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SLOPES

Three sides of Yasur rose up from the surrounding ocean in a fierce curve, the fourth climbed up from the centre of the island in a long, gentle backbone of ash and dust, rolling upwards thousands of feet in the air, rising up like the curvature on the spine of a whale. It was a long hard slog to the top – even hyperactive Daniel had to stop eventually and rest. He leant forward and panted heavily, arms on hips, chest heaving, watched the dense clouds of volcanic dust settle around his feet, looked breathlessly back and saw his footprints retreating far below him along the rise. The moon lit up this bare landscape in a grey, ghostly light and Daniel could see the faint curve of the edge of the island etched in breaking waves in the distance.

Everything vibrated to Daniel, each grain of dust on this mountain of grains, each breath of wind, each cloud. He could feel the tremor of the earth, sense the ground beneath him rumbling, hear the molten rock and knew that he was part of it in a way he had not been in ages. How many times had he been to this place? At least once a day for years. He had seen it in its every mood a hundred times, seen it fickle and flirty, refusing to produce its thrills for the tourists, watched it thunder and hail rocks for their delight. But Daniel had never seen it like it was tonight. Tonight it was a living thing, a heaving, breathing entity of rock and spit and strength cloaked in mystery and light, a power that glowed from the very rock he stood on, a hellish, brutal force. He tried to calm his pounding heart and continued on towards the top.

Halfway up the slope some sixth sense made him turn around. Now when he looked down the slope he could see all the way to the lookout hill, perched there in the centre of the island, sloping down evenly to the curve of a bay on either side. For the first time Daniel saw the lookout as sister to Yasur, a smaller, unopened cone of power perfectly balancing that sibling bulk he climbed. There was movement below him, he froze and watched, scarcely breathing. Another shape was ascending the side of the volcano, an unexpected addition to this strange moonlit world. This black thing seemed to slither towards him, it glided up the track scarcely touching the ground. There were no clouds of dust where it walked, no sign of its approach. This huge black cat padded upward with steady tread but did not touch the earth. Nor did it acknowledge Daniel as closer and closer it came. The large yellow eyes were focused on a point up high, behind Daniel, on the lip of the volcano. There were no tracks in the dust, there was no sound at all as the panther continued on its trek, staring steadfastly in front of it, seeing through the startled journeyman in his way.

He heard the heavy breath of it, the rhythmic purr and growl of it as it approached him on the path, felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up in fear, but Daniel felt none of that in his heart. There was an ineffable sadness about the big cat. All aggression had gone from the beast; it simply walked steadily towards the lip of the volcano with quiet, solitary purpose. Daniel sensed the lack of danger in his heart but had no time to tell that to his body. The human in Daniel froze, his thumping heart betrayed the higher forces now inside. He froze as the beast drew near, didn’t draw breath, didn’t blink as the beast came alongside him and stopped. The panther nuzzled plaintively at his drooping hand with the side of its head, the smooth black fur prickling his palm for an instant as the animal leant for a long moment against Daniel’s bare legs. Daniel felt the warmth of its body, the rise and fall of its ribs as it rested, then felt the panther sigh, a sleepy, listless breath of resignation, and watched as it silently pushed away from him and continued drifting up the slope towards the red glow in the sky.

All Daniel could feel was the sweet sadness of the beast as it passed by. He stayed still with respect until it disappeared up the track then slowly resumed his pilgrimage in its wake. His footprints seemed vulgar and pedestrian in comparison to the grace and languid power of the animal, but his mind, at least, flew free up the track. Further along, at the base of the final incline he looked up to his destination and saw the silhouette of the panther etched in purest black against the bright red of the smoke from the pit. The panther prowled along the rim, tail flicking excitedly, turning back in its tracks to stride the way it had come. This went on for several minutes and then, at last the great cat stood still. It threw its head back and snarled, roared defiance at the sky, backed away from the pit and pulled its weight onto its haunches. 

The black beast crouched, then sprang, it seemed to leap up and into the blazing torment, hover for a long suspended moment of glory then disappear, vaporized in a blast of heat from the earth’s core. Daniel watched without emotion as the beast returned from whence it came, stood silent in respect for a moment, then sighed and kept on walking.

*

The slope was steeper now, black rocks spat an age ago from the pit littered the trail. Daniel’s breathing was labored, the smell of sulphur more pronounced. The ridge he was climbing had thinned out to become a trail with sharp cliffs on either side, a scar in the flesh of this growing, howling hill. The rest of the sides of the volcano rose up at an impossible angle all around him.

There was dust in his mouth, dust in his eyes, his nose ran volcano mud as the giant cloud of thick ash he had created settled around his body on the rock. When he got up, rubbed that grit from his eyes and looked down the slope the light had disappeared. There was just the faintest trail of luminescence left on the slope to show Daniel where he had been.

He kept on walking.

He emerged a moment later at the foot of that rickety ladder up to the pit, where Chris had crawled covered in dust and confusion only two nights before, took stock of himself, then climbed confident steps up the final path and braced himself for the sight.

It was already overwhelming, just to be this close to all that strength, now that he could feel with his heart and soul, rather than just the tiny wizened morsel of perception he had previously allowed himself. His emotions were close to the surface now, each rise and fall in his heart accompanied by a corresponding change of passion. He was fluid, flying, free. The earth trembled beneath his feet, the wind blew cold on his back as he clambered over the ridge and stood looking into the pit.

It was as if he had never seen it before. Now the flame was alive, the gobs of flying lava hissed with a personality, the smoke was thick with voices. The crack of thunder that greeted him from the molten centre of the island was a welcoming demonstration of the power he felt he held inside him since this afternoon. He wanted to thunder back, to howl his transformation, to scream his thanks and joy.

Then Daniel caught a glimpse of himself out of the corner of one blurry eye, a glimpse of the child he had lost. This young boy stood frozen at the lip of the volcano staring down into the pit. As he turned his head to the side Daniel could see the defeat on his face and in those anguished eyes remember that afternoon when the child he was failed the test of faith. That late afternoon when the sky lost its secret colours, when Yasur lost its spell, the day he lost his strength, unable to brave the fire. The young Daniel stood there, swaying against the breeze as a sudden wind gusted up the slope and poured past them both and into the pit. Not far away the stranger kept on searching, looking for the rest he would never find.

*

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