A Garland in the Volcano

Alexander Hackett

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Michoacán, Mexico; barren, secretive, Holy. There is a volcano, Paritucín, with a church bell half-buried in the porous rock; there is memory, myth and cosmology, but what else is there for a French-Canadian to discover—to relate to?

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

You dreamt of the volcano at Paricutín again last night.
          For many years after you visited it, the image of the church half-buried in the rock stayed with you. Only the bell tower and the upper half of the ornate structure were still visible. The building sprouted mirage-like from an otherwise barren landscape. The rest had been swallowed up, along with the surrounding village, by a slow-moving tide of lava in 1943. 
          You had hitchhiked from Uruapan with Sylvia, a fellow student from the language institute in Guanajuato. At the small village near the base of the volcano, you rented horses and hired a local guide, setting out early in the morning. Making your way uphill along a rough path, you saw the bell tower in the distance gradually emerge from its bed of black stone.
          Stubborn shrubs and small trees were growing through the porous rock, creating a strange landscape of mottled green shades. The forests beyond the wide, raised swathe of solidified lava were of pine, fir and oak. Michoacan, a cool, mountainous state full of evergreens, reminded you more of western Canada than other parts of Mexico. 
          When you reached the buried church, its outer walls fused into the sarcophagus that engulfed it, you all peered down into the partly-preserved altar. You saw half-burnt candles, rough-hewn crosses and crushed beer cans—proof that the pious still trekked up to this miraculous shrine to bear offerings, as did teenagers to get drunk and make out. 

*

You grew up a small town kid at a Catholic school in southern Quebec. You had crossed yourself beneath gory classroom crucifixes and were shown new-age bible videos dubbed into French, with big-haired hippie actors cast as the main characters. This Catholic tradition, if nothing else, gave you at least one link to the culture of Mexico. 
          Myth and cosmology were carefully planted inside you. For the first thirteen years of your life, before the age of questions, you accepted it all. When the questions came, they came in a torrent, alongside girls, sex, music and serious literature—a tradition of secular Western humanism to which you were more naturally inclined. 
          All the angels and kings were washed away in a quick deluge, and the ease with which you abandoned these stories led you to believe they lacked vitality, that their time was up. That systems of belief—like organisms, individuals, entire cultures—have a natural lifespan. 
          Here, beneath this volcano, was something closer to the truth: the elemental engulfing the temporary. The natural world erasing the man-made with a shrug.
          A string of avalanches; earthquakes and droughts; a volcano erupting and wiping out a village, an anchored tradition, an entire religion. So it is. Just life: a series of landscapes. Some incredibly harsh and some blisteringly beautiful.

*

Near the end of the climb, your horse became agitated and threw you off its back twice. Your guide, just a teenager, flogged it viciously. It brayed and pulled against its bridle. You and Sylvia pleaded with him to stop. He looked at you with dull, uncomprehending eyes. A nag is meant to be flogged, they seemed to imply. 
          You were eager to make it to the top and look into the crater. It seemed like a worthy objective, a kind of ritual worth enacting at least once in your life. The final slopes up were all harsh shale and black ash, and you were buffeted by big descending wafts of sulfur. The cone was wider across than you expected, massive. When you finally reached the rim and peered into the volcano’s guts, there was no revelation, no bubbling lava, no strange visions or dancing garlands of angels as you had secretly hoped. It was still and dormant, dry and dusty. 
          It was just a volcano, a dead formation, and it held no secrets for you. 

Alexander Hackett is a freelance writer and musician from Knowlton, Quebec. He has written for Concordia’s School of Graduate Studies since 2018, and has contributed to The Toronto Star, La Presse, Urbania and Le Devoir, among other publications. He lives in Montreal and is currently at work on his first novel.

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You dreamt of the volcano at Paricutín again last night. For many years after you visited it, the image of the church half-buried in the rock stayed with you. Only the bell tower and the upper half of the ornate structure were still visible. The building sprouted mirage-like from an otherwise barren landscape. The rest had been swallowed up, along with the surrounding village, by a slow-moving tide of lava in 1943. You had hitchhiked from Uruapan with Sylvia, a fellow student from the language institute in Guanajuato. At the small village near the base of the volcano, you rented horses and hired a local guide, setting out early in the morning. Making your way uphill along a rough path, you saw the bell tower in the distance gradually emerge from its bed of black stone. Stubborn shrubs and small trees were growing through the porous rock, creating a strange landscape of mottled green shades. The forests beyond the wide, raised swathe of solidified lava were of pine, fir and oak. Michoacan, a cool, mountainous state full of evergreens, reminded you more of western Canada than other parts of Mexico. When you reached the buried church, its outer walls fused into the sarcophagus that engulfed it, you all peered down into the partly-preserved altar. You saw half-burnt candles, rough-hewn crosses and crushed beer cans—proof that the pious still trekked up to this miraculous shrine to bear offerings, as did teenagers to get drunk and make out. *You grew up a small town kid at a Catholic school in southern Quebec. You had crossed yourself beneath gory classroom crucifixes and were shown new-age bible videos dubbed into French, with big-haired hippie actors cast as the main characters. This Catholic tradition, if nothing else, gave you at least one link to the culture of Mexico. Myth and cosmology were carefully planted inside you. For the first thirteen years of your life, before the age of questions, you accepted it all. When the questions came, they came in a torrent, alongside girls, sex, music and serious literature—a tradition of secular Western humanism to which you were more naturally inclined. All the angels and kings were washed away in a quick deluge, and the ease with which you abandoned these stories led you to believe they lacked vitality, that their time was up. That systems of belief—like organisms, individuals, entire cultures—have a natural lifespan. Here, beneath this volcano, was something closer to the truth: the elemental engulfing the temporary. The natural world erasing the man-made with a shrug. A string of avalanches; earthquakes and droughts; a volcano erupting and wiping out a village, an anchored tradition, an entire religion. So it is. Just life: a series of landscapes. Some incredibly harsh and some blisteringly beautiful.*Near the end of the climb, your horse became agitated and threw you off its back twice. Your guide, just a teenager, flogged it viciously. It brayed and pulled against its bridle. You and Sylvia pleaded with him to stop. He looked at you with dull, uncomprehending eyes. A nag is meant to be flogged, they seemed to imply. You were eager to make it to the top and look into the crater. It seemed like a worthy objective, a kind of ritual worth enacting at least once in your life. The final slopes up were all harsh shale and black ash, and you were buffeted by big descending wafts of sulfur. The cone was wider across than you expected, massive. When you finally reached the rim and peered into the volcano’s guts, there was no revelation, no bubbling lava, no strange visions or dancing garlands of angels as you had secretly hoped. It was still and dormant, dry and dusty. It was just a volcano, a dead formation, and it held no secrets for you.