Essun is deciding what to do next and who to become. The self that Essun has inhabited lately “died with Uche,” and it doesn’t make sense for her to try to be that woman anymore. She considers letting the villagers come kill her, but she decides that she must first try to find wherever her daughter Nassun is buried, if Jija even buried her. By now, the rest of the people of Tirimo will have recognized that something truly catastrophic has happened up north—and in their fear, they will search for scapegoats.
The beginning of this passage makes it clear that Essun’s current identity is one that she has largely created on her own, and that she has inhabited other identities in the past. For now, the only thing about her true “self” that she can cling to is her identity as Nassun’s mother, so finding her daughter gives her a purpose and a reason to survive. Essun is practical, and she recognizes the harsh reality that in times of crisis, people will often turn on one another and look for someone to blame. And because orogenes are already seen as dangerous non-humans, the other people will likely try to kill her if she doesn’t leave town.
Essun resolves to leave town immediately; she makes herself eat something and then gets the family’s “runny-sack” from a cache beneath the floor. It contains extra clothes, some money, and a knife. Essun decides that Jija’s boots can be traded away— if she ever finds him, she will question him about Uche’s death and Nassun’s whereabouts, and then she will kill him. Leaving the house, Essun briefly thinks about her past with Jija and is struck by a wave of overwhelming anger. She stops and calms herself, and briefly uses her orogeny to sess that there are no open vents in the earth nearby.
In another example of how society in the Stillness is built around the constant threat of disaster, most people keep “runny-sacks” with them full of emergency supplies, in case they should need to leave in a hurry. Essun also finds a sense of purpose (and a way of dealing with her trauma) through clinging to her anger at Jija and trying to avenge Uche’s death by finding and killing Jija.
Essun walks through the town, which has probably been locked down and is mostly empty. In times like these, everyone has pre-assigned tasks, and some are already at work. No one pays any special attention to Essun, as they haven’t yet made the connection that she is the “rogga’s mother” and might even be an orogene herself. Looking for the headman Rask, Essun goes to his office but finds his second-in-command there instead, talking to some people who are probably shoring up the town’s well, as stonelore advises. Essun knows that if he’s not here, Rask will be at the library, so she heads there.
During an apocalyptic event, everyone’s use-caste becomes their primary role in their comm, as they go into survival mode according to the dictates of stonelore. Essun knows that the townspeople are already thinking of Uche as a “rogga” rather than a human child, and that once they figure out her own identity, she will just be another “rogga” to them as well: someone to be hated and feared.
Tirimo’s library is merely a shack filled with books and scrolls, but Rask goes there for privacy. Essun finds him asleep on his cot at the back of the structure. As he wakes up to see Essun, she observes him connect the dots and realize that she is likely a “rogga” herself. She immediately tells him that she won’t hurt anyone, and she asks if he knows where Jija went. Suspecting what happened, Rask asks Essun if Jija killed Uche. Essun cannot say “yes” aloud, but she nods. Sighing, Rask says that no one knows which way Jija went, but some people saw him load up their horse cart and leave with Nassun—who was still alive. Stunned to learn that her daughter might have survived, Essun starts shaking with suppressed emotion.
Essun hadn’t yet dared to hope that Nassun might still be alive. But with Rask’s information, she now allows herself to do so and is subsequently overwhelmed by emotion. It was easier to let herself be driven by hatred of Jija than love of Nassun, as now she has something else precious to her that could potentially be taken away. Here, Rask shows that not everyone reacts with immediate hatred and fear in the presence of an orogene.
Rask asks if Jija was ever violent before. “Never,” Essun replies, but she thinks that maybe it would have been easier if he had been, so that she could blame something else besides her own “sin of reproducing.” Rask asks if Essun is going to go after Jija, and she nods and asks for a pass to go through the town’s gate. Rask warns her that if she leaves, she can’t come back, and then he reveals that his own sister was an orogene who was kidnapped and likely murdered as a child. Rask offers to walk Essun to the gate. She tries to dissuade him, as this will draw more attention to her, but he insists, and she feels like he wants to protect her as he could not protect his own sister.
The fact that Jija was never violent in any other capacity shows just how strong the hatred of orogenes is in this society. Essun blames herself—she feels like she condemned her children to death just by giving birth to them in the first place, knowing that they would likely be orogenes and thus never safe or free in this world. Rask has more sympathy for orogenes than most because of his sister, as the ingrained prejudice of stonelore is countered by his own personal experience with a loved one. This shows how prejudice can sometimes be combatted on an individual level.
As they walk together toward the town gate, people start to whisper and stare. At the gate, Rask calls for one of the guards, a Strongback named Karra, and tells him to open the gate. Karra and the other Strongbacks are clearly suspicious of Essun and are reluctant to open the gate—they even refuse to do so until Rask gets angry. Rask then apologizes to Essun about Jija and wishes her luck on her search. Essun feels strange leaving Tirimo, which has been her home for 10 years now, but all of her neighbors’ suspicious glares now make it easier to go. She also knows that Rask has “damaged himself” by showing himself as a public ally to her, and she is grateful.
Everyone immediately turns against Essun when they begin to suspect that she is an orogene, and they even turn against Rask as well, just because he treats her like a human being. Essun has felt like Tirimo was her home for 10 years, but the way that her neighbors suddenly turn on her shows that she was never truly free and safe here—she could only imagine herself so while hiding under a false identity.
Nodding farewell to Rask, Essun heads toward the opened gate. Suddenly, out of the corner of her, eye she sees Karra nod to another of the guards, and the woman draws a crossbow and points it at Essun. “Everything happens too fast to think”—especially because Essun has been purposefully trying not to think for the past few days—and so she reacts instinctively, using her orogeny to draw energy from the air and freeze the incoming crossbow bolt so that it explodes into dust. Karra screams at the woman to shoot again, and Essun feels an earthquake begin to rise beneath her feet.
Essun’s emotions are raw and sensitive because of the severe trauma that she has recently endured, and so she lets herself lose control and use her orogeny in this dramatic scene. She reacts instinctively to save her own life, but this power grows as it feeds on her own suppressed emotion. This scene also clarifies how orogeny works: Essun is able to “ice” the crossbow bolt by drawing energy from the air, but then this energy is redistributed into the earth and creates an earthquake.
As the guardswoman loads another arrow, Essun stands in the center of a circle of frost, suddenly letting her anger take hold. Rask realizes what is happening and tries to stop her, but Essun rages to herself, blaming Rask and all the people of Tirimo for Uche’s murder. Suddenly the earth splits open, buildings collapse, and a rockslide takes out part of the comm’s wall. Deep underground, Essun feels the walls of the aquifer break and knows that, in a few weeks, all the town’s wells will run dry. Now the circle of frozen air around her expands, catching Rask and killing him immediately, then overtaking everyone else who tries to flee along with every other living thing in its radius: grass, trees, and birds.
Essun’s attack here is a reaction to her own great suffering, letting herself surrender to all the rage and grief that she has been trying to suppress since Uche’s death. The narrative doesn’t justify her violence, but it does try to make the reader understand and empathize with Essun. She first reacts in self-defense, but then she sees the townspeople’s hatred of her as just another aspect of the prejudice that murdered Uche, and she lets her emotions run wild. But because of her orogenic power, this means that she inadvertently kills everyone around her. In this way, the book uses the fantasy genre to make reactions to tragedy and oppression larger-than-life and cinematic.
The destruction continues as Essun lets herself fully feel the pain of Uche’s death, and she sees the entire town of Tirimo as if it were Jija himself. What finally stops her rampage is hearing the cry of a little boy as his father carries him out of a collapsing building. Essun suddenly realizes what she has done, and the earthquake quiets. She recognizes that she is the one who killed Uche, just by being his mother, and she starts to cry. Walking away from town now, Essun thinks that she can never escape death, because she herself is death. The chapter ends with a brief line of stonelore: “Never forget who you are.”
Often, a key part of oppression is internalized prejudice, as Essun still thinks of herself as a monster and thus blames herself for Uche’s death—just because she gave birth to him, making him a monster as well. Again, the book uses the fantastical elements of the story to make Essun’s processing of her grief something deadly to others, to the degree that she thinks of herself as an embodiment of death—something that she has also been conditioned to believe about orogenes.