The Mountain that Eats Men

By Caleb Jordan Schulz

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The purple liquid dribbled over the lip of the cup like a heavy sludge. Vincente Garcia took a long drink. The chicha slid down his throat like wet cement. Around him, men, women, and children danced. Vincente set the cup down on the makeshift bench. He scowled at the reveling campesinos. The fiesta of Pachamama couldn’t have come at a worse time. He’d been working for a week with nothing to show for it and couldn’t afford a day off. But no miner worked during Pachamama. He slumped his narrow shoulders.

“Don’t look so morbid,” said Fidel Nunéz.

He picked up the cup and drank. He and Fidel had been friends since childhood and had worked in the silver mines of Cerro Rico for years.

“I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“I may have to find another job.”

“Right – you and a thousand others.”

“I can’t keep on working for nothing.”

“Your luck will change.”

Vincente shivered and pulled his woolen poncho closer. He peered up at the sky where a cloud had passed in front of the sun. At over thirteen thousand feet in the Bolivian Andes, when the sun shone, it could burn your flesh. When a cloud passed, it chilled your bones.

A cheer went up from the crowd. Vincente turned and watched as two men arrived pushing a pair of wheelbarrows.

“Ahh…,” said Fidel. “Just what you need.”

“What’s that?”

“Come on.” Fidel pushed away from the bench and Vincente followed. They, along with a dozen others, approached the men with the wheelbarrows. Lying in the barrows were a pair of llamas. One of the men dumped the llamas onto the ground. The animals breathed, slowly, but did not move.

Senõr Mades, the Jefe – the boss – stepped forward. A cigar hung from his lips, trailing smoke. A cleaver shone in his hand. He bent down and held it at the llama’s throat. “May its blood protect us. May its blood bless our work,” he said, slicing deep.

Blood spurted from the llama’s neck. Men rushed in, scooping the warm blood into their hardhats. Fidel did the same and, after a moment, so did Vincente. Hats of blood in hand, they walked to the rough-hewn entrance to the mines.

Fidel stepped to the entrance. “For our protection. For our fortune.”

He threw his hardhat at the wall and blood splattered across it.

Vincente eyed the entrance. It was like a gaping maw, hungry for more.

“For our protection. For our fortune.”

He tossed his hardhat and blood splashed across the doorway.

They collected their dripping hardhats and backed away. Other miners took their place, doing as they had done. Fidel took a swig of chicha and offered it to Vincente. Vincente took it, but did not drink.

“Will it work?” he asked.

Fidel shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Vincente watched more people fling their hardhats full of blood. He tried to drink the chicha, but couldn’t. The mug looked just like a cup of congealing blood.

***

At the end of the next week, Vincente approached Fidel. It was past nightfall and the stars pierced the sky. Vincente wiped grime from his face and flung it to the ground.

“I can’t do it anymore, Fidel.” Vincente shook his head. “I haven’t anything left. I ate my last piece of bread this morning and I have nothing left to sell.”

Fidel passed his cigarette to Vincente, who took a deep drag. “Cerro Rico is a tough mountain to work.”

“But day after day, I find nothing.”

“Garcia – the mines are over five hundred years old. The Spanish took most everything. What little is left is hard to find. You must be patient.”

Españoles bastardos.” Vincente stared down at the city of Potosi far below. Lights lanced the darkness like a thousand fires burning. “The llamas didn’t help much, did they?”

“There’s been no cave-ins since Pachamama.”

Vincente shrugged. “There’s been no silver since Pachamama, either.”

“If you want better results – you have to go down to El Tio.”

“Things aren’t that bad.”

“No?”

“No. Besides, I don’t believe in that sort of thing.”

“You must believe. Up here, we worship God, but down there, in the mines, there is no God. Only El Tio.”

“Doesn’t that anger God?”

“No,” said Fidel, “because God and El Tio have divided the world. God looks after everything above ground and El Tio gets everything underneath.”

“Why?” asked Vincente.

“Because the mines are closer to Hell.”

Vincente frowned.

Fidel slapped him on the back. “Cheer up. Things will get better.”

Vincente looked up at Fidel. “You really think I should go down there?”

“What’ve you got left to lose?”

Vincente didn’t have to speak. Fidel already knew the answer.

***

By the time Vincente reached the fourth level, his hands were shaking like leaves. Despite all his years in the mines, this night and this darkness seemed different – as if eyes watched from the shadows. He carefully climbed down the uneven steps of a ladder. Three times he nearly fell, but managed to catch a rung to keep from plunging to his death.

At the fifth level, the temperature shot up. Within minutes, his shirt was drenched through and his black hair was plastered to his head. He was short, like most Bolivian men, but the tunnel ceiling was no more than three feet high and so, he crawled through the tunnels like a spider.

The hole to Level Six was like a dark eye that his headlamp’s light would not penetrate. Darkness lapped at the edges. Only the end of the ladder was visible. Carefully, Vincente climbed down into the hole. He felt like he was leaving this world and entering another.

When he reached the tunnel below, his lamplight shone red off the rock. Moisture glistened on the walls and Vincente couldn’t shake the feeling that the mountain was alive and he was deep in its bowels.

Vincente counted the side-tunnels and stopped at the sixth. A dark red splotch marred the wall. He stared down the passage, drew a deep breath and entered. Within a few strides, the walls narrowed so severely that Vincente had to turn sideways to pass.

Then the tunnel opened up into a cave. The ceiling rose high, beyond the reach of his light. Graffiti covered the walls, but Vincente’s attention was drawn to one wall. On the ground, yellow flames flickered atop red candles. Above them loomed a great statue with a man’s body and a goat’s head. The skin had dried and pulled back, revealing its eye sockets and blackened gums. Its hands and feet were hooves. A gigantic penis thrust out from between its legs.

Its eyes shone like fiery stones. Vincente gazed up at it, knees quaking. It was his first glimpse of El Tio.

The candle flames lashed, and the idol seemed to ripple and move. The air was heavy, as if the eight million men who’d died in the mines were there in spirit. Vincente wasn’t sure what to do or say. All he knew of El Tio was rumour. He cleared his throat.

“Greetings, great Tio. I am Vincente Garcia. I work in the Level Three mines on Jefe Hoyo’s crew. I’m a miner.” Vincente suddenly felt stupid. “But you know all of this. You also, likely, know I’ve had bad luck, lately. I haven’t found any silver. It’s been weeks now and I’m at the end of my strength.”

Vincente took a step forward.

“I’ve come to you, great Tio, for your help. I don’t have much. I have these.”

He laid the half-full pack of cigarettes at its feet.

“And this.”

He pulled a dried frog from his pocket and set it down.

“And these.”

He set down a small bag of coca leaves.

“But that is all. Will you help me, great and powerful Tio? Will you aid me – a poor miner who works in your mountain?”

He waited. The silence was thick, as if he floated underwater. Vincente knew he had to do more. He had to do more than pay tribute. Men had paid El Tio tribute their whole lives with nothing to show for it but a meager living. Vincente wanted more.

“I’ve nothing else…unless…well, great Tio, I don’t know what it’s worth, but there’s my soul….”

The flames licked the air greedily.

“I suppose I’m not really using it, so if that will suffice, as a down payment of sorts, until I hit a big lode, I offer it to you.”

The flames stood straight, burning high, unmoving. Had a deal been struck? Vincente clasped and unclasped his hands. Several minutes passed before he backed away from the devil figure into the tunnel.

***

Vincente’s pick-axe clanged against stone, sending tremors up the shaft and his arm. He dropped the tool in disgust.

“I should have sold my soul to a carneceria. At least then I could get a free steak now and then.”

He glared at the belligerent pile of rocks as if his eyes alone could bore holes in them. He rubbed his hands together, picked up the axe and heaved it into the wall. A chunk of rock fell, but was nothing but worthless stone.

He pulled a small paper bag from his pocket and plucked out a dozen coca leaves, wedging them deep in his gums. Next, he pulled out a stick of dynamite. It was dusty and frayed at either end. Crystalline particles dotted the brown wrapper. He had borrowed just enough money from Fidel to buy an old stick of dynamite from the munitions depot in town. Old dynamite was incredibly unstable and not authorized for use in the mines, but it was cheap.

Vincente’s hands shook as he struggled to light the dynamite. His sweat-slick fingers held the wick gingerly, while his other hand struck the match against the rock wall. After the fourth match didn’t catch, he wiped his hands on his pants and tried again. A flame burst from the matchhead. He held it to the wick, which caught fire instantly.

Vincente leapt to his feet and dashed toward the gap in the rock wall. Stones shifted under his feet and he stumbled, but he made it to the tunnel. He rounded two turns in the tunnel before the explosion knocked him from his feet.

Rocks fell all around him, bouncing off his shoulders and clanging off his hardhat. One rock knocked him so hard that stars soared in his vision. He pushed himself up and worked his way through the rubble until he reached the blast site. His headlamp barely cut through the dust which hung in the air like a lowland mist.

Vincente pressed his handkerchief against his mouth and waded through the haze. He pulled at the rocks, turning them over in his hands, inches from his red, watering eyes.

A flash caught his eye. His heart leapt and he scrambled at the stones, pulling them out of the way, and there among the rubble was a vein of silver as wide as his forearm. He opened and closed his mouth several times before regaining his senses. He picked up his axe and went to work, prying hunk after hunk of silver from the wall. Hours passed and the pile in his wheelbarrow grew. He knew no time, only the feel of the axe in his hands and the rock beneath.

When he was certain the last of the silver was in his barrow, he stopped. His barrow was full. He marked his dig spot, and then wheeled his prize to the surface.

It wasn’t long before he found Fidel. His friend’s eyes bulged. Soon after, Vincente found the Jefe and, for the first time since Vincente had walked into the mine, the Jefe was speechless.

Vincente could only smile.

When the silver was weighed and accounted for, Vincente returned to the dig site only to find more silver even deeper in the stone. The Jefe shook his head and watched the pile of silver rise.

For a week Vincente worked the dig, cutting and blasting his way through the rock until, at last, the silver ran dry. Vincente took the next day to go over the figures with the Jefe and, when all was said and done, walked away with enough pesos in Banco Central de Bolivia to buy a small home.

***

Vincente never returned to the mines after that day and had Fidel over for barbeques every Sunday.

One day in the month of August, Fidel and Vincente sat on his porch enjoying a couple of Sureña cervesas. Their bellies were full of chili con carne and each had let out a notch on his belt. The sun was just setting over the red peak of Cerro Rico. As it slid out of sight, the cold rushed in like a storm. The men pulled their ponchos close and their cervesas closer. Fidel drank some and then spoke.

“I guess your luck finally came through.”

Vincente smiled. “I’d say. None too soon, either.”

“Now all I need is some of your luck and we can both retire.”

“You can do as I did.”

“What’s that? Whack at the right stone?”

“Well, sure. But first you must go to El Tio.”

Fidel’s face fell. “I give El Tio tribute.”

“You have to give more.”

“More? Like what?”

Vincente flushed. “I gave everything I had. You must give everything you have, also.”

“I can’t. If I did, my Silvia would never forgive me. She makes us go to Mass twice a week just for being in the mine in the first place. If I gave more to El Tio, I’d be in church seven days a week!”

Vincente laughed.

“I’m serious,” said Fidel.

“Silvia would never know.”

“I would know and I’m a terrible liar. Silvia can sniff a lie from a hundred feet away. She could make the Pope himself confess.”

Vincente laughed and shrugged. “Well – it’s your choice.”

Fidel drank more. “Aren’t you worried?”

Vincente raised an eyebrow.

“Aren’t you worried about El Tio?”

“Of course not. I think you’ve been going to church too much.” Vincente chuckled.

“Maybe, but I wouldn’t laugh about it.”

Vincente tried not to smile. “Fidel, when you strike a vein of silver like I did, you’ll be laughing the rest of your life.”

“I hope so.” Fidel smiled and tried to laugh.

Fidel and Vincente finished their drinks and Fidel left. Vincente cleaned up the plates and bottles and then watched television before falling asleep. That night, his sleep was fitful and full of nightmares. When he woke, he felt drained, but shook away the feeling, instead focusing on his new life.

He spent the week exploring new restaurants and trying Chileno wines, buying new suits and picking out jewelry. When Sunday came, Fidel stopped by for a barbeque.

He looked Vincente over. “Are you feeling all right? You don’t look well.”

“Of course! Life is perfect.”

Fidel set a paper bag and a pair of cervesas on the table.

Vincente waved away the beer. “We don’t need those. Look here.”

He motioned to a crate of Oro Azul tequila. “Imported tequila, Fidel.”

Fidel looked over the bottles. “But we drink beer on Sundays.”

“Now we can drink tequila.”

Fidel popped off the beer cap. “Maybe after my beer.” He glanced at the smoking grill. “Chorizo, like we planned?”

Vincente shook his head and uncovered the grill. “Steak.”

“But I brought bread for chorizo.”

“Steak is better than chorizo.”

Fidel sat on the porch and drank beer as Vincente prepared the meal. As they ate, Vincente drank tequila out of a crystal snifter glass. After, he produced two fine cigars, but Fidel refused when Vincente offered him one.

“I provide food and drink and then you insult my hospitality by refusing a cigar?” Vincente asked.

“I quit smoking,” said Fidel. “I told you two weeks ago.”

“Well, no one says you can’t have just one cigar.”

“I promised Silvia.”

“It’s only one cigar.”

Fidel looked hard at Vincente. “You’ve changed, Vincente. You’re not like yourself. You only care about expensive things and before you’ve had time to enjoy them, you’re onto another thing.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is true. Every week you’ve gotten worse and worse. I barely recognize you anymore. You’ve lost weight. Your skin is ashy. Your eyes are red.”

Vincente scowled. “I haven’t changed.”

“You have.” Fidel stood. “Thanks for the meal. Let me know when the real Vincente gets back.”

Fidel left the porch and strode up the road. Vincente was surprised and irritated by his friend. After all he did to let Fidel enjoy some of the good life. Vincente drank a shot of tequila before going inside and looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. His arms, which had always been thin, were like sticks. His hair, ever black, had gone gray. The skin across his face was sunken. It was as if he’d been sucked dry and a living skeleton remained.

He grabbed a coffee mug on the sink edge and flung it across the room. It shattered in a hundred pieces. How dare El Tio give him all these riches and then take away his health? That hadn’t been part of the deal.

Vincente spent the next few minutes cursing El Tio before he calmed himself and went outside. He needed to walk. He wound through the streets to the park. Dark pine trees stretched skyward like gigantic black claws. He walked among them, toward a fountain, when a chorus of barking startled him. Behind him ran a pack of feral dogs, teeth bared and hackles raised.

Vincente cried out and ran. His feet pounded the pavement, barely keeping ahead of the pack. Their howls grew nearer. Vincente bolted across the street and into a bar. He waited for the dogs to come in after him, but they stopped just outside. Vincente sat down to steady himself. Where the hell had the dogs come from?

He took a deep breath and turned to the bartender. “A cervesa, please.”

The bartender shook his head. “We’re all out.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s Sunday. Delivery comes tomorrow.”

Vincente swore. He strode to the door, peeked outside to make sure the dogs were gone, and stepped outside. He walked quickly to the next bar. Inside, he found that they, too, were out of cervesa. He stopped at two more bars, finding the same result, before he gave up and returned home.

Two days later, he went to the expensive restaurant, El Sol, and ordered well-done befé chorizo. The meat came rare. He sent it back and it returned, but this time overcooked.

The next day, he bought an expensive ticket to the Wednesday night soccer match, but the match was canceled when the opposing team’s bus broke down.

His luck grew worse with every passing day. He watched movies, and projectors broke. He bought high-end beer, and it was flat. Milk was spoiled. Bread was moldy. Zippers broke. Bulbs burned out.

As the days turned into weeks and months, his anxiety grew. Shadows scared him. Strange sounds kept him in a constant state of panic. Flickering lights drove him to paranoia.

Fidel wouldn’t come around anymore. He said Vincente was too difficult to be around. Vincente didn’t leave his home, didn’t eat more than a morsel of bread, and didn’t sleep more than an hour at a time.

And, as a sallow-skinned, sunken-eyed creature, he realized his error, his misunderstanding. He had made a deal with the Devil and the Devil had already collected his prize. How could he enjoy life’s pleasures with no soul?

For the first time in months, he stood, went to the front door and ventured outside. The bitter wind keened. The stars gleamed like a thousand malicious eyes. The moon shone a spotlight down on his pitiful shell of a body.

He knew what he had to do. Drawing his strength, he stepped out onto the street and began to climb the steep hill. Two streets later, he stopped. Cerro Rico loomed above him like a temple. One foot slowly in front of the other, he climbed. Over the rocks and the boulders and the gullies and crevices, he climbed. He didn’t stop until he reached the mouth of the mines.

The dark maw leered at him hungrily and Vincente had to fight not to flee. He drew out a lighter and entered the mountain.

Though he had navigated the tunnels a thousand times, everything seemed different. But somehow, he was drawn in, as if pulled by the mountain itself. Before he realized what he was doing, he was on the sixth level, crawling on all fours, strength drained and nearly sapped of courage.

He rounded the final bend and almost collapsed. El Tio glowed in the candlelight. His sunken eyes stared out, unblinking, frozen forever in malice.

Vincente’s muscles fought against him as he reached into his pocket and withdrew a piece of paper. He stretched out and laid it at El Tio‘s cloven hooves. Next to it, he placed a set of keys, his wallet, and a thin gold ring.

“There,” Vincente rasped. “It’s done. That’s everything I have. My home. My car. My money. Everything. I don’t want it anymore. It’s nothing but trickery and lies. All of it. You can have your silver and riches. You can keep them. But tonight, I’m reclaiming my soul. You can peddle your wares to someone else.”

Vincente pushed himself up and stood unsteadily.

“I only want what’s rightfully mine.”

Vincente stared at El Tio and his courage grew. Somehow, from somewhere, he found the strength to straighten his back and lift his chin. Then, with a final glare at the Devil, Vincente left the cave.

With every level he ascended, his legs pushed harder up the ladders. His arms pulled with more strength. His confidence grew and he allowed a smile to form. At the Second Level tunnel, the floor and walls began to shake. Vincente climbed faster, but the mountain seemed to roar in fury and the ceiling began to crumble. Vincente ran, dodging the stones as best he could. He raced up the ladder to the First Level tunnel and rushed toward the exit when a section of the ceiling fell on him.

For a long time, Vincente heard and saw nothing. Pain wracked him and, when he tried to move, his body didn’t respond. At last, feeling came back to his left hand. He wriggled his fingers and some of the rubble was knocked aside. Little by little, he pushed and squirmed until he slid out of the rock pile. He crawled slowly, aching, up the last length of the tunnel and then out of the maw of the mountain.

Cold Andean air came at him in a rush. Vincente drank it in. He rolled on his back and gazed up at the sky. The canopy of stars and the silver-white moon baptized him with their light. He cradled his right arm and knew it would never work the same again. But he had survived.

Vincente struggled to his feet and looked down at Potosi. The city’s lights seemed to welcome him like a long-lost friend. Vincente climbed down Cerro Rico for the last time.

THE END

Caleb Jordan Schulz has nomadic blood. He’s lived on the East Coast, in the Midwest and overseas. He’s hitchhiked in Colombia, camped out in the Amazon and played soccer at 15,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes. When he’s not handling jaguars or swimming with piranhas, he writes. His work has appeared in Atomjack Magazine, Crossed Genres Magazine and will appear in Ray Gun Revival. His web musings and travel adventures can be found at: www.theright2write.blogspot.com.