Denis Burbank double-checked his canvas rucksack embellished with what seemed like a zillion zippers to make sure he had everything he’d need for the trip to the Uyuni salt flats. The rock hammer- check. The reactive strips to measure the levels of salinity in the lake – check. The Ziploc bags and glass tubes to put samples in – all there. The pincers to pick up salt crystals without damaging their snowflake structure were also in place. So was his Canon EOS camera and the notepad with the silver Cross pen Sandra, his wife, had given him for his 50th birthday.
Burbank knew that the Bolivian government routinely barred foreign geologists from collecting lithium samples, a mineral protected by the country’s constitution. So when a group of La Paz academics invited him to speak on the mineral’s potential and offered to pay for his ticket, he booked a Boliviana de Aviación flight that would give him less than 24 hours on the salt flats.
When the airport official asked him about the purpose of his visit, Burbank swallowed, held his breath for a full minute, and then stammered, tourism. He could feel a shiver run down his spine, but the Bolivian officer smiled, handed him back the passport, and shouted, Next!
For the last few decades, lithium had been the scientific and industrial communities’ darling child: researchers talked about it and examined it, but most of the time, the mineral bore the brunt of speculations about its benefits, in which Burbank was an expert. He knew all there was to know about it. It was present in seawater, spodumene, petalite rocks, and brine all over the world but in such small quantities that its extraction was impractical. Only in one area of the so-called Lithium Triangle, where trillions of gallons of brine sloshed beneath the Altiplano, was it abundant enough to be mined at a low cost. All it took was to drill a hole, let the brine sit in ponds for a year, evaporate the water, and then process the sparkling salts, which were subsequently used in batteries of various sizes and capacities.
So there he was, a professor of applied geohydrology and potential future chief of the US Geological Survey, ready to examine the massive salt lake nine times the size of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he’d only have time to investigate a plot the size of a tiny residential garden, like the one behind his house in Colorado.
He looked out the window of the jeep transporting him to the lake and reflected on the stark contrast between the poverty of the surroundings and the luxury of the Salt Palace, where he was staying. As the off-roader lumbered along the dirt track, decaying adobe structures covered with zinc and weighted down by stones flashed before his eyes like a slow-motion movie. Everything was eerily quiet —no music blasting from transistor radios, no car horns honking, no human conversations—as if time didn’t exist here or as if clocks measured it differently. Only some Quechua women, proudly flaunting their black braids topped by stiff bowler hats, silently cooked steaming concoctions in tin pots on open fires.
Burbank was startled out of his trance when the Jeep came to a halt, the gears grinding. He could see the enormous Salar, as it was known among scientists in front of him, melting into the sky’s cobalt blue.
The driver, a cheerful middle-aged Bolivian with a weathered face and a gold tooth that flashed when he grinned, looked over his shoulder and stated in bad English:
“We here. You stay two hour. I pick up at twelve. Not go far! You get lost or worse….”
His cheerful expression became solemn; he crossed himself and spat out the open window as if releasing a bitter-tasting curse.
“Strange thing happen here, so no cross other side. Strange and terrible. People dead,” he made a sign of slashing the throat, “or missing. So no cross fence. Stay this side road,” he warned.
Burbank nodded repeatedly, mimicking the renowned head-bobbing velvet bulldogs, one of which his father used to keep on the dashboard of his Mustang when Denis was a teenager learning to drive.
The driver was not the first person to warn him to stay away from the part of the lake fenced off by barbed wire suspended between wooden stakes and decorated with bright blue, green, and red ribbons flapping furiously in the wind like prophetic crows.
“Make sure you stay away from Dead Man’s Lake,” the pretty receptionist in the hotel told him in the morning after she’d heard he was going to the Salar.
The badge on her moss-green uniform said her name was Aracely.
“What’s Dead Man’s Lake?” he’d asked, handing her the old-fashioned key dangling from a piece of wood shaped like a flamingo.
“It’s part of the flats no one is allowed to go to,” she smiled sweetly. Burbank noticed that, like most Bolivians, old and young, rich or poor, she sported a gold incrustation between the left canine and the first premolar.
“Weird stuff happens there,” she whispered.
“People either never come back or they come completely changed. Crazy like,” she replied, widening her own eyes wide to demonstrate the lunacy that gripped those who ignored the warnings.
“How do they say it in your movies?” she thought for a while, searching for the right word.
“Waco!” she laughed without joy and shuddered as if a sudden cold draft wrapped around her slim shoulders.
“Wacky,” Burbank corrected.
“Ok, wacky. But make sure to stay on the right side of the road. We want you back safe and sound!” She smiled again and hung the key on a hook behind her.
Burbank was a scientist who didn’t believe in old wives’ tales. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard locals spread rumors to keep tourists away from locations they weren’t supposed to visit. Sometimes, because they were indigenous burial grounds. Occasionally, it contributed to the mystery of the site. At times, the opposite was true— it was meant to attract more tourists. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good mystery? He saw no harm in such stories and ignored the warnings.
Someone or something was moving. At first, the movement was very weak, but it was clear that something was happening. Yes. It came again. An echo. The sound of an engine. Tires screeching. Voices. Human voices. Something smelled like burned petrol. And something else smelled like fresh blood and plasma.
“Two of them,” U thought with a shiver of excitement.
“I can feel them as clearly as if they were right next to me!” But… will they get closer? Will they cross the fence? Will they??!!
U’s excitement grew as he heard the noises getting louder.
He hoped they’d get close enough for him to move. That was all he needed. Get them close enough for one move! He could move fast. He could do it because others had done it before. X had done it. And so had G.
U would be free then! On his way back home.
Burbank saw the jeep drive away, leaving behind a cloud of red dust like a sandstorm in the Sahara. Even though the sun shone brightly, it was only about 5 degrees Celsius at this early hour. He set the backpack down and looked around.
Salt as white as snow and indigo water (or was it already the sky?) winked at him. The place was so big that he was sure it could be seen from space. He saw why it was called the World’s Largest Mirror. The few rolling clouds in the sky reflected in the water, making it look like an enormous looking glass with no apparent limits.
“It could be a landing site for intergalactic spaceships,” he chuckled, then took three steps toward the edge of the Salar. He only had two hours, and he was anxious to get started.
Crack…crack…crack … The salt crunched under his steel-toed work boots. It was like walking on freshly frozen water in his native Colorado.
He walked slowly. At an altitude of more than 3,600 meters above sea level, every step was twice as hard as it would have been at sea level. He took a deep breath, trying to fill his lungs with the thin air, and headed toward a small brine pond that sparkled in the whiteness.
“My first sampling spot,” he decided.
The brine was thick and light blue. It had a lot of salt and possibly also potash, borax, and halite. There was also some red dust from the road that cars driving by stirred up and left there.
Burbank unzipped a pocket on his backpack and took out a rock chisel and two tubes with rubber caps. He would break off a few pieces, collect two samples, and then move on to the next pool that looked bigger and brighter.
“It must have come out with the mist from last night.”
He put the salt water into a syringe and pumped it into a tube.
He couldn’t wait to spend the next two hours in a place he’d heard about but never thought he’d see in person. He would never get this chance again, so he had to grab it with both hands.
U was disappointed. After the initial thrill of hearing voices and sensing human warmth, he realized the sounds had retreated. Even the engine sounds and gear clatter faded as the car moved away. U was not only frustrated but also angry! How long had it been since he last had the chance to leave this place? He could not tell because human time was not something he’d ever learned or cared to evaluate.
U thrashed in anguish. He didn’t want to spend another moment in this damn salt lake where nothing ever happened. He was also aware that his energy was shrinking. If no adequate host appeared, he’d expire like the ship’s engine that had brought him here. That happened to P and K. They just went out like old batteries with no juice.
U couldn’t let that happen! U wanted to live! U wanted to go back home!
Burbank could tell it was nearing noon by the tilt of the sun. The cab driver would be back soon to pick him up. He had 19 samples from different pools neatly arranged in a metal holder. There was still one empty tube teasing him as he considered quitting.
He looked across the Salar and noted the next puddle was about 200 meters away. In this oxygen-depleted environment, it was pretty far. He had time to walk there, get the sample, and return to the road before the vehicle arrived. He was slightly out of breath but confident he could make it. His heart raced as he gazed at the fence with the flapping ribbons. For a moment, he sensed something or someone beckoning to him. Someone was trying to convey a message to him.
“And what if…” a thought flashed through his mind.
“You are a scientist, Denis. A man of facts, so act like one. You don’t believe in that mumbo jumbo about Dead Man’s Lake, do you? You might find something you’ve never seen before. Perhaps this is why locals warn tourists to stay away. All you have to do is go behind the wire and take a sample!”
He zipped up the side pocket of the knapsack and threw it over his shoulder.
There it was again! The vibrato of footsteps. The crunch of the salt. The tantalizing aroma of sweat and human plasma. As the steps approached steadily, U’s exhilaration returned. Without a doubt… They were on their way to him, whoever they were!
“Come on! Come on! “U urged the human, leading him to where he’d spent the last millennium. Or more. Initially, with those who were on the ship when it crashed.
He could still recall X and W, but not T, Q, or Y. They eventually found a host and were able to go. U was the last one in the area known as Dead Man’s Lake.
It could be his last opportunity! U concentrated hard on conveying positive vibrations and sending an invitation to the person who might, just might, become his host and take him out from this damn lake!
“Damn it!” Burbank swore as his khaki shirt snagged on the barbed wire as he went beneath it.
He wriggled his way free, then threw the backpack to the opposite side, where it fell with a bang.
“Holy crap!” he yelled again.
“I hope the tubes are OK!”
The wind picked up, making the ribbons flap frantically as if warning him to reconsider and return to the road.
“Come on, Denis! “You should know better than that!” he chastised himself.
“Legends. Nothing but local folklore. Like the one about the Guatemalan volcano god who craves human flesh. Or the one about Mexican cenote skulls.”
He scanned the horizon for the red dust cloud, signaling the arrival of the Jeep. There wasn’t any.
“A clear sign that I should get a sample!”
To his left, he noticed a shallow pool with exceptionally clear water. It looked more like spring water than brine.
“Interesting,” he muttered, moving closer.
“Low to no saline content.” There is also no cross-contamination. I wonder why.”
He removed the last glass tube, removed the rubber stopper, and then did a double take as he noticed something stirring in the water. Something resembling a little fishtail or a tadpole. He rubbed his temples.
“A trick of the light,” he muttered.
“No living organism could possibly survive in this environment!”
He knelt, extracted the syringe, and prepared the tube.
“I have a feeling this is going to be the discovery of the century,” he said as he whistled David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
That was the last conscious action he took.
He was so close that his smell made U dizzy with want. The aroma was spicy, laced with the iron atoms coursing through his veins. He was the ideal host for him to recharge before deciding what to do next. Attempt to find a landing spot, of which he knew there were many nearby, and return home or continue masquerading as another human. It made no difference now. He’d think about it later.
The ground crackled as the human approached. Only three steps away. Two…one…jump!
The Bolivian driver’s name was Carlos Mamani, a surname so common in Uyuni that it seemed like everyone here was connected. As he got closer, he saw a figure in the middle of the road. He stepped on the gas, revving the engine, which roared with a shriek of straining metal.
“Looks like the guy paid attention to the warning. When they don’t, it usually ends up in tears,” he muttered, then drove the last three hundred meters at a steady rhythm.
The American stood out against the crimson background of the road like a salt statue. He was staring straight ahead, past the Jeep and beyond the horizon. Mamani could see he was hatless; the knapsack was open, spilling its contents. His limbs were stiff, his khaki shirt was missing a button at the collar, and his left sleeve was ripped at the elbow. He didn’t seem to notice the trickle of blood flowing from a shallow flesh wound on his cheek. He just stood there with his eyes glazed over. Blank. Or maybe scared.
Mamani ground to a halt, his fingers firmly gripping the steering wheel. He tried but failed to shift them to the gear stick. The American’s stare enslaved him.
Mamani’s jaw trembled, and saliva dribbled from his lips, but he couldn’t lift his arm to wipe it away. Like the salt in the lake, his muscles had solidified. He could only watch as the foreigner approached and effortlessly yanked him from the car seat through the open window, flinging him onto the red dust.
He didn’t fight back. He knew the man had discovered something in Dead Man’s Lake, like many others before him. He had no desire to find out what it was. He sighed as he watched the Jeep careen down the road towards Uyuni. He was sure it was the last time he’d see the jeep. And then the American. And he was relieved.
Polish by birth, a citizen of the world by choice. JB Polk’s first story was short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland 1996. She regularly contributed to Women’s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland, and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of Virginia House Writers, Dublin, and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards. Her creative writing was interrupted when she moved to Latin America, started contributing to magazines and newspapers, and then wrote textbooks for Latin American Ministries of Education. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, 53 of her stories have been accepted for publication.
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