Circle of Souls

Escaping from the flames, Annie climbed higher into the hills.
Her sanity temporarily driven beyond forbearance, the immediacy of the disaster had begun gradually to fade. With each step she took, her mind transported her into an almost physical experience of déjà vu.
The thunderous roar which had heralded the onrush of disaster no longer signified the explosion of the Conemaugh Dam. It had become a Yankee cannonade.
The turbulent waters rushing out in flood to drown Johnstown in 1889 were now transformed in her brain to a deluge of cannon-shot raining destruction on Fredericksburg in 1862.
The crunch of houses against the Johnstown bridge translated as the bursting of walls when a shell struck the Fredericksburg cottage where she and Little Bart had cowered with his mother in the cellar below.
Roma had chosen that fateful moment to dash upstairs to retrieve a treasured memento of her dead parents. She had been instantly killed.
In a frenzy of terror, Annie had snatched up the boy and run for her life. Now, in her confused state of mind, not Beth, but Roma, was consumed in the fire they left behind.
The tall trees of the woodland through which she ran above Johnstown became for her the forest on Marye's Heights to which she had fled from the bombardment. As she had carried Little Bart then, now she carried a child in her arms, his daughter Romelle.
Stumbling over the trunk of a fallen tree, she fell among its branches. Too weary to fight her way out, she uttered a long sigh expressing sheer mental and physical exhaustion and plunged into deep and dreamless sleep, still clutching the unconscious Romelle.
The frantic noise of the child crying awakened her in the middle of the night. Its stridency shook her into the present.
Mentally acute again, Annie heard a murmur of voices nearby and called out to them.
"You there, in the branches," a man answered, "are you hurt? We've got a hospital tent down below, and a survivors' shelter. Can you walk?"
Annie hauled herself to her feet, dragging Romelle clear of the tree.
"We can walk," she replied. "We're not hurt at all, but we're hungry. We'll follow you."
Marching down the hill, Annie recalled Beth's words before leaving Paris with Eugénie: Into your hands, Annie, do I commend my child. Consider Romelle your daughter.
"I do! I do!" Annie cried out in the darkness as if to reassure Beth of her devotion.
Her guide turned back. "Did you say something, Ma'am?"
"Not to you," Annie replied. "Not to you!"
At the survivors' center, she fed Romelle, then sang softly as she rocked the child in her arms.
An unnatural quiet had descended upon the large group housed there. Most were still dazed, lost in a state of shock from the horror of the day's events. Annie's sweet voice, flowing gently across the huge tent with the strains of Amazing Grace , gave comfort to them all.
While she sang, Ardie walked in the door. Hearing her, he went quickly to her side and knelt to embrace Romelle. A tragic, pain-filled look from Annie answered his unspoken question about Beth.  

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