The first flames poke through the raw-boned roof of C.D. Murphy’s Tavern like the ears of a tabby cat, a striping of ochre and black that keeps to itself at first, prowling and small. “But do you see that?” the stranger repeats, and by the time Katherine understands that it is not some Centennial spectacle being ogled but a fire across Elm, others have got the story, too. The sun is playing its duplici-tous tricks, and all about the Centennial grounds shoals of people—one hundred thousand in all—move saturated, stupefied. “But do you see that?” Katherine turns, and just then the fire leaps high and begins to waggle west. In a day of wonders it seems but another one, a shameless curiosity, but right as Katherine has this thought, the fire doubles up on itself and cleaves. Lottie sees it. Lottie punches out her fist and grabs at the nearest hunk of sky.
Down below, in the jumble of Elm, gawkers have arrived, sudden evictees, porters, a tall man in plaid pants, a collection of waiters, a crowd of children running ahead of their mothers. Some of the horses in their harnesses are rearing back, bucking to rid themselves of the weight of the carriages for which they’ve been responsible all day. “The engines are coming,” someone says, but Katherine’s eyes are on the insolent, fast-raging fire, which does not burn in place but keeps on multiplying, pushing its tongue through more burst windows of Shantytown now, as its victims pour onto Elm. One of the hansom cab horses has taken off on his own, his driver galloping behind.
The fire burns in place, seems to consider. It maintains its hold on the east, drops a final curtain on two saloons, blackens Theodore Bomeisler’s hotel, puts an end to Ullman’s eatery. It turns the sky to smoke and now arrives at the door of the Ross House, which is sturdy brick, not wood, four stories high, and where the boarders are work-ing their own rescue like bees in a hive, tossing through windows their trunks, their bedsheets, their instruments of beauty, their twelve-cent Ledgers, as if they cannot bear to leave the news behind. Leave the news be, Katherine thinks, the news is dead.
Now come paired men and a woman with a trundle bed between them; a ransomed velvet chair; a settee with carved swan’s feet and dimpled, upholstered hearts; a gilt frame; a pail of brushes and an artist’s palette. Men and women who seem to have stripped the Oriental run-ners from the stairs within, who seem determined to go nowhere without a corset box, an umbrella stand, a pair of candlesticks. The Ross House cooks stagger about in the streets with their arms clasping blackened cooking pots, soup tureens, porcelain platters, dessert bowls. The salvaged and the salvagers have no discernible plan, and now the fire brigade has come in, and river water from all directions—hard white spitting streams.
The wind is at the fire’s back. It leaps and dazzles and still more boxes are being thrown to the street, and suddenly from one narrow doorway emerges a giantess in a tented dress—the famous fat woman of Shantytown, Katherine realizes—who seems surprisingly fleet on elephantine feet. Elm is all at fever pitch. Elm has been infiltrated, and now the Centennial police have arrived, their whistles shrill above the melee, above the boom of the fire leaping higher.
In Katherine’s arms, Lottie has begun to cry, and when Katherine runs to see the throng behind her on the roof, she understands that the world’s largest building has exceeded its rooftop capacity. Thin as ice, Katherine thinks, pulling Lottie even closer, pulling her straight to her heart.
She would cry for Laura [Lottie’s aunt], but Laura won’t hear. Laura is somewhere down below, and right now, right in this instant, again, Katherine is alone with her terrible responsibility.
Now across the bedlam alley, the final roof timber of C.D. Murphy’s falls. The brigade of amateur firefighters has begun its fight—unblenched paladins armed with buckets and basins of slosh. One man is throwing bricks at the conflagration, as if he could break its neck. but there’s too much summer heat in brittle Shantytown. In most every direction there is the crepitating pop of structure giving way, advertisements in a peel on the smudged faces of the shops, the startling demise of cheap curtains, the shattering of lanterns.
“More brigade on its way,” a woman yells, a chamber-maid, three brooms in her hands, a mop, as if these were the lives most worth saving. Katherine strains and suddenly she sees William with his wheat-colored hair and the sand -colored mutt, down on the ground, near the tavern where this fire first began. Together they run, and now Katherine sees William stop outside Allen’s Animal Show, where a counting pig and a notorious cow are kept, birds in cages, a pair of titanic sea cows. Everyone knows this. Everyone’s read it. William seems to have taken it to heart.
He pounds at the door and lets himself in. He disappears, and the fire is raging, the fire is coming, Katherine realizes, for him, and her heart stops at the thought, her lungs go airless.
When the mutt emerges from the flames he is unrecog-nizable soot—dancing on his hind legs. A cat breaks through the flaming door of Allen’s. A collie breaks free of its own rope collar and leaps, teeth bared, onto Elm.
The walls of Allen’s are crumbling. The ceiling is collaps-ing into embers, and right then, through the almost-nothing of the building that was, a bird comes fluttering free, her wings thwack-thwacking within the grim-gray smoke, a broken chain dangling down from one webbed foot. Katherine remembers Operti’s, the girl with the bird, is suddenly brokenhearted at the possibility of them coming to harm. Where is the girl? Where is the bird? She watches the unchained dove float all the way up through the smoke toward the sky.
The fire burns in place and then, with a new ferocity, it launches, again, toward virgin territory, until the entire alley is flame and fury and finally William appears, black-faced and stumbling, alive.
Alive, Katherine thinks. And it’s the most beautiful word that there is.
The fire is white at its most true. It is yellow, orange, smoke, and plasma in the blistered rags above its heart. It will burn harder with the wind, and like a fish caught in a net, Katherine cannot move. She cannot free herself to return Lottie to Laura. She cannot find the stairs or make her way to the street. She cannot join William in whatever mission he has set for himself, for it is clear to Katherine that he has set out for himself the task of saving things, of rescue.
There is so much pressure at Katherine’s back that she cannot so much as turn to glance over her shoulder, to check just in case Laura has, by some miracle, come, but how could Laura come? What was their promise? Five 0’clock, at the balcony, on the stairs—an impossible prom-ise. There’s no more getting up on the roof now than there is getting down; there’s nothing to do but hold Lottie safe, this little girl who has grown warm-damp now, whose hair is lying flat against her face. A bright pink is flourishing on Lottie’s face, and she has begun the sort of hiccoughing cry that Katherine does not know how to cure.
Beneath her feet the roof feels thin.
Down on Elm, the fire’s evictees keep streaming—-through doorways, from alleys, out of the dark into the blazing light, some of them forming a battering ram that seems intent on knocking the Centennial turnstiles down. They want in to the Centennial grounds. To the lakes and the fountains and the miracles of the exhibition, to the seeming safe haven on the north side of Elm. Against the gates they press, against the keepers, who have wakened from the somnolence of the afternoon. No one will be let in, no one let out, until the fire dies, until somebody can kill it. “The second brigade is coming,” someone says, and now the Centennial police are barricading, holding the terrified masses back. The engines must be let through to do their work. Their horses are frightened and rearing.
The roof deck quails. Katherine feels the simple shud-der of the grand construction beneath her feet, she hears the creaking of bolts and screws, and all of a sudden she is deluged by an awful premonition. One tight thing will go loose. One isolated beam will wrangle free. The roof will yield. Into the unhinged jaw of the Main Exhibition they will fall—through folderol, corsets, crockery, engines, fizz, the hard white light of the perfect jewel, through Brazil and Spain and Norway.
Without choosing to fall, they will fall. Lift. Drag. Thrust. Gravity.
Even the future can vanish.
Smithereens, Katherine thinks. No air. And now she remembers Anna, thinks as she has tried so desperately hard never again to think of Anna in the suck-down of the Schuylkill, between the teeth of ice. It happened all at once, Bennett said, at the river that day, before his hand could reach hers. It happened. There was the sound of something giving way, a white shattering, and she was gone. Under and into the lick of the winter current, over the dam and down, trapped in the bend and stiff, floating above the cobbled backs of turtles, the hibernating congregations of fish, the undredged leaves and sticks, the slatternly remains of a she -dog. Three days later a boy found Anna at the mouth of the Delaware, her muff still hung about her neck.
“There, there.” It’s the woman beside Katherine, who smells like bratwurst, whose scored and dimpled neck is as thick as a club. She chucks a finger the size of a thumb under Lottie’s chin, and if Lottie stills for one abrupt instant, the corresponding scream is power. She shakes and tosses off the touch of the stranger’s finger, and Katherine shifts her, she kisses her forehead.
“It’s all a bit much,” Katherine says, and again Lottie screams, she grows inconsolable. She has become an exhaust-ing weight in Katherine’s arms, kicking a hole in the sky.
“I’ll say it’s much,” the woman harrumphs. “They’ve got us like prisoners up here.” The knot at the back of the woman’s head has come undone, and chunks of auburn hair fall gracelessly forward. Her eyes are small and deep in the full yellow moon of her face, and now Katherine looks past her, to the man on her left, who seems transfixed by the spectacle of fire. Ash bits waft through the air like confetti. There’s the taste of char on Katherine’s tongue.
Lottie wants out. She wants down—her little feet work-ing like pistons so that Katherine has to hold her tight, wrap all her strength around her. “Look, Lottie,” she says, for down below the police have finally succeeded in forging a tunnel in with the fire-fighting steamers. This brigade on Elm has turned its back to the fire. They have raised their nozzled hoses to the pert glass face of the Main Exhibition Building, and now they are firing. Someone near Katherine begins to cry. Long, gulping, inconsolable cries.
“It’s just a precaution, miss,” an old man in a checker--board vest says, as if he’s seen plenty of this in his day.
“Bloody ugly fire,” a British gentleman says, and a Brit-ish woman answers, “Wait’ll I tell me missus.”
The smoke billows and slows. The fire sends bright rib-bons up into the sky and seems to begin to lose some interest in itself. Even as the spectators holler, even as the horses stomp, even as the attenuated roof of the Main Exhibition Building twitches, the fire seems to sicken of its own mad greed. It has fallen from the height of its early spires and has divided. It has failed to launch across the processional width of Elm. It has bowed its head in places to the streaming river water. William and his mutt have disappeared. Kather-ine searches for them. She sends her hope out to meet them. Her hope for rescue. For the return to life.
In Katherine’s arms, Lottie is lying perfectly still, asleep now, her face mushed to Katherine’s shoulder, her weight sunk against Katherine’s slim hip. For the first time she wonders how Laura has done this all day and all week, how mothers do it, and she thinks of her own mother, efficient and brisk, trying to calm twins. It is impossible to remember her mother’s touch. Katherine only remembers Anna, the early sweet frustration of confusing her sister with herself.
The sun has fallen. Soon the moon will be on its way. In places, still, the fire is being fought, but even more so now, the fire loses, and there is no more need for the bri-gade on Elm; the horses are being hitched back to their engines. There is no more need to lock the people in or out; there is the sound of turnstiles clicking. There’ll be smoke, Katherine thinks, for days. There’ll be the hovering smell of char and ash, but already now some patches of sky are clearing, like a fog rolling off, and between patches Katherine gains a broader view of Elm and Shantytown below, the spoiled victims of the fire, the porters out in the street, the waiters with their fistfuls of silverware, one cook with a bloody back of beef on a tray. The swappers, vendors, dealers, den masters, chambermaids with pots walk the streets in a daze. The hooligans and harlots. One woman ambulates with a fringed parasol popped high, saunters, almost, among the dazed.
At Katherine’s back, some of the pressure eases, as finally some are making for the stairs, drawing themselves back down into that paradise of progress, the industrious songs of machines and fountains, in search of the ones they left behind. “They’ve got the organ started again,” someone claims, but Katherine only hears the sound of the street below, she only keeps looking out upon the mangle and mess of Shantytown. Her hips, her arms, her spine are aching, but Lottie must not wake, Lottie must be kept in her incubated slumber until she is with her aunt again, and Katherine understands that she must stay here, in this one place. That Laura will come looking. That they will be found.
Now something down below pricks Katherine’s eye. Some distant strangeness that is even more strange than all that has gone before, and in an instant she understands: it’s that mutt. Looking like a wolf or a bear in its mangy sooted coat, prancing like a circus act at the door of the Trans-Continental Hotel. That mutt. That mutt, alone. Her heart hard-walloping against her chest, Katherine strains to see past the dog, beyond it, to William, who must be near—it is desperately important that William be near. For he res-cued that pig from the Chauncers’ garden, and he stood beside Katherine at the bakery door, and he was there—he was there—before Katherine abandoned her sister. He is part of her before, a one right thing in a dangerous world. Past the fire, past the smoke, through the detritus and ruins, she strains to see. Up and down, but she sees nothing. Only the mutt trotting in its circle.
“There, there,” that woman beside her says. “They’re let-ting us down now, do you see? Danger’s over.” She puts a hand on Katherine’s shoulder. Katherine doesn’t turn.
“No,” Katherine says. “No. But thank you.” For she has her eyes on that mutt and she won’t divert herself this time; she cannot afford, ever again, to stop paying attention. If she has learned anything from Anna’s dying, it is vigilance. She will live her whole life forward now, on guard.
The pressure behind her keeps easing. The tarnished sun is gone from the sky. A breeze is bringing evening in, and somewhere high above, the stars have agreed to populate the night, to hang above the hordes below who are desperate for passage over the river, to the city, who are packing streetcars, carriages, cabs, who are giving up and walking home.
Excerpted from Dangerous Neighbors, copyright ©2010 Beth Kephart. Reprinted with permission of Egmont USA.
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FEATURE: More Light by John Prendergast
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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