By Richard V Hirst
‘You know Shelley visited these two islands?’ the guide says.
Zoë stops to light a cigarette, letting Kim and the guide move ahead of her up the steps.
‘Yes, I read about it,’ she hears Kim say. ‘In 1822 with Trelawny, right? Not long after the eruption.’
The guide nods. ‘Shelley had inspirations to write a poem about the place but died before he had the chance.’ She’s tall, the guide – tall and elegant and dully beautiful in the way all the local women seem to be.
Kim turns back to smile at Zoë. Tall trees crowd the steps and cicadas grate around Zoë as – smoking, smiling back – she trudges behind them to the top.
There is, Zoë sees, a line of sweat down the back of Kim’s t-shirt and a faint streak of birdshit on the brim of her hat, and she hears her speaking in sentences she has memorised from her phrasebook, the guide politely smiling.
They emerge from the shade, falling silent in the sunlight. Zoë joins them on a long stone veranda which looks out onto the neighbouring island: Klik, the volcano.
‘Wow! What a view,’ says Kim and gives a contended sigh. She hugs Zoë, an awkward, spur-of-the-moment hug. Zoë hugs her back, her fingers arching away from Kim’s damp patch, then they both look out at the stretch of shimmering blue water, beyond which Klik rises dark and purplish under the sun, its top misted with cloud. The guide stands alongside them, hands clasped in front of her, looking at the view and then at Kim and Zoë.
‘It’s lovely,’ says Zoë and takes a firm drag on her cigarette. Kim takes photographs of the view, both with and without Zoë in them. She has the guide take one of the two of them together, her arm around Zoë’s shoulder.
‘You have heard of Rosa Solorri?’ the guide asks them.
‘I don’t think so,’ says Kim. ‘Who’s she?’
‘Not a she.’ The guide laughs and hands back the camera. ‘It is a plant, a flower.’
‘Ah, I don’t really think we’re really plant people,’ Kim says.
‘Ah, but this one is very rare,’ the guide says. ‘And very interesting. I think you will enjoy? This way.’
They follow her further along the veranda. There is a short wall along the edge of which is lined with a series of eroded stone heads, their busts planted haphazardly in large earthenware pots into one of which Zoë quietly drops her cigarette butt as they turn off into a path through the foliage. Back in the shade the cicadas rasp and they pass a series of large, nondescript plants and shrubs. Zoë trails behind Kim and the guide, following them to a small clearing. At its centre is a stout bush behind a shin-high rope barrier. Slowly, they step around it. The plant’s coils of thorny stems, narrow leaves and large white flowers are not attractive, not especially.
The guide smiles at Kim’s puzzled reaction. ‘You are thinking this looks pretty normal, no?’ she says, mimicking a shrug, her palms up, her bottom lip out. ‘They say Rosa Solorri grows here only, only on Kloya. You know, flowers, plants – usually they live with the seasons. They grow, flower and then die, their seeds out in the earth to spread. But Rosa Solorri: no. Very different. Its cycle lasts for very many years. So for example this specimen was first discovered and measured in 1816. Since then it has expanded in size by six centimetres only. The flowerings you see are for to draw in carbon. Tough, like koža, leather. They haven’t changed.’
‘So,’ Kim says, perching her sunglasses on her hat, removing the lens cap from her camera, ‘hang on a sec. You’re telling us these flowers are the same flowers which were here two hundred years ago? The same as when Shelley visited the island? The exact same flowers? Is that right?’
‘The flowers, the leaves, the stems, the whole thing. Rather than to spread and to multiply, Rosa Solorri exists only to survive. You have heard of Testa? No? Great Renaissance artist. There exists an etching of his in 1643, The Garden of Paradise, in which can be seen a plant which is very much like this plant. Almost identical. Flowers, leaves, stems. She is very old.’
‘Wow!’ says Kim, crouching to take a photograph.
A breeze moves through the trees and Zoë watches one of Rosa Solorri’s flower-heads gently nod. She lights up another cigarette.
The sun is setting. Slowly, it slides into the blue strait which separates the two islands, sinking behind the horizon; a halo of sky is flared with a vivid blast of red-orange. Zoë looks up to see it when she hears the appreciative ooh’s of the elderly diners that surround them, then resumes poking at her cold calamari.
‘We should go out to Klik tomorrow,’ says Kim. She has finished her tuna steak and begins thumbing her guidebook.
‘Yeah,’ Zoë says. ‘Alright.’
‘Take a picnic. Make a day of it.’
‘There’s boats every half hour. Or, I was speaking to Sylvia and she said we could splash out on a helicopter ride. If you like. It’s expensive but I bet it’s fun.’
‘Sylvia was the name of the guide we just spent the entire afternoon with,’ Kim says and shakes her head, an eyebrow raised, staring blankly at the view.
After a while Kim says, ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Good. Yeah. I’m good.’
‘Is it working?’
‘Working?’ Zoë slouches in her seat, rubs her face.
‘Yes, the holiday? Is the holiday of a lifetime working?’
‘God, I don’t know, Kim.’
‘Please, Kim. Don’t be like that.’
‘I just asked a question. I’m not being like anything.’
They fall silent. Kim sips her wine. Zoë looks back at the sky, its luminescence waning, then lets her gaze drift toward Klik, Kloya’s neighbouring island, the volcano, already featurelessly black over the water. Suddenly it occurs to her that the darkness, rather than something cast over the island by the arrival of night, is something Klik itself is emitting. She drops her fork, staring, wondering how the other diners can possibly contemplate eating in its presence. Then the sensation leaves her.
Kim finishes her wine then says, ‘I’m sorry. I’m just tired... it’s very tiring. Do you want a coffee?’
‘Can I have another rum, please?’
Kim sighs, then smiles. ‘Of course. One final rum, coming up.’
She leans away from Zoë, looking out for a waiter.
They leave for Klik early the next morning, taking the first boat, and land on a stone jetty. A path leads them through the trees to a clearing. Kim throws down a blanket.
They sit. Zoë picks at a loaf of bread. Kim leafs through her guidebook. A few yards further up the mountain the grass thins to a steep incline of rock, bare and hard, which fades into cloud towards the peak.
‘It’s mad, isn’t it?’ Kim says, looking up. ‘This place, I mean. Klik.’
‘Yeah,’ says Zoë, ‘like an evil twin.’ She is gazing out at Kloya, its shadow rippling on the water.
‘No, I mean the fact that it didn’t even exist until two hundred years ago. It says here this whole rock is younger than Fortnum and Mason’s.’
‘I wonder what the people on Kloya thought when they saw it happen. You know? When it erupted.’
‘Oh, well that I can tell you exactly,’ says Kim. She thumbs back a few pages. ‘Here we go. This is from some woman’s diary from 1799: I was not long at bed when some unknown compulsion awakened me and caused me to stand by the window. Quite suddenly a terrible eruption convulsed the earth and I saw the sea begin to bubble and smoke.’
Zoë pulls a can of Fanta from her bag, opens it and begins to quietly pour it into the grass.
‘There were screams and prayers from below us as waves broke against the villas on the bay, dashing houses and boats into the water. A blackness began to infest the air and then it was as though the horn of the devil himself was rising from the water; slowly, as though revelling in the tumult. Scary stuff. People actually lived here on Klik until another eruption in the seventies.’
She is holding the guidebook open to show Zoë a photograph of Klik’s peak, a bulb of lava caught mid-spray, but lets it drop. Zoë has pulled a bottle from her bag and is pouring its contents into her half-empty can.
‘Where did you get that?’ says Kim.
‘What even is it, brandy?’
‘We’re on holiday.’
‘It’s half ten.’ Kim reads her book again, then stops reading and says, ‘Where did you even get brandy?’
The brandy wells up across the top of the can. Zoë slurps up the excess, takes a swig from the can and puts the bottle away. ‘You let me have three rums last night.’
‘I didn’t come here to watch you get pissed.’
‘I’m not getting pissed. Read me some more of your book.’
‘Seriously. I brought you here to help. You’re supposed to be sorting your head out.’
‘You’re getting pissed!’
‘It's a drink. A drink. One drink.’
Kim puts her book down. ‘I want you to get rid of it.’
‘No!’ Zoë laughs, takes a mouthful.
‘I’m asking you to get rid of it, Zoë.’
‘I’m not going to, Kim.’
Kim shakes her head. ‘I knew you'd ruin this.’
‘God, is this why you,’ Zoë interrupts herself with a sip, ‘why you brought me here? To make me feel like shit?’
‘Zoë... No, I’m not.’
‘Jesus. You genuinely think I’m a fucking hopeless case, don’t you?'
‘Zoë, seriously...' Kim shakes her head. 'Seriously...’
‘You know what? Fuck this.’ Zoë stands. ‘I’m going for a walk.’
‘Zoë,’ Kim says in a near whisper. She watches Zoë leave, swaying slowly along the edge of the grass, not looking back, drinking. She waits until Zoë has shrunk into the distance and is finally lost, obscured by the trees, then slams her book into the earth and, rocking and growling, tears a clump of hair from her head.
It creeps up on her – not silence, but something like silence, the closest she has known since she and Kim arrived. She can still hear the cicadas’ chirping, but faintly, only if she stops and listens. She has drifted far from the trees and the earth, walking now on the bare rock of Klik, her route dictated by a worn footpath. She drinks.
The surface of Klik is featureless here, a smooth incline which vanishes into a wall of mist a mile or so above, but, Zoë notices, one edge of the path she is on has grown slowly higher as she has been walking. After a few more minutes it goes from being a raised groove at her side to an ankle-high kerb, then to a ledge reaching her knees.
She sits on the ledge and drinks. She stares out at Kloya, adds more brandy to her Fanta and cries. She stands up, heads back towards Kim, stops and turns back. She sits again, drinks and stares.
She sees something, gets up and walks towards it. Squatting, she finds there is a large vegetable in the centre of the path, a gourd or a turnip or some local marrow which after sprouting and growing has now died, shrivelled in the sun. Its flesh is creased and pocked, its shoots wispy and limp but – she stands and pushes the sole of her flip-flop against it – its roots are still tethered firmly under the rock.
She sits back down and drinks. The sky is a blank blue, the sun now above her. She cries, then falls silent. She drinks, tops up her can, drinks again.
Suddenly, a sweep of dust falling from behind her, a scraping sound, a voice from high: ‘La cabeza!’
Zoë turns to see a man half jogging down the mountainside towards her, half skidding, surface debris dislodged as he goes. She stands.
‘Después de esta... destrucción.... mujer... tanta falta de... respeto!’
He reaches the ledge and hops down. He is bald, fat and short – barely five feet – with something doglike about his face. He gestures at the vegetable.
‘Entiendes?’ He glares, a hand on his hip. ‘Entiendes?’
‘What..? I’m... sorry, I don’t understand...’
‘Ah, Inglés...’ He rolls his eyes and kneels in front of the vegetable. ‘You are British? Tourist?’
‘Yes,’ says Zoë. ‘Sorry.’
‘They should not let you come so far.’ He wags a finger at her, then pulls a handkerchief from his pockets and begins dusting the marrow, a gentle whipping motion.
‘I didn’t mean to... I’m sorry.’
He waves a dismissing hand, then points at the vegetable. ‘You not know who this is?’
‘This is Eduardo.’ He stands, mops his brow with his cloth.
‘What?’ she says. ‘What do you–?’ But then – she gasps and takes a step backwards – she sees the marks and creases on the growth form those of a shrunken pair of eyes, a nose, lips; the shoots, hair. There is no doubt this is a human head.
‘You not know? He is omaggio, from the terror.’ Seeing Zoë’s blank face, he points up at the top of the volcano. ‘Up there is... léd… léd...’ he circles a hand, searching for the translation, ‘ice! Ice. In clouds. It builds up over many years. Then, it is nineteen seventy-eight. Down here,’ he slaps the ground, ‘is suddenly fire, lava. Boof!’ He claps his hands together. ‘Not much. But enough to make the ice to melt. This ice with lava the now is a waterfall down the side of Klik. Here,’ he gestures at the emptiness around them, ‘is a village. The water is mixing with the rock, turning into barro – eh, what is barro? – mud, into mud. Covers village. Everyone dead. And here is Eduardo. He can swim, his head is free, but it is no good. There is no-one to help Eduardo.’
Zoë takes a sip of Fanta. ‘He just died? In the sun?’
The man grins. ‘You would like to see into a house?’ He gestures at the bare ledge.
‘A house? You mean the village…? It’s still here?’
‘Where else would it go? Here is techos… roofs, roofs. See.’ He stamps at the ledge, almost losing his balance, and knocks away a section of rock, revealing a length of guttering. ‘This way. Come.’
Zoë follows him along the path, to their side the tops of the buildings slowly emerging from the rock.
‘My name is Renzo.’
‘Zoë, ah...’ he smiles, then frowns. ‘You come here alone?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘I’m with a friend.’
‘Where is your friend?’
‘She decided to stay at the hotel, on Kloya.’
‘Ah, the sensible one.’
She laughs politely. ‘Do you live on Klik?’
‘Here?’ He chuckles. ‘Not Renzo. My boys though.’
‘You have sons?’
‘Two. Two beautiful baby djeca – ah!’
They come to a halt. Embedded in the side of the ledge are the tops of a pair of windows, glassless, rock baked against their frames, a length of wire wound around the woodwork to hold them shut, darkness inside.
Renzo crouches to unwind the wire. ‘You have been crying,’ he says quietly.
‘Yes. I lost my temper with my friend.’
‘Temper? What is temper?’
‘Tsk. About a man?’
‘No. About ourselves.’
‘And so now you are here alone.’
She drains her can. ‘I am.’
‘Bene! We are in, Miss Zoë.’ The frames shudder open. Renzo makes a show of dusting down the ledge with his handkerchief then gestures inside. ‘Please.’
‘Is it safe?’ Zoë squats and peers into the room beneath her. She drops her bag inside.
‘If we are quick.’
She slides into the darkness, down a rubbly slope where, evidently, mud poured through the window, covered a bed, puddled across the floor then hardened to stone. She is in a bedroom, sparsely furnished – there is only the bed, its frame buckled, its sheets trapped beneath the set stone and an empty wardrobe standing open in the corner by the door, beyond which she sees a staircase leading downwards. Renzo drops into the room, stands beside her for a moment and then steps out onto the landing.
‘I wonder who lived here,’ says Zoë.
‘I did not say? This is my boys’ room.’
‘You lived here?’
‘No. Not Renzo, never. My boys. This way.’
They descend the stairs, passing nails and holes where pictures had once hung. At the bottom they round into a living room, bare except for a wooden chair and a suitcase. There is a doorway leading to a kitchen towards the rear, where the house fuses into the mountainside. The kitchen seems somehow dimly lit, a sink, drawers and a stove all visible.
Zoë quietly checks the suitcase, which is empty. ‘Your boys,’ she says, ‘I thought you said they were babies.’
But Renzo has stepped into the kitchen, out of sight. She moves into the doorway and sees he is at the rear door of the house, where it fuses into the mountainside.
‘Come outside,’ he says.
‘You shall see. Come.’
She expects the door to be fixed fast but it opens without difficulty. Outside is a stone hollow, cavelike, its perimeters uncertain but its ceiling high enough for her to step out without bowing her head. At the centre of the space is a sunlounger, the base of its frame buckled and embedded into the ground. Other items – plant pots, a birdbath, a wooden tricycle – make it clear this was at one time a garden. Looking up, Zoë sees there are hundreds of tiny holes in the low-bowing surface of the rock above, letting in pinpricks of blue sky.
‘Is this... man-made? Did you… carve this out?’
‘Me? Nem! Remember, there is barro? It runs down the mountain. Here it is racing over the top, so fast it is not even touching here, almost not at all.’ Whistling, Renzo slowly sweeps a hand across the space above them, taking in a length of corrugated metal awning emerging from where the back of a neighbouring house is buried, and a matching awning at the rear of his sons’ house. Two sun-porches: this is all it takes for a space to avoid oblivion.
Zoë turns in circles, staring. As well as holes, the expanse of rock which joins the two roofs is also populated with thick stalactite-like shards where some of the muddy rock had dripped downwards then solidified.
She drops her bag from her shoulder and lies down on the dusty sunlounger. Following her lead, Renzo sits in the doorway.
They are silent for a while. Then Zoë lifts and arm across her eyes and sleeps.
It is dark. She sits up, cold and alone, the doorway now vacant. She stands, grabs her bag and goes up to the bedroom. She hops back onto the slope of rock covering the bed. The wire has been wound back around the wood but she throws her bag onto the surface outside and manages to squeeze through one of the empty frames.
A thick mist has settled on Klik. It is almost dawn. She makes her way back down the pathway. The cicadas grow louder. Alongside her the tops of the roofs gradually recede back into the ground. She reaches the place where she thinks Eduardo’s head should be, but there is no head. She walks on a little further, turns back to restart her journey, but then sees what she is sure is the clearing where she and Kim had sat for their picnic yesterday.
Behind her, higher up on the mountainside, she sees there is movement, two children, toddlers, uneasy in their steps.
She waves. ‘Hello!’
They stop to stare at her then begin tottering downwards.
She steps from the rock onto the grass. She heads through the trees, the cicadas pulsing around her, and emerges onto the stone jetty where she and Kim had arrived from Kloya. There is no-one else here, no boats docked.
Zoë stands looking out at the water, the mist making it difficult to see beyond a few yards.
She sits on the edge of the jetty and pulls the bottle of brandy from her bag. She drinks.
She sees a notch in the mist: a boat coming towards her. She sighs and drinks, watching it move.
There is a rustle behind her and she sees the two children have followed her. They move in and out of view among the distant trees. Both boys, they have bright olive faces and dark curls. Both are naked save for their cloth nappies They chatter happily, their arms outstretched to steady themselves.
She looks back at the boat, which has now turned so it is side on to her. There is a breeze, strong and low, and she watches the surface of the water bow and rise in response, growing choppy, causing the boat to right itself, heading for Klik once again. She sees it is empty. She stands up.
A thud makes her turn around. One of the children has fallen over. He pulls himself up and they both continue in her direction. She calls out to them, ‘No! Go back! No!’ They stop to watch her speak, chuckling, delighted at the attention, then continue stumbling downwards in her direction.
She looks back to see the dawn light inch over the sea, cast suddenly across the water, cutting through the mist. She cannot see Kloya. She can see only the wide sea and the horizon. She stares at it for a long time.
‘No… wait, what?’ She cranes her neck, looking up and down along the shore for another jetty. She can see only the trees which ring the island, their branches dipping in and out of the water, the boat disappearing into their leaves. ‘What?’
There are loud foot-slaps as the children jog from the grass slope onto the jetty, laughing giddily as they move, the sound vibrating with their steps – uh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh. Giggling, they reach Zoë at the same time, each clasping onto one of her legs and looking up at her. They raise their arms to her, demanding to be lifted, their tiny fists grabbing at her dress.
Richard V. Hirst is a writer from Manchester. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Big Issue and Time Out. His latest book is The Night Visitors, an award-winning ghost story co-written with Jenn Ashworth and told entirely via emails. He is currently working on a book about Joy Division.
Visit his website: www.ithoughtitoldyoutowaitinthecar.com
Header photograph “Volcano” by Dan Zen is licensed under CC BY 2.0.