Zhanai’degau sample

Part One: The Cavern of Fire

Chapter One: Bonfire

The bonfire was bigger than she had thought it would be. The flames leaped six, seven, eight feet into the late afternoon summer sky, and were reflected in the windows of the house, and of the smaller of the two garages. The larger garage was on the other side of the back yard.

It was just a tree, just the remains of a large Siberian elm, fully dead at last since fall. But she was glad to see it burn, as if, somehow, its destruction by fire could heal the damage it had done.

Burning the tree was the right thing to do. Except for the image of the pleading woman in the dancing flames.


Jeanette had first seen the woman about five weeks ago, when Steve had taken her to her favorite candle-lit restaurant. There was no special reason, he just did things like that sometimes. She had first noticed something odd about the two flames of the candles while waiting for desert. When she looked directly at them, she saw that there was a tiny face in each. The two were the same, the face of a woman which wavered when the flames did. Steve noticed her startlement and asked her about it. She mentioned the face before thinking, and he assumed that she was seeing the same kind of illusory face that one sometimes sees in a cluster of leaves, or in the texture of a rock. She did not insist.

The second time was a morning two days later, when sunlight from the bathroom window reflected off the surface of the mirror, making it difficult for her to see herself. This time the image — in the glare, not in the mirror itself — was life-sized, but transparent like the glare on the glass. She stared at it, unable to think. The woman was young, and attractive, and distressed. Then the light changed, and the glare and the image were gone. 

The face had appeared after that, with greater or lesser clarity, in most glassy reflections, was hinted at in the glints off chrome, and was clearly visible in the stove flame when it was turned up high. She didn’t mention it to Steve again, afraid he might think she was hallucinating.

She had known, before starting the bonfire, that the woman would be there, but she did it anyway. She had cut the tree up, and she could have left it for weeks if it were just a matter of clearing away the sections of trunk, the branches, the twigs and leaves. But every time she saw it all lying there, it was as if she were seeing it whole, the first time after it had fallen. The need for emotional release made her burn the tree now. She needed to act out her anger and her grief in some physical way, even if there was the inexplicable image of a woman in the fire. The tree would burn, and then it would be over.

There was nothing unusual down near the coals, only the shimmering shapes from which people’s imaginations sometimes created pictures. The image of the woman was in the upper flames, flickering not quite in synchrony with their dance. She watched, and the image became stronger, if not clearer, many subtly differing images one after the other, superimposed on each other.

The woman was five or six years older than she, dressed in what looked like a bad movie’s idea of rustic medieval clothing, a dark brown vest laced over a rather full-sleeved shirt of pale muted green, and dark, almost black trousers, rather loose around the legs, held up by a broad black belt, with a heavy but plain brass buckle. Something hung from the belt by her left hip. The woman seemed to be looking right at her, though it was impossible to tell for sure with the images so rapidly replacing each other. And though the woman did not hold out her hands to her, there was more than a suggestion, felt rather than seen, of pleading, in her posture, and in her expression.


She tossed another dry branch onto the blaze and stepped back out of the ensuing shower of sparks. Even if they landed on her they wouldn’t hurt her. Her tee shirt was soaked with sweat, front and back, and her hair was just as wet and hung unpleasantly around her face. She wanted the tree to be gone tonight, so that she wouldn’t have to see it whenever she came into the back yard.

The funeral, only yesterday, had left her exhausted. It had been closed-casket of course. But she kept on imagining that she could see through the dark polished mahogany, and the steel which lined it. Sometimes the image in her mind was of Steve as she had seen him sleeping next to her. At others, it had been as he had looked when the rescue squad had finally gotten him out from under the tree she was now burning. Either way, the anguish made her throat clench, her stomach knot, and the skin of her face and arms tight and hot. But she had not cried.

Old Mr. Seaton, her neighbor on the side beyond the fire, came out into his back yard and up to the fence. He stood there a moment, hands in his pockets, watching. “I see you got most of it.” He was somewhere in his late seventies, long retired, stocky, bald, and pleasant in a placid sort of way. “Looks like you’ll finish up before it gets too much later.”

“I hope so. I’m more tired than I thought I would be.”

“Of course you are.” He looked at her a moment, then turned his attention back to the fire.

“And then I’ll have to clean up this mess tomorrow.”

“Be careful. Sometimes coals can keep going for a long time under a heap of ashes like that.”

“I will be. I’ll soak them down before I go in tonight.” She paused. “But then I’ll have to let them dry, or they’ll be too heavy for me to carry.” She stared at the ground between her and the fire. “I might use some of it for fertilizer.” Just words, to be polite.

“You could do that,” Mr. Seaton said. There were few flower beds in his yard, but there were luxuriant bushes, different kinds with interesting foliage, growing against the house and the single-car garage. The lawn was perfectly smooth and green. He mowed it almost every Sunday.


He had watched, standing in almost exactly the same place, when she had started the fire earlier in the afternoon. “Are you sure you want to do that now?” he asked her. “You look awfully tired. It’ll burn better after it’s had a few more days to dry out.”

“I’ll be all right. It’s had the whole winter to dry out. I just can’t stand to have it lying here any longer. Besides, I already started it.”

“It’ll make a pretty big fire. You’ll be out here a long time looking after it.”

“I can do it. I’ve got a hose. Is it all right?”

“I don’t mind. I understand.” He watched her silently for a moment. “You were such a happy couple.”

She couldn’t answer him.

The Jacobis, on the other side of the yard, never came out to visit the way Mr. Seaton or his daughter sometimes did. They hadn’t come out that afternoon either, so maybe they didn’t object to the fire. They knew as well as anybody what had happened.

Mr. Seaton watched a little longer, then went back inside. Jeanette threw on a couple of the smaller branches. Burning the tree, after cutting it up all by herself, was a way to work out her anger. The tree had not fallen deliberately, but punishing it with fire gave her a vent for her grief, as well as for her anger.


Jeanette Delgado was a small woman, not quite five feet tall, and less than a hundred pounds. Steve would not have let her do a job as physically demanding as this all by herself. It wasn’t that he was — had been — chauvinistic, even though he was, a little bit. He let her do her share of moving books at the store. But cutting up and burning the tree was, as he would have put it, an entirely different question. She would have thought so too, as small as she was. Until today. Her parents had believed that. And yet she had cut it up all by herself. She was proud of that, an achievement of which her parents had been convinced she was incapable.

The prospect of running Steve’s chain saw that morning had almost stopped her before she started. She had used the loppers first, taking off all the smaller branches. She couldn’t tell what part of the tree had died last fall, and what had been dead since before she and Steve had moved in three years ago.

She had gotten the saw from Steve’s workbench in the large garage, and brought it out to the picnic table by the back door. She sat on the bench and looked at it for a long time. It was a small saw, it’s blade just a little over a foot long, and it weighed less than ten pounds. But it was big enough for the job. She could have asked one of her neighbors for help. Even Mr. Jacobi might have been willing. But the thought of asking a favor made her uncomfortable. Steve’s brother, Tony, would have been glad to help, to work out some of his own anger and grief, and she wouldn’t have minded asking him, but he was already flying back to St. Louis. Besides, using Steve’s saw herself on the tree that had killed him would be cathartic.

She knew how to run it from watching him cut wood before. She knew that to start it, the choke should be on and the stop button should be off. At last she worked up her courage, stood to get a better hold of it, and pulled the rope. It started the first time. If it hadn’t, she might not have had the courage to try again.

Mrs. Malloy, from across the alley, came over right after Jeanette had started the saw, but before she had worked up the courage to actually start using it. She stood watching from just inside the gate in the back fence, between the two garages. “You could get the city to do that,” she said. “I wouldn’t touch one of those things,” meaning the chain saw, “if you paid me real money.”

Jeanette let the saw idle. “I think I’d rather do it myself.” The saw frightened her, but she wouldn’t back down, now that she had an audience. She gripped it firmly by the front and back handles, careful not to touch the throttle, went to the tree, took a breath, and started to cut a branch, about half way between the trunk and the lopped-off end, where it was still thick enough to not bend too much when she pressed the saw against it. She pretended that she knew what she was doing, and started another cut after the first piece fell, about a foot and a half closer to the trunk. It took her a while to get used to the noise and vibration, and her arms and shoulders were going to be sore the next day, but to her surprise, she quickly learned how to use it.

“I guess it’s better than just sitting and stewing,” Mrs. Malloy said. “Something to do. You have to work it out of your system.”

Jeanette paused. Mrs. Malloy was making her nervous. She couldn’t run the saw and talk at the same time. “I want to get this thing out of here. I can’t stand the sight of it any longer.” She finished that branch and started on another. It wasn’t going to be as difficult as she had thought.

“If you need any help,” Mrs. Malloy said, “maybe Brian could come over. You’d have to wait until the weekend.”

Jeanette finished the branch and paused again. “I appreciate it,” she said, with the best smile she could make. “I’ll let you know if it gets to be too much for me.”

Mrs. Malloy nodded, watched for a few moments longer, then went back across the alley.


The saw had cut the branches away quickly, and she had cut the thinner pieces into manageable size, by holding them against the trunk with one hand, and the little saw with the other, bracing her elbow against her side. She had enough confidence, by the time she got to the trunk itself, to know that she would be able to finish the job. Of course, the fact that the trunk was hollow and half rotten made it easier. Damn tree.

There had been one bad moment when the saw stopped running. She pulled it out of the cut, took it over to the picnic table, and sat and stared at it for a few minutes. She was glad enough for the chance to rest a bit. Her ears were ringing and her hands were numb from the vibration. She was afraid she might not be able to get it started again.

She caught her breath after a few minutes, then took the saw into the large garage where Steve kept his tool box. Sitting next to it, on the workbench, was the gas can, the oil, and the coffee can to mix them in. Certainly the saw would stop if it had run out of gas. Which, in fact, it had. She found the manual in the top left drawer of the workbench, read how to mix the oil with the gas, and filled the saw’s tiny tank.

She went back out to the tree and, starting at the small end, cut three sections off the trunk. And heard her father coming through the front gate behind her. 

“Jeanette!” he called as he hurried down the walk beside the house. “What are you doing! Put that thing down before you hurt yourself!”

She didn’t startle, for which she was thankful. She finished the cut, then let the saw idle while she turned toward him. Her mother was with him, looking equally shocked and anxious. “I’ve done pretty well so far.” She tried to keep her voice level.

 “I thought,” her father said, “that you were going to hire somebody to take the tree away.”

“I never said that.” She turned back to the tree and started making another cut.

“Jeanette!” her mother cried.

“Put it down! Put it down!” her father insisted.

She forced herself to be steady, and to finish the cut. The eighteen inch section of log, not even four inches in diameter, dropped to the ground. “I’ve done this much.” She looked at them and gestured at the piled branch segments with the saw. “I want to finish the job.”

“Good Heavens,” her mother said. “You didn’t do that all by yourself. You’re not strong enough. You must have had help. Let whoever it was come back and finish it up for you.”

Jeanette did not answer. She turned back to the tree, and cut off another section, aware that, by now, her movements were confident and sure.

“Please, Jeanette,” her father said. She let the saw idle. “Let it be. The city has a tree removal service —”

“I’m going to burn it.” She didn’t look at him. “I’ll sell the larger pieces for firewood and burn the rest.”

“Oh, no!” her mother said. “No, that’s much too dangerous. Let the city take it away —”

“I’m going to burn it, Mother.”

“Jeanette,” her father said, “enough of this. Our plane doesn’t leave for two hours yet. You have plenty of time to pack and come home with us. We can send for the rest of your things later.”

“No. This is my home.” The Seaton’s back door opened and closed. She glanced around to see Mr. Seaton’s unmarried daughter, coming down off the back step and over to the fence. She was maybe fifty, and stocky like her father, and had lived with him all her life. 

“But Estefan is dead,” her mother said. She never called him Steve. She didn’t like nicknames. “You can’t live here all alone.”

“It’s what I’m going to do, Mother. It’s my house —”

“The bank owns the house,” her father said.

“and there’s Cat’s Books to run —”

“You can’t do that without help.” her mother said.

“I can hire somebody. There’s a young man who comes in a lot….” She looked toward the fence. Miss Seaton was watching them. She turned back to her parents. She revved the saw. “I’m staying.”

“But what will we do with the ticket?” her father asked.

“Give it away. Get a refund.” She turned back to the tree and started cutting off another section of the trunk.

She did not look at her parents. Perhaps they would have said something more, but Miss Seaton was looking on, and it would be most improper to argue family matters in front of someone who was just a neighbor. They stood there for a while longer, unhappy and frightened, then they went away.

“Would you like some iced tea?” Miss Seaton asked.

“Yes, thank you,” Jeanette said.


She finished the job before running out of gas a second time, and felt quite proud of herself. Now she had to start the fire.

She had never done that before. Her parents had never let her handle matches, and when Steve saw how nervous she was with them, he had taken full responsibility for lighting the barbecue, the candles, whatever. She was ashamed of her timidity and inexperience.

She put some crumpled newspapers around the jagged stump, which was taller than her waist — it wouldn’t be hip-high on Steve — then piled the driest of the smaller twigs and branches on top. It took her three tries to strike the match, but she did it, and lit the edges of the newspaper. At first there was very little flame, mostly a lot of white smoke. She felt an angry thrill when the fire finally took hold. The damn tree was going to burn.


That feeling, though it had changed, had not diminished, even now that the fire had gotten so big. She tossed on the last of the large branches, which had died only last fall, and older deadwood that didn’t burn as well. All that was left was the smaller stuff. Any wood of reasonable size, trunk or branch, she had stacked in front of the large garage for firewood, even though she didn’t have a fireplace. Somebody might. She had learned to be frugal during the last thee years, and whatever she could bring from selling the wood would be a help. Especially now. Unless she gave it away.

Miss Seaton came out again. By now Jeanette was crying. “Are you all right?” Miss Seaton asked.

“I’ll be okay.” Jeanette wiped at her eyes with the back of her wrist. Her hands were filthy.

Miss Seaton said, after a pause, “It’s a rather big fire.”

“I guess it is.” The tears that hadn’t come yesterday came now. She kept on working.

“Poor dear,” Miss Seaton said.

Her sympathy was real. She and her father had come to the funeral, even though they never went anywhere.

The Malloys from across the alley had been there, Mr. Malloy just a bit distant as usual. Her parents had been there of course. They had expected her to go back to Martinsville with them. They had even bought a ticket for her. The scene, when she had refused it the first time, had not been pleasant. Steve’s brother Tony, and his mother and grandmother, who lived here in Harborbeach, were much more comforting. They had taken Jeanette into their family as one of their own, despite differences in race and religion. 

Annie and Phil McCauley had given her a lot of support that morning. They ran the Pink Poodle Gifte Shoppe next to the bookstore, and had been a lot of help while she and Steve were getting Cat’s Books started. They were the kind of friends who would continue to help her for as long as she needed it. 

And there had been other local people there, who knew the Delgados, most of whom Jeanette had never met.

“Is there anything I can do?” Miss Seaton asked. “Have you had any lunch?”

“Just before I came out,” Jeanette said, though that had been several hours ago. She didn’t stop crying, nor did she try to stifle or conceal her grief.

“Just let me know if you need anything,” Miss Seaton said. Then she went back inside.


She gathered up an armload of smaller branches and threw them into the middle of the blaze. She could just barely see the top of the stump, half burned down now. There was still an occasional hiss, or loud crack, as the moisture lower down in the roots turned to steam. There was more than just water down there. A jet of hot gas shot straight up, flaming like a blowtorch, hissing loudly as it blew large sparks out of the fire. The image of the pleading woman became, for a moment, more distinct. She didn’t let herself think about it.

She had let the fire get a lot bigger than she should have, but watching the tree burn filled her with elation, and with a kind of angry defiance. She tossed on another armload of small trash. It darkened that part of the fire for a moment, then smoked heavily, then burst into flame, ruddy orange fire, paler near the wood that was burning, laced with smoke, black at first, then gray, and eventually white. She hadn’t realized, when she had started the job, that it would take so long, but it was all going to burn today.

Siberian elms grow quickly, and hold and drop a lot of deadwood, but this tree had been more than half dead when they had moved in. Besides, it had been shading too much of the back yard, and she and Steve had decided that they would take it down some day. Then, last autumn, the tree had died altogether. The leaves on the few living branches had not turned color, they had just faded to pale greenish brown. Nor had they fallen, and there had been no new growth at all this spring. Left to itself, the tree would have come down on its own sooner or later, since its trunk was mostly hollow. As she had found out. She tossed in another armload of small stuff, watched it darken the heart of the fire for a moment, then turn black, smoke, and burst into flame.

Steve had intended to take the tree down ever since they had moved in. She had been twenty, he twenty three. The down payment had been a wedding present from Steve’s grandmother. They had been married only a month, and they were excited about being able to have a house of their own so soon, instead of having to live in an apartment as so many young couples did. Jeanette had at first been uncomfortable about accepting such a huge gift, but old Mrs. Delgado, shorter than Jeanette by a couple inches, had quickly reassured her. She had been given a similar gift by her father-in-law when she and Steve’s grandfather had married. It was important to her to pass the generosity on.

The house had been a fixer-upper, though it turned out to be in better shape than the realtor had believed. That, and starting the bookstore, had taken all their attention. There was just no time to worry about a half-dead tree in the back yard.

Then, this spring, it had become clear that the tree was wholly dead. Even then they were too busy to attend to it until, five days ago, one of the long-dead branches fell against the roof. It had not caused any damage, but Steve decided that they couldn’t put it off any longer.

He had not been aware of the extent of the internal decay, or he would have done the job differently. He would have used guide ropes and pulleys, as he sometimes did when, in order to earn some extra money, he helped someone he knew thin a stand of timber. As it was, without knowing it, the first cut had been through the only solid wood in the tree, and it had fallen in a direction quite different from what he had planned. He hadn’t even known it was falling until it came down on him and crushed him. At least, Jeanette thought, glad to see the tree burn now, there had been no time for him to be frightened, or to have suffered any pain. 

Damn tree.


She stepped back from the fire so that, though it disturbed her, she could see the image of the woman more clearly. She did not think she was hallucinating. The life-sized image, now visible down to what looked like black, calf-high boots, shifted and changed, as if a piece of movie film had been exposed over and over again, a dozen times or more. The woman was always in the same pose, but each exposure was just a little different from the others.

The woman’s hair was blonde, tinged with red in a way so seldom seen, that color of blonde people called strawberry. It was slightly wavy, combed back from her face in a casual style, and cut just above the shoulder. Her eyes were large and intelligent. Her skin was fair and softly tanned. She was definitely attractive, though whether she were Caucasian, or Asian, or Middle Eastern, or what, Jeanette could not tell. Her figure was fuller than Jeanette’s. Her anachronistic clothes looked to be appropriate for outdoor activity of some kind, hiking or camping, not laboring. She could make out few details, other than that they fitted her well, and were heavily stitched, and were made of leather, even the shirt. The thing hanging at her left hip looked like a large knife sheath, rather than a purse or a pouch.

Jeanette glanced at the windows of her house, on her right, and at the windows in the small garage opposite it, on her left. The image did not appear in the reflections, as it would have before today, only in the bonfire itself.

It was not a trick of her eyes. It was not a trick of her mind. And yet, not only was no one really there in the fire, neither was there an image that anyone else could see. Steve had never seen it. Mr. Seaton and his daughter had not seen it this afternoon. It was a signal, focused directly at Jeanette. A message of some kind … a call for help?

She was a rather inappropriate person on whom to call. She was not as incapable as her parents believed, and had wanted her to believe. Steve had been helping her learn this since long before they were married. But Jeanette was small, unathletic, with no physical skills to speak of, no experience outside of family or college, or her all too brief life with Steve. What could she possibly do, even if she were where the woman really was?

The image wavered and rippled, not in rhythm with the movement of the flames, but faster and more regularly. The woman was not actually in the flames themselves, but somewhere beyond them, as if the fire were a lens of some sort, or a window through which Jeanette could see to wherever the woman really was. Wherever it was, it was very far off.

She tossed more leaves and twigs onto the fire.

The end of the hose was at her feet, its slow stream inaudible against the noise of the bonfire. The water ran down the back walk and under the back gate into the alley where it found its way to the storm drain. She picked up the hose, put her thumb over the end to make a spray, and doused some sparks and embers which had gotten too far out into the lawn.

She put the hose down, then tossed on the last of the small branches, which caused the flames to jump, and made the woman’s image waver violently. All that was left now was a carpet of long dead leaves, tiny twigs, and saw chips.

She went to the small garage for the leaf rake, and was surprised at how dark it was in there. It was later than she had realized. She brought the rake out and started cleaning up the last of the mess. She tossed rakefulls of debris onto the fire, making more smoke, which obscured the image of the leather-clad woman with the strawberry blonde hair.

When she had done all that she could, she went to the picnic table by the back door, leaned the rake against it, and sat on the bench facing the fire. The heat was not so intense here, twenty feet from the flames. The evening was still warm, but her back became cool, almost chilly as the sweat evaporated. It felt good. The tree was mostly consumed now, and whatever was left could be shoveled into plastic bags, and put out with the trash. Or used as fertilizer, or mulch. Maybe Mr. Seaton would want some.

The figure in the flames, always facing her wherever she was, called to her silently. The shifting stillness of the image beckoned though it did not move. But how could Jeanette respond, even if she wanted to? She could no more give the woman any help, than she could bring Steve back from the grave into which he been put yesterday. Besides, she had enough to think about right now. At least there was no problem with inheritance, thank God, since she and Steve owned everything with right of joint tenancy. Steve’s mother, also a widow, had insisted on that. But there was a life to rebuild, the store to run, families to deal with — especially hers.

She didn’t really blame her parents for their attitude, even though she hated it. She had been her mother’s fourth pregnancy. Two had been miscarriages, and one stillborn. It was understandable that her parents should be overprotective of the one child that lived, especially since she had been very small at birth and slow to grow. She just wished that they could have taken more joy in her survival, and have been less concerned about their own possible disappointment had she died. They had no right to have shaped her whole life by their fears. Even while letting her go to college, they had insisted that it be at Vilanette in Martinsville, so she could live at home.

She had met Steve, who was a senior, at the beginning of the second semester of her sophomore year. They had quickly gotten to know each other, well enough so that neither had dated anyone else. Steve had gotten a job in Martinsville after he graduated, so that they could still see each other. 

By the time Jeanette graduated, it had all been settled. Her parents liked Steve, and trusted him, even when he took her away. But that didn’t keep them from calling, at least once a day, to reassure themselves that their precious daughter was all right. Steve had borne it with good humor.

The sky slowly darkened as late afternoon shaded into early evening. She felt a twinge of hunger. It was long past her supper time, but the fire needed her attention. There was a real chance, she told herself, of some larger embers leaping out and maybe setting the small garage on fire.

As the dusk deepened, so the flames grew brighter. The image of the woman, shifting and shimmering to its own rhythm, grew clearer and stronger. Jeanette watched, fascinated and frightened until, with a start, she realized that she had come to almost believe that the woman was really there among the flames, standing on the knee-high pile of coals. And she also realized, with a twinge of guilt, that, for that moment, she had forgotten about Steve, and the way he had looked with the tree lying on top of him.

The heap of coals settled, occasionally erupting with a momentary leap of flames and a shower of sparks. There was still a lot of wood yet to burn. She got up from the picnic bench, picked up the hose, and sprayed water around the edges of the fire to keep the grass from burning any further than it had to. She was careful to keep the hose away from the fire as she pulled it around by the back walk to the near side of the small garage. A few chunks of burning wood had fallen out there. She kicked them back into the fire, and wetted the charred grass where they had been.

There would be a huge black burn scar. Grass would grow back eventually, but it was too late in the summer for it to do so now, and the mark would remain through the winter. In the spring, if the damage hadn’t been too deep, the new grass would be much greener than the rest of the lawn, finer and thicker, fertilized by the ashes.

She went back around the way she had come, and sat down on the bench again. She was not just tired, she was numb, in an achy, puffy, shrinking kind of way. She couldn’t have described it any better than that if anybody had asked her, but she knew it was as much psychological as physical.

It grew darker. She watched the column of white smoke rising above the still head-high flames, to eventually disperse in the deepening sky, which was completely clear aside from this bit of smoke. There were one or two stars out already.

When the nights were nice, she would lie with Steve on a blanket on the other side of the back yard until way past midnight, looking up at the stars which he wanted so much to visit. That had never appealed to her, but she sympathized with his longing. She turned to look at the house they had bought, and which they would now never finish fixing up, and which still had twenty seven years of mortgage to pay off. The light of the bonfire reflected off the windows beside the back door, but there was no woman’s image there, only in the fire.

She got up from the bench and, pulling the hose behind her, walked around between the bonfire and Mr. Seaton’s fence. She did not look at the flames.

She hadn’t talked with Steve about the image. How would she have explained it? It would sound crazy, and she wasn’t crazy. She was distressed by it, and worried about it, and distracted by it whenever she saw it, but the woman in the fire had not otherwise affected the rest of her life. She was coping well if she were delusional. She had no feelings of paranoia, of persecution, of being watched and spied on. There was just a woman in the flames.

Nothing more had fallen out of the fire. Its edges were well contained. She watered them down nonetheless. The heap of coals and burning wood, not quite as high as her knees, settled again and shot more sparks into the air. She followed them up with her eyes.

The sky was darker now, and there were more stars out, sparkling like chips of diamond scattered across indigo velvet. Or something.

Something deep in the fire exploded softly, sending a jet of flames and sparks high into the sky where, for a moment, they competed with the stars. She went back around the bonfire to the walk between the house and the alley. She sprayed more water just beyond the edges of the fire.

A crackling and hissing came from the remains of the stump, buried in the coals, as more hot gases inside the rotten wood found release from the pressure caused by the intense heat. This time the jet of flame kept coming, roaring up out of the bonfire, burning blue and hot instead of red. Jeanette backed off the walk a step. The whole fire now expanded, and she stepped back again from the sudden heat. Her foot came down on something uneven, she lost her balance, and sat down hard. Her breath was knocked out of her, and her vision blanked for a moment.

She gasped for air, blinked her eyes, and saw around her, instead of her back yard, a large dark space, lit by dozens of tall, blue flames, coming up silently from cracks in the hard, uneven stone floor.



Chapter Two: The Cavern

It took a little effort but she got to her feet. She was more shaken than hurt by her fall, more confused than frightened by where she was. The wavering blue flames were irregularly spaced, some twenty to thirty feet apart, receding into a blue-lit distance. They were taller than she, and came up out of little gaps in the stone floor. They heated the cavern, but they burned clean. There was no smoke. They were real, not some visual distortion, like seeing stars after bumping your head. And besides, it wasn’t her head that she had bumped. 

Her standing up, the movement of her body and head, the feel of the stone floor, her slightly stunned unsteadiness, the ache in her butt, the heat from the flames, this was all real. She was in a cavern, almost twice as wide as her yard was deep, and more than twice as high as the peak of the roof of her house. If there was an end to it she couldn’t see it. It was too far away, and there were too many blue flames.

The stone was sort of grayish, without grain or texture. It looked like it might have been carved by water. The floor was mostly level, quite smooth, and curved up on either side into walls, becoming almost pleated like a theater curtain, which then arched over to become a gently rippled ceiling. 

It wasn’t possible for her to be here. Could she have been carried here unconscious, by persons unknown? Like in some Gothic romance?

“This is not right.” Her words echoed into the distance, stopping all thought. There was no sound at all when it was quiet again, except for her breathing, almost panting, and the beating of her heart, too hard and too fast. She started to speak again, but only “I —” came out and echoed away, leaving her thought unfinished.

Maybe it was some kind of mental attack after all. Grief and tension and fatigue could do that to you. Maybe she had wandered off in a fugue, and had only now come back to her senses. But there was the smell of wood smoke on her clothes and arms, and there was soot and undried sweat on her arms and tee shirt and in her hair. However she had gotten here, it had taken only moments.

However she had … She had no answer. Her thoughts spun out of control before an explanation, even a thought could form. The harder she tried, the more anxious she became, until she had to force herself to be still, to stop thinking about it. She had to just accept that she was here, despite the fact that she could not be here, that there was no rational way that she could have gotten here. People didn’t just suddenly teleport from their back yards to mysterious, blue lit caverns. Or to caverns lit any other way for that matter. She must be, she had to be imagining the whole thing. Really, she couldn’t have just slipped and fallen….

… through the ground. She looked up at the ceiling, so far overhead, and had a brief image of the cavern collapsing, bringing her whole neighborhood, trees and houses and all down with it. But there was no hole in the stone above her showing a night sky, and no debris around her as there would be if the ground had given way underneath her. And besides, she hadn’t landed hard enough for a fall of fifty or sixty feet or more. She touched her sore butt. No, she hadn’t fallen that hard.

“Then how —” 

Her softly spoken words echoed and repeated down the cavern, and vanished into the distance. Her legs felt funny, so she sat down again.

Her thoughts didn’t so much spin as tumble over each other, over and over in a confusion that was almost painful. She made herself focus on the stone surface on which she sat. It was shiny, but it was not wet. The cavern had been made by water, but there were no stalagmites or … it was warm and not cold … the blue flames were not still and smooth like gas … it was silent except for her breathing and heartbeat … only herself to smell … echoes of her tiny movements — 

“Stop it!” 

“Stop it!” her echoes shouted back at her, bringing her scrambling thoughts to a halt.

She was missing something. She looked around, then looked at the blue flame directly in front of her, just ten feet away. There was no image of a woman. She wasn’t in any of the other flames either. Jeanette was where the woman wanted her to be. She shivered.

Steve might have talked of teleportation, or of shifting between dimensions, or of alternate worlds, or of astral planes, or of any number of other things, ideas which he had gotten from the kinds of books he read. He would have been just as distressed as she was, but he would have been fascinated too. He loved caves and caverns, and he visited them whenever he could. Jeanette had gone with him when the caves were public attractions, like Carlsbad or Mammoth, where there was no crawling, there was lots of light, and no chance of getting your feet muddy.

She certainly wouldn’t have to crawl in this place, and it was brightly lit enough, and there was no mud anywhere. But if this was all in her imagination, what difference did it make? Wake up, she yelled silently, wake up! She could almost hear her unspoken words echoing back at her. And even though she saw it, heard it in its silence, and even smelled it now, beyond the smell of herself, and knew that it was all real, something in the back of her mind insisted that her senses were mistaken, that the cave she thought she saw and felt around her would turn back into her own back yard, if she could just get her eyes to clear, if she could just see it the right way.

“Dammit,” she whispered, or whimpered. The word come back at her, over and over. It wasn’t fair. She couldn’t deal with something like this right now. How could she cope with finding a way out of a mysterious cavern, when she hadn’t even begun to get her feelings about Steve under control? It wasn’t fair.

The back of her throat ached. She was crying. And then she heard herself as the echoes amplified the sounds. Crying wasn’t going to do her any good. She pounded her fists on the smooth, hard floor until she could make herself stop.

Now her nose was all stuffed up. Dammit. She pulled up the bottom of her tee shirt to wipe her face. This was too much for anyone to handle, let alone someone like her, who had never done anything without her parents’ guidance. Until she had met and married Steve. And then had never done anything without his.

She turned away from that thought. That would not answer any questions, or give her any ideas about how to get back home. Ruby slippers would have been welcome.

Maybe she had lost her mind — but there was the cavern — but maybe she was in a hospital bed — but the blue flames —

Her head was tight. She closed her eyes, crossed her arms on her knees, and put her head down. Calm. Be calm. Her wildly slamming thoughts eventually steadied, but now she was angry, with whatever had brought her here, with herself for being afraid, and for letting her fear keep her from thinking clearly. She concentrated on her breathing.

Eventually she did become calm enough to ask herself, what would Steve do? He would be afraid, but he wouldn’t just sit there. He would explore. Of course he would. She raised her head and looked around again.

The far end was out of sight, and there were no side caverns. She looked behind her for the first time. This end of the cavern wasn’t very far away, and there was a thin, crooked crack of yellow daylight running down it. At least it looked like daylight. She stood and hurried toward it.

The cavern closed in like the end of a gigantic bowel, an image which, despite being rather gross, distracted her for an instant. At the very end it narrowed from side to side, until the gap was no more than two or three inches wide, and barely as high as she was tall. She couldn’t see what was beyond it, but the light coming from it was golden, and the air coming through it smelled like outdoors.

Her fear and frustration and anger came crashing back and she cried, leaning against the stone on either side of the gold-lit crack, feeling the air on her face. The fit didn’t last very long. She turned away, pulled up her tee shirt to dry her face again, and went back the way she had come, and kept going.

Her parents would be frantic if she didn’t get out of here, desolated, and convinced that it was their fault, that she would still be with them if they had just kept her at home. And the Delgados, who had treated her like a person, like one of their family. They respected her, they really cared for her. If she didn’t come back, they would have lost her too, not just Steve.

And what about the book shop? What would happen to that? Her friends would miss her. Would the police look for her? And if she did get to the outside world, what then? How would she get home? She had no money….

Her thoughts ran on but inevitably came back to where they had started, then went off again on a subtly different track until, after half an hour or so, she came to where the cavern ended in a tee.

The side branches were much smaller than the main cavern. The one on the right was only thirty feet or so across, and maybe as high, and descended in a series of shallow, step-like terraces. There were no flames right here, but there were smaller ones further in. There was rubble on the smooth but gently undulating floor, and the ceiling was cracked and broken in places.

The branch on her left was only twenty feet wide, its ceiling less than fifteen feet high, and it rose slightly. Blue light came from beyond obscuring bends and twists. She started to go that way, but stopped when a sound came from the other direction. She froze, her hearing all at once so sharp that she could hear the echoes of her breathing.

She wasn’t alone, but what she felt was terror, not joyous relief. And yet, after an instant’s hesitation, she returned to the right-hand passage, and listened so hard that she could almost hear the very air.

There was nothing. 

And then she heard it again, so faint that she could not have heard it at all, if the so silent cavern had not funneled it to her. And again. After a few more times, she began to think that it might be heavy boots on rock. A tourist group, that was what it was. Of course it was, and she was in a state or national park somewhere, even if Steve had never spoken of any cavern, anywhere, with blue flames.

The descending branch gradually narrowed down into a convoluted tube, though still more than ten feet across. The blue flames were irregularly spaced, and it was sometimes difficult to get past them. She started to run, but her foot slipped on a ripple, and she fell and almost slid into one of the flames. She got to her feet, breathing heavily, her knees and hands lightly bruised. That would not be a good way to end her adventure.

The tube, more than ever like the inside of some giant petrified intestine, continued to descend. With every step she was getting farther and farther from sunlight and fresh air. But the sounds of what had to be people drew her on, especially after she began to hear what might be voices.

The farther she went, the more sure she was that they really were voices, so distorted by the cavern that the words were unintelligible. And now they were louder, not just the quiet conversation of tourists. Maybe it was explorers, spelunkers trying to keep in touch with each other.

The tube widened out and the floor became more level. It was easier to get past the fires now. The ceiling got lower, until it was within reach of her up-stretched hand, more and more broken by the heat of the flames, which were now no higher than her knees. 

There was a lot more rubble on the floor. There were smaller passages to the sides now, four or five feet high and wide, illuminated by their own inner flames, but so convoluted and twisty that she couldn’t see very far into them. It didn’t matter, the voices and other sounds were coming from ahead.

She hesitated where a down-sloping chute on one side of the floor led into a lower cavern. It was brightly lit down there, by at least three tall flames, but the voices came from the main way, not from below. They were angry voices, and one of the speakers was in pain.

Then the tube opened out into a larger chamber. It took her by surprise and she stopped. There were no flames here, but there was light from behind her, and blue light coming up from a recess at the far end, from a large hole in the floor, from which the voices and sounds were also coming. The chamber, about as big as a city block, was broadest where she had come in, and narrower at the recess. The floor was nearly covered with broken stone from the high, arching ceiling.

The voices and footfalls and now metal clanking grew suddenly quieter. There was a give and take to the voices, as between two groups, both men and women in each. None of them were happy. Had they heard her? Was that why they had gone quiet? She hadn’t been making that much noise. She tried to be even more quiet as she walked toward the hole.

The recess was twice the size of her living room. There was a yard wide ledge on the left of the hole, which ended abruptly more than half way to the back. On the right side was a much narrower ledge that went all the way around to the back end, tapering off until it came to a steeply slanting back wall. She went, as quietly as she could, up to the edge of the hole and looked down.

There were maybe a dozen people in strange clothes, some thirty feet below her, lying or sitting uncomfortably on a pile of breakdown. The flames which illuminated them came from far back under her. Four of the people were women. They were all tied with leather straps.

Shadows came from the recess under her, long shadows that did not resolve themselves until just before three men came into view. They stopped when they were a few steps beyond the edge of the hole. The man in the middle spoke. She could hear his voice clearly, and thought she ought to understand him, but she could not make out what he was saying. His words didn’t sound that much different from English, but they made no sense.

There were eleven prisoners. One, in the middle of the group, raised her head to look at the man. Jeanette recognized the captive despite the sharp angle. It was the woman of her images, whose face had appeared to her in every gleaming light for the last five weeks.

The shock of recognition made her pull back. The voices below her continued, the man angry and demanding, the woman angry but calmer and defiant.

The woman in the flames had been pleading for help. And here was Jeanette, as if she had come to her rescue, but there wasn’t anything she could do. Without any real thoughts in her head, fascinated and repulsed at the same time, she leaned forward over the edge again.

The woman’s voice was grim but calm, denying her interrogator something. The man replied sharply, as if restating a demand for the last time. The woman shook her head, and her ten companions shared her defiance.

The man said something to the two men with him. They took one of the captives by the arms and lifted him to his feet. Two other men, with sheathed broadswords, came and stood at either side of the remaining prisoners, near the steep slope at the back. Then the leader of the captors turned and went back the way he had come. His men half carried their prisoner after him. Their shadows stretched and receded until Jeanette could no longer tell which was which. They did not go far. There were other noises, voices of other people, both men and women, laughing sardonically, and then silence for a moment.

The scream was so sudden and so agonized that she jerked and fell backwards, bruising her elbow and shoulder on the stony floor. She lay there, unable to move, as the man screamed, over and over, almost without taking a breath. She rolled onto her hands and knees, and forced herself to crawl to the edge of the hole and look down.

The captives had turned their faces away from the sight of the screaming man. The two guards, watching them, laughed, not completely at ease, and glanced now and then to where the prisoner was being tortured. Jeanette was horrified, nauseated, and began to tremble. She crawled backward away from the hole, stood, and walked away as quickly and as quietly as she could.

The screams followed her. She stopped when she smelled the burning flesh. Her stomach churned. Chaotic images of the man being held over one of the blue flames scrambled through her mind. She went to her knees and clenched her hands over her ears, but she couldn’t shut out the screams. The smell became stronger. She retched.

She shouldn’t be here, she shouldn’t be here…. 

Was this why the woman had called to her out of glints and flames? None of this had anything to do with her. She didn’t know who any of these people were, why they were fighting, which side was right and which was wrong.

Whoever could burn a helpless man alive had to be wrong. Maybe the captives would have done the same had their positions been reversed, but she didn’t know that. She swallowed her nausea, stood up on weak legs and, surprised at herself, went back to the hole and looked down again.

Most of the captives had twisted around until they were facing away from that which was invisible to Jeanette. There was no hint of pleading in the man’s screams, just agony. The smell of burning meat was strong, and now wisps of smoke began to curl up from the edge of the hole. It made her skin crawl. The guard below her to her right was watching the torture with fascination. The one, farther away, to her left, was staring fixedly at the back wall.

All right, all right, her thought repeated obsessively, all right. Maybe she didn’t belong here, but she was here, and she could either do something or not. And while one part of her mind kept yammering, get out of here, get out of here, another and stronger part asked, which of the bound victims would be next?

She choked. Her arms jerked. The inside of her head felt larger than the outside. Her hands were thick and numb, and the muscles of her chest and stomach and back twitched. She was remote from herself, outside herself, watching herself move and react without thought. Her fear and her disgust were replaced by horror, and by rage.

She went along the narrower ledge until she was directly over the guard who was watching the torture. She needed a rock. She went back into the chamber and picked up a chunk of stone, not quite as big as a bowling ball but about as heavy. She carried it back and, tight as a wire but without thinking about it, dropped it on the guard’s head.

It struck him with a dull thunk. He sat down, the stone fell to his lap, making almost no noise. He fell over, his head visibly broken, half onto one of the prisoners, who jerked and tried to roll away. He stared at the dead man’s bleeding head, then looked up. Jeanette couldn’t tell whether he could see her or not. It didn’t matter. The prisoner took a long look at the other guard, who had not heard the subtle sounds of the murder over the now hoarse screams. Then he leaned over the dead man lying across his lap, and twisted around until he could get hold of the pommel of the guard’s sword with his teeth. He pulled it out as far as he could, about six inches. Then he twisted around again and, while watching the other guard closely, he brought his bound hands against the short section of exposed blade. Several of the captives had become aware of what was going on, and were watching, silently, as he struggled to cut himself free.

Jeanette was almost vibrating, as strung out as if she had drunk far too many cups of coffee. The other guard was watching the torture now. If he hadn’t been so horribly fascinated he would surely have seen the man trying to cut his hands free. She went back to the main part of the chamber, found another rock, and carried it around the broader, left ledge, until she came to where it stopped.

She leaned over and looked down. The guard was just barely under the projecting edge, so a simple drop wouldn’t hit him. Her hands shook, the screams and the stench made her want to throw up, and she refused to think that she had just killed one man already. She got down onto her knees, then her stomach, so that she could aim the rock, just a little bit backwards under the ledge. But even as she let it go, she had a vision of what the rock would do to the guard’s skull, and she flinched. The rock did not go where she had intended, but hit the slanting back wall of the lower cavern, was deflected, and hit the man on the shoulder. It staggered him, and he tripped and fell on his face. Blood splattered, and he gave out a half muffled gasp.

The first captive had cut his hands free. He twisted around again, drew the sword from its scabbard, and cut his feet lose. Then he cut the bonds of the man nearest him, who, as soon as he was free, set about untying the woman next to him. When she was free she went to the still struggling guard, bashed his head with a rock, and took his sword.

Maybe it was the sounds they were making, or maybe it was their movement, but they had barely time to finish freeing themselves and pick up rocks as desperate weapons before their enemies came running. Two of the captives were cut down at once, but the two with swords fought with a viciousness that Jeanette found terrifying. When an enemy fell, one of the captives retrieved his weapon.

It was like watching selected clips from a movie, each only a second long. An enemy soldier clutched at his belly, where intestines spilled out of a huge diagonal gash. Another man held up an arm that had been cut off between wrist and elbow, as if curious about what had happened, and watched as blood suddenly squirted from it in time with his heartbeat. A woman, one of the captives, stepped backward, lost her footing, and in falling, avoided a killing blow.

The man in the fire still screamed, but the combatants did not yell or curse or cry out. There was only the sound of their harsh breathing, and the clang of sword against sword, or the chunk of sword against flesh.

The prisoners had no chance. Four were down, and though they had killed or disabled eight or nine of their enemies, there were still more than twice as many left.

Jeanette left the hole, her movements jerky, her hands more numb than ever. She found another rock, came back to the front of the hole, and threw it down at one of the enemy. Without waiting to see whether it hit him or not, she went and found another rock. She took it around the left hand ledge to where it ended, and threw it, hoping desperately that it wouldn’t hit one of the people whom she was trying to help. She found another large rock, carried it over to the narrower, right ledge, around to the back wall, dropped in on a man who was just about to decapitate the woman of her visions, and saw him collapse on top of her.

She turned to go back for yet another rock but slipped on something. Her feet slid out backward, she landed on the ledge on her stomach, her shoulder hit the wall on her left, she bounced away from it, then slid over the edge onto the sloping back wall, down in a confusion of her own arms and legs. Her head hit something. She felt herself catch, upside down, on a projecting rock. The scream in her ears was her own. She slipped again, her stomach heaved, she slid, grayed out, felt feet kick her, and then time went out of joint.

She was lost in a static confusion of light and shadow, moving forms, vomit, pain, terror, and the smoke of burning flesh. She did not know where her arms and legs were, or how she was oriented. There was a clamor of metal striking metal, of rock grinding on rock, of screams and bellows now. She tried to roll in one direction or another, to move aside somehow, and threw up again. Blackness swam around her, she faded, the surrounding sounds and sensations receded.

She forced herself back to full consciousness. The cavern was silent. She was lying on her face, her feet toward the wall down which she had slid, her head toward the cavern, her left cheek scraped raw. She pushed herself up onto her elbows. Despite the carnage around her, the first thing she saw was the body of a man, about thirty feet away, lying across a flame that came up red on either side of him, his thighs half burned through. Black smoke rose above him. The smell was more like burning cooked meat now than like burning raw flesh. He was most definitely dead.

She pushed herself up to a sitting position, suddenly afraid that somebody near by would attack her. None of the bodies were moving. Most of them were on the pile of breakdown, but there were others, farther off to the sides, half hidden by intervening rocks. Three people were sitting motionless. One of those, under the hole through which Jeanette had fallen, was the woman of her visions.

She got shakily to her feet. Her head throbbed, and blood flowed slowly down the left side of her face. Her stomach hurt, her throat was raw, and her mouth tasted of vomit. She spat.

Nobody moved. There was no sound at all, other than her own heartbeat, her own gasping breath …

… and someone else’s breath, choked and weak. The woman of the visions was looking at her. Blood ran down from the corner of her mouth, and flowed from a wound across her chest and stomach. 

Jeanette went to her and knelt beside her. “Are you all right?” She felt stupid for asking such an inane question, but her head was too thick to think of anything else. The woman said something in a choking voice, but the words were weren’t English.

The blood on the woman’s chest was coming from a gaping sword wound. Jeanette saw the dark circles of veins and arteries in the edges of the cut flesh, the sharp ends of cut ribs, the red, spongy mass of breast tissue. “Oh, God,” she said, and reached out her hands as if to close the wound, but her fingers trembled, and she couldn’t touch the woman.

She was beautiful. Jeanette wanted to hold her, to comfort her, but she was afraid she would only hurt her. “What can I do?” she asked.

The woman closed her eyes a moment, her face twisted in pain, her skin unnaturally pale under the delicate tan. She opened her eyes again and held up her left hand. There was a ring on the little finger, silvery black like hematite, but a lot darker and brighter, faceted on top, like a large jewel.

“Take this,” the woman said, whether in English or not Jeanette couldn’t tell. Her voice was thick with blood and pain, but there was no fear. Jeanette, so gently, took the woman’s hand and pulled the ring off the blood-slippery finger. “At least —” the woman coughed, and droplets of blood splattered on Jeanette’s face, “at least none of them escaped.” It was an effort for her to speak, aside from the pain, as if she didn’t know the words, or was using an unfamiliar language.

Jeanette wanted to ask who “they” were, who the woman was, why “they” should not have escaped. Instead she looked at the ring. Under the barely transparent facets was an inclusion, some sort of symbol, which she couldn’t see clearly in the shadow of her own body. She slipped it on over the first finger of her left hand. It fit perfectly.

The woman reached out and feebly clenched her hand around Jeanette’s. Her eyes were large and her mouth worked, as if she were trying to say something more.

Jeanette, on top of the horror and the pain, felt her heart breaking. “It’s all right,” she said, brushing the woman’s hair back out of her eyes with one hand, while holding her desperately weak hand with the other.

“I know,” the woman whispered. And then, without any change of expression, her face went oddly blank, and her hand relaxed its feeble grip.

Hysteria rose up in Jeanette’s throat. She stood from the body, gasping out tiny cries from lungs that wouldn’t breathe. The scene around her was horrifying, the smell was abominable, and there was no sense to any of it. She turned away from the woman, slipped on something wet, and fell. She cried out then, terrified, and kicked and screamed until she realized that she was lying, face down, on wet grass.

Her hysteria passed as quickly as it had come. It was dark but there was a reddish glow coming from behind her. The grass on which she lay was short, a mowed lawn. She heard a soft crackle like the sound of a fire not yet burned down to coals, and the smell in her nose was of clean wood smoke, untainted by burning meat.

She raised her head. In the faint red light she saw the Jacobis’ house and back yard beyond the fence. The large garage, ahead and on her right, was dimly but redly lit. Behind her, on her left, was her back door. She rolled over so that, when she sat up, she was facing the bonfire. She was just beyond the back walk.

Her head ached. There was mud and blood all down the front of her tee shirt, her pants, her forearms, and she could feel it on her face. She had fallen, of course, when the bonfire had exploded. She must have knocked herself out.

The images in her mind, of the caverns lit by blue flames, of people hacking each other with swords, were all delirium. She reached up and touched her head gingerly. The lump was huge and hot, the skin torn, and her fingers came away bloody. How had she hit herself so hard on wet grass?

There were still flames in what was left of the fire, but it was mostly coals now. She must have been unconscious for more than a few minutes. The tree which had killed Steve — a passing pang of grief pushed all other thoughts from her mind — the tree was almost gone. A few more hours and there would be only ashes.

She slowly, gingerly, got to her feet. Her head throbbed. It would be better to let the fire burn itself out, but she didn’t have the energy to wait up that long. She had to put it out.

And then she noticed that no face stared out at her from the few hot flames dancing above the coals. The image of the woman was gone. For a moment she was almost sorry, but that was quickly replaced by a sense of relief. Nothing called to her now. The hallucinations were over.

She was hungry. She didn’t know what time it was, but she hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, and for the sky to be this dark, at this time of year, it had to be quite late. She bent down and picked up the hose. The movement made her head pound. She took a long drink from it, tasting the rubber.

She had to get this done right now, no matter how much she didn’t want to, no matter how heavy the hose seemed to be, or it just wouldn’t get done. She went to the spigot, turned up the pressure, then went back to the fire and played a spray of water over the embers. Her whole body ached. Great clouds of steam billowed ghostly white from the hissing ashes. She felt as if she weighed three times normal. She soaked the black heap thoroughly. She dropped the hose when the hissing stopped at last, turned off the water and, walking stiffly to keep from staggering, went into the dark house, through the back porch and the dining room, into the living room and up the stairs to the bathroom before turning on a light.

She looked at herself in the mirror over the sink. There was the huge lump on the left side of her head, the skin badly torn and still bleeding. There was the bloody scrape on her cheek, which added to the gore. Her face and her tee shirt on that side were soaked with blood as well as mud and sweat, and the rest of her was covered with mud and soot. 

She turned on the water in the shower, stripped off her ruined clothes, waited until the water was hot enough, then stepped in. She stood there for a moment, enjoying the heat, and letting the force of the shower wash off most of the dirt and blood. The water running down the drain at her feet was filthy. Then she took a bar of soap from the shower stall shelf and started to lather up. She stopped when she saw the silvery black ring, still on the first finger of her left hand.



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