Grey flakes land gently on my hands as I knead the dough, taking me by surprise. Ash. Pausing in my work, I glance across to the open doorway, looking for an explanation. But I find no immediate justification: no reassurance. Around me, my colleagues continue to labour, seemingly unperturbed by the sprinkling of feather-light matter invading our workplace and accompanying the small vibrations which have now been rumbling for the past two days. Tremors, of course, are usual Ė an everyday part of life here. But this - this... substance is something new: rare. And the two elements together feel wrong. Very wrong.
Ignoring scowls from the other men Ė the bread still needs to be made Ė I step out into the courtyard and lift my eyes to the now darkening sky. Earlier, the sun had tiptoed and danced through morning and now, at the hottest hour, should be satiating our town in golden splendour. But presently, only the thinnest thread of light is penetrating the escalating whirl of powdery flakes, and even this is waning, receding with a whimper to be devoured into the greyish mass. I raise a hand and shade my eyes in trying to locate the source of the deluge, finally tracing it to the looming shape above. Mount Vesuvius. I frown in confusion. It canít possibly be the onset of eruption: the geographer Strabo has confidently stated that this particular volcano is extinct. Has been for several centuries. And yet... I continue to stare upwards, causing several stallholders in the street to follow my gaze. Duplicate my actions.
Vesuvius, as ever, stands proud; the impenetrable onlooker of our town - steadfast and reliable. But I shiver slightly as I continue to watch, recognising that this description is not true of her today; today she seems to have thrown off her guardian role and instead taken on the mantle of leash-straining beast, desperate to be set free. Rumbling, grumbling, hissing, spitting. Her previously inanimate consistency has awoken into an animate, pent-up creature of destruction, pre-warned by the toxic miasma seeping from her core. An omen? But of what and how?
Lowering my gaze, I gauge the reactions of my fellow citizens. Some are beginning to pack up their wares, presumably aiming to go back to their homes and loved ones. Some stare upwards in silence, heads to one side; determining whether to stay or leave. Retreat or wait. Others speculate and deliberate amongst themselves, with urgent, high-pitched voices and expansive gestures. And, as we play out our concerns, the ground around us is gradually being covered with the fine, silky residue falling from the skies, providing an eerie and colourless backdrop to our apprehension.
After some time standing and watching--Iím not sure exactly how long--I return to the bakery. In here, industry has ceased and my colleagues are gathering up their belongings, like warriors collecting their weapons in preparation for battle: a silent but determined hive of activity. I approach my friend--Quintus--as he makes to leave. ďYouíre going home?Ē
He nods and then takes hold of my arm. ďMarcus, youíre welcome to come with me--shelter at my house until we know whatís happening.Ē
I think about this; itís true that my house is the furthest away of all the bakers who work here. Coincidentally, itís also the closest to Vesuvius--not that that fact has bothered me before. Not when it was merely a spectre to our everyday life. But now, well... it would take some time to get back home and Iíd be travelling right into the heart of the ash residue. I could go with Quintus. But then, I reason, I would have just the same chance staying here at the bakery. Better, perhaps, because this is an old and well-structured building, partially protected by the other shops around. So I decline his offer with thanks.
With my colleagues having left, I settle down in a corner of the old bakery to wait until such time that the residue lessens and ceases. Despite my anxiety, Iím lulled into dreams and visions stimulated by my odd cocoon-like surroundings. I donít know how many hours pass before, eventually, another sound pierces that of the falling debris: a roar, more urgent and decisive, and similar to the distant rushing of a waterfall. I stumble to the door and cautiously ease it open. Blink as my vision is accosted by the huge mountain before me. No longer is she part of the background scenery; now she dominates the landscape, with sides scaled with fire like the issue from a proud and majestic dragon: reds and oranges and yellows adorning and rolling in ribbons, twirling and twisting, threading and thickening. And--most significantly--travelling; travelling towards our town.
Mesmerised, I stand and stare, initially unable to comprehend the magnitude of what is happening, but then--with split second decision--I turn from the doorway and begin to run, run away from the increasingly rapid rolling mass of heat. I mingle with the panicking crowd who, emerging from the not-so-safe shelters of their houses, are stumbling their way through abandoned goods and animals in the streets. Screaming. Shouting. Pushing. Shoving. The fear speeds our heartbeats and loosens our inhibitions as, animal-like, we compete in the ultimate race for life.
But, at odds with my archaic adrenalin swell, Iím suddenly--inexplicably--infused with the spreading realisation that no human could ever out-run this unquenchable devil. Not me, not my compatriots. Impossible. The thought stifles my brain, spreads down my body and slows my inadequate feet. And so, midst violent jostling and fleeting incredulous expressions, I stop. Motionless. For, if I cannot escape my foe, I will face her instead--man to beast. I turn around and lift my head defiantly. Watch as the blistering surge slithers closer--ever closer--and prepare myself for submersion. Oblivion.