The Glacier

Idra Novey
Landscape with blue mountains, a pink sun, and graphic of cars at bottom of frame
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

We were camping in the Andes, one of six families on a trip with a collective horde of sixteen children. Each car ride, the kids switched vehicles. They often swapped their sunhats as well, and I didn’t pay much attention to who scrambled into our car. Or I didn’t unless they got too loud, or did something that had to be stopped, as with the boy currently seated behind me, who kept pressing his toes into the back of my seat.

For several hours, we’d been making our way up a winding, increasingly narrow road along a cliff. There was no guardrail, and our car kept rocking, shiplike, with each turn. The mission of our six-family caravan was to swim in the hot springs we’d found on this mountain once before. I was certain we should have seen the hot springs by now, and my husband Gustavo, who was driving, thought so as well. He guessed we must be misremembering how far up we’d driven when we found the hot springs last time, which had been twelve years ago, before we’d all had children.

Watch out for those monsters, I told him, pointing through the windshield at a cluster of particularly large rocks that had tumbled onto the road.

I see them, Gustavo said with irritation, and I apologized. I knew he was eminently capable of spotting a giant rock in front of us without any anxious warnings from me. But what had happened to the hot springs? It didn’t seem possible that they could all be gone in just over a decade.

These chaotic trips in the Andes were an annual event. I knew the other couples through Gustavo, who’d been coordinating the campsite reservations for twenty years. The trips often felt like a marital test, although I never regretted them once they ended. On Monday, trapped again in the grinding machinery of city life, I knew I would enjoy recalling the children this morning in their bright pajamas making rock sculptures behind the tents after breakfast. Or the sight of them last night, perched on a log like a flock of birds while I reheated some pasta for them over the campfire.

I thought I had a good sense of the children by now, and yet when I turned around once more to ask the boy seated behind me to please keep his feet on the floor, I couldn’t recall his name. He definitely belonged to Andres and Nora. His dark hair was chopped into the generic, unchanging haircut Nora had given all her sons since they were toddlers. He was fairly indistinguishable, with his bony knees poking out of blue athletic shorts. Other parents on this trip likely thought the same of my own sons and couldn’t remember their names either, none of us being quite as invested in each other’s offspring as we liked to think we were.

Yet even the goats were gone now. None of the big rangy herds we’d seen on the last trip remained.

In fact, if one of our vehicles hit a rock and fell off the cliff, there was a good chance no adults in the car would be able to name every child plummeting with them down the mountainside. I was about to remark on this bleak possibility when the minivan ahead of us came to a halt. Paulina emerged from the driver’s side, swinging her loose hair out of her face, and motioned to the van with a frown, flicking her fingers to show something had punctured their front tire.

Kids, please stay away from the edge if you get out, I warned the passengers currently in our care, though they were already slamming their doors, and Gustavo was half out of the car as well, rushing over to join the other fathers. All six of the men began vying to make themselves useful in replacing the tire. A few of the mothers gathered with the pack as well—Nora, being one of the bolder ones, insisted on taking a role in the installation of the spare.

Watching them through the windshield, I knew I had chosen yet again to be the resident loner. On these group trips, the other women no longer expected me to join them, and I couldn’t bring myself to get out of the car now either, not with fifty pages left in the bulky novel I’d been reading for over a month. I’d been determined to fit it into the glove compartment, hoping for a moment like this today, when I could sneak in at least a few minutes of reading and being alone.

Twelve years ago, on our last group trip to this area in the Andes, we had showered under a small waterfall along the roadside that I was certain we should have reached by now. Gustavo agreed the waterfall had been lower on the mountain, although the hot springs were the reason that we were continuing higher—for the children to experience the wonder of those sudden pools, the water bubbling up from underground, steaming and reeking of sulfur.

By the time the spare tire was installed, I’d gotten through enough pages to project a sense of calm as a new trio of children clambered into our car. Yet there was no feigning composure at the blasted ruin of the mountainside as we drove higher. I’d read online about the gypsum mining empire that had lobbied for access up here, but I hadn’t realized they’d razed such massive areas out of existence. Entire slopes had been burned away, reduced to a uniformly flat, blackened expanse of ground-up stones and grimy, unnatural-looking gravel.

There’d been rumors the mining company had slashed a glacier in half, messing with the flow of far more meltwater than they admitted. Still, I’d assumed the damage must have been contained to a limited area. Last night at the campfire, I’d agreed when Paulina said the government surely wouldn’t have allowed the mining company to move too many things around, not when all of Santiago drank from reservoirs fed by these glaciers. Paulina’s reasoning had seemed not just hopeful but conclusive—how could it not be, with twelve reasonably informed adults nodding along, sipping beers together in camping chairs under a gloriously clear, star-riddled sky?

Yet even the goats were gone now. None of the big rangy herds we’d seen on the last trip remained. We’d seen hundreds of them at this altitude then, gathering wherever meltwater from the ice shelves had trickled down and formed networks of streams. Goats had stood together grazing all over then, blocking the road or clustered on grassy areas that were gone now, too.

The wind was pressing harder against my side of the car, rocking us more wildly than before. The light, too, felt sharper and less forgiving as I squinted through the windshield. After replacing the tire, we were now advancing with the deliberate slowness of the penitent. Every rock and hole felt like a scolding for having indulged in such naive optimism.

In the backseat, our new crew of passengers wanted something to snack on. But the previous passengers had finished the last treats that Oscar and Miguel had jammed into the pockets in the doors.

But you must keep something hidden in here for emergencies, said Maria José, the oldest and most indignant of the current trio. Not even in your glove compartment?

I’m sorry, I told her; if we had anything edible left, I’d give it to you—I swear.

I opened the glove compartment to show her it contained nothing but car manuals and the bulky novel I’d brought, filling what now seemed a conspicuously large amount of space.

Are you sure there isn’t anything under the seats? Gustavo asked, as if even he assumed I should be able to produce some form of sustenance for these children if I wanted to badly enough.

Meanwhile, the road kept narrowing with each turn around the mountain, my dizziness tipping into nausea. To keep driving higher made no sense at all—and why, collectively, had we had so many children?

I really think we better turn around, I said to Gustavo. Could you flash the lights or maybe just stop the car?

We’d lost cell service some time ago, and there was no way to discuss things unless we brought all six vehicles to a halt. But Gustavo didn’t want to stop. Without turning his head from the road, he insisted the mining damage would have to end eventually, and we’d driven all this way.

Please, the kids are ravenous, I said. We at least need to stop and see who has snacks left.

Gustavo offered no answer to this, just gripped the wheel more intently and continued with the procession. When the van ahead of us came to another halt, I scrambled out as fast as the children. Before Gustavo could get out of our car and interject, I asked Paulina whether she was ready to turn around and give up, to admit the hot springs were gone.

It never occurred to me they could just be gone, Paulina said, but they are, just like that—no more hot springs. She shook her head.

On the other side of the minivan, I heard what sounded like someone vomiting, and Paulina explained that one of the kids had gotten carsick. It was Andres and Nora’s son in the blue athletic shorts who’d been pushing into my seat. Doubled over on the roadside, he was ejecting an astonishing quantity of clear liquid, which was now splashing over the dry ground. A puddle had begun to widen around his feet.

We’ll figure it out, don’t worry, we’ll get back okay, I told my child, who didn’t reply, just turned his face, open-mouthed, toward the vastness of the ground-up, ash-colored particles behind us, covering the entirety of the mountainside.

Maybe the altitude was the cause. Maybe all the sharp zigzags of mining roads cutting through the stripped face of the cordillera. Whatever had gone wrong inside his body, the result just kept pouring forth. I watched, as stunned and motionless as everyone else. It was a shocking rush of liquid, so abundant it seemed to be jetting up from a source under the ground beneath him, rising up through his scrawny legs, turning his body into an unbidden conduit.

I can’t remember his name, I murmured to Gustavo. He drew nearer and said he wasn’t sure either. I looked around at the growing gathering of adults but didn’t see Andres or Nora, who had been at the front of the caravan. Somebody really needed to step forward to console their son until they got here. The boy was heaving now, releasing such a bewildering quantity of liquid that the puddle was now trickling toward our feet.

And yet no one in our half-circle of seven or so parents had moved toward him. It was like we were trapped in a spell, compelling us to remain exactly where we had stopped, watching this poor kid vomit alone, more coming up each time, the puddle spreading faster over the cracked, dusty surface of the road.

I wanted to think my inaction was not due to pettiness about the boy pressing his restless feet so many times against the back of my seat. I liked to think of myself as inherently decent, a person eager to step forward when it was necessary. But if that was true, why was I standing meekly next to my husband while this other family’s child went on retching?

My God, what’s going on? Nora finally rushed up, stepping in her open-toed sandals into the puddle around her son. As soon as she touched his bony back, the boy took an audible gulp of breath, which seemed to bring his incomprehensible purging to an end at last.

Or not yet, as he didn’t stand up. He stayed hunched over, coughing and gripping his knees. To avoid the indictment in Nora’s gaze, I stared down with dread at the bile about to reach my feet. And then it arrived—a warm, awful squish against my toes.

Before I could react, two small hands pressed against the back of my legs. It was Oscar, hoping to be held. As I lifted him onto my hip, something about the arrangement of his face took me by surprise. I knew the rest of him, his short fingers and shaggy brown hair, the source of the scar on his wrist. I knew who had given us the hand-me-down T-shirt he was wearing, with its half-submerged hippo, as a gift to his older brother four years ago.

And yet Oscar’s small, round face still startled me—the unabashed need of his open mouth, all the tiny milk teeth inside it, waiting to be pushed loose and supplanted.

We’ll figure it out, don’t worry, we’ll get back okay, I told my child, who didn’t reply, just turned his face, open-mouthed, toward the vastness of the ground-up, ash-colored particles behind us, covering the entirety of the mountainside.

Idra Novey is a writer and translator. Her most recent novel is Take What You Need.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021


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