Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Chile lies on the Carretera Austral. This highway runs south through Patagonia, the pavement disappearing before we make it to the tiny town of about 400 souls. We’re staying in a small cabin with wide windows and the only thing standing between us and freezing to death is a small wood burning stove.
“Matt, can you go put a log on the fire?”
Matt grabs a log and throws it in the stove. I get out of bed to check his handiwork. A few coals glow bright orange and the log is sitting on them but there are no flames.
“The secret is, you gotta choose the small logs. They catch easier.”
Matt has already retreated under the covers. A few hours pass and I wake to my nose stinging and my breath forming steamy clouds around my face.
“Matt, can we put another log on?”
All that remain are dying coals. I hear him blow on them from the bedroom and I slide my foot out from under the covers and come creeping up to the stove.
“The secret is, you gotta stir it.” I poke at the coals and the log blooms into flame.
Matt goes outside and grabs a few more logs.
“The secret is, you gotta think like it’s an animal. It needs to breathe. We need a small one for right here.”
“There are no small ones.” He says.
But I know that Matt always says this if he’s just been out in the frozen night looking for wood. I go outside and pull at our stack of firewood and find a log. I poke it into the stove, just so.
The next morning he drinks coffee and scrambles the eggs and I tell him the secrets of the fire, Girl Scout secrets. He mostly ignores me. The tips of the fingers on my right hand are singed, I left my fingerprints on the glass door of the stove. They’re burnt just a little, so you only notice it when you pinch your fingers together. I pull on my gloves and squeeze my fingers together.
Round smoke stacks wearing tin hats sprout from every house, puffing merrily into the icy morning. We shuffle on the sidewalk and I bury my freezing hands in the unlikely lion’s mane of hair around the shaggy black dog’s neck and shoulders. He sits on my feet and I’m grateful for his warmth. His much calmer companion, a black dog with a white chest and amber eyes snuggles up to Matt. We are waiting for Felipe, who is asleep.
The evening before we went in search of someone to take us to the caves. As I approached a knot of men standing in front of the small row of dark and empty huts advertising tours, one breaks away and starts heading down the street.
“Hello there! Do you know if I can take a tour to the marble caves?” I ask in Spanish, smiling my best please-help-me smile.
“Of course!” A tall man shrouded in a grey hoodie and baseball cap smiles a wide mischievous smile and turns around. “FELIPE!!! FELIPE!!!”
Felipe continues down the street and does not turn around. The man takes off after him in a graceful long-legged lope, shouting at the top of his lungs. Felipe hunches his shoulders and walks faster. The man catches up with Felipe and wraps his arm around his shoulders, turning him around and dragging him back to the group of men who are looking extremely cheerful. He seems to be giving him a pep talk in Spanish.
“Felipe can help you!” He hands Felipe over to us, who smiles sheepishly.
“Can we go on a tour tomorrow morning?” I ask. “To see the marble chapels?”
“Yes, in the morning.”
“Okay.” Felipe names a price and I agree without bartering, it’s a fair price. He seems relieved and smiles hopefully. “At ten?”
“We want to see the sunrise. Can we do eight?”
“What time does the sun rise?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“What about eight?”
“Okay.” Felipe’s smile has wilted terribly, his friends are positively glowing.
“Okay, we’ll see you here at eight.”
It’s eight thirty when I’m cuddling the black dog and cursing Felipe. The store across the street opens up. A wizened little Chilean woman opens the shades and spots us. She stomps out of the shop towards us. What little I can see of her face from under her thickly knit cap is knotted up into fury. I brace myself for a scolding in Spanish. Damn it. I’m not sure exactly what I’ve done but it was probably pretty bad.
“Are you waiting for the chico?” She asks in Spanish, standing in the middle of the deserted main street and yelling across the pavement.
“Umm yeah… we are going on a tour with Felipe.” I stutter.
“He’s late?” She snarls this and the black dog hides behind me.
“Ummm yeah… Si.”
“He’ll be here in ten minutes.” She whirls on her heel back to the tienda and puffs angry clouds of steam in her wake. I have the curious impression of having narrowly avoided being run over by a freight train.
Felipe’s truck whips around a corner seven minutes later and rushes up to us.
“Sorry I was sleeping.” He says in Spanish as he walks up to us, looking bashful. He won’t meet my eyes and keeps his head down like he’s waiting to get yelled at. I give him a dirty look, mostly because it’s so cold I can barely feel my toes, but don’t say anything. I’m not actually mad but I don’t feel like smiling and exposing my teeth to the cold. Plus the thought of him waking up to the scary lady across the street cheers me up immensely. I grin at him as we climb into the boat and he smiles a big, relieved smile back.
“I just have to go get gas.” I focus on the image of the woman yelling at him while we wait in the heavily frosted boat.
Our boat flies across the lake and my eyes tear up against the cold. I can’t feel the burned tips of my fingers anymore. My toes probably broke off and are now rattling around in my shoes. I shake my foot but I can’t tell for sure. We round the corner and I blink thickly, forgetting the cold. You can see the caves, the marble chapels.
The bottoms of the cliffs are eaten away, replaced with a web of caves over the surreal water. A vibrant, almost neon, shade of blue from minerals in the lake. The marble is rough and raw, white with streaks of grey and black but the reflection from the water paints it in shifting patterns of turquoise, cerulean and sapphire. We nose around them, into them, mesmerized.
One free standing rock the size of an apartment building balances on a web of marble so fine you can look through the caves to the mountains on the opposite horizon.
“This is the chapel.” Felipe says in Spanish. The arches of the caves sweep upward and with them a sense of awe crawls into my chest, warm and soft and purring behind my ribs, shaking me so hard it leaves my ears ringing. They’re impossibly huge and delicate and beautiful and blue. They’re so blue, the water and the light playing a symphony of blue their surface. I’m so glad I can blame my watery eyes on the cold.
I dream of the caves in the cold that night and the next, the stories written in shades of blue across their rough surface.
“Bryci! The house is on fire! The house is on fire!” I stumble out of the chapel and scramble off the bed. My foot is asleep and gives way, I fall hard on my knees. A flaming piece of wood seems to drift slowly down from the ceiling in front of me, a swirling feather of flame. Another one the size of my hand falls faster. I look up, the roof is on fire and bright orange embers are raining down just in front of the bedroom door. I can see Matt running back and forth in his underwear in the background. He’s right. The cabin’s on fire. The falling flames are mesmerizing. It’s the pins and needles in my foot pulling me to my senses.
“Grab the fire extinguisher!!!” I yell and Matt fills the house with a thick powdery cloud. I cough in the smoke and the cloud as I drag myself back onto the bed and put my pants and shoes on and grab my coat. I run through the shower of sparks, ducking my head see the computer on the counter. The powder is going to ruin it. I stop to tuck it in it’s case and then jog down the row of cabins.
A man is standing on his porch smoking a cigarette.
“Mi techo es en fuego!” My roof is on fire! I stutter as I realize my pants are open and begin buttoning them. He walks me over to the manager’s cabin and bangs on the door.
“I think she’s having a problem with her stove.” He says in Spanish,.
“NO! MY ROOF IS ON FIRE! FIRE!” I yell this in Spanish behind him, finally coming fully awake. I jump up and down and gesture widely with my arms. “FUEGO!” The manager puts on a coat and I sprint back towards the cabin. Flames are shooting 6 feet out of the back, along the peak of the roof, and there is a fiery hole at the top around the stovepipe. The manager runs for another fire extinguisher and I start banging on the doors of the surrounding cabins.
“Extintor! Extintor!” Fire Extinguisher! I pile them outside of the cabin as the manager calmly aims a fire extinguisher with one hand and talks on his cell phone with the other. A crowd of men has begun to form and they throw buckets of water at the cabin. I grab a backpack and carry it to the car, two men grab the rest of our things and follow me. Other men are carrying mattresses and furniture out of the cabin and into another one. I see Matt aiming a fire extinguisher at the peak of the roof. Someone retrieves a hose and begins spraying the roof.
I stand back and watch the cabin, it’s gone mostly dark, the visible flames have been subdued and the electricity has failed. I feel a weight on my foot and I see the lion maned black dog again. I crouch down and begin petting him, holding him close, we watch cabin. A small fire truck has arrived and Felipe, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt, clambers onto the roof and knocks the stovepipe off with what appears to be a well-practiced kick. Another firefighter, in sweatpants and a puffy winter coat, begins prying back the metal roofing and sticks a hose in. Felipe spots me on the ground with the dog and waves.
“erm… hola!” I wave back. The dog wags it’s tail.
Men stand in knots of jovial conversation around us, watching the drenching of the cabin. The manager ushers us into another cabin, the one with the pile of smoky furniture.
“No worries. There is no hot water in this one, I’m sorry. Have a good night.” He shuts the door behind us. It’s 2:30 in the morning, two hours since Matt woke us. The air smells burnt and cold but neither of us light the stove. I gather up our snacks and sneak back outside to feed the black dog. Hot dogs and bread and some cookies. He seems pleased and curls up on our porch to sleep. I lie awake in the cold bed and wait for the morning. We leave early and as we climb into the car the black dog follows us. He watches us get into the little Suzuki and puts his paws on the seat.
“You can’t come. I’m sorry. I wish you could.” I cry thick tears as we pull away, my throat already raw from the smoke. He watches us and I press my fingertips against each other, they’re gritty and tender. I resolve to never tell anymore secrets of the fire. I know it won’t fix anything.3