Bewildering Stories

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Chapter 6: The Volcano
part II, installment 1

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 6, part I concluded in this issue.


It rained the whole day. The next morning, seeing no respite, the three destitutes went back to the temple, laid the planks on top of some half-fallen pillars and huddled together underneath, waiting. There was no point in trying to do anything under that downpour. They stayed together, not separating even at night; there was no point anymore for any shame or shyness among them, they had become a united family.

At this time of vulnerability for the youngest among them, Dar and Nunez took turns in holding Nim in their arms to ease her discomfort. Unable to go fishing, none of them ate much. They still had a small stock of herbs, some powdered drinks and soups; they managed to make a small guarded fire under their shelter, concocting different kinds of hot drink using rainwater. Nim did not want to eat anyway, and the other two had enough hardiness and will power to exist in this way for some time.

It kept on raining, easing off only on the third evening. Strong wind started blowing, driving most of the clouds away; the sinking sun peeped out from among the rest of them, flooding the wet world with a cheerful orange flame. Their mood rose with the sight, and even Nim cheered up, agreeing for the first time to taste some tea made of herbs, which Dar assured her would improve her feeling.

“We’ll have to move out tomorrow, whatever comes,” Nunez said gravely, supporting Nim in her brave attempt to get up and come out of their shelter. There was more fatherly concern in his voice than the passion of a lover. Dar assented; nothing much was left for them to fill their bellies with in that place. She shook the blanket before laying it out for their night’s sleeping; they were not going to separate now, even though the night promised to be dry.

The morning rose clear and bright, the world after the rain washed and glittering. It lightened up the wanderers’ hearts, they rose to go on their way full of hope and expectations. For the first time since landing on the island, it looked like a cheerful place. Even the somber temple ruins picked up their appearance to greet the new autumn sun. Feeling refreshed and full of new energy, the travelers relaxed their squashed limbs after their forced rest, eager to go on their way. Even Nim felt better; her cheeks had assumed a little color replacing their previous paleness. They were getting used to the continuous feeling of hunger, which had acted as a drive, pushing them forward in the direction of a more definite goal they had had before.

There was softness in the air, and as they walked on, the misty range of mountains beckoned to them from the distance; a gentle breeze blew at their backs as if to help them on the way. Knowing by now where they should go, they walked across country toward the shore opposite the range of mountains. As they reached that spot, the sight of magnificent volcanic activity opened before their eyes, showing them plainly the direction they must take.

They still had no idea why they should go there, but this was as good as goal as any, as they had none of their own. Dar found it hard to believe in any message sent to her in a dream, but she saw no alternative to their present situation and action.

“Don’t forget,” Nunez reminded her, “that it was a dream which had directed me toward you. Where would you be now if I had not picked you up?”

“I have no idea,” she smiled back at him. “We’d probably just continue on our way into your ruined town — or perhaps along the lake shore — looking for means of survival as we’d been doing before we arrived at the lake. Right now, except for wandering on a wild island and not in the midst of an upturned built-up area, I don’t see much difference in our situation.”

“Not much difference!” Nim intervened hotly, hugging the man beside her. “We would never have met Nune, and what would I do without him!”

The answer died on Dar’s lips as she recalled how important this man had become to the girl in such a short time. “All right,” she said at last, smiling again; “we may as well follow this dream as you did yours, Nune,” she said, slipping unconsciously into his nickname Nim had used. “We’d better see where it’s going to lead us.”

* * *

The sun, which had been warm throughout the day, caused vapor to rise from the wet land. They had reached their intended spot too late to try to do anything but stay the night and think things over. So they pitched their camp on a flat patch of sand and sat, waiting, feeding on cold soup and tea or coffee. As evening fell, the mist thickened into a heavy fog, preventing them from seeing much ahead of them. Only occasional blinks of fire forced their way through the haze from time to time piercing the mysterious world around them with a hint of reality.

The night was dark with no moon. Few stars appeared now and then, peeping from behind a patchily cloudy sky, as if playing hide and seek. The clouds made the night less cold than it could have been, and the three refugees were grateful for that, because the shore was completely bare, not even a rock jutting out of the ground to be used as shelter from the wind. The silence was broken by a soft, murmuring ripple licking the shore, making them sense the feel of water rather than actually see or hear it clearly. They settled for the night, again, as close together as possible. ‘If it rains tonight,’ Dar thought, ‘we are doomed.’ Exhausted as she was from hunger and exertion, she could not think how they would be able to continue on their way tomorrow.

All three of them sunk very quickly into a deep, dreamless sleep. Nunez and Dar flanked Nim on both sides, each taking hold of her alternately during the night. At dawn, however, Dar woke up to find Nim had slipped out of their hold, and she and Nunez were lying in each other’s arms. She stayed there for a while, for the first time able to examine the man’s face so close to hers. It had been such a long time since she had seen a man’s face so closely, since she had held a man’s body in her arms! She was unable to tell how she actually felt about it. In one way, she was at a loss of what she wanted to do; in another, she was instinctively absorbing his bodily essence, which stirred in her all the instincts and functions that had been dormant, unthought-of up till now.

Nunez opened his eyes. Their deep blueness looked directly at her, as if he knew exactly what he was about. Her gray, even calm was shattered. As if drawn by a magnet, their lips pulled together in a long kiss. Dar’s blood, chilled to stillness since the catastrophe, awakened in her veins, and a stirring of resentment with it. It was not exactly embarrassment that made her pull away. As she sat up, her movement awakened Nim who was lying on her other side.

“Dar? What is it?” the girl opened her eyes, confused, wiping her face.

“Nothing,” the woman said, almost sharply; then relenting, she released herself from the man’s hold, turned on her side toward the girl and said,

“It’s all right, Nim. I thought I heard something.”

“What?” Nim asked, sitting up and looking around her.

“Nothing,” Dar repeated, “I’ve imagined it. Let’s get up. It’s high time we found our way out of this island. It’s going to be a nice day and we shouldn’t waste it.”

Nunez said nothing. As they were rising and making their morning preparations, Dar felt his gaze falling on her from time to time. She decided to ignore it, forget what had happened. As they collected their meager belongings, the mist was slowly rising from the ground, and before them a new sight was revealed which they had not seen before.

Across the water, off the island’s shore, lay a line of tiny islands leading from their own toward the distant range of mountains. Adorned with smoking peaks, they looked like no more than the tops of a line of active volcanoes, which had sprung out of the lake during the upheaval. The travelers were able to see the base of the closest volcano, which was still sunk in the water that licked its sides, causing steam to rise in places. The mountain’s slopes looked ragged, bare of all life. Two or three such islets lay farther in the lake, beyond which rose a peak higher than those before it, reaching at least a thousand meters or even more. That was the one that spewed fire and ashes in addition to smoke and steam. The wanderers stood silent for a while, shocked in amazement.

“Oooh!” Nim expressed inarticulately what all three of them felt.

“Well!” Dar exclaimed at last. “This must be the volcano we are supposed to go to. I wonder what had happened on it; I don’t think anyone could live through that fire.”

“These islands do look as if they had only recently appeared, either with the general disaster on Earth, or during the storm we have encountered on the lake,” Nunez remarked.

“You know,” Dar said, ponderingly, “they might have appeared sometime back, during the events preceding the catastrophe. These islands look to me quite well set, not raging and wobbly.”

“I hope you’re right; otherwise, the ground could be too hot for us to tread on,” he said. “Look at the steam rising from the sides of these hills, where the water touches them.”

“Of course, it’s probably still quite hot inside; but I hope the outside surface is cool enough.”

“However it is, we’ll have to be very careful.”

“But how are we going to get there?” Nim interrupted that exchange of speculations.

Nunez looked at her. “We’ll have to swim for it,” he said, quietly.

“I’m afraid. You know I’m such a poor swimmer!” she protested.

“We’ll float on the boards, the way you did when we arrived at the island — it’s a good way to save them, any way,” he added, rather severely, Dar thought. “Can you swim, Dar?”

“I can swim, as I did on the river.” She smiled slightly, carefully edging her memory away from the swimming parties she and Bard used to have in their youth. “It’s really one of those things your body never forgets.”

“Right,” he agreed.” The main thing, Nim, is not to be afraid; fear is the worst thing that can sometimes cause people to lose their heads, cause them to be overcome. You know you can rely on us to support you.” He hugged her as an encouragement. They turned to prepare themselves for the task.

The water was pleasant enough, cool but not too cold. Dar said, “You go ahead, Nune, look for any underwater rocks that may trip us; I shall come after you with Nim.”

She shrugged on the backpack, which they had stuffed with their outer garments and shoes, and the blanket on top. They were left barefoot with only their underwear on; after the rain, the air had become cool but not yet outright cold. Then she helped Nim lie on her stomach on one board, saying gently, “We have nothing to tie you to it, you know, Nim. You’ll have to hold tight to it.”

She lay her own plank by Nim’s side, and Nunez put the third plank in the water. But he did not attach himself to it, wanting to be free in the water to do anything that he might find necessary. Dar gave Nim’s plank a push into deeper water, showing her how to use her hands and feet like paddles; she then started swimming beside her, pushing her own board ahead of her.

The going was not too hard at first. The lake around the island was easier to swim than the river, with its persistent, one-way flow. Nunez had gone on swiftly, then stopped and, wriggling his legs in the water to keep stable, waited for the women to catch up with him. Nim had some difficulty in keeping stable, and he came over to replace Dar in pushing her plank. After he straightened up Nim’s plank, he kept touching the girl, reassuring her, until she calmed down, synchronized the movements of her limbs and settled down to an even paddling of the plank. Dar, released to work with her own board, swam almost freely now, as Nunez was pushing Nim. The important thing was to keep going in as direct line as possible toward the nearest islet.

It was not too far off, and it did not take them long to reach it. Dar took hold of a jutting rock, which was obviously the foot of the mountain covered with water; having pulled herself and her plank up, she lay on top of the plank to rest. Nunez pushed Nim’s plank until it lay halfway on a tiny patch of land. There was no shore to speak of, and they thought it best for her to stay lying on the plank as Dar did. It swayed up and down on the ripples among the rocks, Nunez swimming around her with his feet touching underwater boulders from time to time. The girl rested her head sideways, holding tight to the board.

“How do you feel?” Dar asked. Her legs had slipped off her board, touching the mountain slope under water; it felt rough to her bare feet, and she thought it must be covered with cold lava.

“I’ll live,” Nim answered with clenched lips, her eyes closed and her legs held tight together on the board.

Nunez said, “We’d better move on, there’s nothing here for us.”

Desolation, indeed, described well what was actually an oversize rock. The ground outside the water was hard and jagged, and Dar, not wanting to try, was certain it was still warm. There had been no time yet for anything to grow there, nothing they could look for. She pulled her board from among the rocks, pushing it in front of her, continuing swimming toward the next islet. Nunez turned Nim’s board around, pushing it back into the lake and starting swimming behind it as before.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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