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“More drink please,” I request of the waiter to my right. Why not? It’s a party. My little cousin is getting married! Little Anne, oh when we were young we had so many good times. Running through the town, causing a ruckus, and playing hide and seek in the cemetery. I wonder if she remembers the time we almost got caught…
“How’s the bread?” I turn to ask my daughter, Mary, not expecting her to answer. She’s only two. The only words she knows how to say are “mama” and “papa”. I don’t know how she picked up papa. He’s never home! Even tonight, at my cousins wedding, he snuck out to tend to the landlords sheep. But I know I shouldn’t complain. It’s his job that keeps us alive.
Mary looks up at me and laughs. She bangs her tiny fists against the wooden table and sends the pieces of bread that I had carefully ripped apart to the floor.
“Mary!” I pretend to scold. “After we leave here, your poor uncle will have to clean all of those pieces up!” But in truth, I am in too good of a mood to care. The music is playing loudly and the sounds of joyful chatter fill the overcrowded room. Nothing brings people together like a wedding.
Especially in times like these it is nice to have a sense of community. Things have been so hard lately. The crops didn’t come up right in the spring so the whole community has been struggling for food. Once again, I guess I am lucky that I have a husband who works so hard. I just wish I saw him more.
“It looks like it’s time to start dancing,” Anna, the woman to my left, says as she grabs my arm and points. The bride and groom have gotten up from the table and he is leading her to the small strip of a dance floor. The party is in the local tavern. It’s not very big, but it’s the biggest place around. The musicians begin to play a beautiful slow song and all talking stops as everyone claps their hands for the happy couple.
And a happy couple they are. It is easy to see from the way they look at each other how in love they are. My heart almost breaks seeing my cousin smiling so big.
When the song ends there is another round of applause and the music changes. The musicians move off to the side of the room and play a faster song, although it is still beautiful just the same.
“Would you like to dance?” my childhood friend, Gregory, asks me. I am about to say no, that I need to stay with Mary, when Anna broke in.
“Yes she would! I’ll watch the young’un.” Without waiting for a reply she leans over me and picks Mary up. Mary squeals with delight at the attention. Anna sits her down in her lap and Mary instantly makes a grab at the glass in front of her. Laughing, Anna took it away from her before Mary can spill it.
“Are you su--” but before I can finish my sentence Gregory has taken my hand and whisked me up onto the floor. Even as people are getting up, the waiters are in the process of pushing the large wooden table back farther against the wall. The room is now full of standing people, packed tight together.
Periodically throughout the night, I glance over to check on Mary and Anna. They seem to be having a good time and I am thankful for Anna. She is an older woman and has trouble dancing. A few times I go over to see if she would like me to take Mary so she can dance, but every time she refuses and tells me to enjoy myself. I would try harder to persuade her, but I think she likes having Mary as an excuse not to get up. Also, I’m afraid if I push too hard she’ll take my offer. I haven’t had this much fun since the crops went bad and don’t want to stop.
We are about halfway through the night when a screech drowns out the music and laughing. Suddenly, there are more screams and a mad dash toward the door. The musicians stop playing and look at each other in confusion. I had been dancing with my brother Samuel, who is the tallest in the room, and look to him to see what the issue is.
I watch his face as he scans the room. Despite his height advantage, it takes him a few seconds to find the problem. When he does, I see his face go pale. Then right before he screams, I realize what caused the stampede to the door. I smell smoke.
“Fire!” he yells and the few people who, like us, had no idea what was going on, join the dash to the exit. The smoke starts getting heavier but I still can’t see the flames.
“Samuel!” I grab his arm and pull hard before he can begin to run. “Do you see Anna? She has Mary.”
He looks around the room but I know he can’t see anything through the smoke. It has suddenly gotten much thicker, and the air above me has turned a thick black. All I can think about is Anna’s hip problems. What if she can’t move fast enough? What if they are both trampled?
Samuel sees the panic on my face and puts his hands on both of my shoulders. “Listen to me,” he says. “I need you to go outside and check if they are already out there. I will try to find the table and see if they are still there. You were sitting at the end by the door, right? They’re probably already outside.”
I nod and he takes off into the mass. I know that what he told me makes sense, but I can’t bring myself to leave. If they are already outside they are safe and I’ll see them later. But if I find out they’re inside, it might be too late by the time I realize that.
I follow Samuel into the mass of bodies.
“Mary! Anna!” I try to scream out of the roaring noises of fire. Behind me I hear a beam break and part of the roof comes down. The air is hot and I feel my body overheating. But I can’t leave until I find my daughter.
“Mary!” I scream again when I make it to the table. Smoke is invading my lungs and I’m having trouble breathing. “Mary!” I throw discarded chairs aside and throw my arms out. I can’t see more than two feet in front of me. I wonder where Samuel is.
“Mama!” Somehow, I hear the hoarse cry.
“Mary!” I scream again and move toward the sound of the cry. I hear Mary cry out again, this time closer. I take one final lunge forward and literally stumble into Mary who is sitting on the floor next to an unconscious Anna.
“Sarah!” I hear Samuel’s voice ring out.
“Here!” I yell to him and pick Mary up into my arms. Her body is shaking with tears and her dress is stained black. By now the smoke is almost too thick for me to breath and I have to get down on the floor.
Suddenly Samuel is standing behind me.
“Sarah, I told you to go outside!”
“Just help me get them out!” Samuel picks up Anna’s limp body and motion toward the door. I take one final breath of somewhat clean air and stand up, clutching Mary to my chest. I run as fast as I can to the door, stumbling but never quite falling. I know that the flames are moving fast behind me and if I fall I might never get up.
Just when all hope seems to be lost, I see a faint light up ahead. I’m not sure that I can make it. I am beginning to get light headed from lack of air in the room. I feel my legs start slowing down. I need air. Mary grabs onto me tighter and I get one final burst of energy. I reach the light and am out through the door, Mary crying in my arms.
I hand Mary off and collapse on the ground. I’m dimly aware as someone picks me up and moves me farther away from the burning building.