by Jeff Chapman -
Another gust pelted Elihu Simmons’s goggles with ash grit, each tiny speck clicking against the translucent saucers of scuttlebug shell and gouging a new pit that he would have to polish away. He thanked the good Lord that Sarah had chased after him with the goggles he had forgotten. He made a mental note to thank her--passionate kisses or watching the baby--when he got home, if he got home. He hadn’t seen this storm coming. It might exhaust itself in an hour or expel its fury for days.
The gray dust cut his vision to a few steps. The scuttlebug shell blurred what remained, reducing his perception to shapes and shadows. Got to find shelter, he told himself, before you’re hopelessly lost.
A bandanna woven from powderbug bristles wrapped his mouth and nose. Dust clogged the fabric where the moisture from his breath dampened the cloth. Grit stung his left ear. Another blast scratched the sliver of cheek exposed above the bandanna. He cursed creation and then asked forgiveness before he’d sucked another bitter-tasting breath through the bristle cloth. Struggle, curse, and beg forgiveness, his daily mantra and all for what: to keep Sarah and the baby alive and offer a few souls a grain of hope. If this was the Lord’s gift, He could have it back. Elihu begged forgiveness. “Service and humility over pride. With humility comes wisdom,” he repeated. “The Lord sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground.”
Elihu held his spear in the crook of his arm and reached behind his head to adjust the knot and raise the cloth to shield his cheeks. The next gust caught him standing straight and off balance, punching him in the chest. He stumbled backwards and to his right and then took an extra step to regain his balance, but the ground he sought was not there. He tumbled over, thinking his appointed day had come. Sharp rocks, a cluster of beetles. He saw them both in his mind’s eye and both would tear him to shreds.
Twigs snapped as they poked his hands and arms. He landed in a prickly bed of lavabushes, on his stomach. The impact knocked the wind out of him. Perhaps the Lord had more for him to do. Something moved beneath him. He ripped off his goggles to see a horde of scuttlebugs burrowing into the ash beneath the bushes, kicking up plumes of dust as their wriggling bodies disappeared. About the size of his palm, the critters lived off lavabush seeds near the bottom of the food chain.
Walls of black lava rock, rippled with vertical crests and troughs, towered on either side of him at least seven meters and tapered until they met five meters ahead of him like the prow of a boat, an ark of shelter. Ash swirled into the crevice, but the deep, narrow crack offered protection from the blasting wind. Behind him, the crevice extended as far as he could see. In a cave here he might wait out the storm, protected from the wind with plenty of lavabush to fuel a fire and its seeds to roast and eat. If he conserved his water, he figured he could last for days.
Elihu found his spear lying atop the tangle of lavabushes that had been tumbling across the waste into this crack for tens of years. Already a layer of dust coated the shaft and blade of his spear. He strapped his goggles across his forehead. He needed all his vision to watch for signs of a cave. With his spear thrust forward, he crunched through the knee-deep lavabushes, which stuck to his pants, requiring him to stop every few meters to knock the bushes loose. He crept forward, listening and studying the walls. “Though I walk through the darkest valley,” he whispered, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” If he ever needed to believe those words, it was now. An occupied cave could be worse than none at all.