Jude always ordered hot coffee when he was falling apart. He leaned back in his booth and pressed his hands into the porcelain, trying to drink in the heat through cold fingertips. He couldn't taste ... [+]
“In their search for ‘devil’s gold,’ as they call it, about 300 miners make a daily climb two miles up the mountain, then head downward more than 900 yards into the volcano, where the sulfur crystals form.”
–Coburn Dukehart writing for National Geographic
Iman felt the first gray hint of light touch on his eyelid and knew the time had come for prayer. Fajr had always been the hardest prayer, and as Iman grew older, it became only more difficult. His body was like a tomb, full of silence and slow, dark dreams, and Iman wanted nothing more than to keep in these rare moments of peace a little while longer. And yet Iman arose. Every morning Iman arose.
He was careful not to disturb his wife getting out of bed and, tiptoeing around the shapes of sleeping children curled up on the floor, he went outside to the well. He brought up cool water and washed the sleep from his eyes, rubbed the cracked flesh of his arms and neck. When he was clean Iman faced west towards Mecca, looking for what lay beyond the inky blue-black Indonesian sky.
On his back he could feel the heat of his day, of cruel sun and crueler Ijen waiting for him. He would soon be in the volcano, walking the blasted shores of her poison lake, mining devil’s gold from the heart of hell itself, but not yet; this hour belonged to God. Iman raised his hands to heaven and began.
“God is greater.”
Iman had finished his morning haul and was waiting out the hottest part of day with the other miners. They were young men but didn’t look it. They had bent backs from hauling sulfur stone, their cheeks were withered by sulfur steam, and they breathed the shallow breathes of shrunken lungs petrified by sulfur gas. Ijen had pressed the young years out of them.
There was no talk, being not much need for talk. The men just sat there in the shade of palm fronds and ate their quiet lunch. Iman liked the smell of the palms. He liked their taste, too. His wife had made him klepons, and he enjoyed sticking his tongue in the gooey palm sugar at their center, tasting the flavors of wood and hidden rain. His wife never cooked with white sugar, so hard and coarse and mineral. Bone meal she called it.
The silence was broken by the voice of the distant mosque calling to prayer. Iman and the men packed away their lunches and turned west. As one they prayed.
“God is greater.”
Iman sucked air through a smoke-drenched rag and drove his pickaxe into a slab of sulfur rock. He was deep in the crater now, on the shore of a turquoise lake that spat and rolled like an angry pot. All around the shore were vents pumping blue fire and poison steam. The hiss of the vents sounded to Iman like screams. But the yellow fog pouring out smelled to Iman like nothing; he had long since lost his sense of smell.
Iman drove the pick hard and fast, almost frantic. He needed about thirty-four kilos of sulfur to fill up his basket, and he had to fight for every yellow fleck. The sulfur looked viscous and soft like animal fat, but it shattered into flinty shrapnel that stung him up and down while the volcano slowly cooked him alive. The skin of his arms cracked and crisped around the bone, and with each swing of the pickaxe the flesh threatened to split. His eyes shriveled like stewed plums; his brain boiled in its own blood.
Iman went on, he didn’t know how long. Time lost its measure, the seconds and minutes stewing together in sweat and smoke. In Ijen, the only measure that meant anything anymore was weight: grams slowly accreted into kilograms just as pebbles slowly climb into mountains, and finally after a small eternity, Iman managed to gather enough sulfur to fill his first basket.
The second sat empty beside it, gaping like a pit.
Eventually, Iman fled Ijen with his two baskets full of sulfur. As soon as he passed over the volcano’s lip, he tore the ashen rag from his face and coughed and breathed and coughed and breathed. He began the two-hour journey walking his haul back to the factory. The beam he used to leverage his baskets bit hard into his shoulder and made his knees creak; it was a relief almost like pleasure after the volcano.
About halfway to the refinery, Iman took a detour to the local mosque. He set his baskets down and cleansed himself at the fountain, washing away yellow dust and picking out yellow shards. He entered the mosque and joined the other bowed heads. The prayer came out of him like a cry. “God is greater.”
The sugar refinery gobbled up the sulfur and Iman was paid cents on the pound. The sun dropped and the world cooled as he made his way home. Walking in the dyed evening without the devil’s gold weighing him down always made Iman feel strange. He felt too light, and sometimes he was afraid a stiff wind might come and carry him away.
His boys ran out to greet him when he got home. Iman smiled and swooped up one in each arm and spun them around. He put a boy to each shoulder and listened to them talk about their day as he walked to the village mosque. Sometimes the boys would complain about prayer, telling him about their friends who went to nice schools where they didn’t have to pray so much. They didn’t understand yet, but they would. Iman did not have any nice schools he could send them to. Iman only had Ijen.
Ijen and Islam. Iman took his two sons into the mosque. He flicked the little one’s ear when he tried to start the prayer with a finger in his nose.
“God is greater.”
After dinner, Iman wanted nothing but to sleep. He spoke with his wife a little as she cleaned up, trying not to nod off. She came and rubbed his back, running her fingers along the gorge worn into his shoulders. The world was starting to wear away at her as well—the little wrinkles, the heaviness of her flesh—but she was immaculate compared to her broken husband. Iman wanted her, or he wanted to want her anyway, but tonight he just couldn’t. He had already given himself to the volcano.
“Come pray with me,” said Iman.
“I shouldn’t,” she said. “I bleed.”
The two went outside together hand in hand and bowed heads before the darkness. There was no moon and no stars that night so they could not see the west, but Iman knew which way he was facing; he could feel the heat of Ijen on his back.
“God is greater.”