The Volcano Keeper

The Ujimi pine forest reaches up towards the moon, luring pale light to trickle down between jagged treetops and rest on soft powdered snow. Ari follows no path, wandering around the thickened shadows of trees, bending beneath bristled boughs, searching through this patchwork of light and darkness. The pine cones wait for her to find them. Their heat marks, little smudges of light, growing dimmer in the cold. A few are found without fuss, as it used to be in the old days. Their small oval bodies roll into her open palm, scales flexing against her skin. Others remind her of escape pods whose navigation has gone off course, lost in a foreign landscape of winter whites. For those ones, she must sift through the drifts, find their crash points, and rescue the wooden husks from a bitter fate of frostbite and slow rot.

The pine cones are few this evening, barely enough to half-fill the satchel she keeps tucked in her brown cloak. Ari turns home to Mount Panajashi which looms ahead with its rounded peaks, like the head of a woman lying down, uneven mouth opened up to the sky.

The breath of the sleeping volcano is warm and welcoming. Ari navigates the sinuous lava tubes, watching the cold damp rise in a glow of steam from her clothes. Her eyes register frequencies of both light and heat, an unusual trait of her people, so that even in the blackest of caves, she requires no lamp to see. Yet still, she finds herself whispering, “Left for thirty, right for ten, left for twelve, then straight to the end.” It was a game they played as children, back when the corridors were filled with the voices and footsteps of her people. They would cover their eyes with strips of cloth and race to see who could navigate the lava tubes the fastest. Some did it by feel, others memorized step combinations, and everyone earned scraped palms and bloody knees as penance for their mistakes.

The Seeding Chamber is a small circular room with a dozen fist-sized holes clustered in the center of the floor, black and open, like baby birds waiting to feed. One by one, Ari plops the pine cones into these smooth small gullets. The cones will continue on, rolling past heated vents, opening up in the simmering subterranean heat, yielding the faint sticky scent of sap and their precious cargo of seeds. Gravity and series of sharp ledges will separate seed from cone. The seeds will slip through narrowing channels until they breach the cave walls and are gathered, warm and naked, into waiting hands. Meanwhile, the spent cones, too big to follow the seeds, will continue on down the rocky path to incineration. In theory. But sometimes, Ari imagines little Hrokai live behind the walls, plucking out the seeds and saving the dry crusty scales to cover their round demon bodies.

After the last of the cones have been sent on their journey, Ari takes a hundred and thirty-three steps forward and is released into the cool night air and the upturned mouth of Mount Panajashi. The main caldera is a gentle sloping dish of fractured rock and cold magma, protected from winds, and open to the stars. The curved walls are terraced, cut with shallow shelves that step right up to the rounded rim. During its greatest time, the caldera was ringed with life, all of the shelves filled with emerald bursts of sprouts and saplings. Now, although seedlings still continue to grow here, many of the rings are empty or incomplete, leaving a sickly imprint reminiscent of an old abandoned rib cage.

Over by the entrance, there is a pattering of raindrop-sized pods against basket walls. The night’s seeds have begun to arrive. Once the sounds have ceased, Ari takes the new seeds into her palm, pressing them into soft spaces of soil, whispering an ancient blessing for life and growth. A soft hum tingles in the air as the seedlings huddle in neat nursery rows, pushing down their roots, turning soot and black into soft brushes of green. The ones that survive the winter will be planted once the warming season comes, thickening the blanket of the forest, as was the job of her people since Mount Panajashi’s first eruption over a thousand years ago.

With her task done for the night, Ari heads back inside, winding through the volcano’s obsidian arteries, to her favorite lookout point, a little alcove tucked high up overlooking the trees. She sits and peers out beyond the forest, where Hjarakhil is growing wider against the horizon. Its artificial edges scraping up the land, bringing the hard blackness of wide streets and the sharp glitter of colossal towers. Most of her people have been swallowed up by Hjarakhil, inhabiting in the throats of the crystal spires whose air was rumored to be so clean it had no scent.

It would only be a few more seasons until the odorless towers of Hjarakhil would reach the majestic trees of Mount Panajashi. And then, Ari wondered, what would happen? Would anyone remember that only the root song of the Ujimi pines could convince Mount Panajashi to continue in her slumber?

A wind gust blows long and hard against the volcano’s side, sending a murky tone shivering along the corridors. She knows that sound, that single note of lonely song. The Barren Storms are coming, with their shrill howls and daggers of ice that threaten to fray the edges of the forest. Ari places a palm down beside her, feels the gentlest of trembles in the rock, the stirrings of consciousness rising closer and closer to the surface.