Caballo Muerto: Chapter One
This wasn't a country you would visit unless you had to, if you were born there, say, or were sent in to check up on some account. I mean country in the broad Hemingway sense: terrain, land, country. The mountains rising ghostly and huge on one side, the strangely cold ocean on the other, and in between a strip of desert so barren not even cactuses grew. Half the year a blanket of low cloud covered the desert, the infamous garua, shouldered off the back of the Humboldt Current which came up glacial from Antarctica. The other half, blazing equatorial sun fired all things into immobilitythe piles of gravel and sand by the never-improved highway, rubbish at the roadside, mummified dogs, old men waiting, waiting. It was too hot to move. It was enough to get through the day. To reach six p.m., when the red balloon of the sun regularly settled on the rim of the Pacific, felt like an achievement, a deliverance.
For six months the unrelenting fog hung a hundred feet overhead. No wind stirred. A fogbound deserthot, drizzly, mind-achingly grey. Grey sand, grey rocks, grey sky, grey concrete in the cities (there were two), grey rain when it fell, grey dawn, grey dusk, grey days. Grey ocean even: in that season the Pacific lay lifeless and limp, more like a mass of gelatine than water, with barely the energy to slap at the long grey beaches. They weren't waves, let alone breakers. Lakeside ripples. Slapthen a little slurpthen slap again. Water the colour of slate.
Two rivers, the Caballo Muerto and the Malcorazon, broke westward from the mountains to run through the country. They were freaks, spindly and seasonal, but much feted. All other rivers that rose in the mountains went eastward into the jungle. Only these two made the perverse pilgrimage to the Pacific. They descended tremendous canyons of sandstone, dropping thousands of feet in a few miles, from the glinting peaks beyond the reach of cloud to the long decline of the desert, where they formed shallow wide valleys and their riverbeds became highways of gravel threaded with rivulets that snaked and criss-crossed each other like leather thongs. Even the water was leathery herenothing endured the heat without transformation. Lower down, nearer the coast, the canyons became suddenly green. Banana trees bushed in the valleybeds, fields of alfalfa blazed under the sun and along either rim eucalyptus trees shivered and smoked, the colour of old copper.
Just north of the northern river a dirt track forged straight at the mountains then petered out in a path which soon forked and lost itself among the rocks of the foothills. Farmers used the track, piling ancient pickups with towers of bananas and pineapples among which they perched, struggling to keep the loads from tumbling as they swayed down to market.
Late on a Thursday afternoon toward the end of the garua season an empty truck made its way up the track. From above, all you saw was a plume of dust travelling along with a kind of self-absorbed determination, as if an animal were furiously burrowing its way just under the surface, an invisible point churning up a wake of dust. Then a little black dot showed at the front of the cloud, trembling in the distance. It grew slowly, coming straight up the hill; the only moving thing in the landscape. Then it stopped. It seemed to grow broader. A tiny human figure emerged. Then, as if in slow motion, the truck turned off the path, described a large lazy circle, rocked back onto the track facing the opposite way, and trundled back in the direction of the distant ocean.
The man who had got out pulled on a rucksack and took a step to balance himself. He was a young man who stood still, watching the truck drive away. Its gurgling engine soon faded in the crunch of wheels on dirt, then that too was lost and all that remained was a low hum, until even that became indistinguishable, and the man knew he was alone. The dust kicked up by the truck dispersed, leaving a faint blemish low in the sky.
Excerpted from The Lost City by Henry Shukman Copyright © 2008 by Henry Shukman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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