The sickening sweet of smell and taste of paregoric invaded my senses. It was the only comfort I found in the scene laid out before me. It was odd that I found comfort in that observation. It whisked me back to my childhood at a time when my grandmother rubbed this intoxicating brown liquid across my gums to ease the pain of a sore tooth. Why could I taste it? I found myself dizzy as I tried to breathe through my nostrils – I had subconsciously started breathing through my mouth. In a strange way it helped me think about something other than the fallen trees that crossed the street ahead of me. It was as if I was alone in the universe just for a brief moment. That familiar licorice smell snapped me back and I began to see my friends and family emerge from the old town hall. The dazed expressions choked the remaining oxygen out of the smoke-filled haze.
“What will we do now?” I looked up at the confused face of my beloved aunt as she spoke. I had no answers and I knew in that moment she didn’t expect one.
Most of the buildings lay in shambles. The town hall was one of the few brick structures in town and even it was charred. I saw tiny lines the tears had left on the faces of the people I loved. Little clean rivers running down faces covered in soot.
We fought the construction as hard as we could. This place – my home – was one of the few places left where generations lived and cared for one another together in the same house. We treasured the rich history of our ancestors and respected all they worked for to create this place for the generations that would follow. To lose it now – in this way – crippled all of us.
I had been elected as the one to talk to an attorney and try to fight the impending highway. Why wasn’t I here? The fire started in the middle of the night. Butch went house to house knocking on doors. The weather had been so dry the fire was spreading fast. There was no time to get out. As fifty people dressed in their pajamas and slippers walked into the street, they were shuffled into the only place that might provide shelter. The town hall had been built on Mrs. Kramer’s old farm so it set back near the lake. Sam Bishop had donated brick to ‘make it a nice gathering place’. The fire roared around the building but luckily it withstood the heat – charred but still standing. Sam told me they could hear trees falling and unusual popping sounds. No one screamed. They just huddled together and prayed. My heart broke as I listened.
It took a long time for fire engines from surrounding towns to reach the town. It was easily a thirty minute drive during the best of conditions. The firefighters worked hard to put out the flames. By morning, the smoke hung heavy and wet. The smell was overpowering – the smell of dreams dying and hopes crumbling into dust. I couldn’t help but wonder what my forefathers thought when they first saw this place – a place green with hope and promise was now charred and broken.
The Red Cross came in with supplies. We had water and blankets and food but there was nothing that could nourish the souls and fill the void the fire left inside all of us. We stayed in the town hall now supplied with donated cots and pillows. We continued to pray when we heard the fire was the result of a poorly planned blast from the construction of the new highway – a highway none of us wanted or needed. We had been told to just accept that progress must continue whether we were on board or not. This did not feel like progress.
On Sunday, we gathered in the street and resolved to rebuild. The attorney had found a violation that would prevent the construction of the highway regardless of anyone’s idea of eminent domain. Some would say it was too late, but we felt differently. It had become so easy to lose hope. We were surrounded by sad news of death and destruction from all corners of the earth. If we could resurrect the hopes and dreams of a few, then we knew we must. It had been a daunting task for our ancestors and would no doubt prove difficult for us, too. The fulfillment of dreams is not always a perfect path, but it is a beautiful path. We lost a lot, but we didn’t lose everything. Everyone we loved survived and that was, after all, everything.