By Phil Yeatman
The fuming peak dawns behind a ridge from miles away. Julián pays it no attention at first, another mountain like all the others in the Andean desert. But as it looms large in the windshield he can no longer ignore it. The road curves around its base and into a town of mud-brick houses and train sheds. A railroad, aimed at Bolivia like shotgun barrels, cuts the town in half.
Julián makes the snap decision to park his car alongside the rail depot. He is not sure why. Tonight he has a hotel booking in Sucre, Bolivia, and a job interview there in the morning. A ball of anxiety is metastasizing in his gut. Either tomorrow he will embarrass himself, or worse still, land the job, only to out himself as in incompetent fraud when it really matters.
A sign on a nearby building catches his eye: Lodging House. Behind it, the volcano eats up the sky. What a fantastic idea, he thinks, to spend the night in this quaint border town. He will take photos of trains and flamingos, two subjects which seem suddenly very interesting. And tomorrow he will cross the border.
Tomorrow sounds so much better than today.
Brown windows ogle Julián as he crosses the road. He reaches to knock on the Lodging House’s door but in the very same moment it swings open. A woman as stout and plain as the building itself stands in the doorway, hands dusted with flour, her tablecloth-pattern smock steeped in onion smell. A single black braid hangs over her shoulder.
“Tell me,” she says impatiently.
Julián’s gaze dances around her head, never touching her eyes. “Is there–”
“Come,” she replies and recedes into the gloom within.
The town’s lifelessness engulfs him like liquid. Abandoned, maybe, by everyone except the woman who answered the door. His Korean hatchback is an alien organism here. A voice in his head tells him to go. Drive away. While there’s still time. Instead, he hurries inside, worried the woman will think him peculiar if he doesn’t follow.
A flash of light, so quick he might have imagined it, blanches the sky.
Tomorrow suddenly seems very far away.
Rows of plastic tables and chairs furnish a dining room at the end of the hall. A boulder of a television stands in one corner. In another presides a Virgin Mary figurine clad in robes of gold and crimson, its face timelessly serene. The woman summons a dense ledger from a cupboard and opens it to the most recent page, in which she instructs Julián to write his name, job, address, and phone number.
She scrutinizes his answers and taps the column beneath occupation, which he has left empty. “Well?”
“I’m on my way to an interview in Bolivia,” he says.
“Are you?” she wonders.
“Not at this moment,” Julián says, bashful, as if he has been caught naked, “but tomorrow, generally, I’m on my way, just not right now, precisely.”
“Tomorrow I will win the lottery,” she tells him, with so straight a face Julián wonders if she has the power of premonition.
The woman shakes her head and clicks her tongue and holds out her hand to accept the ugly crumpled ball of pesos Julián pulls from his pocket.
“What is the name of the town?” he asks.
“Ollagüe,” she says, counting the bills one by one and smoothing them on her smock.
“And the volcano?” he whispers.
“Ollagüe,” she says.
Julián wishes to ask her name but fears she will say Ollagüe again.
The window of the mayor’s office frames the volcano Ollagüe. Beside the window, a poster depicts the same mountain at the same scale, the real volcano and the poster volcano seemingly interchangeable. Geological surveys, topographical maps, and military navigational charts of the local area plaster the walls. Newspaper clippings and aerial photographs depict the volcano from numerous angles.
“All visitors to Ollagüe must register,” the mayor says. A diadem of pearly hair encircles his skull, his face cracked like dried mud. The registry lands on his desk with a puff of dust.
“Are there many visitors?” Julián asks.
“Some,” the mayor says.
Julián scribbles his details in the ledger only to find the mayor leering at him. He realizes he has covered the page with the word Ollagüe, over and over, a lunatic’s manifesto.
“You know,” the mayor says, while Julián makes a second attempt at the registry, “the volcano’s peak is five thousand, six hundred and sixty-eight meters above sea level. The summit frequently reaches minus ten degrees. Nothing grows on its slopes. Occasionally a fool wanders into town and goes up it and dies.”
Julián feels like he has been turned inside out, all his slimy innards on display. It is true he considered climbing the volcano. But not seriously. Only a fleeting whim. “I never–”
“Tell me,” the mayor says, “what day is this? What year is this?”
A wall calendar above the desk features another photo of Ollagüe–and rows of blank squares. Beside it hangs a clock, numberless, hands orbiting aimlessly.
“Um,” Julián says. “Um.” He scours his brain for an answer. His thoughts have been swept away like a sand castle at high tide.
“When you are here forever,” the mayor says, “time is without significance.”
Vertigo sends the room spinning. Julián steadies himself on the desk. All he can remember is buying cigarettes that morning in Antofagasta. If it was indeed that morning, and not a hundred years ago, and if it is not just something he has imagined to populate the abandoned town of his mind.
The mayor puts his arm around Julián’s shoulders and leads him outside. “You should lie down. The air is very thin this high up. Some people get altitude sickness.”
The door slams shut.
Julián gapes at the mammoth stratovolcano. A certainty comes to him: the mountain is looking back. The earth shudders. Then it tilts beneath him, like a disc with too much weigh on one side, and he slides inexorably toward the volcano, tumbling over the railroad, groping helplessly for a handhold, then skidding over open desert, screaming, stones and dry shrubs raking his skin, up the wind-blasted summit, toward the gaping, smoking maw–