Out of the Ashes
in the Wind
David wedged his way between broken columns and waist high pottery to take a closer look at a statue of a small child lying on its side. He reached out and ran his hand down the child’s leg, its surface bumpy and rough to the touch. Definitely not the smooth marble work of art he had come to expect from the ancient Greeks and Romans.
“I hope whoever carved this didn’t quit his day job because he sucked as a sculptor.”
“That isn’t a statue.”
He glanced up at Sera. A sad smile tugged at her mouth but there was no joy in her expression.
Setting down the backpacks, she walked over and delicately touched the top of the figure’s tiny head. “It’s a plaster cast of a young boy who died in the eruption.”
He snatched his hand back. “You mean this was a real person? A kid?”
Sera nodded. “Flesh and blood.”
He looked at the body cast again, now seeing the delicate features clearly for the first time. The boy appeared to be doing nothing more than sleeping peacefully, without a care in the world.
She stoked the child’s head, running the back of her hand down the boy’s cheek much like a mother would caress her own son. “When Vesuvius erupted small stones and ash fell from the sky for several hours. During that time, most of the people of Pompeii had time to escape, but many stayed behind thinking they could wait it out and the danger would pass.”
“That was stupid.”
She shrugged a shoulder. “Not to them. At the time, Pompeii was still rebuilding from a major earthquake that occurred ten years earlier. Most of the people fled the city then too, only to have to return with all their belongings. Much of what they didn’t take with them had been damaged or looted by thieves. I’m sure they thought this time would be much the same.”
He shook his head at the idiocy of it. “I find it hard to believe they couldn’t tell the difference between an earthquake and a volcano eruption.”
“They couldn’t see the volcano. In fact, they couldn’t see much at all. The first phase of the eruption blocked out the sun, turning day into night. Even with their lamps and torches, they could only see maybe a foot or two in front of themselves because of all the soot and ash in the air. The unfortunate ones who decided to stay sought shelter where they could.”
“Unfortunately, for them it was.” He watched her draw in a deep breath, as if she couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. “The pumice rained down for hours, piling up twelve feet high. Some were crushed when the weight built up and the roofs collapsed on top of them.”
“Ouch.” David glanced up at the flimsy wooden roof over his head, now looking more insubstantial than ever. It wouldn’t hold back twelve inches of dust, much less twelve feet of ash and lava rock.
“Others were trapped inside their hiding places as the volcanic debris blocked up the doors and windows and they couldn’t get out.”
“So they were buried alive?”
“Basically. Eventually poisonous gases seeped in through cracks and crevices and killed them.” He found himself holding his breath. Was that the faint odor of sulfur he smelled? “We usually find their skeletons huddled in the corners of buildings or in the cellars.”
“What a horrible way to go.”
“There are worse ways,” she continued. “Once the rain of ash and pumice stopped, those who weren’t trapped or crushed thought it was safe to leave and tried to escape the city then.”
“Do I really want to know what happened to them?”
Sera’s eyes took on a distant look, as if she were in another place, another time, and no longer aware that he was there. “The mountain’s sudden silence was deceiving. Vesuvius wasn’t done yet. Up until then she’d only been warming up. As the last of the citizens of Pompeii tried to flee the city, Vesuvius erupted with a vengeance, sending a pyroclastic flow racing down the mountainside.”
She continued on, as if she hadn’t heard him. “The hot air and toxic gases hit them first, dropping the people in their tracks, blistering their skin and scorching their lungs, suffocating every living thing it touched.”
He tugged at the collar of his shirt, finding it hard to breathe himself as she told the tragic story.
“A shower of ash came next, covering everything in sight. Rain followed, turning the ash into mud that later hardened like a layer of cement over the victims’ bodies.”
David could almost feel the hot, wet ash on his skin, weighing down his clothes and clogging up his throat.
“As the centuries passed, the flesh decayed, leaving hollow cavities in the ground where the bodies once had been. When we find one of these cavities, we pour a plaster compound into it. Once it hardens, we chip the volcanic layer away and are left with a perfect cast of the person at the exact moment of their death.”
He looked at the child, a young boy who couldn’t have been more than three or four. He had hardly begun to live before the volcano had taken it all away. “Poor little guy.”
She continued to stroke the plaster face of the child, oddly comforting a small boy who had been dead for nearly two thousand years. “In the confusion and chaos, he must have been separated from his parents. We found him curled up in the doorway of a villa, all alone, lying there peacefully just as you see him now.”
David glanced up from the cast in time to see a tiny tear fall, leaving a sad trail down the dirt on Sera’s cheek. Reaching across the plaster child, he caught it on the pad of his thumb, startling her back from wherever she had been.
She stared at him, obviously surprised by the gesture. When she made to pull away, he stopped her by cupping his hand against her damp cheek. A wealth of emotions shadowed her face – shock, embarrassment, sorrow. Then she closed her eyes and ever so slightly turned her face into his palm.
2012 Lori Dillon