By Natalie Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 11 Minutes
They came this far so that they could see the mountain, and their first thought, both of them, was how small it looked. But they were determined to have a good time so they did not say that, and instead, they chatted as they walked around the wrought-iron ramps of the viewing deck, each trying to find a space where the mountain before them looked like the mountain on the brochure.
They were surprised to find that the pictures made it seem larger, zooming in on the cracks and disheveled sides, seething with steam and heat at the base, glistening with snow at the top. The brochure had roped the sun and yanked it closer so that the orange of the sunset matched the tendrils of red lava that shivered down the slopes. And the brochure had covered—with a large block of white text on black—the rooftops and traffic lights of the town that spread between the mountain in the distance and the place where they stood.
In later years, rich visitors would be able to pay for helicopter rides over the snowy mountain, or they could get a special permit to walk on a new set of ramps that uncoiled over the lava boiling in that day’s heat. The viewing deck with its ramps would tout the distance between the hill and the looming peak as a benefit instead of a letdown. Stay away from the madness; who would walk so close to a monster?
Satisfied that there was no better view available to them, the two tourists made do with it the best they could, mentally rectifying this unimposing smudge with their expectations. The man snapped a picture with his camera, and the woman, trying not to think of the ice cream vendor they had passed on their way in, commented again on the history of the city that surrounded the mountain—who could believe it was actually that old? For the first time since they had stepped out of their small apartment a thousand miles away, clicking the lock on the door and laughing as they left behind their jobs and belongings and all the stress of having them, they now weighed the price of their tickets against the cost of comforts at home. Was this worth the price of a bag of groceries, a movie out, a dinner with friends? What a sacrifice for this paltry mountain view, crowded with this mess of a town and burning up from the squinting sun.
They stood on a viewing deck that was pinned to the side of a much smaller mountain, really more of a hill, billed as the perfect place to observe the famous peak. Below their feet, houses of the town sprouted up, their corrugated tin roofs angled against the hill to make a ditch that caught debris and dead leaves. The tourists could see the dropped wrappers and cups and sunglasses of spectators who had come before them caught between the roofs and the hill. Past those houses, there was a street and the next row of homes and storefronts. These houses were the closest and easiest to see into, pots and pans hanging in kitchens, suncatchers blocking windows, small watering cans on front porches that sat next to thirsty plants. It used to be a slow amiable street, where nothing happened and no stores had doorbells. But as more tourists had come, the workers had needed places to eat and to buy snacks and to leave their extra clothes as they rushed to the ticket-ripping stands. So the street got busier. Every few moments a door would open, a dog would run by, a woman would shout to her neighbor, and the tourists would groan. How could they appreciate the sleeping mountain in the distance as a convenience store doorbell clanged over and over again just below their feet?
Today, as our two tourists stood leaning against the wrought iron railing, trying to curb their thoughts away from the potential for ice cream and back to the majestic feat of nature they were attempting to appreciate, a little girl sauntered out of the store below them and down the street. She was swinging a doll in the crook of her arm, chatting with it as she went. Occasionally she stopped to pet the doll’s hair back in place; it had been chopped off at the back and stuck up when the top hair wasn’t perfectly resting over the whole head. The girl smoothed the flaxen hair, waxy and matted from all of her touching.
She walked a few doors down and pulled an empty flower pot off of a porch, overturned it, and sat down at her new table with her doll across from her. The doll, apparently very demanding, sat still as the girl darted around the yards and porches, collecting items at the doll’s behest. A flower plucked from a neighbor’s window, a set of empty yogurt containers, a red flyer from a telephone pole. With the red flyer as a tablecloth and the yogurt containers as cups, they began their invisible meal.
All the tourists who had been watching her rather than the far mountain now realized how hungry they were and jumped up to leave. That was when the monster woke up.
In the distance, perfectly placed to see it from the metal ramps, the mountain began to smoke. Most of the tourists began snapping pictures. A worried few rushed to the ticket rippers to shake them, point to the mountain, and ask, Is that normal? The ticket rippers were used to tourists imagining danger so they could get their money’s worth. Normally the workers played along, smiling and shrugging, maybe pointing at it themselves so that a group of tourists would gather, thinking that their day on the mountain was somehow special or different. The wheels began turning for the usual game until one ripper, still too new to know the disappointment that the tourists ate daily here, looked at the mountain herself and cried, as though she were a prophet remembering her job too late, It’s coming!
The other workers looked and saw the mountain trembling. Abandoning their ticket stands, they ran onto the ramps for a better look. The wrought iron ramps were now filled with tourists whose places at the railings had now become so valuable that they wondered why they ever questioned coming here. The workers crowded in as well, glad to see their manager watching with them, knowing they wouldn’t get in trouble for this because no one knew what was happening now.
In the village below, the local people began to take notice. Women on bikes pedaled quickly out of sight. A few men in bathrobes came hurrying out of the public bath, running down the hillside into the thicket of houses beyond.
The little girl with her doll grabbed the yogurt cups as the flower pot beneath them shook, focused on keeping every teacup and saucer in place for her party. A man ran out of one of the nearby houses, the corrugated tin roof meeting the swinging door with a bang. He began shouting, and the tourists knew that he was calling for the little girl, who he could not see from where he was standing. The tourists saw it all, an omniscient audience watching theater from their seats. Finally, one tourist whistled and pointed to the yard where the girl was playing, just out of her father’s sight, a place only visible downstage.
The father ran and grabbed his daughter with both hands. She snatched her doll and together, the girl, the man, and the doll rushed back to the house below their feet, the door slamming again and the street going silent.
In the distance, the mountain smoked and seethed. The smoke was making shapes in the air now, ballooning out and out. The tourists with sensitive noses caught a new smell on the wind—something between just-blown-out birthday candles and hair burnt from being left in a curling iron too long. As the smoke grew, the red slopes before them began to splinter, cracks forming and lighting up as the black haze smothered out the sky. The smoke churned, going from a hazy question mark to a concrete mass of ash, a scream let out after a nightmare from a sleeper who hasn’t woken up yet. The people on the ramps began to get nervous, looking around at the ticket rippers, waiting to be told how much they should panic.
Then, out of the haze, eight shadowy wings appeared. The red of a beast’s body took shape in the sky like the turrets of a magnificent castle, set in a moat of smoke.
At this, the ticket rippers ran. Some rushed to their motorbikes and drove off, taking country roads out of town or taking city roads to pick up people they couldn’t flee without. A few jumped over the ramps and landed with a clatter onto the tin roofs below, a shortcut they knew from their night walks home, now an emergency escape for grabbing family members and getting away.
Some visitors began running to their cars. Others crowded closer to the railing, certain that the beast would never travel this far. A few parents pushed their children to the front of the ramps for the best view, with a flash in their minds, “My kid will be able to say he was there when the mountain woke up and the beast roared.”
Standing shoulder to shoulder on the ramp together, our two tourists were uncertain. Yes, this was what they wanted to do—to see the world, to be apart of the big things out there, to get lucky enough to watch history happen—but both of their minds snapped back to the hallway of their apartment. It would be morning there now, and the white light of the back patio would be coming in, backlighting the whole hallway so the shoes lined up in the entryway looked like a row of sleeping cats, waiting to have feet slipped into them so they could stir awake. The wood floor probably needed dusting, she thought, and I never finished moving those boxes from the hall closet into storage, he remembered. They stood together staring at the beast that would make history—or at least the next day’s paper—thinking of their home a thousand miles away.
The next moment, the beast flattened its wings and veered toward their hill, bearing down on them like a jet, nose first. As it approached, she wondered if it would come close enough to see its eyes. Would there be a small pilot and copilot inside, waiting to land and pick up their dinner that was waiting for them by the gate?
But the eyes were not full of pilots; they were black and empty and rimmed in green like rust around the nozzle of a garden hose. He lifted his camera and snapped a picture, just as those empty eyes fixed on him.
Suddenly, one of the ticket rippers, who was too young and cared too much about his job, grabbed both of them by their hands. They were now standing on the ramp alone, straddling the railing they held and their memories of home, not noticing that they were now the target for the beast.
The ticket ripper pulled them around the ramps as the beast came nearer and nearer. Pushing them over the end of one ramp, they found a set of steps leading down to the village below. He dragged them into the house where the little girl had fled with her father. Suddenly they were all shoved inside, not divided into tourists and locals, but five people huddled in the dark, wondering if the rattling on the wind outside was coming for them.
Together they listened without moving. But like all humans, even those in imminent danger, their attention wandered. The woman wondered if the rug in the house was for sale anywhere in the city; it was a lovely blue in the light cast from the windows. The little girl, sitting across the room from her, offered her an empty yogurt cup, and she knew it contained imaginary tea. She took it and smiled.
The ticket ripper, just a teenager in an oversized uniform, noticed the man’s camera. It was a nice one; there were three knobs at the top and a whole twistable lens at the front, probably a thousand settings you could change. The father, at first so distracted saving his daughter, then relieved to have his son safe too, started to feel the presence of these two as strangers, noticing the woman touch the edges of his rug and his son watch the camera resting on the man’s lap.
Finally, there were noises on the street. The man stood up and peeked out the door. In the distance, the dragon was swooping back toward the furls of smoke from the mountain. A cheer went up from the town below; someone had found an old gun and made quite a show of trying to kill it. It wasn’t dead, but the wings that had seemed as solid as castle walls from far away were apparently quite moth-like, paper thin and poked through by the first shot fired. It swooped away in the distance, back and forth like a pen across paper as the writer holding it falls asleep. The father whistled for his children, and the people in the house hurried out to watch the last of the dragon slink away into the smoke. The man lifted his camera and caught it, just as it submerged back into the smog.
The mountain still seethed and hissed. Near the mountain’s base, sirens and fire alarms were going off, but here on the hillside where the tourists watched, the dragon was gone and everything was normal again. Even the smoke and ash remained at bay, held back by a friendly wind.
Outside the house, the two tourists thanked the boy, clasping their hands together and repeating their gratitude, thank you thank you, the one phrase they could remember in the local language. The ticket ripper shrugged it off, shaking his head with a smile. They tried offering him money, but he refused out of politeness. Suddenly aware of their sandals and fanny packs, the couple asked for directions back up onto the ramps with the other tourists, ready to head out.
The ticket ripper led them back up the steps and onto the ramps, where the two of them walked out past the ticket stand and away to their car.
In the days that followed, the ticket ripper, back at his post, thought about them every day. There were more tourists than ever, now that there was really something to see and a true risk in seeing it. The swarms came with their cameras loaded and already snapping, afraid to miss the moment when the dragon might appear.
“I wish I had asked to try his camera,” the boy thought often, noticing other tourists’ cameras and slowly saving up his paychecks to buy one of his own, thinking of what he might capture. He hadn’t learned it yet, but he had an eye for photography and would later climb the mountain to take the first picture ever of the giant asleep in its lair. Until then, he would rip tickets and climb down the back stairs home each night to the house with the blue rug and his little sister.
A few days later, our two tourists arrived back home, the light from the backyard catching on the dust twinkles in the air. It filled their hallway with a sense of magical return, lighting up even their shoes and misplaced boxes. They unpacked and took their film to get developed to see what they had captured on their trip.
When they looked through the pictures, they had it all—the mountain, far and disappointing, then the top of it smoking and unfurling. A dozen shots of a speck in the distance getting bigger and bigger. Finally, the best two photos of the bunch: a smudged shot of the dragon at its largest as they were being pulled away to safety, and a final shot of the dragon, swooping in the distance back into its smoky home, the bottom half of the photo filled with corrugated tin rooftops.
The woman flipped between the smudged arrival and the smoky departure again. “I wish we had a picture with the family,” she said, thinking of the ticket ripper and his sister and the blue rug in their home, making a note to remember what was missing between the photographs.
Story by Natalie Mills · Photo by Fabrice Villard