1 Emma Woods
I was walking back to the cabin to knock snow off my boots when the cracking roar echoed across the valley behind me. It sounded like splitting timber giving way. Turning around, I could see snow breaking loose high along the Cerro Blanco ridge, dropping down in a majestic, lolling rhythm. At first it moved slowly but once it fell over a rock ledge it gained momentum and power, like a giant wave bearing down the mountain. The sheer force was hypnotic – beautiful, even – and plumes of ice-powder billowed up like smoke. The avalanche dropped lower, swallowing up trees and boulders. It was exciting and frightening, and for a moment I didn’t even think about Jeremy and John. And then I scanned the mountain frantically, unable to place them. Time warped – those six or seven seconds stretched out and then compressed – and when that giant surge of snow swept across the trail and over the cliff, I had no idea if they’d escaped.
Pedro didn’t look at me; he just pulled the binoculars over my head and stared at the trail. We were in the middle of the Andes, a six-hour hike from Bariloche. No road access. No helicopter. Our stillness was making me panic – we had to do something. Finally Pedro thrust the binoculars at me and ran inside. ‘Look for their red jackets.’
Sliding the view into focus, I could see where the cornice had fallen into the ravine but my hands were shaking. The wind had blown the snow into a frozen wave – a Japanese woodprint etched against the sky. It shouldn’t have been so lovely. There was no sign of Jeremy or John.
Pedro leaned out the front door.‘Did they have transceivers?’
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
Pedro’s voice was urgent. ‘Avalanche signals give us their location. Strapped to their chests? Anything?’
I shook my head and he disappeared again. When he emerged, he was pulling on a pack loaded with poles and a shovel. ‘It’s only us.’
I knew that. Everyone else was hiking around the lake. ‘How much time do we have?’
‘Fifteen minutes, maybe twenty . . . They could be in an air pocket.’
It would take that just to get to the slide, but he was already running ahead and I had to work to keep up. I slipped at the river crossing, clinging to the overhead cable, but Pedro pulled me to the bank. We set off again and when we were within fifty metres of the rubble, he started shouting out for Jeremy and John. The avalanche had taken most of the snow, and a big slab of trail, into the ravine. We were faced with jagged blocks of ice and uneven piles of snow.
I had no idea what to do but Pedro was already climbing onto a mound of compacted snow.‘Do you know how to search for someone?’
‘No.’ I scrambled after him.
‘We imagine a grid. That rock: the top corner. That tree, the bottom. We walk back and forth and explore for anything solid. Take this—’ he handed me a metal rod that looked like a collapsible tent pole. In his other hand, he had a long piece of bamboo. We combed the closest pile, moving in line with each other, probing as far as we could, about seven or eight feet down. It was a relief to have something concrete to do.
‘Something here,’ Pedro said. He grabbed one of the shovels and began digging, shifting the snow in fast, clean arches. I tried to control my chest, filling it slowly with air. I needed to keep it together.
Copying Pedro, I pried up blocks of ice that were in the way.
‘Come on, Jeremy and John,’ I said under my breath. ‘You fucking dickheads need to be alive.’
My shovel scraped a hard surface and I was certain we’d gotten to one of them. But Pedro jumped forward and pushed away the snow to reveal the waterlogged bark of a tree. I yelled out in frustration.
Pedro stood back up. ‘Keep going. Work perpendicular to the fall line – the debris path is usually safe but we don’t want another avalanche.’ Pedro knew the terrain – he’d lived up there for years, managing the cabin.
I clambered over the rubble and kept searching. The quiet was cold against my ears. Only a faint murmur sounded from the wind.
I pushed down and hit something about three feet beneath me. ‘Oh!’ I was hopeful.
Pedro whipped around. ‘Solid?’
Again, Pedro started digging. I scooped the snow away with my gloves and pried back pieces of ice like rock. Everything could still be okay. We would find them and they’d be alive and we’d carry them back to the cabin. But then Pedro’s shovel hit something hard, a heavy clank, and we unearthed the top of a boulder.
We were working ourselves closer to the ravine. I tried to keep calm. Maybe the boys had run clear of the slide. The incline was too steep for us to check if there were footprints at the other side, but surely it was possible. I could imagine them hiking along the main trail – laughing at their close call with an avalanche. Punching each other and mucking about.
Pedro called out. ‘John? Jeremy?’
I began to call out too and he shushed me, listening. But the air was empty.
Pedro had stripped down to his flannel shirt. Time was passing and it made our search even more desperate. The mountain was too huge. All I could see was snow. We worked the grid until we reached the sharp incline of the cliff and I didn’t have a choice; I had to stop. My arms felt like they were going to fall off.
It was sinking in: we were out of our depth. The avalanche wasn’t going to be undone by me and Pedro and a couple of shovels. Jeremy and John had made a stupid decision and now they could be over the edge or trapped under snow and there would be no helping them. I buckled over, throwing up.
‘You okay?’ Pedro asked.
I nodded, wiping my mouth. ‘We can’t leave them.’
He looked at me – inquisitive, calculating – and I wondered how much he knew. I wondered if Jeremy had said anything. But Pedro glanced back towards the cabin, wiping the sweat out of his eyes. ‘It’s not safe. We risk a collapse.’
Over an hour had passed and our mission had shifted from rescue to recovery. It was subtle – a bird crossing the sky: at what point is it directly overhead, at what point has it passed? Even if they were dead, I needed to find the boys.
Sighing, Pedro forced the bamboo pole down and I followed, giving us another two rows in the grid. ‘Then we go back,’ he said.
We were about halfway along when I felt the snow shuddering beneath us like an earthquake tremor.
‘Up there, move up there!’ Pedro yelled. Tiny creaking sounds echoed beneath us like breaking glass. We needed to get off the snow mound before it caved in. I scrambled as fast as I could, jumping over an ice ledge but I didn’t know where to go. The whole ridge could cave in on us.
‘That open area,’ Pedro called out. It was twenty metres ahead, out of the mountain’s steep shadow. Sunlight was pooling onto it as a loud groan shook beneath us. The pack was ready to fall and it wanted to take us with it.
My thighs were burning as I pushed through each step but I didn’t seem to be making any distance. This was it. I’d been too careless, urging Pedro to go further, and now we were going to die. I felt Pedro shove me on. We were running but in slow motion. I had no sense of what the mountain was doing behind me. I focused only on the flat, level section waiting for us. We were ten metres away, then five. And finally I threw myself down on the ground just in time. A chunk of snow, about fifteen metres across, sloughed off and teetered down the mountain. I’d never been so scared in my life.
‘I’m sorry – I didn’t want to leave them.’ I was gasping for breath but there was no excuse for my stupidity.
Pedro was beside me, both of us staring at the empty air where we’d just been standing. ‘I’ll radio down. Club Andino will know if they arrive in Bariloche.’
‘What are the chances?’
Pedro shook his head like he didn’t want to promise more than he could deliver. He helped me to my feet and we started back towards the cabin. I could barely walk, my legs were shaking so badly. I was glad when he took the lead and we were forced to move in single file along the trail. I wouldn’t keep my composure if he tried to talk to me.
For the last two years I’d been planning to backpack through South America, and Argentina had been on my list of countries to visit. But a month before I left, it became my focus: I found out I was adopted. I was twenty-nine years old and giving blood, the bag rocking back and forth on the scale, when the nurse made a bland comment about how the bank needed more AB. She said my parents should donate because blood type was hereditary. I knew Dad was O, but the nurse said that wasn’t possible. When I got home, an internet search proved she was right, leading to a series of exhausting confrontations with my parents. Turned out I’d been born in Argentina and my biological parents had died in a plane crash.
I didn’t handle this revelation gracefully. I ignored Mum and Dad’s phone calls as I packed and finalised bills. I couldn’t figure out how much I’d known, how much I should have known. My parents were both pale and that inspired niggling suspicions when I was a kid, but doesn’t everyone have those – don’t we all fantasise of another tribe waiting for us? Mum told me I took after Grandma Gilly.
When I finally boarded the plane and found my seat, I fell into a deep sleep that was closer to passing out, and the air host had to nudge me to put on my seat belt. My first days in Buenos Aires were spent walking around, reeling. It was a city of monuments and statues. Modern skyscrapers tucked next to gothic domes. Gargoyles staring out over excavators and building works. I roamed the streets, staring at the majestic crumbling apartments, wondering if I could have lived in them, peering down hallways when anyone opened their front door.
Three shopfronts down from my hotel, in the ultra-bright florescence of the chemist, my lips formed the words cepillo de dientes – seven syllables for toothbrush. It seemed crazy that this musical, macho language could have belonged to me. The city’s rhythms were also strange: I would wake at one in the morning, absurdly alert with jetlag, and listen to the Argentineans wandering home after dinner on a week night.
On my third morning I wandered into Recoleta with my daypack. I thought I’d visit the National Library and research the crash that had changed the course of my life. The library was hard to miss: it looked like a cubed UFO with landing gear had dropped onto the lawn. Inside, the detectors were out of order, and the security guard raised his hands in a gesture that said ‘All this technology and what is it good for?’ We laughed as I walked around.
The stairwells were patterned with repeating circle motifs. Upstairs, rooms jutted out over an open work area so you could look down at people below, sitting at the long timber desks. Beyond them, a huge expanse of windows let in the winter light. The space overhead, all that air, made me feel small.
In Australia, I was a research librarian. I loved libraries – they were epic buildings. All those books, floor-to-ceiling. Each volume a physical manifestation of an idea. It was humbling in a way that made me think of cathedrals. And all that organisation: if you knew what you were looking for, you could find it. Didn’t matter if you were in another country with another language – it was all Dewey decimal.
There wasn’t a line at the information desk so I walked straight to the counter, dropping my pack on the floor. The woman behind the computer didn’t seem to care that it took me a moment to gather my thoughts. She wasn’t in a hurry.
My Spanish was passable – Dad was a director in the Department of Foreign Affairs and had been stationed in Peru and Mexico when I was growing up – but I asked if she could speak English.
I told her I was looking for information about family friends who had died in November 1977. A plane crash.
She nodded. With black metal glasses that matched her suit, she reminded me of my mother’s friends: competent and stylish. She must have been in her late fifties. ‘We have newspaper archives online and in microfiche. Can you read Spanish?’
‘You can search the obituaries. Check the English-language ones first. My name is Julia.’
It was a quiet morning so she walked me to a computer terminal in a windowless room. I sat down and she reached over me for the mouse, entering a password and following links to the archives. She smelled of pressed powder. ‘Good luck.’
I searched for my birth parents’ names. Eduardo and Maria Menendez. Nothing.
Then I looked for articles about plane accidents, narrowing the date of publication. Still nothing.
Next, the obituaries. I scrolled through every edition of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald between September and December 1977. Then the Spanish equivalents – Clarín and Crónica. Two people with the surname ‘Menendez’ had died but one was a teenager in a car accident and the other an elderly man who suffered a heart attack.
I stopped at Julia’s desk and thanked her.
She smiled. ‘Any luck?’
I shook my head.
Her eyebrows lifted as though my lack of success reflected on her and the library. ‘Who were they?’
‘Friends of my mother,’ I lied.
‘And they died in an accident of airplanes – you’re certain?’
I wasn’t certain about anything. ‘No.’
Julia was frowning, her forehead creased above her glasses. ‘Were they political?’
‘What?’ I asked.
She studied me for a moment. ‘Do you know about the Process of National Reorganization?’
‘The “Dirty War”?’ I knew a bit from my guidebook. Thirty thousand people had been kidnapped and murdered by the government in the 1970s and ’80s for being left-wing.
‘It might be worth talking to the Madres of the Plaza del Mayo,’ Julia said.
I was confused. The Mothers of the Disappeared used to march in front of the presidential palace to protest the disappearance of their children.
Julia nodded. ‘They coordinate all the records. I can call them.’ She scrolled online as she picked up the phone. Her Spanish was quick and she motioned for me to write the names I was searching for on a piece of paper. She recited them clearly into the phone, spelling them out. Covering the mouthpiece, she looked at me. ‘They have databases.’
‘For what?’ I asked.
She opened her mouth to answer but then grabbed my pen and began scribbling on the piece of paper. I couldn’t read her writing or follow what she was saying – she was speaking too fast. Her voice would lift as she asked a question and she’d nod her head, eyes trained on me. I smiled, trying to convey a sense of appreciation, but I wanted to know what she was saying. Then she covered the mouthpiece. ‘You should speak to them yourself.’
‘Your mother’s friends were held at La Cacha, a detention centre.’ She glanced at her notes. ‘According to records, police raided their home and took them into custody on 2 October 1977 and that’s the last time they were seen. Their names appeared on a prisoner list that was smuggled out. Eduardo was a teacher at the university. He and Maria were members of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party. Maria was eight months’ pregnant . . .’
‘What happened to the child?’
She looked up and I wondered if I’d been too careless – but she shrugged, the phone still tucked between her head and shoulder. ‘It’s in the courts now. Babies adopted in secret.
People in their thirties now, forced to take DNA tests, finding out their parents aren’t really their parents. Imagine that. The Grandmothers established a national register to help families find each other. There’s about five hundred missing children.’
I had to sit in one of the red chairs in the study hall. It was too much to think about. My biological parents had probably been murdered and somehow I’d ended up with Mum and Dad. A couple of Australians. If it were true, and they had a friend who organised the adoption, you had to wonder how much they’d known. Were they having dinner parties with people who ran death squads? It didn’t make sense – Mum had set up micro-enterprise schemes so women in the third world could start small businesses. Dad had overseen the establishment of twenty-five rural schools in Asia. We’d had arguments around the dinner table about paternalism – how much are you really helping a country when you try to fix their problems? – but my parents believed in free speech and the right of protest. They wouldn’t have conspired with a military dictatorship. It wasn’t possible.
I searched the library for English books about Argentina’s Dirty War, and stashed them in my backpack. I walked around the detectors, smiling at the guard like we were still sharing the joke. Usually I hated people who stole books but I reckoned the library gods would forgive this one.
In the outside foyer, a teenager with heavy eyeliner stood in the telephone booth, shouting at someone – a parent, I guessed – and snapping her gum. When she slammed the phone down and scurried out, the booth smelled of artificial strawberries and grease. I punched in the numbers on my card.
Excerpted from What the Ground Can’t Hold by Shady Cosgrove. Copyright © 2013 by Shady Cosgrove.
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