She didn’t believe it the first time she heard it.
His backpack was vomiting clothes all over the living room floor when he stuck his hand inside it, and pulled the doll out by her toes. He’d only been back half an hour, but even with jet lag written into the lines of his face, his presence had already taken over the house.
Last year had been two weeks in a yurt in Mongolia, channelling his inner yak – or something, she hadn’t really been listening – and now it was a month riding horses through the Chilean Andes. April suspected he was only doing it for the Facebook updates, but she gathered with the other housemates to welcome the traveller home, and surreptitiously check whether he was walking bowlegged.
When he placed the doll on the coffee table, everyone peered closer.
‘It’s a traditional Chilean volcano doll,’ he announced, nodding gravely. ‘You’re not meant to take them out of the country, but I knew you’d think I was lying if I tried to describe what it can do.’
The doll had waves of coal black hair swirling past its knees, and painted on eyes that would have been impressive had they not been ever so slightly crossed.
April reached out to touch it, but he held up a hand and frowned.
‘There is a terrible secret to this doll.’
April tried not to groan. Why couldn’t he just tell travel stories like the rest of us? As he cupped the doll in his hands, she silently wrote her own Facebook update: currently being tortured by tedious travel anecdotes, please send help in the form of a vodka bottle, and ear plugs.
He cleared his throat.
‘Chileans pray to the gods and goddesses of the volcano…they believe the lava holds great magic. And this doll, my friends, is from Cuernos del Diablo: the volcano of the devil horns.’
An appropriate wave of ‘ooohs’ swept around the room. April pursed her lips, and wondered whether it was time for The Price is Right.
‘When you ask this doll a question, you set her next to fire, and the answer will magically appear in the flames, or the smoke. I mean it, guys…it’s totally amazing.’
He placed the doll on the mantelpiece, and pointed the tip of his boot towards the burning logs below.
‘Anyone want to give it a go?’
April was the fastest. She squinted at the fire, then at the doll, and said ‘OK sweetie…what should I eat for dinner?’
He rolled his eyes at the laughter, and went to grab the doll from its perch.
‘If you’re not going to take it seriously…’
She saw it first. The others moved closer as they all stared at the curl of smoke rising from the fattest log.
‘Does that look…?’
A nod, a hell yeah.
‘It’s a paella dish.’
And it was, clear as day as it floated towards the living room ceiling. As the others jostled for their turn, April turned towards the couch with a frown, suddenly craving the crunch of rice shot through with saffron.
From then on, she waited. Oh, she waited. The house wasn’t empty often, everyone curtailed by poverty and partners, but whenever she found herself alone with the doll, forward she’d creep.
At first she felt ridiculous, whispering the questions into the doll’s painted on ears. ’Ah, hey, how’s it going? Just wondering…who’s going to get the promotion at work?’
And in moments, a wispy ‘S’ would float through the smoke towards her. She stopped being surprised when Simon was slapped on the back beside the water cooler the next day, when the doll predicted soccer matches and baby due dates, and she found herself planning more nights in than her friends had patience for.
Once, stuck on a logo for one of her company’s major clients, she begged the doll for help, and pulled up a chair closer to the fire to wait. A minute, then five, and when the front door flew open to a raucous trio of pizza carrying housemates, she was ready to throw the doll into the smouldering pile. But when she stood up, she caught sight of a symbol traced in the ashes near the grate, a subtle etching that was exactly what she was looking for, and it was all she could do not to kiss the doll on its red little lips.
So when her housemate announced his next trip – dog-sledding through Iceland, damn him – and began looking for an appropriate box to pack the doll into, April knew what to whisper.
The answer was written in the flames this time. One rounded flicker, golden and dancing towards her, in the unmistakable shape of a peanut shell, told her all she needed to know.
When his parents came by three days later to remove his belongings, she lay on her bed and listened to her housemates weep about how careful he always was with his allergies, how they just couldn’t understand it, how sorry they all were.
She knew she should head out there and lay a comforting hand on a heaving shoulder, knew the right words to offer in a soothing tone. She stroked the luxurious swirls of hair, smiled at the crossed eyes, and placed the lid on the shoebox.
When she slid it under her bed, she swung her legs over the side and headed out to the kitchen.
I have a whole page of first lines in my red notebook.
So divine when a story tumbles out of that one sentence.
But I do wish I had a volcano doll.
I’d sit so close to that fire.