December 21, 2012
Pompei, the Gulf of Naples, Italy.
Hiding in the umbra of huge oak trees stood Giovanni, staring intently at the peak of the mountain. Darkness was all that prevailed in the region, even though it was the late hours of morning. The scenario was drenched in different shades of gray-the sky was overshadowed by the reign of poisonous dark clouds; the land was submerged in inches of whitish ash. The time had come when Gaia had decided to unleash her wrath. Jupiter was conspiring along. History was beginning to repeat itself. Superstitious as it may seem, the long debated Mayan prophecy had finally taken its toll. At least for people in Pompei. Amidst the chaos of hurried efforts, they silently waited for their fate.
Giovanni stepped forward to get a more lucid view of Mount Vesuvius, which was obscured by unfurling smoke. He had to squint heavily, because sulphur had pervaded both the heavens and earth, making his eyes smart. Between moments he caught glimpse of molten lava that was slowly oozing out from the mouth of the volcano. The danger could not subdue the panorama of constant changing hues, from fiery red to vivid orange, perfectly blended with bright yellow and dull grey tones. He looked, astonished, at the reveling beauty and did not realize the real gravity of the eruption until the mountain spat fire into the air, almost 1000 meters high, from its side.
“Come Giovanni, we must go,” called his mother from behind. She looked exhausted and feeble, holding two cloth bags containing the barest of the belongings. Giovanni looked at her imploringly. He knew it was precarious to stay there, but he wanted to gaze at the splendor. In any case, he felt safer in the realms of his home. Suddenly, a huge rumbling voice came from the direction of the mountain. Temperatures rose and dimmer went the lights. The ground trembled viciously. Terror flashed across her face, although she wanted to keep her son oblivious of her fear. But she had to cede to the fear.
“Hurry, my dear, we don’t have much time,” she said in a weak voice. The truth was evident. The escape was not going to be of much help.
Reluctantly, he followed. Ashes fell more thickly now, with high velocity pebbles and stones raining mercilessly. Giovanni was carrying a pillow over his head, to save himself from subsequent injury. The worst phase was still left to be encountered. They had to cross the city which he feared the most.
Pompei thrived on the ruins of Pompeii, the city that had also suffered the identical disaster, a long time ago. It seemed the same Cassandran verse bound the two places, a curse that was unavoidable. When he crossed the plastered bodies of the ancient victims, which was almost worthless earlier, he could not help but imagine his own people in the same situation-dying piteously in the stifling atmosphere. The ruins foreboding him the state of his town after everything returned to peace. The very thought made him shudder. It was very strange that the exact series of events would repeat after a period of almost two thousand years. Stranger, they did not expect it.
The sky suddenly lit with the brightest light he had ever witnessed. The ground shook more violently, so much, that people found it difficult to keep their balance intact. The tainted air had made it very difficult to see beyond few meters, but everyone kept moving, coughing and spluttering, as the air they inhaled was filled with pulverized pumice and ash. Some of them were already succumbing to it.
His mother suddenly fell to the ground, face forward. He tried to call out to her, but the smoke had throttled his voice. He tried to pull her up, in vain. He shook her, but she did not move. He managed to turn her around. She looked smothered, yet peaceful, as if she were only sleeping…sleeping during the good days. There was only vast expanse of immobile bodies around, scattered in the debris; the few who were near to erect were scampering for their own lives. There was no one who could help.
He did not want to leave her like that. Choosing from the alternatives that he had, he lay down beside her, resting his head on her arm. He closed his eyes and waited. Waited for Vesuvius to bury yet another town in the frozen froth of its fury.
About the writer:
Payal Niharika is a PGDM (2015-17) student at SPJIMR.