For this episode of Adult Storytime I decided to dig up an old tale that I wrote while in South America in 2010. It’s a semi-fictional mix of adventure, mythology and the questionable detective skills of the main protagonist, Willard. What parts are true? What aren’t? I’ll let you decide.
Willard was aggravated. A stout local in a Chilean cowboy hat had just strutted down the pier and announced that the ferry had been delayed until later that afternoon. Apparently a distant storm was preventing the boat from approaching, further delaying Willard from reaching the Chilean island of Chiloe. He’d planned to get there yesterday and here he was, still wet and still waiting, in this godforsaken town of Chaiten.
The inn where he’d stayed the previous night, La Picada del Turco, was one of only places that had reopened since the tragedy, and now ran off a gas generator for electricity and a wood burning stove for cooking. He had been reading when the lights blinked once, twice and then off. The generator was apparently out of gas. The torrential rain pummeled his window. Willard sat in the darkness for a moment, sniffing the sheets. Where was that smell coming from? It was subtle yet pervasive; the acidic scent of ash. He tried to free his mind from the stark contrast of the expectations he had for this town 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.
Willard awoke to sunshine streaming in through the dingy window. The bed had been comfortable enough and he was grateful to have had a warm shower before going down 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. But not today, not in Chaiten, just bread and a single packet of jam. To drink, a box of juice and the almost ubiquitous instant Nescafe – or ‘no es cafe’ as coffee snobs call it as fresh coffee is a rarity in this country, especially in Chaiten. After breakfast, he said goodbye to Senora Hortencia, the old innkeeper, who was busy baking the day’s bread for other adventurers and accidental tourists. He couldn’t help notice the look in her eyes, a look that silently admitted to him that if she kept baking bread and repeating her daily routine, then the world outside her inn might one day return to the way it used to be. It was a damn shame.
Two years ago, Chaiten had been completely evacuated, narrowly before flood waters had completely engulfed the quaint seaside town, triggered by a distant volcanic eruption and subsequent melting of a glacier in the nearby mountains. The river began to swell and within twenty four hours the full force of the flood hit Chaiten; the river burst its banks and rerouted itself directly through the middle of the town, taking a dozens of houses out into the bay with it. In the coming days, much of the rest of the town began to disappear below the relentless water.
A damn shame, Willard thought to himself again. Now, two years later, the flood waters had long since retreated but not much had been cleaned up and the exposed ruins of buildings sat frozen in time. Despite pleas from the displaced local citizens the government claimed that it was a dangerous 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 whispered that gems and precious minerals had been discovered and that private mining interests now wanted to ‘research’ the local geology as a first priority.
So with no ferry in sight and not much else to do, Willard had decided to explore the bizarre scene of Chaiten. Hand written signs from before the evacuation still hung in broken windows, proclaiming love for the ill-fated town and promising the people’s eventual return; in reality only a handful of the town’s seven thousand inhabitants had actually come back. They were a stubborn 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 had broken free from their foundations and been swept into the bay while others still held on, now submerged by a thickly packed ash, up to five feet thick in places. He was the only living soul, save for a few mangy dogs that he scared of with a piece of window frame. After a while he’d come to a house. A cow was in the front yard, chewing on some bushes. It didn’t seem too bothered by his presence so Willard entered the yard. In reality he just stepped over the few inches of fence that the sediment had not buried. The front door stood ajar, locked in place by the sediment, the lingering echo of a fleeing resident. Willard stooped down to enter the abandoned house. Discarded items, or items that couldn’t be easily carried, lay strewn about. Mouldy dishes sat in the sink, left over from final rushed meals. Shelves were knocked over and furniture sat cockeyed, rolled across the floor like giant dice thrown by the hands of a vengeful god.
Boats of all sizes had worked together, evacuating the town in less than twenty four hours; it had been Chile’s largest exodus by sea in its history. Its largest exodus, but not its only one, stemming from the fact that the skinny country was studded with dozens of active volcanoes and sitting on relentlessly shifting plates of the earth’s crust.
After circling back to a higher part of town, Willard stopped at the only remaining supermercado to find something to eat. The store’s shelves were only partially stocked, displaying a unappetizing selection of canned goods, stale bread and a thoroughly wilted batch of fresh produce. A postcard from the apocalypse: “Glad You’re Not Here!” Willard thought to himself grimly. After buying some prepackaged cheese and crackers with the last of his pesos, Willard walked down to the pier, where he now waited. He didn’t want to go back to the Picada—it felt too depressing—so instead he took shelter from the rain in a little wooden hut next to the pier. He was reading his guide 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 dark eyes that Willard had ever seen; like melted chocolate poured into perfect orbs, they met his own eyes with a humanlike connection. Willard threw him a cracker, which the dog sauntered over to and quickly swallowed without even appearing to chew.
“Don’t think you’re getting any more, Ojos, these need to last me all day.” Ojos, the Spanish word for eyeballs, seemed like a good name for him. The mutt appeared to understand the deal and crawled under the bench for a nap.
Each hour that passed was lost research time on the island of Chiloe, further eroding the opportunity to find out what happened to this missing person. 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? His name was Evan, Evan Esco, a name that already sounded destined to be wrapped up in a bizarre headline. He was in his early twenties, old enough to be a man, but immature enough to get himself lost on a remote island. The ill fated kid 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 his lazy ass agent in the US. Willard had been killing time in Southern Chile since his last gig in Patagonia but was now running out of cash. So, when he read about this story, he decided it was time for a little detective journalism. The loose plan was to get to Chiloe, chase down some leads, and to see what turned up. Going via Chaiten had been the most direct route, at least according to his tattered guide book. Willard had found the book at a hostel in Patagonia and stuffed it in his briefcase. It seemed like it had been published recently enough that it would still be useful, after all, how much changes in these places? Well, it turns out the book had been published just six months before the eruption at Chaiten. Instead of describing scenes of the apocalypse, the book promised Willard a pleasant stopover in an ‘emerald’ seaside town, where ‘seafood restaurants and streets cafes line the sidewalks and local artisan markets sell local craft to the bustling tourists’. It had also promised a working ATM, a fact that had turned out to just be a hole of its former glory, and the false piece of misinformation that had him now out of pesos and sharing dry crackers with a damp dog.
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 very apparent lack of ferry. Finally as the sun set, the ferry arrived and slowly unloaded it’s contents, cars first and then passengers. Willard found a little bit of dark enjoyment in the shocked faces of some of the disembarking tourists, wondering if perhaps they too possessed woefully out of date guide books. Just as boarding commenced, and as if to punish him for his thoughts, the skies opened up to drench the boarding passengers. The rain forged a cool river down his spine. He noticed Ojos, who’d been sniffing around the ferry ramp, watch him as he boarded the ferry, urinate on a decaying wooden post and then saunter right past a distracted ferry employee and onto the boat. Even the dogs want to leave this wretched place, Willard smiled.
As the boat left the pier he watched the small, seaside town recede in the distance. Impassable jungle of steep, menacing mountains rose up behind it, and seemed to being pushing the town right into the sea.. The captain skillfully navigated to avoid a bank of sediment that was crowned with the remnants of a roof, the last trace of a home or coffee shop, what stories it could tell. 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 past the ferry’s cafe where a few soggy people had congregated, quietly talking and holding hot drinks. He cursed himself for his lack of cash. He continued right past his assigned seat, which was next to a mother of two whining infants, and into the first class section. He randomly opened a door and chose a bunk that was still empty. It would be a long, overnight journey to the island, so it was worth the risk of getting caught . Willard lay down and lulled by rocking of the boat and the distant hum of the ferry’s engines, soon fell asleep.
A loud foghorn jolted him awake. A slice of early morning sunlight cut through the porthole above his bed. He sat up, and looked around the room. The other three beds were now occupied and an older Chilean woman was sitting across from him, grasping the sheets around her ample bosom and smiling at him sweetly. He nodded. She nodded back. She was old enough to be his mother, but that didn’t seem to detract her from her obvious affections towards him. He got up, tuckd in his shirt and looked in the mirror. He splashed some water on to his face, coaxing some water to re-center his thoroughly dried out contact lenses. He pushed his hands through his dark hair. He shook out his coat, straightened his collar and grabbed his briefcase. The senora was still watching him amorously as he slid out the door.
After a thoroughly 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. As the taxi pulled away from the pier, Willard noticed that Ojos had made it off the boat and was looking drier and its black coat a little less mangey. The dog’s penetrating gaze followed Willard’s taxi as it pulled away from the dock.
Three hours, two ATMs and one bumpy bus ride later, Willard strode into the Cordilliera inn in Castro, the capital of Chiloe. A few people looked up at him. He was aware of the effect of his presence—tall, slim, dressed in a dark suit, loose tie and crowned with a black fedora, he knew his presence prompted curiosity, 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 credentials. He liked to say he was a detective—it got him in the mood and most of the time people seemed to be more willing to divulge information when some sort of authority was asserted. 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 her mouth. Then she looked at him for a moment. “Please, detective, no guests or alcohol in the inn.” She told him a story of a tourist that had recently vomited everywhere, she made a sweeping motion across the living room with her thick arm. “It was a problem.”
“Understandably.” Willard said. “Those nasty ingrates.” He let her vent and shook his head to appease her until she was satisfied.
“Now, I show you your room.” She said.
Later that afternoon he explored the small town of Castro. In the Plaza de Armas, the name given to the main squares in almost all Chilean towns, he asked a few people about Evan Esco, 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, with at least a couple replying by saying “so why would we know anything?” or something along those lines. An old couple said he was probably just hiking in the island’s large forests. 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 all ruffled and now less willing to chat: ‘No creo! Terrible people!’ she cried. Apparently a backpacker had made a mess in the kitchen and now the senora had gotten herself all worked up. After a dinner of soup, meat and bread, and when things had finally settled down, Senora Gorda returned to his table, apologized for the kerfuffle earlier and offered to organize an island tour for him the following day. Willard agreed and watched as she waddled off to make a phone call. After dinner he retired to the small and modestly decorated room where he reread some newspaper clippings from the case that he’d stashed in his briefcase back on the mainland. Esco was from San Francisco. He had just finished some sort of hippy mysticism degree which, Willard was betting, was why he’d chosen to visit Chiloe—the island was famous for having mysterious myths and rituals, the roots of which were not very well understood or documented. Willard planned to pursue the esoteric information for himself, hoping 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 thoroughly unhelpful 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.
The bus tour visited artisan 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 dark eyes meeting his for a quick moment before returning to the scene outside window. Willard, never one to be intimidated by an attractive woman—or so he liked to tell himself—sat down next to her. She turned to him, the corners of her lips curling up into 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 and a colorful button adorned her jean jacket.
“Hola bonita senorita.” Willard flirted. “Cómo te llamas?”
“My name’s Alma. What’s yours?” She replied in near perfect English. She had the slight, and very endearing lisp that distinguishes the accent of many native Spanish speakers.
“I’m Willard. Mucho gusto, Alma.” 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 something about getting colorful with God’s favorite son. 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 and it turned out she didn’t really care about religion as much, it was the spirituality she connected with. She just followed Catholicism because it was the accepted path in her family and community, but 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 10:30pm?”
“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?” She laughed and he sincerely hoped that she couldn’t.
After the tour ended, they had got off the bus and Willard had bought them both ice creams. 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 treats. As they passed through the small square in front of the church, he noticed as the local men eyed him enviously, and older senoras, more suspiciously. Alma was petite and wore a pair of impressively tight blue jeans. Willard and Alma made an attractive, if unlikely, duo.
“OK, I go this way.” She pointed down a side street. “I stay at a nearby place but it’s better I go alone.”
“Sure, OK, well I’ll see you later. 10:30pm, right? 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. Sure, he could go to the police, but it was unlikely he’d get much more than from the paper. The real stories were always found by hitting the streets and talking to real people. He also was on the verge of forgetting about Esco altogether if it meant that he could spend a night with Alma. How quickly his professional assignment could slip—but this could still be an interesting story, and could use the cash so it was worth trying to produce something solid, or at least something entertaining. 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 on this island if he didn’t mention that 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 outside the church seemed to mock him for his carnal intentions. A few teenagers were skateboarding in the park and a few pairs of lovers locked lips in the shadows. A homeless man tried to start a conversation with Willard, something money for his dog or something. Willard didn’t see any dog but gave the guy the rest of some popcorn he’d bought from a vendor earlier in the evening. Around 11pm, just when he was about to give up, Alma emerged from around the corner and a little wave of joy swept through him.
“I’m sorry, I tell them I was calling my mother!” She said. “Very bad!”
“No problem, I just arrived.” He lied.
They walked over to a restaurant called El Camahueto. Above 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 decent local beer, Willard began to ask Alma more about about the island. The indigenous people, the Mepuche, had been almost completely converted, enslaved or wiped out by the invading Spanish centuries earlier and the resulting mix of cultures had created a bizarre mélange of religious rituals and myths, featuring stories of bizarre beasts and other wretched 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 lost their traditions to modernization, but said there were still old people that remembered, especially on the smaller, surrounding islands, including the one that her family came from. This piqued Willard’s interest.
“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 the actual numbers.
“Like twenty thousand Chilean Pesos, to my island for example. Isla Mechuque.” This converted to around USD$40 – well within his journalistic budget.
“That’s fine. Could you introduce me to someone there?”
“Yes, it is a small island, but there are old people that know these stories.”
“Are you going there any time soon?” Willard hoped that he might be able to explore the island with Alma as his guide.
“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 and strange stories to learn about.”
“That’s great news.” Willard still hadn’t mentioned the missing man but he had a hunch this was the exact kind of thing he would have been searching out. At least it was a good starting point and offered him the chance of another day with this delightful girl. She had a radiant aura. “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 tomorrow. We make a wonderful curanto.”
After another drink she said she had to return to her place; apparently if she wasn’t home by midnight she’d get in trouble. In an attempt to buy a little time for some lip locking in the town square, Willard had asked what her congregation would do if she was a just little more late, but she was insistent and all he received was a short peck on his stubbled check. She smelled lovely and although he was somewhat disappointed that the night would not include any further romance, he was happy to take things slow. However a short while later as he lay in his bed back at a quaint bed and breakfast hotel, they had already run through fields in his mind together, and made love amid shady trees near a crystal clear stream in the nearby forest. While moisturizing cream and a vivid imagination is no substitute for the real thing, it takes the edge off and before long he was carried off to a deep, dreamless sleep.
The next morning he awoke to the innkeeper’s knocking. The door was then suddenly jerked opened.
“Senor Willard?” Senora Gorda said more loudly than was necessary, especially first thing in the morning.
“Detective Willard.” He corrected, still partially asleep.
“Si, Detective Willard, I’m sorry,” She peered around the room as she talked, no doubt looking for illicit people, items or substances. “You stay with us for another night or you check out?” She asked, once satisfied with her inspection.
“Oh no, I think I’ll be checking out today, thanks Senora.”
“Well check out is at 10am.”
“And what time is it now?”
“It’s five past ten so…” She let the sentence hang in the air.
“…so… I’ll pack my things immediately.”
“Gracias, detective. 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 he’d washed in the sink the previous day and had placed on the towel rack. They weren’t completely dry, but they were clean and it would have to do. 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. This time the coffee was made from real ground beans, the bread was fresh and served with a large bowl of jam and a second of dulce de leche. After a second portion Willard gathered his things to go. Senora Gorda continually shuffled and swept around him, making him feel a little in the way, and besides he was eager to catch a boat and get on with the island adventure. As he settled his bill with the senora, 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 to pick it up upon his safe return.
“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’s a Chilean gesture that means ‘watch 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 with the ominous name of the Titanic II and, as far as Willard could decipher, were having a pretty intense discussion over the price of a certain type of fish. When his point was made, one of the men took a sip from his mate gourd and shook his head, at which point one of the other men began his own tirade. And so it continued, round and round. Eventually when all three were shaking their heads, apparently not have reached an agreement, it provided a moment of silence so 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 replied gruffly.
“Of course. I think most people don’t understand how difficult the life of a fisherman is.” Willard thought out his response carefully. “If you ask me, I think all fish should be much more expensive. You men work too hard!” 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. Mostly.
“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 first man offered, revealing more gaps than teeth.
“I was thinking more like CP$20,000.” Willard said.
“I am currently offering a special deal, my friend: CP$25,000.” The second said.
“I was thinking more like CP$20,000.” I said again. They all laughed.
“Well, I just happen to have a space on my boat,” the third said as the others continued laughing, “but for that price you don’t get the wine or oysters!”
Enrique was the man’s name and he led Willard down the beach where he introduced him to El Fugativo, a small, white and blue fishing boat then could probably hold 6 people, probably less with a load of fish. As Willard stepped into the archaic vessel, he hoped that his foot would not break through the hull. Sensing Willard’s apprehension, Enrique said confidently:
“Don’t worry, this is the same boat my father used to fish in!” This remark didn’t really inspire much more faith in Willard. The motor cranked, burst forth a plume of dark smoke and sputtered to life, as the boat lurched out into the dark waters. Almost immediately as they left the shore, the sun began retreating behind clouds that had barely been present only moments before. The wind picked up and Willard turned up his collar and pulled his fedora further down on his head to prevent it from blowing away. Unprompted, Enrique launched into what seemed to be a well worn, monologue:
“It’s not so easy for fishermen 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, yet another to add to the list of the abused native first peoples of the Americas. He spoke of how modern people neglected the environment, however, Willard was almost certain that Enrique’s memory had become slightly affected over the years:
“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 be jealous of fish?” I shook my head, in a bid to sympathize with him and his sorry state of affairs. “Of course, unless it’s a mermaid!” He exclaimed as he brought his hands to his chest, gesturing the shape of large breasts and laughing like, well a filthy sailor.
After half an hour El Fugativo began to approach a few islands as Captain Enrique steered toward the larger one.
“Isla Mechuque. Very old place.” He said quietly, more serious now.
A thick forest blanketed the island, in places it came all the way down to the water, enveloping the boat as it approached. In other places there was a thin strip of rocky beach. From this distance, squinting through the mist, Willard could make out a little group of very small, strange looking white houses right near 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, while others were beached on the shore. As they came closer, Willard realized that they weren’t white houses at all, but large concrete blocks, arranged closely together. They were above ground tombs; it was a graveyard.
“They must put the body in concrete.” Enrique said, obviously noticing Willard’s curiosity. “Otherwise it might escape to the sea, and I might pull it up instead of fish!” He seemed to think that this was quite a funny idea.
Beyond the dock, a few stilt houses, known as palafitos, were perched near the edge of a narrow inlet that Willard assumed must snake inland toward the town. It was low tide and Enrique deftly avoided a few shallow rocks and sand bars 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?” It suddenly 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 this an overnight visit.
“Is seven o’clock OK?” Willard asked.
“No problem. Maybe you can pay now?”
“Sure,” Willard pulled two crisp 10,000 Chilean peso notes from his billfold. And then a third in a very pronounced gesture. “Just to make sure you come back.” Willard smiled and jumped onto the dock.
“Sure, sure. I return with wine and oysters!” As Enrique pulled away from the dock he shouted back. “Be careful of the women, they like handsome boys like you!” His laughter merged with the diesel powered rev of the engine as El Fugativo motored away from Isla Mechuque, disappearing into the fog.
The area surrounding the dock was empty of people 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. Willard had always been impulsive and had been in many strange situations before. As a writer, he found it was a good skill to possess, often landing him smack in the middle of story-worthy situations. Even when the going was rocky, he could always spin it into inspiration for some sort of tale. 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. Ironically, 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?’ And even then he’d managed to convince the mugger to let him keep his favorite wallet and driving license. “Come on, NO ONE likes having to deal with the DMV office, am I right?” Willard had reasoned with the mugger, who agreed, letting Willard keep the wallet and just making off with a couple of easily cancelled credit cards.
However, on this apparently empty island, when he heard the sound of children laughing he had to admit to himself that he got spooked. 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, descending on him with their hands raised, 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 lady shouted something unintelligible. The girls fled from his presence and returned to the see-saw. The lady walked towards Willard.
“I am sorry Senor, can I assist you?” She asked in Spanish as she approached.
“Yes, I am here to visit a friend—perhaps you can help me find her. Her name is Alma.”
“Aah, of course. She is probably making lunch now. Come with me.” The senora led Willard past the playground and down a small path around the colorful town church and out of the square. They crossed an ornate wooden bridge that spanned the narrow inlet that Willard had seen from the coast. The low tide meant that in some places 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 thankfully hear the sound of other people within the structures. This put him at ease, certain that he was going to find Alma and as usual, everything would be just fine.
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 women looked up from her shellfish, obviously confused:
“Aaah, un problema.” Willard laughed at the apparent confusion. “No es la Alma!”
“Yo soy la sola Alma en Mechuque!” The old woman replied. Well that’s strange Willard thought. Old Alma didn’t seem to not know young Alma—in fact she insisted she was the only Alma on the island. Willard tried to explain the problem but he was getting nowhere. 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, as Alma already had a track record for being late. Lunch was not going to be ready for a while so he thanked the senoras, and said he’d return later to join them for the meal.
Now on his own, Willard continued to amble further down the same path, thinking he was heading away from the water but before long ended up at another pier—he was uncharacteristically disoriented. As he continued away from the town he reached the end of the short rocky beach where the coastline met the forest. Something was swinging from a tree; a dead bird. At first it looked like it had have been caught in a net but as he got closer he noticed that it’s leg had been neatly tied with twine. Maybe someone’s lunch? Willard thought. But there was no sign of any fresh blood; it’s body was dessicated and its beak 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 was soon cutting back up toward the forest that encircled the town. Curious, he followed her but she soon had disappeared into the dense forest, so he followed the path back towards town to see if lunch was ready. Along the way he met some young men, so he decided to inquire about the Alma he’d met, but they all pointed in the same direction of old Alma. Finally Willard decided to head back to the old Alma’s place, determined to forget about his unrequited love and 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 the leaves looked delicious. 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 she removed the bread, and the next layer of leaves, they unearthed a massive amount of mussels, clams, sausage and other meats all heaped together. It smelled 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 a variety of 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 five large bowls filled with the steaming medley. Willard offered to sit on the crate but Alma insisted that as their guest he sit on a more comfortable 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 told them about how the young Alma had told him she was from this island and that she’d planned to show him around today. One man suggested that he might have misheard the name of the island when she had mentioned it the previous night:
“And right now 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 seriously doubted that he’d made such an error but the vino tinto was making his memory a little foggy. Without mentioning the missing man, he explained he wanted to find out more about the island and the myths that the island possessed. This topic seemed to make Alma very excited. As the other woman offered up second helpings of curanto, Alma began to speak.
“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 men, who Willard intuited as her husband.
“Que significa ‘Not naughty’?” He asked—and got a prompt slap on the wrist, which caused him to smirk guiltily.
“Of course, since we are a fishing people—so 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.” The group around the table was now silent, all looked at Alma who was also translating her words into Spanish for the others’ benefit.
“La Pincoya is a beautiful woman.” Alma’s husband, now a little tipsy on vino tinto, giggled. Alma shot him a glance that said he better behave. “She stand on a rock, singing with a sweet voice and then she begin to dance. If she dance to the sea, it means a lot of luck. If she dance slow means to be bad.”
“El Trehuaco is a magical dog—it live in a mysterious lagoon in the South end of Chiloe. It is a black- furred animal with an extraordinary strength and help people.”
“There is another animal, very dangerous called El Camahueto.” At this point Alma’s husband stuck a finger from his forehead, making as if to puncture his friend in the ribs. For a moment Willard tried to place the name and then remembered that had been the name of the restaurant where he and the young Alma had gone the previous night. “Yes, he is like el toro, a bull, but has only one horn from the forehead. He is very destructive for 25 years and then he return to the sea. Without the horn he is weak. The horn has power to cure problems of the body.”
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, as Alma put it, “flying while vomiting her intestines and laughing hysterically”. Apparently La Voladora must find her intestines by morning or she can never turn back to a witch. Alma described El Cuchivilu as a ‘snake-pig’ that lives in lagoons and rivers – if you see him you will have a ‘sickness of the skin’, as she put it. Every 20 or 30 years El Culebron, a big snake that makes noises appears. “The first who see him, die immediately.” There was even a horse that was said to live under the waves! Willard laughed to himself at these superstitions, which seemed so childish when juxtaposed to modern culture.
“Basilico is a lizard-rooster” The concept confused Willard but prompted fearful responses from the others. “The being kill you by paralysis. He comes in to the houses and he suck the liquid from your body, until you die completely dry.” She took a dramatic pause, “The Basilico kills everybody and then he goes.” Seriously though, Willard wondered how long these imaginative stories had been used to manipulate people.
“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 sits in the sea grass and mud for hours.” Alma scowled. “She has a big power of seduction but makes bad things for men who are her victim.” She shook a finger at her husband. “It is wise for men to avoid this terrible woman!”
Alma’s final story was about Fiura’s husband, Trauco. “An ugly and disgusting dwarf. He has cone hat made of rotten vegetables and deformed feet. He carried an axe of stone called a pahueldun. Trauco lives in the forest and make guttural sounds. He is strong like giant and attack the single women, for sex, but with his magic, Trauco make in the girls a strong attraction for him, with erotic dreams and then pregnancy.” This time Willard smirked openly, almost certain that Trauco was always the best excuse for any unexpected pregnancies of unmarried village women.
“Sure, just blame it on Trauco!” Willard said, getting a laugh out of the two men. 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. Willard was certain that had been the woman he saw before lunch. “If you want I can take you to see her.”
After helping clean up, Willard took Alma up on her offer and they left the house together. They walked across the bridge, back to the far 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. A fine mist hung in the air and it suddenly seemed much darker than it had been only moments ago. As he continued heading up the path he saw a dark, wooden church nestled deeper in the woods which had become overgrown with vines; the villagers probably used the newer, easier to access church in the town square, he thought. He continued 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. He was beginning to feel quite disoriented, and very alone. A gentle drizzle had begun to seep through the overhead leaves and his shoes, not built for this type of terrain were now fully soaked through. It was at this point he looked at his watch, which said 6pm. He was concerned that he’d miss his ride home and certainly did not want to stay on this strange island over night. Of course the stories were just relics of a superstitious era, but still the place was starting to give him the creeps. He was disappointed that he’d not found the mysterious woman clad in black, but decided it was best to start heading back to the dock.
Heading down was far quicker and he was relieved when he found the path again. He zipped past the overgrown 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 at the shore he was looking forward to seeing El Fugitivo and Captain Enrique. The tide had risen and so the previously beached boats, now bobbed on the waves, freed from their sandy pedestals. There was no sign of Enrique. 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 of going back to the town to see if he could find a phone, or possibly even a place to stay, when he looked past the dock, just in time to see the black clad figure moving about some rocks near. Surely Senor Bruja! Had she been dancing when he first spotted her? Or was it just imagination? He wasn’t sure if she’d seen him but now she had turned and was walking away from the rocks nearby. She was briskly walking on a path he had not yet explored. He felt a bizarre curiosity for this woman—why could he never seem to see her face? What was she doing out here in the rain and where was she always going with such determination? The urge to follow her was overwhelming so he pulled out his note book and scribbled a note to Enrique. He ripped the page out and placed it prominently on crooked nail protruding from the mooring where he’d been dropped 8 hours earlier. He then broke into a trot in an attempt to catch up with the old lady. 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 open gate. There was about 200ft between them so he picked up the pace.
Within a minute he’d slid through the gate and for a brief moment tried to figure out how to negotiate this strange landscape. 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 them. He launched over the first couple, knocking over some wilted flowers and almost slipping on the slick concrete surface. Many of the graves were unmarked, just simple white tombs with unadorned crosses. As he gained some ground he saw Senora Bruja 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 things that may lay beneath prompted a half jump and half skip that would have appeared quite humorous to any onlooker, at least under any other circumstance.
As Willard 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 despite feeling out of breath he continued running. She began to ascend the some steep cliffside steps with ease, as if she was gliding up them with minimal effort. It was impressive. Willard was decently in shape yet still felt close to vomiting as he reached the steps.
“Senora Bruja!” Willard called, but she kept moving and was now almost out of sight. He sprinted up the remaining stairs. As he reached the top he saw the senora enter a small path that led back into the thick forest, but by now he had almost completely closed the gap. There was just a difference of about 30ft. A dull glow from the horizon was all that was left of the sun so as he entered the forest it became almost completely dark. The most visible part of the senora was the occasional glimpse of her white skin. Her hands. A part of her neck. But never her face. He was surprised when he saw the same old church in the distance—the terrain of the island was once again disorienting him. He cut off the path, directly towards the church in an attempt to intersect her.
“Senora!” There was no response. He was once again fully sprinting and was now only about 15ft from her. Her long black hair protruded from below a shawl, and he now noticed she was barefoot, her feet occasionally peaking from beneath the base of her black dress, as she seemed to move effortlessly over moss covered rocks and logs. As he passed the church he noticed that it was totally closed up and in a state of compete disrepair, rotting shingles clinging to its dingy frame. He continued towards the woman in black and after a final sprint he was now directly behind her, thoroughly out of breath as 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. She was barely out of breath, also which was also surprising being as old as she was. There was a stench about her, like the shore of the sea at low tide. Willard recoiled for a moment before composing himself.
“I’m sorry to shout,” he said. “My name is Willard, Senora Alma said I should come talk to you. I tried to find you earlier but… Why didn’t you respond to me?”
“Aaah, my ears—very old. I’m sorry. Please—you come with me to my house?” She pointed upward, and as if appearing out of nowhere, Willard caught sight of an old wooden cabin less than a stone’s throw away; he must have been too busy running and concentrating on the senora to notice it.
“It would be nice to get out of this rain.” He replied.
“So come.” As they continued up the hill a wave of nausea hit him. And another as they reached the front 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, a solitary drop of blood falling across the threshold as he pulled the splinter out with his teeth. Once inside, his nausea began to increase, washing over him in sickening waves.
“Senora, I am sorry but I feel sick.” Willard had run a half Marathon in Boston some years ago. He had vomited that morning but had still kept running. This wasn’t that kind of nausea. Perhaps this was the nausea of food poisoning? Maybe those oysters from earlier? Senora Bruja pulled a stool 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.”
She projected a shrill laugh. “Alma’s curanto. Not for the weak stomach! Do not worry, I have something for you.” She had been sprinkling various things into a gourd into which she now poured the boiling water. She then poured a dark liquid from a small jar into the gourd, mixed the concoction with a wooden spoon and handed him the drink. “This will make you feel better. Now close your eyes and listen to the story of the Viuda.”
The chunky liquid went down his throat with difficulty. In that moment he felt a great appreciation for the care Senora Bruja was showing him. Imagine his embarrassment! You just meet someone and promptly want to vomit all over their house. The thought made him feel even more sick now.
“The Viuda is a woman, dressed in black, and covers her face with a robe to maintain her secrets. When she walks, her petticoat shows feet white like milk.” As she spoke, Willard looked around. The dark room was decorated with what appeared to be many different types of animal heads, suspended in jars of all sizes. He blinked but now the heads were just vegetables. What was he seeing? He continued to look around but was having a hard time focusing, tears were now coming to his eyes and 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 handsome ones…” she smiled a gross smile and continued.
“Senora, I think I’m going to be sick—where is the bathroom?” She pointed towards the stairs. He got up and quickly made his way across the room. Pots and pans hung from hooks all over the place. After making it upstairs Willard thankfully found the bathroom. The entire room was alive with movement, even the toilet bowl was moving around the floor. He knelt in front of it and grabbed it with both hands in an attempt to not let it get away from him. He was touching it but it felt very far away. Were his arms getting longer? Downstairs, he heard Senor Bruja continuing the story:
“She breath in his face, and then bring him to her home, pushing to give her satisfaction frequently into the sunrise…” Why was she telling him this horrible story? Imagining having sex with this crazy woman churned his stomach and he finally purged, dark liquid coating the sids of the toilet bowl. He hoped that was all he needed. However his world continued to bend and buckle. He looked up from the floor at a picture of what appeared to be a young Senora Bruja hung on the wall next to another picture of a man. He looked back at her young portrait and to his horror its lips were now moving in sync as the old lady continued the story from downstairs:
“She leave him after this, but he don’t remember anything. This is the story of the Viuda, the widow.” He heard her beginning to climb the stairs. It was too much for Willard, and he was now convinced that there was a witch downstairs that had drugged him and now wanted to repeatedly rape him. She began to cackle as she ascended the stairs. He got up and tugged at the window latch above the toilet seat. He pulled, pushed, and finally with a swift, rotten crunch the entire window swung open. Without even looking he stood on the toilet and climbed out onto the window ledge, into the wind and rain. He was grateful to find himself on a slanted rooftop, and he shuffled towards the edge of the incline on all fours and then slipped, promptly falling off the edge the remaining few feet, face first onto a pile of leaves and earth. The smell was so real, so vivid. Dampness and decay. He could smell and hear the insects before he saw them, dozens now scuttling away from beneath where he’d landed. His senses began to crisscross into a tapestry of synesthetic confusion. He stood up dizzily and half stumbled, half ran into the woods, away from the house. High above him the senora’s laughing had reached a cacophonic crescendo, as he hurled himself away from the wretched place.
Blackness at first. Branches brushing against him. His eyes were getting used to the darkness; a deep blackness punctuated with pinpoints of light, like distant candles being repeatedly lit and blown out. He couldn’t understand. What was happening? How long had it been? Was he moving or standing still? So disoriented. 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 was now becoming fused to the tree. His skin itself appeared to have the texture of bark. He hunched over again and vomited. This time bugs and small rodents ejected themselves from his mouth and fell to the ground, scurrying over his feet in all directions.
Willard dragged himself forward and the vines fell away, disintegrating into dust. Amid the starscape of twinkling lights he saw one shining brighter than the others. He moved forward, either incredibly fast or pathetically slow; his sense of time now completely unreliable. 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. Candles, yes actual candles. Someone was inside. He made his way around to the front door which now ajar. He entered the church.
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 carved on to the top of naked human bodies. They watched as Willard fell into the church, knocking over a dusty pew. He was aware of the door shutting behind him. How had it closed by itself. Didn’t make any sense. Unless he had he closed it? He couldn’t reach a stable enough mental platform by which to judge his current reality.
As Willard turned 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. They were engaging each other in all sorts of sexual acts with each other. And then something was grabbing his shoulder… Hands were pulling at his clothes. His jacket was ripped off and thrown aside, his shirt torn open. In a grim moment of panic he recognized these were creatures from a distant story he’d been told, he was being pulled backwards by a one horned bul-like creature. The beast pushed him down on a cold slab. Another grotesque figure hobbled forward. At first he just saw a conical hat but as the face turned upward, revulsion washed over him, it was the old dwarf, Trauco. The bones in his face were fluidly moving beneath his skin. His eyes were open, but their shape and size were morphing. 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 and then seemed to stand still. The axe fell, and then stopped in mid air. Another arm had grabbed Trauco’s arm. Willard’s heart had reached a pace where he couldn’t decipher the individual beats. He looked at the figure who had saved him, a petite female form, but with the face of a black dog. Dark brown eyes. And then, nothing.
Trees and branches. Wetness. Tripping, crawling, running, crying. Shadows beneath stilt houses. Hiding. Climbing. Exhausted. 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?!”
“There was a storm and I couldn’t come back. We’ve been looking for you all morning and a fisherman finally found you! Why are you sleeping on his boat? And what happened to your clothes.” Willard looked over the edge to the slanted horizon, realizing that the boat was in fact sitting on the sand of low tide. He now recognized where the laughing in his dreams was coming from; seagulls fighting for fish scraps. He looked at his shirt, ripped open and missing buttons.
“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. Willard stiffened. She was walking directly towards them clutching something. Willard’s apprehension was curtailed by the fact that she was smiling and waving.
“Senor. Willard!” She cried.
“Detective Willard.” He muttered to himself instinctively.
“Senor. Willard—I’m happy I catch you before you leave! I find your jacket in the forest this morning on my walk. And your hat, you left at 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. I thought you were very drunk! ” She looked concerned. “I give you some medicine to help. I laugh because you were shouting me: Viuda! Viuda!’” This made Enrique smile. ”But then I try to help you, and jump from the window.”
“I’m so sorry Senora, I don’t know what happened. I think I got some food poisoning. I had such strange dreams…”
After an awkward goodbye, Enrique steered El Fugitivo away from the dock. As Willard’s eyes glanced over to the cemetary he thought he saw some motion between the 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 and watched the blurry figure of Isla Mechuque disappear in the fog behind him.
“Amigo, your note. It concerned me.” Enrique hollered above the engine, pulling the crumpled paper from his pocket: “‘Enrique, there is no soul, wait for me.’What does it mean?” Willard didn’t remember writing that. He looked at the scrawled note. ‘Enrique, 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, because it also means ‘soul’.”
As soon as they hit the mainland, Willard had paid Enrique another 30,000 pesos and headed straight 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. Her eyes widened as she remembered something: “Detective! They found the man!”
“What man?” He asked. She looked at him quizzically.
“Evan Esco.” The name seemed so familiar. A flood of memories came back to him.
“Evan Esco??” He blurted.
“Si, si, the man you look for! They find him! Terrible thing!” She bobbled inside the inn. He followed her. She passed him a newspaper. The headline of the Chiloe Noticias read: ‘Hombre perdido: encontrado muerto en un bote cerca de Chiloé!!’. From what he could understand a dead Evan Esco had been found on an old boat off the coast of Chiloe. How utterly bizarre. Willard tried to mask his amazement.
“Can I have this paper, please?”
“Yes of course.” Senora Gorda replied. “If you ask me, I think drugs. These kids!”
“Indeed. How awful.” Willard replied. “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. She was kind enough to let him take a quick shower and change his clothes. He hadn’t been able to wash his other set before he left but, but they’d do in a pinch. He was soon back in the lobby, and back on track to feeling a little more normal. He shook out his coat, straightened his crumpled collar and grabbed his briefcase. The senora was still watching him silently as he slid out the door, into the warm sunshine of the late afternoon.
After leaving the Cordilliera he’d tried to track down Alma. He’d circled the surrounding streets, stopping in at every lodging and inquiring if they’d had an Alma staying there recently – or hell, even a whole Christian congregation – but he’d turned up nothing so he’d given up and only just made the last ferry off the island. This time he was heading north to Puerto Montt. Before departing he had made a call to his residencia in the south and had arranged for them to send the rest of his belongings to Santiago. He’d read that Esco had been found totally naked, murdered by a blunt force blow to the head. His body was being taken to Santiago for autopsy and Willard hoped to find out what happened and still get a piece out of this. As usual, his agent was going to get all whiny if the advance of cash didn’t lead anywhere. The problem at this point was there were just a lot of odd occurrences strung together.
His memory of the night was still foggy but then remembered that he’d must have taken notes. He pulled his notebook from his jacket and began to read, scrawled stories of strange creatures and mysterious characters. One horned beasts, dog headed humans, trolls and witches. The word Ojos was written more than a few times. Eyes. That’s right, Ojos the dog! As more of the previous day began returning he recalled more of the conversation with old Alma. At the very least it would make some great fodder for a story. Still, he felt bad for the kid, who had somehow got himself involved in some nasty business.
As the ferry finished the boarding process he thought about what he’d experienced on Isla Mechuque—trying to make sense of his fragmented memories. It seems when people have imagination and a lot of time on their hands they can’t help but fill the gaps with ridiculous stories. Add some religion to the mix and you get all sorts of guilty, fearful shit. But these were often more than just stories—he’d seen the fear in old Alma’s friends as she recounted her tales. To some of them, and even more so to their previous generations, those stories were their reality. Willard had witnessed that even when a rational person such as himself was exposed to 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. What myths are we more open to accepting today? Willard thought. 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 through 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 dated our beliefs of 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 scene. 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 attention. A black dog sat motionless, dark eyes staring at the ferry as it motored away from the shore.
“Boleto, senor?” The ticket collector asked. Willard fished his ferry ticket out of his jacket pocket, which he pulled out along with another object. An old button. On its surface, just beneath some flecks of mud were scrawled four word in colorful letters:
“Dale colore con Jesus!” The ticket collector saw it.
“Bendice tu alma, Senor.” The man said. “Bless your soul!”
“Muchas gracias.” Willard smiled. He leaned back into his seat and gazed out upon the open sea.
This story is dedicated to the memory of the great playwright Anthony Shaffer, author of such masterpieces as Sleuth and the The Wickerman. Before he passed away he spent his final years romancing my mother in England and from time to time, I’d visit them in his London flat. His mind was constantly weaving together mysteries and concocting devious strategies for his protagonists. One night at dinner he turned to me, and asked:
“Douglas, my boy. If you wanted to kill me at this table, how would you do it?” And after a brief pause, “And how would you get away with it?”
All of the mythical stories that get told to Willard are taken, mostly verbatim, from a book I bought while on the island tour.