Norman Szabo

Hayward Fault Line Winner

H ermanos learned of it from sailors' tales borne up from southern oceans and rumored through the quiet Andean valleys on shepherds' tongues. He always pictured it -- the image of the place seared on his brain: pumice, basalt, gouts of flame and ragged waves -- a starveling land.

In his nineteenth year, the springtime shearing done, he stopped his ears against the lamentations of his mother and sisters and made the three weeks' journey to Lima. The gift he carried with him was a block of salt, a little white store of treasure; for he had heard that salt was valued and conceived it must indeed be so; for every other thing his valley could provide, but salt licks for the cattle were brought in from afar.

He worked his passage south in a Nantucket whaler. The captain saw his crew contagioned by the lad's mad purpose and so put in for water 80 leagues before the Cape. Hermanos here was set ashore, his name expunged forever from the Pequod's log, these storied sea-folk more real than he who'd dreamed through sleepless nights on deck of shadowed jaguars scattering whitecap flocks.

Southward still, until he reached the Land of Fire, where people stood like cormorants beside stone cairns.

Thickly dressed in woollen ponchos and fleeces shorn from unseen sheep, they gathered round. He offered them his lick of salt. They laughed and pointed to the spray-blown rocks where fire and wind forged twisted fingernails of crystal.

This all a century ago and more. Now, in the fractured landscape, dry and tangled in the sea-wrack, death-white fractal growth encrusts Hermanos' charred and ancient bones.

First published: August 2001