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 immobility—the 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 desert—hot, 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. Slap—then a little slurp—then 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 here—nothing 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.
The young man turned and looked up the hill. A mile away stood a red cliff, the beginning of the mountains.
The air was dusty, clean-dusty. Clean in a different way from the high mountain air. Thick, sure of itself. Clean like a parade ground on the morning of a big day, before anyone was up. There was something about it—it invigorated you. Perhaps it was just the relief of having got away from the coast, from the torpid ocean and the dull concrete city, the ugliest the man had seen in a long time.
He set off right away, glad of his boots, an old army pair. The leather had outlasted three complete sets of stitching. They were the most comfortable footwear he had ever known. There's no happiness like a good pair of boots, he thought as he walked. Boots, if they were just exactly right for you, changed the way you felt. In fact, there was no happiness like marching alone up a track toward evening in the desert. His limbs tingled. For a while he didn't care if he ever found what he was looking for, if he had to give it all up tomorrow. Nothing mattered but this march through the wide-open air of the desert hillside.
The good feeling suggested he was on the right track. He had an urge to stop and make a sketch, and that too was a kind of affirmation.
When the track ended he branched off to the left. It was harder going now, on the loose sand and gravel. He tried to plant his steps on the broken rocks lying here and there for better purchase. The slope steepened. He slowed his pace and kept up a steady mild pressure, his heart knocking. He looked at his watch: half an hour of daylight left though you would never tell by looking around. Night came without warning here. You noticed a hard-to-define dissolution in the air, as if the light had broken into particles. Then it was only a matter of minutes before the dark poured out of the solvent air, as if those particles were the first fragments of coming night.
He strode more quickly. He didn't want to get caught by nightfall without a camp, and he wanted to make camp at the foot of the cliff. His steps grew louder, rattling on the sand and gravel. No other sound. Just his footfalls. There might have been no other living thing in the world.
He was sweating hard by the time he got to the top of the slope. He was impatient to get the pack off his back and start looking around, but he made himself keep walking until he found a space between two rocks that would make a good camp: level ground, and only a few stones littering the dust. He slid the pack off. At once his shirt felt cool on his back and his body seemed to lift an inch clear of the ground.
A breeze sprang up. Perfect timing, he said to himself, thinking the breeze would cool him.
The nearest boulder was about his height, of pale yellow rock. He walked round, scanning it from top to bottom. Part way round, on the side facing the open west, where the light was still strong, he saw what he was looking for. Low down, around knee height, a pale carving of a star. The lines had been carefully chipped out, not hastily scratched. They formed eight radii. He ran his finger along one line, across the little bump of the centre, then sniffed his fingertip and caught the dry-plaster scent of stone.
He placed a rock on top of the boulder and made his way further round, stooping and scanning up and down. On another smooth rock face an animal had been carved, some quadruped. A llama, a cow, a dog, a jaguar—it could have been any of them.
Then he saw a kind of face, square with a wide-open mouth and four fangs. It was fainter than the other carvings, but unmistakable.
For a moment Connolly seemed very close. He had been right here, certainly.
His mind reeled: no one knew how old these carvings were. They had waited, a message on a rock to be received thousands of years later. Who had last bothered to come and see them? Connolly. He had found them for sure. What did they mean? We are here.
Nothing more. A cry of loneliness. The spill of red rocks in the big red land on the big planet spinning in emptiness, and on them, this sign.
Excitement gave way to a plunge of sadness. He felt that something had been missing from him for a long time.
Self-pity, he told himself, stop it at once. But it wasn't just self-pity. It was sadness too, that Connolly really had been here, and never would be again. He was on his own, Connolly had gone. He exhaled sharply and almost sobbed, but stopped himself. He mustn't let it start.
He fetched his sketchbook and started drawing the designs. The late light showed them up in clear relief, and on the page in thick charcoal they looked good: so simple, so stark, the eye that created them had seen the world so clearly. He thought about beginning an attempt on a chart of the site, using his green graph paper, but it was too late, the light was going and the wind would flap the paper about. Camp was the thing to attend to.
Trees he couldn't see in the valleybed would have blackened by now. It was a matter of minutes till darkness fell. He unbuckled the straps of his rucksack, relieved to be busy, and forced himself to think only of what he was doing. He pulled the tent out, shaking it loose from its pouch. It snapped like a sail. He realised he was going to have to pitch it not only in the wind, but on loose dust. He fumbled in the bag of pegs and attempted to fasten down a corner of the jumping, shifting sheet. The peg went straight in: no need to bang it with a rock. And as soon as he let it go, it leaned over in the dry sand and the tent slipped downwind, pulling the peg with it. It flipped over onto a rock.
He left it there and fetched big stones, bringing them over one by one. He knew he didn't need the tent, it seldom rained here, but he wanted a real camp. He had carried two logs all the way up in the backpack and was planning on a fire. A fire and a tent. And tomorrow while he was sketching things out it would be good to have a base. A tent was a mobile office, as well as a study, a bedroom. And he liked his tent: green impregnated canvas, the old two-pole style: a triangular home. A man on his own in the world needed a tent, the home of the wanderer. Except he wasn't a wanderer but a quester. Or else nothing but an escapee, a deserter.
He didn't care what he was. What mattered was that he was free. He had brought himself here, to northern Peru. He had done it. That was what mattered. Connolly had told him: think of the high, man, what could compare to stumbling into a lost city, the old centre of a forgotten empire? A week or two from now he'd know.
For several weeks he'd been on the loose in the unknown continent. He'd bought a one-way ticket. He had known the moment he entered the door of the dingy office block behind Oxford Street, one of those buildings with a hundred business names taped up by the door, that he was doing the right thing. Things were salvageable after all. Life was broader than you thought. One of the men in that shabby little office smiled and took his envelope full of notes: £270. Which left him a little short of £700 in the bank. The travel agent nodded and counted. You ever coming back? he asked, laughing. The joke of a man who had his daily work to attend to.
A blue ticket, filled in by hand: London–Lima. Lloyd Aero Boliviano, whatever that was. A flight into the unknown, with his own private thread of purpose wrapped about his hand. Just enough. And now the thread had become a rope and was holding. He mustn't let it go.
In the dusk he fetched the tent back. The wind ripped right through the spot he had chosen. He got the corners weighted with stones then bundled his way inside with the poles. The tent took on a flowing loose shape. He crawled out carefully, conscious of the need for doing everything right if you were alone in the world, and on a trail.
He sat and waited. Maybe the wind would die. He remembered that happening before: a wind that got up at dusk and died soon after nightfall.
He unstrapped the two fire-logs from his rucksack then unpacked the things he would need: sleeping bag, notebook, fat paperback with a torn cover, candle-stub, a jar lid to stick it on, sketchbook and the pad of graph paper.
Things seemed quieter, more orderly now. Camp was made. Only food remained. The tent fell silent, flapping occasionally. He crawled out and stood up and looked about: yes, the wind had become a warm breeze and you could tell that even that would die down soon. The wind had been night itself blowing in.Chapter Two
Jackson Small was his name. He was twenty-one.
He emptied a can of tomatoes into a pan. Behind him the tent glowed like a lantern, lit by the candle within. He sat by the fire stirring. Gradually he became aware of the smell of heating tomatoes, and of a light sizzle coming from the pan. He tested the temperature by licking the knife tip, and once they were on their way he broke in two of his eggs. Poached eggs in tomatoes. He would never have thought of that back in London, but once you were out in the world almost any food tasted good.
He became mildly bored. This was the time when he wanted company. He thought of John Connolly again, and experienced a sudden worry, a foreboding. Connolly had last come down here two years back, and had always meant to come again.
To cheer himself up he thought of Frank Parker, who'd left the regiment around the same time he had. The two of them had had one hell of a lunch in Langan's once they were both out. And rightly so. Even he had had his brass handshake.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Lost City by Henry Shukman. Copyright © 2008 by Henry Shukman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.