Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Like Thunder in the Earth

Elizabethtown, Virginia
April, 1590

With the first skull-shaking crash, Eleanor was awake. Crockery rattled and she heard glass splintering. She sat up, reached out for Ananias, and felt him sitting up next to her. For an eyeblink they sat, listening, and then they were both moving, getting up out of the bed, fumbling in the dark. Eleanor felt in the crib desperately, found Virginia still asleep, and gathered her up quickly.

With the second crash, pots and dishes hurled themselves off the shelves to shatter on the floor. A rumble like thunder in the earth rolled around them. Ananias finally got a candle lit, and they stared at each other with wide eyes, skin glistening with fear in the red light. Their tiny one-room home was littered with the debris of their life.

The earth-thunder died away, and Eleanor breathed out.

"It's just a storm," she said.

"Love, we've been here three years," Ananias whispered. "There's been not one thunderstorm, not one -- " He stopped, as if listening.

Then suddenly Ananias yanked her arm, pulling her and Virginia out of the door into the night, running madly away from the house, into the black night. They had gone not ten steps when the third crash came, this time ear-splitting, and the ground bucked under them and threw them from their feet. There was a series of world-wrenching cracks from above, like the sinews of God snapping, and then a crash like the fall of a mountain, a noise so loud that it went beyond mere volume, and shivered the bones in their sockets. Eleanor huddled around Virginia, trying to cover her child and protect her from the end of the world.

The ground went on buckling, shaking, and rolling far too long.

At last Ananias managed to crawl over to them, and held them until the last echoes died away, and a gentle breeze came off the Bay. Only then did Eleanor dare to raise her head and open her eyes, and see the moon setting over the water.

"The house," said Ananias, his voice breaking. Eleanor looked back, and for a moment all she could see in the moonlight was a wall of splintered wood and fir needles. Then she realized a redwood had fallen on their house, and completely smashed it.

If Eleanor had still been the same woman she'd been when she left England, she would have screamed, or cried. It had taken months to build that shoddy little house, and in it were the only things she and Ananias had in the world...

Virginia burped and said, "Big tree, Mama. Where house gone?"

But they were alive, alive for one more day, so Eleanor and Ananias laughed and stood up. Then they saw the fire.

It was difficult to fight and scratch their way through the branches and splinters towards the flames. Eleanor didn't dare leave Virginia behind alone in the dark, but she didn't want to leave Ananias, so she followed him warily. At first they thought the wreckage of their house was burning, but as they got closer they saw that the firelight was coming from beyond the fallen tree, in the direction of the center of the village.

"That's the food storage," hissed Ananias, and he shouted, "Fire! Fire in the food storage!"

It was a small wooden building, set half buried in the sandy earth a few hundred yards from the shore, used for keeping the village's salted fish and sea lion meat cool; it was enough food for all the colonists for a month. Ananias and Eleanor fought through the branches, shouting and screaming.

When they arrived a bucket line had already been set up. Ananias joined it immediately, and Eleanor jumped in a few moments later, after settling Virginia down a safe distance from the flames. There was no time to talk about why the trees had fallen (for several had toppled), to console friends for the loss of property and life (Walter Dearborn was in the line, but his wife was not, and his face was stained with ash and sap and creased with grief), or to wonder why the fire had started, or to think of anything but moving the water.

Twenty minutes later the moon was down, and dawn was graying the clouds above the mouth of the Bay, and the fire was out. Perhaps half the food had been lost. Men and women put down their buckets, exhausted, spent, empty of words. Twisted bodies of fallen redwoods loomed in the fog.

Virginia toddled up to Eleanor and tugged on her elbow. "Mama, the naked men came," she whispered. Eleanor looked at where Virginia was pointing, north along the shore, where a line of Muwekma men, carrying spears and painted for battle, was marching silently out of the mist.

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