Auguste and the Dragon
Auguste lay in the crook of the mango tree perched at the lip of the Corkscrew halfway up the side of Mount Pelée. His arms dangled to either side of the twisted tree limb, his legs raised, crossed at the ankles and propped against an upward curve of the gnarled trunk. Through sleepy eyes he watched the leaves fluttering in the light wind, dappling him with sunlight, sometimes showing quick shards of the deep blue sky arching above the tree. Scattered on the ground beneath him lay three mango seeds, all that remained of the dripping sweet orange and yellow fruit he'd eaten for his breakfast. Dribbles of the sticky juice had dried on his hand and around his mouth.
Yellow-speckled fourmis-fous crawled across his chin, plucking at the little strings of mango clinging there. Grown too easy to brush away the ants Auguste let them take their little tickling steps across his face until they found their own way back to the tree, their hard little hinged jaws filled with mango flesh. Feeling a heavier touch against his hand he rolled his head to the side to see a béte-a-mille-pattes reaching out from the tree trunk to taste the juice on his hand. Nearly a foot long the black millipede clung to the tree with the back of its body while its front twisted and reached and curved through space with all the grace of an old river. Smiling softly he eased his hand closer so the little beast-of-a-thousand-feet wouldn't have to work so hard for its breakfast.
While the millipede plucked and pulled at his hand Auguste looked down The Mountain's slope to the fertile crescent of St. Pierre. He'd sailed throughout the Caribbean, indeed had spent time on all the islands of the Lesser Antilles, but nowhere had he found a town as quaint and queer as this pretty little Paris of the West Indies. The town lay within a soft sickle marked by the sea to the front and the ridge curving at its back. Most of the buildings dated back to the eighteenth century. Built of stone, roofed with red tile, all painted yellow, the houses and the shops stretched their wooden and zinc awnings over the narrow sidewalks running along the stone-flagged streets. The Roxelane River ran right through the heart of the town, filling it with the murmuring song of running water.
From this height the town seemed to lie still, sleepy in the morning sun washing over the island of Martinique. But Auguste knew better. Through his drowsy ears he could almost hear the dickering of the shipping brokers wrangling over the price of rum and sugar ready for export. He could almost hear the cries of the roustabouts as they wrestled the casks of rum and the hogsheads of sugar onto the lighters that would carry them to the ships anchored in the roadstead hugging the shore. He could almost hear the songs of the sailors drunk already on the rum freely flowing in the bars and within the rooms of the close-shuttered whorehouses scattered through the town.
No, he could indeed hear the broad bawling song of a drunken sailor. Raising his head Auguste looked down the Corkscrew, the remnant of an ancient crater about halfway up Mount Pelée. From its rim it dropped several hundred feet into the roots of The Mountain. It took its name from the tourist trail twisting down the sides of the crater, leading at last to the crater floor. The Corkscrew made an easy second choice for the many tourists unable or unwilling to hike to the ancient lakebed nestled in the larger crater at the very top of the old volcano. Ringed by the rainforest the Corkscrew sheltered a pleasant place where they could spread a picnic on the crater floor, drink wine and rum, then share dainty little pastries bought in the pastry shop nestled in the trees at the foot of the trail. They could then tell their friends back home that they'd climbed the sides of the amiable old dragon and danced over its bare back.
The drunken song came from three sailors stumbling around at the foot of the trail. Auguste watched as they began the long and, on their unsteady feet, dangerous climb to the rim of the crater. They leaned against, held on to, and pushed one another up the trail while they sang sailor songs and took long swigs from a bottle of golden rum. As he watched them a little smile played at his sticky lips. Early that morning he'd seen them as they stumbled from a bar and headed up the slopes of The Mountain. Holding back a ways he'd followed them until they disappeared down the trail. Then taking his perch in the mango tree he'd settled in for a long lazy morning of waiting. Now he watched as they stumbled their way up the trail.
Auguste made an easy living from the many sailors whose tastes ran to men, or the sailors who would make do with a man when the women cost too much. The son of a Creole father and an African mother he had the rich golden brown look of a mixed-race Pierrotin, a face so handsome that strangers drew up short, startled by his loveliness, when they first saw him walking along the streets, jaunty and fresh with his white pants and bare chest. Early on he'd learned that a great many of the sailors putting in to the roadstead at St. Pierre would pay good money to play with his body. On other islands he'd spent much time with women but here in the easy air of St. Pierre he found himself quite happy to put his body in the hands of sailors as long as their hands put coins in his pocket.
"You no-account half-blood Creole! Hanging in a tree again! I declare! You must be half-brother to the birds!"
Auguste turned from the trail to look down at the little girl chirping beneath the tree. She'd stepped so softly that he hadn't heard her come. He smiled down at her, pretty and small and dark in the dappled sunlight.
"Little Harviva," he murmured. "What brings you up The Mountain so early in the morning?"
"I've come to help my aunt," Harviva answered. "She looks for a large crowd from the hotel today, so I've come to help with the pastries. And what brings you, so soon in the day? I haven't seen you up this early since those American sailors hit port two months ago!"
"Oh my child, how you talk!" Auguste clucked through the smile on his face. "If it weren't so hot I'd get down from this tree and teach you how to talk like a lady."
Just as the grinning little girl started to pipe out a quick tart answer she heard a snatch from the song of the sailors making their way up the trail.
"Oho!" Harviva cried as she skipped to the rim of the crater.
With her hands planted on her little-girl hips she looked down at the sailors who'd made their way nearly half-way up the trail. She got a good look at the three of them just before they rounded a turn in the trail and slipped once more into the rainforest. With her hands still on her hips she turned to grin at Auguste, who'd swung around to sit in the crook of the mango tree.
"So now I see what brings you up The Mountain so early this morning!"
"Oh child, child, how you go on! What would good Saint Magdalene say if she heard you speak so?"
"I'm sure she does, Auguste. The saints have long ears, or so I've heard. Anyway, she was a whore like you. I suppose at least she would understand!"
"Watch yourself, young lady! Even I have feelings, and you're awfully close to hurting them!"
"What else are friends for?" Harviva asked, skipping under the mango tree.
With her grin slipping into a soft smile she wrapped her arms around his legs dangling against the tree trunk.
"Oh my little Auguste," she murmured as she kissed him lightly on each of his kneecaps. "You know I wouldn't ever mean to hurt you, whatever I might say in fun."
Raising her head she looked up at him, the smile slipping from her face and her eyes growing grave and still.
"You be careful, Auguste," she said softly. "I don't like the looks of that yellow-haired sailor. My mama says he nearly tore apart Marie's bar last night. You watch out for him."
"Little Harviva," he murmured, brushing a stray strand of hair from her grave little face. "Dear little Harviva. Sometimes you treat me like your child, and here I am old enough to be your father."
"Oh get gone!" she cried as she pulled away and slapped at his knees, the grin once more leaping across her face. "My brother says you're not a day over twenty, no matter how old you try to act!"
"I'll have you know I'm twenty-five. And you child? How old are you now?"
"I'll be thirteen next month," she said, once more planting her hands on her hips. "Old enough to be your sister!"
"Well, little sister," Auguste smiled. "How long will you be on The Mountain this morning?"
"All day. My aunt looks for several groups of tourists right into night."
"Good," he said. "If all goes well, I'll come get you at lunch and we'll spread a picnic on the crater floor. How does that sound?"
"Just fine," the little girl laughed. "I'll have it ready. But you know, Auguste, you might want to take a quick dip in the creek before your sailors get here. You smell funny."
"It isn't me, young lady!" he laughed. "The old dragon must be breaking wind in his sleep. That's sulphur you smell."
"Sulphur?" she asked, sniffing at the air. "Why couldn't I smell it down in the town? We could smell it . . . when was it, in February."
"That was a big belch," Auguste laughed. "These are just little farts. The wind blows the dragon's farts out to sea before they can stink up the town."
"Good!" Harviva laughed in turn. "I'd hate to be downwind of dragon farts!"
Turning from the mango tree she headed toward the trailhead at the crater's rim.
"Don't forget lunch!" she called over her shoulder.
"If all goes well!" he called after her.
But all didn't go well. He watched until the three sailors topped the rim of the crater and stumbled into the small clearing beneath the mango tree. As they did so Auguste felt a little shake rattle through the tree. The old dragon's restless this morning, he thought as he leapt from the tree to the ground.
After a quick moment of drunken dickering the yellow-haired sailor, a burly Swede, gave him a few coins and they went into the rainforest. With the sailor crashing through the brush behind him Auguste slipped to the pallet he'd set up beneath an old tamarind tree. There he took off his clothes then helped the sailor get undressed. The Swede pushed him to his belly on the pallet then straddled his hips. Before they could get any farther, though, Auguste heard a crashing in the trees. He tried to rise but the sailor pinned him to the pallet. A few heartbeats later the other two sailors stumbled beneath the tree. The three of them held him down, taking turns with him until all three had taken him twice.
When they finished with him the Swede took back his coins then made Auguste get dressed. Together the three sailors hauled him down The Mountain to the town jail, where they had him charged with making lewd advances to foreign nationals. Auguste had a long history of charges--nothing serious, petty thefts, barroom brawls--but that morning he came before a magistrate with a bad toothache and little patience. Under the island's sodomy laws he sentenced Auguste to two years in the town jail. The jailer hauled him to his jail cell, a low thick-walled lean-to half-buried in the ground. The door hunched so low that he had to stoop almost to his knees to crawl through. The jailer followed him in, pulled the door shut, and made Auguste lean with his hands against the wall while the jailer took him for the seventh time that day. Then the jailer left, leaving Auguste in the dim light of the dirty cell.
"Fucked seven times and not a penny to show for it," he muttered.
The cell had no windows save for a small grill mounted deep in the wall above the door. Pulling a bench beneath the grill Auguste stood on it to look out. Then at last his heart fell deep into sadness and he lost the way of laughter. His little cell with its one grilled eye faced away from The Mountain. For two years he would have to sit in this dimness, with never a sight of the lovely green tumbling down the slopes of his beloved Mount Pelée. Auguste began to cry. Stepping down from the bench he crossed to the mangy cot and sat with his back against the wall. Taking a stubby pencil from his pocket he scratched the date into the rough stone wall. April 29, 1902. Only two years into the new century and already he had more trouble than he knew what to do with.
While Auguste scratched the date into a rock wall another troubled soul stood on the balcony of the American consulate and looked on the face of the old dragon. Over the past few weeks Adelle Prentiss had grown deeply uneasy, an uneasiness threatening at any moment to shatter into fear. Only the steady hand of her husband, the American consul, had calmed her jangling nerves. But even his steadiness had begun to wear thin as day by day The Mountain acted in stranger and stranger ways. First there'd been the ugly smell of sulphur settling over the town in February. The seawinds had soon cleared the air but in some weird way the rotten smell had settled into her nose, fouling even the freshest morning wind. By early April the townsfolk had noticed the steam clouds sometimes puffing from the sides of the volcano, and in late April they'd suffered the first of many light ashfalls spreading a thin grey powder over the town and rainforest, a grey that made her think of her father's face on the night that he'd died.
Then had come that terrible eruption on April 25. Of course, only she called it an eruption. The townsfolk merely said that The Mountain had "belched." Even her husband made light of the event, saying that the dragon had only "sneezed" in its sleep. But she'd been to Naples, and she'd seen Vesuvius. She knew better. By chance she'd been watching from the balcony on the day L'Étang Sec, the summit crater, had spewed a huge cloud of smoke and shattered rock. Belches? Sneezes? Had they all gone all at once daft as geese? In a weird way that she couldn't put into words, Adelle felt that her body had mated with the thrummings of the earth beneath Mount Pelée. Deep in her heart she knew that those thrummings had started to build toward an awful beat.
Feeling a light touch on her shoulder she turned to find that her husband had come to join her on the balcony. Smiling she took his hand and together they stood gazing at The Mountain. They could just make out the little puffs of steam escaping from vents far at the top of the volcano.
"Well Tom," she murmured. "You're back early. Wasn't there much to see?"
"No dear," he smiled as he let go of her hand to slip his arm around her waist. "The crater's a little bit cracked and shattered in places, but it looks like the volcano's settling down."
"You went all the way to the crater's rim?" Adelle asked.
"Yes my dear," Tom answered. "I looked right down into it. We could've made it to the bottom, but we had no need, you see. We could tell from the crater rim that the worst of it's passed."
"Well," she smiled. "That's good news. I think I'll go in and write Amy. She'll be so worried after my last letter."
Leaving her husband on the balcony Adelle went to the study to write a soothing letter to her sister in faraway Massachusetts. In her heart she knew that her husband had lied through his teeth. Knowing that time drew short she let him hang on to this last little shred of mistaken manliness.
Still standing on the balcony, looking at the volcano, Tom wondered how he'd found the gall to lie so shamelessly to his wife. Very early that morning, before dawn even, he'd left with a party including the mayor and the newspaper editor to climb Mount Pelée. They'd made their way to L'Étang Sec to check out the effects of the eruption four days ago. And yes, he knew that it had been an eruption, no matter what he may've told his wife to soothe her worried mind. From the rim of the summit crater he'd looked down into a boiling hell.
Decades ago the lake in L'Étang Sec had dried up, but today they'd found a new lake, a cauldron of boiling water stretching 650 feet across. At the edge of the lake stood a new volcanic cone, a pillar almost 30 feet high, and from the top of the pillar came a geyser of boiling water that shot up then cascaded into the boiling lake. From all around rolled a rumbling mutter while the wind burned so hot and smelled so of sulphur that they'd had trouble breathing. They could never have walked to the bottom of the crater. They no longer even knew if the crater had a bottom.
On the way down the mountain Tom had felt an ugly worry start to gnaw his heart. All along he'd accepted the mayor's assurances, seconded by the newspaper editor, that the townsfolk had no cause at all for alarm. From time to time, they assured him, The Mountain grumbled a little, but it had grown too old and tired to do much more than that. And he'd believed them. After all, they'd lived their whole lives on the island, in the very shadow of the dragon. If any real danger existed, he'd told himself, surely they would be the first to know it. But now this ugly little worry had come to nag him. The mayor and the editor both belonged to the conservative political party that largely controlled the wealth of the town, but this control hinged on an election scheduled for May 11. The wealthy townsfolk made up this conservative party, a solid voting block that kept the party in power. And these wealthy townsfolk would be the very ones who could most easily pack up and leave, along with their hordes of voting servants, if they thought that the volcano presented any immediate danger. So what if, Tom asked himself, just what if the mayor wants to downplay any danger, at least until after the elections? His mind balked at the question. Over thirty thousand people lived in St. Pierre. Surely the mayor wouldn't endanger that many people, the very townsfolk who'd elected him, just to ensure his political aims.
More than anything else about her husband Adelle loved his utterly inexplicable ability to keep his trust even after years of governmental service. She'd lost hers within the first few years of their marriage, when she came to see politicians for what they were.
Auguste passed his first week in jail as pleasantly as he could. Harviva came every day to bring him fresh fruit and pastries from her aunt's shop. Each day the jailer brought him only one bucket of fresh water but on his second day there little Harviva carried him several pails of water from the town well. With this water he'd been able to clean his dingy little cell so at least he didn't have to live in the filth of earlier prisoners. The thick walls kept out most of the summer heat and the little grilled window let in a stray breeze every now and then. All in all, he made do.
He spent many hours each day standing on his bench to look through the window and sigh at the life bustling through the streets, all the sailors jingling hot coins in their pockets. As the days passed he started to note odd changes. First he began to hear a steady low rumbling that sometimes shook the thick walls of his cell, then the heavy smell of sulphur once more settled over the town. By the end of the first week he saw that a thin coating of ash had covered the streets and houses. In the following days he watched the ash settle thicker and thicker. The air grew so heavy that horses began to balk in the middle of the street, snorting and pawing at the ground, and people passed by with handkerchiefs tied over their mouths and noses.
The days passed and the happenings grew stranger and yet more strange. Auguste heard odd tales from people passing in the street. He learned that the sugar mill just north of the town had suffered a frightening invasion of ants and millipedes. The insects had crawled over the millyard and through the buildings, covering everything in sight. By the time the millworkers drove them away the millworks stood splattered with crushed insects, with some of the horses in the millyard dead and half-eaten. Several workers ended up in the hospital at Fort-de-France because of venomous insect bites. The town itself had been invaded by a horde of snakes, among them the poisonous pit vipers. The snakes killed whole flocks of chickens and herds of pigs, as well as a great many horses and dogs. Before the townspeople could drive the snakes from the town, nearly fifty people died from snake bites.
"You'd best watch out," August snorted to his jailer on the morning of May 7. "The old dragon's getting pretty damn mad that you locked me away from him. You better let me go."
"Shut up and turn around," the jailer muttered.
The next morning little Harviva came to see him very early in the morning. The jailer hadn't yet come to the jail so she had to hunch down and pass his fresh fruit through the grilled window.
"What brings you out so early, little sister?" he asked, standing on his bench, his face pressed to the grill.
"I'm on my way to mass," she answered. "But first I have to take this basket of kumquats to my aunt. She's looking for an early morning tour group from the hotel. I'll bring back some pastries for you."
"Best watch out for that old dragon," Auguste grinned. "He's getting mighty restless."
"Oh get gone!" she laughed. "Do you think Saint Magdalene would let a dragon snap me up on my way to mass?"
"Lord knows!" he laughed in turn.
But all at once a cold hand tugged at his heart. He grew grave.
"Be careful, little one," he said softly. "Don't stay on The Mountain too long."
"Careful!" she laughed through the window. "Look who's talking! If you'd taken care when I warned you, you wouldn't be here right now."
"Nonetheless, Harviva. Come back to me right away. Promise?"
Something in his words sent an uneasy wind blowing through her little heart.
"I promise," she said, tying her scarf around her nose and mouth. "I'll be back before you know it."
Then Harviva left.
As she hurried through the streets toward the mountain road she passed by the stately house of the American consul. She saw his wife standing on the balcony, her morning dress pulled tight about her shoulders. She stared off at the face of The Mountain. Harviva had often brought pastries to the consulate, and she stood on the best of terms with that kind lovely woman called Adelle. With a happy shout the little girl called to the woman on the balcony. Adelle turned from the volcano, her eyes vast and empty. Then her eyes pulled in, grew merry, and her face brightened. She smiled and waved to the child in the street. Harviva waved back then hurried on her way. The sun had just started its slow climb above the waters to the east.
As she skipped up the mountain road Harviva heard the early bells begin to ring in the cathedral, calling the townsfolk to morning mass. Knowing she hadn't much time left the little girl ran the rest of the way to the trail leading down into the Corkscrew. At the crater's rim she jerked stock still, stunned, numbed, unable even to shudder, as she looked into the mouth of hell.
A hot wind rushed against her face, burning away her eyebrows and scorching her nose and throat. All at once thick acrid smoke shot from the cracks opening in the crater floor. Far down at the bottom of the trail she saw two guides running upward, dragging a woman between them. In a mind empty of all other thoughts the little girl knew that they must be the sole remnants of the early morning group that had come to tour the crater. Watching a horror beyond her words she saw a pretty lightblue smoke all at once jet from the crater wall to strike the three people. They fell in a flash, as though they'd been struck with bullets through their hearts. In that same flash of time the crater floor crumbled away into a boiling red wind with ragged blue flames dancing through it. In two heartbeats the roiling wind leapt up to swallow the three bodies on the trail.
Her scream rose and joined with the high keening cry of The Mountain.
Then she jerked around and fled down the mountain road. Nothing but terror churned in her mind, leaving her without the will to choose, but her feet chose to take a little-used right fork in the road that carried her around the outskirts of the town toward the skirting sea. As she drew near the shore she at last stopped and turned to look at the dragon raging awake from a centuries-old sleep. She saw a huge red and black cloud boil over from the Corkscrew to race down the mountain road. At first it stayed within the narrow trough of the road but within seconds it surged out to swallow the forest and the houses in its path. Harviva thought that the end of the world had come. In the next heartbeat she knew that it had. The top of the volcano shattered into a great roiling blackred cloud. In no time at all, because time had ended for the little girl, it swept down the mountainside and raged over the town. Before she could think to think, Harviva saw every building in the town blasted to the ground.
Screaming through the burnt air scorching her throat she turned and ran to the shore. In a lone wild leap she sailed over the water to land hard in a small sailboat tied to a rotten quay. As her frantic hands cast off the bowlines and tried to hoist the sail she glanced over her shoulder, then wished that she hadn't. She saw her older brother still small in the distance running, flailing for the sea. Behind him, dwarfing him, reared a terrible hand of the boiling redblack air. It touched him. He screamed once. Then the hand took him in its hold.
Screaming, crying, jabbering wild nonsense, Harviva at last got the sail hoisted. Driven by the raging wind the boat leapt out over the waters. Wrenching about the tiller, charred now and burning her hand, the little girl headed toward a sea cave where she and her brother had played at pirates. Only then did she see that hell had burned her white cotton blouse from her body. She didn't know when it had happened.
Then all at once a great stillness settled over her mind. Drawing on this stillness she looked down with eyes that weren't hers, to face the blistered wounds that she knew must cover her little chest. She saw nothing save a little red mark on her left breast.
While stones and burning ash rained into the sea around her she made her way at last into the sea cave. Just as she sailed under the low-hanging rock arch she heard a wild hissing, the song of a million teapots, as the boiling cloud struck the sea. The water in the grotto surged upward, snapping the mast of the sailboat against the roof and slamming the boat into a small alcove hollowed into the roof. Jerked to the bottom of the boat Harviva barked a little string of terrible cackles.
Then she let the kind soft darkness come at last to take her.
Later that day a sailor on a French cruiser sighted a charred little craft floating on the sea nearly two miles from Martinique. When the cruiser drew close to the boat the sailors saw a half-naked, battered, burned little girl lying in the bottom, six inches of the seeped sea holding her soft and wet. To the sailors she looked at peace, still in sleep. They thought that she must be dead. Swinging a rope over the side a sailor climbed down to the little boat. Kneeling he felt at her neck. Then standing, his feet in water, he looked up to the other sailors gathered around the ship's railings. Even the sea grew still to hear.
"She's alive," the sailor whispered, awe reshaping his words.
A great rolling seasung cheer broke from the gathered sailors.
For three days Harviva lay wrapped in a dim half-sleep in the hospital at Fort-de-France. On the morning of the fourth day after hell had opened its gates she awoke to find a gentle young priest sitting at her bedside. He saw that the dimness had left her eyes at last. They now looked at him bright and clear, filled with a weariness unbearable to look upon. Through a few minutes of murmured talk he told her as softly as he could that all of her family had perished in the eruption. Though he hid it from his eyes he wondered how she took it so well. The priest didn't know then, would never know in a deep way, that he looked on a little girl who'd stood at the gates of hell and lived to tell of it. He thought instead that she might still be in shock. Then she sat up abruptly, a wild bright light burning her eyes.
"Auguste!" she cried.
"Auguste?" the priest asked softly.
"Auguste!" she cried once more. "My friend. He's still in the jail! I have to go back to him. I promised!"
Reaching out the priest took her shaking little hands and rubbed them softly between his own.
"Harviva," he murmured. "You have to hear me, child. The devastation . . . . Nothing escaped. Everyone, the whole town. They're gone, child. Come, we'll say a prayer for your friend Auguste."
"No!" she cried as she snatched away her hands. "The dragon . . . . He liked Auguste. The dragon wouldn't kill him. I have to go back to him. I promised!"
The priest tried other soft words but the little girl wouldn't hear them. At last his heart gave in. She'd lost so much. He would let her hang on to this little shred of belief for as long as she could. The time would come when belief had to die, but must he kill it so soon? So soon after the light came back to her eyes? Stepping outside her room he carried on a hurried murmured talk with the governmental official handling the wounded who'd lived on the edges of the eruption. The harried official, overwhelmed with the wild cries of thirty thousand deaths and the desolation of a town, thought on the little girl who'd outrun the dragon. Against all his training, against all his governmental shaping, his heart too gave in.
A few hours later the priest and the little girl joined two sailors on their way to help with the work at the devastated town. Late that afternoon, just as the day began its long slide into evening, they came at last to the burnt-out cinder, all that remained of the Paris of the West Indies once called home by thirty thousand people.
Standing at what had been the edge of the town Harviva looked on the wracking sight.
Nothing but ragged grey covered the land as far as she could see. The rainforest had disappeared from the mountainside, leaving only a jagged scar from the far side of the moon. The whole town lay in rubble. She couldn't even find the paths of the streets that had been her playground through all the days of her life. Here and there foundations still poked a few inches above the ground to mark the sites of the pretty little houses of St. Pierre but otherwise she saw nothing but heaps of rubble.
With nothing but rubble in her eyes the little girl began to walk through the burnt-out town. With sad eyes the priest and the two sailors followed her. A shattered silence wrapped the shattered place. Sometimes stumbling through rock piles still hot to the touch she felt the belief in her heart begin to falter in the hot wind. The people who'd been free to run from their houses hadn't been able to run from this burning death. How then could a man sealed in a dingy little cell have lived through the wind of hell? Still, she'd promised.
I promised, she told herself as she struggled on through piles of blasted rock and twisted iron.
Little by little, even in the terrible rubbled waste, Harviva began to get her bearings. At last she came to a great heap of rubble that she knew must mark the site of the jail. Nothing remained save blasted rocks tumbled among charred wood and twisted iron. Pushing around the heap she worked her way to the side where the cell had stood. There, slammed by the fist of unbelief, she fell to her knees and gave one sharp little cry.
But I promised, she told herself again.
Pushing upright she walked into the rubbled heap, fell once more to her knees, and began one by one to lift the stones from the pile and heave them away. The two sailors looked helplessly to the priest. With tears in his eyes he just shook his head then made his way to the little girl, smudged now with soot and ash. Reaching down he took her by the shoulders and pulled her upright. He caught his breath to speak the words that would snatch away her last little rag of belief.
Then he heard it.
From far away, so far away that he wasn't sure if he even heard it, came the small lonely cry Harviva. He looked all about the rubbled wastes but saw no one save the two sailors standing with bowed heads. Then he heard it again. Harviva. In that heartbeat the little girl heard it too. In the next heartbeat they both knew that the cry came faint and far away, wavering somewhere beneath their feet. With a wild cry the little girl began to snatch and hurl rocks through the air with all her might. For one wild heartbeat the priest looked to the sky deepening into night. Then he cried out to the sailors.
While one of the sailors struggled through the rubble to the government camp at the edge of the old town, the priest and the other sailor began to heave and jerk and pull at the rockpile. Soon a handful of men came to work at Harviva's side. Through two long hours of heaving and hefting, the priest and the sailors and the little girl hauled away rocks and twisted iron. All the while they never once heard the cry come again. The priest began to fear that he might have imagined it.
Harviva knew better.
At last they'd dug deep enough to uncover the grilled window set into the thick walls of a little cell half-buried in the ground. Using a piece of iron two sailors wrenched the grill from the crumbled mortar. Rising they looked first to the little girl, then to the priest, a question bright in their eyes. After only a heartbeat's thought the priest nodded his head. Together the two sailors took Harviva into their hard hands softened with hope and lowered her through the window into the prison cell. Then one of them took a candle someone handed him, lit it, and passed it in to her.
Stepping softly through the dark she slipped to the side of the man lying still on the floor next to a cot burned nearly to ashes. The candlelight showed a sight that seared her browless little eyes. Auguste lay on his back, his eyes closed. In that heartbeat she thought that he must be dead. His white cotton pants had been burned to cinders. Bits and flakes of the cloth still clung to the blistered festering flesh of his legs. His chest likewise held a bubbled pool of blackened blisters. Through an awesome gift of the dragon's grace, though, his face and neck showed almost no signs of burning. Only his eyebrows and the tips of his curly hair had been singed. She knelt by his side. Outside she could hear the men still clearing away rubble. She reached out but she couldn't bring herself to touch the charred flesh, couldn't even touch the smooth skin of his face. His lovely, lovely face.
Then he opened his eyes.
His look came so quick and sharp that she stumbled back onto the floor, her eyes wide and her breath coming in quick little gasps.
"Well, little sister," he croaked through his parched throat. "You certainly took your time about getting back."
Then she cried.
She reached out to touch him but drew back at the pain her touch would bring him. She babbled nonsense. She cried. She reached out to touch him. She laughed and sang and hugged herself to hug him and cried and stood and danced and fell to her knees and cried and laughed and reached out to touch him.
All the while the sailors dug away at the rubble blocking the cell. At last they scraped open the door. While the priest went to stand by the little girl the sailors brought in a stretcher made of old sailcloth and knelt to ease Auguste onto it. At the first slight jostle he clenched his teeth then told them to stop. He turned to the priest.
"Would you take Harviva away for just a little while?" he asked, his words somehow unbearably soft even through the croak in his throat.
"I won't go!" Harviva cried.
Auguste smiled at her, his smile softer than his words.
"I didn't think you would, little sister. Would you do me this favor then? Go down to the sea and gather the seaspray. I want to feel it on my face."
Harviva started to speak, then all at once she knew the real good that she could do him in this heartbeat wracked from time. Reaching out she took the priest's hand.
"Would you come help me gather the spray?"
The two of them walked to the shore of the sounding sea but still they could hear the wild searing screams of a man wracked with pain greater than anyone could bear. At the seashore little Harviva took off her white cotton blouse and gathered seaspray for the face of her friend.
"Did he think that I wouldn't be strong enough to hold his hand through it?" Harviva asked the priest, her blouse soaking wet with spray.
"It's not your strength at question, child," the priest answered. "He thought that he wouldn't be strong enough to bear the shame in your eyes when he cried out in pain."
"Is it a shameful thing to cry out in pain?"
"Wouldn't you cry out if you touched your hand to the hot skillet?" the priest asked.
For just a heartbeat the little girl laid her head to the side and looked at the sea. Then she raised her gaze to look on the priest.
"Look in my eyes, Father."
"Is there shame there?"
"Will you tell him that?" the little girl asked. "Some day?"
"He'll have to grow much," the priest said, "to hear it as you say it."
"He's only 25," Harviva smiled. "He stands in need of much growing."
Through the long hours and days at the hospital in Fort-de-France Harviva stayed with Auguste. When the stench at last left his flesh and the scars started to pull and wrinkle his once lovely body he began to tell her his tale, more than anything else to take his mind off the terrible itching that crawled over him like a horde of ants.
On the morning of the eruption, after she'd left him, he'd sat in his cell waiting for his breakfast. "Such as it was!" he snapped. Just after breakfast his cell all at once grew dark as midnight then a burning wind blew through the grating of the window, scorching his throat so badly that he held his breath until he thought he would pass out. The cloth of his shirt grew hot to the touch so he ripped it off, only to find that the heat had seared his chest. In that instant his pants flashed on fire and burned away before he could even think to pull them off. Knowing that the end had come he staggered to his fresh bucket of water, all the while begging God for one last drink before he died. He thought that the water would have boiled in the heat but, wonder of wonders, he found it cool to his touch. So he plunged in his head and neck and waited for the end.
At last, unwilling to drown himself and go to God a suicide, he pulled out his head and gulped in air. Though still clogged with ash and heat the air had cooled enough to become breathable, and in a minute the worst of the heat passed.
"So I lay down beside the bucket of water and waited for you to come."
"But how?" she whispered. "How could you know that I would come back?"
"Because you promised, little sister."
"But didn't you . . . didn't you think that I'd died along with everyone else?"
"Of course not," Auguste smiled. "How could I? You yourself told me that the Magdalene wouldn't let the dragon snatch you up on your way to mass. So I waited."
Reaching out she took his hand. Together they watched through the hospital window as the sun sank into the sea, spilling a wild bucket of colors across the rippling waters.
The long hours and days grew into slow months. In time Auguste left off itching and at last he left the hospital. He grew fond of his new stretched and wrinkled body. When tourists asked to see his scars he grinned, took their coins, and pulled off his shirt to show them, but he never again sold his body to the sailors. There were many who still offered him hot coins, for with his clothes on he still had the kind of loveliness that caused people to draw up short in the street. There were even some sailors who knew of his scars and still they jingled the coins in their pockets, driven by strange urges to spend time with a body that had stood in the dragon's breath and lived to tell of it. But always Auguste smiled and said no.
Through the months of his healing the old dragon rumbled a little bit, sneezed a time or two, belched a few times, but the rage had passed. In time the beast settled once more into deep sleep. The grey ash misted into green as the little grasses sprang up to cover the mountainside. Other plants sprouted among the grasses, and the island trees sent their little ones to begin the long slow climb up the slopes of The Mountain. The birds and the beasts, the creatures that crawl and creep, all came back to watch it happen.
Even as it fell asleep, though, the dragon gave one more terrible wonder to the world. Beginning in October of the year of the eruption a great shaft began to rise from the rubble of L'Étang Sec. Nearly 500 feet thick at its base, the shaft reared itself right in front of the eyes of the startled scientists who'd come to study the eruption. Sometimes rising as much as 50 feet in one day, the shaft towered 800 feet above the crater floor by the end of November. Within seven months it had reared itself just over 1,000 feet against the sky. By the time it reached its greatest height it stood taller than any man-made structure on the face of the earth, with a volume greater than that of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. At night a glowing red lacework fluttered around the pillar and often the top burned as though the shaft were a great torch held in the hand of the earth. The people came to call it the Tower of Pelée.
Early in May of the year following the eruption a young Swedish sailor stood on the rim of L'Étang Sec to look on the massive shaft throbbing from the earth. He had no deep religious leanings but in a dim way he felt that he looked on something holy, something made by the earth to mark the little tragedies that sometimes scar her body. From his perch on the crater rim he saw two small shapes making their way across the rubbled floor of the crater. He thought that they must be a father and daughter or a brother and sister come to look on the wonder. He watched them until they drew near the foot of the shaft then smiling softly he turned from the crater and began the long walk down.
Gazing up at the smooth wall of the shaft towering far above her little Harviva reached out and took Auguste's hand. She'd never lost the stillness come to her that terrible day now passing into legend.
"It's so lovely," she whispered.
"That it is, little sister," Auguste answered.
"They say," Harviva whispered. "The scientists, the governor, they say that this is the monument nature herself has raised to all the lost people of St. Pierre."
Turning from the shaft to look down at her Auguste smiled, his short laughing little smile, and his eyes twinkled.
"How they go on!" he snorted as his smile stretched into a grin. "Don't they know a dragon turd when they see one?"
Harviva looked up at him, then she laughed a light little tinkling laugh that skipped around the rim of the crater. The echoes of her little laugh shook loose a small pile of rubble heaped on the edge of the top of the shaft. It fell down the side, pinging and dancing all the way to the crater floor. To the echoes of laughter and the pinging of small rocks the man and the little girl turned from the shaft and began to walk toward the crater rim.
"Will you always love me?"
Auguste stopped and turned to her. Reaching down he took her two little hands into his own.
"Little Harviva," he said softly. "I would tell you that my love for you will last as long as this great tower stands, but that would be a lie."
He saw the quick dropping of her eyes, and he smiled.
"No, little sister. My love for you will outlast even this tower."
She looked up once more, the sunlight bright in her eyes.
"When nothing stands in this crater but a rubble heap recalling its long-ago days as a tower, my love for you will still be in its first fresh days. When The Mountain itself has run down to feed the sand in the sea, my love for you will still be a young boy. When the earth grows still in its long race around the sun, my love for you will only then have grown to a man. Only when the sun quenches its fire and the moon goes to bed will my love for you begin to grow old. When the stars flicker out, then my love for you may find an end. May, I say. Not before."
Harviva took his hand and together they walked on across the crater floor.
"Do you want to gather some mangos for breakfast?"
"Yes, little sister."
And so they went to gather mangos.
In September of that year the great Tower of Pelée collapsed under its own weight but through the time of his life on earth Auguste loved the little girl called Harviva, grown in time to a woman with children of her own. When the time of his life ended he went to wait for her among the dragons that roam the halls of the stars.