The air was unusually moist when Pedro climbed out of his hammock. He raced across the stone covered path to the well in his bare feet. Pedro grabbed the large wooden bucket by the metal rim at the top of it and began lowering the vessel gently by feeding the tattered rope through his hands. On and on it went until, with his head turned sideways, he heard the splash. He pulled slightly on the rope to make sure he had enough water in it and then transferred both of his hands to the rusted old turning handle. He could hear the rope creak as it pulled the heavy bucket up to the head of the well. The more it rose the harder it became to keep going but eventually the bucket was at the top of the well and facing him. Pedro secured the remaining rope by wrapping it round the turning handle, being careful to leave enough slack so that he could pull the bucket over and empty it into his waiting container, an old tin bath that sat atop a wooden cart with rickety wheels. With one deft movement there was a huge splash and the bath was around half full. Pedro walked to the front of the cart where there was a long metal pole with a t-shaped handle and began to pull the cart towards the little run-down house where his grandparents lived. When he arrived at his destination Pedro picked up a ladle from the porch and filled it with the ice cold water. As he poured it over his head he wondered if there was any better way to start the day.
During his twelve short years Pedro had stayed at his grandparents’ house many times. He loved them dearly but they were getting too old to be able to lead the goats up the hills to graze in the fresh pasture there. Papa Jo had sent a message up with one of the elders’ sons to Pedro’s father saying that today he would need some help. Pedro was despatched the previous evening just as the sun was going down.
There was no sign of life from inside the house. Pedro began to shout. “Papa Jo, Papa Jo wake up it’s time to get up.”
There was the sound of rustling from inside. After a few seconds the door was thrown open and the old man stood there scratching himself awake.
“I’m not deaf, you know”, he growled. “Just old”, he added as something of an afterthought.
Without another word he too scooped up a ladle of water and, holding it above his head, drenched himself. The water ran down the old mans lank hair and white, twisted, beard. A broad smile played across the lips of Papa Jo and his eyes danced to a merry tune beneath his snow covered fringe. He patted his stomach and went inside to prepare breakfast. In just a few moments Pedro could hear the noise of pots and pans being banged onto stove.
Soon Pedro was presented with a breakfast of eggs, sausages and rice. Papa Jo ate a small amount too. As they sat on the porch in silence the boy looked at the old man – he was smiling as he was eating, enjoying the moment of seeing his grandson being set up for the day ahead. When they were finished Papa Jo cleared away their plates and said, “Soon it will be very warm, you must be going.”
Pedro sprang to his feet and walked over to where the goats were kept. Leaning on the outside of the gate was a long pole that he would use for making sure they did not stray. He carefully opened the gate and let the three goats out quickly closing it again in case the donkeys escaped too.
“Don’t forget to take water with you”, said Papa Jo racing after him and handing him a large canteen.
“See you later”, added Pedro as he embraced Papa Jo. He could smell tobacco and stale sweat when he cuddled close to him but didn’t mind as it was his Papa Jo.
The journey from his grandparents’ house to the foothills was uneventful and the goats had been no great bother, only occasionally straying from the path. None of the children had come down the hill yet. This was very strange as today was a school day for the little ones and the school house was only about half a mile from Papa Jo’s. Pedro continued to walk through the dank vegetation of the hills where the early morning mist was still clearing. The only noise that he could hear was the rattling of the small tin cups that hung round the goats’ necks and the scraping of their hooves as they struggled up the loose stones on the path. He stopped once or twice to drink some water. As he did so he noticed that there were not even any bird sounds. Nothing had flown overhead and there were none of the usual whistles and calls that he would have expected.
His village was not far now. Through the clearing mist he could make out his friends house. Akio and he had been good friends since school but both were now working for their families so they didn’t see each other so often. Pedro noticed each creak of the porch as he made his way to the front door. He knocked on it a few times – nothing. He tried again. Once again there was no sound from inside. Pedro wondered what could be wrong and decided to push gently at the door; it opened easily and he went inside.
Once more called out, “Akio, are you there?” But there was no answer.
Pedro could hear the hiss of a pot that was obviously boiling without any water and traced the sound to the small kitchen at the back of the house. When he went in he immediately screamed as his foot touched the prostrate body of Akio’s mother who was lying on the kitchen floor just inside the doorway. Pedro had never seen anyone dead before, not even one of his pets, but she looked dead. His first instinct was to run from the house and get help but he was concerned for Akio and began to search the rest of the house. He soon found Akio’s father on the bedroom floor almost as if he were asleep. Akio was in his bed and was also dead. Pedro ran from the house crying hysterically. A million thoughts ran through his head: What had happened here – was it the water, or the food? Did they get attacked by someone?
As Pedro ran he encountered house after house of dead people. No-one could help him. Some were still in their beds like Akio but most were just lying on a floor as if they had just dropped unexpectedly. By the time he got to his own house Pedro knew what he was going to find. His mother, father and young sister were all found in the main bedroom and all were dead.
Somehow the authorities were alerted to the tragedy as, overhead, Pedro could hear helicopters. He stood rigidly as officers slipped down the ropes and began to search for survivors like him. Within a few minutes a harness had been tied around Pedro’s waist and he and a soldier were hoisted into the air and taken a safe distance from the village.
Pedro was white with fear and managed to stammer, “Am I under arrest?”
The soldier assured him that wasn’t, “No, but we need to get you to safety and we need to find out what went wrong in the village.”
When the final scientific report had established all of the facts and was published, the reason why so many had died that day shocked the world. The lake that sat at the top of the hill had killed them. The scientists were still not quite sure how this had happened but were working on the theory that heated magma under the lake had somehow released a tremor so powerful that it ruptured the rocks below and released carbon dioxide into the lake. It appears that this had been happening over time and when no more carbon dioxide could be absorbed in the water there was a sudden, and as it turned out, catastrophic release into the atmosphere. This was what killed all 1700 villagers, all birds and animals in a radius of roughly one and a half mile from the lake. It did so silently and without warning. The villagers would have breathed in just a few times and become immediately overcome. They would have known nothing of their fate.
When Pedro returned to live with Papa Jo he often looked up at the seeming tranquil setting above and wondered why such a cruel thing could happen to so many people. Papa Jo said that Pedro must have been spared by God and that he must devote his life to doing good work on earth.
prose © copyright Brian Shirra 2011