“Hundreds of butterflies flitted in and out of sight like short-lived punctuation marks in a stream of consciousness without beginning or end.”
― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
Boca Diablo (part 2, Butterflies)
They finished placing the instruments sometime around the middle of the afternoon – with everyone circling back around the crater to where they had parked the trucks. One of the workmen pulled two steel buckets filled with ice and beer out from beneath a tarp in the pickup bed and the two of them, along with Chaix, sat down on the bumpers and began to drink.
“Come on, have a cold one,” Chaix said to Dwayne, offering a glass bottle beaded with condensation. “You’ve earned it, we all have worked hard.”
“Thanks… but I don’t think so. Go ahead and sit, I’m just going to walk around, explore a bit.”
That’s what Dwayne wanted to do. While he had been working down along the crater wall he kept glancing upward to a high green wall that surrounded about a third of the caldera. This expanse rose above the gray ash and white smoke, gleaming bright in the afternoon tropical sun. It seemed like a pull to him, he wanted to take a look.
“Sure, I guess,” said Chaix. “Explore to your heart’s content. I’ll send these two back in a while, but I want to stay ‘till sundown. Then we can check the seismographs while they are running on batteries… plus, I want you to see the crater in the dark. It’s quite a show.”
With a not Dwayne started to walk up the steep green slope to the top of the ridge. It was easier than it looked, the layers of volcanic ash and hardened lava were under a thin layer of grass and he was able to get good traction. He would climb for a bit, then pause to catch his breath and look back over the territory he had covered. The two trucks and three beer-drinking me were shrinking fast, until they looked like toys along the curving drop of the crater.
Even the caldera itself seemed to shrink in size, now that he was high and far away enough to see it as a full circle. The evil gray pit spitting its thick column of yellowish smoke was less menacing as it withdrew into the distance – it became a geometric construction with its own strange beauty rather than a gaping void with its own steep path to hell.
Before long, Dwayne had reached the top of the slope. He realized it was a very thin curving ridge, with a faint path, probably worn by some animal, along its bending edge. Looking beyond, Dwayne could see the extensive reach of the black lava fields that, from this height, looked like a giant ink-blot upon the earth. These reached out in irregular shapes in all directions. To the South he realized they flowed down into a crescent-shaped lake, with a city perched on the cliffs on the opposite side. That lake, the low spot, protected the inhabitants in that direction from the deadly lava.
In all other directions he could make out the range of hills that marked the outer edge of the greater caldera – the entire complex of volcanoes and vents that inhabited this weak spot in the earth itself – allowing the molten rock to leak out like a vast unhealed wound.
As he walked along the ridge, he came around the curve and noticed that there was another crater, much smaller that the active one, that sprouted off the outer wall of the mountain. This crater was obviously much older than the main one and had been extinct for a long time. Its walls were eroded and green, covered in vegetation like the slope that he had climbed.
The bottom of the crater came into view. It wasn’t all that deep – it looked like a lot of material had fallen from the walls into the bottom, filling it partially up.
Not only had this process raised the bottom of the crater, but it had obviously formed material that was beneficial to plant life. A thick circular area of tropical forest had grown up in the center of the crater, with the sides of the crater dropping down to meet the walls of greenery. Its emerald color was so bright and lively that, after having spent the day staring at the gray volcanic rock of the crater, it hurt Dwayne’s eyes.
The circular grove was depressed in the center to the point that Dwayne thought that it might be open there, or at least covered with low bushes instead of trees. Something about the thicket attracted him – it seemed such an unlikely occupant in such a place he felt an irresistible urge to climb down and explore the greenery himself.
The walls were eroded to the point they weren’t any steeper than the ridge he had climbed, so after a bit of walking and examining the slope from several different angles he picked a route and began to climb down.
Within twenty minutes he was at the edge of the trees. They were much taller than they looked from up above and very thick. The impenetrable tops meant that no light could reach through to the ground. Very little could grow there and Dwayne was surprised to find that everything was open and once he pushed through a barrier of some tough bushes he was able to walk and explore the area without any trouble.
With the sun blotted out it was still, but shockingly cool. It felt like being on a completely different planet that the hot black and gray world of the rest of the volcano. He instinctively pushed his way toward the center of the crater, wondering about the shallow area he had seen from above.
It didn’t’ take very long until he found what it was. The very center of the crater was filled with water, a stagnant pond rimmed with thick mud. Bleached-white trunks of fallen trees lined that area. Dwayne figured that the water and mud would not give the trees enough purchase for their roots and once they reached a certain height would tumble in a violent storm. Beyond the barrier of the fallen trunks was the silvery expanse of still water interrupted only by clumps of scrubby bushes that rose out from the liquid. There was a flash of unexpected color from these bushes, then another, then more. Something numerous, small, and brilliant was moving around on those bushes. It was too far for Dwayne to make out at first, but he had to find out.
He worked his way slowly and carefully through the obstacles of the fallen trees. He found that the mud was firmer around the upturned root balls and he could scramble on a log that was laying the right way and advance his journey. Finally, covered in muck and breathing hard, he reached the edge of the water. The sunlight came through uninterrupted onto the watery bushes and he was able to make out clearly what was flittering there.
It was a cloud of bright orange butterflies. They were large, and the most brilliant insects he had ever seen. At first, he thought they restricted themselves to the water and the shrubs, but as he watched he would see one fly off into the trees. As soon as the wings reached the shade, the brilliant orange color faded and they seemed, like magic, to blend in and disappear.
Entranced, Dwayne stared at the spectacle of the brilliant insects, until, glancing up and out from the watery clearing, he saw that a shadow was quickly descending along the wall of the crater towards the interior forest. He knew he didn’t want to get caught down there in the dark, and, with terrible strength of willpower, tore himself away from the sight and retraced his steps.
It was harder to get out of the trees than in was to get into them, and it took longer. By the time he reached the eroded slope of the crater, the sun was to the horizon and he was climbing out of a broad, dark, void.
When he reached the ridge above the sun was gone and the sky was darkening rapidly. There was not much twilight in the tropics. He wished he had brought a flashlight, but as he moved around the curve was glad to see that Chaix, far below, had turned the Land Rover to face the ridge and turned on the lights. There was no sign of the pickup, but between those headlights and an evil red glow that came from the main active crater, Dwayne was able to pick his way down the slope, yelling out to Chaix on the way.
“I’m glad you found your way back,” Chaix said, “I saw you disappear over the ridge and was worried that you wouldn’t come back.”
“I climbed down into the crater beyond, the little one.”
“Oh, I know what you’re talking about. They call that Crater Arbol – the crater of the trees. I’ve never been into it. What did you find?”
“Nothing. Only trees and mud.”
“I see that,” Chaix said, gesturing at Dwayne’s filthy clothes. “I’ll catch hell for that.”
Dwayne did not mention the butterflies, though he had no idea why he felt that it was important to keep them a secret.
Chaix picked up a powerful torch that he had placed on the bumper of the Land Rover and switched it on. He waved the beam in the dark sky and Dwayne could see the beam cutting through the clouds of smoke swirling in the dark above like a searchlight below a bombing raid.
“Come on, Chaix said, let me show you what an eruption looks like in the dark. We’re not sure why, but they seem to be more violent when the air cools a bit. It’s spectacular.”
He began to walk toward the crater with the torch making an elliptical pool of light on the ground in front of them.
“Be careful, we don’t want to walk over the edge.”
Suddenly, the light disappeared over the edge and Chaix put a hand out to stop Dwayne, who was now transfixed by the sight of looking down into the crater. Chaix made sure Dwayne was on firm ground then switched off the light.
Without the sun covering it up the crater was filled with an evil red light that came up out of the vent in the center. It seemed to swirl around with the smoke and paint the walls with a hellish, unnatural tint. Dwayne couldn’t see the source of the light, it was too far down the throat of the vent, but the world seemed swallowed out by its glow.
“The seven minutes is about up,” Chaix said.
As if on cue, the vent began to howl like a jet engine on takeoff and suddenly waves of bright glowing rocks came shooting up out of the vent. It was like watching a fireworks displace from up above, except instead of booms and explosions, there were screaming whooshing noises and crackling retorts as the rocks cooled and split.
The two of them stood there until the display waned and the vent returned to its quiet state. Still, the red glow poured out. Chaix turned on his torch and pointed it into the void, which swallowed the tiny light like it was not there. Finally, he tapped Dwayne on the shoulder and they turned and walked in the ellipse of torchlight until they reached the Land Rover.
It was slow and tricky but the truck had extra running lights and they were able to cross the rough lava road and reach the highway by midnight.