The convoy continued their hike through the shadow of Mount Bromo, the most impressive volcano in the cauldron of Tengger. They were heading to Surabaya to unload a cargo of teak wood. After two days away, the men, the horses and the elephants maintained a leisurely but steady pace. The journey was long so they had to ration their efforts.
Carson recalled the old legend which claimed how king Joko Seger and his wife Roro Anteng had asked the Volcano God to help them have children they so desired. The God upon hearing their request gave them twenty-five children, but requested the last be sacrificed to the gods. However, when the time came for the child, a beautiful young boy named Dian Kusuma, to be sacrificed in the flames as gratitude, the Queen, horrified, refused to carry out the promise. In an attempt to halt the kingdom being destroyed by the wrath of God, the young Dian sacrificed himself by jumping into the volcano. Since then, farmers have appeased the volcano crater by throwing vegetables, chickens and money into it.
Carson thought the southeast of Java was one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The sky was clear and the silence was mystical.
The animals however, who were becoming anxious, didn’t share the same view. Indeed neither did Escarrabelli nor Merlone for which the proximity of the monstrous peak began to awaken old memories of Vesubio: a volcano which had previously erupted in 1926 and 1929. They began explaining to the group in detail what had happened, gesturing with their hands and raising their voices as if on stage.
“The one in 1906 is still the worst,” said Escarrabelli, “one-hundred people died there, including my uncle Aldo. That volcano spat out more lava than any other before it.”
“There’s a devil in every one of those holes,” added Merlone. “Wet your handkerchiefs and place them over your mouths. The air is laden with sulphur.”
They all obeyed. The fumaroles were visible at close range while Mount Bromo’s vent exhaled a cloud of smoke that darkened the horizon. The atmosphere was becoming thick and suffocating. The load bearers were whispering as one of the horses shied. Even with a handkerchief over his mouth, Escarrabelli’s nerves were getting the better of him: “It’s better we can smell the sulphur; it’s when we can’t is when we should worry. Holy Madonna! There’d be no way out anyway. Rest in peace Uncle Aldo...”
“Escarrabelli, enough with that,” interjected Carson. “Let it rest.”
There were two sides to the volcano. On the one hand it was a threat, on the other; it was a factor in such things as the fertilising of the soil which farmers carefully cultivated, and for tapping sulphur sold by gunpowder manufactures.
Neha, whose countenance was always a source of amusement for the Neapolitans, was now concerned. Carson stepped forward and stood beside her. He hadn’t even put his hand on her shoulder when a silent vibration shook the expedition and halted their advance. The horses snorted and the elephants, frightened, began moving in circles.
The sky darkened and a cloud of ash began to envelope them. A strong earthquake was followed by a terrifying roar. The volcano began hurling molten rocks down its slope. The earth was cracking. The raging colossus began spitting out ash and lava as deep faults ripped the ground apart. As the horses stampeded, two of the load bearers who were holding them were flung to their deaths down one of the cracks. The rest, trying to flee, could do nothing but watch in horror as the earth swallowed the two men. Dwipa, under the command of Neha, succeeded in imposing his authority on the herd, grouping them together, back to back, as protection in the warmth of the group.
“Help!” pleaded Marlone.
Carson saw him trying to stop John Good’s horse, which was out of control, from disappearing down one of the cracks that had opened up like a mouth from hell, unleashing a cloud of burning dust. John dropped the reins and managed to get a foot in the stirrup, but the horse kept going as he fell to the ground. The frantic bucking of the frenzied animal restricted the release of the other foot, and together, they disappeared, buried forever. Carson grabbed Merlone who stood motionless next to what was already John Good’s last resting place.
“Come, there’s nothing we can do,” said Carson.
“Quick, everyone, here, follow me!” Yelled Neha.
The girl pointed to a small valley surrounded by a row of palm trees. There, they made their way downtrodden, sombre and without a sound. Not even the particles floating in the air, which was making it difficult to inhale, nor the roaring gusts that appeared to breathe with the volcano, nor the continuous shaking of the earth seemed to worry anyone anymore. Alive, wounded and confused they rushed to make their escape.
At first, they all thought their minds had played a trick on them. Some rubbed their eyes, irritated by the dust, others breathed slowly trying to pull themselves together, but the vision remained. Behind the veil of mist that had shrouded them, voices were heard reciting a litany. The dozens of flickering candles approaching the scene gave an air of reverie. Gradually, the image became apparent: it was a group of children wearing red sarongs and black turbans with their lips painted an intense red. They seemed to be imitating the small crystal Buddha they wore around their necks. The children approached the surprised expedition.
Repeating what seemed like a prayer, the expedition joined in at the front where they were led to a village. The adults, gentle and hospitable, welcomed and invited them into their homes. The injured had their wounds healed and the dead had bouquets laid on their altars. The men there were called the ‘sky gazers’, one of the few Buddhist groups on the island who were also skilled in crafting glass. The Buddha head the children wore around their neck was protection from the volcano. Each one was different; each the many faces of Java.
“There are as many faces as there are volcanoes and dangers,” said Setiawan, the oldest man in the village, handing Carson a string of glass Buddha heads as he said goodbye.
The volcano was quiet when Carson and his men resumed their hike.
Already in Surabaya, off the Strait of Madura, Carson and Neha looked out at the sea.
“You know what, James? When I saw that group of children come to us in the midst of all that confusion and smoke, I thought they were the children of Joko Seger and Roro Anteng who had come to reclaim their brother, Dian, and I thought they were also there to help us recover our missing. It was only a moment; a kind of dream. It didn’t last long.”
“Time never goes back even if we are hurting,” said James.
“Anyway, I like it better the children were real, as well as their courage and kindness...”
“Me too,” Carson nodded, taking the hand she offered him.
They knew that the next time the volcano awoke, the boys and girls in the village would dress up and paint their lips black and red; the colours of fire and lava. In this way, and with the Buddha around their necks, they had nothing to fear. Hence they could venture without trepidation and assist anyone in need; a beautiful life no doubt. Despite the losses the convoy endured, it was also so for them because in the final analysis both were safe.