Harrieta looked down upon her hands in horror and screamed. Her hands were mottled with red splotches and her skin had become wrinkled. Her hands had aged many years beyond her time.
“No, it cannot be,” she told herself, wanting to deny what she so plainly saw. Her heart raced and her mind emptied as she began to panic. In a flash, smoke appeared before her and the furious cackling of flames filled the air, mocking her, laughing at her inevitable fate. Afraid, she ran to the door, fumbling with the latch as she tried to escape. After what seemed like an eternity, the door opened. She hurried outside, almost running into her husband. She looked about and saw that her husband was not alone. Six other figures joined him on the street; all, including her husband, were clad in full armour, and each wearing a bandanna over their mouths and noses. A sense of dread filled Harrieta.
“What’s the matter, Rie?”
“What do you mean? Are you blind?” she demanded, her dread replaced by confusion, then replaced by anger, “Why aren’t you doing anything? Our house is burning down!”
Angry that they all appeared apathetic tot he conflagration that had engulfed her home and threatened the neighbouring houses, she moved to grab her husband’s hand, trying to force him to do something, anything, to save the memories that were quickly becoming ash and smoke. Her husband to a panicked step back. Shocked and hurt, she stopped. Had everyone gone mad? She turned around, hoping to catch the last glimpse of her former home.
Indeed, as she turned around, she did catch a glimpse of her house, Before her stood her house, whole and unharmed. There was no smoke, no fire, no evidence at all that the house had been aflame. Confused, she approached the house cautiously, expecting at any moment for the house to become that ball of fire that the was sure it must be. She turned to her husband and his colleagues. She now, once again, took in their appearance. Fear precipitated upon her bones, and breathing became difficult as she realized the significance of their attire. She stuffed her hands in her pockets and approached her husband.
“Honey,” she whispered, “why are you here?”
She received no response.
“Silly me, I saw a spark leap from the hearth and I panicked.” she laughed nervously, “You know how it is, after being cooped up all winter your mind begins to play tricks on you.”
No one moved. No one spoke.
“I’d um…better get back or there’ll be no food tonight.” she said, and added with a wink, “My husband gets grumpy when there’s no food on the table when he returns.”
She turned to re-enter the house.
“Rie, we heard a scream.”
“Of course dear, I thought the house was burning down. I don’t really know what came over me, perhaps I was too close to the hearth, breathed in too much smoke. Don’t worry, I’m alright now.” she continued to walk to her house, each step seeming to take aeons. Dread and hope warred within her. Hope that grew with each step. Fear that they would call her back, calling her bluff.
“Rie, Turn around and show us your hands.”
Sweat rolled down her forehead. Panic started to engulf her. She licked her lips. Thoughts were racing through her mind, a myriad of excuses and explanations flitted by, most too incredulous to be used. Finally, she settled on one, one that she herself began to believe.
“I was just washing our clothes. You know how the lye gives me a rash. It’s really nothing. Nothing that requires your attention.”
A murmur passed through the crowd. They looked at one another, some in hope, and some in incredulity. Tension mounted as she continued to walk to the cottage, keeping her hand in her pockets.
“Rie, please don’t make this any harder than necessary.” he said, his voice sounding pinched, “Just show us your hands.”
Henrietta turned to her accusers. Each one of them had known her for years, for most of their lives. She had grown up with many of them, played with, laughed with, cried with and flirted with them. She had even married one of them. Now, none of them had the courage to look her in the eye. As she scanned the men before her, one by one, they averted their gaze. Angry at what they were implying and terrified that they were right, she jerked her hands out of her pockets and held them out before them. She shook in anticipation.
Her husband approached her. He stuck his spear into the ground and took her hand in his gauntlet. He brought her hand towards his face for closer inspection. For a long moment he stared at her hands, turning them over, scanning them, and then turning them over once more. The silence continued to drag, only to be broken by te occasional stirrings of the wind. the tension in the air almost became palpable. He released her hands. She waited, anxious to hear the result of his examination.
“It is not the Old Mountain.” he pronounced, “Go on Rie, you can leave no. I’m sorry.”
Henrietta blinked away tears she had not known were forming and breathed a sigh of relief. She was well! The fear and dread and all the other emotions that had been weighing upon her disappeared. The Old Mountain was a terrible illness. The plague had swept across the ranges and created its own mountains. Mountains of corpses, of victims. Those who contracted the mysterious illness seemed to age preternaturally and soon died. There was no cure, no hope for victims of the sickness. Old Mountain was not the only tragedy to strike the land. The crops too had failed all across the mountain ranges and many had died of hunger. Some said that the gods had abandoned the mountains. She shrugged, what the gods did or did not do was in the realm of the priesthood. She was but a homemaker and these suppositions had naught to do with her. She walked back into her home, allowing the relief to settle in.
“I’m so sorry.” she heard. Pain flowered in the back of her head and the hallway dimmed, then blinked into darkness.
She awoke tired and groggy. She looked around herself and, for a fleeting moment, wondered why she was sleeping on the floor. Dismissing this odd occurrence, she focused on what she was hearing. All around her was the sound of hammers hitting nails. She rose and looked around once more. She found that the house was dark, barely illuminated. After lighting a candle she went to investigate and found her husband’s gauntlets laying upon the floor. She picked them up and placed them on the table. She went from room to room but could not find her mysterious carpenters. Afraid and confused, she went to her bedroom.
All of a sudden, the hammering stopped, which was all well and good because the pounding in Henreietta’s head was painful enough on its own. She approached her bedroom, ready to give her husband a drubbing for allowing her to sleep on the floor, and leaving his gauntlets upon the floor as well as her ordeal earlier that day. He should have returned well before midnight and carried her back to bed. She opened the room door and found that, despite the late hour, her husband had not yet returned, to his good fortune.
There was something wrong about the room. Henrietta could not place it. All the drawers were in place and the bed was made. All the laundry was done and placed in her closet. All things seemed to be in the right place and order, and yet there was still something eerie about the room. She wondered when her husband would be back; he was seldom tardy, especially coming home from work. As she pondered what could be keeping him, she realized what was wrong. There was no moonlight coming from the window. She had asked him put in a window in the bedroom so that she could gaze upon the moon as she was wont to do. He had given her the window as gift, in memoriam of their first kiss. She rushed over to the window and flung open the curtains. There she came face-to-face with a board of wood. Her windows had been boarded up.
Understanding was quick to come to her. She realized what had happened and she cursed. She her husband for his cruelty, the gods for the unfairness of it all and cursed herself for her stupidity. He had said that it was not the Old Mountain. He had said it but he had not removed his mask, nor his gauntlets. She’d been the only one of the eight to breath a sigh of relief. His gloves! They were proof that he had been home. She felt so foolish, so betrayed. She began to weep.
Smoke wafted into the air and the room began to glow orange. For a moment, she thought she had been caught in another illusion, another crazy idea her mind made up. This time, though, the arid smoke burned her eyes and lungs. She fell to the ground choking on the poisoned air. Above her an ocean of flame consumed the ceiling, its waves raining down firey destruction upon the room. The flames surrounded her, blocking her exit. Inching closer and closer, her hair and clothes caught fire.
She began to scream.