website design software

Story 4

  Paul Williams

This literary gift from Australia holds a delightful surprise -- a compelling story of youth shouldering the near-intolerable responsibilities of adulthood, leading to his ultimate sacrifice for the good of the community.  The stark description of  a medieval, subsistence way of life immediately captured my imagination. Throw in swarms of black flies and some rather strange family relationships, and you get Uncle from the Volcano.

Uncle from the Volcano touches on themes of family responsibilities and the need for youth to have a role-model.

                                                                                                                              -- Paul Williams

Paul Williams is a British writer living in Australia. He is best known for his award-winning guide to the Jack the Ripper suspects and has also written two other non-fiction books and numerous articles.  This is his 68th published short-story.

Uncle from the Volcano

 by Paul Williams



The dead sheep lay in the usual place beside the urinal, its fleece camouflaged by snow. I turned it over and felt around the neck wound. Satisfied that the blood was fully drained, I hoisted the carcass over my shoulders. Behind the slaughterhouse walls, workers cheered to celebrate another kill. It was nearly the end of their shift and then they would head home, allowing the carters to enter and take the other bodies to the huts, restaurant and boats. I was at the bent tree, slightly behind schedule, when the exodus began. Not enough time to climb up and watch my father. Instead, I listened to the echo of trudging, weary, feet and the calls of farewell as each man reached his hut. A morning ritual unchanged for centuries.

As I climbed, the sun emerged to partially melt the snow and wake the black flies. My legs were soon covered with bites and scratches. Father said I could have long trousers when I was old enough to earn them. The sheep delivery was unpaid, and at least one more man had to die before I could work at the slaughterhouse. I reached the top and placed the sheep down. The flies immediately left me and settled on it.

The volcano was a large hole in the ground, with a rock covering a smaller hole beside it. Underneath the rock was a ladder. Father told me never to climb down, but I had twice descended to a wooden door, with a lock like the slaughterhouse, and knocked. Nobody answered. Now I only lifted the rock for shelter in stormy weather. It rested on a short ditch, allowing someone to push from below without rolling it into the dead volcano.

Nobody living could remember the volcano erupting. No smoke or light showed inside the big hole. No signs of lava rose to incinerate the village. Only the ochre earth served as a reminder that once, long before we settled in the place below, the insides of the volcano burnt their way out.

I stepped back then kicked the sheep over the edge. As always, the drop was soundless and only a few flies came back.  I retraced my steps, slowing as I crossed from the volcanic earth to normal soil. Slippery patches defied the sun, and twice I had discovered the bodies of outlanders who had skirted around the hole and fallen to their deaths. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me. A scrambling sound, like a rodent. Except that rodents did not live on the volcano. Nothing did apart from the insects. I clambered back to see, confident that I could move faster than an outlander.

The rock by the hole had moved, exposing the tip of the ladder. A man stood beside it. He wore a shirt like the one that hung over our hearth, ready for funerals. His was covered in dust, grime, and holes, as were his trousers. A beard, an outlander’s beard, reached to his waist, and his exposed flesh was riddled with scars.

I was not old enough to carry a knife and never wanted to before then. “Who are you?” I asked. Some outlanders spoke our language, being former members of the village or their descendants.

“Uncle,” he said. “Hello, Vica.”

“How do you know my name?”

“I saw you ten winters ago. A child on the verge of taking his first steps. How are your parents?”

“My father is well sir.”

“And your mother?”

I stared past him. Beyond the hole and over the volcano to the graveyard at the foot of its eastern side. Father visited once a year, wearing his funeral shirt. Until last year he had taken Grandmother.

“Childbirth?” guessed Uncle.

“Illness,” I said. “We were all sick.” She was the only one taken from our household. All the neighbours on the right side perished. The headsman had to reallocate their hut because there was nobody to claim it. I remembered Father making a bid, on the basis that Grandmother was no longer part of his family, and we needed a hut of our own. He lost, and Grandmother continued to live with us. If not being able to see, hear, chew, or venture outside in winter could be classed as living.

“And now you are better,” smiled the man. I stared at the flies settling on his beard and nodded, even though it wasn’t true. The twins did not remember Mother. I did, and they were happy memories of a time when people laughed in our hut.

Uncle followed me down, stumbling a few times , but refusing to take my hand. He stopped at the bent tree. The only tree until you passed through the village and into the woods. Some said that the volcano was in woodland once and that the bent tree was the sole survivor of the eruption. Certainly, the incline was due to a powerful force of nature. Something had forced the trunk to bend and hang precariously over the village. One theory was that the tree originally reached heaven and God pushed it away to stop his evil twin descending. Uncle assessed the marks around the bark with a critical eye. “Not fallen yet,” he said. I stared at the lines on the back of his legs, criss-crossing the hairs and other scars in a pattern like the one on the tree.

Uncle straightened and continued downhill. I followed, listening to the shouts of children. They stopped as we approached. The shouters left their balls of mud and makeshift toys to stare at Uncle. A few ran inside to wake their fathers or summon their mothers. Some parents came out. Watching. Not speaking. I sensed that they recognised Uncle. He extended his hand to me. I took it and we walked together, past the silent observers until we reached my house. The smell of tobacco wafted in from the rear. Father was smoking instead of sleeping. Carrot soup was a more attractive smell. We entered.

Grandmother stood precariously by the soup cauldron, stirring. The twins were beside her, occasionally guiding and steadying her hand with a maturity beyond their five years. Seeing us their hands left Grandmother and she too turned, splattering the ceiling with dabs of soup.  Insects raced to taste, temporarily abandoning their fear of the smoke that drifted up and away through the hole at the top. One of the twins took the ladle from Grandmother and spun it quickly round the cauldron as Mother used to do. The other helped Grandmother walk towards Uncle.

“Mother,” he said.

Grandmother reached out. Her fingers grasped his beard and tugged. She tutted and flapped her hands to clear the grease. Then she ran the hands over his shoulders and down his arms. “I know your smell,” she said. Slowly he embraced her.

“Smell is the most important sense,” said Uncle.

Father came in, holding his pipe. Uncle eased away from Grandmother and surveyed him. Father looked cross, like he did when he chased rodents across the hut. “You’re back,” he said.

“It is the hibernation time.”

“Only you say so.” Father reached to the basket of tools beside the hearth. His fingers touched a pair of tongs then a poker and finally a pair of large scissors with the slaughterhouse’s symbol engraved on their top. Senior staff could take their instruments home. One of the twins exhaled and Father paused. “I’ve been smoking,” he said, making it sound like a crime. “Might be best if someone else made you look respectable.”

Uncle bowed. “Is the blacksmith still in the end hut?”

“We still have horses,” said Father. By we, he meant the village. Grandmother owned a horse once, but it went to the slaughterhouse when she could no longer ride. Father smuggled out pieces of the meat for us. “Come on Vica,” said Uncle, heading for the door.

“Vica stays here,” said Father firmly. “There’s soup to cook.”

“You have girls,” remarked Uncle. I looked at the twins, mother’s last gift then at her mother who gesticulated at the door. Sometimes she sensed what was going on. Ignoring Father’s scowls, I followed Uncle to the blacksmith.

The end hut smelt of a tobacco far richer than anything that Father smoked. The blacksmith could afford it. His hut was bigger too, funded by only having himself to feed. He even had a chair, clambering off it to greet us and putting his pipe down. “Is it ten years already?” he asked.

“You don’t look a day older,” said Uncle politely.

Laughing the blacksmith reached for his scissors, motioning for Uncle to sit. Then he began cutting the beard and ordered me to sweep. I grabbed his broom and pushed all the bits, and their lice, out onto the path. The scissors passed perilously close to Uncle’s chin, which slowly became visible. The blacksmith took a razor, heated it over the fire and proceeded to shave Uncle’s face. I felt my own hairless face. Soon it would grow if Father forgave the act of disobedience.

“There,” said the blacksmith proudly. Uncle no longer looked like an outlander. His eyes sparkled as he stood and examined himself in the blacksmith’s broken piece of glass. “Do you want clothes?” asked the blacksmith. “Mine will be a bit big.” The blacksmith weighed twice as much as Uncle. “The widow at number six will have some.”

We visited number six. The widow, whose daughter was also present, silently produced a couple of shirts and two pairs of trousers. Uncle went around the back to change. “You must be proud of him,” said the widow to me.

“I hardly know him.”

She gave me a cup of water. “My man could have gone,” she said. “Or your father. They drew sticks. I remember it well. Sticks from the bent tree.” Grandmother used to talk about her friendship with the widow, saying that it stopped when Father and Mother agreed their union. I vaguely remembered an argument between the daughter and mother when I was younger. Possibly it was about the daughter’s failure to make her own union. She was well into her childbearing years, and unattached.  

Uncle returned. The widow’s daughter gave a crude whistle. The widow smacked her arm. Uncle looked clean. Water dripped from his face, suggesting he had used the widow’s water bucket. “I am very grateful,” he said. “Could I also borrow a shovel?”

I stayed with Uncle as he headed back towards the volcano, carrying the shovel. The smell of the soup drifting from our hut failed to tempt me. Uncle turned and frowned at me. “You will get into trouble if you follow me,” he said.

“I’m already in trouble,” I replied.

“Only with your father. What I am about to do is against the law and that means the headsman, you still have a headsman?” I nodded.  “He won’t make allowances for your age.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“I’m immune from prosecution,” said Uncle. “I think.”

“Then extend that to me.”

“Not within my authority.”

 It was not a direct order to leave, and I would not have obeyed if it were. I followed him around the side of the hill to the graveyard. An uneven field not populated by crops  , but by corpses. Rotting beneath the ground in shallow graves. Some were marked with bits of wood, flowers, or pieces of inedible fruit. Most were anonymous, with only the size of the mound indicating if they had been adult or child. “Which is your mothers?” asked Uncle.

“I don’t know.”         

He sighed and walked around, prodding the earth with his spade. Then he knelt and sniffed the soil. It looked disgusting, as if he were eating dirt. He did this in several places then picked a mound and began digging. “You can’t disturb the dead,” I informed him.

“You hide them out of sight. I have learnt that it is better to have them close by. They follow the scent and I follow theirs.”

“Who do?”

He flicked the spade up. I glimpsed bones then something moved. A horrible purple shape. I screamed and leapt behind Uncle. To my amazement he put the spade down and reached in the grave. The shape moved onto his arm, pulsating with light. A worm the size of six. He placed it down and we watched it crawl over bits of bone that once formed a woman and brought me into the world.

“Meet my family,” said Uncle. “Fireworms. They’re supposed to hibernate  , but this one doesn’t. It leads them when they swarm. That’s why it’s dangerous.”

The creature climbed out again.  I let it touch me, feeling a wet sensation on my ankles. Then it withdrew. “It knows your scent now,” said Uncle. “It came here for her when it couldn’t find me. We must get her up the volcano, quickly. Before the others follow.”

Retching I helped him pick up the pieces of bone. We had no wheelbarrow so had to place them on the handle of the spade. Uncle pulled out the skull. I felt cheated. She had left me. The fireworm started to climb out. Uncle quickly tossed it back. Then he threw the earth on top and stamped it down carefully, making use of the donated boots and checking the fireworm was not immediately below his feet. I did the same. “Hopefully it will go back,” said Uncle. “Easier when I’m there.”

“You’re going back?”

“Not just yet.”

We ascended the volcano, an easier task in the middle of the day, but Uncle kept stopping to rest. The insects greeted us in their thousands yet stayed away from the bones and the skull. “They know a fireworm has touched them,” said Uncle.

“The fireworms eat insects?”

“Incinerate. They spit out fire when they are angry or distressed.”

“Like a dragon?”

“There are no dragons,” said Uncle. “Just fireworms.”

“Where do they come from? Why have I not seen them before? Or heard any stories.”

“Three questions at once is a lot for any uncle to answer,” said Uncle. “They came after the volcano erupted. Following the heat and then settling near it, in the hope that it might come back. For some reason, they stayed. I used to think they were searching for something else, especially the leader, but they don’t venture far when I’m around.”

At the top, I expected Uncle to dig a new grave. Instead he hurled the skull in the hole, followed by the contents of the shovel. “The fireworms must stay underground,” said Uncle. “In a damp place with abundant water. Out here, on a hot day, just one could burn the village.”

“Or the tree,” I said, imagining hundreds of fireworms, cascading down the slope. Igniting the side of the tree and forcing it to crash forward. “They caused it to bend?”

Uncle nodded. “I saw them one day, when I was chasing an outlander up the volcano. Next day my mother, your grandmother, found one outside the hut. When others came the villagers decided that someone needed to keep them underground. Like a shepherd.”          

Six men, including Father, waited at the graveyard. Uncle put the shovel down and approached them, holding his hands in the air. “You’ll have to answer to the headsman,” said Father.

Uncle shrugged. “Didn’t we establish that I could do what was necessary to protect the village?”

“You were chosen to protect the living, not desecrate the dead.”

“A fireworm was in the grave. It would have risen to the surface.”

“She’s been there for eight years,” said Father. “Nothing’s happened.”

“It’s because I’m not there,” said Uncle. “The one who did not hibernate was looking for me. Following the scent. I’ve learnt so much about them. So much I didn’t know ten years ago.”

Father grabbed the spade and stuck it into the ground. “All you need to know,” he said, “is that they must stay down there. That’s what is necessary to protect the village and you violating your duty risks that.”

“There will come a time when it is not my duty,” said Uncle. “When someone else is required. How can they be ready if I cannot speak to them?”

“None of our boys will go,” said Father.

“Then they will destroy the village.”

“We have pipes connected to the river. Enough water to extinguish any fire and, if necessary, to drown them.”

Uncle stared at him, horrified, then retrieved the shovel. “I must return this,” he said.


I expected Uncle to spend the night with us, sharing the floor with three children, two adults, insects, and rodents. Instead he went to the blacksmiths, who had a second room. I watched the stars through the doorway and saw the blacksmith carrying several pails of beer back from the tavern. Father went to bed without speaking to me. No punishment for the disobedience.

When the sun woke me, I saw that father had already gone to the slaughterhouse. I hurried out, but no sheep was there.  I found Uncle snoring in the blacksmith’s chair. The blacksmith slept on the floor. “The sheep,” I cried desperately. Uncle woke, stretched and jumped up in a panic, murmuring about light. That woke the blacksmith who raced outside then returned with bits of fresh vomit decorating his shirt.

“I have already eaten,” said Uncle.

“The sheep was for you?”

“The fireworms had the scrapes , but they prefer smaller prey. I get them to make a fire and then, every day, I have the same meal.” He glared at the blacksmith. “This clown cooked lamb last night.”

The fire contained pieces of burnt meat. I thought about the beer and guessed that the cooking was not successful.

“You go back to bed,” said Uncle. “I’ll see you after the hearing.”

“I want to go,” I objected.

Uncle put his arm around me. His new clothes stank. “Children not allowed,” he said.

I spent the morning supervising the twins. Despite the cold they wanted to play outside and that let me keep an eye on the building at the side of the slaughterhouse. The only building in the village that had a bell. It rang whenever an outlander was spotted , but not to signify a trial. I watched people going in, including the blacksmith, the widow and her daughter.  Then, after an hour of making headless snowmen and listening to complaints about the cold, a group came out of the building and made for me. First was the headsman, wearing the traditional deerskin hat. Behind him was Uncle, then my father and a couple of other men, who both had children in the village and relatives in the graveyard.

“A legal point has been made,” said the headsman. “We must ask the next of kin,”

“Me?” I said stupefied. “I am a just a child.”

The headsman smiled. “You are the eldest descendant, but an ancestor lives.”

We went inside the hut. Grandmother stood by the fire. She rarely sat in the daytime now. In the mornings, it took her several minutes to crawl to the wall and pull herself upright. Her handprints showed the spot, always the same place.

The headsman went up close and bowed. She felt his hat. “Headsman,” she said. “I remember your father.” Then she laughed at an unshared memory.

“You are the mother of Jasmonerate,” said the headsman. “Yesterday her grave was violated and her remains removed.” Grandmother showed no signs of hearing. “As the next of kin, you have the authority to approve of this action or condemn it and allow the village to punish the perpetrator in accordance with our law. Do you approve?”

He waited. Grandmother’s eyes started sightlessly back.

“She doesn’t know,” said Father impatiently. “That makes me the next of kin.”

“Vica,” said the headsman sternly.

“Same thing. The boy won’t defy me.”

Everyone except Grandmother looked at me. I couldn’t choose between my father and the uncle I had only known for two days. If I picked him I would lose the twins and grandmother, not to mention my home. I would be an outlander. Desperately I turned to Grandmother and saw her nod. She repeated the motion.

“She approves,” said Uncle.

Uncle still did not stay with us. He went to the blacksmiths, consumed more beer, then wandered through the village looking for children. I watched him, whilst watching the twins. He only entered the houses where boys lived. Sometimes he stayed for several minutes  , but more often he left quickly as parents shouted insults at him. Seeing me he produced two biscuits from his pocket, the blacksmith cooked well when sober. I gave them to the twins, ordering them not to tell Father.

“He snacks all day at the slaughterhouse,” said Uncle. “I used to work there with him. We pulled bits off before the packaging, roasted them on a little fire. I think I’ve seen all the boys now. Nobody wants to help.”

“I do,” I said.

He laughed. “We need someone whose parents cannot refuse. An orphan would be best.”

“Aren’t any,” I said. “They’ve all been taken in.” After the plague, it made sense for the parents deprived of children to adopt the children deprived of parents. Uncle sighed and sat down. One of the twins sat on his lap and the other walked in a circle behind him. “Then I’ll have to keep asking the parents,” said Uncle. “Or get the headsman to draw lots again. Your father’s plan to drown the worms will need the approval of the village and many will agree that it is insane. Better to sacrifice one life than commit genocide.”

“What about me?” I asked. “You ask strangers, but you don’t want your own kin.”

“You are no longer my kin,” he said. “When I accepted the role, I severed all claims on the family, but I still know who you are and that my sister would not have sacrificed you willingly.”

“When I am older, I will make the choice for myself.”

“No time,” said Uncle. He told the twins to go indoors and check on Grandmother. Obediently they went. Uncle rolled up his trouser leg, glancing around to check that nobody else was watching.  I saw heavy marks across his skin, as if a whip had been applied and twisted in multiple circles. “They don’t mean to,” he said. “Physical contact is a part of their greeting. In accepting me they obliged me to participate. Over time the pressure has affected my balance. You may have noticed that I sometimes struggle to walk.” I nodded. “I may be able to climb back inside the volcano, but I will not be able to ascend the ladder again.”

I tried not to think about death, then the twins came out crying and saying that Grandmother had fallen over.

We buried Grandmother the next day in the slot that had held her daughter. As they raked the earth I looked for the fireworm  , but could not see it.  Father told Uncle that he was not allowed to take the body. “It’s not her scent that they’ll follow,” said Uncle.

“It is time you went back to them?”

“I have the right to remember her, don’t I? No other surviving children.”

I have never understood the remembering ceremony where people drink copious amounts of alcohol, which is known to distort memories. I was allowed some for the first time. One glass according to Father  , but Uncle refilled it twice and the blacksmith twice more. Father never commented as we staggered home. Instead, he told me about the slaughterhouse. About a job that would be available soon. “Cut himself,” said Father grimly. “Let the knife slip and it sliced into his hand. We cannot give you his position until it’s definite that he can’t come back but he wasn’t here tonight, and I’ve seen that wound before. Two days and it will be his remembering ceremony.”

“Suppose I don’t want to kill,” I said.

“We can get you a job on the carts, promote one of the drivers to the slaughter. Less prospects though. You’ll get used to it. I did.” I thought of him as a young man, walking with my mother back to the house where a younger grandmother waited with a ladle of hot soup. The house was now cold. The twins lay across the floor, without a fire. It could not be lit whilst the adults were absent. The widow from number six, who no longer drank, had toured the village checking on all the unattended infants.

I had some presents for the twins, from the ceremony, so put them down and went to sleep. Father smoked for a bit then came to join us. His snoring was worse than usual. Combined with the bright moon and the noise from drinkers still at the ceremony, it stopped me from sleeping. I was awake when the revellers finally retreated, the moon started slipping, and the fireworm entered the hut. It glided along the snowy path, pivoting its head like a deranged maggot. I leapt up to protect the twins. The fireworm followed my movements like a shadow. I ran outside. It came after me. I slid on the ice and fell, clutching my foot. The fireworm swivelled across my hand then up the leg. It felt comforting, like a heavy insect. Not biting or excreting poison. More like the cuddles that mother used to give me when I fell and hurt myself.

Suddenly it was swept away. I heard a loud roar and looked up to see Father smashing the fireworm on the ground. A geyser of green blood erupted. One of the twins was awake and screaming. I struggled up. Someone pushed past, nearly knocking me down again. I smelt Uncle and the alcohol on his breath. “You’ve killed it,” he shouted at Father.

“It attacked my son,” said Father. He hugged me, his hands dripping the blood down my back.

“It followed his scent,” said Uncle.

“Or followed you. It is time for you to return.”

Uncle shook his head. “Not until I find a replacement.”

“Then the decision will be made for you.”

Uncle bowed. He held out his hand to me, seemingly in a gesture of farewell. Limping I took it and felt something metal pressing against my palm. Uncle put a hand to his lips and walked off towards the blacksmith’s hut. I looked down at the key.

The next day Uncle went back to the headsman’s hut. The widow’s daughter visited, saying she wanted to help me with the twins. She had never volunteered before, only in the street. She carried two buckets of water and a cloth. Sending the twins outside she began to wash the walls, starting with the marks left by Grandmother’s hand. Finding the task too difficult she ordered me to help. The twins came over, splashing in the water. She laughed with them. The game ended with me throwing the bucket over her and being sent to the widow’s house to fetch more. My leg still hurt  , but I could walk normally and carry the bucket.

Just before dark, my father came home.  “You’re back on sheep duty tomorrow,” was all he said to me. Then he thanked the widow’s daughter by hugging her, like he used to hug mother. He whispered to her, “Not an outlander. Got a concession.” I pretended not to hear. Then Father offered to walk her home, saying it was the last time.

“Tomorrow you’ll have a new mother,” he told us. “And I will own the hut.”

I remembered something Grandmother had said before she lost her senses. Property belonged to the oldest then passed to their next descendant. The hut now belonged to Uncle. Father had always known that, hence his petition to the headsman when mother passed.

That night I dreamt of the dead fireworm, then did not sleep. I was ready to leave the hut after Father, but there was no adult to watch the twins. I woke them and made them walk to the widow’s hut, waiting until she opened the door  , but not staying to talk.  I hastened to the slaughterhouse and found the sheep by the male urinal. I checked for blood and put it on my shoulder. It insulated against the driving snow, but I could only think of Uncle and hope that he would endorse my claim on the hut.  To say that I could still live there, even though I wasn’t sure that I wanted to share with the widow’s daughter who prioritised cleaning over childcare. Who washed away the memories of Grandmother and wanted to replace mother.

Uncle knew that too. That was why he gave me the key and never returned for it. I expected to meet him at the rock , but found him lying against the dead tree. The flies avoided his body as they avoided mine. Marks in the snow showed where he had stumbled. Blood congealed around splinters in the wound in his head. I put the sheep down and picked him up, knowing he would not have wanted the graveyard. I staggered uphill, step by painful step. The sun came out, , but the insects stayed away. Other lights twinkled through the snow. Purple lights. Fireworms. Tens of them rising from the soil and inching along after me. Following Uncle’s scent. I quickened pace as best I could.

At last, I reached the top and, with a murmur of farewell, dropped Uncle in. Then I stood aside to let the fireworms follow. They stayed with me. I stepped left. They stepped left. Nearly a hundred surrounded me. Waiting for my next move.

I could not lead them to the village where they would either be killed or unwittingly kill my father, stepmother, sisters and others. I stepped around the rock and descended the ladder. At the bottom, I unlocked the door to my new home where my dead family lived. The living followed me in.


[Index] [About Us] [Stories] [Story 1] [Story 2] [Story 3] [Story 4] [Guest Art] [Editors Write] [Archives] [Contact Us] [Links]

Copyright © 2023 by 4 Star Stories. All Rights Reserved.