As Morris Pauley approached the end of a long and winding footpath, he smelled coffee. The jungle trail ran from Las Cuevas to the foot of the Aconcagua. There, at the end, a Coleman kerosene lamp lit the inside of a lean-to tarp shelter. The hulking silhouette of Ivan Lange made a long slurp on fresh joe.
“Ah, Morris! You made it,” Ivan said in a resonant voice that pierced through the din of cicadas.
“Yeah, I had to leave my Karmann Ghia back in Santiago but—”
“But you made it, comrade. How long have you been out?”
“Three months.” A howler monkey barked in the distance. Morris turned and crouched in high alert. He regained his composure. The jungle teemed with life and sound. “How did you end up out here?”
“After Solvang, I took off. Took a job, smuggling Inca artifacts. It’s. . . it’s nice here.”
“So, Ivan, I mentioned in my message—
“I know comrade. You want to pay me back, but you have no money right now.”
“I’ll work it off. I brought my gear.” Morris threw his ruck sack to the ground beside the tent.
“Ah, you’d be here for ages if you wanted to tally pennies. And believe me, a hundred million pennies is a lot of pennies!” Ivan held his side as he laughed.
“Ivan, about Solvang. I shouldn’t have dropped the bag. It’s my fault.” Morris stood tall. He looked Ivan straight in the eye.
“Easy, Morris. I have something in mind. One errand. One job. Finish it and your debt to me is paid.”
Morris paused. “What’s the job?”
“It’s more of a task, comrade. On top of Little Aconcagua, there’s an Inca artifact—the Feather of Supay—in a clay pot. Retrieve the feather and bring it to me.”
“Aconcagua, as in that huge high mountain just beyond this tent Aconcagua?”
“No, it’s actually Little Aconcagua. It’s on the way.”
Morris exhaled and relaxed his posture. “That doesn’t seem so hard.”
“Well, comrade, it’s about to rain.”
Morris raised and eyebrow and paused. “How long do I have?”
“My equipment—I guess I have most of what I need—ropes, belay gear, and gloves.”
“You accept then?”
“What’s the catch?”
“Very few people make it to the top of Little Aconcagua, Morris. It’s very . . . dangerous.”
Morris looked over the cache of supplies in the lean-to and nodded. “I’m in.”
Morris and Ivan shook on it. Ivan chuckled to himself and sneered. Morris took a step back, ran his left hand through his hair, and wondered if he had made a grave mistake.
Then, it began to rain.
Morris walked into the night, uphill, and through the rain for a few hours. His Gore-Tex boots slipped on the ever increasing slant of rock and rubble. He needed a break. He sat under one of the last trees before the landscape turned completely to rock.
Not so bad, Morris thought. Through the rain, lit by the moonlight that peeked through the overcast sky, Morris saw the top of Little Aconcagua. By his estimate, he could make it to the top by daybreak if he pushed. He pulled out an MRE, opened it, and snacked on chopped beef in barbecue sauce. He sipped on the melange of Tang and canteen water he had swirled together. His eyelids needed a break too. He closed his eyes. Rain tapped on his poncho.
Wake up, comrade.
“Ivan?” Morris jerked awake. He heard Ivan’s voice through the babel of rain and sleep. How long had he dozed? Morris gathered himself from under the tree and proceeded up the path. But where was the path? When he sat here before, the tree line gave way to a rock path incline. But now, a rock face wall blockaded the path to the top.
“Ivan! ? Where are you, Ivan?!”
Morris loved the Dino de Laurentiis production of Flash Gordon with Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless. Ivan bellowed almost just like Ming, echoing his laughter through the rocky environs.
I’m everywhere, comrade.
The ground rumbled behind Morris. That’s not thunder. He turned and saw the ground in the distance crumble in upon itself, forming a gulch, giving way to a chasm. The collapsing earth blazed toward him.
“Ivan, what the hell is this!”
Climb or die, Morris.
The void rushed toward him. The earth rumbled at his feet. Morris shook his head and clung to the rock face before him. He clutched the rock wall with all his might as the earth fell away to nothing.
Morris’s fingers began to twitch with fatigue. He scaled upward, twenty feet or so, to the first available relief. He pulled himself over the rain soaked rocks and into a cave. He caught his breath.
A giant face formed in the hard sheets of rain that fell outside the cave.
“A million dollars, Morris! That’s what you cost me,” Ivan said through his liquid face, formed by the rain.
“I want to make this right, Ivan.”
“No, comrade, I think it’s far too late for apologies. Besides, I’m a changed man.”
“What . . . what is this Ivan?”
“Whenever it rains, I sort of, I dunno, become this mountain.”
“Please, Ivan. I . . .”
“Get me that feather and we will be square, Morris.” The rain swallowed Ivan’s gargantuan face.
Morris banged his fists on the cave floor.
After the rain eased to a drizzle, Morris poked his head out of the cave. He traced a serpentine path up of handholds and footholds up the rock face. He left his pack in the cave and climbed.
Thirty yards up, the granite rock felt different. Sponge. The cliff face turned softer and softer as he climbed higher and higher. Fifty yards up, the sponge rock flaked. The higher he climbed, each new foothold supported him less. Then, Morris slipped. He grasped the sponge rock in handfuls, but the spongy rock could not hold his weight. He bulleted downward. As he fell, his flailing hands dashed upon the spongy rock. This desperation slowed him, but the harder rock below approached quickly.
Morris crashed. He caught his breath with difficulty. In soccer camp, the coach had him put his hands above his head whenever he got the wind knocked out of him. As Morris put his arms upward, he noticed that his left radius bone was sticking out of the front of his left arm. The shock of his fracture gave way to excruciating pain. Morris fell to his knees and screamed.
Morris crawled on three points to his pack. He opened the front flap of his pack with his good hand, pulled out the first aid kit, and threw it on the cave floor, opening it. He held his arm upright. He gagged at the sight of the bone sticking out of his arm. Morris paused, shaking. Tears fell from his eyes and he stared at the ceiling of the cave. 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . Pow! He popped the bone back into place and howled. He doused his broken arm with hydrogen peroxide. After the wound bubbled, he wrapped his wound in gauze. He elevated his arm and applied direct pressure to the wound. Then, Morris passed out.
When he came to, he jolted, partly in pain, partly in panic. How long have I been out? He stood up and winced. He walked to the cave opening and looked outside. The rain slowed to a drizzle. Stairs? Why are there stairs here? A three foot wide spiral staircase extended up and around the circumference of the the crag. There were no stairs before. His arm throbbed something awful. The compression dressing fought the swelling somewhat, but Morris felt his arm swell and expand underneath the dark red gauze.
Morris ascended. At first, Morris tiptoed, unsure if the stone and straw would hold his weight. The drizzle fell and the summit of the spiral staircase beckoned him. Just as he rounded the last turn of the spiral, the rain stopped. He reached the top of Little Aconcagua just as the sun rose.
In the center of the top of the peak rested the clay pot. A hot wind hit Morris in the face. His left forearm throbbed and itched. Morris strode slowly toward the clay pot. He looked like a zombie from one of those zombie TV shows, hunched over and closing in on its prey at feeding time. He kicked the clay pot off of the prominence in which it sat and it shattered into several pieces. There, on the ground, Morris saw the steel Feather of Supay.
“Thank you, Morris,” Ivan said, his hulking shadow blocking out the newly risen sun.
Morris scrambled and grabbed the feather from the ground. He gripped it so tightly that its steel broke the skin of his right hand.
“Ivan, what the hell is all this?”
“Morris, to tell you the truth, I don’t know how any of this works. When it rains, I become the mountain. I guess it’s . . . magic.”
“But, why did you ask me to come up here?” Morris’s vision began to blur. He saw two Ivans before him.
“Because of the poison.”
“The poison that’s running through your veins.” Morris looked at the Feather of Supay, whose sharp plumes cut into his right palm, delivering its laced venom. Ivan guffawed louder than ever.
Morris vomited in dry heaves. Morris dropped the feather and fell to the ground.
“Morris, it’s has been so good to reconnect. See you in hell, comrade.”
Ivan walked towards the feather. Morris looked up. He was blinded by the sun. In the midst of the pain in his left arm and the poison that coursed through his body, he felt a sense of how his life would end. The path to hell really was paved with good intentions. He wanted to atone for his life’s biggest mistake, but amending that wrong made for a bigger one. The hope he worked so hard to build faded from his eyes, just as his life was fading from this world, just as he began to knock on hell’s front door.
Morris shook his head. He grabbed the feather in a panic, with the last ounce of strength he could muster. Ivan recoiled. Then, Morris jumped up and jabbed the steel feather straight into the top of Ivan’s head.
Ivan and Morris collapsed upon each other, their story but an idiot’s tale. Little Aconcagua trembled and shook. There, in the middle of the jungle, with no one else around, that imaginary mountain crumbled a dusty death and left nothing behind.