Who are you?
The question soared across the scorched sky, spoken by a chorus of voices that seeped through the cracks in the rocks that glowed like coals, that oozed from the pulsing hot brightness of the magma inching down, down, down to swallow all life in its path.
Lava ran over Echo’s boots. She looked at her feet, dispassionate, divorced from the sight of the rubber and leather bubbling and melting. Her shoelaces caught fire, but she did not feel them burn. Soot coated her skin, clung to her hair, her eyelashes, her clothes. The blue had been burned out of the sky by the eruption, and darkness descended, called forth by a veil of ash.
Who are you?
“This isn’t real,” Echo said.
And that isn’t an answer.
This was a dream. And in this dream, she was burning. Her skin blistered in the heat. Magma rushed around her ankles. It didn’t scare her, though it had the first time she’d had this dream. And the second. And the third. But by now, she’d lived through this scenario so many times, it was beginning to feel routine. All she had to do was endure it. Soon enough, she would wake up. She could do that. If there was anything at which Echo excelled, it was surviving.
She ignored the question—she’d yet to answer it in any of her dreams—and looked toward the gaping maw of the volcano. She stood at its base, watching it belch fire and smoke and ash into the heavens. Screams rose from the village below. That was the worst part. She could ignore her burning body, but she could never tune out the screams. Every night, without fail, from the first night. The night she had opened a door into the world and let the firebird enter. She could feel it now, its wings fluttering inside her as if testing the limits of its mortal cage.
Every night, the same question was posed to her, asked by a speaker with a thousand voices ringing as one: Who are you?
I am Echo, she thought. She didn’t speak the words aloud. She knew the answer wasn’t correct. Or perhaps the answer was simply not complete.
Lava crawled up her legs, past her knees, her thighs, her waist, consuming her inch by inch. In seconds, or perhaps minutes—time was so hard to track in dreams—it would rush into her mouth, her nostrils. It would seal her eyes shut. Soon, her entire body would be trapped on the side of the
mountain, glued to the spot like a fly in amber.
All she had to do was survive. Dying in dreams wasn’t the worst part. Waking from them with more questions than answers was. This was her fault. The eruption. The fire bursting from the earth. The darkness eating the sky. The screams of people caught in the middle of a cosmic dance that had begun eons before they’d been born. Soon, Echo would wake up and start a new day. But soon never felt soon enough when she was trapped in this dream.
Who are you? The question was clear, even over the anguished wails of the people below.
I am their end, Echo thought. I am their destruction. I couldn’t shield them from something I caused. I opened a door I shouldn’t have opened and now I don’t know what to do about it. I am alone in this.
Then the voices asked, as they did whenever she dared consider her solitude: Are you?
Echo had opened a door to let the firebird in. But she couldn’t help wondering what she’d let out.
- An extract from The Shadow Hour by @melissa-grey - our Book of the Month
Posted on Saturday, July 16th 2016