A fire drill begins when the siren hidden at the top of the tall wooden tower by the river starts to howl. Worried about surprise attacks the village council runs drills at least twice a year and long ago installed a siren that no one could ignore; before its sound even reaches your ears you feel a pinch to your spine, right at the bottom, then something cold raking through your lungs. It’s like the village trapped an ancient demon - with who knows what black magic - chained it in the tower, and whenever there is cause for alarm someone stabs at it with a hot iron to make it scream. Whether you’re sweeping, talking to the butcher or lying in bed alone in the darkest part of the night, when you hear the siren they say it’s your civic duty to run to the river and safety. No second thoughts.
My first memory of the siren, or anything, is from when I was three. I am in the village nursery stacking wooden blocks that are painted different colours. I have them stacked in an impressively tall eight-block tower but when the siren hits I knock them over in my attempt to run away. Then I’m off the ground, held tightly and struggling against adult arms, desperate to escape the swarm I feel but can’t see around me.
Everyone runs when they hear the siren, but a child’s uneducated response is to run away from the noise and the river, into the fields that surround the village. I learned quickly though and soon knew where to run, I knew that the river and full submersion promised safety. Another memory, this time I’m six years old, everything is harried and loud but the drill feels less chaotic because I know what is expected of me. I hide my fear and churning stomach, trying to match the somber faces that surround me, as all the village children run for the water.
I’m nineteen now and still feel a bit sick when the siren starts, but I know that when I run I feel better. It’s gotten so I don’t even think anymore, my muscles twitch, adrenaline hits and I’m flying. Full out running is the best. Sometimes when I’m pushing myself hard my head and body don’t even feel like they’re moving. It’s as if they’re floating above the street surrounded by a churning blur of arms and legs. I don’t look down but like to imagine my feet - invisible because of the speed - exerting a huge force for the instant they actually touch the ground. They tug at the earth’s surface, causing it to bunch and wrinkle far away, at the tasseled edge of the pan-global rug. There’s no strategy to it, or pacing, just run as fast as you can. And if you run so fast that breathing gets ragged, steps heavy and grey dots are swirling in your eyes by the time you reach the river, that’s a good thing. I like that feeling, knowing I really ran and didn’t pace myself. The oblivion of top speed is bliss.
The first time I saw grey dots I was eleven and with my best friend Theodore on a lumpy field outside of the village. Rocky and full of scrubby plants, no one has tilled it in years. I remember walking into the beige late-afternoon landscape looking for lizards. Everything feels dead, or is just waiting in stasis for the start of the winter rains. Behind a far-off hill I see a flash of orange, then the siren’s call distracts me and I run. But something else is there, chasing me; I can feel it screaming above the siren. I’m moving very fast, winging through the village, past my home, the temple and the market, and now dancing dots are in my eyes. They congeal into a ring around my vision and march inward. I can see the river but it’s grey, my world is grey, then black. In the darkness I am somewhere else, I think. On the edge of a great gaping maw that is slowly and secretly swallowing the world. I want to run and yell, warn my family and friends, but slip instead and fall into the black. In the real world I hit water and the terrifying mouth is replaced by wet shock and cold. Teddy hadn’t kept up but from behind saw me catch my toe on something a few meters out from the river. He said I stumbled and lunged, he thought I would fall for sure, but I somehow kept my feet beneath me until the water cut into my shins. It was January and the riverhead is in the mountains to the north so the water was very cold.
Usually when you run to the river you’re aiming to get in at the bowl, a natural bend beside the siren tower that’s been worked over the centuries - widened and deepened - to provide safe haven for the whole community. There’s a pier and a shallow area for wading, but during a drill people are only concerned with sliding in up to their necks. I spent a lot of time in the bowl when I was young, talking with my family, wetting my hair, shivering and looking skyward with everyone else. When that got boring I’d inspect my pruned hands or watch my clothes float around my submerged body then cling tightly when I stood or lifted an arm. If you stand out of the water before the all clear sounds you get yelled at.
If you’re away from the bowl, or just don’t want to be around people, there are other places to get wet of course. I call my favourite spot the lagoon. A steep bank and brambles hide its landward edge and a false shore with piles of muck and sharp-edged bulrushes do the same from the river, so unless you know where to look you won’t find it. It’s private, quiet and, if the time ever comes, I hope deep enough.
Three years ago in August I was near the lagoon when an alarm sounded. August is normally hot but that year the air felt heavier, weighing on the whole village, turning everyone and the milk sour. I left a village meeting that day where people with the sweat for it were arguing about some new edict. It was boring and I was hot so bought myself an icy treat from an old man named Piotr. He makes them in his cellar using ice he harvests from the mountains in winter then stores. When the siren sounded I was close to the lagoon so ran there and even managed to get my frozen snack through the mud sort of clean. No one had ever been in the lagoon with me before and, distracted by my melting treat, I didn’t notice Katia. She startled me when she asked for a taste, then sat waiting quietly on a moss-covered rock near the shore while I swam to her.
Katia was two years older than me and as much a stranger as is possible in our village. I knew her parents had died when she was very young, no one ever said how, and that she was quickly becoming one of the village’s best weavers. That afternoon we talked a long time, our conversation filled with pauses that sat on the water until they dissolved or sank. I swam some while Katia stayed on her rock. She didn’t like getting wet and explained that she came into the lagoon via a bramble-arched tunnel she’d found. Later when we heard the all-clear I squeezed onto the rock beside her to better hear what she was asking. “Does the siren scare you? It’s meant to mean safety but whenever it starts I just want to cry. Lie down wherever I am, curl into a ball and cry until I burn. Or whatever.” She laughed then, long and gentle. The laughter arrived slowly, floated then drowned. It sounded like crying. “Just drills,” she laughed. “Always drills.” I nodded and told her how the siren brought me close to puking sometimes, then explained how running so fast my brain slowed and my vision blurred always set me right. I suggested she try swimming.
The lagoon was still around us and she leaned into me. I put my wet arm around her. Katia looked at me, then out past our bulrush cordon to the distant mountains and through them. I was going to ask her what she saw beyond the edges of the world, but the sun moved and she kissed me while the day’s shadows were repainted across the water and our floating clothes. When it was dark we crawled through the bramble tunnel and went to our homes. Katia left the village soon after, apparently - despite rumours of banishment - with the council’s blessing, and I never saw her again.
Last week when the siren sounded, I turned to the river and twisted my ankle. No high-speed, earth-tugging run for me. I didn’t feel sick as I hobbled my way to the bowl though, safe and not aflame. Once there I spent more time underwater than normal, enjoying a different view of the world. I watched the sky dance and shimmer, warped by ripples, and bubbled laughter when my four-year-old cousin appeared above me waggling his tongue, only to be scolded by his mother for standing up. “Up to your neck!”
That day reminded me of something from when I was very young, from before the incident with the blocks. Was I less than one? Is a memory even possible at that age? It’s all a bit muddled. I am floating in the bowl then suddenly held underwater by strong arms. I am still looking up when an enormous green shadow darkens everything. Noise and commotion, but it is muffled and distant. Then the shadow is gone, torn apart by a violent slash of red-orange flame screaming across the water. It burns the world. And that’s it, my only experience with a dragon in real life. But like I said the memory is hazy and, I realized recently, similar to a picture book I read a lot when I was younger. Maybe I’ve never actually seen a dragon.