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We went as far as the car would take us, which wasn’t all the way. To get all the way, you had to walk, and walking wasn’t going to be easy. Not in that terrain. Not when every step was swamped with ash, which seemed to suck and subside and leave your foot not much further on than it was before.
I said to Sue, “Are you sure you can manage, Sue? Are you sure you’ll be all right.”
“Sure I’ll be all right,” she said. “Sure I’m sure.”
But her face looked a little upset, somehow. It looked a little discomposed. Even back in the car she’d had that look, and while it wasn’t getting worse, it wasn’t going away either. It was a look that said, “Whatever my lips may actually tell you, I’m really not sure about this now. My lips are liars – don’t listen to ‘em.”
But I had always listened to Sue’s lips. That’s why I had married her in the first place. If I’d listened to her face – if it’s possible to listen to a face – I wouldn’t have married her. Her face had told me, back in that harsh New England winter five years before, that she was not for marrying. She was too old for it. And I was too young to be considering to marry her. I should be chasing girls my own age, not old women in their sixties, who’d seen better days. But her lips had told me, in that sensual and persuasive way lips can, that marrying her was exactly what I should do. And that was five years ago, and that’s what I had done.
I didn’t regret it. I loved Sue, after all. And Sue said she loved me, or at least her lips did.
We could see it up ahead, the volcano. We could see it rising steadily out of the platinum-coloured land. Here and there one or two little scrubby bushes clung to the ash, but there was so little for them to get their roots into that they made poor bushes indeed. Mesquites can grow quite big, but these were small and withered, as if cowering from what they sensed could come out of that crater, even though nothing had for centuries.
At the base of the incline, I paused to let Sue, who was lagging, catch up. She had that look still, and now, for the first time, I sensed that something undercut it, something not contrary but not supplementary either – I think it was panic.
“Are you all right, Sue?” I said. “You look a bit pale.”
“Of course I’m all right. I’m always pale. It’s my complexion. It’s everyone’s complexion who comes from Maine, dumb-ass.”
She had a way with words for an older lady, Sue did.
I noticed that she wasn’t breathing hard, which surprised me, because the effort of walking on ash was making my own breath come a little harder, just to catch up with itself, and I am fit. But I worried about her ankles. They were prone to a little arthritis, Sue’s ankles were. And she insisted on wearing semi-high heels that her old feet distorted as they in turn had been distorted by high heels past, as if they were intent on getting revenge on those high heels. And her ankles swelled up and seemed to be spilling over the heels in what looked to me like an awful painful way, but she rarely complained about them. Only sometimes she would moan and groan a bit when we got back from someplace and she’d sit there rubbing her feet as if they were painful, without actually saying so. On the few occasions I had asked her, though, she’d admitted to it readily enough. “My ankles give me pain,” she’d flatly state.
“Are your ankles ok, Sue?” I asked her, as she came up level with me and gazed at the slope ahead.
“My ankles are fine,” she said, and smiled at me from behind that ambiguous mask she was wearing.
“Allrighty then,” I said and started up the slope.
“Aren’t you gonna help an old lady a little bit?” she said suddenly, from behind me.
I turned back around, a bit stunned. I had never heard Sue ask for help, and if ever I’d offered it, she had pridefully declined. In fact, she had sometimes gotten angry with me for asking, which is why I hadn’t done it now.
“Of course, sweetie,” I said, rushing back to take her arm. “Why didn’t you say before?”
“Well I didn’t need it before,” she said, “but now I need it, so I’m asking.”
“Take it slow,” I said, guiding her up the slope. Her face was measurably less tense already. I could see that it was a relief to her to have the support, and this in turn made me feel relieved.
“I wish you’d ask more often, Sue,” I said. “You really shouldn’t struggle on needlessly just for the sake of—” I broke off, wanting to say “pride” but thought I might offend Sue by calling it that.
She seemed to know that I had bitten my tongue though, and an uneasy silence came between us, despite our close proximity. The silence came and wedged itself there, between our two faces, like a third thick face that neither of us had met before. We didn’t like it, but it was hard to dismiss. The silence, you see, was all around, and we both sensed, I’m sure, that if we managed to shake it off for a second, it would just rush in again a moment later. We went on climbing.
The sky above us was a thick white, and seemed very low, but there was also a great humidity in the air. My t-shirt was damp, and I could see that Sue’s blouse was also sticking to her, especially where my hand grasped her arm.
“It’s awful funny weather,” said Sue, as we got nearer the top. I think she was staving off anxiety about what we would find when we got there, so I just uttered a generic, reassuring reply. It wasn’t a big climb really, and there was a sense that there oughtn’t to be anything spectacular at the top of it, but somehow you sensed there would be regardless, and this discrepancy made you feel nervous.
And it turned out, there was. At the top of the climb we stood there and looked down, clapping eyes on the crater. It was much, much deeper than the climb had been tall, burying right down into the earth.
“My goodness,” said Sue breathlessly, as if her lungs had finally realised that they ought to be puffed. “I never thought it would be as deep as all that.”
“Neither did I, Sue,” I said, scratching under my t-shirt at the back, where the sweat had made it itchy. “I guess it’s because the ash trailed out so far, effectively smoothing out the slope into a gentle gradient.”
And it was true that we had driven through the volcano’s skirt of ash for 10 miles before we’d had to abandon the car.
“Oh right,” said Sue, “I guess you’re right.”
“Wow,” I said, handing Sue the water bottle.
She took it and swigged greedily. I heard the water gulping down her throat and saw her hefty bosom heaving with the effort of taking it all in at once.
“Oh sorry,” said, remembering herself half way and handing the bottle back to me.
“No, no, keep going,” I said. “I’m not thirsty now, Sue.”
She took the bottle back again, but out of politeness didn’t drink any more. I knew she wouldn’t do, though she probably needed it.
Far away in the mountains, dark clouds had gathered, and I could see rain sheeting down onto them ominously.
“I hope we don’t get that here,” I said to Sue. “I don’t fancy driving back through this ash if it turns to mud.”
“Oh I don’t think we will,” Sue said reassuringly. But she was probably right – it looked to be confined to the higher reaches of the mountains.
I thought I could see something glinting at one point, and guessed it might be either a car headlight turned on in the rain or something catching some sunlight somewhere, though the two ideas seemed to cancel each other out. Apart from that though, there was nothing. Even the old hotel we had passed on the way in was nowhere to be seen. The place had looked deserted, though there was a Vacancies sign, in English, in the window. If anyone was living there, keeping the place running, they’d have had a running battle with the ash, which was banked against the walls as if intent on smothering what amounted to the only human presence in its area of influence. There had even been ash in the mailbox, whose little tin door had vanished.
“Strange that we can’t see that hotel,” Sue said, seeming to read my thoughts.
“Probably it’s been covered over by the ash,” I laughed, “buried alive.”
“Ooh, don’t say that!” said Sue, in a tone that suggested she really relished the thought.
“Just saying”“ I said.
“Hey look at me,” said Sue, waving her hands about suddenly, while keeping her head still, as if a butterfly had landed on her and she didn’t want to spook it off.
“What?” I said.
“Look, my hair.”
And it was true. Sue’s hair was standing up on end – long, grey, wispy strands of it were being tugged upwards by some invisible force, as if God was trying to teleport her up to heaven but she was too strong to go. It spooked me at first, to see Sue like that. And I didn’t like the way she was standing so stiffly either: the whole tableaux as presented to my eyes shocked me.
“Why isn’t it happening to me?” I said, feeling my own hair and feeling secretly relieved that it wasn’t.
“It obviously doesn’t like you, hon,” said Sue, still holding her arms out and walking over in my direction, as if carrying a stack of plates on her scalp. I wasn’t sure I wanted her near me, and I almost signalled to her to stop right there. But she kept coming, and more and more of her hairs lifted off of her head.
I took a step backwards, forgetting the crater was there, and almost lost my footing. A mini avalanche of ash cascaded downwards and was arrested only when it reached a mesquite growing out of the inner wall.
“Look what you made me do!” I said, “I almost fell into the dang pit!”
“Well look where you’re standing, then,” said Sue, arriving in front of my face and planting a kiss on my affronted lips. The kiss buzzed between us like an entity unto itself, filling the negative space of the earlier silence with a positive charge. A rumble went through the clouds directly above us, but neither of us looked to see from whence it came. We were glued to each other, with our strange kiss.
“Now you’ve got it,” Sue said through her teeth, groping around on my head as if in the dark. And she was right, too: I could feel it.