Willard was aggravated. A comical fellow in a Chilean cow boy hat had just strutted down the pier and announced that the ferry had been delayed by 9 hours. Apparently, a distant storm was preventing the boat from approaching and thus preventing him from reaching the Chilean island of Chiloe. He’d planned to arrive yesterday and here he was, still wet and still waiting, in this godforsaken town of Chaiten.
Two years ago, Chaiten had been completely evacuated just before flood waters had engulfed it, triggered by a volcanic eruption and a rapidly melting glacier. A day later the flood hit; the river had burst it’s banks and rerouted itself directly through the middle of the town, taking a few dozen houses into the bay with it. In the coming days, most of the rest of the town had been submerged below the waters. It was a damn shame, Willard thought to himself. Now, two years later, the waters had retreated but not much had been cleaned up and the exposed ruins sat frozen in time. The government said that it was a bad idea to rebuild on such a vulnerable spot, but the word among the locals was that the eruption had spewed up more than just ash. Some people said that gems and precious minerals had been found and that private interests now wanted to ‘research’ the local geology. Even though many signs hung in windows, proclaiming love for the ill-fated town and promising the owner’s return, only a handful of the town’s 7000 inhabitants had actually come back. It was a sad bunch, mostly occupying the small northern area of high ground that had been left partially intact. The surrounding area was a ghost town, many buildings still submerged by a thickly packed ash, up to five feet thick in places. Doors stood ajar, now locked in a permanent snapshot of a fleeing tenant. Discarded items, or items that couldn’t be carried, lay strewn about. Dishes sat in sinks of empty houses, left over from final meals. Boats of all sizes had worked together, evacuating the town in less than 24 hours; it had been Chile’s largest exodus by sea in it’s history. The only remaining supermercado had partially stocked shelves, and a wilting batch of produce. The inn where he’d stayed, La Picada del Turco, was one of only two that had reopened, running off a generator and a wood burning stove. As he’d departed that morning, he said goodbye to the old innkeeper, Senora Hortencia, who was baking the day’s bread for other travelers and accidental tourists. He couldn’t help notice the look in her eyes, a look that silently explained to him that if she kept baking bread and repeating her routine, then the world outside her inn would return to the way it used to be. It was a damn shame.
After buying some cheese and crackers at the supermercado with the last of his pesos, Willard had walked down to the pier, where he now waited. He didn’t want to go back to the Picada – it was just too depressing, so he took shelter from the rain in a little wooden hut next to the pier. He was reading a book and had just pulled the crackers from his briefcase when a dog approached him, obviously looking for a share of his snack. The dog was a sorry clump of damp mange, but possessed the most striking brown eyes that Willard had ever seen; like melted milk chocolate, they met his own eyes with a human intensity. Willard threw him a cracker, which the dog swallowed without even appearing to chew.
“Don’t think you’re getting any more, Ojos, these need to last me all day now.” Ojos seemed to understand and crawled under the bench for a nap.
Each hour that passed was lost research time on the island, and less of a chance to find out what happened to this missing boy. Willard, a freelance writer, was working on the story of a missing American man whom he’d read about in a paper. Or would you call him a boy? He was early 20s, old enough to be a man, but immature enough to get himself lost on a remote island. The ill fated manboy had last been seen heading to Chiloe and then suddenly dropped off the map. This kind of gig was the norm for Willard – find something bizarre, hustle to be the first to document it, and then pitch it to the highest bidder, with the occasional help of an agent in the US. Willard had been killing time in Southern Chile since his last gig but was running out of cash. When he read about the story, he decided it was time for a little adventure. He planned to get to Chiloe and to follow in the manboy’s footsteps, to see what turned up. Going via Chaiten had been the most direct route, at least according to his superbly out of date guide book, which was handily published six months before the eruption. The book had promised him a pleasant stopover in this ’emerald’ seaside town, where ‘seafood restaurants and streets cafes line the sidewalks and local artesian markets sell local craft to the bustling tourists’. It had also promised a working ATM that had turned out to just be a hole of it’s former glory and a piece of misinformation that now had him sharing dry crackers with a damp dog.
The night before, after the generator had been turned off, the torrential rain had pummeled his window. Willard sat in the darkness, and sniffed the sheets. Where was this smell coming from? It was subtle yet pervasive; the acidic scent of ash. After sniffing around, he realized that it wasn’t the sheets, or his pillow but hung in the very air of the inn itself; his brain, now spared from processing any visual signals in the darkness had finally sensed it. He tried to free his mind from the stark contrast of the book’s description and the reality that lay just beyond the streaked glass. Broken windows. Flapping sections of corrugated tin roofing. Empty streets with hanging electricity lines. Silent school classrooms with desks knocked over. A doll that was forever left behind. A swinging gate. Not a soul. He had finally fallen asleep, but not before being harassed by his own vivid imagination.
The hours ticked by and as the evening began to encroach a few people, who he’d seen milling around the pier earlier in the day, reappeared. A couple of tourists and a few locals, all looking expectantly at the ocean and its depressing lack of ferry. Finally as the sun set, ten hours after the comical cowboy had said eight, the ferry arrived and slowly unloaded it’s passengers, cars first and then passengers. Willard found a little bit of dark enjoyment in the shocked faces of some of the disembarking tourists – they probably had the same book as him! Then the boarding process started; cars first, and as if to punish his moment of schadenfreude, the skies opened up again on the waiting walk-on passengers. The rain forged a cool river down his spine. He noticed Ojos sniffing around the ferry ramp, and then watched as he sauntered past a distracted ferry employee who was checking tickets and right onto the boat. Even dogs want to leave this place!
As the boat left the pier he watched the small, seaside town disappear from view. Menacing mountains encircled it from all sides. They passed near a sandbank that was crowned with the remnants of a roof. Maybe it is better to just move on and leave this town to memory, he thought, but just try telling that to Senora Hortencia. He walked passed the ferry cafe where a few soggy people were enjoying hot drinks. He cursed himself for his lack of cash. He continued right past his assigned seat, next to a mother of two whining infants, and into the first class quarters. He randomly opened a door and chose a bunk that was still empty. He lay down and lulled by the distant hum of the ferry’s engines, fell asleep almost instantly.
The loud foghorn of the boat jolted him awake. A slice of sunlight cut through the porthole above his bed. He sat up, and looked around the room. The other three beds were now occupied and a Chilean woman was looking at him while grasping the sheets around her bosom. He nodded. She nodded. He got up looked in the mirror. His face was a spiderweb of pillow creases. In one move he splashed some water on it, simultaneously trying to re-center his dried contacts. He pushed his hands through his dark hair. He shook out his coat, straightened his collar and grabbed his briefcase. The senora was still suspiciously watching him as he slid out the door.
After the laborious disembarking process, and negotiating a slew of taxi touts around the dock of Quellon, the somewhat filthy port town of southern Chiloe, he found a taxi who agreed to take him to the bus station after a stop at an ATM. By now his agent should have wired him some cash to work with – he’d gotten used to ‘Willard’s Process’ as he called it and had even made a nice bit of income from it. As the taxi pulled away from the pier, Willard couldn’t believe it: Ojos had made it off the boat, the little bugger! He certainly looked drier and happier and his penetrating eyes followed Willard’s taxi as it pulled away from the dock.
Three hours and one bumpy bus ride later, Willard strode into the Cordilliera inn in Castro, the capital of Chiloe. A few people looked up, and then away almost immediately. He was aware of the effect of his presence – tall, slim, dressed in a black suit, loose tie and crowned with a black fedora, he knew he commanded a presence, especially in remote areas full of colorful locals and fleece-clad backpackers. A plump old woman sided up to him:
“Buenos Dias. Senor Willard?” She inquired.
“Detective Willard.” He corrected her. When he traveled for a story he would often get creative with his character. He liked to say he was a detective – it got him in the mood and usually encouraged locals to be more liberal with information. She looked slightly surprised, but continued:
“Claro, Detective Willard, I am Senora Gorda. I expect you yesterday.”
“Yes, apologies, my boat was delayed – I heard there was a storm here?”
“No, not here. But this island – it is strange weather. Maybe in the sea. Maybe at another part of the island.” Her chins moved just a fraction of a second after he mouth. Then she looked at him for a moment. “Please no guests or alcohol in the inn.” She told him a story of a tourist that had vomited everywhere, she made a sweeping motion across the living room with her thick arm. “It was a problem.” Understandably, Willard thought. He let her vent and shook his head to appease her until she was satisfied. “Now, I show you your room.”
Later that afternoon he explored the small town of Castro. In the Plaza de Armas, the name given to the main squares in all Chilean towns, he asked a few people about the missing American – by now, almost a week after it had been reported, he assumed it must have been the gossip around town. Surprisingly, most people said they hadn’t heard about it. A few quietly said that he hadn’t come to Castro – so why would they know anything? An old couple said he was probably just hiking in the islands large forest. A couple of teenagers in the central square claimed they’d even seen him, but it was pretty obvious after a few moments that they just wanted to show off to their girlfriends, who clung to their arms and giggled.
As the evening approached he returned to the inn for dinner and began to ask Senora Gorda some questions. She was now less willing to chat: ‘No creo! Terrible people!’ she cried. Apparently a backpacker had made a mess in the kitchen and she had gotten herself all worked up. After things had settled down, she offered to organize an island tour for him the following day and waddled off to make a phone call. After a dinner of soup, meat and bread, he retired to the small and modestly decorated room where he reread some newspaper clippings. The manboy, Evan Esco, was from San Francisco. He had just finished some sort of hippy mysticism degree which, Willard was betting, was was why he’d chosen to visit Chiloe – the island was famous for having mysterious myths and rituals, the roots of which were little understood. Willard planned to pursue the hidden info himself , thinking that this might turn up some clues.
Around lunchtime the next day, Willard realized there was no chance of finding any hidden info on this tour. The kind Senora Gorda had basically booked him on to a bus tour of the island’s main tourist sights. What was even more comical was that not a single person, including the tour guide, spoke a word of English. In his basic Spanish, Willard attempted to ask about the myths of the islands, but instead the tour guide started a karaoke session and the whole bus began clapping and singing. They visited artesian markets and freshly painted heritage churches. By the afternoon the only thing mysterious was how he’d been naive enough to think that this story would just unfold into his lap – the island was more modern and touristy than he’d expected. They had finally returned to the bus after the last colorful church when he noticed a very attractive girl whom he hadn’t noticed earlier on the tour. As he approached her in the aisle she looked up at him, her eyes met his for a moment before her gaze returned to the window. Willard, never one to be intimidated by a sexy woman – or so he told himself, sat down next to her. She turned to him and the corners of her lips revealed a shy smile. She had a lovely round face with smooth, clear skin. Her head was crowned with dark hair, partially covered by a purple knit hat. Her neck had a long, intricate necklace draped from it a colorful button adorned her jean jacket.
“Hola bonita senorita.” Willard flirted. “Como te llamas?”
“My name’s Alma. What’s yours?” She smiled. She had the slight, and very endearing lisp that accents the English of many native Spanish speakers.
“I’m Willard. Mucho gusto, Alma.” Their conversation continued in a mixed form of Spanglish. Alma was from one of the islands off the coast of Chiloe and was visiting the main island with some members of her congregation. That’s when Willard noticed the small button’s writing: ‘Dale colore con Jesus!’ which as far as he could understand meant ‘Oh wow, the color with Jesus!’. He wasn’t too keen on religious nuts but this girl seemed level-headed – at least enough to continue flirting with. He gently began to ask about her faith – it turned out she didn’t really care about religion as much, it was the spirituality she connected with. She followed Catholic dogma because it was the accepted path in her family and community. In fact, she confided in him that a lot of it bored her. For Willard this was a good sign, and that’s when he realized he was quite attracted to this colorful little senorita.
“What are you doing for dinner tonight?” Willard asked. “Would you like to join me?”
“I go back to my congregation and then prayer. But after, I can meet you if OK? Maybe at 10:30?”
“Let me check my schedule” Willard pretended to flip through an invisible notebook and grinned. He didn’t grin a lot so when he did it had a great affect, especially on women. “I think I can fit you in.” She laughed at his mock seriousness.
“But I am not a bad girl, so you must be good.” She punched him in the arm playfully and smiled again.
“Oh, I am a complete gentleman. And what about you – can you be good?” He sincerely hoped that she couldn’t.
After they had got off the bus he bought her an ice cream. Ever since the endless Californian summers of his youth Willard held a special appreciation of pretty girls enjoying ice cream cones. It was so innocent but yet at the same time so fantastically sensual to watch their tongues and lips negotiate the melting treat. A few locals, glared at him – they didn’t even glance at her! Willard enjoyed their apparent jealousy. Alma was petite and wore a pair of impressively tight blue jeans that would even make Mary Magdalene blush.
“OK, I go this way, I stay nearby. It’s better I go alone.”
“Sure, OK, I’ll see you later. 10:30. Where should we meet?” He asked.
“In front of the church – to make sure you are good!” She smiled, squeezed his arm and a piece of Willard melted like rich chocolate in a warm pocket.
As Alma disappeared around the corner Willard was a little surprised by himself. So quickly distracted by a pretty girl that he’d even neglected to ask her about Esco! On the other hand, he now knew a local and was sure to be getting somewhere. He also was on the verge of forgetting about Esco altogether if it meant that he could spend a night with Alma. But this could still be an interesting story, and could use the cash if he was able to produce something solid. Well goddammit detective, he thought to himself, you’re just going to have to do both. And all of a sudden, something told him that he might be luckier with both goals if he didn’t mention the fact he was anything more than just a regular tourist.
At 10:45pm, Willard realized that he’d almost certainly been stood up. The faded peach and violet church loomed over the town square, framed by a few clouds that moved quickly across the black sky. A dramatic statue of a gaunt Christ seemed to mock him for his shallow intentions. A few teenagers were skateboarding in the park and a few pairs of lovers locked lips in the shadows. A man was selling fresh popcorn from a cart. A homeless man tried to start a conversation with him. Around 11pm, Just when he was about to give up she emerged from around the corner and a little wave of joy swept through him, from his pelvis outward.
“I’m sorry, I tell them I was calling my mother!” She said. “Very bad!”
“No problem, I just got here.” He lied.
They went to a restaurant called El Camahueto – over the entrance hung a symbol of a stocky bull with a solitary horn protruding from it’s head. Over a tabla of meats and cheeses accompanied by Kuntsman, a fantastic local beer, he began to ask Alma more about about the island. The indigenous people, the Mepuche, were almost completely converted, enslaved or wiped out by the invading Spanish and the resulting mix of cultures had created a odd mix of religious rituals and myths which included stories of bizarre beasts and beings. She said she didn’t know many of the details herself, nor did most young people as most of Chiloe and the islands had become modernized, but said there were still old people that remembered, especially on the smaller, surrounding islands.
“I’d like to visit some of these islands. Is this possible?” He asked.
“It’s difficult to arrive there, you must rent a boat. It is very expensive.” Willard had learned on his travels that when a local says ‘very expensive’, it’s always best to ask for actual amounts.
“Like twenty thousand Chilean Pesos, to my island for example. Isla Mechuque.” This was around USD$40 – well within appropriate for his budget.
“That’s fine. Could you introduce me to someone there?”
“Yes, there is old people that know the stories. ”
“Are you going there soon?” Willard hoped that he might be able to explore the island and her at the same time..
“You are lucky, sir! I go back tomorrow with my congregation. I could show you the island if you like. It has an old cemetary, a mysterious wooden church – we always ran up to it when I was younger. Many things to see.”
“That’s great news.” He was excited about starting some real research and at the chance of another day with with this delightful girl. She had a radiant aura. It must be the color of Jesus, he smiled to himself. “Can I come with you?”.
“I think we meet there if OK? You know, my congregation, very traditional. But I tell you how to arrive. We can meet in the center square and have lunch. We make a wonderful curanto.”
After a couple of drinks she said she had to return to her inn; if she wasn’t home by midnight she’d get in trouble. Willard had asked what her congregation would do if she was a little late, just buy a little time for a some lip locking in the town square, but she was insistent and all he received was a short kiss on his stubbled check. He inhaled her scent as she pulled away, she smelled clean and soft. His inner monologue consoled him by saying that it was better not to rush things; he’d see her tomorrow and take things from there. However by the time he’d fallen asleep back at his inn, they had already run through fields together, and made love amid shady trees near a crystal clear stream. Moisturizing cream and a vivid imagination is no substitute for the real thing, but it certainly takes the edge off.
The next morning he awoke to the innkeeper’s knocking. The door was then suddenly opened.
“Mr. Willard?” Senora Gorda said more loudly than was necessary.
“Detective Willard.” He corrected, still partially asleep.
“Yes, Detective Willard, I’m sorry,” She looked around the room as she talked, possibly looking for illicit people, items or substances. “You stay with us for another night or you check out?”
“Oh yes, I think I’ll be checking out, thanks Senora.”
“Well check out is at 10am..”
“What time is it now?”
“It’s five past ten so…” She left the sentence incomplete.
“…so… I’ll pack my things?”
“Yes. Thanks, I keep your breakfast for you..”
It didn’t take him long to pack his briefcase. He had an extra pair of socks, underwear and white shirt that washed each night in the sink and placed on the radiator while he slept. He collected the newspaper clippings and his small container of toiletries. He placed these and a few other items methodically into his briefcase and headed downstairs for breakfast. Chilean breakfast is a typically light affair, freshly baked bread, rich butter and often homemade jams or the decadently sweet dulche de leche. To drink, a juice and the almost ubiquitous instant Nescafe – or ‘no es cafe’ as coffee snobs call it – fresh coffee is a rarity in this country. There was no reason to stick around, plus Senora Gorda continually shuffled and swept around him, making him feel a little uncomfortable. After he settled his bill with her she asked where he was going. He made up some story about a fishing trip, but she had the look of a suspicious mother and shook her head. He arranged to leave his briefcase with her, promising his safe return.
“OK, well Senora Gorda, muchas gracias por su hospitalidad.”
“Adios Detective Willard” She put one finger to the bottom eyelid of her right eye and pulled down gently. Willard had seen people do this to others before – it is a Chilean gesture that means look out.
Alma had told him to go to the harbor and ask around if there was anyone who could take him to Isla Mechuque. He knew it should be around CP$20,000, so it was just a matter of finding a willing captain. He approached a group of three salty looking old men who were sitting in a beached rowboat and, as far as Willard could decipher, having a pretty intense discussion over the price of a certain fish. When his point was made, the current debater took a sip from his mate gourd and shook his head, at which point another man would begin his own tirade. And so it continued. Eventually when all three were shaking their heads and providing a moment of silence, Willard interjected in his most courteous Spanish:
“Excuse me kind sirs, I’m sorry to disturb you but I would like to get to Isla Mechuque – can you help me?”
“Can’t you see we’re quite busy, young man?” One said gruffly.
“Of course. I think most people don’t understand how difficult the life of a fisherman is.” He had planned his attack carefully. “Personally, I think fish should be much more expensive!” One laughed, the second clapped and the third said:
“Now this is a smart man!”
“Yes, smart for a Gringo!” The second laughed. ‘Gringo’ was a term left over from the war years, when the green uniforms of the US military prompted the chant: ‘Green go!’ It was now mostly used as a playful jab.
“Oh, I’m not a Gringo sir, I’m from California.” Willard joked. All the men laughed even more at this.
“I can take you there for CP$30,000.” The third smiled, revealing more gaps than teeth.
“I was thinking more like CP$20,000.” Willard said.
“I am currently offering a offer, muy especial, of CP$25,000.” The second said.
“I was thinking more like CP$20,000.” They all laughed again.
“Well, I just happen to have a space on my boat,” the first said as the others continued laughing, “but for that price you don’t get the champagne or oysters!”
Captain ‘Enrique’ led Willard down the beach to a pier and introduced him to El Fugativo, a small while fishing boat then could probably hold 6 people. Less with a load of fish. As Willard stepped into the questionable vessel, he hoped that his foot would not break through the rotting hull. Sensing Willard’s apprehension, Enrique said confidently:
“Don’t worry, this is the same bat my father used to fish!” This remark didn’t really inspire much more faith. The motor sputtered to life after a few tugs on the pull cord and the boat lurched out into the dark waters. Almost instantly as they left the shore, the sun began retreating behind clouds that hadn’t been present moments before. The wind picked up and Willard turned up his collar and pulled his fedora further down on his chilly head. Unprompted, Enrique launched into what seemed to be a well worn, historical monologue:
“It’s not so easy for fisherman these days. Not like the time of my people.” Enrique told Willard about the indigenous Mapuche, natives to this land before the Spanish had laid claim to it, and to all its inhabitants. It was a sad tale, not unlike the story of the native Americans. But it was almost certain that Enrique’s memory had become even more romantically affected:
“Fish used to jump into our nets, now the seas are empty!” Enrique exclaimed. “Men could have multiple women, now I just have one wife, and she always shouts at me! How can you bea jealous of fish?” I shook my head. “Unless it’s a mermaid!” He laughed as he brought his hands to his chest, gesturing the shape of large breasts.
After half an hour El Fugativo began to approach a few islands and Captain Enrique steered it towards the larger one.
“Isla Mechuque. Very old place.”
The island seemed to be insulated by a solid fog that eclipsed the surrounding islands as the boat got closer. A thick forest blanketed the island, and at times came all the way down to the water. In other places there was a thin strip of rocky beach. From this distance Willard could make out a little group of very small white houses right on the edge of the sea. The boat aimed for a small dock just beyond these houses where a couple of boats bobbed on the choppy water, some sat on the sand closer to the shore. As they came closer however, the houses seemed too small and eventually Willard realized it was in fact a graveyard, with many low but large concrete structures.
“They must put the body in concrete.” Enrique said. “Otherwise I might pull them up instead of fish!” He seemed to think this vivid description was pretty funny.
Beyond the dock, a few stilt houses, known as palafitos, were perched near the edge of an slim inlet that Willard assumed must snake around into the town. Enrique deftly avoided a few shallow rocks as he threw a rope around the dock’s mooring.
“OK,” He said pulling up to the wooden platform “Isla Muchuque! What time you want I return?” Suddenly it became apparent that Enrique wasn’t even going to get off El Fugativo. It was around noon, so Willard had at least 7 hours until sunset – and something told him it would be better if he didn’t make it an overnight visit.
“Is seven o’clock OK?”
“No problem. Maybe you can pay now?” Willard pulled 2 crisp 10,000 notes from his billfold. And then a third in a very obvious gesture.
“Just to make sure you come back.” Willard smiled and jumped onto the dock.
“Sure, sure. I return with champagne!” As Enrique pulled away from the dock he shouted back. “Be careful of the women, they like nice boys like you!” His laughter merged with the diesel powered rev of the motor as he motored away from Isla Mechuque.
Willard had always been impulsive. As a writer, it was actually quite a good skill to have and he often found himself in story-worthy situations. Even when the going was rough, you could always spin it into inspiration for a tale. The area surrounding the dock was empty and so he started down a trail that he assumed led to the center of town. As he ducked under some leafy trees his imagination ran a little wild. He’d been in rough situations before. He didn’t believe in scary stories – most of his travels had proved that the world was a more friendly place than most people expected. In fact the most fearful he’d ever been for a life was when he was mugged by a screwdriver wielding assailant in Los Angeles – a story he loved to tell his American friends when they asked ‘Where is the most dangerous place you’ve ever been?’. However when he heard the sound of children laughing he had to admit to himself that he was relieved that there were in fact people here. As he entered the central square, encircled by trees and small buildings, he saw a see-saw bobbing up and down – but no sign of any children. Had his senses been playing with him? Just then, two little girls ran towards him from behind a tree and as they descended on him they raised their hands, playfully releasing handfuls of acorns which bounced harmlessly around his feet. They erupted into giggles. Almost immediately a door from one of the nearby buildings sprung open and an old senora shouted a warning. The girls fled his presence and returned to the see-saw.
“I am sorry Senor, can I assist you?” She asked in Spanish.
“Yes, I am here to visit a friend – perhaps you can help me find her. Her name is Alma.”
“Aah, of course. She is making lunch now probably. Come with me.” The senora led Willard past the playground and down a small path past the colorful town church and out of the square. They crossed an ornate wooden bridge that spaned the narrow inlet that Willard had seen from the coast. The tide was low and small boats sat patiently on the sandy bank, attached to the stilts of more palafitos. On the other side, wood shingled houses sandwiched the thin path and Willard could hear the sound of other people within the houses. This put him at ease, he was going to find Alma and as usual, everything was going to be fine after all.
Eventually they cut off the main path, through a little alley and into a backyard where a couple of old women were busying themselves, cleaning a large pile of clams and mussels.
“Alma, su amigo es a qui!” The old senora said. One of the other old senoras looked up from her shellfish, obviously confused:
“Aaah, un problema.” Willard laughed. “No es la Alma!”
“Yo soy la sola Alma en Mechuque!” OK, there was some confusion. Old Alma seemed to not know young Alma – she insisted she was the only Alma on the island. Willard tried to explain the problem but he was getting no where. Eventually old Alma turned to Willard and surprised him by speaking decent English:
“Well, perhaps you join us for lunch and wait your friend. Maybe she arrive later?” This was a good point, Willard thought. Alma already had a track record for being late. Lunch was not going to be ready for a while so he thanked the senoras, said he’d be back for lunch.
Now on his own, he continued to amble further down the same path, which somehow ended in another pier – the island’s coastline appeared to be extremely curvy. As he reached the end of the short rocky beach he saw a bird hanging from a tree. It looked like it mush have been caught in a net but as he approached he noticed that it’s leg had been neatly tied by fishing line. Its body had dried out and mouth hung open in a permanently silent cry. He watched it for a moment as it swayed in the breeze. As Willard turned to head back he noticed the figure of a black-clad woman walking away from him on the rocks. She moved smoothly and quickly across the awkward terrain and soon cut up into the forest that encircled the town. By the time he reached the place where he’d lost sight of her, she had disappeared into the forest. He followed the path back towards town and met some men along the way, so he decided to inquire about Alma. They all pointed in the same direction of old Alma. Finally Willard decided to head back to the old Alma’s place – even if he’d been stood up he was going to make the most of the day on this island.
By the time he returned a couple of men had joined the two women and they all beckoned him over to a large steaming pile of leaves.
“Have you ever had curanto?” One man asked as he pointed at the pile. He told them he hadn’t but that it looked delicious. As delicious as a steaming pile of leaves could look at least. Everyone had laughed. Bowls were gathered and then old Alma removed the top layer of leaves revealing a bunch of white circular disks. These, she explained, were steamed bread. After they removed these, and the next layer of leaves, they unearthed a massive mountain of mussels, clams, sausage and other meats all heaped together. Now it truly did look delicious. The women placed all of the items into bowls and brought them inside. After some minutes, and exchanging small talk with the men, the women reemerged and beckoned them inside.
The kitchen table was simple and rustic, a wood burning stove and sat in one corner underneath many hanging pots. Four stools and a crate turned on it’s side surrounded a low table that was covered in a red checkered table cloth. On the table sat 5 large bowls of curanto. Willard offered to sit on the crate but Alma insisted that he sit on a stool. The women fussed over the men and poured them large cups of vino tinto – a red wine that they said was made on the island. As the group tucked into the feast Willard explained what he was doing on Isla Mechuque – leaving out the part about Esco. One man suggested that he’d probably misheard the name of the island:
“She is probably crying for her lost love on Isla Caucahue!” The two men seemed to find this very funny which received a scolding from Alma. Willard explained he wanted to find out more about the island and the myths. Alma got very excited about this.
“In early days people make stories a lot. Part is for fun. Part is to keep children and men good. Not naughty.” She pointed at one of the man, who Willard had realized was her husband.
“Que significa ‘Not naughty’?” He asked – and got a prompt slap on the wrist, which causes him to smirk guiltily.
“Of course, since we are a fishing culture – there is a mystery boat. The name is El Caleuche. It has a crew of wizards, singing and dancing with beautiful melodies. It can go on or under the sea.”
“La Pincoya is a beautiful woman.” The group around the table was now silent, all looked at Alma – who also translated into Spanish for their benefit.” She sing on a rock with sweet voice, she begin to dance frenetic and sensual. If she dance to the sea, it means a lot of luck. If she dance slow means to be bad.”
“El Trehuaco is a beautiful dog – it dwell in a bewitched lagoon in the South end of Chiloe. It is a shiny black- furred animal with an extraordinary strength.”
“There is an animal, very dangerous called El Camahueto” at this point one of the men stuck a finger from his forehead and bumped his friend. “Yes, he is like el toro, a bull, and has only one horn from the forehead. He is very destructive for 25 years and then emigrate to the sea. Without the horn he is weak. The horn has power for cure problems.”
Alma continued telling stories to the rapt audience. Invunche was a three legged beast that had the mind of a child but taste for human meat and cat milk. La Voladora is a witch that can change into a bird and has a habit of flying while vomiting her intestines and laughing hysterically. She must find her intestines by morning or she can never turn back to a witch. Alma describes El Cuchivilu as a ‘snake-pig’ that lives in lagoons and rivers – if you sea him you will have a ‘sickness of the skin’. Every 20 or 30 years El Culebron, a big snake that makes noises appears. “The first who look him die.” Even a horse that lived under the waves! Willard laughed to himself at these silly superstitions.
“Basilico is a lizard-rooster” This confused Willard but caught looks of fear from the others. “The being kill if you look him,” Alma described “if you look only a part of him body, you have paralysis coming in the houses and he suck the liquid from the body, until the people die completely dry.” She took a dramatic pause, “The Basilico kill to everybody and then he goes.”
“But wait, my favorite lovers!” She continued. “Fiura is a small repugnant woman with foul breath that lives in the forest near waterfalls. She combs her hair with a crystal rock and sit in the sea grass and mud for hours.” Alma scowled. “She love to make bad things for men who refuse her. But she has a big power of seduction and makes her partners sick.” She shook her finger at her husband.
Alma’s final story was about Fiura’s husband, Trauco. “A small, ugly and disgusting dwarf. He has conic hat of vegetables and deformed feet and axe of stone called a pahueldun. He live in forest and make gutural sound and is strong like giant. He attack the single women, for to rape, but with his magic, make in the girls a strong attraction for him, with erotic dreams and pregnancy.” This time Willard smirked, apparently Trauco was the main excuse for the pregnancies of unmarried village women. The other woman blushed, shuddered and said something very quickly to Alma which Willard did not understand.
“OK, enough of these stories. If you want to know more, you need to find Senora Bruja, she love to talk about them. You will recognize her – she always wears black.” Alma said. “If you want I can take you after lunch.”
After helping clean up – or at least trying to help, Alma mostly wouldn’t let him – Willard took Alma up on her offer and they left the house together. They walked across the bridge back to the dock side of town and up another path that led into the forest. After getting slower and slower, Alma finally came to a halt:
“My leg – I am too old now!” She had one hand on her upper right thigh and the other propped on her ample hip. “When I was young I run up to here!” She looked forlorn – and in her dark eyes Willard could see the pretty young girl she must have once been. A round face and such smooth skin. After waiting for a while Alma suggested Willard continue the rest of the way on his own. “Not far now, just follow this path.”
Willard thanked Alma for lunch and for showing him the way. He continued into the woods. It was significantly darker than before, due partly to the overhead foliage but also because it seemed permanently about to rain – but only a fine mist hung in the air. As he continued heading up he saw a dark, wooden church nestled deeper in the woods which had become overgrown with forest; villagers probably used the newer, easier to access one in the town square, he thought. He continued on and on and every time he thought he had reached the top of the hill, another path snaked upwards into the thickening fog. He’d been walking for some time and the path got smaller and smaller and eventually disappeared. A gentle drizzle has begun to seep through the overhead leaves and his shoes, far too formal for this terrain were now fully soaked through. It was at this point he looked at his watch, which said 6pm. He was suddenly very concerned he’d miss his ride home if he wasn’t careful and he certainly did not want to stay on this island of mystery, even if the stories were just relics of a superstitious era. He was disappointed that he’d not found this mysterious woman clad in black, but decided it was best to head directly back to the dock.
Heading down was far quicker and he was relieved when he found the path again. He zipped past the church and descended into town. There was not a soul around although a few of the houses had their lights on and smoke drifted up from their chimneys. As he approached the central square he heard the sound of the laughing girls again. He reached the see-saw but this time no girls jumped out from behind any tree. It was deserted. His watch showed just after seven so there was no time to hang around. He left the square and dipped through the trees that led to the dock. As he emerged he was looking forward to seeing El Fugitivo and Captain Enrique. The tide had risen and some the boats, now freed from their sandy pedestals, bobbed uneasily on the waves. There was no sign of Enrique. By now it was raining hard and he took shelter under a wooden roof near the dock. The time passed. And passed. He began to wonder if Enrique was really going to come. Maybe he’d missed him. No, Enrique certainly would have waited fifteen minutes at least, but by now it was 8pm and the seas were getting increasingly rough.
He was thinking to go back to the town to see if he could find a phone, or even a place to stay when he looked past the dock, just in time to see the figure of Senora Bruja walking away from the town, and once again away from him. She was briskly walking on a path he had not yet explored. He felt a bizarre curiosity for this woman – why could he never see her face? Where was she always going with such determination? The urge to follow her was overwhelming. He pulled out his note book and scribbled a note to Enrique. He ripped the page out out and placed prominently on crooked nail protruding from the mooring where he’d been dropped 8 hours earlier. He broke into a trot into to catch up with Senora Bruja. The path snaked away from the dock in the opposite direction from town. As he turned sharply right around a rocky outcrop he came into full view of the cemetery with just enough time to see the senora sliding through the ajar gate. The gate was about 200ft away and he picked up the pace. Willard ran over a bridge, almost losing his footing and closed the gap in about 20 seconds. As he neared the gate he wondered why the fence had barb-wire. Was it to keep people out, or in? Lets just get through this, he thought.
He slid through the gate and for a brief moment tried to figure out how to negotiate this place. There was no path, in fact it looked like they could barely fit in another grave. The structures that he’d previously identified as houses were so closely packed together that in order to proceed he had to step on top of graves. These people are dead, and they could care less. He launched over the first couple, crushing some flowers and almost slipping on the slick concrete surface. Many of the graves had no labels. As he gained some height he saw Senora Bruja’s head exiting the gate at the other end, he was getting closer now. He stepped off the small structure and his foot sank into freshly shoveled earth. Thoughts of what lay beneath prompted a half jump and half skip that would have appeared quite humorous to any onlooker, under any other circumstance.
As he reached the end of the cemetery he saw the senora weaving among low ferns back towards the rocky cliff. He had closed the gap by about halfway and continued running. She began to ascend the steep cliff with ease, and it wasn’t until he got closer that he noticed there was a handrail that snaked along a path. But still it was like she was gliding upwards. He prided himself on his fitness and still felt like he was about to vomit.
“Senora Bruja!” Willard called. She kept walking and was now almost out of sight. He sprinted up the stairs which ended with a splendid view of the ocean backed by thick forest. As he reached the top he saw the senora enter a small path, and by now he had almost completely closed the gap. There was just a difference of about 40ft. Behind the clouds, the sun was setting so as he entered the forest it was almost completely dark. The most visible part of the senora was the occasional glimpse of her white skin. An ankle. A part of her neck. But never her face. He was surprised when he saw the church in the distance – the terrain of the island was disorienting him. He cut off the path, towards the church so he could intersect her.
“Senora!” There was no response. He was once again fully sprinting and was about 25ft from her. Her long black hair protruded from below a shawl, and her white ankles, which occasionally peaked from the base of her black dress, seemed to move effortlessly over moss covered rocks and logs. He passed the church, which he could now see was in a state of rotten disrepair. The front door seemed to be locked. He continued towards the woman in black. After a final minute of running he was out of breath and right behind her when he blurted:
“Senora Bruja!” She stopped. And suddenly turned. A white face, partially visible from below the shawl, looked at him with surprise. And then a wide smile appeared across her face, revealing more than a couple of missing teeth.
“Hola senor – how I can help you?” Willard was surprised to hear her speak English. He was surprised that she wasn’t out of breath. Hell, after all of this, he was surprised that she even had a face.
“I’m sorry to shout,” he said, still out of breath. “My name is Willard, Senora Alma said I should come talk to you.”
“Aaah, my ears – very old. I’m sorry. Please – you come with me to my house?” She pointed upward, and as if out of no where, Willard was suddenly aware of an old wooden house about 40ft away. He must have been too busy running and concentrating on the senora to notice it. He was also aware of an extreme nausea that was beginning to hit him in waves. As they reached the door he steadied himself on a rough wooden post and promptly got a thick splinter. The pain was almost a welcome distraction from the nausea. She entered the dark house and ushered him in.
“Senora, I am sorry but I feel terrible.” Willard had run a half Marathon in Boston. He had vomited but had kept running. This wasn’t that kind of nausea. This was the nausea of food poisoning. She pulled a fur-covered seat up for him which he collapsed on to. She shuffled over to the wood-stove and put a black kettle over the heat. Sickly waves were beginning in the back of his legs and rippling in disgusting undulations up to his stomach. His arms ached and head spun. “I don’t know what it is. I’m sorry. Maybe it was the curanto I ate with Senora Alma.”
“Oh, you ate Alma’s curanto?” She projected a shrill laugh. “That is not for weak stomach! Do not worry, I have something for you.” She had been sprinkling various things in a gourd and poured the boiling water in. Then she poured what looked like milk from a little jar, presumably to cool it and handed him the drink. “This will make you feel better. Close your eyes and listen to the story of the Viuda.”
The chunky white liquid went down his throat with difficulty. But for a moment he felt a great appreciation for the care Senora Bruja was showing him. Imagine the embarrassment! You just meet someone and promptly want to vomit all over them. The thought made him feel even more sick now.
“The Viuda is a very tall woman, dressed of black color and covered her face with a robe to maintain the secret of her face. When she walks her petticoat shows feet white like milk.” As she spoke, he looked around. The dark room was decorated with animal heads and jars of all sizes. His logic was still present enough to convince himself she was jut an animal enthusiast who liked to spice her food. He continued to look around but was having a hard time focusing, tears were coming to his eyes, his vision was being affected. Another wave of nausea hit him.
“She appear in lonely places and beaches, at night she walks routes of lovers, she follows the handsomes…” she smiled a gross smile and continued.
“Senora, I think I’m going to be sick – where is the bathroom?” She pointed towards up the stairs. He half ran, half fell up the stairs. The room was a mix of odd decorations, bones and pans hung from hooks. After fumbling with the handle Willard lurched inside the bathroom. The entire room was alive with movement, even the seatless toilet bowl was weaving around the floor. He knelt it. It seemed far away but he was touching it. Where his arms getting longer? Downstairs, he heard her continuing the story:
“She give him a hug by back and breath in him face, and then bring him to the cabin, pushing to give her satisfaction frequently in the sunrise…” Why was she telling him this horrible story? What the hell, he was already about to vomit. The very thought of it prompted the first purge of his stomach. He straightened up, hoping this was all he needed. However the world was now shifting even more. A picture of what appeared to be a young Senora Bruja hung on the wall and as she continued downstairs the mouth of the picture lip-synced the story:
“She leave him any place after this, a few days he is a normal man again but don’t remember nothing. This is the story of the Viuda, the widow.” It was took much for Willard. There was a witch downstairs that had drugged him and now wanted to repeatedly rape him. At this moment a cackle started in the room below. He tugged at the window over the toilet seat. He pushed, tugged and with a swift, rotten crunch the entire lock came away and the wind blew in. Without even looking he stood on the toilet and slid out of the window. He was happy to find himself on a slanting ledge. He moved towards the edge of the steep incline on all fours and then promptly fell the remaining few feet, face first onto a pile of leaves and earth. The smell was so real, so vivid. Dampness and decay. It was more than smell, he could see the smell. And he could smell thousands of insects. His senses had crisscrossed into a tapestry of synesthetic confusion. He stood up awkwardly and stumbled into the woods, away from the house where the senora’s laughing had now reached a cacophonic crescendo.
Blackness at first. His eyes were getting used to the darkness. It was a deep blackness punctuated with pinpoints of light, like distant candles being lit and blown out. He couldn’t understand. What was happening? How long had it been? He leaned one arm against a tree and looked at his feet. Hundreds of thin vines connected them to the ground, entwined with the roots themselves. He looked at his hand which were becoming fused to the tree. His skin itself appeared to have the texture of bark. He hunched over again and vomited. Bugs and small rodents ejected themselves from his mouth and fell to the ground, scurrying over his feet in all directions.
Willard pulled himself forward and the connections fell away easily and disappeared. Amid the starscape of twinkling lights he saw one brighter and more stable than the others. He moved forward, either incredibly fast or pathetically slow; his sense of time had now completely dissolved. After an unrecognizable period of time, in front of him appeared the decaying wooden church. It was locked in a battle of man vs. nature. Vines hung from the roof, small trees were growing up from the base. The forest itself was reclaiming what had been taken from it. The sides were propped up with beams, the windows were boarded up. However, through one of the slits he saw the source of light. The front door was now ajar. He entered.
The church was filled with the sculptures of various dancing creatures. The heads of birds, oversize lizards, horned beasts and all sorts of deformed creatures stood on naked human bodies. They watched as Willard fell into the church, taking a few dusty pews over with him. He heard the door slam shut, which was odd to him, but he couldn’t comprehend why. Was that good? Had he slammed it? Was he in danger? He couldn’t reach a stable enough mental platform by which to judge his current reality. What was grabbing his shoulder?
As he was turned over he was confused why the statues were moving. In a gross yet still clouded realization he realized they weren’t statues at all. And they weren’t dancing. Most were engaging each other in sexual acts. Four hands were pulling at his clothes. His jacket was ripped off and thrown aside and shirt ripped open. In a grim moment of panic he recognized these creatures from a distant story he’d been told, he was being pulled backwards by a camahueto and an invunche. They pushed him down on a cold slab. An altar? A third grotesque figure hobbled forward. At first he just saw a conical hat but as the face turned upward he saw the grotesque horror of the dwarf, Trauco. The bones in his face were fluidly moving below his skin. His eyes were open, but their shape morphed sizes. In his right hand he held a stone axe and as he approached Willard he raised it high in the air. A pale female figure with matted hair was bent over a pew, being repeatedly thrust upon by a man with a bird’s head. A fat, horse-headed figure was pressing a lizard-headed man forcefully against a pillar. Trauco’s axe reached the top of its arc. The candles on the alter flickered stood still and then flickered for a moment. With a swift chop, an arm came from the left and grabbed Trauco’s arm. Willard’s heart had reached a pace where he couldn’t decipher the individual beats. He followed the arm down to the face of a dog. He worked down the black snout to the eyes. Milky brown eyes. And then nothing.
Trees and branches. Wetness. Tripping, crawling, running, crying. Shadows beneath stilt houses. Hiding. Climbing. So tired. Crouching. Listening. And what was so damn funny? Why was everyone laughing? Faces everywhere were laughing. He closed his eyes but the laughing continued. Willard! A sharp pull on his shoulder. Willard! And he was awake. He sat up. Where the hell was he? He looked down and was mostly buried under a pile of life-vests. He was on a boat. He looked up and kind eyes met his.
“Are you OK, amigo?” Enrique stood over him. “What happened to you?”
“What happened to me?” Willard’s voice croaked. “What the hell happened to you?!”
“Didn’t you get the message? I called Alma and told her there was a storm and I couldn’t come back. Why didn’t you stay with her? What are you doing on this boat? And what happened to your clothes.” Willard looked over the edge, the boat was once again slanted on the sand of low tide. He now recognized the laughing sound of seagulls fighting for fish scraps. He looked at his shirt, ripped open.
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know.” Enrique helped him up and he almost fell over. His entire body was a solid cramp. “The last thing I can remember was being in a forest, chasing a woman in black.”
“Like that woman?” Enrique pointed down the beach to an approaching figure that seemed to glide effortlessly across the rocky beach; Senora Bruja. And she was walking towards them clutching something. Willard’s apprehension was curtailed by the fact that she was smiling and waving.
“Detective Willard.” He muttered to himself instinctively.
“Mr. Willard – I’m happy I catch you before you leave? I find your jacket in the forest this morning. And your hat, from my house.” She handed him his muddy blazer and fedora. “What happened to you?”
“Yes, good question – perhaps you can help me understand? I remember following you and then not much else.”
“When you find me you are very sick.” She looked concerned. “I give you some medicine to help remove poison. I laugh because you were shouting me ‘Fiura! Fiura!’ But then I try to find you, and you were no there.”
After an awkward goodbye, Enrique steered El Fugitivo away from the dock. As his eyes glanced over the crematory he thought he saw some motion between the monolithic gravestones, but he couldn’t be sure. At this point one of his contacts had fallen out and the other was annoyingly dried to his eyeball. He removed it with a pinch. He watched the blurry and harmless figure of Isla Mechuque disappear behind him.
“Amigo, your note. It concerns me.” Enrique pulled the crumpled paper and read: “‘Enrique, there is no soul? Wait for me.’ What does it mean?” Willard didn’t remember writing that. He looked at the scrawled note. ‘no hay alma, esperame.’
“No, Alma, I never found Alma – the girl.” Willard realized that he had either not mentioned her, or Enrique had been too busy talking about fish to remember him doing so.
“Aaah, ‘Alma’! A person!” Enrique exclaimed. “Alma, it also means ‘soul’.”
As soon as they hit the mainland and Willard had paid Enrique another 30,000 pesos, he headed for a farmacia. Willard popped 1000mg of Ibuprofen, chased with a Kuntsman and quickly headed to the Cordilliera Inn. Senora Gorda was standing outside minding everyone else’s business as usual. As he approached her eyes widened:
“Dios Mio! Detective Willard! Que pasa?”
“A fishing accident.” Willard pathetically smiled. His face hurt. Everything hurt.
“I’m sorry – but I told you:” She pulled her eyelid down again. Here eyes widened again: “Detective! They found your man!”
“What man?” He asked. She looked at him quizzically.
“Ivan Esco.” The name seemed too familiar. A flood of memories.
“Evan Esco??” He blurted.
“Si, si, the man you look for! They find him!” She bobbled inside the inn. He followed her. She passed him a newspaper. The headline of the Chiloe Noticias read: ‘Hombre perdido: encontrado desnudo en Chaitén!’. From what he could understand a naked Evan Esco had been found in an abandoned house in Chaiten. He tried to mask his amazement.
“Can I have this paper, please?”
“Yes of course.”
“And my briefcase?”
“Yes of course.” She reached behind the desk and handed it to him.
“Thank you, Senora.” As he opened it he could easily tell that she’d looked through it; everything was out of place. He looked at her. She looked downward. He shook out his coat, straightened his collar and grabbed his briefcase. The senora was still watching him silently as he slid out the door.
He just made the day’s last ferry off the island. This time he’d head north to Puerto Montt. Before departing he had made a call to his residencia in the south and had arranged for them to send his small bundle of belongings to Santiago. Esco was apparently a jabbering fool that didn’t remember how he came to be in Chaiten. He was being taken to Santiago for evaluation where Willard hoped to interview him; it might add some insight to the piece. As usual, his agent was going to get all bitchy if the advance of cash didn’t lead anywhere. The problem at this point was there was just a lot of odd occurrences strung together. After leaving the Cordilliera he’d tried to track down Alma. He’d circled the surrounding streets, stopping in at every inn and inquiring if they’d had an Alma staying there – or hell, even a whole Christian congregation – but he’d turned up nothing.
His memory of the night was still foggy but as the ferry finished the boarding process he thought about what he’d experienced on Isla Mechuque – searching for an angle for the story. The biggest lesson was that when people have too much imagination and time they can’t help but fill it with ridiculous myths. However, even in this era, he saw the fear in old Alma’s friends as she recounted the stories. To them, and even more so to their previous generations, those stories were the reality. Willard had witnessed, that even when a reasonable person such as himself was inundated with an archaic, yet pervasive belief structure, it’s easy to be affected by the fears and beliefs of a communal idea. Blind faith is rarely a portal to anything other than destructive and limited thinking. As time moves along, logic and reason blossom in a group’s awareness and it’s inevitable that myths begin to dissolve. Juxtaposing this with the present, it’s still possible to see the mythologically ruled world we still inhabit. We laugh at the idea of single horned beasts, but put huge communal faith into a bearded white man in the sky. We boldly walk though the forest knowing that magical dwarfs don’t exist but still greatly fear an eternity of burning in an imagined afterlife. We ridicule witches that have a lust for sex but kill each other for a promised heaven where 72 virgins await in rivers of milk and honey. Where is the border between myth and reason? Can we project forward and realize how ridiculous our beliefs today will seem tomorrow? He liked where this was going, this could be a good angle.
The sun broke over the ferry landing as the boat pulled away from Isla Chiloe. Willard had retrieved his backup, dark rimmed glasses from his briefcase and surveyed the land. People waved to their departing relatives and friends. Near the corner of the concrete dock, next to the large mooring where the ferries secure their thick ropes, a small dark figure caught his eyes. The small figure of a motionless black dog, staring at the ferry as it crept away. A man came to check his ticket. He fished it out of his jacket pocket, along with another object. A muddy button. He could just make out the smeared but colorful writing on it:
‘Dale colore con Jesus!’