Voice from the Void

A whisper emanates from the dark

A Town on the Border Between Chile and Bolivia


Sun and moon chase each other through the sky. Day becomes night becomes day becomes night.

Ollagüe the town is gone.

Ollagüe the volcano remains.

Water splashes Julián’s face. The German stands over him, middle-aged with salt-and-pepper hair, skin like leather. He wears a woven shawl featuring Andean wildlife. Around them, barren brown earth stretches into the hazy distance. Vicuñas and guanacos forage in small herds.

“Where are we?” Julián groans.

“Ollagüe,” the German says.

“Ollagüe is gone.”

“The town is gone,” the German replies. “Because the border is gone, because Chile and Bolivia are gone. But Ollagüe is still here. Do you know what Ollagüe means?”

Julián shakes his pulsing hungover head and suppresses the urge to vomit.

“It is the Aymara word for viewpoint.” The German splashes Julián’s again. “Any mountain can be a viewpoint, but this one earned the name. Any place you observe it from is a viewpoint also. You are a viewpoint. I am a viewpoint. It’s all Ollagüe.”

“Shut up,” Julián groans.

The German introduces his fist to Julián’s nose in a burst of pain. He unwinds a roll of duct tape and binds his captive’s arms and legs. Next, a stone circle is arranged. Then a fire kindled from sticks and leaves. He adorns Julián with an alpaca wool scarf and mops his cheeks with a spit-soaked rag like a doting grandmother.

“Fattened, decorated, and cleansed,” the German crows.

“You’re making this up as you go,” Julián says.

“It will do,” the German replies. “That you are killed in sacrifice is the most important part.”

Sunlight dances on the edge of the German’s corvo knife. In it, Julián can see his own reflection and his own demise.

A wordless geological incantation rises from the earth. Julián realizes it is the voice of the volcano. It will claim him, consume him, smash his atoms to nothingness, and he will cease to exist forever without leaving even the faintest hint of ever having been. That is the price of daring to enter Ollagüe’s domain and then hoping to retreat.

The German turns toward the volcano. “What do you mean it’s not good enough?”

From the murk of his hangover, Julián recalls what was said the night before. To appease the volcano, the German must sacrifice him at its summit. The peak is the key. The only way out, for better or worse.

The ground quakes again, the sound of a thousand icebergs calving.

“It’s too high!” the German shouts.

“You’re scared,” Julián says. “Just like me.”

The German points the knife at him. “Bullshit!”

In an act of rebellion surprising even to himself, Julián writhes like a hooked fish and knees the German in the face. He shimmies over to the fire and melts the duct tape around his ankles, never mind his burning skin. Then he kicks the German again. The knife falls in the dirt, and Julián wedges it between his feet and saws his arms free.

A fist crashes into the back of Julián’s skull. Stars bloom in his vision. The German pins him to the ground and clamps his throat with both hands. Julián throttles his foe back. Joined like Ouroboros, a closed loop of murderous intent. Both of them wheezing, purpling, weakening, dying.

Not like this, Julián thinks.

With a final burst of strength he topples the German into the fire and can breathe again.

“I’m going up!” Julián declares. He finds his feet and runs, leaving the flame-clad German to roll screaming in the dirt.

Ollagüe has shrunk to its original size. He guesses it will take an hour to reach the base, and a few more to make it all the way to the top. But time is not something he needs to worry about here.

A hut of stacked stones with a woven grass roof appears ahead. Julián squints, afraid the desert has conjured a mirage to fool him. The smoldering remnants of a cook fire blacken the ground by the doorway, in which appears a young woman. She is dark-skinned, stout, wrapped up against the cold. A braid of black hair hangs over her shoulder and down to her waist.

“Tell me,” she says, and hands him a clay jug filled with water.

The water, icy in his throat, purges him of fatigue. “I can’t outrun him forever,” he huffs. She nods in the direction he came from and he sees the German is far behind, nor seems to come any closer despite running frantically toward them.

Her hand unfolds like a blossom to reveal a mound of dried coca leaves. “Here.”

She demonstrates how to roll them and pack them between the cheek and teeth. They will numb his limbs and open his lungs and make it easier to breathe the thin air. Julián crams the leaves into his pocket, to be used when he needs then most.

The woman nods toward the volcano. “How big is Ollagüe?”

“Big,” he says.

“How big to an ant?”

Julián frowns as he tries to calculate this.

“To the whole Earth it is only a pimple,” she says.

“So what?”

The woman’s face brightens with amusement. He waits for her to say something else but she only tucks her hands into her shawl and squats down in her doorway. She looks pointedly behind him and he realizes the German has now almost caught up. Whatever spell repelled him has now expired. Though he craves to understand the woman’s remarks, Julián must flee.

The marathon journey reduces Julián to a bundle of fatigue and pain. His conscious mind takes a back seat to the simple mechanical act of placing one foot in front of the other. He must get to the top of the volcano. There is nothing else. The alternative is nonexistence. His feet feel like steaks beaten flat by a tenderizer. A monotonous reel of desert scenery cycles past: feathergrass, llareta plants, rocks, dry creek-beds, salt.

Hours or days or years later he arrives at the foot of the volcano. A switchback trail zig-zags up the mountainside. The volcano’s slope is bare, anathema to life. As soon as he begins up the incline each step becomes twice as difficult as before.

This is good enough, a weaselly little part of him thinks. You tried your best. Just quit.

Up, up, up, another part answers. This voice comes from a deeper, more primitive place.

Up, up, up.

The German keeps at his heels. Julián does not look back, but hears the crunch of boot heels on gravel, the gasping for breath.

Climbing higher, the air becomes less generous. Julián’s lungs burn with a lack of oxygen. Then he remembers the coca leaves. He crams them into his mouth and sucks. The flavour is sour, herbal. Energy suffuses his tired limbs and his lungs become powerful bellows.

Come on, his inner weakling nags. Halfway is very good. Sit down and you can finish the rest later.

Up, up, up!

Flamingos drift across the cloudless sky. Their pink plumage strikes Julián as ridiculous in this desert. Yet they encourage him. They have found belonging in this place, just as he can.

Ollagüe trembles beneath his feet, as though trying to dislodge him like a louse.

Up, up, up.

Wind whips clouds of primordial dust off the mountainside. Bitter cold seeps through Julián’s layered clothing, past the fire in his muscles, and into his bones. His willpower frays. It will not hold forever. The world dwindles to a single point: the patch of ground in front of him. He forgets the German. The volcano. There is only the next step. One more step. Then another.

Millennia pass. Or microseconds.

He does not know his own name.

He will melt into nothingness.

Still, he goes on.

And suddenly it’s over.

He is at the top.

Julián blinks stupidly. The air reeks of old eggs, smoke rising from the mountain’s caldera. Above him there is nothing but sky. His knees wobble, and it takes everything he has left not to collapse unconscious in the dirt.

Miles of Andean desert stretch from horizon to horizon. The Uyuni salt flat mirrors sunlight in the distance. Mountains crowd the raw landscape. It is the most dazzling thing Julián has ever seen.

Everything will be all right after all.

Here comes the German, knife in hand. His eyes are lunatic.

“Look!” Julián cries, gesturing at the view.

The German plunges the knife into his stomach and twists. But there is no pain. The wound does not bleed.

“Damn you,” the German sobs.

A deep tremor rocks the volcano.

“Don’t be upset,” Julián says and caresses the German’s cheek. “You made it to the top as well.”

The German clings to him for support. “What now?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Julián smiles. “Just enjoy the view.” He turns his companion around to see all that they have left behind.

The German’s eyes widen with marvel.

“It’s beautiful,” he says, and the volcano erupts.

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