In the westernmost part of the African nation of Cameroon lies Lake Nyos.

As lakes go, Nyos is not all that large, a bit less than four hundred acres. It is an expanse of still water surrounded by fertile green hills, occupying a crater on the side of an inactive—mostly inactive—volcano, the water held in place by a natural dam of old lava. To all appearances, this is a peaceful, green place.

Far beneath Nyos, however, lies another lake, this one of molten rock, a survivor of the days when volcanoes reared fiery heads, and the region was racked by earthquakes and eruptions. Gases rising from that crucible gradually work their way up through fifty miles of solid rock to the surface, where they escape one prison only to be trapped again, this time by the weight of the lake on top of them. The carbon dioxide escaping from the magma below has accumulated for eons, with hundreds of thousands of tons of gas slowly becoming trapped in the cold waters of the deep lake bottom.

On the 21st of August, 1986, Lake Nyos undergoes something called a “lake overturn.” There is no warning. People are eating their evening meal, socializing, talking about the day just ended, the day to come. Children are being readied for bed. Cattle have been rounded up and penned in their corrals, safe for the night from predators or thieves. The routines of all the days up to this one have created an almost irresistible flow of normalcy, of repetition, of life.

As darkness falls, something happens out on the lake: a landslide, a minor tremor, or maybe simply rainwater washing off the hills on the other side … The initial trigger is insignificant, something perfectly trivial that will never be identified.

The effect is anything but trivial. A vast reservoir of CO2-saturated water, long trapped under tremendous pressure, explodes to the surface, erupting like the gas escaping a bottle of soda when the cap pops off. As thick and silent and deadly as a lava flow, the carbon dioxide gas billows outward from the lake, settling onto the surrounding countryside, burying the cattle dozing in their corrals, the mothers putting away the supper dishes, the children climbing into bed. More than 1,700 people die, having suffocated in moments. At least 3,500 cattle won’t see the next sunrise.

Survivors will report hallucinations, along with feelings of crushing, inhuman despair.

On the day Dolly Latham loses her mind, her daughters Annie, Lulie, and Theresa are thirteen, ten, and seven, respectively. Her husband Judah is at home enjoying a three-day lull between jobs with Lowry & Sons Construction, and he is babysitting the girls while their mother goes grocery shopping. He wants to keep Ronnie home with him, too, but Dolly balks. She knows that Judah loves his only son, but she also knows that his greatest desire is to mold the child in his own image, and Dolly is determined to prevent that. One Judah, she feels, is more than enough.

Dolly and the giggling two-year-old sail up and down the aisles of the Wayland Springs Piggly Wiggly, looking at this and that, dropping some items into the cart, putting others back on the shelf.

Breakfast cereal is getting to be so expensive! she thinks, picking up a box of store-brand cornflakes instead of the colorful frosted cereal the girls prefer. The cheaper peanut butter is nothing but sugar and salt—but it’s cheaper. She picks up a bag of apples marked down to half price, knowing that most of the apples will be bruised and browning. She’ll chop them up and use them in muffins or something, maybe make applesauce.

By the time she reaches the checkout line, she is exhausted and dispirited, and even Ronnie has slumped into a fitful doze, perched in his seat on the cart.

Money woes are not a new thing in the Latham household, but lately, they’ve become harder to ignore. Judah’s carpentry skills are in demand: he’s good at what he does; he makes a good living, always has, but Dolly’s household allowance is still what it was when Annie was a toddler, and expenses have just gone up and up. She would work, but even if she could find someone to take care of the kids, Judah would never allow it. In his eyes, a wife who works is telling the world about a husband who is failing in his responsibilities. Judah never seems to do without anything, but then, as he likes to remind her whenever the subject comes up, it’s his money. Do his other women have to struggle like this? she thinks bitterly.

As she and her child take their place in the checkout line, Ronnie wakes up with a tiny snort that makes her laugh. When their turn comes, the cashier, an older woman she has known for years, greets them with a smile.

“He just gets more precious every week,” the clerk says, making a funny face at Ronnie as she starts ringing up Dolly’s purchases.

“He just grows and grows,” Dolly says, touching his cheek.

The items pass over the scanner one by one, and Dolly grows apprehensive. “I have coupons,” she says after a minute, watching the running total climb. She glances over at the sacker, a pimply-faced boy, the son of one of her old schoolmates. He might as well be on another planet. He is not the least bit interested in Dolly’s financial problems.

“We’ll do those after we get everything checked,” the cashier says.

Even with the coupons, Dolly discovers that she is short. The woman in line behind her looks away as Dolly picks through her folder of coupons. Dolly detects the sweet, nauseating odor of pity, and her cheeks burn, red and blotchy.

“I have to have flour,” she says, her frustration starting to show in her voice. “The price has gone up, and you didn’t use the coupon.”

On the cart, Ronnie is picking up on the darkening mood. He sits with his thumb and forefinger in his mouth, his eyes wide, no longer laughing.

“That one’s expired, honey.” The clerk pushes aside half the brightly colored scraps. “Those are all out of date. They won’t let me take expired coupons.” She looks over the items that have been checked in. “Maybe if we put back the shampoo and the tuna fish.”

Even without those items, Dolly’s total is still more than she can pay. The woman in line behind her clears her throat. Dolly doesn’t know her name, but her face is familiar. They probably attend the same church; their kids go to the same schools.

“I’d be happy to pitch in for the shampoo and the tuna,” she offers. “I’ll bet that little boy loves his tuna sandwiches.”

Dolly could have dismissed rudeness, impatience—almost anything but kindness. Sympathy. Pity. She thanks the woman but refuses her offer. She turns and lifts a five-pound bag of flour, considers it gravely for a moment, then raises it over her head. With a grunt, she slams the fragile package down onto the conveyor belt. A tremendous cloud of white dust rises, and Dolly, like a goddess of the volcano, wreathed in the smoke of a great burning, begins picking up items one by one and smashing them onto the counter and onto the floor at her feet. Each crash elicits a grunt of satisfaction, and when a bottle of salad dressing shatters on the chrome edge of the counter, spraying oil and vinegar and garlic and “authentic Italian spices” all over her, her son, the rack of tabloids and soap opera magazines, the display of lip-balms and chewing gum, and the cash register, her laughter rings out, full and rich. Plastic containers merely bounce and roll away, but glass shatters and cardboard rips asunder, and soon, there is a swamp of mayonnaise and jelly and pickles and oatmeal and spaghetti sauce at her feet.

Ronnie stares, astonished and unafraid at first, but soon begins to cry. The cashier has slipped away and stands with a huddle of onlookers a few yards off, waving her hands and calling out soothing words like someone trying to calm a panicked steer. A muffled voice calls for a manager over the speaker system, but the rage and delight have swept Dolly away, and the manager would have to be a brave man indeed to confront her.

When Dolly has completely cleared the counter of items, she pauses, panting, her mouth black in the floury ghost-white mask of her face. She looks around, grinning, the blood of her ancestors surging in her veins, hot and relentless as lava, and then she reaches down and lifts Ronnie out of the cart. He is dusted with flour, sprayed with condiments and crumbs, and his tears have traced paths down his cheeks to his mouth, but he laughs when his mother smiles at him. Holding him in her arms, she steps over the mess and, with infinite dignity, she walks out the front door, head high, eyes blazing. Triumphant.

By the time Dolly pulls into the driveway at home, Judah has been informed of the incident and has gone to the supermarket to pay for the damage and collect his wife, not knowing that she has already left the scene. When he comes home, Ronnie is clean and pink in his little striped overalls, and he and Lulie are giggling over the cartoon animals in a picture book on the living room floor while Annie and Theresa play a card game of their own invention at the coffee table. Their mother, he is informed, has gone to the grocery store in White Mill and will be back in an hour.

For dinner, there is meatball soup and baked potatoes. Dolly is relaxed and gracious. She tells her husband that the prices are better at the White Mill A&P and that she will start going there regularly. Judah believes that’s a good idea.

Nothing more is said on the topic.

# # #

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *