They Call Them Budding Toes
We Californians don’t know volcanoes, at least not the active kind. We don’t appreciate the viscosity of molten lava, for instance. We can’t distinguish between lava and magma, though we’re fairly certain either one can kill you. We prefer our volcanoes to be giant, slumbering, dormant protrusions, blunted by age and exposure, fuzzy with vegetation. We call them mountains. We log them. We ski down the ruts of their denuded faces in winter. We strip them for ore.
So you would think these layers of ignorance accumulated over time would have prevented us from venturing too close to the famous flows at Kilauea, which they told us at the observatory means “spewing” or “much spreading” in Hawaiian, both designations we can now tell you are apt. But something that defines us as Californians is our belief that physical constraints don’t necessarily apply to us: Note—we grow crops in the desert, we plant almonds during droughts—ten gallons of water to produce a single nut—because commodity prices are rising, we build condominiums on stilts over cliffs during El Niño because Beauty is paramount, Money is king. If we could squeeze a dollar out of a grain of sand, we would; we probably have. There are no limitations but the imagination, and even that is a bit of a stretch.
When we go on vacation, we are not impressed by beaches. We are on the hunt for the inchoately spectacular, the Cirque du Soleil of vacations. Something had better catch on fire.
If we hadn’t snuck in our flasks (which would have violated our tenets of vacationism), or if our particular party hadn’t been co-ed, some of us might not have attempted to quote-unquote walk the coals. But our vacations also require sex, and as we are all presently partnered, we brought our partners along. Such was the cauldron of circumstances which simmered our demise (with, we concede, a soupçon of hauteur).
As we approached the ashen, fluid earth, we perceived that the mountain itself had eyes—two red, smoldering apertures, which approximated the gaze of something formerly dangerous but whose sole remaining weapon is spite. It glared as we approached like an obese mutant spider still in possession of its fangs but whose legs had all been plucked out. It was more afraid of us than we were of it.
"This is the ‘active’ volcano?” we exclaimed, deflated. Aside from the vengeful spider’s scowl, the landscape was barren and tame, an elephant graveyard where only the leaden hides remained, as if a teeming herd of proboscids had leapt like lemmings into the caldera, liquefying on impact but for their sad, weeping oculi, their calloused folds of skin, now ossified to stone.
We partook of our flasks to compensate for the disappointment. Someone poured a shot onto a sluggishly advancing bleb of lava—geologists call them budding toes—to see if it would flare up. It did. Our prospects were improving. We ridiculed the USGS park ranger who’d spoken of “volcanology,” which we’d heard as “Vulcanology,” which collectively reminded us of Star Trek, which incidentally, was filmed in California. Every alien vista, each extraterrestrial panorama, a suburb of Pasadena.
We emptied our pockets and daypacks to see what, if anything, we could sacrifice to the pahoēhoē flows undulating ripples of molten basalt, that popping, spitting batter of liquid rock, swirling as if stirred by a spatula and poured over the ground to bake.
We needed something to puncture the slag and settled on a selfie stick, having taken the obligatory group photograph with the wand just prior to its imminent destruction when we were all still smiling and alive. It’s something everyone notices about Californians: we’re infectiously cheerful, even when we’re not.
We hovered over the bellied mass, the heat drafting up to our gleaming faces and singeing our hairs, and then we poked our instrument of vanity through the lava’s wrinkled vellum. We expected a kind of instantaneous melting, a sudden disappearance of a part of a thing, but it wasn’t like that at all. The wand ignited and we passed the flaming stick around so everyone could have a turn prodding the advancing beast. Our circus had convened.
We committed ourselves to an orgy of fire, dispensing pennies, trail maps, and even pocket lint into the lava flow to watch each offering incandesce in its own particular blaze. It reminded us fondly of the beach bonfires of our youth when we burned shipping pallets and old homework at year’s end, shaking out the contents of vinyl binders into eager flames, then tossing in the binders themselves until the pungent fumes of scorched plastic repelled us. They don’t allow bonfires on California beaches anymore; we’ve matured as a people, and these days we’re fierce advocates of air quality.
The smell here makes us pine for that relatively subdued scent of melting plastic from back in the day. Here, burning tires mingle with raw onions and boiling rotten eggs. We choke, cough, wipe our eyes; we take another drink.
One of us decides to test the soles of his hiking boots on the lava. This is where the dynamics of mixed company start to steer us wrong. Suddenly it’s a competition for mates. Invisible eddies of testosterone merge with sulfuric gases and amalgamate into a toxic high, impairing us all.
Although the boots’ soles flick up flames with every tap, another of us concludes that the flow could be cool enough at the edges, that it might be viscous enough there to briefly support the weight of a human being—in particular, a Californian. He (you didn’t think it was one of us girls, did you?) steps onto the mantel as though it’s a stage, and the rubber soles of that first boot insulate against the inferno just long enough for the other foot to venture in as well, and that’s when it all goes to shit, or, more accurately, to hell.
With both feet submerged beneath the lava’s membrane, there is no way to jump out. It forms a gluey trap, and suddenly as we watch him spontaneously combust and register his screams, we are reminded of the mountain’s spidery glare. We’d forgotten that even without legs, an arachnid still retains its use of spinnerets and can be just as lethal, as long as the prey comes to it. And here we’d just walked right in.
There’s nothing we can do; his body is immediately engulfed in flames (we Californians know when we’ve been beat: Note—the Bear Flag Republic; sure, we kept the flag, but we pretty much let that one go). It begins to rain, smoke transmogrifies into a poisonous steam. The spits and pops yield to a sustained hissssssssssssssss, and because we don’t want to watch him explode, we turn, look up and away, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a rainbow—so rare in California. And because we’d always paid attention in science class—each and every last one of us—when we spot that strange arc of color raging across the sky, all we can think of is ROYGBIV, ROYGBIV. ROY to the G. to the motherfucking BIV.
Marléne Zadig is a born and bred Californian. Her fiction has recently appeared in Joyland, Slice, Green Mountains Review, Front Porch Journal, Blunderbuss, and was translated into Swedish for Kapitel Magazine. She’s a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee, a Best of the Net finalist, and her work made Longform’s Top 5 list of Best Fiction in 2015. Most recently, she was named a runner-up for the 2016 StoryQuarterly Fiction Prize by Alexander Chee. Marléne lives in Berkeley, where she is finishing a story collection and is knee-deep in a novel.