I could've marvelled at the night sky for hours - the stars were uncountable diamonds on an epic black dome, there were ethereal arcs of colourful matter, the stars blinked in an unpredictable sequence - but I was lost. All my possessions were in my backpack. It felt huge, as subtle as a flashing neon sign.
I was searching for Vicuña Street in La Serena, a coastal town in Chile. It was two a.m.. Dawn was four hours away. The streets were empty. I had seen no one since disembarking a bus from Valpairiso. When I discovered a still-burning cigarette on the ground, I began to feel uneasy. The smoker was nowhere to be seen. Dark shapes seemed to dart from one alleyway to the next. Occasional shouts and bangs resounded in the silence. The feeling of invincibility that imbues a traveller faded like the aberrant cigarette.
Twenty minutes later, I paused outside a church overlooking a typical South American plaza. Something moved in the shadowed arched doorway. A homeless woman stepped into the amber street light. She rubbed her eyes and squinted.
"Sorry for waking you," I said before walking away. She followed, limping heavily. I told her I had no money, but she persisted, like a mistreated but devoted servant. She drew level and whispered to me, not out of a desire to be quiet but because projecting her voice caused her discomfort. She was wearing a torn yellow t-shirt and threadbare jeans. It was cold, our breaths plumed from our mouth's, yet she seemed indifferent to the temperature.
"I have nothing for you."
She rolled her eyes, held a finger to her lips and spoke into my ear. Her breath was warm, scented with alcohol. My Spanish was poor and her sentences collapsed into one another, like a row of dominoes set in motion. I understood certain words: peligroso, dangerous; aqui, here; hotel lejos, hotel far; and helped by the stabbing motion when she said cuchillo, I inferred it meant knife.
Something over my shoulder caught her attention and she grabbed my wrist.
“Vamos,” she said.
Each time she glanced backward her grip tightened. When we were streets from the plaza, she released me. She paused to get her bearings.
Her clothes were tattered and loose, they billowed when a gust blew through the desolate streets. I remembered I had biscuits. I placed my burdensome backpack on the pavement and searched for the packet. She remained on guard with the tips of her blackened toes in the rounded edge of the light. I handed her a biscuit which she quickly put in her mouth as though leaving it for a second longer in her palm might cause it to disintegrate.
She prepared a cigarette, licking the side to slow the burn rate. She offered me the first drag in exchange.
"I don't smoke."
She talked as we walked. I listened whilst searching for street signs. Her tone was melancholy, as though she were speaking about the past. She told me her name was Javiera and that she was forty-years-old. I understood snippets about an errant man, her drug battle, an absent son. Her presence reassured me: I relaxed. Occasionally she laughed at a memory and the sound echoed through dark alleyways and rebounded off locked doors and barred windows. The magnificent night sky seemed have been created solely for us.
"Where is everyone, Javiera? There're no lights on anywhere."
"Rich people from Santiago have houses here. When it's not the season it's dead. The thieves have no one to rob. The houses are empty."
After forty minutes, she stopped.
A sign above us read: Hostel Vicuña.
Javiera was looking toward the emerging day. The journey had drained her. She swayed from lethargy. I took my backpack off and pulled back the cover, revealing many superfluous items that I had believed were vital. I offered her a pair of expensive shoes that I hadn’t worn once since landing in South America.
“Can you use these?”
“Yes, yes,” she replied.
“They're not too big?”
She turned them over in her trembling hands as though they were something miraculous. I gave her my remaining pesos. They seemed like meagre offerings, but she smiled and repeated her gratitude. We hugged and she limped away, the shoes dangling from her hand by their laces. I glanced at the buildings that were taking shape and colour in the increasing light. When I looked back Javiera had vanished.
S J Darvell