Bewildering Stories

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conclusion of chapter 6, “The Volcano”

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 6, part IV begins in this issue.

After a pause, Dar spoke, causing the young geologist to surface reluctantly form the memories he had sunk into. “How did it happen, then?” she asked.

“I don’t really know!” He cried out, tears springing in his eyes. “I... the volcano... I don’t know what happened to it. The eruption was so sudden, without any previous signs on the instruments. We were completely unprepared!” It took him a few moments to calm down, before he was able to go on with his story.

“It was noon,” he said at last. “All three of us were up on the slope, separated. Keri and Rok went to take a look from rim of the crater, and they were closer to each other than I was to them. I suddenly felt the mountain begin to vibrate violently under me, as if it wanted to shake us off it! Then it burped! — That’s what it felt like — and it started belching tongues of fire! Huge rocks tossed up, thrown enormous distances! It looked as if the mountain was playing ball with these boulders, throw-and-catch if you don’t mind! It was in such great mood and we were right in the middle of it, playthings to its high spirits!... But it was no game for us, because the rocks not only threatened to fall on top of our heads and crush us, but they were also burning fire!

“We started running down the slope... running... running... Then some boulders hit Keri and she fell. I was just below her on the slope. I stopped, but there was no way I could go up to help her. Then I saw Rok set on fire, like a torch... Keri got up, tottering on her feet, but she was also burning, and they both started rolling down the slope, like two balls of fire... rolling... rolling... leaving a burning path behind them... I stumbled on some loose stones and fell, and they passed me on their way, nearly taking me down with them... I screamed out to them but heard no answer... They rolled on down until they reached the edge of the cliff, then they tumbled blindly right over it into the lake, the fire hissing as it was extinguished by the water...”

He gasped, and would have fallen on his side if Dar had not caught him in the waist. She made him lean against her, signing to Nunez to fetch him some water. Zik drank greedily, then breathed deeply, closing his eyes. The other three kept silent for a moment.

“You were saved,” Nim pointed out. He opened his dark eyes and looked at her, the abyss looking out from them. Nim flinched, and leaned against Nunez who hugged her affectionately. “I didn’t mean...” the girl whispered.

Zik swallowed. “But you’re right. I was saved, I don’t know why or how. I didn’t deserve it. Both Keri and Rok were better people than me.”

“No!” The girl cried, crouching beside him and taking hold of him. “No! You deserve it as much any of us does! We’ve all lost our families and friends, everybody... We’re so happy we’ve found you, you’re one of us now, and what’s past is past.”

Zik submitted to Nim’s caress, then straightened. “I’d like to tell it to the end; maybe I’ll be able to remove it from my continuing thoughts.”

He had found shelter underneath a jutting rock from the flying, burning debris. For two days and two nights he stayed there, on the open slope, too terrified to move out, while the volcano kept spewing fire. Even when the rocky shower subsided, the fire continued to burn in the crater, hot lava streaming down from it; luckily, it did not flow all over the mountainside, but only in a few defined channels. Zik felt after a while that he should be able to move back to the cave, their shelter and refuge.

It was the longest climb he had ever done in his life, having to watch his tread every step of the way. The face of the slope, which had become so familiar to him after so many days working on it, had changed completely, and he was not even sure where exactly the cave was. He just hoped it was still there, somewhere...

At last, he reached it, in late afternoon, collapsing on the bare floor too exhausted even to spread a blanket. For the first time in three days he slept soundly, deeply, without any dreams. Only later, after he had wakened to remember his lost friends, to mourn their horrible death, the dream come to torment him.

“The rains came, then,” Zik said dully, “but it rained ashes. For days on end it rained ashes... Everything was covered with black, sticky ash, and I could not get out of the cave. That was when the fire people started coming in my sleep... every time I closed my eyes they would come, dancing around me, threatening to engulf me with fire...”

“You’ve been dreaming, that’s understandable,” Nunez said, rationally. Zik looked at him askance, from under his heavy eyelids. “You may understand it, but I don’t. Every night they spring out of the volcano, either from the crater on top or, sometimes, just from the bottom of the earth, together with the lava and the burning rocks... They congregate around me, led by Keri and Rok... They want to take me with them to the land of fire they had gone to; and I wish to go with them, but I’m afraid to go, I’m so afraid I can’t move a muscle...”

“That’s because you don’t really want to go,” Dar whispered. “You don’t want to die, you know...”

“I suppose...” he agreed, reluctantly.

There was a pause again.

“What do these fire people look like?” Nim asked them, whispering. She trembled slightly, and Nunez hugged her again, caressing her damp hair.

“They are tall and willowy,” Zik grunted in his husky voice, “and they are very beautiful; they burn bright orange and yellow, like tongues of fire, and their hair flies around their heads black and gray, like ashes... Wherever they tread they devour everything alive, they kill and destroy until nothing is left standing in their way, nothing is left alive... They rush after running people to catch them, as they had caught Keri and Rok, turning them into fire people like themselves; and that’s what they want to do to me too...”

“Do you think your friends, who had turned into fire people, really want to destroy you too?” Dar asked.

“I know all they want is for me to join them in the fire, they don’t understand that I do want to stay alive! You’re right, that’s what I really want! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!” He burst with a heart-rending weeping, wailing, harsh and loud, the tears streaming down his dark cheeks and down on his crossed legs, down to the earth...

Dar took hold of his head, putting it again in her lap, caressing it, rocking it. Nunez took Nim away, leaving them alone, letting Dar have the chance to work her personal charm on the man...

“You’re not going to burn,” she told him, “you are safe with us,” over and over again, murmuring it like a chant. He gasped and hiccuped, he breathed hard clinging to the woman who held him in her arms. He was her new child, just born, and instinctively he knew it. She put his head on her chest, and he buried his face between her breasts, as if finding comfort he had never known before. Even sleeping with Keri had never turned him back into the baby who had never known his mother.

They stayed like that for a long time, while Nim and Nunez went away, exploring. When they came back she told them softly, “It would take him some time to recover, he’d been through just too much.”

* * *

Toward evening, dark clouds had gathered and the wind rose; Dar helped Zik get up, and all four of them went to sleep inside the cave. They found the batteries used by the geologists for light; in his confused condition, Zik had not been able to use them and they were fairly full. They lit one of them, and the three travelers sat talking for a while, while Zik, too exhausted, soon fell asleep in Dar’s arms. When they broke up to go to sleep, the established couple settled in their corner, Dar stayed with Zik the rest of the night. She lay beside him, holding him in her arms, wrapped together in one blanket. Living felt much more luxurious than it had for a long time, with two more blankets for Nim and Nunez, previously belonging to the two dead geologists. That fact did not disturb their peaceful sleep that night.

Next day rose dark and wet. Rain was falling in buckets outside the cave, and the wanderers decided there was no use trying to get out. They settled for a comfortable stay inside the cave, made fire and used the water in the bottle to make hot breakfast porridge. The air, though, was getting cold, and they all put on warmer clothes, making use again of clothes belonging to Keri and Rok. The incongruity of it drove Nim to jesting, and the black humour did something to dispel the overall gloomy atmosphere.

Waking up, it was clear that Zik was feeling better. After breakfast, as they settled for staying a while in the cave, the others prevailed on the young man to finish his story. There was not much more he could tell them, however, for his memory of that time was patchy and foggy. The days had become confused in his mind, and he did not bother to count them. His fever rose, and he was taken by both physical and mental exhaustion; he no longer felt hungry, was barely able to touch his food. He did go sometimes down to the lake for a drink of water, but never stayed there long.

Gradually, his illness took a fast hold of him, he became feverish and sick and most of the time did nothing but lying down the way they had found him, covered with the blanket, shaking and shivering continually, and waiting... waiting for the unknown to reach him...

“I know I owe my life to you, people, I don’t think I would have survived for very long when you found me. But how did you come to be here? That is what I don’t understand!”

The three companions looked at each other uneasily. How to explain the command of a mysterious woman to a man dreaming of fire people, without making him even more frightened?

“I told you what had happened to the world, Zik,” Dar said when he fell silent, “and how Nim and I have been travelling, looking for refuge. Now Nunez should tell you his story, and we’ll try to explain how we all met together and what made us come here.”

Nunez then told him what had happened to him, and how he came to fetch the two women to the island. Zik heard about it all with growing astonishment.

“I have an idea,” Dar added, “the volcano erupted when the whole Earth was shaking, destroying most of humankind on it.”

Zik pondered on the idea for a while. “But you have no knowledge of the whole world,” he protested, “you can’t be sure it’s all been destroyed.”

“No,” agreed Nunez, “but we have to go on on the assumption that we can look for help from no one else but us.”

“And the witch...” whispered Nim.

“The witch...” Zik echoed after her. “Who do you think she is?” he turned his question to Dar.

The physician shrugged. “It’s very difficult for me to believe in her. I’ve never believed in any supernatural powers. But...”

There was silence again, and after a while Zik said, “Now that you found me, what are we going to do?”

The others looked at each other.” There’s nothing for any of us to go back for,” Nunez said quietly at last. All four of them sat silent, remembering...

“Nor for me, either, I suppose...” Zik said slowly, in a shaky voice.

Tears started flowing from his eyes, and he wept silently, his head bent to his chest. Dar took hold of his shaking body, as she had done a number of times before, signing to the others to go back to their corner. She made him lie down and then lay beside him, holding him to her body as he buried his head in her bosom.

After a while, something stirred in him, and he took her body in his arms; she was quite ready for him, she lay with him as a woman lying with a man in the age-old way. There was no thought in her mind except doing what he wanted her to do, and what she herself had wanted to do for some time: to accomplish the natural function of male and female in order to enhance the union of their body and soul, and to take care of the continuation of the human race.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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