Essun is considering what kind of person she should be in this situation. She has been different people before, and her current self as Essun isn’t particularly equipped to live through a Fifth Season. But Nassun still might be alive, and Essun is Nassun’s mother, so Essun decides that she needs to stick with this identity for now.
Essun thinks of herself as inhabiting multiple identities at once and actively having to choose from among them. The only identity that currently gives her any sense of hope or purpose is her role as Nassun’s mother, and so she decides to remain herself. This passage is also a major hint that the other identities that Essun has inhabited might, in fact, be Damaya and Syenite at different times of her own life.
Essun and Hoa are sleeping near a roadhouse for the night, with many other people camped nearby, when they are awakened by the sounds of fighting and screaming. Essun immediately grabs her runny-sack and Hoa and turns to run, along with seemingly everyone else around them. After running for a long time, Essun has to stop; Hoa, who doesn’t seem out of breath at all, asks what happened. Essun admits that she didn’t see, and she asks Hoa if he fell asleep—he was supposed to be keeping guard. He maintains that he was awake, but he also didn’t see what happened.
On the road during a Fifth Season, Essun must live with extreme caution if she wants to survive. This is the reality of life on the Stillness in a Season—no one trusts anyone else, violence is rampant, and survival is the highest law.
As Essun catches her breath, she says that they will have to go back to the roadhouse for the rest of their things and to refill their water containers. Hoa suggests that instead, they could go back to the creek where he took a bath. Essun knows that this would be much safer, but she’s also reluctant to lose two full days on Nassun. She decides to risk the roadhouse even though it might now be inhabited by hostile people—she has enough faith in her strength as an orogene to defend herself.
Finding Nassun is the only thing giving Essun a sense of purpose, so she would rather do something risky than make a safer choice that would also make it harder to catch up with her daughter. Survival is the law for everyone around her, but Essun has already considered her own death many times and so is less fazed by that danger than by the prospect of losing the hope of finding Nassun.
As Essun and Hoa walk through the falling ash and approach the roadhouse, everything seems abandoned. Hoa watches how Essun walks in order to keep her footfalls silent, and he imitates her. Cautiously, they enter the roadhouse building to see another woman filling up canteens of water. She’s filthy and smells terrible, and Essun assumes that she must be commless. The woman notices Essun and Hoa, assesses them, and tells them to “have at” the water pump. Essun assures her that they don’t want any trouble, and the woman says she doesn’t either, though Hoa is suspicious.
“Commless” people are outcasts and generally treated as criminals or inferior in some way (similar to the discrimination that houseless people experience in the real world), so Essun is immediately wary of the commless woman at the water pump. In a Season, everyone treats one another with suspicion.
The woman helps Essun pump water, and they talk cautiously to each other. Essun notices a scientific contraption among the woman’s water canteens and realizes that she’s not commless after all. The woman talks about the big earthquake up north and its strange wave pattern, and then she says that the contraption is something to test for contaminants in the water. It’s made from the same plant as safe, but it works better. Essun argues that safe catches everything, but the woman argues back, clearly knowledgeable about the subject. “You’re a geomest,” Essun says. The woman denies this, saying that she’s at least smart enough to avoid the University.
“Safe” is a drink that reacts to any foreign substance, and so is used to find contaminants and poisons. “Geomest” is the general Stillness term for scientist, but like most aspects of life in the Stillness, science focuses mostly on the earth and its movements. The woman is clearly intelligent and well-educated but also fiercely independent and proud.
Packing up, the woman lets Essun have a pack that someone left behind. Essun asks if she saw what happened to make everyone flee, and the woman says that it was probably an animal attack, as nature adjusts to a Fifth Season much faster than people do. She warns Essun not to follow her, suggesting that she might be going back to a comm full of cannibals. Essun fills the pack and gives it to Hoa, and they prepare to leave—but the woman freezes as she steps out the door. In front of her is a kirkhusa, a large dog-like creature that people keep as pets. Kirkhusas are usually friendly, easily-trainable, and herbivorous, but during a Fifth Season, they immediately become dangerous meat-eaters. Essun can hear more of them nearby, eating something.
Like people with their stonelore, wild animals have also adapted to endure Fifth Seasons, abruptly changing their usual behavior to better survive the conditions of an extended winter. The kirkhusa are a deadly example of this, with their sudden violence echoing the way that people often turn on one another in times of crisis or survival situations.
This kirkhusa clearly used to be a pet, and it paces back and forth as if fighting between its two contradictory instincts. Essun prepares to kill it with orogeny, but suddenly Hoa steps toward it. Essun tries to grab him but finds him incredibly solid and immoveable, and he continues forward. He puts out his hand to the animal. At first it seems cowed, but then it suddenly attacks Hoa, lunging forward and biting his arm. Panicking, Essun tries to focus her orogeny, but then everything goes silent, and she looks up. The kirkhusa stops moving and then seems to transform, from its skin out to the tip of each its hairs—it has been turned into some kind of stone or crystal.
In this tense and cinematic passage, Hoa reveals an entirely new kind of power: the ability to turn a living thing into stone. Essun has already recognized that Hoa is a very strange child, but now she cannot avoid the fact that he is likely not a human being at all.
Essun and the woman stare in awe at this, and then Essun hurries to Hoa’s side. He seems ashamed of what just happened, and he says that he hadn’t wanted Essun to see him do something like this. She tries to ask him what exactly he did do, but he refuses to explain. Meanwhile, his arm is still stuck inside the kirkhusa’s mouth and dripping with blood. Essun offers to help him get it free, but Hoa just flexes his arm, and the kirkhusa’s head shatters. Hoa won’t let Essun tend to his wound either. He just says that they should go quickly, as the other animals are still nearby.
Hoa seems to be mostly unhappy because Essun saw him turn the kirkhusa to stone, and now he worries that she will think differently of him (as she surely will). At the same time, he is unwilling to explain his abilities further. Hoa, like Essun, is protecting his identity and trying to have some autonomy over how he is perceived.
Now realizing that Hoa is something extremely dangerous, Essun considers what to do. Finally, she is convinced just by the sight of his face—he looks miserable and ashamed, like a real child. Essun knows how to deal with children, and also with “children who are secretly monsters.” She offers him her hand, Hoa gratefully takes it, and they start walking. The commless woman follows them close behind. The chapter ends with a quotation from stonelore: “Beware ground on loose rock. Beware hale strangers. Beware sudden silence.”
As an orogene, the line between human and monster has always been a blurry one for Essun, so she is able to see the humanity in Hoa and empathize with him in this moment—even seeing her own children, whom society also sees as monsters, reflected in his face. The science-minded commless women seems to want to know more about Hoa as well.