Mbah called the volcano ‘she’. His was one of only a hundred families to live on her side. He’d grown up on her slopes, met his wife, Sela, dancing around her crater, and she’d practically been a third parent helping to raise his and Sela’s son, Jordy.
When she blew in eighty-nine, Mbah’s family was one of the few to survive. It was well known on the volcano that she wouldn’t hurt you if you truly loved her, and it was revealed that day that the volcano lacked love. Eighty men, women and children died in her ire. Many were killed by the smoke and many were killed by the sheer heat. One young lady ran into the smoke bunker, built to save one from the suffocating ash clouds, and the bunker was buried in the lava. It was made from tin, and the young lady’s dead body stank of cooked meat when they found her. The girl was more-than-just-friends close with Jordy, by then a young man, and, after the damage was done, Jordy joined the masses who left their homes on the volcano’s side and moved away.
Mbah refused to move. “She kept us safe, when taking away so many. Doesn’t that tell you something?” he asked his son.
“It tells me to heed this warning, and find somewhere else to live,” said Jordy. “You should come with me, Father.”
Mbah shook his head. Everybody else moved on, but Mbah and his wife stayed. In time, the king of JogJa named Mbah the Caretaker of the Volcano, a great honour. There’d been no Caretaker for fifty years, and Mbah numbered those who thought this was why she’d gotten so upset in eighty-nine.
Jordy met another young lady, in ninety-three, and fell in love and married. An invitation to the wedding was sent, and an exhausted postman climbed the slopes to deliver it. But Mbah wouldn’t leave the volcano to attend.
“She needs me to stay here,” he told Sela, talking about the volcano, when Sela begged Mbah to join her at the wedding. He had tears in the corners of his eyes. Sela beat her fists down on him, but he remained unmoved. “Please, stop it,” he said quietly. “I can’t leave her alone. I’m sorry.”
When Sela returned she brought bad news. Jordy had vowed never again to speak with Mbah.
“What could I do, Sela?” asked Mbah. “I was needed here.”
Sela said nothing.
In ninety-seven, many predicted she would blow again. Reporters came to ask the Caretaker what his volcano would do. “She’s not mine!” laughed Mbah. “If anything, I am hers. No, she won’t erupt now. She has too much love this time round.”
Sela pleaded with him to let them leave, but he refused. “Did you not hear what I said to the men from the newspapers? I cannot go now. People are looking to me. If I go, it would cause a panic. No, it won’t do at all. We must stay.
So they stayed, despite Sela’s misgivings, and time proved Mbah right. The volcano grew angry, or so it seemed, but she didn’t blow. Mbah became well known, the lone voice defending the volcano, the man who loved her so much she didn’t erupt. A celebrity. Only Sela was unimpressed. After a brief period of time, she left the volcano and her husband, and joined her son and his wife, far, far away.
Mbah passed the days alone, just he and the volcano, until oh-one. New families moved on to the slopes of the volcano and built new homes and families there. They and Mbah left each other alone. He gained a reputation as a wise man, and people came to him for advice. He advised them to climb to the top of the volcano, and to look from there at the rest of the world. Then, he said, they would find what they needed. And people did. He was thanked so many times for changing somebody’s life. So many people, passing through.
In oh-one, she spat hot red rocks into the river. Those who know these things warned that she would definitely blow soon. The reporters returned to Mbah, the Caretaker, and asked for his opinion. They hoped he would predict another false alarm. He didn’t.
“Yes, she will blow this time round,” said Mbah.
“But what about the love?” asked one reporter, who felt personally affronted that the volcano was going to go.
“She will blow for love,” said Mbah.
Another reporter asked him, “Will you be leaving the volcano?”
Mbah smiled. “No,” he said. “I shall not.”
His words made headline news. Sela returned to him, begged him to leave the volcano. He shook his head, and told her she should go. He told her it wasn’t safe. Jordy, his estranged son, returned to the volcano, and begged his father with tears streaming like hot lava down his cheeks to leave. Mbah shook his head, crying also, and asked Jordy to take Sela and to go, quickly. There wasn’t much time.
Sela and Jordy left, and Mbah stayed. There’s a picture taken, just as she erupted. It’s of Mbah, his arms held wide, like the statue of Jesus in Rio, and the volcano behind him spewing hot rocks far into the sky. Mbah looks peaceful, ready to die in the arms of the woman he loved. It’s the only picture the photographer took before he too turned hide and ran for his life.
Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He can be found on Facebook, if you care to add him as a friend, and he blogs oh-so-sporadically at jellyfishloving.blogspot.com.