Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Read an excerpt of "Island on Fire"


Monday, April 21st, 1902
St. Pierre, Martinique

In a Creole plantation house nestled under a grove of tamarind trees, Emilie Dujon trained her binoculars on the summit of Mount Pelée, her eyes widening in surprise. She could clearly see smoke and steam rising from the lower crater. It grew in size and curled outward, like an enormous gray mushroom, before blowing leeward over Saint-Pierre, filling the air with the ominous scent of rotten eggs.
She lowered the binoculars and scanned the mountain for several minutes, feeling a clenching pain in her gut. She had been watching these occurrences almost daily, and now they were becoming more frequent, and by the looks of things, more serious. Her heart pounded in her chest. For years the experts had claimed Pelée was extinct. But if that was the case, where was all the smoke and ash coming from?
She wrote her findings down in a notebook and sat down in front of her vanity mirror to brush her hair and reflect on what she had just seen. A young woman of eighteen with chestnut hair, amber eyes, and a grave but lovely face, Emilie was by nature very observant. Patient, observant, and reflective. She loved to study the world around her and uncover its mysteries. But when it came to the volcano she was stumped. Nobody seemed to have any answers.

At least tonight was supposed to be a happy occasion, a chance to forget her worries and enjoy herself. Her fiancé, Lucien Monplaisir, was taking her to a gala performance of La fille du régiment at the theater in Saint-Pierre and she was thrilled. It was a dream come true. Normally Lucien had no patience for cultural events, but he was making the sacrifice just for her. She smiled, thinking how strange and wonderful it was to be in love. Look what it had done to Lucien!

As their carriage rolled into Saint-Pierre, music and laughter filled the air. It was the end of the sugar harvest, time for celebration and revelry. The air was crisp and smelling faintly of the sea. The stars lit up the heavens, and the moon shone resplendent over the bay where schooners and steamers lulled gently in the breeze. The strains of biguine music could be heard echoing from the cabarets and dance halls, and the odor of piquant Creole cooking wafted from the cafés that lined the harbor. The Little Paris of the West Indies was in her usual high spirits.

At eight o’clock spectators began streaming into the hall in top hats and tails, and long muslin gowns and matching turbans knotted in the distinct Martinique fashion. Emilie was brimming with excitement. She hadn’t been to the theater in years, not since her father’s plantation “Domaine Solitude” started to lose money. While the musicians warmed up their instruments, a murmur of anticipation rose up from the audience to the private box seat where Emilie sat with Lucien and his younger sister, Violette.

She smoothed out her muslin gown and gazed at her surroundings. The concert hall was even more splendid than she remembered. It shimmered like a golden Fabergé egg. The chandelier glowed, spreading warm light over the frescoes that adorned the ceiling. The sight of it took her breath away. She could scarcely believe how she, the daughter of a modest cocoa planter, had captured the heart of the richest sugar planter on the island.

The lights went down and the play began. The audience watched with rapt attention, including Emilie, whose eyes scarcely left the stage. Even Lucien, who normally grew bored after only a few minutes, seemed to be enjoying himself.  

In the middle of the third act something unusual caught Emilie’s eye. She looked up and spied an old school friend, Suzette Lavenière, sitting in the opposite box. She appeared to be gazing over at Lucien. Lifting up her opera glasses, Emilie's jaw dropped when she saw that Suzette winked at him! Emilie held up her program and spied out of the corner of her eye that Lucien winked back in return. Panic spread throughout her limbs and her heart pounded. And then the final coup de grâce: Suzette mouthed “I love you” to which Lucien responded in kind. 
Emilie’s face burned in anger. She had never been so humiliated in all her life! She willed herself to remain calm, but it took all the determination she could muster. She realized all at once how Lucien had betrayed her, and with one of her best friends! Her mind raced and she began to replay everything in her mind that Lucien had said, searching for clues that he had been unfaithful all along. Tears burned in her eyes. How could she have been so blind? How could she have been so naive? She blamed her own trusting nature. She was sure she had failed to see the clues that were there all along.

Lucien leaned over and whispered, “Why is your face so red, cherie?” He put his hand on her shoulder but she stiffened at his touch. She was too outraged to speak. All at once Emilie lost interest in the play. She lost all interest in Lucien. And then a great feeling of dread came over her when she realized that the wedding invitations had already been sent out. Perspiration beaded on her forehead. She tried fanning herself but nothing could quell the anxiety and dread that had taken hold of her.  

Suddenly, in the midst of her great turmoil, a great rumbling noise filled the hall.

The chandelier swayed and tinkled. The building shook and a great murmuring arose from the audience. The actors looked around in confusion, and when a piece of scenery toppled over, they shrieked and ran back-stage. And then a marble statue fell into the audience, giving rise to mass uproar.
Emilie gasped. She feared the theater roof would collapse on their heads, crushing everyone. Someone yelled “earthquake!” and the audience jumped out of their seats and raced toward the exits. The musicians fled the orchestra pit like wasps from a burning nest and the once cheerful hall turned into mass hysteria. People were shouting and jostling each other in their haste to escape. An old woman cried out and an elderly man in a top hat and black suit struggled to protect her as they were shoved aside in the melee.
Lucien grabbed Emilie’s hand and said, “Let’s get out of here.” He pulled her and Violette through the crowd as they raced down the marble staircase. When they reached the bottom, Emilie spied Suzette Lavenière heading down the opposite staircase. For just an instant their eyes met and Emilie gave her a piercing stare that made the other girl shudder. Before Lucien could reach her, Suzette was pulled away with the mob.
They raced through the courtyard, down the stairs, and out to the waiting horse carriages on the Rue Victor Hugo. They climbed into the carriage and the driver took off just as the streets erupted in panic. People screamed to each other from their balconies and deserted their homes in terror.

Boom! An explosion like cannon-fire rocked the carriage. In the distance, the mountain appeared to be glowing. The blast was followed by a loud rumbling noise and tremors that shook the earth. The horses whinnied and reared and the elderly West Indian driver struggled to control them. “Ho! Ho!” he cried, as he pulled on the reins. Emilie feared the ground would split open beneath them and swallow them up. Even Lucien looked frightened. Outside, the gas lamps swayed and roof tiles smashed to the ground as people rushed down the Rue Victor Hugo toward the cathedral, crossing themselves and uttering prayers out loud. Is this the end of the world? Are we all going to die from the volcano?
By now the streets had erupted into panic. People ran out of cafés and cabarets and gathered in the Place Bertin. Some were visibly crying. Emilie’s muslin dress was soaked with sweat and her hair clung to the back of her neck. Heat and humidity hung in the air like a wet blanket. She glanced over at Lucien, but he was staring at the smoldering volcano with a mixture of fear and awe. Dear God, she prayed, please don’t let me die together with Lucien, not here, not now. Shouts rang out from balconies overhead and shutters flew open as fearful residents peered out into the darkness. A few horses broke free of their reins and were galloping down the street, chased by their furious owners.
The carriage ground to a halt as they watched the scene unfold before them like spectators to a disaster. Unable to contain her curiosity, Emilie pushed the carriage door and scrambled outside to get a good look at the mountain. She was followed by Lucien and Violette. Orange flashes of light lit the night sky as an enormous ash cloud billowed outward then spread southward, raining ash down on their heads. Violette let out a scream.
“Hurry up,” said Lucien. “Let’s get out of here.”

The driver cracked his whip and the carriage continued over the stone bridge that crossed the Rivière Roxelane, and then proceeded north for several miles until they crossed the Rivière Blanche before turning west onto a dirt road bounded by coconut palms and bamboo that led to the tiny hamlet of Saint-Philomène where Emilie’s plantation “Solitude” was located. As they climbed the western slopes of Mont Pelée, an ominous smell filled the air. It was not the burning kind of smell, like the occasional fumes that drifted down from the Guérin Sugar Factory across the savannah, but a different kind of smell, like rotten eggs. Emilie pressed her handkerchief to her nose and mouth. Lucien slipped his arm over her shoulders but she tensed and moved further away. As the carriage made its way down the dirt road bounded by dense vegetation an uncomfortable silence followed during which time Emilie pondered her dilemma. She had to find a way to break off her engagement without causing a scandal. But it would not be easy. No young woman of her social class had ever broken an engagement and survived the resulting gossip and slander. The scandal would crush her parents and brand her a social outcast. Her mind raced as she searched for a solution, but it seemed hopeless. How could she have been so wrong about Lucien? How could she have made the worst mistake of her life? As she gazed up at the summit of Mont Pelée, an ominous film of clouds blotted out the moon, reducing her world to utter darkness.