A NOVELLA by Alison Turner
  1  Filtered
2  Overexposed
3  Aberration
4  Refraction
5  Interpretation
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  July 2014 Fiction Issue

3. Aberration

Dane didn’t know how long it took him to wake up after the bus stopped. He checked his bag: on his lap, everything zipped. The upper level of the double-decker had been full last time Dane was awake, but now half of the seats gaped open and most of the remaining passengers stood to see what was going on. He got in line to climb down, staring out the windows like everyone else. Women and men walked by in bright scarves or puffy jackets, and half a dozen stone buildings spread over endless brown ground.

This couldn’t be Sucre, a city that in the poster at the bus station had tall church steeples and at least one bustling plaza. Sucre was a city that his sister Jenny had dog-eared in her travel guide. She must have the thing memorized, judging by the notes on the pages.

On the ground, Dane slipped through a pause in the foot traffic and stretched his arms above his head. Trucks, buses and cars pulled up on both sides of the road, so that what had been a four-lane highway was now a parking lot. Gray and tan buildings dotted the barren ground, and in the distance he saw mountain ranges of the same sandy brown that he walked on. It was a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere.

Dane liked these kinds of mysteries. All week he’d been chasing clues. If he saw a group gathering he’d get as close as he could without anyone noticing, and not leave until he figured out the occasion. He’d gone for walks without maps so he had to approach people for directions, and liked asking what something was and not knowing what the answer meant. So many times he’d questioned vendors about the jiggling purple loafs in the market place that everyone called membrillo without more explanation. He spread it on bread like everyone else, and refused to look it up online.

Before he could go anywhere he’d have to find somewhere to pee. Where the paved road turned to dirt, several older women in the top hats with sequins on the rims made their own bathroom: they held up their velvety skirts as they squatted. Dane walked towards an abandoned building, and passed a girl who looked younger than Jenny, smoking and holding a baby. The baby screamed and screamed and the mother said shh, shh, and blew smoke from her mouth over the baby’s face. She frowned when the baby did not stop screaming.

When he finished, the mother and baby were gone. The commotion herded from left to right and he tried to find a face he recognized. This was one of Bolivia’s major roads, and it was possible he’d find someone he’d met at one of the three hostels where he’d stayed. Nobody looked surprised at his height or light skin as many had done for almost a week, because nobody looked at him at all.

He joined the flow of walkers and felt the same pulse he got at the music fest in Gunnison, when he’d squeeze in close to the stage. Except out here, he didn’t know what he was pushing through to see. It was like biting into a piece of fruit you’d never tried before.

The stream of people clogged, slowed, and stopped. Dane predicted a semi flipped over the road, or one car t-boned into another. He bumped into something soft: a short, overweight man in a dark brown jacket who stood on his toes to see over the crowd. Dane stood on his toes, too, and saw a gray space the size of an urban basketball court. At the center of the space, women who looked much like those peeing on the side of the road, crouched. They backed up traffic in both directions, farther than Dane could see. A driver in the seat of a delivery truck honked his horn and yelled out the window, as if someone had lost track of a green light.

Dane watched and listened but there was too much excitement and slang for his beginner’s Spanish. As he wedged himself through the crowd, he could see that there was something on the ground with the women. Gray rocks, some as big as his head and others twice that size, studded the road like spikes on a soccer cleat. One woman pushed a stone a few inches with the side of her foot, then fiddled with a radio until it creaked out flute music. The women laughed, passing around a plastic bag of lemon-yellow rolls. They seemed to have forgotten that they blocked the way of hundreds of travelers. Someone yelled at them from the sidelines, but the words fell away quietly, like crumbs.

People started to cross the women’s space, perhaps determined to continue the journey on foot; women in heels dragged roller suitcases or children, men lugged army sacks over one shoulder, and teens aimed cell phone cameras as they passed. Dane pictured Jenny there, messing with her lens. She would love how the women scattered across the road without symmetry, how they faced different directions and didn’t look up to pose.

He hadn’t heard from Jenny since Uyuni three days ago. She didn’t say a word on the drive back from the salt flats, so he spent the time looking through Claude and Luc’s photos, at their request. Next he knew, he was drinking a beer at the hostel and Jenny stood by the check-out desk with her bag on her back. She gave him her guide book and pointed out the neon green sticky note in the La Paz section that marked the Travelers Casa, where they’d meet the night before the flight home. She had made reservations and written the date in the margin.

Dane asked a man who had just put a cell phone back in his pocket, Que pasa? He said something that Dane missed, then threw up his hands and almost smacked the face of someone behind him. Another man near Dane, tall and thick with short hair, stepped from the front of the crowd into the women’s space, clashing with their velvet and braids. He bent down and scooped up one of the rocks like it was a sack of cotton. Three or four women swarmed around him, wagging their pointer fingers and talking quickly in sentences punctuated by howls that showed they had mouths with few teeth. Two more onlookers left Dane’s sides. The crowd shivered, and the sensation spread to the muscles in his stomach and arms. He felt pushed and pulled, like at the edge of a mosh pit in Gunny, when you’re not sure yet if you want in.

The women and rocks got closer quickly, after a big push from the crowd behind. A woman from the center stood, focused on him amongst the other trespassers, and charged forward with her braids swinging like rope. There was a jab in his ribs and when he looked down her fingers spread into a fan. She jabbed again, each of her fingers poking between every rib, and sang out something fast and threatening.

The woman shoved him back into the crowd, then turned to someone else who had crossed the invisible barricade. The flute music wailed desperately through the noise, and no one laughed anymore. Dane wanted out. He was fed back through the mob with enough time to see that on the other side of the arena people bulged in like a tumor. Almost all of the women rushed over to defend their space. Dane could feel in his ribs and see in their braids and the gaps in their teeth that they were going to win. They would hold their square of pavement until they got whatever it was they fought for.

He saw an open space against a wall and sat in the dirt. The space between his ribs ached from the woman’s fingers, and he pulled his knees to his chest. Beside him was a woman holding a baby. The infant screamed and screamed and the woman touched its face, humming a line that Dane couldn’t place. He didn’t know if it was the same pair from earlier with the smoke, but he pretended it was. What he needed most was something to recognize.

  © Alison Turner, 2014

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