Every evening, the same tug at the mouth of her stomach. Before his steps outside, before the keys in the lock. When Adam is inside, she doesn’t stir. Only her gaze, for a moment, turns away from the window. She’s still in her nightgown and hasn’t left the room since this morning. She’s been looking at the garden all day. The plants need water. It’s late November, but it has been dry. Her hands rest mechanically on her lap. Now and then, she shifts her weight from a foot to the other.
In a moment, he’d call her from downstairs.
How are you? How was your day?
She pictures him standing in the hall rubbing his eyes, coat trapped in the crook of his arm. He kicks off his shoes and rustles around the house. Fridge to cupboards, he fixes something to eat.
Normally, he comes up with a tray.
Eat something Tess. Please.
But tonight she hears the slam of the cellar door. Muffled thumps, crashes; floorboards creaking under his hurried steps. He climbs up the stairs, walks past the room. His voice amplified by the big bathroom:
I’ve booked the tickets. We’re leaving Sunday.
She doesn’t reply, but she needs to see. He’s thrown their old rucksacks in the bathtub. Knelt on the floor, he scrubs their waterproof canvas with a sponge. He lifts every flap, scours all the zippers. When he’s finished, he rinses it under the shower. She can’t see his face, but she knows he looks wild.
She follows him. She follows him to the airport. Tess smiles at check-in and takes her shoes off at security.
He wants breakfast, she feels dizzy.
It is still dark. A stream of lights hovers in the distance, behind huge sheets of glass.
The big birds, he explains. The long-hauls lining up for landing. No, she says. It’s a swarm of fireflies.
But her voice is a murmur, and he doesn’t hear it.
She can’t sleep on the flight. She misses the four pale-blue walls, the soft new carpet, the smell of turpentine and adhesive. The room is empty. Someone removed all the furniture while she was in the hospital. She never asked.
Through the open window, a crystal-sharp breeze on her naked skin. She stares at the brown slopes choked by mazes of shacks and at the mountains above them, blue and remote in the wind. They’ve spent their first days in La Paz fighting altitude sickness, feeling tired and heavy, suddenly old. They had to negotiate every step, every breath of thin air, their bodies stiff and fragile as glass. Last night they tried to make love. She massaged his back, and he kissed her neck. Involuntary motions. Echoes.
He said sorry.
He sleeps uncovered. Belly up, arms stretched; a pale body floating on water. She knows every bit of his body. What is hard, what is soft. She knows when his hair has started turning grey and the geography of his lines.
He snores, unaware of her getting dressed. She holds her breath as she stuffs a change of clothes in her bag. Passport, some money, the guidebook. Every small decision leads to another. She laces up her boots in the corridor and carefully clicks the door shut.
The crisp air makes her sneeze. She walks slowly, at random. Cobblestones, narrow streets, shops filled with touristy junk. Above the roofs, the gelid azure of the sky.
Tess buys a chocolate bar from an Indio woman half-asleep on the pavement and realises she wouldn’t know how to go back to the hotel. She stands and chews, while a small crowd gathers outside an empty bus depot. They wait in silence, hunched under the weight of bags and bundles. An old van turns the corner, and a young boy climbs on its roof and starts loading bags. He moves swiftly, without producing any noise. He squats and lifts a jute sack from a woman’s head and slots it in his jigsaw. A queue forms, men and women and children cram the van in silence. Behind it, a line of other people carriers parked along the street, waiting for their turn. They’re all battered and scratched and covered in dirt. A man walks up and down beside them, calling names of places Tess doesn’t know.
Cochabamba! Titicaca! Coroico!
Street vendors stream by, dragging ice- boxes filled with bottles of Coke and Fanta. A young girl sells slices of cake; a boy pushes a rickety cart filled with bags of pasankallas. The whole scene unfolds frame by frame; human figures trudge on, splashes of colour, dissolving clouds of noise and exhaust fumes.
A driver stands by the last van with his arms folded. He’s a short, thickset man, his dark skin engraved with engine grease and dust. He stares at Tess as if she were late. She pulls some faded notes and offers them to him, and he takes what he needs and gives her back a handful of coins and a flimsy strip of pink paper that makes Tess think of a raffle ticket.
The van carries on climbing until La Paz is a just a deep crater crammed with buildings and the landscape opens up and turns into an expanse of sky and white clouds.
They stop on a clearing, and the driver gets out of the van. Tess follows him. The sun burns her skin through the raw wind. He stands by a heap of stones arranged in a crude pyramid and scans the asphalt ahead. She walks around, crunching dry ground under her boots. Nothing could grow here. The driver takes a hip flask from his jacket and pours liquid on the stones. The wind carries the acrid smell of cheap alcohol. He goes back to the van, and this time he pours it onto each wheel, and takes
a sip and holds the flask away from him. A short amber stream shines in the light before hitting the ground.
Tess opens her mouth but her mind is blank.
Everything is neatly outlined against the deep solid sky as if painted on glass.
The road tilts underneath them as they begin the steep descent from the Altiplano, down a tortuous road carved out of the mountains. They’re so close to the edge that from her window it seems that the earth has opened up and they’re gliding on air. Low clouds, spawned by the valley below, and between their mist, the pale string of a river. A sudden waterfall from the vertical wall of green at their side washes the windscreen. Then she notices the crosses. Darks poles of wood thrust in the ground and poised on the fall. She feels strangely calm, even when a coach comes from the other direction and they have to stop abruptly and reverse to create inches of space. The driver waits and revs up impatiently, hunched over the wheel as if he were hiding something. From outside, dense subtropical air mixes with his sour smell. When the coach passes by he drives faster as if to regain time, and when a truck appears behind a sharp bend he slams the breaks and they skid on the mud. The minibus sways like a boat -Tess clumsily grips the edge of her seat -before spinning.
The truck’s radiator is a row of clenched teeth.
It’s happening to me! On this fake leather seat!
A spider builds a web near her foot. Adam wakes up and rolls over the empty side of the bed. What would she see from the opposite mountain? A tin minibus falling over the edge, ungraceful in the air for a moment before being sucked in by the vegetation. Everything out of sync. No crushing of glass. No blood. Maybe the distant pop of an explosion, a trickle of black smoke soiling the whiteness of the mist. Bodies will be somehow recovered, and another cross will appear; plants she wouldn’t recognise will grow through the metal carcass.
She realises that she’s shouting something but she doesn’t know what, the horns and the engines wipe out her voice. A short sequence of underwater vibrations trapped in her chest. A knot of mangled words.
Flying from within, suddenly clear through her lips. She finally allows herself to call his name. As if they were in the park and he’d just run away, wobbling on his unsteady legs.
Hey! Come back!
The minibus is still.
The truck wailed past a while ago, in a cloud of burnt diesel, and the driver has been looking at her in the rear-view mirror for some time. His eyes are mocking her. They are the eyes of a fox, she thinks, or a coyote.
They must be brothers, maybe twins. They kick a deflated ball across the courtyard. It makes a muffled sound, almost a sigh, and rests between them, still and shapeless. Their nanny, an Indio girl almost a child herself, sits in a corner murmuring something that sounds like a lament. She wears a faded black skirt and a rumpled jumper and cheap plastic sandals caked in mud over her bare feet. Tess tries to imagine what it must feel like to slip them on every morning. She arrived an hour ago. She took her bag and followed the driver up a steep alley. He knocked, and an old woman let them in. They talked in a language that didn’t sound like Spanish and forgot about Tess. She didn’t mind. She ran her hand over the worn-out door, following the deep wrinkles in the wood.
The air is still, the sky has turned white, and fog is rising from the valley below. Tess lies in a hammock facing the open side of the hostel courtyard just a few feet away from the drop. One of the boys kicks the ball over the railings and watches it disappear, and when he turns to his brother, the girl shakes her head very slowly, still rolling that note in her throat. They leap forward at the same time and get locked in a ferocious embrace and push with such rage as if to force their way into each others flesh. The girl adjusts her long plait behind her shoulders and tries to separate them. She grabs an arm, a wrist, weightless and insubstantial as a butterfly. The boys fall on the floor still joined.
From a window above, a woman’s voice, very neat in the silence.
They stop, disentangle, walk in opposite directions under the sleepy gaze of the girl. She stands there for a while ---her small hands clasped against her groin --- and then shuffles back to her chair and resume her monotonous chant.
That’s the last thing Tess sees: the delicate girl profile embossed against the mist.
It is nearly dusk when she wakes up, and so foggy she can barely see her boots. She has slept soundly. Her mouth is dry, and she wipes sweat and water droplets from her forehead. She rocks in the hammock and listens. The courtyard must be empty. Her stomach rumbles almost in synch with the regular strokes of her heart.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed, she flips through the guidebook and follows a twisted line between two points with her finger. She looks at the pictures and the maps. Nothing matched with what she’s seen.
While the water trickles in the sink, she moves around to capture her shadow in a warped mirror resting on a shelf. Then she takes her clothes off and, shivering, she washes as best as she can in the small zinc bowl. She puts on clean clothes and zips up her coat.
A smell of rot lingers in the hall. Outside, she walks near the walls of the houses, guessing her steps, until she reaches the square and shapes reveal themselves. Trees. A bench. A pickup truck. A red lamp burns above a door. Inside is very quiet. Dark wooden tables, a small bar tucked in one corner and a man who must be the owner behind it. He nods at her as she sits on a stool.
She clears her throat. Cerveza? Por favor?
Around a table, the two boys sit upright and eat in silence. They wear identical red velvet shirts, and their hair is perfectly combed. Half hid by a stone pillar, a woman’s profile, a lit cigarette forgotten in her hand. The owner serves Tess her beer. She takes a long sip.
Algo... de comer?
He understands. Tortilla? Con Queso?
Tess says yes.
The man disappears behind a curtain, and she hears a quick jingling of metal, oil sizzling in a pan. He reappears with a basket of bread and a dish with white cubes of butter.
Gracias, she says.
He wipes the bar counter, washes some glasses, vanishes again. A whiff of cold air at the nape of the neck makes her turn. The driver sits two stools away from her and grunts something. The owner ignores him and serves Tess the tortilla. It burns the roof of her mouth, but she carries on chewing, enjoying the salty cheese in the eggs, the bitterness of the beer. Her stomach warms up. She finishes all the bread and asks for more.
Even if they’re trying to keep their voices down, she knows that the driver and the owner are arguing. The owner gets animated and points at the boys. The driver glances at them and shrugs and slurps his cup of coffee. When he swallows, he makes a noise with his throat and then exhales a heavy breath and grabs another piece of cake. He eats with his hands, leaning over the plate, slapping his lips.
Perro! Says the owner, as if he was spitting. It’s the only word that Tess can decode: ‘Dog’.
She has finished her second beer and feels lightheaded.
The mother, in the corner, stands up and puts her coat on. The boys snap up like springs and follow her, moving stiffly inside their new clothes. The driver gulps down what’s left of his coffee and darts to the door repressing a belch and holds it open for them. Tess watches them disappear, one by one. In silence, they’re swallowed by the fog.
The owner hastily clears up the table. He puts out the cigarette and stacks the plates and knocks a glass on the floor, cursing under his breath.
Tess puts all the notes left in her pocket on the counter.
Gracias, she says, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He goes behind the bar and switches the radio on, and then he sets himself sweeping the floor with force.
The driver holds a torch, and she guesses their shapes and follows their steps, although she knows where she’s going, her senses sharpened by the fog. She can smell every leaf, every blade of grass, the water in the air.
She packs her bag and looks under the bed. The room is tidy, she hasn’t left anything behind. The Indio girl and the old woman are in the hall. Tess returns the big heavy key. The mother and the boys join them as they all stand without a word, listening to the engine forcing its way up the steep road.
Headlights illuminate two chunks of fog.
Tess sits on the cold seat at the back next to the girl. The driver loads their bags and then takes his flask from the glove compartment. This time Tess knows why he goes around the bus and what he’s about to do. When he finishes, he stands for a moment in front of the strong lights and shades his eyes with his hand. Around him, everything else is darkness.
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