Volume 14
An Online Literary Magazine
January 30, 2020


The Thin Crust


Susan Pope


Pele’s lifeblood flows beneath our feet. Soft tongues of molten rock ooze from fissures in the crust. Photo by Jim Thiele.


ad I known the soles of my shoes would melt like taffy in the sun, I wouldn’t have followed you. But I do not yet know this, so I go willingly, eager to witness the new land born of Pele, goddess of volcanoes, fire, lightning, and wind.


As always, you’ve packed your camera and tripod; you hope to capture Pele’s nighttime spectacle of lava plummeting to the sea. As always, I’ve packed the practical items: flashlight, water, binoculars, snacks. We drive from our rented rainforest cottage toward the coast, across the dark, desolate landscape, handiwork of the goddess. Once, this snaky ribbon of pavement led to a seaside village and a lovely black sand beach. But Pele has reclaimed all of that.


We park at a roadblock at the foot of Kilauea, near a trailer set up by the National Park Service. At the temporary checkpoint, we gather our gear and set out on foot along the road. Soon, a vast black river of frozen lava chokes off the road. At the center of a small cluster of tourists, a ranger’s wide-brimmed hat bobs.


“Stay behind me,” he warns, “or you could break through the surface into the molten lava.”


We slip into line, soles gripping the crisp, rough surface of the ropy pahoehoe lava. Here and there we straddle razor-sharp crevasses that reveal the iridescent beauty of layers of solidified magma—copper, umber, cobalt. We climb up the slope of the volcano, for an hour, maybe two. An ocean breeze catches my thin cotton shirt. My feet begin to itch and sting.


Night falls as it does in this part of the world, a sharp, sudden disappearance of light. The darkness swallows the ranger. Maybe his shift has ended, or we have wandered away. We’re on our own, and against the black-on-black backdrop, I’ve lost my bearings.


Pele’s lifeblood flows beneath our feet. Soft tongues of molten rock ooze from fissures in the crust. Her sulfurous breath stings my eyes and rakes my throat. She bewitches the night, treacherous as in a long-ago battle when her rumbling exploded in a hurricane of searing wind, lava, ash, and poisonous gasses that felled an ancient army of four hundred men, women, and children. Somewhere on this mountain, footsteps in hardened lava are all that remain.


I want off this volcano. But through the dark I sense that wild, greedy look on your face, the one that says I must capture this, the same look you get when you teeter from the edge of a cliff, or dangle over the smooth lip of an icy blue crevasse, pursuing an image only you can conjure through your lens. Once I envied your single-minded pursuit, oblivious to time and danger. You were the brave one, while I hovered at a safe distance, praying I wouldn’t lose you. Sometimes your longing fell on me, and it would be me that filled the center of your frame. But these days I’m mostly in the background or out of range.


The horizon blazes, not with the last flash of sunset, but with magma that spits fire as it tumbles into the ocean. You switch lenses, position your tripod, adjust your focus. Heat creeps from my feet up my bare legs and into my crotch. I’m dizzy, trembling, gasping, soaked with sweat. Pele could incinerate me into ash, blow me out to sea. You wouldn’t notice.


I must escape. But the way is uncertain.


A few dots of light hover above the glowing lava, clear-thinking tourists who are making their way back to solid ground. You move the tripod up and down, snap, snap, snap the oozing, gushing, rolling liquid fire.


“Let’s go,” I say.


“Just a few more shots.” You aim your camera at a crimson artery coursing through a crack near our feet.


“It’s not safe.”


“Just a few more minutes.”


I switch on my feeble flashlight, waving it toward two white beams below me. “I’m leaving,” I say, not caring whether or not you hear me. Taking our only light, I hurry after the flickering headlamps, hoping you’ll notice, doubting you will. I reach a man and a woman slowly working their way down the slope, step-by-step, together. I join an exodus of zigzagging escapees all headed for safety. Cautious, methodical, prudent. These are my people.


I arrive at the road. Surely you have noticed by now that I’m gone. I wait, and wait, imagination and guilt doing their work. You have evaporated, fallen into the crevasse. You are nothing but a pile of ashes folded into Pele’s tendrils.


I take my light and trudge back toward the blistering slope. I meet you halfway, smudged, clutching camera and tripod.


“You had the only light. How was I supposed to find my way back?”


I have no response.


The next morning I awake to damp gray light filtered through the tree ferns and heliconia outside our window. I shiver and pull on pants and sweater, then search for my shoes. Tossed in the corner, one shoe lies upside down. Pele has smoothed the deep running tread and swirled the yellow and gray sole like a dirty two-tone ice cream cone.


For two days we will not speak. But even Pele’s fire cools. Her hot lava turns brittle, and with enough rain, sturdy new ferns sprout from it. Life on the Big Island is always starting over.


Thousands of miles from Pele’s wrath, a small, black-framed picture bounded by a pure white mat now hangs on our wall, a thick gush of red-hot lava spewing tiny orange flames over a thin black crust. Pele’s terrible beauty. Perfect, our friends say.


Between the two of us, nothing is said. The picture speaks for itself.




Susan Pope writes nonfiction from her home in Anchorage, Alaska. Her work has appeared in Pilgrimage, Riverteeth, Cirque: A Literary Journal of the Pacific Rim, Hippocampus, Under the Gum Tree, Burrow Press Review, and BioStories. Her writing reflects intimate connections to home and family in Alaska as well as a restless exploration of faraway places. Her essay entitled, “Canyon,” which appeared in Bluestem, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.







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