“The lake of my mind, unbroken by oars, heaves placidly and soon sinks into an oily somnolence.’ That will be useful.”
― Virginia Woolf, The Waves
And today’s flash fiction:
from Claw & Blossom
“Things like that happen all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and the lake are beautiful. So stop eating yourself up alive. Things will go where they’re supposed to go if you just let them take their natural course.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
I overslept something terrible today. Actually, I set my alarm for eight; late enough as it is, woke up and puttered around, but then fell back asleep.
I wanted to get some exercise and have been enjoying loading up my new pack and going for walks. By the time I was able to get my shit together it was three in the afternoon and brutal hot. Hiking on a hot summer day is good exercise anyway, so I decided to give it a go.
I drove over to White Rock Lake and since there is all new construction going in around the dam area, went farther north and entered at Emerald Isle, intending to hike down to the dam and back.
My pack was stuffed with as much weight as I could get in there, camera, books, and water bottles mostly. I had my sun hat and safety-glasses style sunglasses on, shorts and hiking boots – I looked plenty stupid and felt it.
They are working on the old road on the entire southeast sector of the lake, building a new, wide asphalt bike and jogging trail. For now, though, it is all torn up. The afternoon was killer hot and the sun scorching. There were very few people out, two women hiking with hydration packs and a scattering of sweating bicyclists, mostly guys, mostly shirtless.
I walked down to the area close to the dam, then walked out on to one of the old wooden piers to sit and rest for a bit. I’m terribly out of shape and the easy walk wasn’t so easy for me. I hesitated for a minute, the jutting, T-shaped dock doesn’t afford any shade and I wondered if I would be better off finding a tree. The green water looked inviting though, and I decided to sit on the end hanging my legs over. The pier is old – the wood gray and weathered, broad, brown nail-heads stick up on little pimples of wood, the area around worn away by sun and water.
It was dead calm but comfortable out there so I sat and read for a while. A fish roiled the surface, going after a bug or something, showing a flash of tan fin and a splash. A duck paraded back and forth. Two soft-shell turtles splashed off their nearby log and floated around, their dark necks and thin heads sticking out of the water, wondering when I would leave so they could get back to their basking spot.
I sat looking lakeward with the sounds of the traffic on Garland road behind me. The roar of rubber on tarmac, the occasional horn, thumping of untuned engines, and the treble chatter of car radios out of open windows. When the traffic let up I could hear the roar of water going over the spillway to my left. The waterfall gave the odd illusion, sitting on the dock above it, that the lake existed as a shelf above the ground; I was looking into the tops of trees and buildings sticking up above the water. In the distance were the geometric towers of downtown.
The water around me was calm, flat, green, and smooth, but looking toward the dam I could see patch of wavelets, glittering, jewel-like. As I watched the patch began to grow and move toward me. Soon, little ripples passed by where I was sitting and then a gust of cooling breeze. The water was then covered with little silver-blue waves, the sun glinting in thousands of fast moving stars off the sides of the water.
The burst of breeze moved on, the water calmed, but for a moment, it was beautiful.
from Lost Balloon
“I’m tired of living unable to love anyone. I don’t have a single friend – not one. And, worst of all, I can’t even love myself. Why is that? Why can’t I love myself? It’s because I can’t love anyone else. A person learns how to love himself through the simple acts of loving and being loved by someone else. Do you understand what I am saying? A person who is incapable of loving another cannot properly love himself.”
― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
My Difficult Reading Book Club has been cranking through Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 at a steady clip – through Book 1 and well into Book2. There was even a mention of our last book, The Brother’s Karamazov.
In today’s chapter Tengo is on a train going to visit his father. He is reading a paperback of short stories and finds one that resonates with him and his story. It’s a strange tale called Town of Cats written by an unnamed Russian author.
I wondered if the story actually existed outside of 1Q84. I did a quick web search and found that it didn’t – that it was made up for the novel.
I did discover, however, that the story was excerpted from the massive novel and published as a stand-alone story in the New Yorker. That’s cool.
So you can read it if you want a taste of 1Q84 without committing to the 900+ page tome.
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”
― Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 24 Stories
The knife plunges through the firm orange flesh
and slices a circle across the top of the head
It comes out like a plug
and I reach in and pull out
the wet stringy gooey sticky mess
The kids poke the eyes
out with little metal saws
hunched over concentrating
on the horrible task
I take a big spoon
and clean the inside of the orb
the firm flesh
makes a hollow thumping sound
We build our little fires
inside the hollow heads
Place one on each side
of the front door
turn off the porch light
OOOO! see the yellow glow
smell the burning punkin
On the way to work out at the health club I ran into Candy and the kids coming out of Nick’s piano lessons. I spotted her getting into the MiniVan in front of Poteet High School and pulled in to say hello.
Lee asked me if I had remembered to buy some pumpkins for him and, of course, I had forgotten. After a hard workout I drove to soccer practice and switched with Candy, she went out to eat with some friends. I made a deal with the kids and after practice we went to the grocery store to pick out pumpkins to carve.
They spent forever choosing two from the big bins. Nick searched for the roundest, most perfectly shaped fruit while Lee simply chose the biggest he could find. I also bought two metal knives, dull, with saw edges, designed to be safe for children to carve Jack-O-Lanterns.
We set up in the garage, newspaper on the floor, big bowl to collect pumpkin guts and seeds, big spoons, and a towel to clean slime off our hands as we worked. I helped them get started but Nick and Lee did most of the work themselves, cutting and cleaning.
Nick did fine, his Jack-O-Lantern was good. Lee, though, made his a work of art. He went in the house and produced a drawing he had done earlier with the design he wanted for the face. Lee proceeded to sit there with that knife and sculpt the design faithfully in the firm flesh; working quickly with confident strokes on the 20 pound gourd (Nick’s weighed 11 pounds, they insisted we weigh them on the vegetable scales in the store when we bought them).
I found some candles and matches and illuminated the lanterns, turning off the outside lights for the full effect. My timing was perfect, Candy came driving up right then and we dashed inside so she would be surprised.
Tania Hershman Twitterhttps://twitter.com/taniahershman
“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
I wasn’t prepared mentally for the cold or for the snow. We were right in the snow belt that forms from the lake effect in Buffalo and it freaked me out that when I’d walk along the road my feet would actually be above the cars due to the six foot deep snow that piled up there. The building where we worked was right next to the hotel, which was near the airport, and we didn’t get rental cars – which made it tough to find entertainment in the evening.
One night a small group of us – I was the only one from Dallas, but there were two women and a guy from Atlanta – and another guy from California – sitting around the hotel bar (the hotel bar was actually a Playboy Club – there’s a blast from the past) griping about the fact we didn’t get cars and had nowhere to go. We talked about how none of us had ever seen Niagara Falls and how it wasn’t very far away. At that point I actually had an idea, “Hey, wait, there’s five of us… somebody can take a shuttle over to the airport and rent a car for one day – we’ll split the cost. We all travel a lot and have car discounts – we could get a compact for thirty bucks or so – divided five ways… that’s pretty cheap.” Everyone brightened up and the guy from Atlanta volunteered to go get the car.
One problem was that by the time he was able to actually pick the thing up and drive back it was well after midnight. The other problem was that three was a pretty severe blizzard, even for Buffalo, swirling around that night. We were from Georgia, Texas, and California… what did we know.
We piled in and set off. We didn’t know where we were going and were forced to navigate with the car rental map through a swirling opaque mass of flakes. Somehow, we finally found Niagara Falls, New York – though it took a long time, maybe hours (my memory fails on some details).
“No, not the American side,” I said, “I want to go to the Canadian side!” With that comment our odyssey became international.
We reached the bridge sometime around three AM and I couldn’t help but notice that there was a good two feet of snow on the road and no tire tracks. We were the only ones crossing that night. Traction was good, however, so we headed on across. There was an interesting conversation with the border guard, “Where are you from?” “Well, I’m from Texas, they’re from Georgia…” that sort of thing. She didn’t approve of us being out in the weather, but I don’t think she wanted to hassle with us or get out of her little heated shack so we were allowed to go on. As we entered Canada the blizzard stopped and only a light few snowflakes continued to drift down.
The falls were incredibly beautiful. I had seen many photos of the falls of course, but they were all taken in the summer. I had no idea how it looked at this time of year. The American side was completely frozen into a wall of ice. On the Canadian side the water poured free into enormous fingers of ice pointing upward, thrusting against the power of the water. The river below was solid ice with a white layer of snow covering it. The most amazing thing was the famous whirlpool below the falls. It was invisible beneath the ice but a huge, perfectly round disk of ice was free and rotating slowly in the middle of the river. The whole scene was incredible and beautiful. You don’t see that much ice in Texas.
When we drove up the whole falls was lit with powerful spotlights, making them clearly visible in the dark. While we were watching they were switched off for the night. The falls became even more beautiful at that point. There was so much snow on the ground and the clouds were so low that the whole area became lit as clearly as daylight with that strange city snow-light you see in the winter. I was transfixed.
A few snowflakes still fell as a delicate counterpoint to the awesome power of the rushing water. Everything was quiet with that stillness that a thick layer of snow brings. Quiet except for the roaring of the falls. We had the whole place to ourselves – there were no other tourists or sightseers out at that time or in that weather.
We didn’t stay long – our faces began to freeze and we piled back into the rental and headed back. When we reached the bridge there were no tracks on our side and still a single set going the other way.
from Reflex Fiction
““I think you still love me, but we can’t escape the fact that I’m not enough for you. I knew this was going to happen. So I’m not blaming you for falling in love with another woman. I’m not angry, either. I should be, but I’m not. I just feel pain. A lot of pain. I thought I could imagine how much this would hurt, but I was wrong.”
― Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun
In Miami I had to wait forever to get through immigration. In situations where a mass of people run up against the bureaucracy I have this ability to choose the slowest line. The sign said, “US Citizens Only” so I thought it would be quick flash of the passport – but all the people in front of me kept producing documents printed on tanned weasel skin, with a charcoal sketch instead of a photograph – which would cause the immigration agent to frown, walk around his little cube, and one-finger type stuff into his computer keyboard.
Crammed into this giant, crowded room were maybe fifty different lines and some crept while others (the ones that you aren’t in) seemed to leap. Everybody kept cutting through the lines. One group of teenaged missionaries from our plane cut through – moving in a giant, red-tee-shirted group from one line to another.
Somebody shouted out, “Hey, go to the back of the line.”
Their leader replied, “Excuse us, we’ve been helping the poor people in Nicaragua.”
“Good for you – now go to the back of the fucking line,” was the reply.
Finally, I reached the frowning immigration agent. He glanced at my passport and waved me through in less than two seconds.
from Ellipsis Zine
“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
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.
“Now for a good twelve-hour sleep, I told myself. Twelve solid hours. Let birds sing, let people go to work. Somewhere out there, a volcano might blow, Israeli commandos might decimate a Palestinian village. I couldn’t stop it. I was going to sleep.”
― Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Dwayne was the only young “vacationary” that could sleep in a hammock. He tied it up between two rough wooden support poles on the vast front porch of the mission where he enjoyed the slightly-cooler night breezes while the rest slept in standard bunkbeds inside. The others thought he was nuts.
“You’re only a few feet from the dirt street,” Suzanna said, “Plus all the bugs and crap flying around.”
“I’d rather deal with that than all those snoring kids inside… and that’s after they quit horsing around and go to sleep.”
Suzanna was from his church back home and he knew his mother had asked her to look out for him. He didn’t appreciate that at all – but supposed that it wasn’t her fault.
Though he was comfortable in the hammock, he couldn’t sleep tonight. He rocked gently side to side, thinking about all the work he had done, the weekend carwashes, the letter writing, essentially all the begging, to earn enough money for this trip to Santa Pagua. Up until that evening, it had been a waste – more of a teenager week at camp than the serious expedition into a foreign land that he had hoped for. Most of the male kids spent their days out in front of the mission scrabbling at the rocky entrance road with no real effect. The girls repackaged vitamins from giant bulk containers into little ziplock bags – counting pills to distribute somewhere unknown.
“Be sure and throw away the moisture packet,” the leader would shout out, again and again, “We don’t want anyone eating those.”
“What a waste of time and money all that was,” Dwayne mumbled to himself. The disappointment and bitterness had melted away though, replaced that afternoon by the excitement that was keeping him awake.
He had come in from digging at a particularly stubborn rock with a pointed iron bar, dripping with sweat, and was getting a Coke from the refrigerator when he noticed a man speaking to the Reverend Martin. The man was obviously a local, dressed in the straw hat, loose collared shirt, and light cotton pants adapted to the tropical climate – but his English was impeccable. He had been making a impassioned point, waving his hands in the way typical to Santa Pagua, to the Reverend – who simply stood there, passive, and looking around. Finally the Reverend replied.
“Of course, Mr. Chaix, we understand your needs and appreciate your objective, but you must know that we are here doing God’s work, and his work is never finished.”
Dwayne was instantly interested and boldly walked up to the pair.
“What does he need Reverend Martin?”
“Oh, Dwayne,” the Reverend began, condescension dripping in his voice, “This is Roberto Chaix, a local geologist. He is looking for some free labor in helping place some seismographic equipment around an active volcano.”
Dwayne felt his eyes grow wide. An active volcano! This is the sort of thing he had been hoping for.
“What volcano?” he asked Chaix directly, ignoring the Reverend.
“Well, you look strong enough to be of help to me,” Chaix replied. “It’s called Boca Diablo. It’s a low cluster of collapsed structures about fifteen clicks south of here. You can see the smoke rising on a clear day.”
Dwayne had noticed that column of rising smoke. He had read about Boca Diablo in his research before the trip. It was one of the most active volcanic vents on the planet, alternately spewing lava and collapsing back into itself since recorded history. The early Spanish explorers had called it Boca Diablo, thinking it had to be a portal into hell itself.
“Oh, please, Reverend Martin, please let me go.”
It took some time to get Reverend Martin to relent and agree to loan him to Chaix for a few days. After the Reverend had acquiesced Chaix simply said, “Be ready at six thirty tomorrow morning, out in front of the mission.”
Dwayne wasn’t sure if he had slept at all when the sun began to splash purple and gray phosphorescent figures along the horizon. He slipped out of his hammock, untied the knots, and rolled it up into a tight packet, hiding it behind a planter. Since he knew he was up before anyone else, he slipped off his clothes and dipped himself in the barrel of water that caught the runoff from the mission roof. The other kids would take conventional showers but he had come to enjoy the natural softness of the aqua pura.
He quickly dressed and moved out into the street away from the mission to wait. He didn’t want the Reverend to come out and change his mind about letting him go.
Chaix showed up exactly on time, driving a heavily dented British Land Rover. Following behind was an ancient junky looking pickup truck piled with gear. Dwayne sat in the ‘Rover beside Chaix and the two trucks set off for Boca Diablo.
It was a day of hard work. The first order of business was to get the vehicles across the lava field that stretched between the volcano and the highway. Some semblance of a road had been dozed through the jumble of rugged jet-black slag, but it was not passable. The razor-sharp glassy rock broke and shifted and they had to constantly wrestle the vehicles through tight or loose spots. Dwayne understood why Chaix had come to the mission for help, the two workers from the pickup were strong, but lazy, and would take no initiative themselves, simply standing around until someone told them exactly where to stand and what to do.
The obsidian lava caught all of the heat of the rapidly rising sun and soon the heat became unbearable. The workers in the pickup were sneaking beers from a cooler hidden under their dash and quickly became even more useless. Finally, a little before noon, they reached the volcano itself.
Dwayne had always imagined a volcano as a symmetrical cone of a mountain, something like Mount Fuji in Japan, rising up above all the land around. Boca Diablo, however, wasn’t like that at all.
Chaix explained that most volcanoes went through cycles of eruption and collapse and at Boca Diablo – the collapse won out.
“It’s a down volcano,” he explained. “The actual vent is a long way below the level of the surface.”
There was an oval ridge that surrounded the complex that was a lot smoother than the lava field and the vehicles climbed the last mile easily. Then they parked and walked up to the edge.
The sight was so unexpectedly stunning that Dwight felt dizzy for a second. He was staring into a vast, deep void, a huge cylinder cut out of the very crust of the earth – possibly a half-kilometer wide and just as deep. The bottom was smooth – a jet black sea of recently solidified molten rock. In the center, a smaller crater dropped down even farther, and a constant column of white smoke rose from the vent high into the sky above them. This pillar of smoke would move around in the wind. When it approached the side they stood on it would stagger them with a horrific rotten-egg, sulfurous odor.
“Sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, mixed with sulfuric acid and steam” Chaix said. “We have to be very careful, that stuff can be deadly. We must stay out of the smoke at all costs.”
As he explained the dangers, a low rumbling sound came up from the vent. They felt it in their feet as much as heard it in their ears. Chaix glanced down at his watch.
“Oh, here it comes. Every seven minutes, like clockwork.”
As they looked down into the vast crater, a sound like a jet engine began to whine out of the vent. Then, without warning, a swarm of bright orange specks began to shoot out of the smoke, arcing across the space in the crater, then splattering against the rock floor.
“Lava, shooting out from a pool down in the vent,” Chaix said. “For years it’s been doing that, surprisingly steady. Sometimes it shoots more, sometimes less – but every seven minutes.”
Then they all started in to work. After some instruction from Chaix, Dwayne was able to understand how the seismographs worked – how to set them in place, how to arrange the solar panel that provided power, how to turn on the radio transmitter. Dwayne took one of the workers and Chaix the other. That way they could each carry two instruments, and then walk off around the crater, placing them. The idea was to put sixteen seismographs spaced more or less evenly around the crater. They would run for a few months; then be picked up.
“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
The sun has set where we are camped. Set early because of the giant shadow of Boulder Mountain (13,528′).
But over my left shoulder is the huge triangular mass of Mount Antero. It’s still bright with the evening sun. It is barren, rocky, dun colored. The surface looks like speckled gravel, but I know these are huge car-sized boulders, not little rocks. Distance, height, perspective can be very confusing in the mountains.
From where I sit I look straight up a V-shaped channel – with two rounded mountain shoulders on either side. The channel is bare; I can see the violence of rock slides down its steep trough. The two shoulders have trees – they end right about at the highest treeline. The evergreens up there struggle. I see lots of brown dead sentinels; a lot of gray dead wood on the ground.
Above the shoulders the peak ridge itself cuts into the sky. The pointed main peak flanked by two rounded subpeaks. It is a world of steep rock, now turning orange as the invisible sun sets. The sky above is still blue- the deep purple blue of high altitudes (we’re camped at about 11,000 feet – we have over 3,000 more to go). Little clouds boil past; impossibly fast, impossibly close.
Tomorrow morning we will attempt to scale the subpeak on the right, after following the jeep road, the old mining road as far as we can. Sitting here, I don’t see how it will be possible. It is so high, so far, so rocky. I can see the scree slope which stopped me the last time. I’m now two years older, in no better shape. What makes me want to throw myself on that awful rock again?
“New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous.
But there is one thing about it – once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.”
― John Steinbeck, America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction
It was almost twelve years ago, I had only been working here for a couple months. I had only thirty minutes for lunch and I had only found one place I could get to and eat in half an hour. It was a little hole-in-the wall Chinese food joint down on Jupiter across from E Systems – the Egg Roll Inn. A handful of tables, twelve lunch specials in plastic letters on a board behind the counter, steam tables of prepared food, foam tricompartment plates and plastic dinnerware, little plastic packets of soy sauce, duck sauce, and hot mustard. Every city has hundreds of these places, not really very good, but cheap and fast.
I had received my allotted lumps of lunch special and steamed rice, divided by a soggy eggroll, when someone stuck their head in the swinging door, “Anyone in here drive a blue Ford?” he asked.
“I do,” expecting to be told my lights were on, it was an overcast day.
“Your car’s on fire,” was the reply.
I ran out to find the front end pretty much engulfed. For some reason, the thought of calling the Fire Department never occurred to me. I guess I didn’t imagine that there was someone who would come put out my fire for free. The owner of the restaurant said he had an extinguisher and I went in to get it. The fire looked bad, but it was mostly burning hoses and belts and wasn’t hard to put out.
I returned the extinguisher and then had a moment that was actually worse than the fire itself. I was a bit shook up and sweaty from battling the flames, my vehicle a blackened hulk out in the parking lot, everyone was staring at me (most had walked out to watch the free entertainment) but there on the table was my untouched Moo Goo Gai Pan (today’s watery special). I decided to gather up as much dignity as possible, ate my lunch, then walked back to where I work. It was a calm day and on the entire walk I could look up and see a slowly dispersing column of black smoke from my incinerated car. It was embarrassing and sad.
After that was an unpleasant week of phone calls; trying to get the title straightened out (I was woefully negligent in paperwork those days) so I could get a scrap dealer to take my car, I had to pay the owner for recharging his extinguisher, and had to make arrangements for getting to and from work until I could buy another car (I ended up buying a Renault Alliance – I can sure pick’em can’t I?). The money from the scrap dealer – minus the cost of the fire extinguisher – left we with enough money to buy two compact disks from the record store.
Not a horrible experience, but one annoying and humiliating enough to sink below the radar screen of memory. At least until the physical experience of firing off a cloud of dry powder brought it back. I was so embarrassed I never went back to the Egg Roll Inn. It’s still there, I doubt they’ll remember me after twelve years. I wonder if they have a vegetarian stir-fry? I don’t miss the food but maybe it would be worth a three dollar plate of limp broccoli to exorcise some demons.