Ever heard of Shirley MacLaine and the UFOs in South America? My family had its own close encounters. My novel Blue Woman Burning, where a narcissistic mother magically vanishes in the Altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, is a blend of fact and fiction. The excerpt below is a memory the adult children in the novel have narrated in the voice of their vanished mother. The event narrated here, however is pretty much as it happened in real life.
The American family began their journey on a road not marked on any map that passed from Chile into Bolivia, a road through the fabled Altiplano, a desert plateau so high that the altitude made gringos sick, a road their Illustrious Mother had learned about from the circus master.
Strange goings on had been reported there. The ancient Nasca people had carved mile long spiders, monkeys, and airplanes into the plain. No one knew how they could plan and execute such drawings from the ground, nor why. Some preferred to believe aliens had visited them rather than that they were so advanced, while others speculated that they had ridden the thermals in giant fiber kites, using the pictures as maps of their territories.
Just wait, children. You’ll see. We are going to a magical place where the ground is so high it touches the sky. The air is thinner there, so I will be able to demonstrate to you the greatest mystery man has ever achieved. It will change you forever.
The children were eager to learn the mystery their mother would impart and eager to go home. The family drove north and stopped at all the military checkpoints above Santiago, but once they drove off the map, there were no boundaries or checkpoints to tell them when they passed from one country into another. That was how they forgot to say goodbye to their beloved country, never knowing how they would miss it until they got all the way home.
As they climbed the mountains, the landscape shed its vegetation until only a few low shrubs crouched near the ground. Higher still, the ground produced nothing but stones. The air thinned and the tightness in their lungs engendered a certain queasiness of stomach and dryness of mouth. As the road deteriorated, it churned up boulders and spat out streams. All at once, the road leveled out, and they found themselves at the edge of an expansive, sandy plateau rimmed by perfectly conical volcanoes. The road before them dissolved into two sets of deep tire tracks in the sand. Walter turned off the engine and the wind sucked up its rumble. All five of them looked blankly through the front windshield at the greatest expanse of nothingness they had ever seen. The sky was gray and the sun cold as gruel. The colors of the desert might have been named vagueness or loss.
The Intrepid Explorers, facing a vast nothingness, resolved not to turn back. Instead, they launched the car onto the sand at top speed. Within a few feet, the car stopped, blocked by the mound between the tracks, and the wheels spun uselessly.
Their brilliant mother and handsome father placed stones behind the wheels and got back in the car. Their father gunned the engine. The wheels spat out the rocks, the car lurched forward ten feet and stopped, blocked by the sandy center again.
Father and young god Ovid got out to push. Mother flipped her legs over the hump and wiggled into the driver’s seat. The car lurched forward twenty feet and stuck again. They continued working their way forward a hundred feet or so in this manner, before Mother finally shut off the engine. Silence rushed in, followed by wind. Now they couldn’t go back even if they wanted to, and they couldn’t go forward either.
Walter came around to the driver’s side. “What should we do?”
Something will come to us, she replied.
“I’ll walk to those hills. There might be a village,” Walter said pointing to low brown hills to the left of the volcanos. “I’m sure it’s only a few miles.” He kissed Mother on the cheek.
They watched him walk away. Vastness diminished his movement, and distance erased his height, until at last, he was only a tiny blue dash against the gray, barely discernible, blinking up and down, his movement indistinguishable from imagination.
As soon as darkness fell, the desert cooled. Mother got out of the car to set up the camp stove. The wind kept blowing the flame out, and her thin body wasn’t up to the task of shielding the flame, so the children locked arms around the stove while she lit it. They heated up some coca leaf tea, which was supposed to cure altitude sickness. Inside, Mother spread sleeping bags all around, filling the car with the downy scent of wet dogs. They sat in silence while the wind rocked the car like a cradle. Mother pulled out Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to pass the time and teach them the truth beyond shadows. Brilliant Ovid leaned forward and listened with his whole body, interrupting her excitedly now and then to discuss an idea, but the words lulled Fallon and little Terence to sleep.
The wind outside rushed over the massive plain, diminishing their tiny car, whispering indecipherably into their ears, and eventually everyone dozed.
Oh look! Mother cried in the darkness. The children sat up, the air in the car warm with down and farts, tiny feathers sticking to their hair.
“What is it?” Ovid asked.
The mystery. Oh, children, the mystery!
She wiped their condensed breath off the windshield and pointed out into the absolute darkness of the desert. At first the children saw nothing. Then, far off, a bright orb or light appeared and moved horizontally in a perfectly straight line, then disappeared. The other children gasped. “What is it?
Another light appeared above and dropped straight down.
“It must be Dad,” Terrence said. “Coming toward us with a light.”
No, no. It’s much too high and too large.
“And anyway, that’s north. Dad went off to the west, idiot,” said Ovid.
“What’s over there?” asked Fallon, trying to remember.
Nothing. Nothing but volcanoes.
“Could it be a truck driving down the volcanoes?” asked Fallon.
“No, the road would be going diagonally,” Ovid said.
Further to the right, another light moved from east to west, again in a straight line.
“Helicopters?” said Fallon.
“Why would helicopters be flying out here at night?” said Terence.
There have been reports of spaceships, Mother said. I have marked the spot they appeared on the windshield, my dears. We’ll check in the morning. Perhaps we’ve forgotten what was there.
They watched the lights in silence and drifted back to sleep.
Later, the cabin light speared a hole the darkness, and frigid air blasted in. The slam of the car door returned them to darkness. Walter was back, teeth chattering. His hands were too cold to close around the cup of tea Mother poured from the thermos. She piled a sleeping bag around him, and they whispered. It had taken him hours to reach the hills. There had been a village, but no one owned a truck. Large trucks came through daily. They would have to wait.
Mother told him about the lights: had he seen them? He had, but he didn’t know what they were. There was no village in that direction.
They never did find out what the lights were. That mystery was eclipsed by the much greater one that occurred the very next day.