The ground shook. Streets broke in little chasms, pots fell and smashed on the floors, windows cracked.
“The mountain is displeased,” the Topmost Faithful said.
The other Faithful agreed.
It was time for the sacrifice. It wasn’t an annual thing, heck, it wasn’t even a decennial one. The unspoken rule was: When the mountain roared, the Faithful delivered.
They gathered up in the main square, bringing their youngest sons and daughters.
The Topmost Faithful hurried to get his lava-coloured robes and met them at the square. He stood on the topmost step and looked down at the gathered Sicilians. The murmur stopped as soon as coughed.
“Faithful ones, it’s that time again. We must get to the top of Etna. Gather up your strength, wear your best boots and bring your cured meats with you, for this will be a hard climb.”
“Must we bring the smallest ones, Most High?” a man shouted. He held the heads of his two children beside him, flanked with both a boy and a girl.
The Topmost Faithful nodded deeply, making sure that everybody could see the frown on his face. “I’m afraid so. Etna demands it.”
“But… My children!” the father pleaded.
The Topmost Faithful raised his hand. “It has to be done! We start our ascend tomorrow morning at first light.”
The first day of the climb was the noisiest. The Faithful were talking, guessing, worrying out loud. They left their oldest members back at the village and started the big climb on Etna. It was a traversable mountain, and they had experienced guides to take them on the proper path. But not all of the villagers had ever taken a climb before, especially not the children, so they hiked slowly and carefully. The Faithful kept turning back to glance at their village, afraid that it would be the last time they gazed upon their homes.
The mountain could erupt at any minute. Or, it could erupt in a million years, making it someone else’s problem entirely. The Faithful didn’t know. They had no way of knowing. All they could do was to please the mountain when it demanded so.
They climbed, Etna towering above them. White at the bottom, billowing smoke at the top. She purred like so when she was displeased. The traders and the travellers claimed that Etna was not the hardest mountain to climb. Compared to others, she had a gentle curve. Some Faithful who knew numbers said that the lava pressed from below, lifting the entire land, like a bubbling broth ready to boil.
That image didn’t settle the Faithful’s minds. Because the bubbling broth looks like the biggest calamity for the fly that dares to sit on the surface.
The second day of the climb was the quietest. The Faithful had slept for a few hours, breaking camp as soon as the first rays of the morning sun allowed them to see. They hugged their children tight, seeing the top so close now. They had Faith, and they would carry on.
They sang songs about the mountain, they sang songs about the Earth. They harmonised their voices, believing that the soothing songs would calm the mountain. Perhaps, she would spare them. Perhaps, she could be swayed to erupt another time. A time where none of it would matter for the Faithful. Perhaps, she’d just get back to sleep.
The third day of the climb was the scariest. They hiked in almost complete darkness, coughing and dropping left and right from exhaustion. For the Topmost Faithful took them to a forced march, a climb so long and tough that some Faithful couldn’t go on. They had to abandon them, they had to carry on. Having lost more than half of the climbers, they went for the top. The children complained, their feet hurt, their shoes were torn, their lungs were itchy from all the ash.
But the faithful rounded them all up even if their parents had given up along the way, and they pushed them, they cajoled them, begged them, offered them sweets and delights when they reached the top.
The children, easily fooled, thought that the Faithful would actually carry such delicacies in their sacks, wasting precious space and carrying capacity.
Almost at the top, the smoke was thick, the sun was like a candle, the air was black.
The Topmost Faithful shouted and marched them on. “Up! Left foot forward, right foot forward, up! Up! Left foot, right foot, Etna be calm, Etna be still, Etna we believe.”
The children wailed, the Faithful had to chase some of them around, grab them and carry them upwards. The climb was frustrating, the Topmost Faithful gritted his teeth and wanted to just push forward, but their ascend for the last couple of hours was glacial.
When they reached the top, many Faithful collapsed. The children either passed out or simply sat on their legs and gave up, staring into the mouth of Etna. The lava was mesmerising, it was something that few people had seen. Incandescent rock, glowing reds and yellows and oranges. They could feel the heat on their face from so far away. The ground was hot, they had to throw their backpacks on the ground and step on them if they wanted to endure it for too long.
The Topmost Faithful was a mess, his lava robes did not do justice to what they represented, he knew that. No matter how amazing they looked down at the village, they paled in comparison next to the real thing. However, he could see that everyone was far too exhausted to notice. He opened his arms wide and calmed his ragged breathing. “Faithful ones! We are here. It is time to please the mountain.”
The Faithful dragged the toiling children towards the edge. They kicked and cried but the Faithful were adamant, this had to be done.
The Topmost Faithful waited with a hard expression on his face.
When the children were in place, all twelve of them, he started to speak loudly again. “Etna! We bring you our youngest. We bring you those with the most potential, so that you can see upon their faces and consider sparing us a while longer. Look! Look, and spare us. We are your Faithful, and we will take this path again and again until you are pleased.”
Etna roared. Lava spewed in a spurt of destruction. The ground shook, and the Faithful almost lost their balance. The children screamed.
The Topmost Faithful stood tall for a few minutes, awaiting Etna’s response.
After some time passed, he said simply, “That’s it,” and turned around.
“Wait, Most High? That’s all?” the children asked.
“Why, yes, Etna seems pleased. She has seen your potential, and if you do great things with your life, she’ll spare us a little while longer.” He waved them around. “Come on now, we have a long climb down and your parents are terribly worried. Don’t look back, though.”
The children nodded furiously.
The Faithful hiked back down to their village, not daring to look back at the peak.