The Volcano Lady by T.E. MacArthur
Tahuna, Grand Sangihe Island
Dutch East Indies
A twilight darkness covered everything in shadows: it was just after eleven in the morning. Thick clouds, grey and swirling, shrouded the entire island. The deep greens of jungle vegetation and colorful flowers of the tropics had been buried under layers of ash, and bleak flurries of the same material blew past them in a storm generated deep inside the mountain. Sulfur reeked in the wind.
Moaning with every rattle, the ground swelled and subsided, creaking and groaning with every shiver. Rocks tumbled down the sides of the hills, unable to stabilize with the constant shaking. Life gave in to silence and surrendered every noise to the mountain.
It wasn’t the volcano’s fault. It was what volcanoes do, she told her father. He wasn’t listening.
Theodore Gantry picked her up: a small bundle of blanket-wrapped petticoats, curls, and scalding ash. Lettie was horrified that her father held her too tightly as he ran towards the hillside. She could run too; he didn’t need to carry her. She squirmed and whined until he put her down. The blanket was dragged along behind. Holding tightly to his hand, she ran as fast as she could. Together they reached the hill and Gantry pushed his daughter ahead of him, up and up.
For every step he took, he slid back or down in the slimy mud, not getting anywhere. That was her fault. If he wasn’t burdened with her he’d be faster. She slipped suddenly and fell. Gantry wrapped his arms around her and lifted her from the sticky mud.
The roar behind them was growing louder by the second. Louder. Deafening. The ground was shaking harder than before. Hot, gray ash filled their mouths too, making it all worse. They were choking from the poisonous air. She buried her face in his shoulder.
Reaching a flat break in the slope he stopped only long enough to decide which was the fastest route to the top? She would never make it on her own: that was what he was thinking and why he had to stay with her. He was wrong.
A Minahasan man, one she knew from Papa’s business, skidded down the hill to meet them. Over the roar, Lettie thought he heard him call, “hurry, hurry!” Gantry reached out with his only free arm and let the local businessman pull him up the slope. Every step was painful, and every other step was a failure to reach safety. Her Papa tried shouting something back to him, but couldn’t remember his name. Papa was really bad with names.
Letticia called out to the man, “Georgie.” It wasn’t the man’s name, but it was as close as she could get to pronounce it. ‘Georgie’ never seemed to mind it, not when he’d met them at the docks, nor when he sat with Gantry discussing the price of Nutmeg, nor when answering Lettie’s endless questions about the big mountain. And, not now.
“Higher! We must be higher!” Georgie screamed.
Gantry drew in another thick breath of air which felt like cement on his tongue. It burned. “All the shaking … I thought … they were just earthquakes. I didn’t think …”
Georgie pulled, all the while obsessively repeating, “Gunung Awu.” Awu Mountain. Awu Volcano.
Lettie began to scream; shrill and terrified. She could see what Papa hadn’t, yet. A wall of mud, crashing down the lush valley towards the village. The source of the deafening roar. Gantry stopped wasting time looking behind him. He could guess what was happening.
With an arm wrapped around Gantry’s waist, Georgie began pulling them both, desperately grasping trees and vines for stability. She wanted to reach out too, to help. It wasn’t fair to Papa; he shouldn’t have had to carry her. She was a big girl.
The mudslide hit the hillside with a wave of debris, grinding down the soil with the rocks and boulders in its mixture. Trees were smashed flat or twisted out of the ground, roots and all. The three tiny humans were only halfway up the hill and not out of the way. The footing under both men was swept out from under them. Lettie hit an upturning root of a tree when she was ripped from her Papa’s arms. The mud crushed her harder into the tree and the blanket, meant to protect her, only helped with suffocation.
Papa grasped her any way he could and finally tore away the heavy blanket from her face. Again, his footing failed and they tumbled in the rush of mud. Gantry seized a vine and held on, calling out to Georgie. The wave of mud swept viciously over them one more time, and then subsided nearly as fast as it came.
The ringing in her ears was excruciating and she held her throbbing head in her hands, wondering when Papa was going to move. Her eyes stung from the ash and heat; the painful headache pressured them until she thought they might explode. She closed them tightly as tears formed.
The mud was flowing still but far away from them now. She reached out to him and he stirred enough to hold her hand loosely. Lettie used her free hand to tug at the blanket wrapped around her legs. She threw it over him and sat as close as she could. The air was hot but the mud had been cold; she would keep him warmer.
(The Volcano Lady by T.E. MacArthur)