I breathed in the fresh air. Bellbirds, Tui's and Skylarks called. The summer grass was soft against my bare feet, and blowing in the slight breeze. The sun’s rays drew me into a sleepy state. Sighing, I sunk down onto the ground. But my body soon tensed up as I remembered. The memories haunted and teased the back of my mind. I closed my eyes and thought back. Thought back to when the mountain exploded…
I woke up in a cold sweat. My nightgown clung to my body, hair hanging limp against the back of my neck. It took me a while to recognise the absence of the normal night chorus.
There was no wind, no rustling of the trees or small animals. The normally gushing stream was silent, hiding its proud sound.
I heaved myself out of bed, toes protesting as they touched the cold wooden floor. I shakily lit a candle. It took a few attempts for the match to strike. A knot twisted in my gut.
As I tiptoed through the threshold into my parents’ room I was overcome by lightheadedness. The ground seemed to roll under my feet. I leant against the wall for support before continuing.
Pale moonlight sifted through the window. I squinted to see the faint silhouette of the town tree from where it stood in the town centre, towering and stretching its arms high, bark illuminated in silver.
A small cry splintered the silence. Mother was cuddling my baby sister in her arms. Jane waved her small fists in the air, crying and making a fuss.
“What are you doing Eliza? Go back to bed please.” Mum said sharply. Her voice was hoarse with sleepiness.
I felt guilty. I knew how busy she was with Jane. “I couldn’t sleep,” I replied, trying to keep the hurt from my voice.
Mum sighed deeply, looking up at the ceiling, and then closed her eyes.
“Can I stay with you for a while?” I asked timidly.
Father let out a muffled snore and mumbled something under his breath. Mum just sat on the edge of the bed, patting the covers beside her.
I had not taken one step towards her when the shaking started. A powerful, bottomless shaking that rattled our small house.
Mum cried out. She clutched Jane tightly to her chest and then reached to grab me, but missed. I had fallen to the floor, thrown off balance by the quaking. Distantly, I felt the shaking stop, but my ears continued ringing. The floor leached cold into my back. My candle was still in my hand, but the flame had guttered out. Night shadows cast darkness in my vision.
The first thing I remembered hearing properly was Mother shouting “George, get the boys!”
My body felt sluggish, my tongue like sandpaper in my mouth.
“Eliza?” I recognised mum’s voice calling.
“I’m here,” I said tentatively.
I heard her walking over to me. She bent down and pulled me into her arms. The minute her arms cocooned me, I felt instantly calmed. The breath I didn’t realise I was holding flew out of my lungs.
Mum silently handed Jane over to me, who was only whining quietly. Then she moved around the small bedroom, lighting candles as she went. “Listen to me Eliza.” She looked me right in the eyes. “I need to check on the others in town, find out what is going on. I will be back soon. It’s probably best if you stay here with Jane.”
I nodded silently, hoisting Jane further up in my arms. Mum smiled gently and then left. The door slammed shut behind her and Jane started to cry again. I sighed, rubbing my eyes with one hand. Trying to calm Jane down, I began to hum. A soft, sweet melody. I closed my eyes and thought back to yesterday; the last time I sang that song. I basked in the memory of the pale winter sky, running through the bush with Airini, my best friend. We splashed through the icy stream bordering our village, giggling and singing our voices hoarse. I remembered the mountain; Mt Tarawera, peaking just over the top of the bush line. It stood stoically, watching over the land and covering the terraces in its shadow.
I was always jealous of the other villages closer to the mountain. They were that much closer to the pink and white terraces, where everybody wanted to be. The terraces were the hive of activity in the region. Everyone was drawn to them like a magnet.
I slowly opened my eyes, the Waiata fading from my lips. The silence became deafening again. The happy memories dimmed too soon. I felt unbearably small and isolated. Jane became heavy in my arms as fatigue drained my body.
I moved before I had fully considered the decision. No one was in the house; Mum was in town, and Dad was probably there as well with the boys. So I ran outside, clenching Jane tightly in my arms. As I passed the threshold of my house, I realised a faint light shone distantly, emitted from the centre of town. A weight lifted off my shoulders.
I walked over, breaking out a nervous smile. When I arrived at the town centre, only silhouettes of people could be seen and long shadows covered the ground. But warm lights fanned out from the gathering of people. I could smell the familiar scent of melting wax.
“There you are Eliza.” Mum squeezed my arms and kissed my forehead. Then did the same with Jane, who was gurgling with contempt. “I went back home looking for you. Obviously, you weren’t there. Nearly gave me a heart attack.” She fixed me with a stern stare, but I could see relief softening the worry lines around her eyes. “Go over to Father, and take Jane with you.” She pointed towards the post office. “I need to help Mrs Wilson, she got a fright and slipped over and hurt her hip.”
I gave an exasperated sigh, but stood still as Mum walked away. I began to traipse over to Father and the two short silhouettes who must have been Simon and Thomas.
A low rumbling noise echoed through the darkness. It reverberated through my bones. Confusion bubbled up in the crowd. Eyes widening, I froze. I breathed in sharply, panic tightening my chest. When I breathed out, the first explosion happened.
The tall plume of smoke and ash could surely be seen from miles away. Mt Tarawera was outlined in a border of fire. I could see now the darkness was brittle. The fire easily broke through it. It seemed as though night was crumbling around me. The mountain was spitting angrily. Spitting rocks, fire, and ash. I thought about Airini’s favourite Maori god; Mahuika- the fire goddess. It was as if the goddess was releasing her full strength and power on the land.
I stood there, transfixed. My feet were rooted to the ground. It was only then that I noticed the earth was shaking again. Bigger this time, more violently.
Somebody shouted, breaking my terrified awe. Soon, other people began calling out as well. “What is that?”, “Run! RUN!”, “Quick! Take cover!”
I spun around frantically, trying to find my Father and brothers, Mother, anyone I knew. But in the chaos they were lost. I began to panic, adrenaline pumping through my veins. I looked over my shoulder and yelped. A black cloud was racing down the hills, obviously emitted from Mt Tarawera. Too soon it began to smother the bush line.
I ran. Jane bounced off my chest. My nightgown constricted my movement. I gritted my teeth in frustration. By standing on the hem and kicking my feet, the gown ripped.
My breath cut my lungs. My mind raced. I needed to find cover, and quickly. My salvation appeared before my eyes; the town tree, a solid pillar amid the chaos. I quickened my pace, pushing my legs to their limit. Jane slowed me down, but I managed to keep a tight hold on her.
I dived for the tree, pushing my back up against an alcove. The thick roots and curving trunk acted as a shield.
I panted, catching my breath. I squinted at a movement I saw in the awning of the general store. Then again; a flash of fluffy dark hair. Airini. I caught a glimpse of her face, warm brown eyes wide and staring. Not at me. But at what was surely advancing behind me.
“Airini!” I yelled. “Airini!” I stared into the shadows of the general store. But she had vanished.
I did not have the strength to stand up and find her.
I began to cry. Salty tears ran down my face. I tucked my head into my knees, cocooning Jane against my body. She was crying too, but over the buzzing in her ears, I could barely hear her.
Then, the wave hit. A wave of heat and ash.
It became hard to breath and my throat was clogged. There was a small relief. A gulp of clean air. But another surge soon hit. I heard another distant rumbling, deep and threatening. Light flared in my vision. The mountain just kept on erupting. Mahuika kept releasing her fire.
The cycle continued to happen for what seemed like hours, days even, but in reality, I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. I just closed my eyes and held Jane to my chest. I just closed my eyes...
The shaking and explosions stopped at dawn. The early sun bathed the village in golden light.
In the aftermath that followed, it look me longer to find my parents and brothers than I thought. When I finally did, tears of joy sprang in my eyes. We stood together for what seemed like ages, holding each other and crying.
The search parties arrived soon afterwards, most from Rotorua. They had already been to the villages closer to the mountain. There were only a few survivors from those towns. ‘The buried villages’ they were calling them. Later we learnt that around 150 people were presumed dead. Airini was one of them. I never saw her again. But I still smiled at the memories of her. The happy memories, of us laughing and singing together.
We were told the pink and white terraces were gone. Buried under mud, ash and great amounts of water. They were gone, and so were the somewhat naive lives we once led. Naive about what was once lurking behind our backs. And maybe still is.
I wrote this piece for an assessment a couple of years ago lol... It's based on a real event that happened in New Zealand in 1886 by the way, but the characters are fictional.