiration boiling and my ears pounded with pressure and pain. After moving through a dark hall, walls melting, I made it into the main rotunda for the last moments of the town’s great gathering place. It was disturbing. Smoky blackness, flames green with the tarnish from the consumed rows of wooden benches. A cross fizzled in the center of the wall. No one could have survived that room for more than a minute, so I figured that any survivors must have headed for higher ground. Then I noticed steps in the back, behind the podium.

My feet began to sing, erupting with intensity, and I answered their call with a frantic dash to the other side of the room. I heard the ceiling collapse behind me, but I wasted no effort looking back. My speed was blinding even to me, and before I understood where I was, I had made it to the top of the stone stairwell feeling the rising swarm of hot air pushing on the door at the peak.

The next minute was, as I see it now, understandably hazy, and most of my actions were completely adrenaline fueled and frenzied. I opened the door and was instantly engulfed by a flame, which I put out with a waterskin in just enough time to save my face from burning destruction. The building was beginning to fall down around me, and the sounds of splintering wood and tumbling rubble were mind numbing. It was then that I began to fear this fire, fearing it like the blaze of my stolen innocence. It was the one power that always conquered my spirit, no matter how strong I forced myself to be.

I heard a desperate cry and saw the mayor and another man standing in the corner, trying to hold their heads through the remaining portion of a searing window pane. Had I heard it a second later, I may have taken a knee, given in to the conquering heat. But I knew my task, my reason for being in this madness. Without thought, I flew across the room, not bothering to avoid the flaming obstacles in my path. I dove at the men, wrapping my arms around them both and pushing us out the window. Flames followed us into the night, and we catapulted into darkness, chips of wood and glass stinging our faces as we fell.

My intentions, to the best of my memory, had been to roll over in the descent and land on my back, buttressing their fall. But jumping out of buildings from sixty feet in the air, I have learned, is a dirty business, and ill-thought plans have a way of failing under such circumstances.

As we tumbled out, the coolness of the wind offered a brief instant of relief from the heat. Then my body stopped obeying me. My hands slipped and I lost hold of both men, seeing only their flailing arms and terrified faces gaze up at me, as I stopped in mid air, and they continued to drop. I was pulled backwards, back into the arms of the fire. I heard the bodies of the two men land, with a thump. Then heat and a crimson flare surrounded me.

Though back in the building, I still felt airborne. And I gave up fighting the force that carried me. I was spun in a circle and rotated, over and over, as the crash and burn of the building screamed all around. And the black flame returned. It crept slowly into the room, taking the same places, inch by inch, of the original fire. I was beginning to choke on its fetid stench, ripe with death and scorched bones, when my vision went black.

I felt an earthy floor beneath me. It was soft and wet. The air was clean and I turned onto my back and breathed. There was no fire. There was no light.

I didn’t move from that prone position, staring into limitless nothing, for what may have been hours. I tried to rest, but sleep never took me. I began to think about what once was, and I convinced myself that this was my destiny, one of dark loneliness. Sipping occasionally from my remaining waterskin, I meditated and reached back for answers. The hours turned into days, and I began to hallucinate. Through this slow torment, my mind kept going back to the same place, again and again. I could only think of her name and her story. I could only think about Lorelei.
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