The Ghost In The Volcano

He had been climbing for a long time. The night had crossed into the morning had crossed into the afternoon and the only sound now was the rock cracking together; moving under bare foot in the ash. The buzzing of the flies had stopped. The wind had grown harsher for a time, occasionally forcing the very breath back into his lungs, and now that died away too.

He murmured softly to himself for company. He thought of what the others had said that last morning. How his declaration had not been met with disbelief or shock, barely even laughter.

I will climb the volcano, he had said.

You can’t, they had said, merely stating what they knew to be fact. You can’t.

But now, he had climbed for more than a day. He had not stopped but he did not feel tired. When his brothers were asleep in their beds he had stepped out of their home and started his ascent. When the sun began to rise, and the sky paled, when the grasslands and trees and village were already insignificantly small, it was only then he realised he had neglected to bring any water. But he had no thirst.

Climbing the volcano was not forbidden, but it was told that the volcano only lay sleeping as long as no one woke it. The last violent explosions had happened many years ago when a white man with red shoulders had arrived and had marched up between the rocks in a wide hat. Half the village had been burned away little more than a day later. The white man had not returned.

A small sound then, at first lost beneath his own murmuring. Then more. The boy stopped. Cocked his head and squinted up towards the peak.

Crying. Unmistakable now in the peace here above the world.

The boy crept onwards, using his hands to pull himself on all fours up the last sharp incline, and poked his head over the jagged edge.

Nothing. Black and absolute. The boy wondered how there could be such unending dark now he crouched so near the sun.

That sound again. A man weeping, it echoed up from the shadows. “Who is crying?” The boy whispered into the volcano, but the sound continued. “Who is crying?” He said, louder this time.

A gasp and a sniff. “Who’s there?”

The boy straightened, standing tall at the edge now. He scratched behind his ear. “What are you doing in there? Did you fall?”

A shuffling in the ash below and two white orbs, bright as moons, and as distant as stars stared back at him from the dark.

“Fall?” The moons vanished and the voice began to weep again. “Maybe I fell. I don’t know. I don’t remember.” The boy was quiet. His father said that wailing was for women, quiet thought for men. The voice spoke again. “If I did it was long ago. Long ago.”

“Maybe I can help you out.” The boy said. “I could pull you out with a stick or a rope.”

“Do you have a stick or a rope?” The voice sniffed.

“Uh.” The boy looked about him. Clouds had gathered below, cloaking the world from him and he from the world. The rocky surface was barren of colour or life. The last trees had been very far below. “No.”

The voice cried anew. It was making the boy sad. He shifted a small stone with his foot over the edge and listened for the crack as it met the ground, but it never came. Curious.

“Maybe you are a God.” He murmured.

“A God?” The voice became quiet. “I am no God.”

“You are no man.”

The moons reappeared. “I am no man? Why would you say this?” The voice was angry. The boy had not meant to be hurtful. Air rose from the volcano and warmed his belly, his face.

“If you do not know how you got here, maybe you have always been here. A man may not always have been here. A God may.”

The moons grew bigger. “If I were a God I would not stay here. If I were a God I would be in the heavens.”

The boy smiled. “Where is closer to heaven than here?”

The voice laughed then. Quietly at first, and then the laughter rose out of the darkness and filled the air around the boy. “I am a God,” The voice declared and the moons became suns and glowed like fire. “I am a God!”

A blast of heat forced the boy back from the opening and the ground shook below him. Small stones followed larger rocks as they made their way down the terrain. The boy was afraid. He crouched down and the dirt gathered between his outstretched fingers as it trembled free of the earth. The voice bellowed on but the sound shrank beneath a rumble. Beneath the laughter was a roar.

The boy was thinking of his brothers, of his mother and father when the liquid fire burst upwards into the sky. The voice was lost. The air turned to ash, then all was red. Then all was dark.

He had been sitting for a long time. The grey had crossed into red had crossed into black and the only colour now was the small slash of blue, high above him.

The boy listened, but for what he was not sure. No sound came. After a while, unsure of what else to do, just softly, he began to cry.

In The Garden

Blue. A deep blue that calms. Warm and cloudless; a bonus summer in mid-autumn.

I stretch my toes in the grass, and the old lounger creaks beneath me. Floral-patterned fabric, faded and cool with damp.

“Uhh,” He responds, squinting upwards, “That would have been 19…” The latter syllable stretching with his memory. “1961. Bridlington. With Eddie Jones.” He blinks at me as if waiting for the detail to be written down. I should write things down.

His face is brown. The straw hat dappling the sun across his brow and failing to protect his nose – red, but red all year round – is also failing to contain a cumulous cloud of white hair.

“We played a whole summer there.” He hums, falters, hums again. “What was that ditty?”

He coughs then, eyes widening in a drawn face. I am on my feet and leaning over the bed for another cardboard bowl to hold at his chin. He spits something thick and black up and pushes a desperate “sorry” out behind it.

“Don’t try and talk, Dad. It’s ok. That’s better.” I wipe his chin and linger, in case of more. The air in the room is stale; the small window too stiff to open and the air outside too cold anyway.

His eyes search the space in front of him. Faded walls, the blue paint peeling at the edges. I interpret a small grunt as my dismissal, cross to the pedal bin at the end of the bed, drop the cardboard in, wash my hands in the little sink, and sit back down.

The chair creaks again.

A blackbird sings. The huge ash tree next-door sways in the wind, twice the height of the buildings around it. Its leaves all whisper against each other and create a roar.

“Look at that,” He sweeps his arm out towards the house, standing brilliantly white against the blue sky, and laughs. “What a castle.” There’s a small, red, weather-beaten birdhouse up in the eaves. It’s never housed anything to my knowledge.

“It does look lovely in the sunshine.” I agree. “The garden is beautiful.” It is. Grass short and lush, with explosions of lavender and fuchsias along the path.

“Oh, it’s a knockout.” He locks his fingers across his stomach. The pigment is fading towards the fingertips; brown becoming pink. “Your mother works miracles.” He shuffles down in his own lounger and closes his eyes. “Your mother,” He says again. I reach out to feel the delicate skin of his hands; bones wrapped in brown paper.

I take a pale, swollen hand in mine as he spasms, the cancer a storm tearing through every organ. His eyes search, and then fixate on a point above him. He makes a muffled sound behind a dry tongue.

“What was that Dad?”

“Rats.” He shakes me off with abrupt strength and waves towards the ceiling. The hallucinations grow darker. At first, some made him laugh out loud and I longed to gather the sound around me like a blanket and go to sleep.

“No. No rats Dad.” He tries to show me again, and I take his hand. “It’s ok. It’s just a dream.” I squeeze, my fingers leaving indentations as if he’s no more than putty. His body misdirecting the liquid he takes in, inflating his limbs into caricatures.  “It’s just a dream.” He nearly sees me.

There is a rattling from the corridor outside as a nurse pushes a trolley from room to room. Pots of jelly, egg and watercress sandwiches, hot water and tea bags.

“Can I get you anything darling?” He is looking at me again.

“No, I’m fine thanks.”

“I can go over the road and get you a Cornetto?”

I chuckle. “No, really I’m fine. Can I get you anything?

“You’re joking.” He closes his eyes, puts on his ‘showbiz’ voice. “I’ve got it all, kid!”

“What about a drink?”

“Goes straight through me.”

I laugh. Stretch out, deciding I know better. I go into the kitchen to get him a glass of water. I stand in his sun. “Here.”

He opens one eye. “You’re trying to drown me.”

“You should drink a little bit Dad.” He opens and closes his mouth, a fish on the rocks. I dip the small sponge in a dish of water and wipe it around his cracked lips. He grunts. I dip it again and squeeze the end into his mouth this time. He chews on it urgently and I have to pull it away.

He chokes. More black sludge. Another apology, barely intelligible. He closes his eyes. I sit down.

“What’s wrong?” He croaks, surprised. A cloud crosses the sun. His cheeks are sallow, hair lank where his hat was.

I wipe my face. I am crying in the garden.

“It’s a beautiful day.” I say. “It’s a beautiful day in autumn.”

He frowns at me. “I can see that.”

A spasm shakes him in the lounger.

“No,” I shake my head, desperate. “It’s so warm, the flowers are still blooming. We’re on the old loungers looking up at the house. The birds are singing.”

He closes his eyes. A rat skitters across the grass and under the bed.

“Dad?” I smooth the sheets across his small frame. “Dad. We’re in the garden. The grass is soft. It’s sunny and warm. The house looks so pretty. Like a castle. Everything is lovely. Can you see it?” The room is quiet. His breathing shallow and sporadic.

His eyebrows rise. “Oh.” He says.

He sees.