While I wrote this short horror piece based on the Mano del Desierto in Chile's Atacama Desert, the Atacama itself was the last piece of the puzzle. The idea had been rolling around in my otherwise empty skull for about five years now.

Let me know what you think. :)

Oh Atacama, they say you're a strange place. But on a black mountain there I found my solitude.

I am old, grumpy, unsociable, and I smoke. My heart is as dry as Atacama. Like Atacama, I don't like people and I do like silence. My wife Carla cannot understand. Why I do not give up smoking. When she says, Alberto, the cigarettes will kill you. Like any man, I do not wish to die. But the smoke drives people away, and so I sit, with my dark heart and my cloud of smoke, in our little house in San Pedro de Atacama, watching the desert dunes shift and change on the wind.

This day she nags me as I read the paper. The roof needs repairing, Alberto, she tells me. Put down the paper. Those cigarettes will kill you. Jesus is not pleased with how you spend your life. The old nag. I tell her to be silent. Carla begins to weep. I pick up my paper and my tobacco and my lighter, and I look her coldly in the eye and then I leave.

There is a black mountain behind San Pedro called Licancaburf. It is a volcano. It takes me two hours but I walk to its foot stained gold from the sand. On the way I pass many ruins, the old clay remains of the Likan-antay people. Those people prospered here two thousand years before Jesus Christ ever disapproved of my lifestyle, or anybody else's. The Likan-antay gave their name to the mountain, the mountain of the people, Licancabur.

There are still Likan-antay, but I am not one of them. When I climb the volcano it has no meaning for me beyond the desire for silence. I am a Mestizo, I am here to smoke and hate the world.

As I walk I think about Jesus and his rapture of this noisy, encroaching world. Carla tells me when we go to heaven we will exist in all-encompassing love. Everyone will be together, everyone will be one with God. I do like Jesus's plans for rapture but I think his idea of heaven needs work. I am a man of silence and solitude and unsociableness and not in any mind for everybody's all-encompassing love.

Grit covers my skin and squints my eyes. The sun burns my dark skin. The walk up Licancabur's side is steep, very steep. A man comes bouncing down. He seems refreshed from the hike. I am stopped in the shade of a boulder. He stops unnecessarily to greet me.

He asks if I am climbing the mountain. Yes. I ask him if he would like a cigarette. No. He doesn't smoke. That is everything which needs to be discussed. He wishes me a pleasant climb and bounces down the mountainside. I watch him for a while and he deviates from the path which will take him into San Pedro and instead heads deeper into the mounds of clay and stone ruins of the Likan-antay.

Licancabur is too far for an old man to climb. I am already stiff and sore. I get about a quarter of the way, then I stop and read the paper. The sun is going down. It is too hot for tourists, I don't see another climber.

There are stories out here of Coyote, who is the oldest of the gods. Coyote, the trickster. I've heard many good and bad things about Coyote. He is also the god of death. Coyote is an Old Testament god, in my mind. He is wrathful and scornful and loves a joke. He is interested in mortals but doesn't hesitate to deceive and harm them. People in San Pedro say they've seen Coyote, that he has three heads and walks on two legs like a man.

The God of the New Testament also has three heads, and he is said to resemble a man. He has the head of God the Father, of the man Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. If anyone wandered the desert out here, the strange Atacama, then it would be the Holy Spirit. It would be the wind. The sand. The age. They say there are parts of the Atacama in which no life can exist. That it is the closest place on Earth to Mars.

Mars! Ha, I wish I was on Mars. No people, no life there. No music, no television, no news, no nagging. Silence for billions of years and billions of years more.

In my heart I have always longed for silence, for in this world there is no justice, and people cannot tell their gods apart, and they argue about it nonetheless. In my heart the only voice I have ever longed to hear is the Holy Spirit, the sand in the wind.

It's getting late. I put the paper under my arm and trot down the side of the mountain. My legs ache but that's to be expected.

Down near the foot of the mountain where the traveller turned off, I hear the yip of a coyote. Yip yip. Coyotes are shy animals and mostly they avoid humans. However I'm one old man and I must look like an easy dinner for a coyote, and so I turn away from San Pedro and think to skirt the ruins before heading into town, to throw the hunter.

The sun disappears quickly behind the mountains.

I bang into a waist high wall. A retaining wall of the Likan-antay village. A slowly eroding museum now. My night vision is not very good. I trace one hand along the wall and wind my way around it. Night in the desert can be very cold. A man can die of hypothermia. But I can see the lights of San Pedro and I know it's only a matter of keep moving and don't panic.

I put a cigarette in my mouth, and then another. I come to a stone tower which robs San Pedro from view. I'm no longer thinking about Jesus Christ's plan for an all-encompassing love. I'm more acutely thinking about how much I want to avoid seeing any such place very shortly.

I circle the tower and San Pedro's lights come back into view. I breathe a sigh of relief. It is punctuated by the yip yip of a coyote.

Oh, go away, I tell it.

And then a voice in the dark asks, have you got a cigarette?

I just about jump out of my skin. My heart pounding, I turn on the traveller. I thought you didn't smoke, I tell him. I can see him standing there, just faintly. The moon is not yet risen. He seems broader in the shoulders than I remember, but that's certainly his voice.

There is laughter in his voice as he replies, I took it up.

Very wry, very unimpressed, with my old heart still pumping its thick blood too fast, I extend to him a cigarette already rolled from my tobacco pouch. He takes it between two fingers and puts it in his mouth. He seems to be wearing some sort of ungainly backpack which I don't recall him having on the volcano.

Light? he says.

I hold out my lighter, and he laughs. Oh no, he says, you light it.

Very gravely now I click the lighter. A spark. Dancing on the traveller's face. His eyes seem sort of sunken but it's hard to tell by such a brief flicker. I click the lighter again and this time the flame is steady, the flame is steady over a malformed face with blood oozing from the eye sockets and the mouth and thick black stitches keeping the twisted, broken neck attached to a shoulder, and the flame casts light over a long and hairy snout and the awful yellow eyes of a coyote, bloodied drool hanging in ropes from its jaws, a huge coyote, with the body of a man and two heads sewn into its shoulders, framing that terrible face.

The head of the traveller, most certainly dead, flops forward and catches the flame on the cigarette. The lighter falls from my hand. The coyote shrieks a laugh or a howl, I can't tell which, because I'm running, stumbling over a low clay wall and running, throwing backwards glances at the terrible thing pursuing me, at the god of death on my heels.

My foot lodges under something solid and I go sprawling on my face and chest.

Struggling up, I find myself atop of the body of the traveller, without his head and neck, laying askew amid the ruins of the Likan-antay village.

A scream pulls itself from my throat. I'm up and running like a man half my age. Over another wall, and another, no longer headed for San Pedro but only running, and hearing the panting yip of a coyote on my heels, and on, and on, until I'm free of the village of ruins and into the desert proper, and Atacama embraces me and I hear the forlorn howl of a coyote denied his meal from the village outskirts.

I run until I'm exhausted. Then I walk. I pause at one stage and look at my cigarettes and at my tobacco, and they make me sick. And I don't have my lighter. I toss them to the sand and walk. I hear the night birds and the insects. The moon does not rise. Now and then my hand scrapes the soft petals of a flower. The Atacama has life. The Atacama has sound. The dry wind rustles through the branches of a young tree. I walk.

Finally, very lost, I see a vague, tall form ahead of me. It branches into five, it towers above me. I listen for the yip of the coyote. There is none. I think of God the Father. I don't hear him. What has five heads? I don't know. I go towards the form. My outstretched hand touches warm, rough stone.

And then I realise what it is.

The Mano del Desierto, the Hand of the Desert.

A thousand miles from San Pedro.

I fall against it, and there I sleep, until the sun finally rises gold and splendid beyond words, catching first the fingers of the Hand, and then the rest of it, until the strange Atacama, the Hand, and I are all drenched in beautiful light.

We are the life in the sand.

Anneque G. Malchien

one very strange hour

15th April 2013

I've wanted to write this quite odd story for some time now, probably about five years. Using Atacama was really the last piece in the puzzle; my desire to write this story in some form or another is the reason for the prevalence of coyotes in the Fallouts.