The lake, surrounded by low hills dipping their feet in the corrugated waves, slashed the green canvas of the forest like a silver-encrusted knife. A mass of shiny slivers, resembling shattered glass, glimmered on the surface but every now and then the sheet of water shuddered, the ripples advanced farther inland to lick the hills. With each quiver the shards rocked and submerged only to appear again an instant later.
Above the lake the conical funnel of a volcano belched out a woolpack of smoke. A curtain of smut rained on the foliage now coated by a layer of fine powder.
“Another one,” Vega said. “The third one in an hour. Think it’ll blow up?”
“It will. And it’s going to be a great one. I’d better send a telegram to San Marcos.” Gallego, the geologist dug his heels into the mud bubbling around his riding boots. He was a small nondescript man with the kind of face that filled up crowds in busy cities, the kind one tended to forget.
“The Indians must be evacuated.”
Vega laughed without mirth.
“Evacuated? You must be kidding.”
“They’ll have to go,” Gallego glanced at the shimmering mass bobbing up and down then shook his head.
“They are dying by the thousand. There must be an underwater connection. I saw it with the Hudson a few years back. Sulphur leaked into the lake and poisoned the fish. But the flooding was worse, wiped out all the hamlets within three miles around. Could have been avoided if someone had paid attention.”
Vega snapped off a tree branch and cleaned the leaves one by one with a finger.
“They’ll not move. It’s their home. There’s nowhere else to go.”
“You’re not listening. If Tacana blows off its top, it’ll be the end of this place. And of the people.”
“It’s you who’s not listening,” it was the tone rather than the words that conveyed Vega’s exasperation.
“I’ve lived here long enough to know they’ll not move as much as an inch. For them Tacana is not a volcano but a god, a hungry god who’s got bored with the monotonous diet of lake eel. A man drowned in there last month and his body’s not been recovered. They believe Tacana’s got him and it has whetted his appetite for human flesh.”
Gallego cleared his throat and spat into the water. “You’re talking about another century...”
“Another century? Not here. Time has stopped here or at least the clocks that measure it appear to have jammed. For you Tacana might be a geological formation with an opening to the Earth’s crust. For them it’s a hungry monster that has to be appeased.”
“That’s for others to decide. I can’t let these people die. We don’t need another El Chichon. 9 villages were completely destroyed. 2 thousand dead. We don’t need this. Not now. Especially with the elections coming up.”
The geologist walked towards a circular clearing in the forest where two horses nibbled on clusters of white-coated grass.
“I’ll take care of the brass. You go and tell the Indians.” He pushed himself up onto the saddle.
“And remember, Vega. Your loyalty is where your cheques come from.” He spurred the animal and trotted with a muted clop of hooves.
Around the lake all was silent. Even sparrows, normally chirpy and flustered at this hour, seemed to have vacated their nests.
Vega strode towards the remaining horse and patted its neck. The gesture had a practical value - to reassure it and let it know he was about to mount. But it also fulfilled a need, the need for a physical closeness even if the recipient was a beast of burden used to harsh treatment and steep mountain paths.
It was not the first time that he felt his rootlessness - a mestizo not of blood but of culture - scratch the townie enamel and you’d find a country lout. An Indian with a smattering of education kept at a distance by both his own and by those whose lifestyle he craved.
He jumped onto the horse and rode through the hushed forest towards Chaual, a haphazard swarm of shacks leaning against each other in an orderless row.
Two skinny mongrels barked at the horse without much conviction or interest then lay in a puddle of shade, salivating muzzles resting on bony paws.
From the end of the row the slurred lyrics of a bolero leaked out mingling with the desolate mooing of a cow.
Vega approached the third hut and parted a threadbare and stiff with dust curtain protecting the interior from the glare of the sun.
The shack consisted of one room: rolled-up bedding was stored against one wall, the other part was cluttered by a wooden table on spindly legs and assorted junks whose purpose or utility he failed to establish. Over an open fire simmered an iron pot. On the far, windowless wall hung a picture of the Virgin side by side with a 1974 Coca-Cola calendar - an amalgam of the old and new, the pious and the irreverent.
As always when entering one of these dwellings, apart from a nostalgic stab to the heart, he became aware that in the silent decrepitude human figures were no more than part of the room’s artefacts.
A woman kneading a ball of dough stood by the table. She sprinkled the table-top with a blizzard of flour, her gestures resembling those of a peasant sowing seeds.
“Buenas,” he greeted her. “Your husband?”
She pointed her chin in the direction of a dim corner without releasing her grip on the dough.
In the penumbra Vega could distinguish the form of a man slouched in a chair, elbows resting on his knees, the head bent.
He grunted to signal his presence.
The man gazed up, his eyes dark pools embedded on a chess piece face. “You seen them” his voice barely rose above a whisper.
“I’ve come to help.” Vega said.
Something like a spark of interest ignited in the dark pools but quickly burnt out.
“It’ll be taken care of...”
The smothering heat of the fire or maybe it was the first flush of fear slapped crimson patches on Vega’s cheeks.
“You can’t do it,” he said.
The man exposed pink toothless gums in a grin.
“How much did they offer you, Vega?”
“You should know better than that. All I care about is your safety,” Vega strove to control his annoyance.
“I told you, it’ll be taken care of.”
Vega turned to the woman. “And you? You are a mother yourself. What if it was your child, your daughter?”
The woman slapped the dough on the table where it rested bulging and grey like a bloated carp.
“You want to know? You really want to know?” she mouthed the words distinctly, each accentuated by a hiss.
“If it was my daughter I’d not hesitate for a moment. We’ve done everything. Old Villas even offered his goat. But Tacana ’s not a fool. He didn’t fall for it. No, no-one can cheat him. He knows what he wants, and he’ll not rest until he gets it.”
As it to prove her right another tremor fluttered the curtain and the full-breasted girl on the Coca-Cola calendar appeared to come to life.
“I spoke to Gallego. He thinks you people will have to leave. He’s waiting for the go-ahead.”
The man got up abruptly.
“Gallego! Another pompous ass from the capital! He thinks what he’s told to think. He’s not a K’iche like me.” He added after a hesitant pause,” Or you.”
He strode towards Vega and grabbed him by the shoulders their faces nearly touching. “What matters is the fish. We’re dead without it.” His fingers tightened their grip. “Have you forgotten who you are? Your roots, traditions? Has the little education they hammered into you wiped out everything? We are fishermen - without fish we are nothing.”
The woman returned to the dough separating small pieces then using an empty wine bottle rolled them into thin cakes.
Vega disengaged the restraining hands.
“You can’t really believe it’s going to help. You are too smart for that.”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. They expect me to do it. They trust me.”
“And your conscience? It’s human life... Life you are trying to protect... You can’t...” Vega spat out a deluge of broken sentences.
The man kept his unblinking stare fixed on the floor as if a sudden rush of sadness had come upon him.
“I must...” his voice trailed into silence.
Vega turned on his heel and left the hut.
The sun glistened in the sky like the fly on a fisherman’s line and the village, seen through a film of dust, had an odd nakedness associated with abandonment. The shacks resembled ancient burial mounds and, if what Gallego had predicted was to happen, that’s what they were going to be.
Behind the village, on a thinly-wooded knob, he spotted a gang of children - noisy, puppy-like, flailing their arms and legs in a make-believe game of cops and robbers or whatever it was Indian children in Chaual played. Scatters of shrill and bouncy laughter rolled down from the hill.
He knew he could do nothing else - nothing for Chaual, nothing for the children. Before leaving he wondered if the Chosen One was among those he saw playing on the hill.