"Chapter One: The Discovery" from CHILD OF THE SNOWS by THOMAS BESOM
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- Published: Monday, 06 December 2021 04:39
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Gerardo woke with a start. It was still dark. As he and Jaime were high on the mountain, he found it difficult to breath. He had spent the night inhaling through his mouth, and his throat was dry. He also had done a lot of tossing-and-turning. After reaching over to shake his companion, he started dressing. Given the burning cold and the fact they had no tent, he remained wrapped in his bedding while he dressed. It was no easy task. Putting on his sweater, thick pants, and two pairs of socks involved all sorts of contortions. He sat up and grabbed his coat. Wriggling into it was a struggle too. Then he stuck his feet into his boots, donned his woolen cap, and pulled on his gloves. As he stood and stretched, he let out a groan. His back was stiff from sleeping on the hard cold ground.
Breakfast was a simple and silent affair. Gerardo broke a hunk of stale bread in half. He handed one of the halves to Jaime, who took it with a gloved hand. Then Gerardo took out his pocket-knife and cut two wedges of cheese, one for each of them. They washed down the food with sugary tea. During the night, Gerardo had kept the liquid in a canteen next to his body so it wouldn’t freeze.
They started their ascent. Moving in single file, with Gerardo leading, they worked their way up the slope. Overhead were thousands of stars, each a pin-prick of bright light. Ahead, where the bulk of the mountain blocked out the sky, there was only a black void.
Hour after hour, they trudged on. The going was tough. The mountainside was steep and covered with loose rock, so for every two steps they took forward, they slid backward one step. As they walked, the rocks underfoot twisted and turned every-which-way, which meant they risked breaking an ankle. They tried to conserve energy by making their movements and breathing as mechanical and rhythmic as possible. Even so, they had to stop and rest often.
It was about 11:00 when they finally reached the main ridge at an altitude of 17,000 feet. Before them, situated on a stony knob overlooking the Iver Glacier, were the ruins of an ancient open-air temple. The temple was simple in design, little more than a circular platform measuring thirty feet across and five feet high. Its top was paved with flat stones.
“What d’you suppose it was used for?” asked Jaime.
“Don’t rightly know,” replied Gerardo. “Maybe the Indians carried out some sort of ritual here.”
Just beyond the temple, the slope dipped down to a spit of broken rock that jutted out into the middle of the glacier, a massive ice-sheet covering the upper part of the mountain. Gerardo and Jaime walked to the end of the spit, and gazed across the ice.
“Now what?” asked Jaime. “Where do we go from here?”
The stretch they had to traverse was not great, this being the narrowest part of the glacier. But the topmost section appeared to be steep. Finally Gerardo said, “We’ve no choice. If we want to find the mine, we’ve got to cross here.” He stepped onto the ice. Jaime followed reluctantly.
Walking up the glacier was slow going. Although the ice was covered with crusty snow, there were patches that were very slippery. Gerardo thought back to an encounter he had had in the mountains many years ago. While out prospecting, he had run into a climber who spoke Spanish with a German accent. The man showed him the tools he used for climbing steep ice, which included sets of iron spikes that he attached to his boots. We could sure use those spikes here. They’d make the going much easier. And safer!
Up and up they went, Gerardo leading. At one point, he stepped over a narrow crack in the glacier. He looked deep into the blue-green ice and shuddered. What if I fell in? We don’t have a rope, so Jaime wouldn’t be able to pull me out. I’d be stuck. And I’d slowly freeze to death. Minutes later, he passed a field of ice-pinnacles, each one as tall as a man. How odd. They look like a parade of penitents during Holy Week. He had seen photographs of such people as they marched through the streets of Spain in their high pointed hats and long white robes.
Gerardo grew weary. The greater his weariness, the less attention he paid to what he was doing. His body seemed to be on auto-pilot: stomp left boot into the hard-packed snow and inhale, stomp right boot into the hard-packed snow and exhale, stomp left boot. . . . His mind wandered. I remember when I was little and would listen to Grandpa’s stories. My favorite was the one about the Spaniard, who hundreds of years ago found a mine in the mountains around Santiago. The best part of the tale was Grandpa’s description of the mine’s richness. I can almost hear him say, “Gerardo, this mine had veins of pure silver. They were as fat as your arms, winding their way through crevices in the rock. All you had to do to get the metal was to whack it out with a pickax.”
But the end of the story always made me sad. Grandpa said the mine was secretly worked by a group of Indians. And when he’d get to the part where they stuck a knife in the Spaniard’s heart to stop him from revealing their secret, I’d say, “No, Grandpa!” Worst of all, through time the mine’s location was forgotten.
I was surprised, though, when later on I met that old geezer. He swore the story wasn’t just a tall-tale--that it was true! He claimed that the mine was on El Plomo’s upper slopes! I wasn’t sure that I should believe him. But here I am.
And now that I’m here, I wish I was somewhere else. I’d give anything to be walking through O’Higgins Park at this moment, shirtless and shoeless. I’d like to feel the warmth of the sun on my back, the tickle of the grass between my toes. I’d like to smell the roses that line the walkways. Their blooms should be fully open now. I’d like to hear the buzzing of the bees as they . . .
That is when it happened. He slipped. Falling to the ice, he went sliding down-slope, head first. He was on his back, arms flailing. He desperately tried to roll over onto his stomach, but could not. Faster and faster he went. He dug the heels of his boots into the slope, which did little to slow him down. He could feel rough ice tearing at his coat as he flew over it, could hear the whoosh of the air rushing past his head. Shooting by Jaime, he noted the look of horror frozen on the young man’s face. He hit a steep section of glacier and began to pick up even more speed. Faster and faster he went. Then he slid over a bump and was momentarily airborne. I’m going to die! Suddenly his shoulder slammed into the hard-packed snow at the base of an ice-pinnacle. He had stopped.
Gerardo slowly got to his feet. His heart was pounding and his shoulder ached. Someone was yelling something at him. Dazed, he looked around, then raised his eyes, squinting in the intense glare. Where are my sunglasses? I must’ve dropped them. He saw Jaime, who was now a ways uphill from him.
“ARE YOU OKAY?”
“Huh? What’s that? Oh . . . yeah . . . I’m fine.”
Gerardo had lost his canvas pack when he fell. Looking around for it, he was relieved to see that it too had come to rest at the foot of an ice-pinnacle. Retrieving it, he swung it onto his back, and resumed his ascent. This time, he took care with each step. What could we possibly find that would justify risking our lives like this?
Reaching solid ground, Gerardo and Jaime dropped their heavy packs and flopped down. For fifteen minutes, they gasped and wheezed in the cold thin air. It was Gerardo, the more athletic of the two, who finally caught his breath. He got up to inspect their surroundings. They were on a broad plateau. Completely covered with fractured rock, it was desolate looking. There were no plants, no animals. To their left, set against an impossibly blue sky, was an enormous rock that was reddish-brown in color and shaped like a pyramid. In the distance, Gerardo made out range after range of snow-capped peaks. The scene was so awe-inspiring that snatches of the national anthem, only half remembered, played in his head:
How pure, Chile, is your blue sky,
How pure the breezes that blow,
Your flower-embroidered countryside,
Is the happy image of Eden.
Majestic is the white peak . . .
One mountain in particular caught his attention, it being considerably higher than the surrounding peaks. It reminds me of a stallion, standing tall and erect. And look, there’s a long white mane streaming off its summit ridge, which means there’s a fierce wind blowing over there.
Gerardo had wanted to find a silver mine on El Plomo’s upper slopes. Instead his eyes settled on a rectangular structure, situated at the foot of the pyramid-shaped rock. It measured about twenty by ten feet. It was made of large irregular rocks, which some mysterious hand had gathered from a nearby pit, and had stacked to form nice straight walls. The structure was filled to the brim with soil. Gerardo could not see any soil in the vicinity, the ground underfoot being stony and frozen.
“What an incredible project,” he muttered to himself, slowly shaking his head. Just building this thing would’ve been hard enough work. But topping it off with dirt would’ve meant hauling hundreds of loads of the stuff up the mountain! And to think, I can barely carry my pack at this altitude. But who would’ve been crazy enough to take on a project like this? The Indians who lived here long ago?
And what purpose did it serve? I don’t know, but it must’ve meant an awful lot to someone. Otherwise why come to this God-forsaken place? Why make such neat walls when hardly anyone was ever going to see them? Why fill the structure with dirt? Is there something valuable hidden inside? Well, there’s only one way to find out!
Gerardo went to his pack and pulled out a pickax. Returning to the structure, he clambered up onto its four-foot-high wall, stood, raised the heavy tool over his head, and brought it down with all his might. A cap of ice had formed over part of the soil. When the pickax struck it, an explosion of diamonds caught the afternoon light. The tiny chips of ice made a soft tinkling sound as they fell back to earth. Over and over, Gerardo drove the pickax into the ice until he broke through. By now he was completely winded and felt faint, so he slid off the wall, stuck his head between his knees, and panted. Jaime took over for him. He grabbed a shovel he had brought and set to work deepening the hole made by Gerardo. Pulling up shovel-full after shovel-full of soil, he saw pieces of dry grass, burnt wood, and cane in it.
Suddenly Jaime let out a yelp. “CHITA! Gerardo, look at this!”
Gerardo slowly got to his feet. Eyeing the top of the dirt-pile, he saw a pair of figurines lying there. Examining them more closely, he realized they were stylized llamas. The first was red on one side and white on the other, and seemed to be carved from some kind of shell. The second figure was bright and shiny and yellowish in color. It was made of . . . gold!
Fired up with excitement, Gerardo took over the digging. He kicked the blade of the tool as far as it would go into the earth. But when he removed a shovel-full of the loose material, the walls of the cavity began to collapse. “Damn! The hole’s too narrow,” he said, glancing at Jaime. “I’ve got to widen it.” That was quite the understatement because by the time his excavation was three feet deep, it was four feet across.
Gerardo was tiring again. He had just pulled up a shovel-full of soil when something caught his eye. “What’s that poking up out of the bottom of the hole?”
He knelt on the ice, took off his glove, reached down into the cavity, and brushed away the dry earth with his fingers. “Feathers? There are black and white feathers here.” Jaime, who had sat down near their packs, could hear the bewilderment in his voice.
Gerardo replaced his glove. His fingers were already cold. He stuck his head and shoulders into the hole. Using his hands, he began scooping out dirt as carefully as possible. He exposed the plumes. They were followed by a head. As he continued digging, he uncovered a woolen mantle, hands, a tunic, and little feet wearing moccasins.
“Dio’ mío,” he gasped. “My God! It’s . . . it’s . . . a kid!”
Gerardo lifted the small body out of the hole and brushed away the dirt that clung to it. Then he stared at it with open-mouthed astonishment. The remains were those of a child, curled up in a fetal position: legs crossed, arms wrapped around his knees, head resting on his breast. He was dressed in a black garment and grey mantle. Since his eyes were closed and his face serene, he looked as if he were taking a nap and might wake at any moment.
“JAIME, you won’t believe this. ¡VEN PA’CA! QUICK!”
Gerardo glanced at his companion, who had come up behind him. Then he returned his gaze to the child’s face. It was painted red. There were diagonal yellow stripes that extended from the upper lip to the cheeks and from the nose to the eyes. Gerardo touched a cheek. It felt soft. This was strange since the body itself was as stiff as a board. Apparently it had been in the frozen ground for many years. He saw that the child’s long hair, which was shiny, had been plaited into hundreds of little braids. The braids were partly obscured by a headdress consisting of a black band circling the crown from the back of which sprouted, like the long pointed leaves of an agave plant, feathers.
Questions swirled in the man’s brain: Who was this kid? Where did he come from? Who brought him up the mountain? He seems to have been sitting in the ground for a long time. But how long? Since before the Spanish came? Even more puzzling is why? Why go to so much trouble to bring him to such an out-of-the-way place? Why bury him? What did he do to be treated like this? Was he being punished? Or honored?