(hell with the fire out)

<<a story in progress>>

My hand slides across a concrete wall, painted white with a single hairline crack running horizontally towards it’s edge, as I wait for my husband to sort out the paperwork for our car hire. I sniff the air and detect nothing whatsoever, but that absence of something is really quite a thing, like the weight of withheld words pressing into the wind. Looking out across the airport carpark, over the furthest wall, my eyes fall on the landscape beyond; a small rise of hill adorned with little scrubby bushes and dry gullies, softly lit by the ensuing dusk.

I’m here again.

Why do I keep returning?

This island, a crumble.

Like a distant alarm call caught in time-lapse, all moisture is spirited away by the wind’s monotonous tone. The dry barren skin of land, it terrifies me, and that fear follows me around. Those bald, ochre hills, they hide something. They are melancholic, almost deathly and I don’t know why I need to see them again. Here and there one can see the remains of low stone terraces built at some point in time, I presume since the Spanish colonisation of the island in the sixteenth century. Someone had a go at taming this landscape. And if it was for agriculture, I can’t imagine what could grow in those hills. On a semi-desert rock in the Atlantic.

If you could imagine a newly born atoll of lava that had just been spewed from a crack in the seafloor, peeping out of a swirling surge of drowning indigo, becoming salted crust, like an igneous scab gasping for breath above the translucent muscles of the Atlantic, then exposed and eroded by a single, relentless wind, you would see a place both raw and soft, brittle and smoothly rendered as a picked-clean bone. One of the many modest and bitter birth scars of this planet. Unapologetic and slyly casting it’s ominous inner-earth shadow from beneath our feet, and up, up into the aching clouds above, where it yells at the sky: here is the place before places were made. 

I dare you to begin. 

It’s rarely cold in this subtropic zone, but how it can sometimes look like the dreariest, grimmest landscape imaginable, stuck between those two horizontal tongues of romantic blue, like a cloud-infested, jagged and mute, dead-end of the world, still baffles me even now. When the sun beats down like a silenced raging mouth, the light can’t be tamed by a hat or sunglasses or even by closing the eyes, and to go inside somewhere, anywhere, feels like the magical cadence of a quiet dream emerging. Yes, this oversized piece of ochre grit with no streams or rivers, no forest nor fleshy green monuments to laugh out loud some punctuating relief over such a mysteriously vacant lot of earth’s volcanic purge, it still manages to be somewhere, by sheer luck of breaching sea level.

It was the sea, you understand, and the open sky with that wind never stopping, that lured me towards the place. I was lost back then and there was no other way forward but to turn away from on everything that had become familiar to me. To go further into chaos; a last attempt at merging with that European concept of wilderness. I retreated into a place made up of wind and waves and the colours and the sensations that caught themselves in that movement, and they shattered, splattered and sifted into ombres or dunes of matter, memory and emotion. I wanted to be carried away by them and never stop moving, just be held by vibrating ribbons of time and left there suspended, observing the rhythmic landscapes as they revealed themselves to me like music. I wanted to be part of it so desperately, to disappear into their contours, their conclusion, but this desire - this desperation - cleaved me from that sensual, meshy womb. My body became a frame for the spectacle itself, set apart and cold. And the wind kept blowing through this frame, so I had to cling to the smallest thing in that chilly, othered place I called myself. 

I clung to the rock, and there, I became the volcano. 

I became a mother. 

Before motherhood, I was a tiny polished seed, like those sleeping in the barren hills of the island. They sit there in the topsoil, unseen, sometimes for years, waiting for rain that usually arrives in cinco gotas (five drops), or the sudden annual downpour of an Atlantic storm. 

I thought I knew what I needed, quietly chasing my tail inside the aging husk of my corporeal bunker. Poetry and song, paint and film being played out in gentle ebbs or shuddering implosions, like performances staged inside a seashell. Occasionally I slammed my fists on those fleshy walls, the sound absorbed by the edges of me. I had formed these layers around myself in a sort of reverse pass-the-parcel game. I was fit to burst and I had to become undone, to retrieve the gifts I’d squirrelled away over the years, metamorphic treasures waiting to be revealed. 

Pregnancy was the beginning of this unraveling of self. Slowly, I would transform from this touchstone of igneous rock in the Atlantic, and as I waited, gently swelling, it was almost unnoticeable at first. The terrain of skin, flesh and organs rose gently and patiently from my skeleton, the layers relaxing from time to time as the sulphur leaked and I breathed in it’s nauseous, dizzying hallucinations that held me in my bed, unwilling to move, alone in a waiting room surrounded by wind, clouds and waves. 

Waiting for the point at which one must break.

Not all mothers become volcanoes, but all volcanoes are mothers. The volcano destroys and creates at the same time. She finally explodes from a place that is never still, with an energy that is always pressing against the surface, and has been since the dawn of time. Now and again, she finally gives in and sends the dust, molten rocks and magma in epic spills down the sides of her body and into the air, where tiny pieces of shattered fire and insanity hold back the sun. For a moment that can last for years, death floats within her orbit and does it’s rounds. A nude graveyard tickled by the remains of petrified trees and silver palm fronds as they wave in her ashen shadow. She suffocates in layers, then unveils her soft contours like the velvet interior of a coffin.

I close my eyes and try to remember why I became a volcano.

It was a childhood fascination with the volcano I saw on a scratchy VHS back in the late eighties. The greasy smile of an open wound bleeding pale, orange neon out of a powder black silhouette of a mountain. Saturated colours and grain within the film, like a thin, damp sheet hanging with moisture filtering the skyline, bringing the volcano closer to the telly’s screen, to my face, just inches away. She growled horribly at me through her cracked teeth, and she was my big fear. As I watched the video again and again, the film unraveled itself from the plastic sprockets of the black rectangle and found a place to dwell deep in my guts. Slashes and gurgles of red hot magma rhythmically danced to a haemorrhaging beat. I admired the patterns like black lace over blood, and then shuddered in horror at the speed of the death river leaping across the ridge of a contorted nightscape. All this happened very far away, in Iceland and Hawaii, shot over thirty years ago on sixteen millimetre film, yet here it is now, woven into the folds of my caesarean scar. Every crease in the lava is a blueprint of the calm I can never leave alone. I fuss over it, try to recreate it, frame it, dazzle it out of what it is or enslave it as my own. It had been in me for all that time and it wanted to get out. So I let it go, and sure enough, I became a volcano.

And then I left that rock in the Atlantic.

I couldn’t stay because it had no layers and it was hollow and I had grown out of sludge and clay and my blood was filled with the distilled soil from millions of botanical graves beneath the places where I had dwelled since nineteen eighty. Legs watermarked by Pennine rains. The mud still stains my soft, sad, collapsed arches. 

I couldn’t stay because I found no shade, and I knew only of thunking shadows pressing into the bark at the base of deciduous trees with the shock pocks of diseased leaves waving angrily at a land carved up and cut out of itself by the bite of asphalt, collapsed drystone walls, barbed wire and the clawing of tractors.

I couldn’t stay because I was afraid of the volcano.

There are other reasons why I had to leave the island and return to my homeland. These are stories that take time to tell. And I want to tell them. A story about the wind and waves. About mud and floods and deforestation. About holograms and vessels and heart surgery and cloud forests and utopian gardens. I want to talk about growing up in working class, semi-rural, post-industrial, late-capitalist, Anthropocentric, damp and drizzly West Yorkshire, and then becoming a volcano. About dreams of sanctuary, and following those dreams into the liminal spaces of crisis and the inescapable darkness of failure.

© Clare Carter
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