The stone, a lump of basalt about the size of a sack of fertiliser, was almost all that remained of the glade. It was the only marker for Rogelio to recognise the place; the forest had been torn down for the new avocado orchards.
It had once been a natural clearing, where Rogelio had played with his friends, chasing and hiding amongst the pine trees that stood perpendicular above the steep slopes, cooling their feet in the clear streams, listening to fluting bird song. They had always rushed through the glade, never touching the stone, skirting around it, feeling somehow that they should not approach it too closely.
Now his friends were mostly gone to Morelia, waiting tables for tourists, working in the cooking oil factory or pouring concrete in its suburban developments. Here the only work was Felipe Luis Flores’s avocado business.
The long lines of avocado bushes flowed uphill, forever nudging at the edges of the pine forests. Flores was always expanding the orchards, sometimes with a government permit to clear the forests, sometimes without. The avocadoes were sucking all the water from the ground, drying the streams and weakening the adjacent forests, with the pine branches thinning out and still showing brown needles in places from the previous summer. The birds, if they were still there, had fallen silent.
Rogelio was sweating, the sun glaring down on him. He worked upwards in a line, planting new avocado bushes. The lines had to run straight up so that the machinery could get between them; Flores had even been talking about installing monorails on the steeper parts of the slope.
Where the glade once had been, the trees had been felled and mechanical excavators had uprooted the stumps. Only that stone remained, blocking Rogelio’s planting line. He went past it, leaving a gap in the row of bushes.
Flores came by and wanted the stone moved. Rogelio said it was too heavy, but Flores barked out orders. He called Rogelio an idiot, worse. What did Rogelio think the excavator was for? The stone was in the way of the line and the line must be intact and perfect. There could not be inefficiencies. Flores had to battle for every inch of ground and Rogelio should respect that.
‘You have destroyed an entire forest for the sake of your bank balance,’ thought Rogelio, although he did not say anything. ‘Can you not be satisfied with what you already have?’
Flores had been born in a corrugated shack like everyone else, but now lived in a palatial house that was larger than the regional governor’s residence. Yet he was forced along, always compelled by money: his wife had the best of everything and drove the rutted roads of the region in a low slung Italian sports car. He had the authorities on one shoulder and the cartels on the other and in the middle he had to keep Veronica Flores in the manner to which she aspired.
So the glade and the stone were no longer of importance. Flores had ordered Rogelio to use the excavator. But Rogelio felt that he might move the stone by hand, just a short distance, so that he could plant beside it and it could then lie undisturbed.
The stone was firmly embedded in the earth. He cleared the turf from around it and strained to lever it upwards with a fork. It came loose. A dark gap appeared beneath it, infinitely black in contrast to the fierce brightness of the sun. Rogelio felt as though some of that darkness had escaped into the air. The basalt surface was softly rippling, but the side that faced him was straight, as though the stone had once been quarried, and had not fallen naturally from a rock face.
He crouched down beside it, to try to budge it further, to drag it up over the edge of its hole. As he put his hands to it a powerful sensation invaded him. It told him that that he was digging up something that should be left alone. He let go of it and stood up. He still felt it: from the top of his head, through his chest, down to his feet. A pressure-wave of fear. It was odd. He left the rock back in its hole, but loose and protruding from the ground. The sensation partly left him. He went over to some smaller lumps of stone and got them up into his wheelbarrow. He glanced over at the basalt, still protruding from the ground. He felt a strong compulsion to replace it, and went over to it and eased it back into its hole. You should not have disturbed me, it seemed to say. You do not know what you have set loose.
He wondered then about the history of the mountain, who had lived here, who had died here, who had left the land. When he had played there with his friends they used to tell each other stories about that stone: that it marked the grave of an unwanted child; of a suicide; that it was the last stand of a king of the Incas before the Spaniards overran his lands and exterminated his people. Were the stories made up, or were they real?
As he hesitated, Flores returned with the foreman and they were both shouting at him.
‘It’s too heavy,’ Rogelio pleaded.
The foreman came back with a mini excavator, clawed the stone out of the ground with it and dropped it at the edge of the workings, then chugged off down the hill in a fume of diesel.
Summer came and heat grew day by day on the hillside. Rogelio sprayed the orchards with insecticide, a handkerchief tied over his face to keep out the choking fumes. The irrigation water dried to a trickle; the pump in Rogelio’s parents’ well kept breaking down. The new orchards started to wither in the sun, their thick green leaves developing pale-brown papery patches.
At harvest-time the road up into the mountain was choked with trucks, bringing avocado pickers in, taking plastic crates of the fruit down to Morelia. The pickers were paid according to the weight of the fruit they brought back. At the end of a day picking avocadoes with barely a break, a cigarette in the back of an open truck was a blessing.
It took only one carelessly discarded cigarette to start the fire. Rogelio stood in the doorway of his parents’ shack that evening and looked across the hillside. Above the blazing orchards swirled a dense blackness. A black wind blew across the slopes towards him. He had seen that darkness before. That same compulsion gripped him, that pressure-wave, pressing down through his head, through his body, as though crushing him down into his feet.
‘Mama, Pop, we have to leave.’ He would not listen to their fussing, their refusals. He made them pack, standing over his mother as she hovered over her ornaments, her photographs, her saucepans. If he had had a gun, he would have marched them to their pick-up at gunpoint. As it was, some time passed as his parents dithered amongst their lifetime’s belongings, and the fire swept through the forests and orchards towards them. The air became a grey haze, with only a few yards’ visibility, blocking out the daylight. They switched on the electric lights and fumbled for their possessions in the smoke. Then the lights went out. Rogelio felt the blackness beside him, the pressure, an ancient voice murmuring in his ear.
‘You should not have dug my earth. You should not…you should not…’
As Rogelio half-led, half-dragged his parents to the truck, a line of flame ran along their picket fence, and blazed along the path to their front door. He heaved them in to their seats like children and started the engine. As he drove down the hill, fields of fire roared on either side, and the black road before them was a river of melting tarmac.