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GURIA

No one knew how old Chief Tom was, least of all him, all they had was the evidence of their eyes. Flesh hung there from his bones; limp, drooping folds of it stuck immutably to his ribs and stomach, covered in long lost tattoos and scars. Under his filthy shorts the cheeks of his arse caved in, gave birth to skinny legs and soft, useless thighs. His glory days were long gone.

He sat silently in Sulphur Bay, idly scratching his dog by the fire. The air was rich with the evening sounds of the jungle; the coals crackled and hissed, the dog whimpered and snorted in his sleep; a pig snuffled behind him grunting with glee – and all around the twitch and shuffle of bird song, a sudden trill ringing out over the parade ground merging with the constant dull thump of the waves.

The village was quiet, settling in for sundown; smoke drifting lazily across the open meeting place and down to the beach, mingling with clouds of volcanic steam hissing out of vents dotted along the black sand. The bamboo huts were still, just women cooking around their fires, daughters sprawled beside them, watching, learning. There’s the cry of a baby at the far end of the village, he could see his grand-daughter bent double from a doorway, clutching an infant, hugging it to her breast, crooning and rocking the next generation to sleep.

The dog stretched and yawned, scratched his side vigorously with one hind leg and farted. He rolled over onto his back. Scratch my belly, boss, he was saying, rub my tummy. The grandfather did as he was told and tickled the pink underbelly of his prone companion.

‘Did you fart, you little shit?’ he said, wrinkling up his nose, ‘stinky little farter. Piss off.’

Stinky just lay there, front paws dangling limply, mouth slightly ajar. He raised its head to look up at the old man, to gauge the strength of his disapproval but the chief looked away, brushing the sharp smoke sting from his eyes. Stinky let out another long, languorous fart, laid his head in the dirt and slowly closed his eyes.

*

Eunice looked at Mary.

‘What? What, Eunice – tell me.’

Her sister paused, tilted her head and listened for a moment.

‘The birds have stopped singing. Can’t you hear? The insects have stopped…’

Eunice’s mouth fell open and she gasped.

‘Something is happening, Mary. Can’t you feel it?’

*

Stinky’s eyes fluttered open. The hairs on the back of his neck stiffened, his back arched, a long, dangerous rumble bubbled in his throat.

‘What’s up, fella?’ said Chief Tom absently, ‘found a rat?’

The unhappy animal scrambled off the ground, shook himself vigorously and snapped at the old man. Wild eyed, the dog began to bark in a high-pitched nervous kind of way, a yelp of fear, then looked back at the old man and nuzzled against his side.

‘I’m sorry old fella,’ Stinky said, ’didn’t mean to snap. I’m frightened.’

Chief Tom patted the dog with one hand and felt a tremble run right through the animal’s body. Then he felt it too.

*

The noise came closer, then closer, then closer again before Mary even had time to know what it was. The sound was faster than her thought processes, surrounding her in a white noise so deep and powerful it shook her very gut even before the earth started to move. Eunice stood there, too dumb to be frightened, her mouth still open as it hit.

*

We were half-way down the slope, looking way across the island when the kid froze. I heard his breath suck in suddenly with surprise as he pointed silently to the far end of the bay.

I saw shoreline corrugate, gather itself and move toward us like ripples in a sandy towel slapped at the wind. The trees vibrated, bent towards the sea, then bounced away as the shock continued down the coast. Time took on its own dimension – it stretched, it slid, it slowed; in the frozen moments I caught glimpses, tiny bubbles of madness, split seconds of sound.

Yasur let out one grand belch of satisfaction as the earth moved towards us, racing over the island in Sensurround, finally rolling up the very slopes of the volcano as we watched. There was a moment of total silence, a single hawk cut clean across the sunset then, with a rock and a sudden roll, the earthquake was here.

*

Stinky was off, yelping across the open space, joined by another mongrel, then another, till a pack of them ran howling around the village. Heads emerged from huts, children ran out into the clearing, the chickens scattered, but there was no panic. As the earth began to shudder the old man chuckled and settled down to ride the guria.

Abruptly the boy appeared, exactly as the earth shook its hardest.

‘Grandfather!’ was all he had time to gasp before he disappeared again.

*

Father Lathaniel was praying over a glass of whisky. He was a very religious man. Indeed, so full of the Lord was Lathaniel he couldn’t tell if the hut was moving or just him – only when precious whisky waves lapped over the rim of his glass did he really notice; only when he tumbled sideways off his chair that one and one made two. He gulped the remaining liquor and ran outside, knowing his flock would need him.

*

High up above the kitchen Mrs. Michael was snoring again. Those cupid lips lay there inert, splayed around a dank, liquid hole that was, apparently, her mouth. Her tongue lay in there somewhere, a tiny pink horror that the absent Mr. Michael had grown to dread.

The tongue was the first thing about the fat woman to move when the house on the hill started to shake. It came to life quite independently of Mrs. M., formed part of the scream that jerked her awake even as she was screaming. Those terrible piggy eyes opened as wide as they could in an expression of vacant surprise as the first of the uprights holding the house in the air gave way. Heaving herself up to sit in bed she felt the poles give way as the house swayed violently. The cracking and splintering of wood was all around her. She squealed and howled as the noise got louder, snuffing out her screaming in its vastness.

*

I thought the slope was opening up beneath me. As the earth buckled under my feet I lost my balance and slipped, grabbed the rickety bamboo hand rail and broke my fall. Earth which had been solid was moving around me, dust flew everywhere and the moon changed color. For ten astounding seconds I left the known world, glimpsed another, saw myself. Hanging on to the side of an active volcano in the middle of an earthquake was not the exhilarating experience I might have imagined. One word: terror.

*

‘Get out! Eunice, get out!’ shouted Mary as the kitchen started to sway. Eunice stood there transfixed, too bound up in the majesty of it to care. There was an exultant look about those eyes, more intensity than Mary had seen before, but there was no time for wonder. Mary grabbed her dullard sister and, with a screech of terror, pushed her out through the door.

The splintering grew louder, a roar of pain as wood split apart, walls and ceilings gave away. As she watched in horror Mrs. Michael saw the front wall of her house collapse away and fall with a sickening crash the five or six meters to the kitchen below.

*

The preacher spread his arms wide and stood in the clearing, screeching his faith to the air.

‘He sends out his command to the earth; he causes his wind to blow and the water flow!

He was drunk and they knew it – actually, so were they.

‘He looks on the earth and it trembles!’ he yowled, ‘He touches the hills and they smoke!’

A pod of kava drinkers tumbled by, just as confused as he was.

‘And they were afraid,’ Lathaniel howled at their retreating backs, ‘and marveled, saying to one  another, Who can this be? For he commands even the winds and water – and they obey him!’

He was starting to dribble and foam at the mouth. It’s just as well there was no-one left to see. Only the winds heard Father Lathaniel. His fucking flock had fled.

*

Two Sulphur Bay piglets ran screaming into the open air, hurling their piggliness right and left, dazzled and confused by the strange sensation beneath their feet. Chickens scattered, squawking and screeching their disapproval. A tiny child ran wild, arms outstretched, hurtling across the parade ground, scooped up by its mother and carried away. Old Tom watched as the flagpoles at the far end of the clearing started swaying, tops slashing through the air, whipping from side to side.

Along the beach front a most unusual thing happened. All at once the vents in the black sand stopped issuing clouds of steam. The last wisps of it curled away, eaten alive by the sea air and the beach was suddenly silent. There was a long pause. Nothing. Then, with a whoosh and splatter, a vast geyser of steam poured forth from one single vent. Twenty meters high, thirty it climbed, a seething flame-thrower that belched and howled into the sunset sky.

*

All through his childhood Dogster had a recurring dream. He is four, maybe five, dressed neatly in dark overcoat and long socks, school shoes, somewhere in infinity, surrounded by clouds of grey, lost in the grip of night terrors, menaced by he knew not what. He is crying out – or trying to. The terror in his heart is so huge that sound and gesture will not follow his urgent need. He stands there, rigid, mouth opening slowly in a frozen scream. He hadn’t thought about it for years.

*

Eunice sprawled on the grass in front of the kitchen; Mary just made it through the door as the wall of the bungalow fell directly on top. A cloud of dust flew up and seven very lucky chickens blew skyward to flutter ungracefully back to earth. The crash of crockery, glasses, the tinkle and creak of iron as the wall smashed through the centre of the kitchen was swallowed up by the roar of the earth, the tumble of furniture from above a slow motion ballet of household objects falling silently through the noise. The flying balcony bounced back, then settled in a crazy jumble on the floor of the kitchen leaving one tottering outside wall attached to the water talk and an empty doorframe that led into the restaurant. It was just as if a giant boot had stamped on the building.

Mrs. Michael was still screaming as the next set of uprights gave way. The entire floor of the house began to tilt. The hillside part remained attached and the outside edge suddenly sank down about two feet – then a foot more – then a bit more. The furniture was sliding out the hole in the wall, the curtains hung crazily. The lampshade fell slowly over the edge followed by a cane chair. It was all happening too fast for the stupefied woman to take in. Oh, she thought, oh. No prayers, no supplication, not even a thought for anyone else. Just ‘oh’. Mrs. Michael clutched the sides of the bed in a idiot attempt to stop it moving but in vain. In stately fashion the vast cast-iron bed moved towards the abyss.

*

‘The Rapture! The Rapture!’

Lathaniel sank to his knees in the sand. Only he knew.

It was the beginning of the end of the world.

*

Daniel was beside himself with glee. Dogster saw himself, huddled into a crack on the side of a volcano, eyes streaming, covered in ash and started to laugh. He howled his life away, fearsomely alive in the middle of death. The little boy flickered and sparked in the darkness

*

Even in the midst of the chaos Mrs. Michael’s screams were pitiable to hear. As the dust settled from the kitchen Mary could hear those plaintive cries, looked up to see the end of the bed bearing down towards what was left of the balcony. In the centre of the bed there seemed to be a vast white ghost as sheet and pillows and Mrs. Michael flailed against the forces of gravity and trundled slowly toward the edge.

There was another crack and a whole row of supports gave way. The house tilted gently through the radius, crushing the trees and undergrowth beneath it until it lay flat against the side of the hill. Mary watched aghast as Mrs. Michael, bed, sheets and pillows skied off into space, a white flapping wall that plowed through the wreckage of the kitchen before continuing at speed towards to two of them on the central lawn. Mary stood transfixed as the bed bore down on her. Now her mouth was open too.

Mary watched in horror as her sister started to move.

‘No-o-o-ooo,’ she shouted and Eunice looked up.

The dullard saw just a sudden darkness and two disembodied legs. She couldn’t see the bed as it roared up behind her, sailed neatly over her prone body and knocked her sister flat. Mrs. Michael was still screaming as it shuddered to a halt directly over Mary’s inert figure. The rumbling stopped.

*

The silence was absolute and instant.

Then a strange strangled cracking and shrieking, a scream from the fire, a hissing, gasping, flame-thrower of a sound. I looked back up to the rim. Yasur was glowing golden. A single vast gob of smoke was rising directly up, lit from below by a constant spray of lava, glowing deep purple, then bitch red before it mellowed, turning orange and fetid yellow before emerging as grey death cloud.

The child was there, staring seriously at me as I clambered into the jeep. Daniel watched with a happy malevolence.

‘Yasur,’ he said and laughed and laughed, ‘Yasur puts on a good show for the tourists.’

*

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