Volcanoes, Being like Women

The eruption would be unequivocal. Yet, still the team stayed at the top of the summit. They had receded their camp to the lower cliff side in the last few hours, but still they were the closest humans to such a sight.

Bright day had broken over the horizon and with each oncoming hour of night the sparks flew higher, and higher. The heat was insurmountable, just standing where he was, Hayden had to breathe as deeply, and as slowly as he could, and he was farther away than most of them.

Hayden took a few more shots with his camera. His nose itched, but he didn't reach up to relieve it. His eyes blurred, and the skin on the back of his hands felt like they were melting off, and he kept losing grasp of the shutter button.

A few more shots. A few more candid caricatures of the archeologists wandering near the top rim. Still diligently collecting all of the evidence that they could. When Hayden first arrived here it had been to photograph a set of warriors who had been entombed, and subsequently mummified here. Not long afterward it became clear that the mountain was doomed to explode.

Hayden took a few welcoming steps backward, making sure he was careful not to trip. On his first day here he had done that continually - stepped back, even the slightest of inches, and found himself toppled to the sharp rocks beneath his feet. As a photographer he was more then accustomed to moving his own body to get the best shot, but now, he could say that as a photographer he was more aware of his surroundings as well.

When his roll was finished he emptied the film casing out of the back of the Nikon and stuffed it into his pocket with all the others for the day. Slinging the digital around his shoulder he holstered his manual camera, already pre-filled with gothic Kodalith film and began snapping frames for his own personal collection. He had meant to do this on all of the other shoots he had been assigned to since joining the magazine, but somehow he never found the right moment. Not while photographing survivors of the earthquake in Armenia last year, where the wrinkled faces of dark-haired women softened only when a river of tears fell across them. Or at his assignment at the WTO protests in Seattle that had turned so violent, and chaotic. Hayden figured that now, on the eve of a mountain's hauntedly explosive last breathes, would be as good a time as any.

"Watch your step there!" He heard someone jeer, then boisterously hide a little snicker.

Hayden turned behind him, a man, one of the scientists - archeologists, geologists, volcanologists, anthropologists (Hayden had stopped trying to keep track) was leaning his back against one of the rocks, and casually held a beer in his hand. "Thanks," Hayden responded, keeping his tone light, after all he saw no point in alienating anyone here, although it was clear to him that the stranger was referring to the many tumbles and spills from his first day. "I'll do that."

"Auhh! Don't take it like that Kid, I was only joking."

Hayden took a few more shots; honestly he couldn't have cared less what the man thought of him. "Don't worry about it, no offence taken."

"Auhh! I'm sorry Kid, here, let me give you a beer to make up for it." The man pointed to a small cooler near his feet, that Hayden hadn't noticed before.

"Thanks, but no! I'm working."

"Oh-Oh you did take offense, I can smell it on you."

Hayden was beginning to get irradiated. He stopped taking pictures and turned to the man, staring him down.

"Oh com'on, Kid, have a beer on me. I know this is your first time out, you've got to be dying of heat."

Hayden turned up to the summit, the archeologists were still rummaging around in the rock as before, "Alright."

"I'm Karl," the stranger said, extending a scarred, but remarkably smooth hand to Hayden, and then handed him a beer.

After introducing himself Hayden took a long sip from the opening in the can. It wasn't cold, which he had hoped for upon taking it, but the flavor filled his mouth easily.

"So what are you?" Hayden asked, referring to what Karl's title was.

"Human," Karl spat back, and Hayden dropped the subject.

"Auhh! I'm sorry kid," he took another swig from his beer: "It's just that the sight of an erupting volcano puts me in a bad mood."

"Yet you study them?" Hayden hated himself as soon as he said it.

"Snappy?" Was Karl's only reply.

Karl and Hayden stood in silence for a while. Each watching the wildness of the black night cloak almost everything around them. The jutting spray of lava jumping up into the sky and falling thick and fiery down to the rocks below.

"Do you know," Karl began after some time: "That a volcano is like a woman! No, no, I'm serious, I can tell you think I'm not, but you see it has this presence, that a woman has. A volcano is tall, like a woman. Or at least, it has the stature of a woman. But when you see a volcano (like seeing a woman) you can't help but be awed. Even ugly women have that power."

"And when you meet a woman, you encounter a Crater, like in a volcano, and it's this vast space of womanhood, so delicate - the rock there is so deteriorated you can chip at it with your fingertips, it's like sand - and yet it's also so desolate, so foreign, and incalculable, you can't help but think how it got there. Then you factor in the Vent, which I like to view as a woman's mouth, because women love to vent to you. They go on and on and on. Then you have the Flank; the first layer of a woman; always mysterious, deep inside the surface. Even when they don't know they're being mysterious, it's mesmerizing. You know what I mean? There are other things, Base, Conduit, Bedrock," Karl licked his lips, saying the next few words very slowly and eyeing Hayden: "Magma Chamber. And even just looking at them (women and volcanoes) you would never know what's going on underneath the surface. It takes a specialist to read the signs right, and even then you can never really be sure when something is going to blow until it blows."

Hayden digested Karl's words slowly, there was a bitter, humorous truth to them. While he listened Hayden saw Kathleen in his mind, which was odd to him being that he had not seen her in so long.

Kathleen, with her hair braided into a thousand tiny braids each night so in the morning her hair would fan out in zigzag curls.

Or Kathleen standing beneath the milky sepia of a street lamp, with an umbrella extended above her. The cold metal arm nestled against her neck while she waited for the bus.

Kathleen telling him one day over dinner that she and the other nurses always tried to keep each baby alive for the whole of their day, and breathed a sigh of relieve with each shift change when their charge could be handed over to someone else. Not for any desire to see the infant live, as Hayden had assumed, but because filling out paperwork after an infants death took hours.

Or Kathleen disrobing from mint-green scrubs in the doorframe of the bathroom they shared. Hayden watching the way her thin vertebrae bubbled up across her spine.

Or the rosary which she hung from the post on her side of the bed: 'for luck' she had said, rather then for spirituality.

"What do you think Kid, do you think a volcano is like a women?" Karl asked.

"I don't know," Hayden confessed, "I had never really thought about it before," though he was thinking about it now.

"Well, the earth could move any minute" Karl said, referring to change: "We are on a tectonic plate."

In the distance down below them they could see the hints of tiny fires. Merely flashes of light darting around. "What are those?" Hayden asked.

"Those," Karl spoke slowly, "Are the people from the villages below here that are trying to get out."

"Doesn't look like many."

"No, most of them won't go."

"Why?"

"Because this is their home. Who would they be if they left it now?"

"That's very poetic," Hayden observed.

Karl shrugged: "Poetic about staying?" Karl scoffed at him: "Honestly, I'll bet most of them have nowhere else to go. Like those mummies up there." Hayden turned, looking back up to the top where the archeologists toiled hopelessly: "It's their fate to stay here. Those idiots up there won't get them out in time. Like the people down there."

They stood in silence for another long moment.

"Ahh, hell, what do I know?"

a/n: Written for the October Writing Contest, via The Review Game.