For Sandra.A SINGULAR AND EXTRAORDINARY BODY
La la love
“Another of those singular and extraordinary bodies has made its appearance within view of our globe… Those who may have the necessary apparatus, and the ability to use them, are respectfully advised of this opportunity for adding to the stock of astronomical knowledge, by ascertaining the elements of the orbit of this aerial visitor, and making such other observations and calculations as its appearance and short stay within our view will admit of.”
The Chillicothe Gazette
, June 5th,1811
“It was midnight on the first of October, 1811, that the
dropped anchor opposite the town… The roar of the escaping steam, then heard for the first time at the place where, now, its echoes are unceasing, roused the population, and, late as it was, crowds came rushing to the bank of the river to learn the cause of the unwonted uproar. A letter now before me, written by one of those on board, at the time, records the fact that there were those who insisted that the comet of 1811 had fallen into the Ohio and had produced the hubbub!”
The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters
Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, 1871
“We have been very much alarmed by a repetition of earthquakes since the morning of the 16th of Dec…. Various conjectures have arisen in the minds of our readers philosophers as to the causes that may have produced them. Some suppose they are occasioned by a volcanic eruption, others seem to think they were produced by the comet's near approach to the earth. There are, however, a few who are of a differing opinion and ascribe it to electricity alone. The latter opinion I have adopted.”
Letter from Robert Morrison, Esq., of Kaskaskia, Illinois
, February 22nd, 1812
“The great scale upon which Nature is operating should be a solemn admonition… at such momentous periods when Nature appears, in spasmodic fury, [to] no longer tolerate the moral turpitude of man.”
, December 27th, 1811
THE YEAR OF THE FIRE HORSESAN FRANCISCO
APRIL 18, 1906
“Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed.
San Francisco is gone.”
The Story of an Eyewitness
, by Jack London
, May 5th, 1906
Fire, and smoke, and the end of the world.
Buildings shook and buildings fell as the city convulsed, the very earth beneath it caught in a terrible spasm. Solid rock, permanent, forever, moved like water as one tectonic plate shifted, just so, for precisely thirty seconds, one side sheering against the other, as something moved far, far, far below.
And death, and pain; punishment from the gods perhaps for the greed of the city, for what the people had dared wrench from the ground, the hills, the rivers. The gold rush had been a boon, the
of a whole region, transforming nature to industry and birthing the city of San Francisco.
And perhaps, as the miners and the prospectors had delved deeper and deeper, blasting and digging and blasting again, perhaps they had disturbed something. Something dormant. Something… asleep.
Perhaps it wasn’t an earthquake at all.
Robert ran, his feet bare and bleeding as he trod on broken glass and shattered stone and splintered wood. He ran, ignoring the pain he knew was only temporary, knowing that once he had a chance to slow down and to focus his injuries would no longer be a problem. But for now, he had to run, into the city, into the devastation, to where people needed him. And they needed him, all of them, the whole city. The earthquake had been just the start. The worst came after, Robert knew, and he knew that it had started already.
The earth had moved, cracking San Francisco into a million pieces. If that was all there was then perhaps the city could recover, given time. If that was all there was.
Robert reached the crest of California Street. On his right, houses and shops were missing their frontages, reduced to a collection of stacked, open boxes, brick and stone spilling out across the street in great triangular piles that looked somehow organized, arranged. He glanced up and saw a bathtub in the upper grid of the building nearest, and in the next cubicle a heavy sideboard of dark wood hung over the edge, one door swinging open. The story below, a table and a gramophone, the machine’s horn lying funnel-down on the floor, the edge of a rug flapping in the morning breeze.
On his left, the buildings were intact, or appeared to be, until Robert noticed there was nothing left that was perpendicular, every upright now an angle, all pointing down the hill, toward the city proper.
“Sweet mother of God.”
Robert turned at the voice, thinking perhaps someone was talking about him – bloody, barefoot, shirtless, his blue jeans now dry but his long blond hair still salty and crisp from the ocean. On any other day he imagined he might be arrested on a vagrancy charge, locked away for a spell with others on whom hard times had also fallen ever since the gold had become harder and harder to steal from the ground.
But not today. Today, Robert was one of many battered and bruised. All down the street, people stood and stared, or sat on the piles of rubble and talked and sobbed. People in suits and hats, some immaculate, having come to this vantage point to bear witness the wrath of God. Others were monochromatic, shadows of gray and black, covered head to foot in dust. So much dust. On some, the thick gray coating was splashed with blood, dark and thick. Some of the bleeding were standing, some sitting. A lot more were lying in the street and not moving, some only half-visible underneath the piles of rubble.
Below, down the steep slope of the street, lay the city: broken and ruptured, equal parts buildings standing proud and tall and a jagged, low landscape of destruction. In the center smoke rose – black, almost a solid curling mass, like the earthquake had opened a shaft straight down, through the crust, to hell itself.
Robert rolled his neck and lifted first one foot, then another, taking the moment’s pause to focus, to reach out to the world and feel it.
And then, a new arrival.
The man waved his hat in one hand as he heaved himself up the street, shouting, calling out to anyone who would listen. The people around Robert stirred at his approach, their voices growing in a steady murmur as they turned to their companions. The man had come from the city center and was bringing news, clearly. Although not any that made much sense. Robert watched as word spread from farther down the street as the shouting man passed. Some of the onlookers were confused, some frightened, some even amused. Robert had a bad, bad feeling about the information the man brought.
“Dynamite!” the man shouted as he reached the crest of the hill. Then he turned and stretched his arms out, like a preacher conducting a sermon. The crowd moved toward him, and Robert stepped back, down the street, letting people past. They all ignored him, even shirtless and bloody, but it was well not to draw too much attention, not yet.
“Dynamite!” the man shouted again, and this time the crowd was more vocal in their response. –They’re using dynamite! They’re going to blow up parts of the city, whole streets!”
Robert gasped in surprise, along with the rest. Then he turned and ran down the hill, his ruined feet healed, as he headed deeper into the city.
It was the gas mains. The earthquake had ruptured thirty or more, releasing gas from a hundred thousand pipeline fractures to collect, unimpeded, in the ruined buildings. The first fire had started almost immediately, then another, then another, eventually all coming together into one great blaze. San Francisco had been ruined by the earthquake, and now those ruins were being razed by fire.
Robert ran on, the devastation more awful the closer he got to the wall of fire that bisected San Francisco, moving with devilish speed from one side of the city to the other. Up on the hills, people had stopped to watch, feeling safe perhaps but unwilling to venture any closer.
But here, down in the city proper, it was chaos – people running, shouting, crying. People bleeding and screaming and dying. Even as Robert ran on, the city shook again, a sharp jolt that felt as if the world were trying to flick San Francisco from its surface like dust from a rug. The aftershock lasted only a second, but threw Robert off his feet. He fell forward onto his hands, skinning the palm of one, a shard of glass embedding itself an inch into the fleshy pad above his thumb on the other. Robert cried out and rolled into his back, more glass and rubble cutting into him in a geometry of pain.
“Help me, please. Somebody, help me!”
Robert sat up and glanced around, wincing. The voice was weak, coming from a towering collection of brick and stone that had once been a building – offices, he thought, or maybe a bank; if only he could work out where exactly he was.
“Help me… somebody.”
The voice spoke the words almost without emotion, or hope. It was a woman, a victim trapped but alive. She would be dead soon, Robert could sense it. The city was filled with death on a scale that he hadn’t sensed for a long, long time.
Death on a scale he hadn’t
in a long, long time. And despite himself, he let the flavor infuse him for just a moment. It gave him strength. Power.
Robert raised his injured hand and pulled out the shard of glass. The two sides of the wound slicked together, the sensation oily and nauseating. Robert gasped. It hurt. It all hurt, his hand, his back, his feet. That was part of the arrangement. Injure him enough and he would suffer beyond all reckoning, but he didn’t think he could die, not really. Even if his body was destroyed utterly, he knew he could come back. He didn’t remember what that felt like, although he knew he must have experienced it at least once. That was why he was here, after all.
“Help me, please. Help me.”
Wrist healed, back healed, Robert scrambled to his feet. Brushing his hair from his face, he edged forward toward the rubble, toward the voice.
There. In a gap, an angle of black formed by fallen masonry, he could see something moving and something shining wetly in the morning sun. A pair of eyes.
“Help me. I’m over here!”
Robert glanced around. This street was quiet, although there was plenty of traffic at the intersections ahead and behind. Most people were too preoccupied helping others to notice the tall man with long hair wearing nothing but a pair of blue jeans, his torso naked and shining in the morning sun. Too preoccupied to notice.
He had to help. Had to.
Robert turned to the pile of rubble and slid his fingers beneath the largest single piece, a slab the size of a mail carriage, at the very least. Then he lifted. It was heavy – more than a ton, maybe even two or three, he wasn’t sure. Robert lifted it with the tips of his fingers and then when it was high enough shifted his hands underneath it so he could push with his palms. He stretched up, until the slab was balanced along its furthest edge, and, with a small push, Robert flipped it back. The slab hit the ground with a dull thud and split into two, shaking the street.
Robert froze, then looked over his shoulder. Two men were running fast toward him, one with a bowler hat jammed on tight, the other man bareheaded and one sleeve of his jacket nearly torn off, his trousers ragged at the knees.
Had They seen? Robert wasn’t sure. And what if They had? Today was a day like no other. Surely it would be permitted. Even
wouldn’t be able to stand by and let the city die.
“Here!” said the man in the hat as he arrived with his companion. He immediately bent over and grabbed another, smaller slab, his friend in the torn suit giving a hand. Neither of them said anything further to Robert, the man in the hat, his face red, his cheeks two balloons as he heaved at the block, just nodding at Robert to indicate they were ready.