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24

Steven had gone, left him on his own. Trembling somewhere between indulgence and inspiration, Chris sat through the tail-end of the night in numb contemplation. He was almost sorry when it came to an end and first light crept over the volcano behind him. Then, like a Speilberg movie, through the first gentle, golden shaft of dawn sneaking over the smoke, came a hat, a head, some shoulders and a voice, all silhouetted black against bright chrome yellow.

‘You silly dick, what are you doing sitting here?’

It was Michael, from the resort.

‘Ther&s a whole visitor’s hut back there, you fool, didn’t they tell you?’ He was laughing at yet more tourist stupidity.

‘But.. but .’ Chris was confused, hung-over, had just spent the night with the gods, been kidnapped, nearly boiled or sold to slavery, he didn’t know what had happened to him. But something definitely had. ‘How did you get here?’ he asked.

‘Jeep. Whatd you expect?’ Michael’s eyes twinkled.

‘But… how’d you know to come here?’

‘Well,’ Michael continued, ‘1 went up to the custom village and they were very pissed off, said you had run off with the John Frum people when they came to pay back an insult, Very offended. So they kept the sleeping bag and clothes. Your young friend with the beads looks very nice in those shorts. He said he’ll take them off for the tourists, though.’

He was being irresistibly jolly and completely unafraid.

‘But why am I here?’ Chris gasped as thoughts came to tongue at last.

‘1 thought you just hitched a lift.’

‘Not exactly.’1

‘Well, did they force you to come with them?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘Well, what’s your problem?’

‘There’s something very strange going on.’ He found himself whispering,

‘Do you know what you look like?’ All of a sudden Chris did. ‘Did you get stuck into the kava last night?’ Chris nodded. ‘No wonder things got strange. Tanna kava is the strongest in Vanuatu. How many did you have?’

‘Six, or seven. Maybe more. Ten. I can’t remember.’

‘Shitfaced.’

‘Shitfaced.’

They were silent for a moment then both began to laugh. Michael calmed himself with an effort arid tried to explain.

‘Remember. It’s John Frum’s birthday. February 15th. It’s a big deal around here. They think that some year on this day John Frum will return bringing gifts and incredible wealth. … ‘ He slowed right down.

‘No, there’s more than that. I saw things. I saw. ..’

‘Weird stuff? Men turning into animals, stuff like that?’ Chris nodded.

‘Hmmm,’ Michael thought for a moment. ‘Daniel was going on about this, last night. I just thought he was earthquake crazy. Things can get strange, out here. We might beat a hasty retreat just the same..’

The village was still asleep. It was early and the previous evening’s war had tired them right out. They took a circular detour, along the beach and around the village, froze as the rocks moved noisily under their feet, caught their collective breath as a rooster crowed terror into the silence, breathed mute relief as they slid into the jeep, parked just out of sight round a bend. There was a lurch in the pit of two stomachs as, of course, the ignition failed to fire, then a yelp of excitement as the motor sprang into life. It sounded impossibly loud in the mist. Chris could feel the village waking up, hearing breakfast escaping. They fled up the hillside leaving a big, angry cloud of dust in their wake, a Twentieth Century finger to the past.

Part of him was sorry to be leaving. The narcotic spell of his night by the thermal spring hadn’t dispersed; he still saw that glowing, writhing green magic mist in the night sky. The secret dreams were still dragging his spirits away as they bumped round the base of the volcano, powered up an impossible eroded track and emerged triumphant only to dip again. Chris hadn’t seen this road in daylight before. Just as well. He nodded of f, there in the front seat, head fell forward and took up where he had left off. He didn’t see Michael swing the jeep off to the right and drive up that dusty road to the summit, was blind to the tug of Yasur.

Above them, on the rim, the little boy hesitated at the gates, impelled to go on by his duty, compelled to remain still by his fear. He knew, the bleached prince knew in his heart of hearts, that to take one more step was to never come back. There was a crack and a dull rumble from the gaping earth in front of him, then a building roar as the eruption started. He stared through the gates into open space and down through the smoke and glare to his destination, that tiny elevated platform in the centre. He could just see one end of the ragged bridge of stone that led to the bottom of the path on the brink of which he stood.

The lava flowed back into the pit. It had splashed high up the slopes, a murderous rain of heavy red earth, now dripped and dribbled its way back to the mother lode, to be burnt and spat out all over again. Joshua knew it was now or never, that he had fifteen minutes, maybe a little more, to navigate that path, cross that bridge and say those words before the earth vomited out again.

He was standing on the rim with his grandfather as a tiny, toddling child, stood and heard the myths of time, saw the gates of hell, the pathway down for the first time. ‘That place, there,’ the old man said, pointing to the platform high up in the centre of it all, ‘There you will test the power of faith. Then you will be a warrior. You are special, Joshua.’ Just then the volcano had erupted and the child clasped at his grandfather’s leg in fear, ‘Don’t be scared, little one. Yasur likes you, listen,’ and there was a ferocious crack of pressure, a wounded, timeless roar. ‘See, the volcano is laughing.’ Joshua didn’t think it sounded much like mirth. He was still scared and remained so, not matter how many times he visited this place.

Now, finally, the time had come and instead of that triumphal warrior’s walk through the gates and into destiny an agony of indecision had gripped his legs in a vice, crushed his chest and stopped his thoughts. All he knew now was a gut chewing fear that immobilized him, held him rooted to the spot, glued, nailed down to this mountain. He was failing the test and he knew it. His little eyes blinked and darted around the rim in panic and that’s when he saw him, across the pit, high up on the other side.

The man stood up suddenly and looked directly across at the boy through the mist. His brow furrowed and he gasped with pride, but then that gaze was broken, his face fell and all his energies seemed to collapse inside. His shoulders drooped, his chest caved in and he swung away, to wander left, then right, to sit, to stand, to walk again. Never stopping, never able to rest. The boy stood aghast. It was a tremendously pitiable sight, a vision of limbo in a single man,

‘You must go.’ The voice behind him was close.

Joshua spun around and saw Daniel standing a few feet away, looking into his eyes with a look of greatest concern. Joshua stepped back involuntarily, almost over the threshold in his surprise, took a breath and stopped dead, He didn’t like Daniel.

‘Don’t be scared, little boy. Please, don’t be scared,’ and he held out his hand.

Joshua shrank away. He didn’t see the messianic look of a changed life in those eyes, all he saw was the wizened old fool that had pursued him around the resort this morning, throwing stones and hurling curses to his retreating back.

‘I know,’ Daniel said, ‘I know you’re afraid of me.’ No matter, forget all that, he wanted to say, I was a little boy once with powers just like you. I stood at the gates and I didn’t go through, but there was no time. He took a step forward and saw the little boy edge back toward the rim. It was too late for kindness, there was too much ground to be made up. He took another pace toward the boy. If kindness couldn’t solve the problem then aggression would have to do. Hating himself in that moment, with a look of pain on his face that Joshua thought was fury, he advanced on the frozen child and, by the power of his anger, at himself, at thirty years of failure, of frustration, fear and grief, he forced that boy to step through the gates unaided, to stand over the threshold before he even knew he had.

It was as if an invisible barrier had been crossed. Joshua looked at Daniel with a face of sudden understanding, the grimy glow of compassion, then down at the ground, as if to sight that unseen line. Now a deep calm had come over him and he shouted out. ‘Stay there!’ and in an undertone, ‘This is my day.’ Daniel stood still and did as he was told. The little boy allowed himself a flickering secret smile and a triumphant flash of those exhausted eyes before he turned away, ready to attend to the final task.

Joshua took his first step into the pit. The rough hewn steps crumbled under his feet, the crunch and grind of that volcanic rock sent out a staccato accompaniment to the main theme, that howling from the wind flowing into the maw, the gentle rumble of the earth. Another step, down, one more.

Daniel was soon forgotten as the child felt fear rise in his throat, the clamps tightened fast to his chest. Already the air was thicker, the faint sulphur smell of his childhood had already multiplied a hundredfold and stung his eyes and his throat as one. He raised one grimy white arm and rubbed his face, pushing his forefinger deep into the corners of his eyes in a vain attempt to reach the grit and irritation. Those pink eyes were red and raw by now and the path below seemed impossibly precarious.

The fear was a living presence, a constant quivering force that held his body in a jerky grip. His movements were stiff and ungainly as he descended, each leg crying out not to move, his bowels rigid at the thought of what was to come. He gripped the charred bamboo railing hard. It was hot.

All his bodily liquids were drying up. His nostrils were caked with grit and dried mucus, there were black rims around the edges of his mouth and a parched emptiness to his tongue. Joshua tried to manufacture saliva, rolling his tongue about, feebly licking his lips, but it was to no avail. Now he was a child of the inner earth, a wraith, a ghost, a flame.

A piece of the bamboo railing came away in his hand. He stumbled, pitched forward one step, recovered and sat down heavily on the narrow path. He looked back up to the rim. There, his head poking out into space, was Daniel. He was sending out thoughts of support. ‘Keep going, little one. Don’t be scared, Don’t fail the test. Stand up. One step at a time,’ he was saying, a breathless mantra of whispered words, but Joshua couldn’t hear. He sat there for a moment, allowing the adrenalin from his fall to disperse, catching his breath as he looked around the rim. Directly across the chasm, standing alone on the edge was the wandering man looking distractedly from side to side.

He couldn’t see young Joshua, abruptly stepped back on to the path, walked a few steps then turned back to face the way he had just come, hesitated, then sat down. He wrung his hands, leant his head on his chest, sighed deeply and then got up, resumed his fruitless search. It was as if he had lost his way, knew the pathway was somewhere close, kept returning to the crossroads and setting off again. The mix of exasperation and exhaustion was palpable, even to the boy heading for the pit.

Joshua edged himself down another step on his bottom, then one more, one more again. He was several metres from the rim by now with a sheer drop on one side of him and the smoking walls of the volcano on the other. Another six steps, he counted, then over the bridge. Half sitting, half standing, he edged down those last steps until he stood with his back to the cliff looking out into the centre of the volcano. Ahead of him was a single pathway marked with rocks heading out into space. On either side clouds of steam and smoke rose up in a translucent wall, the hot air forcing past that bridge and compressing these clouds, pushing them in a whistling wall of vapour.

It was a bridge from the wall of the volcano to a single great pillar of rock standing in the centre. The spouts of lava that flew up from below would sometimes splash against the underneath of the bridge and, over time, had left dripping stalactites of cooling lava hanging down, curling into the hole. Once it had been a free-standing cliff, but the forces from below had worn it away leaving just the upper shell curving out over a river of lava beneath.

Christopher woke up again as the motors cut out. He knew instantly where he was, thought for an instant that this was a dream within his dream, new instantly that it was not. The smell of sulphur flared his nostrils, the ground beneath him shook.

‘Come on!’ Michael shouted, ‘Coming up?’

‘Why are we here, Michael?’ he asked, barely masking the irritation in his voice.

Chris hadn’t had enough sleep, by a mile, was feeling terrible and tetchy and not much in the mood to disguise it. Michael didn’t care. He got out of the driver’s seat and slammed the door.

We’re 100km’ for Daniel, if you don’t mind. You’re not the only lost sheep out there tonight, you know.’

Michael hadn’t had much sleep either.

‘You can stay here if you like. I’m going up to the top,’ and he stamped away, leaving Chris alone in the jeep.

Despite his fatigue and an even greater burden of pride he opened the door and followed.

‘I’m sorry. Very inconsiderate of me,’ he panted as he caught up to Michael.

‘S’alright,’ he grunted in reply. ‘It’s early,’ and looked up to the rim.

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