Note: This story originally appeared in my first published work, The Complete Works of the Literate Dead.
Aaron Vesuv came full awake with the knowledge that the volcano would erupt that day. Sitting upright in his bed, he could see the cone through the window. In the near light of false dawn, the sky glowed faintly red. Another might easily have mistaken this color for the beginning sunrise, but to Aaron it was merely confirmation of the dreadful truth that had invaded his brain as he slept.
He reached for his wife's arm then realized she had already risen. From the kitchen below he could hear her fixing breakfast, hear his son's voice announce he would plow the back acres today. Quickly pulling on his clothes, Aaron glanced at the cone again.
The sides of the mountain cut sharply upward through the green carpet of forest that surrounded its base. Against the cloudless sky the now dark mouth noiselessly trailed a small plume of yellow smoke which rode the wind downward to encircle the town of Phillipi with an ominous crown of sulfur.
As he descended the stairs and entered the kitchen, the conversation between his wife and son became more clear, and a frown of displeasure crossed his face. They were discussing the dwarf again; a subject that disturbed him even under normal circumstances. That they could ignore so obvious a threat as the volcano for the latest gossip of that miserable creature grated Aaron's nerves.
"But can you really be sure, Nathaniel?" his wife queried over her coffee cup.
Nathaniel raised his palm. "Mother, I swear it's true. I heard it from Benjamin last night at the inn. He was with the Mayor when it happened."
The woman clapped her hands in delight. Then, noticing Aaron standing in the doorway, she signaled for him to come forward.
"Husband, did you hear the news? The dwarf found gold in the mountain. He filed with the Mayor last night. They say he's as rich as Midas!"
Aaron stood frozen in the doorway, staring incredulously. Could it possibly be that she didn't know?
"Husband! What's the matter with you? Why are you looking at me that way?"
His voice rasped like a rusty file. "The volcano explodes today."
Nathaniel looked up from his porridge, his face all smiles. "Nonsense, Father. You've had a bad dream. Come sit down, and let me tell you about the gold."
"It was no dream!" Aaron nearly roared as he strode to the door and flung it open. "Look for yourself if you think I'm the kind of fool who believes in dreams."
Still smiling, Nathaniel set down his spoon and shrugged. He walked to the door and looked at the mountain. It stood silently against a now clear sky. "But what am I supposed to see, Father?"
Aaron scowled. "The volcano was smoking this morning. It will erupt today. We must flee the island at once."
His wife threw up her hands. "Have you gone crazy, Husband? I've never heard such talk.
"To leave home for no reason--"
"I'm telling you the reason. Our lives are in danger here."
Nathaniel held his arm. "And I'm telling you, Father, it was only a dream."
Aaron snatched himself away angrily. "Dreams are for women! I know what I know, and if my family won't believe me, perhaps my neighbors will."
"Dear Lord in Heaven!" His wife crossed herself. "You can't go to our neighbors with such ridiculous news. They'll think you're mad. The disgrace—" She rolled her eyes. "Husband, we must face these people in church; in the market. Come, sit down. Come to your senses, I beg you." She tried to herd him toward a chair.
Aaron whirled around and pointed at her. "Silence, woman!" he demanded. "So now I'm suddenly a lunatic, to be treated this way?" He slammed his fist on the table. "I'm the master in this house, and I will be obeyed!"
She began to whimper, fighting back tears. He resisted the temptation to be moved.
"Nathaniel, help your mother pack. I'll return shortly."
"Don't argue with me. You're still my son. Go; do what I say." He strode out the door and let it slam behind him. From inside he could hear his wife's weeping protests bleeding through the walls, and even as he walked toward town and his neighbor's farm he knew his
family would not be ready when he returned. The world had gone mad today.
As he crossed through the fields of newly sprouted wheat, Aaron was struck by the intense quiet that had settled on the land. Even the birds and insects had forsaken their homes for the safety of other places. The volcano had given them warning in the night just as it had whispered in his ear.
"Go," it said, "for my children displease me. I shall destroy the fruits of their labor and those who cling to their fruits."
A sharp hiss sounded behind him, and Aaron turned to see the cone spewing a short burst of grey ash. It caught a slight breeze and began falling like fine dust on the rows of plants. The powdery storm lasted only minutes, but when it ceased the entire ground was covered in what looked like dirty snow. Aaron trudged toward the road, and when he had crossed the fence that bordered it, looked back. All he could see in those many acres were his own footprints.
He felt no pity for the wheat. Instead, he saw the ash as a blessing, for now he was sure that Daniel would believe his prophesy. Should the neighbor accuse him of dreaming, the ruined fields would bear witness to his words. The mountain had made him its messenger and would sustain his effort to duty.
From a distance Daniel's farm appeared much larger than it actually was. The ancient wood buildings sprawled up and down the slopes of two small hills as if they had grown from the ground like weeds.
He found the old man and his son, Benjamin, digging post-holes. Daniel saw him coming and gestured anxiously in greeting.
"Did you hear about the dwarf?" He could scarcely contain his excitement. "My own son was there when it happened."
Aaron scowled. "I don't care about the silly gold."
Daniel waved his hand. "No, no. This is even better than gold. Tell him, Benjamin."
Like Nathaniel, Benjamin was all smiles. "The dwarf asked the Mayor for his daughter's hand. His Lordship consented. The wedding is set for next Sunday right here in Phillipi."
"There will be no Sunday for Phillipi." Aaron cast his words like stones. He turned to Daniel. "Haven't you seen the mountain today? The volcano will explode before this evening. You must take your family and flee."
Daniel frowned. He glanced at his son, and they exchanged puzzled looks. "I've seen nothing today. What makes you think we're in danger?"
"The mountain warned me," Aaron confided. "Come and see the fields near my home. They're covered with ash."
"There's too much work to take time for a walk. I'll trust your word that the fields are ruined, but that still doesn't mean the volcano will erupt."
"Such things have happened before," Benjamin agreed. "It's fortunate that there's still time to replant the crops."
Aaron's anger boiled over. "Fools!" he shouted. "Can't you understand there won't be a crop for the island this year? When the volcano—"
"Hold!" Daniel snapped back. "You sound like a frightened fishmonger in the market. Go home, neighbor. You need rest. The mountain won't harm us."
Aaron shook his head. "When the church bells ring out the danger, you'll understand. I hope you'll move more hastily then."
"And why should the church bells sound today?" Benjamin snickered.
"Because I'm going to town to warn them."
Daniel looked at his son and shrugged. He turned back to his post-hole, and when he looked up again Aaron was far down the road.
Before he reached Phillipi the mountain spoke to him again. He had just come around a bend which overlooked the whitewashed houses of the town when the earth trembled beneath his feet so violently that he lost his balance and toppled into the dust. The tremor passed quickly, but as he rose the cone began to glow as a thread of liquid fire escaped over its edge and spilled down the slope. Flame leaped up from the thread and seemed, for a brief moment, to take the shape of a finger pointing in his direction.
Aaron began to run toward the buildings below. There was so little time and the volcano had made his mission undeniably clear. Daniel may have laughed at him, but the others in town would know better. That he had been chosen to save them was now beyond question.
The fishermen had already returned with their morning catch. It would be awhile yet before the streets became crowded with customers, making the market noisy and bustling. A few of the merchants gathered at the stall of Joseph, the wine-seller, exchanging information while they drank. Aaron, dirty and out of breath, came stumbling toward them.
One of the men raised his glass in greeting. "Here now! I see the farmers have taken to early tipping. Or is it still a celebration from last night?"
The others laughed.
"Hey, Vesuv," Joseph called. "Let me give you some news to bring to your wife."
Aaron leaned against the table, panting. He knit his brows to indicate curiosity.
Joseph leaned forward. "It's about the dwarf. He's been appointed governor of the island. He's going to make Phillipi the new capital."
Aaron, eyes wide in astonishment, could barely force out the words.
"Damn the dwarf," he muttered inaudibly as his face grew red. His breath suddenly returned. "God damn the dwarf!" he screamed.
The fishermen turned on him angrily.
"What's the matter with you, farmer?" one demanded.
"Aye," put in another. "What gives you a taste of the almighty?"
Aaron ignored the hostility. "I've come to warn you. The volcano will erupt today. Haven't you felt the earth shaking?"
"I haven't felt anything," said Joseph. "When did it happen?"
"Just a few moments ago. The cone was spewing flames. Earlier today it covered the fields near my home in ash. These are warnings to leave the island."
A sprinkle of laughter rose among the men. Joseph held out a cup. "Here, Vesuv. Although I'm not sure you haven't had enough already."
Joseph grinned and gestured to the offering. "Go ahead; drink. Forget this talk of eruptions and ashes. A toast to our new governor; the dwarf."
The others raised their mugs. "The dwarf!" they echoed.
Aaron swept his fist out violently and struck the cup from the merchant's hand. "Listen to me," he shouted. "The mountain--"
One of the men grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. "Shut up," he snarled, his breath heavy with wine. "Just who do ya think ya are, acting like that to Joseph?"
Aaron pushed him backward. "You're drunk," he roared. He looked at the others. "I swear I'm telling the truth. The eruption will destroy Phillipi. We must— "
Again he was interrupted as the man lurched forward, grabbing at his shirt. "If the dwarf was here," he slurred, "he'd flatten ya. So I'm gonna do it for him."
Aaron's open palm flew into his attacker's face, and he shoved him backwards. The man reeled into the stall, knocking over jars and spilling wine. Joseph yelled, "The farmer's gone crazy. Someone get the police."
Hands snatched at Aaron, trying to pin him down, but he twisted free and darted through an alley. He could hear the sounds of running feet as he leaped a fence and crouched for protection. The pursuers passed, and he closed his eyes in relief.
"What went wrong?" he wondered. "Yesterday I had no mission, but I wasn't crazy either."
He looked up and started. A woman he had never seen before stood staring at him. He realized that he must have taken refuge in her garden, but for the moment he was too surprised by her lack of familiarity to consider his position as intruder.
The woman gestured to the fence. "Why are they chasing you?"
Aaron frowned in confusion. "I'm not sure. It all happened so quickly. I tried to warn them about the volcano, and someone started a fight."
"The volcano?" Her eyes widened. "What about it?"
"It's going to explode today." He was suddenly excited again. "I've got to warn the others."
The woman smiled. "I think," she said, and her words calmed him, "you had better come inside for awhile first."
Aaron nodded and followed her into the house. The room they entered was furnished with large chairs and an ornately carved wooden bed. The sun steamed in through the open doors, creating the illusion that the interior extended into the garden. She motioned him to a seat.
"Would you like something to drink?"
"No, thank you," he shook his head. "Who are you?"
She laughed lightly. "I should ask you the same question, but never mind. My name is Lydia."
Aaron's mouth dropped open. Of course he hadn't recognized her. She never went out in public. This was the courtesan.
Lydia saw his expression and laughed again. "You just realized who I am, did you? Well, see, I'm the same as everyone else in spite of what you may have heard."
Aaron stammered. "I've heard nothing."
She pushed her hair back from the side of her face. "You're a terrible liar."
He nodded. "I don't lie."
"I can tell that. So what's all this about an eruption?"
"It's the last day for Phillipi. The volcano is going to explode."
"How do you know?"
Aaron stood up and began to pace. "I just know. The mountain warned me last night. Today I've seen signs in the fields and on the roads. I tried to tell people, but no one would believe me."
"I believe you."
He turned to look at her, to see if she was jesting.
"You don't lie," she stated simply.
Tears of relief welled up in his eyes. At last he had convinced another. Maybe the town would listen to the two of them. The feeling of hope died almost instantly. Who would take the word of a courtesan?
"What are you going to do?" Lydia was looking into his face.
"I don't know," he admitted. "If I could empty the town; get them to leave..."
"The dwarf could."
It was like a blow to the head. "What?"
"The dwarf could evacuate the town. All he'd have to do is ask them to go."
Aaron fought against his anger, trying to see her point. She was sincere, he thought. She really did feel the dwarf could help. And maybe he could. Maybe if...
"But how can we convince him?"
Lydia smiled. "That will be easy."
Aaron frowned, uncomprehending.
"Silly man. Don't you see? I'm the dwarf's woman." She said it with pride.
His surprise gave way quickly to excitement. Of course! All she had to do was tell him. He'd believe his own mistress.
"Can we get to him now?" Aaron was almost out the door.
She touched his arm gently. "Wait. Not now. We can't go to him yet."
"Don't worry. He always comes to me at noon. We'll wait for him until then."
Aaron turned to face her, wanting to object to such a delay. Suddenly, she was pressing close, holding her body against his. He started to push away, but her smell was intoxicating. His hands seemed to act on their own, exploring her form, uncontrollable desire surging through his mind. He could feel her tugging him toward the bed, feel their clothes falling to the floor. The room spun dizzily as he drove himself into her. He could no longer see shapes; only swirling patches of color that flashed brightly with each thrust. He could hear a scream that he knew was coming from his own throat; then the world disappeared.
Aaron heard the rumbling from somewhere far above him. Slowly he fought his way into consciousness and opened his eyes. Lydia was lying beside him, stroking his head. He felt very heavy, more tired than he ever had before. Then he realized the room was dark, and the noise was getting louder.
"What time is it?" He tried to turn, but she held him firmly.
"Shhh," she whispered. "Go back to sleep."
"What time is it?" he demanded again.
She smiled. "It's late afternoon. Don't worry. Rest for now."
"But the dwarf," he protested. "We've got to tell the dwarf before it's too late."
She looked at him sadly, her voice a whispered monotone. "The dwarf is dead."
Aaron tried to speak, but only a harsh croak escaped his lips.
"He died in this bed last night," she explained.
Sounds like intense thunder ripped through the sky. Ash fell thickly in the garden and began to drift into the room.
Aaron knew he must leave quickly but lacked the strength to move. He would take Lydia's advice and rest first. Her hands were cool and soothing as he drifted back into sleep. When he woke, they would flee Phillipi together.