Volcano Climber

They said that it was impossible, that the volcano was unpredictable and could erupt without warning. The sky would fill with ash, and fire would spill down the mountainside and sweep me away. But I was born in the foothills, beneath the ashen sky and the spilling lava, where my father farmed trout and my mother tended the family, and how could I fear the thing that first gave me life?

I was 11, and my sister was sick with a cough that made my mother worry. My brother had moved north to find work. He sent us letters with money, but I would rather have had him. When we were small boys we ran over the foothills of the volcano and watched the snow falling into the crater at the top. My little sister would tag along behind us. She had always been small, but she was one of us. She was tough. We dared each other to climb the highest boulders we could find. I wasn’t very good at climbing, so my sister would climb first and help pull me up while my brother lifted me from below. And then the three of us would stand high up in the air and yell until the echoes carried our voices far down to the valley below the volcano.

I climbed the foothills often after my brother was gone, although I wasn’t strong enough to climb far. Once I climbed in the monsoon season. The rain and clouds covered the top of the mountain and I wanted to know what it felt like to be hidden in the storm. My father found me soaked and curled up underneath a tree. He told me it was high time I got some sense, now that my brother was gone and I was the oldest. But I did not see any sense down there in the foothills. Down where my sister had grown sick with a cough that kept our whole family awake all night, and we could not afford to send her to the doctor. Where my brother had to leave school to travel north and find work. Where my father spent all day farming in the mountains and still my stomach growled. I wondered if sense might be high up among the clouds that circled the volcano.

And then came the day that my sister’s coughing expanded to fill the house like smoke. “We must take her to the doctor,” my mother said, and my father counted the money from my brother and shook his head. “We can eat a little less and wear our clothes a little longer,” said my mother. They found a neighbor with a truck, and he drove them down to the city below the foothills, with my mother holding my sister in the cab while my father bounced up and down in the back. But the next night they had returned, and they dropped their heads and said that the doctor could not help my sister anymore, that she was too far gone.

And that was the night that I stood in the foothills and I yelled to the gods or to the stars or the moon or whatever was up there. I yelled for my sister with her sweaty cough and for my brother far away from his family and for my aching stomach that curled inside me in hunger and rage. And in response, the earth shook and the volcano growled and the smoke filled the night and blackened the moon. And I began to climb.

My anger carried me. I felt it resonate deep in the rumbles of the mountain below my feet. All night I hiked, across streams and over fallen logs and through overgrown brush, until the trail finally disappeared and the faintest hint of gold shone from behind the mountain.

The air grew cold and thin as I climbed. I could see the crevices near the volcano’s top, and beneath my feet the mountain growled. I reminded myself that it had not truly erupted in years, nothing more than smoke and ash, at least, and maybe a few flames, but I knew that even the most experienced hikers would not climb this far. The smoke seemed near enough to touch now. I began to cough. First it was small and weak and then deeper and stronger until it scraped against the edges of my lungs and I felt them turning red. I remembered my sister and night after night of listening to her cough beside me in bed. “I am climbing for you,” I whispered into the wind. And then I said it louder. “For her! I am climbing for her!” And then I turned and faced the world below the mountains and I yelled as loud as I could. “Do you hear that, world? I am climbing for my sister. If you want to kill someone, come and kill me.” The wind caught my words and carried them down the mountain to the cities and villages below.

I began running then, and I felt the mountain urging me forward. When my foot landed too heavily, the mountain shook and threw me back into the air. The clouds swirled around me and lifted me up. The crater whistled and cheered and called to me to climb higher and faster. The mountain wanted my sister to live as much as I did, for she had been born on its foothills too. I ran faster and faster, my feet lit by the volcano’s burning embers.

Then I was at the top. I bent over and caught my breath from the climb and then crept to the edge of the crater. Inside it burned deep orange and blue, and I saw it working, fighting against the earth, against the pain and the sickness and disease, cleaning it all with fire. I felt its anger, even stronger than mine, and I knew it had been waiting for me to come to it, so that it could show me how it too hated how hard my father worked and how loudly my sister coughed. I stood tall and threw my hands in the air. The world spun out around me, red light fading to purple fading to morning dimness, where people still slept in their homes unaware of the volcano’s fury against their pain.

I stood at the top and looked at the fire raging, and I couldn’t explain it but I knew that my sister was better. I ran down the mountain, through the foothills and straight to my house. In my parents’ room my sister lay calm and sleeping and healthy. My parents stood next to her and watched her sleep. “Her coughing stopped this morning,” they said. “It’s a miracle.” I told them it was not a miracle. I told them how I had climbed and what I had seen. How on the volcano’s edge I had seen anger I never knew existed, that it was waiting and somehow had helped us.

My sister grew stronger every day. She began to walk again, and then run, and soon we were climbing on the foothills and wading in the streams at our father’s farm. She would leap up the hills as fast as she had before, and I would chase her. We were happy then, but my father said it was not fair to keep the volcano a secret. He said the rest of the world deserved to know what had happened. We owed it to them.

At first no one believed me, so I had to show them. I found another volcano, a small one this time, but violent. I asked the helicopters to follow me to watch me climb, and, just like before, when I neared the top, the volcano reached down and pulled me up to the crater burning with fury. This time it was a woman in a coma who was healed. She woke up to her children around her bed, and the doctors did not have any answers. Then the interviews piled up, one show after another. They offered me magazine features and plastered my photo in the windows of sporting good stores. They asked me what I wanted, how they could pay me, and I said I wanted nothing but for my family to be together, my sister healthy, my brother living with us again. So they flew my brother back to us and arranged for him to go to school and the three of us climbed and played and laughed.

Now the world cheers me on. For three years I have been climbing volcanoes for them. They send me from mountain to mountain so that I can climb to the top and peer into the crater and tell them what I see. Sponsors give me flame-proof clothing with their logos embroidered in bold across my chest. Nutrition companies name energy drinks after me. All over the world I hike volcanoes, active or inactive, the frequently climbed or the desolate. And every single time, when I near the top, the mountain rushes down to pull me up, the way my sister and brother helped me climb the boulder years ago. No one can explain it, why my climbs heal the world the way they do.

Talk show hosts interview me. “Where did you find your inspiration, your courage?” they ask me. They say that my climbs give the world hope, something to cheer for. “We need someone on our side,” they say. “That’s you.”

In return, I tell them how the world does not know anger until it sees the anger inside a volcanoes’ crater. I tell them that the mountains rage for us, at the injustice and hurt we experience. I tell them of this mighty ally, and they clap for me and the people ask me to climb another for them.

They fly me to a desert, and I climb a volcano that smokes into the bluest sky. The sand and wind rub against my skin. I tie a bandana around my mouth so that I will not cough. At the top this volcano’s fire burns deep red, darker than the other volcanoes, and when the helicopters lift me from the crater and bring me back down, all of the villages nearby have clean water and the children can drink their fill without becoming sick. I climb one in the rainforest. It hisses and seethes, a young and passionate anger. After I climb, the trees that have been torn down by machines grow tall and strong again and fill with monkeys and parrots. Near a large city a volcano’s rage is deep quiet, a rumble that shakes the earth in silence. I climb, and fathers stop beating their children.

My family lives in comfort now. We own a large house in the city below my volcano. We will never lack for anything again. Medical bills and college tuition and my parents’ retirement – the volcanoes have kept us safe and provided for us. My father does not need to work on the foothills until dark, and my brother lives with us and goes to school again, and my sister is strong enough to run. They call me hero, the savior of the family.

In three years I have climbed some of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet, but they ask me to climb one more, larger than any mountain I have ever seen, roaring and unclimbable. “This one will change the world,” they say. They tell me they will be right with me they whole time, with backup and rescue if I need it. The preparations take weeks. Tactical teams discuss possible routes with me. Sponsors outfit me with the best gear. Fans send letters and emails and say that they believe in me, that they know I can climb this final, most difficult volcano. The world fills with hope. On the morning of the climb crowds surround me and cheer. They write their wishes on banners and wave them high: “No more poverty!” “Cure cancer!” “End global warming!” My father puts his hand on my shoulder. He says that whatever happens, he is proud of me. My brother tousles my hair like he did when we were children and says, “Let me know if you need a lift.” My sister holds my hand. “Thank you,” she says, and I hug her tight.

I start out slow. I take my time on the foothills and save my strength, focusing on all the ways this climb could change the world. But from the beginning, something is different. This volcano is angrier, indifferent. The path grows steeper, the sun hotter. I take frequent breaks. I am not used to feeling this tired. The crowds fade and soon I am alone. I feel the first rumbles of anger that I’ve come to expect. They are low and faint at first. The air is heavy, calm.

Then, a roar. Then mountain explodes, the earth cracks. This anger is violent, uncontrolled, blind. It tosses me through the air. I cling to a tree and wait for the mountain to recognize me, so that it can pick me up like it always does and carry me to the top. But this one does not notice or care. Its anger is too strong. I feel it raging hot white beneath my feet, and I almost turn back. But I know I can do it. I know I can climb to the top of this most powerful volcano and the world will be healed. I stop for the night to set up camp.

I build a fire. I touch my hands to the mountain and whisper to it. “Please let me up,” I say. “Do not let me fail.” It shakes, gently this time, and I fall asleep and hope that tomorrow the mountain will be on my side.

In the night, though, the volcano’s rage spills over, flaming and boiling and hot, and it consumes the earth. I watch it burn the forests and grass, and then I run. I run as fast as I can, and when the lava has almost overpowered me I grab the branch of a tree and scale to the top. The helicopter signals to me through the smoke and lifts me up, above the seething volcano that I could not climb.

The next day, my sister begins to cough again. My parents run to her, and my mother phones the doctor. They take my sister to the hospital right away. This time, she does not get better. The doctors prescribe the strongest treatments, but nothing works.

“Whatever she needs, we can pay for it,” I say, but that is not the issue anymore. They say it must have been in remission, the disease just lurking in her body all these years, held off by something no one could explain. Outside of the hospital the world wants to know what it was like on the mountain that I could not climb, with the lava raining down and the earth quaking. They are perhaps more excited by my failure than they would have been by my success. “Not now,” I tell the reporters. “Leave me be.”

I watch my sister slip away. She moans in pain and she is so weak that she cannot talk to me. I sit in a chair next to her bed and hold her hand. Her fingertips squeeze mine. I whisper to her that I’m sorry. I don’t understand why I failed. My mother’s eyes are dark and tired. She looks older than she ever looked in our concrete home in the foothills. I watch the pain etch itself into the wrinkles on her face. It attaches itself to her bones and she slumps against its weight. My father stands next to her and holds her hand. He raises her fingers to his lips, kisses them. My brother moves to my sister’s bed and tries to make her laugh. He reminds her of our childhood on the volcano, and she smiles for a moment but it takes too much strength and she falls asleep.

I stand near the doorway and watch them all, and I feel sorrow turning to rage inside me, boiling, ready to erupt, blind and hot like the last volcano. I turn and run, down the hallway and into the waiting room where a young couple cries over their miscarried child. Their eyes narrow at me like they know my climb should have stopped this, but they were not on the mountain with me, alone with its impossible fury. I kick at chairs and pound my fist into the wall. My father finds me there. Despite my years of climbing he is still larger than me, and he holds me until I am calm.

“This is not your fault,” he says to me. “You did what you could, but you cannot save her, no matter how many volcanoes you climb.”

I run from him, I run outside and face the nearest volcano, and I yell, like I did the night my sister almost died, the night I first climbed. I yell for the injustice of it all, and I yell because despite the miles and miles that my feet have traveled, it is not far enough and never will be, and I yell for the ways we can save each other and the ways we cannot. I yell for my sister and the person she will not become. Smoke curls into the sky, and the world turns gray. I know I will not climb again. From inside the hospital my mother begins her long and endless wail.  

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