The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Volcano Climber” by Courtney Craggett

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Augustine of Hippo wrote “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” In her short story “Volcano Climber” (Juked), Courtney Craggett explores the nature of the first of Hope’s beautiful daughters, anger.

We meet Craggett’s unnamed protagonist when he’s still a boy, living with his brother and little sister and brother in the foothills of a large volcano. His sister is struck with an illness, grows more and more sick, until finally their doctor says that nothing more can be done to help her. Here is how the protagonist responds to the news:

“And that was the night that I stood in the foothills and I yelled to the gods or to the stars or the moon or whatever was up there. I yelled for my sister with her sweaty cough and for my brother far away from his family and for my aching stomach that curled inside me in hunger and rage. And in response, the earth shook and the volcano growled and the smoke filled the night and blackened the moon. And I began to climb.”

Along with the protagonist’s rage over of his sister’s illness, and his courage to climb up the erupting volcano, Craggett introduces a strange relationship between the protagonist and the volcano. The protagonist yells, and the volcano appears to respond. A few paragraphs later, once he reaches the volcano’s crater, we discover this isn’t mere metaphor.

“Inside it burned deep orange and blue, and I saw it working, fighting against the earth, against the pain and the sickness and disease, cleaning it all with fire. I felt its anger, even stronger than mine, and I knew it had been waiting for me to come to it, so that it could show me how it too hated…”

The volcano, we find, is a sentient character that rages against the sickness and pain of the humans that live at its feet. What’s more, when the protagonist returns from the lip of the volcano, we find that her sister’s cough is healed. The protagonist, it seems, has the ability to harness the rage of the volcano and his own into healing people’s hurts.

I think the thematic elements Craggett explores here are just as intriguing as the elements of magical realism. The anger of the protagonist and the volcano is pure in its fury, and thus has the ability—as the text references—to magically clean away maladies.

This isn’t the only furious volcano. Word of the protagonist’s gift spreads, and soon he’s climbing mountains all over the world, harnessing their particular rages, and using that fury to heal the ills of the world. He climbs one and a woman in a coma is healed. He climbs another and fathers stop beating their children. The protagonist tells everyone that “the mountains rage for us, at the injustice and hurt we experience.”

But there’s one last mountain, the tallest one, that the protagonist must climb, one that has captured the hopes of the entire world. On the way up, the protagonist is met by banners hoping for a cure for cancer, the end of poverty, a solution for global warming. But as the protagonist climbs, he realizes that this mountain isn’t just different from the others in terms of its massive size.

“I start out slow. I take my time on the foothills and save my strength, focusing on all the ways this climb could change the world. But from the beginning, something is different. This volcano is angrier, indifferent…”

Then, as he climbs higher,

“The mountain explodes, the earth cracks. This anger is violent, uncontrolled, blind. It tosses me through the air. I cling to a tree and wait for the mountain to recognize me, so that it can pick me up like it always does and carry me to the top. But this one does not notice or care…”

The anger of the protagonist and the smaller mountains is towards specific pains and illnesses and injustices throughout. There is, you could say, a focus to their rage, and a heart. In contrast, the rage of this last mountain has no focus, nor heart. In fact, it’s described as indifferent, uncaring, blind.

Nor it is interested in healing injustice. When the protagonist returns home after failing to climb the mountain, he finds that his sister’s illness has returned. The story comes full circle. Notice how the protagonist responds.

“I yell for the injustice of it all, and I yell because despite the miles and miles that my feet have traveled, it is not far enough and never will be, and I yell for the ways we can save each other and the ways we cannot.”

It’s not difficult to argue that the nature of this last volcano is death itself, that hurdle of hurdles, for which there is no sure solution. But that’s not to forget the exploration, the other mountains climbed, and in doing so missing social commentary. I’d argue that for Craggett, there are two kinds of anger. Death’s, which is blind, uncaring, and without purpose, and Hope’s, which is focused, full of heart, and in its hot rage, is able to heal.