Voice from the Void

A whisper emanates from the dark

A Town on the Border Between Chile and Bolivia


A moist cloth pressed to Julián’s forehead draws him to wakefulness. There is a hard mattress beneath him and bed slats overhead. He blinks and his vision sharpens. A smiling, handsome, male face hovers over him. “Here, have a chocolate,” the man says.

Something hard nudges Julián’s lips. Still dazed, he does not resist. He bites down and tastes caramel sweetness.

The man observes him with glacial eyes. He has tousled surfer’s hair, a healthy tan, and a charming smile. “You fell,” he says. He speaks with a light German accent. “You screamed. You are not from here.”

“I am Chilean,” Julián mumbles around the chocolate.

The German smirks. “Where is Chile?”

It is one thing, Julián thinks, to feed chocolate to a stranger in bed, but another not to know the whereabouts of Chile. “Chile is here.”

“Where is here?” the German replies.

“Where we are,” Julián counters.

“And where are we?”

Julián’s jaw drops. “In Chile. At the Bolivian border!”

Now the German leans in very close, in a very conspiratorial way, and his eyes narrow. “If borders cannot be seen,” he says, “how do we know when we have crossed them?”

A riddle, maybe, or an old proverb. Julián does not know. The extreme pressures of his concentrating mind produce a hard little rock of thought. “Ollagüe is a border town,” he concludes. “So that’s where the border is.”

“It is a border town,” the German scowls, “just as you are a border person.”

The comment is strangely offensive. But it is the raving of a madman. Julián decides he must escape this stranger and the twin Ollagües as well. Stopping here was a mistake.

“I’m leaving,” he says, and the German does not try to stop him.

Julián’s car remains where he left it only a few hours prior but now slumps sadly on deflated tyres, its body discoloured by salt and sun and rust. Nevertheless, he throws himself inside. Door closed, key in ignition, clutch down, shifted into gear. The engine emits a stuttering groan. Turning fecklessly. He’s sweating, panting, nerves shot. Come on, he thinks. You bastard. He jerks the key left and right. Nothing. The car is a corpse.

“My god,” he despairs. The town is empty and brown and the sky is blue and empty and he is trapped. Marooned. “My god.”

The ground tremors, a sound like laughter.

He should have turned back to Antofagasta the moment he saw the volcano.

The German emerges from the Lodging House and lights a cigarette. He wanders over to the car and peers through the window with a tiger’s cool interest. A curved corvo knife appears in his hand and he taps the glass. Tap, tap. “Car trouble?”

“Please leave me alone,” Julián moans.

With a shrug, the German retreats.

Julián remembers his mobile phone. The battery is empty. He covers his mouth with both hands and screams.

Night suffuses the sky with startling speed and countless stars twinkle alight like the eyes of bats opening on a cave ceiling. Sickly streetlamps blink on one by one. At the far end of the road, a golden shaft of light spills from an open doorway like a lighthouse beam. Julián leaps out of the car and runs toward it. There must be a third person in this skeletal town.

Guitar music and lyrics in an unknown language lead Julián through the doorway and into a general store. The shelves are half-empty and there is no fresh food.

Julián picks up a can: it says only beans and has no expiration date. Through a gap in the shelving he notices a pair of watchful eyes. He approaches the counter, where a man leans and listens to a radio.

“Tell me,” the shopkeeper says. Big ears like jug handles stick out either side of his head and his prankster eyes shine with secret glee.

“I want–”

“I don’t sell cars,” the shopkeeper says.

Julián clears his throat. “Oh. Of course. Well, cigarettes?”

The shopkeeper tosses a pack of Belmont cigarettes on the counter. “The price is one escudo.”

Forty years that has not been Chile’s currency. Still, Julián rummages in his pockets and locates a single silver peso and places it on the countertop. The shopkeeper scrutinizes the tiny disc. “Pesos stopped in nineteen-sixty,” he says. “An escudo has the value of a thousand pesos.”

“Pesos replaced the escudo in nineteen seventy-five!” Julián argues desperately. “A peso is worth a thousand escudos.”

“You are crazed,” the shopkeeper says. “Talking backwards. Vacate my shop at once.”

“I need help,” Julián says.

“It is clear.”

“I need to escape Ollagüe.”

A change comes over the shopkeeper’s face, as though a mask has been removed. “The only way out is at the volcano’s summit.”

“People die up there,” Julián says.

“Many of them,” the shopkeeper agrees.

“I can’t,” Julián insists. “My hiking shoes lack proper ankle support.”

“If you say so.”

Julián lowers his voice to a confession-box whisper. “When I first saw it, I did think it would be a thrill to climb to the top. But I’m not cut out for it.”

The shopkeeper shrugs. “My father died on the toilet. Does that mean I never shit?”

“I don’t know!” Julián wails.

A moment of intense eye contact transpires between them. This is the cusp of some great moment of comprehension. But then the man blinks, and the tension evaporates, and they are again nothing but small business owner and customer.

“Take yourself and your silly coin away,” the shopkeeper says. He turns the radio to full volume and stares at the ceiling.

Julián slinks out into the night. Nothing moves in the darkness, but he feels the volcano’s presence behind him. The railroad shines beneath the moon, two silver threads. It is too cold to sleep in the car. He will have to return to the Lodging House and face the German.

The German sits cross-legged on the floor in apparent meditation. His eyes flash open as Julián enters the dorm room. “What’s in your hand?”

Surprised, Julián opens his palm. The anachronistic peso gleams within.

“You don’t need that. Throw it away.” The German sneers, but there is apprehension in his voice.

The coin feels heavy. Not just physically but in some metaphysical way. “No,” Julián says.

“Go on,” the German says, and takes a jar of peanut butter from his backpack. “I’ll give you a tasty snack.”

“No!” Julián shouts.

The German sulks and crawls into bed.

Secure in the knowledge the coin has some repellent effect on the German, Julián lays down as well, and, sooner than he expects, finds himself drifting to sleep.

Morning light through the window melts Julián’s slumber away. The German is a blanketed lump in the bed on the far side of the room. Though he does not move, Julián suspects he is awake and alert.

The smell of cooking lures him to the kitchen. Steam billows from two enormous chrome pots on the stove, each full of thick red stews of onions, potatoes and meat. The woman stands over them, stirring with a wooden spoon. He fishes the peso from his pocket and shows it to her. “Is this a magic coin?”

Her eyes remain on the stew. “It’s an anchor. But that won’t help you go up the volcano.”

“I didn’t–”

She seizes his wrist, nails gouging skin. “Forget the German. He is nothing.”

The howl of a train horn blasts Julián’s reply from his mind. It can mean only one thing.


He spins on his heels and races outside. Freight carriages rattle along the railroad, heading east into Bolivia. Julián breaks into a sprint. Air clings to him like syrup, and his legs seem made of lead. The volcano’s jealous and incessant pull. But he fights. And at last he comes alongside the train, finds a handle, and heaves himself into an open carriage.

Ollagüe dwindles in the train’s wake. Julián throws his head back and laughs. He glances up and down the length of the train. It seems to have no beginning or end, as long as Chile itself, a feature of the landscape. After a few minutes, only the volcano’s snowy head peeks above the horizon. Julián lays down inside and waits. Soon, or after a long while–he cannot tell–he dozes.

He dreams of attending his own funeral, but the casket is empty, and his friends and family have forgotten who he is. They’ve only come to get drunk and discuss football.

A horn startles him awake.

Julián rushes to the door and peers outside, eager to welcome the salvation of some remote Bolivian town.

But that is not what he sees. No. Instead,



the one thing

he desired to escape

towering, inescapable, timeless:


“My god,” Julián gasps, and tears leave gleaming ribbons on his cheeks.

The train pulls into Ollagüe town. It has shrunk to only a handful of buildings and the volcano is even bigger, an overgrown monstrosity, larger even than Anconcagua itself.

The German’s smile is a sparkling ‘welcome home’ banner.

Julián takes his hand, climbs down, and falls trembling into his arms.

“There, there,” the German says. “It couldn’t be so easy.”

“I’m doomed.”

The German offers him a packet of potato crisps. “Yes, you are.”

“My god,” Julián sobs.

He eats. The crisps are golden and round like the coins of El Dorado. Comforted by the food, he does not even care as the German sneaks the peso from his pocket and tosses it away.

Together they cross the train yard, the bloodshot sunset casting their shadows for miles, and return to the Lodging House.

Mountains of food await them in the dining room. The banquet’s centrepiece is a conical mound of mashed potato, oozing a pyroclastic flow of gravy. The woman enters, armed with a two-pronged fork and a carving knife.

“You’re part of this too?” Julián says.

“A feast is a feast,” she replies.

“And it is an imperial feast!” the German cries.

There is a roasted llama haunch. Boiled chuños, smashed tarmeñas, fried huamantangas, and other types of potato; eggs slick with ocopa sauce, orange pataska stew and chairo soup and guatitas, steaming bowls of big mote chunks and fluffy quinoa, sopaipilla discs, and crispy empanadas.

The woman fills three mugs with amber chicha. One goes to the German and one to Julián. She utters something in a foreign tongue, upends a dash of her drink on the floor, and downs the rest. Both men follow her example. The liquid is tart but enjoyable. Then they sit, and fill their plates, and refill their mugs, and eat, and drink, and cram handfuls of potatoes into their mouths, and spoonfuls of stew, and they go back for seconds, and thirds, and more drink as well. Soon they roar drunkenly, best friends, bloated with food. The woman is most intoxicated, and she laughs madly about nothing at all.

“What is all this for?” Julián finally asks the German.

The German becomes serious. “I am going to sacrifice you to the volcano-god.”

Julián cackles without knowing why this is funny. “Why?” he asks. “Why do such a thing?”

The German cups Julián’s face in his hands as though preparing to kiss him. “The people of the Andes traditionally believe the mountains are gods who bring prosperity if appeased. The Incas made human sacrifices to this end. Children, in fact! These children they would fatten up, treat as royalty, and take to Cusco to meet the emperor. There would be a great feast! After that, priests would walk the children miles and miles to a sacred mountaintop–there were many such places–and slay them.”

Julián’s shudders with horrified laughter. “But why me? Why you? You are a stranger, a European.”

“How dare you,” the German growls. “An eternity ago I drank ayahuasca tea and transcended normality into this timeless place. But lately I sense that reality wants to claw me back. This cannot happen! So, I conceived the idea of paying tribute to a mountain god in exchange for being allowed to remain. For that, I need an outsider–the people of this land already belong to Ollagüe.”

Cutlery clatters on the floor.

Where the woman sat now grins a dusty, cobwebbed skeleton. Rags hang from its bones. A window blows open, and napkins flurry into the air. The skull pops off, rolls across the table, and lands in Julián’s lap. Eye sockets, vacant as the space between galaxies, stare at him.

Julián laughs until he hyperventilates and passes out.

Pages: 1 2 3