One thinks of fire as quiet, as the silent flicker of a candle or gas lamp flame, or the soft crackle of a fireplace, but it’s not really. Fire roars like a hell spawned beast. It screams and rages and drowns out all sound except for its monstrous destruction. I heard nothing but the fire, not the cries of those trapped, not the shouting of those trying to help, not the crashing of burning curtains and walls coming down, though I knew in my panicked mind that those sounds must be there.
But it was only the fire…and the smoke. There was so much smoke. And the stinging tears from coughing that blinded me were starting to dry though the coughing was getting worse. I thought briefly that this could not be a good sign. God, I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. Some blind instinct was pulling me forward through passages that were once as familiar as my own face and were now as foreign as a new world, Over rubble and debris and, oh dear Heaven, was that a body? God help them. I pushed on, moving forward blindly. Past me shapes moved screaming about a murderer. I stopped and started after them. No, no! But they were running back into the flames, I couldn’t follow. Not if I wanted to live. I allowed a brief flicker of thought about how nice it must be to just lay down and give up and be past all such concerns as living, but survival took over. Enough of that nonsense, it said, I did want to live. I desperately wanted to live! Tears were coming back, tears of frustration, and fear, and awful, wretched anger at the betrayal that had brought down this great Opera House and all within it. Damn. Damn!!! A flash of memory came unbidden: the snow, cool and fresh against my cheek. I had followed him up to the roof and watched unseen as he watched unseen. Almost, almost I had gone to him when I heard his cries, until his cries turned to rage and I shrank away afraid the rage would be turned against me. Instead it had been turned against this entire great institution.
With a frustrated croak, I turned back and retraced my steps, away from the fire, away from the vigilantes, away from all that futile longing. Damn! I moved, with one hand against the wall for the air was getting perilously thin here and I was beginning to feel quite dizzy, down towards what I thought was the back of the Opera House by the stables. Another thirty feet and I stumbled against someone staggering in the hallway; a young woman, younger than myself, a ballerina, disoriented and blind. She was going down, she would not get out on her own, I knew. I could not just leave her. I grabbed her under her arms, screamed at her to get up, get up, damn you!! And stumbled forward, dragging her along. Here at last was something I recognized; the door to the kitchens, far away from the blazing center of the fire. Maybe there would be an escape through there.
I pushed open the door, and slid in, pushing the young dancer ahead of me. There was smoke, how could there not be, but it was not as heavy here and I was able to stand mostly upright and see through the haze. The room was empty. There, across the great wooden table, the door to the back courtyard and middens and from there, the street. How could there be no one else here? Or maybe the kitchen help had all fled already. We went. Out into the courtyard, the grey cobbles reflecting the rust colored hell that was the burning of the Palais Garnier, and now I could at last hear other sounds. The screaming horses in the stables, the shouts of grooms, trying to lead the panicked beasts out and away, alarm bells, shouting crowds. How many had died? How many would still? How many friends would I never see again?
The dancer, enough air finally getting into her body to help her regain her senses, pulled away from me and without any notice of me, began to run. I ran too, but away from her. I kept running…past the stables, past the brigades, past the onlookers. I ran and ran and in my mind was one thought: did he yet live?