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The Excruciating Beauty of Ephemera

Written by Keyan Bowes

Illustration by Gutti Barrios

Length 939 Words

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Death from natural disasters.


The slopes of the sentient volcano were covered with dying purple frogs. Vultures and other scavengers perched on the trees and picked at the little corpses. The volcano shuddered in agonies of guilt. Were the gases it emitted responsible?

The leaves on the trees near its crater fell like amethysts along its rim. The skies looked like strange sunsets. Someone once called frogs the canaries of the coal mine of the world. And the frogs - the frogs were purple.

The volcano feared it was ravaging the earth, spewing a creeping purple death rippling in concentric rings from the epicenter, itself. It belched another cloud of gas. A vulture fell, flapping and collapsing in a horrid graceful dance.

The volcano wept hot lava streams that bubbled over its rim and poured down the folds and gullies in its sides. They glowed molten orange, an excruciating beauty exterminating everything it touched. They sizzled into a lake and more frogs died. They flowed around rocks, over trees that flashed into fire, over the burrows of little animals the volcano would have protected.

- Sky, it said, stop me, stop me before all dies.

- You are who you are, said the forgiving sky. Worlds come and worlds go. Earth bursts and skyrocks fall, life changes, gases change. Once there were dinosaurs. Now there are birds. And frogs.

- The beautiful frogs, mourned the volcano. Must everything pass? Why am I belching this purple death?

The sky didn't answer. Time moves differently for atmospheres, and it may have been pondering the question.

A flash of lightning split the cloudless wordless sky.

* * *

A truck bumped and rumbled over the rocky road skirting the volcano. People got out and climbed up the volcano's side, talking. It listened, hoping for an answer.

"Take that, Harvard!" said one jubilantly. "We got here first. I'm going in closer for some more readings."

"It's pretty active," said the another. "We could get killed, you know."

"And how can man die better than facing fearful odds? We're volcanologists!"

"Stupid foolhardy volcanologists! Okay, let's go. You recording?"

"Let's get these things as close in as we can."

They moved nearer to the caldera.

"No…" groaned the volcano in a voice so low they could not hear it. "No!" it exclaimed in a shower of molten lava. A burst of flame and gas sprayed from its mouth.

"Shit! Run!" shouted the one in the lead, and turned to flee. Like the frogs, like the leaves, like the vultures, the volcanologists collapsed in a fume of purple.

They were no help now.

* * *

The despairing volcano turned to the world around it.

- Earth, said the volcano, You are the source, the base, the origin. Stop me!

A rumble, as of amusement, vibrated through the ground.

- You are my child, said the earth. Fire of my fire, stone of my stone. I would see you grow to your fullest beauty.

- But the frogs, said the volcano. The trees, the vultures, the people!

- Ephemera, said the earth dismissively.

* * *

- I will find my answer! roared the volcano in gouts of fire. It belched and spat a spray of shining rocks that carbonized the instruments left behind by the volcanologists. The readings they were sending back to the university's laboratory abruptly stopped.

- There is an answer. There must be an answer! A stream of lava spilled over its lip and overran the vehicle parked below. Colleagues of the dead scientists had painted their names on its roof as a memorial and left it where it stood. Now, it too was just ephemera, like the people it honored.

- Look inside yourself, said a voice. It was quiet, matter-of-fact.

- Sky? asked the volcano. Is that you?

The volcano looked and saw chambers of boiling magma, runnels and streams of molten rock, churning and grumbling. It belched again, and several of the trees on its rim caught purple fire. It sighed gusts of purple that built into a fat cloud over it. Birds that flew into the cloud dropped into the caldera like purple snowflakes.

- The answer, said the voice that may have been the sky, is within you. Only you can see it.

The volcano listened and heard. I will meditate upon an answer. It calmed itself, slowing the magnificent circulation of its magma in its veins and channels and fell into a deep contemplative silence.

At last, it came to the only answer.

With its final thoughts, it gave up its thoughts. The volcano slept, emitting a small snore of flame every few decades. Then even that stopped, and it slowed into dormancy.

* * *

In the caldera, a Frog rounded up a school of Tadpoles. It hopped onto a rock half-buried in the mud at the lakeside. "Did you know, kids, this lake we swim in rests in a volcano? One that's been dormant a very long time, from before there were Frogs."

"Where did Frogs come from?" asked a tadpole.

"We evolved from four-legged fish, and frogs that didn't die out and became intelligent as the world changed. But we'll come back to that another time. Now, who can tell me what a volcano is?"

"It's a pimple in the earth's skin," volunteered one.

"Yeah, and when the zit bursts, fire comes out."

The Frog sighed. Kids. Would they ever learn respect?

The volcano listened in its sleep. At zit, it laughed, and a plume of steam erupted at one side of the crater cooking some of the tadpoles. Before it could boil the whole lake, it stopped itself. Instead, it dreamed of frogs, of vultures, of people, of sentient tadpoles talking. It dreamed and refused to awaken.

© Keyan Bowes

Keyan Bowes

Keyan Bowes is frequently ambushed by stories and took the Clarion Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers in self-defense. Her work has appeared online in a number of publications and in print in a dozen anthologies. She's a member of SFWA.

Normally peripatetic but San Francisco-based, these days Keyan can be found online or somewhere near Puget Sound.



Twitter: @KeyanBowes

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