by JOHN MATTHEW FOX
Some charred hunk of lava near the edge of the trail was the culprit. Her sneaker caught the edge of it, just hard enough to trip her, and she ended up on all fours, pebbles pressing their shapes into her knees. One hand stung from donating skin to the rocky soil. But the pain gave way to an overwhelming scent—the rotten-egg, gassy stench of sulfur. A smell like the darkroom where she brought black and white photographs to life. The smell was so strong near the earth, the mountain exhaling its gases through the vents between the rocks, that she could see the shape of a superheated curl as it distorted the boulder behind it. The vapors clogged her lungs and she coughed. She must have taken a moment to get up because her father had already doubled back from his trail-leader position. It was a lead he had seized at the base of the mountain, from where he kept shouting to hurry up, they wanted to summit and return by the last bus. He was breathing hard, as though he had run back, as he asked her if she was okay, and she said she was okay without thinking about it, because that was the way communication had always worked in the family: saying the routine things without pausing to gauge their truthfulness. A trail guide, with four backpackers as his charges, stopped and asked in English if she was fine. Tara stood. Blood dribbled down one knee; her left hand showed a patchwork of pink and raw skin. Her father replied to the tour guide in Italian—smoothly, without pauses. She should have learned Italian. It had only taken him a few years. She had always wanted to learn, but she didn’t come over here to visit him often enough, not that the infrequency was her fault. The tour guide rummaged out an alcohol wipe from his backpack and dabbed at her knee. It stung enough to make her wince, but the area cleared and she could see the wound: nothing more than a scratch, really. The guide smiled, paternally. These Sicilians were always nice, much more gracious than the northern Italians, or at least the northerners in Milan, where her father taught. The tour guide and his charges continued. I don’t want to go on, she told her father, more of an expression of her frustration than a desire to quit. Are you hurt too badly, he asked, and it seemed an innocent question on the surface, she knew, but more likely he already knew the answer—that she wasn’t—and he wanted to emphasize it. I’m just tired, she said, which was not strictly true, and he nodded, tucked his lips together in empathy, but she knew he was just trying to figure out something to say to convince her. It’s not too much farther to the top, he said. She thought it was actually much farther than they’d hiked already, but he would keep on pressing her because he had said in one of their international calls that he had wanted to hike Stromboli for years. Plus, there were mud springs up further, therapeutic ones, and she did want to reach those. When they started hiking again, he stayed at her side, in a show of concern for her limp, a limp she exaggerated for sympathy. The trail continued to switchback its way up the mountain, and around some curves she could see the top—a lopsided crater, with the black drool of cooled lava leaking out. Yellow butterflies glided over the dark sheen of the rocks. Her father referred to the butterflies as Lepidoptera—there are so many Lepidoptera here, he kept repeating. The phrase stuck in her head, like an annoying jingle on a loop. A switchback later, he explained that he refused to use the common term because it was so etymologically nonsensical. Butter that flies? Never. Lepid—scaly, with an esoteric connotation of charming; ptera—winged. He smiled, pleased with his explanation of how the language of science explained the heart of things. When they saw a solo white one astride a rock, she wanted to sketch the way it slowly fanned its wings, then unified them into a fin atop its back, but he named the genus and phylum, explaining its taxonomic differences from the yellow variety. They stopped at a rock that doubled as a bench. He sucked from the straw over his shoulder that led to his water pack; Tara gulped from her green bottle. Her knee was sore. Your mother would love this, her father said, swinging his arm around the panorama. She hasn’t been hiking for years, she replied, not even on the trail around the lake. She didn’t say: she never enjoyed hiking; she did it only to please you. How is your mother, he asked. She’s fine, she said, and let the silence linger. Four more days, she thought, and then she was done with Italy. And good riddance, not that Italy wasn’t nice, but her father transformed every activity into a learning experience. Then back to San Francisco, although she didn’t look forward to returning to college. Part of the reason was that every painting supply store and every photo opportunity on Telegraph Avenue would remind her of the girl that had recently exited her life, but more than that, she didn’t feel like learning more, perhaps because she was afraid that she would end up like her father. She would see a Picasso and know the angle of the brush strokes, the weight of matte, but not be able to appreciate the angular beauty of a chin. She would round a gallery and think only of technique and genre and reputation and not actually be able to be surprised, or emotionally moved, by a piece of art. She liked seeing things as they presented themselves, without rooting underneath for their secret properties. It took another half hour of hiking through squadrons of yellow butterflies to reach the final rest site. Against all impediments someone had managed to erect a restaurant this high up the mountain, a blue and white shack opposite a field of mud. Tara had heard that it was love that overcame all things, but she often thought it was really tourism. The restaurant sat in a valley, surrounded by humps of hills, and a road climbed up to it from the other side of the mountain. Her father walked to an open patch and shielded his eyes with a hand, probably scanning for some rare bird of prey wheeling about the peak. She went towards the mud, bypassing a hooked hose with a spigot to reach the series of black pools. Some of the pools were steaming; a few even burbled. It stank of sulfur. A woman scooped some mud and smeared it across her arm; her legs were already sheathed in mud nylons. Tara looked back to her father to find him sitting at one of the outside tables of the restaurant. He waved, an indolent wave just to prove his presence, and then a waitress approached him. Tara wondered whether he really had been looking at her—he could have been checking out the mountain, gauging how much longer it would take him, calculating the time she had cost him, and had just waved when he saw her staring. That would be more like him. The waitress closed her book, left; he swiveled back towards Tara and she turned to avoid another connection. She crouched down next to one of the pools and dipped her foot in. The foot sunk as if in quicksand, the mud glooping around her ankle, until her toes reached a slimy impasse. When she withdrew herself, the excess mud slid off, leaving a sticky film. She had read in the guidebook about its properties—it not only helped with arthritis and muscle aches, but cleared the pores and made skin smooth as a newborn’s. Supposedly it was good as Dead Sea mud, which sold for $25 a pound in the States. She slathered it along her arm, all the way to the sleeve at the shoulder, and then the other arm, and the legs, only leaving patches of pink at her injured knee and hand. The mud warmed her skin and already she could feel the minerals soaking in, rejuvenating. She started laughing when her limbs were caked. Laughing at how she must look, this hulking mud monster rising up from the sulfur pools. What a painting she would make. She jerked her arms back and forth in awkward, mechanical movements: mock zombie, mock creature from the black lagoon. The other mud woman left for the water spigot, her pupils tucked in the corner pocket of her corneas as if trying to surreptitiously observe Tara. Tara didn’t care if she watched. In fact, to complete the transformation, she started a facial, bending over close to the mud, smearing a strip along her forehead, dabbing patches on her cheeks, chin, the vapors from the pool rising to flush her face. Her eyes started burning immediately. They had been irritated before, just a hint of a sting that she chalked up to the heat, but now they sizzled. Sheets of tears streamed down. She tried to use a clean spot on the back of her hand to wipe at her sockets but it didn’t help, they were getting worse, intolerable, as though the whole eyeball was on a spit over the grill. Screaming, she turned. There were blurred shapes and colors but no lines, no people. The sound of water came to her, the sound of salvation. She stumbled towards it, hands out, blind. She was still screaming. The patter of feet, the hands of her father, his voice, frantic, asking what happened, what happened, and she said something about her eyes, and the pain, and kept groping for the water. Was it the sulfur, he asked, was it the sulfur, but she didn’t know, she didn’t reply, and just then she felt sprinkles on her outstretched arm and tried to duck towards them. Her feet were off the ground. All her weight hung at her waist, where thick arms hoisted her aloft, carrying her away from the sound of the water. Her legs kicked but her father ignored them. He yelled in Italian toward the restaurant, yelled words she didn’t know. Her eyes felt like they had dropped from her sockets, as though they were dangling on a long strand out of her head. Her eyes felt like they had been marinated in habanera extract. She could only see gray. Her father threw her on the ground near the restaurant. She tried to get up but his heavy hand pushed her down. Her eyes burned so badly she wanted to claw them out, make herself go blind. She thought of every painting she would never see. She thought of every sketch she could never draw. She thought of every museum and every gallery and washed them black with blindness. Thumps on the wood veranda. The smell of citrus. She heard someone say, in English, Lemons? What are you doing, she asked, and again, but no one answered audibly, they answered by putting calloused thumbs on her eyelids, pinning them open. What are you doing, she screamed. She knew, but didn’t know why, and that scared her. Then the spurt of broken membranes, the trickle of juice in her right eye, a wayward splatter landing on her tongue, puckering her taste buds. Followed by squeezing more into her left eye. Streams of lemon juice streaked down to her ears. The burning stopped. She stopped squirming, she stopped her moaning and screaming, her father’s hand stopped clamping her to the ground. The world flattened out and became still again. A towel, rough as a tongue, scraped the mud off her forehead, cheeks. Her eyes were still watering—not yet clear, but she was seeing blurry shapes and colors, like close up to an impressionist painting. Someone at the restaurant started clapping, and a few hands joined. Her father asked the question, and she replied Yes, she was, or she thought she was, and she said the words carefully, meaning them. He squeezed her hand. Sulfur’s a base, he said, and you needed an acid, not water. He stood up. From her vantage on the ground, his fuzzy shape looked taller than he’d even been, a statue propping up the sky. He leaned back, a fist pressing into the bottom of his spine, and grimaced. She hoped his back wasn’t hurt. A yellow blur fluttered between them, perched itself on the lower railing near her head, and lowered and lifted its wings in time to a triple beat—down, down, up; down, down, up. It was bright and beautiful against the brown wood. Lepidoptera, she thought.
JOHN MATTHEW FOX has graduate degrees in creative writing from the University of Southern California and New York University. He won the 2010 Third Coast Fiction Contest and has also published in Los Angeles Review, Tampa Review, and Pedestal Magazine. He blogs about short stories at BookFox.