This is from the slightly-copyedited, not-final version of the text. Any errors are mine!
chapter one: you, at the end
You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember? The woman whose son is dead.
You’re an orogene who’s been living in the little nothing town of Tirimo for ten years. Only three people here know what you are, and two of them you gave birth to.
Well. One, now.
Before this, you lived as ordinary a life as possible. You’re a teacher at the local creche for children aged ten to thirteen. You’re neither the best teacher nor the worst; the children forget you when they move on, but they learn. The butcher probably knows your name because she likes to flirt with you. The baker doesn’t because you’re quiet, and because like everyone else in town he thinks of you as Jija’s outcomm wife. Jija’s a Tirimo man born and bred, a stoneknapper of the Resistant use-caste; everyone knows and likes him, so they like you peripherally. He’s the foreground of the painting that is your life together. You’re the background. You’ve worked hard to make it that way.
You’re the mother of two children. But now one of them is dead and the other is missing. Maybe she’s dead too. You discover all of this when you come home from work one day. House empty, too quiet, tiny little boy all bloody and bruised on the den floor.
And you… shut down. You don’t mean to. It’s just… a bit much, isn’t it? Too much. You’ve been through a lot, you’re very strong, but there are limits to what even you can bear.
Two days pass before anyone comes for you.
You’ve spent them in the house with your dead son. You’ve risen, used the toilet, eaten something from the coldvault, drunk the last trickle of water from the tap. These things you could do without thinking, by rote. Afterward, you returned to Uche’s side.
(You fetched him a blanket during one of these trips. Covered him up to his ruined chin. Habit. The steampipes have stopped rattling; it’s cold in the house. He could catch something.)
Late the next day, someone knocks at the house’s front door. You do not stir yourself to answer it. That would require you to wonder who is there and whether you should let them in. Thinking of these things would make you consider your son’s corpse under the blanket, and why would you want to do that? You ignore the door-knock.
Someone bangs at the window in the front room. Persistent. You ignore this too.
Finally, someone breaks the glass on the house’s back door. You hears footsteps in the hallway between Uche’s room and that of Nassun, your daughter.
(Nassun, your daughter.)
The footsteps reach the den and stop. “Essun?”
You know this voice. Young, male. Familiar, and soothing in a familiar way. Lerna, Makenba’s boy from down the road, who went away for a few years and came back a doctor. He’s not a boy anymore, hasn’t been for awhile, so you remind yourself to start thinking of him as a man. Again.
Oops, thinking. Carefully, you stop.
He inhales, and your skin reverberates with his horror when he draws near enough to see Uche. Remarkably, he does not cry out, but then he’s quiet, too, like you. Nor does he touch you, though he moves to Uche’s other side and peers at you intently. Trying to see what’s going on inside you? Nothing, nothing. He then peels back the blanket for a good look at Uche’s body. Nothing, nothing. He pulls the blanket up again, this time over your son’s face.
“He doesn’t like that,” you say. It’s your first time speaking in two days. Feels strange. “He’s afraid of the dark.”
After a moment’s silence, Lerna pulls the sheet back down to just below Uche’s eyes.
“Thank you,” you say.
Lerna nods. “Have you slept?”
So Lerna comes around the body and takes your arm, drawing you up. He’s gentle, but his hands are firm, and he does not give up when at first you don’t move. Just exerts more pressure, inexorably, until you have to rise or fall over. He leaves you that much choice. You rise. Then with the same gentle firmness he guides you toward the front door. “You can rest at my place,” he says.
You don’t want to think, so you do not protest that you have your own perfectly good bed thank you. Nor do you declare that you’re fine and don’t need his help, which isn’t true anyway. He walks you outside and down the block, keeping a grip on your elbow the whole time. A few others are gathered on the street outside. Some of them come near the two of you, saying things to which Lerna replies; you don’t really hear any of it. Their voices are blurring noise that your mind doesn’t bother to interpret. Lerna speaks to them in your stead, for which you would be grateful if you could bring yourself to care.
He gets you to his house, which smells of herbs and chemicals and books, and he tucks you into a long bed that has a fat gray cat on it. The cat moves out of the way enough to allow you to lie down, then tucks itself against your side once you’re still. You would take comfort from this if the warmth and weight did not remind you a little of Uche, when he naps with you.
Napped with you. No, changing tense requires thought. Naps.
“Sleep,” Lerna says, and it is easy to comply.
You sleep a long time. At one point you wake. Lerna has put food on a tray beside the bed: clear broth and sliced fruit and a cup of tea, all long gone to room temperature. You eat and drink, then go into the bathroom to urinate. The toilet does not flush. There’s a bucket beside it, full of water, which Lerna must have put there for this purpose. You puzzle over this, then feel the imminence of thought and have to fight, fight, fight to stay in the soft warm silence of thoughtlessness. You pour some water down the toilet, put the lid back down, and go back to bed.
In the dream, you’re in the room while Jija does it. He and Uche are as you saw them last: Jija laughing, holding Uche on one knee and playing “earthshake” while the boy giggles and clamps down with his thighs and waggles his arms for balance. Then Jija suddenly stops laughing, stands up — throwing Uche to the floor — and begins kicking him. You know this is not how it happened. You’ve seen the imprint of Jija’s fist, a bruise with four parallel marks, on Uche’s belly and face. In the dream Jija kicks, because dreams are not logical.
Uche keeps laughing and waggling his arms, like it’s still a game, even as blood covers his face.
You wake screaming, which subsides into sobs that you cannot stop. Lerna comes in, tries to say something, tries to hold you (at the constriction you flail and he stops, looking at you oddly), and finally makes you drink a strong, foul-tasting tea. You sleep again.
“Something happened up north,” Lerna tells you.
You sit on the edge of the bed. He’s in a chair across from you. You’re drinking more nasty tea; your head hurts worse than a hangover. It’s night-time, but the room is dim. Lerna has lit only half the lanterns. For the first time you notice the strange smell in the air, not quite disguised by the lanternsmoke: sulfur, sharp and acrid. The smell has been there all day, growing gradually worse. It’s strongest when Lerna’s been outside.
“The road outside town has been clogged for two days with people coming from that direction.” Lerna sighs and rubs his face. He’s fifteen years younger than you, but he no longer looks it. He has natural gray hair like many Cebaki, but it’s the new lines in his face that make him seem older — those, and the new shadows in his eyes. “There’s been some kind of shake. A big one, a couple of days ago. We felt nothing here, but in Sume — ” Sume is in the next valley over, a day’s ride on horseback. “The whole town is…” He shakes his head.
You nod, but you know all this without being told, or at least you can guess. Two days ago, as you sat in your den staring at the ruin of your child, something came toward the town: a convulsion of the earth so powerful you have never sessed its like. The word “shake” is inadequate. Whatever-it-was would have collapsed the house on Uche, so you put something in its way — a breakwater of sorts, comprised of your focused will and a bit of kinetic energy borrowed from the thing itself. Doing this required no thought; a newborn could do it. The shake split and flowed around the valley, then moved on.
Lerna licks his lips. Looks up at you, then away. He’s the other one, besides your children, who knows what you are. He’s known for awhile, but this is the first time he’s been confronted by the actuality of it. You can’t really think about that, either.
“Rask isn’t letting anyone leave or come in.” Rask is Rask Innovator Tirimo, the town’s elected headman. “It’s not a full-on lockdown, he says, not yet, but I was going to head over to Sume, see if I could help. Rask said no, and then he set the damn miners on the wall to supplement the Strongbacks while we send out scouts. Told them specifically to keep me within the gates.” Lerna clenches his fists, his expression bitter. “There are people out there on the Imperial Road. A lot of them are sick, injured, and that rusty bastard won’t let me help.”
“First guard the gates,” you whisper. It is a rasp. You screamed a lot after that dream of Jija.
You sip more tea to soothe the soreness. “Stonelore.”
Lerna stares at you. He knows the same passages; all children learn them, in creche. Everyone grows up on campfire tales of wise lorists and clever geomests warning skeptics when the signs begin to show, not being heeded, and saving people when the lore proves true.
“You think it’s come to that, then,” he says, heavily. “Fire-under-earth, Essun, you can’t be serious.”
You are serious. It has come to that. But you know he will not believe you if you try to explain, so you just shake your head.
A painful, stagnating silence falls. After a long moment, delicately, Lerna says, “I brought Uche back here. He’s in the infirmary, the, uh, in the coldcase. I’ll see to, uh… arrangements.”
You nod slowly.
He hesitates. “Was it Jija?”
You nod again.
“You, you saw him — ”
“Came home from creche.”
“Oh.” Another awkward pause. “People said you’d missed a day, before the shake. They had to send the children home; couldn’t find a substitute. No one knew if you were home sick, or what.” Yes, well. You’ve probably been fired. Lerna takes a deep breath, lets it out. With that as forewarning, you’re almost ready. “The shake didn’t hit us, Essun. It passed around the town. Shivered over a few trees and crumbled a rock-face up by the creek.” The creek is at the northernmost end of the valley, where no one has noticed a giant chalcedony geode steaming. “Everything in and around town is fine, though. In almost a perfect circle. Fine.”
There was a time when you would have dissembled. You had reasons to hide then, a life to protect.
“I did it,” you say.
Lerna’s jaw flexes, but he nods. “I never told anyone.” He hesitates. “That you were… uh, orogenic.”
He’s so polite and proper. You’ve heard all the uglier terms for what you are. He has, too, but he would never say them. Neither would Jija, whenever someone tossed off a careless rogga around him. I don’t want the children to hear that kind of language, he always said —
It hits fast. You abruptly lean over and dry-heave. Lerna starts, jumping to grab something nearby — a bedpan, which you haven’t needed. But nothing comes out of your stomach, and after a moment the heaves stop. You take a cautious breath, then another. Wordlessly, Lerna offers a glass of water. You start to wave it away, then change your mind and take it. You sip. Your mouth tastes of bile.
“It wasn’t me,” you say at last. He frowns in confusion and you realize he thinks you’re still talking about the shake. “Jija. He didn’t find out about me.” You think. You shouldn’t think. “I don’t know how, what, but Uche — He’s little, doesn’t have much control yet. Uche must have done something, and Jija realized — ”
That your children are like you. It is the first time you’ve framed this thought completely.
Lerna closes his eyes, letting out a long breath. “That’s it, then.”
That’s not it. That should never have been enough to provoke a father to murder his own child. Nothing should have done that.
He licks his lips. “Do you want to see Uche?”
What for? You looked at him for two days. “No.”
With a sigh, Lerna gets to his feet, still rubbing a hand over his hair. “Going to tell Rask?” you ask. But the look Lerna turns on you makes you feel boorish. He’s angry. He’s such a placid, thoughtful boy; you didn’t think he could get angry.
“I’m not going to tell Rask anything,” he snaps. “I haven’t said anything in all this time and I’m not going to.”
“Then what — ”
“I’m going to go find Eran.” Eran is the spokeswoman for the Resistant use-caste. Lerna was born a Strongback, but when he came back to Tirimo after becoming a doctor, the Resistants adopted him; the town had too many Strongbacks already, and doctors are especially valued. Also, you’ve claimed to be a Resistant. “I’ll let her know you’re all right, have her pass that on to Rask. You are going to rest.”
“When she asks you why Jija — ”
Lerna shakes his head. “Everyone’s guessed already, Essun. They can read maps. It’s clear as diamond that the center of the circle was this neighborhood. Knowing what Jija did, it hasn’t been hard for anyone to jump to conclusions as to why. The timing’s all wrong, but nobody’s thinking that far.” While you stare at him, slowly understanding, Lerna’s lip curls. “Half of them are appalled, but the rest are glad Jija did it. Because of course a three-year-old has the power to start shakes a thousand miles away in Yumenes!”
You shake your head, half startled by Lerna’s anger and half unable to reconcile your bright, giggly boy with people who think he would — that he could —
But then, Jija thought it.
You feel queasy again.
Lerna takes a deep breath again. He’s been doing this throughout your conversation; it’s a habit of his that you’ve seen before. His way of calming himself. “Stay here and rest. I’ll be back soon.”
He leaves the room. You hear him doing purposeful-sounding things at the front of the house. After a few moments, he leaves to go to this meeting. You contemplate rest and decide against it. Instead you rise and go into Lerna’s bathroom, where you wash your face and then stop when the hot water coming through the tap spits and abruptly turns brown-red and smelly, then slows to a trickle.
Something happened up north, Lerna said.
Children are the undoing of us, someone said to you once, long ago.
“Nassun,” you whisper to your reflection. In the mirror are the eyes your daughter has inherited from you, gray as slate and a little wistful. “He left Uche in the den. Where did he put you?”
No answer. You shut off the tap. Then you whisper to no one in particular, “I have to go now.” Because you do. You need to find Jija, and anyway you know better than to linger. The townsfolk will be coming for you soon.
The shake that passes will echo. The wave that recedes will come back. The mountain that rumbles will roar.
–Tablet One, “On Survival,” Verse Five