I'll tell you a creepy story...
It wasn't long past lunchtime when we careened to a juddering stop in Joanne's white 4x4. I remember because we ate early knowing we would be out all afternoon. We stopped and had tapas at a little place in Bolnuevo. I forget the name of it but I'm sure it started with a 'P'... There aren't that many bars there, I'm sure you could find it if you really looked.
The entrance to the mines is up a dirt track – no problem for our trusty wheels. Joanne's off-roader has gotten us through worse than a bit of dry dirt. Erosion has worn away the entrance a little, and dried rivulets cut through what once was mud. We were jostled from side to side as we climbed. Fortunately you don't have to drive very far before you reach the little dirt car park. You can drive right up if you want to, but we were there for the hike. Joanne pulled over and we did our final checks.
You have to understand; Joanne and I have hiked all over the region. We've walked the Sierra Espuna, rounded the bay all the way to Puntas De Calnegre, we've climbed to the fabled 'Guns of Mazarron' and even one time hitch-hiked back from Percheles after we bit off more than we could chew trying to walk home in the high afternoon heat. The point I'm trying to make is that we were experienced walkers. We had plenty of water, good boots on and a detailed map of the area. I had money in my pocket alongside the guidebook we had picked up back in town- just in case we ran into thieves (or an ice cream vendor.) Joanne laughed at my pocket jingling as we set off.
'You're not going to need Euro... There's literally nothing up here but dust!' she scorned me. I told her to shut up, and if we got to the top and there happened to be a bar there- not to ask me for money. That started an argument about exactly how deserted the place was. Mazarron town was not a half mile along the road—you could see it from the car park—but there weren't any cars around and Joanne argued that it was deserted enough to be dangerous. I never realised how dangerous until we got up there and closer to the mines themselves.
The first thing you notice as you ascend the steep slopes are all the colours of the mountain. There is a deep red where the ochre was once mined, a shining landslide of silver where they harvested the alum and, a little farther on, the strange off-green of the rocks where they dug out copper. All of it is set against a dry landscape of burnt umber that (unbelievably) still sports the occasional flash of greenery.
'It's a wonder that anything manages to live up here.' I commented as the path wound between two Eucalyptus trees. The two trees seemed fitting; since their bark peels away so that you might think the trunk underneath was dying. Their leaves were a healthy green though, as was the Fennel and Rosemary that grew in clumps about the mountain.
'Want some arsenic laced Rosemary for your dinner?' Joanne asked me ironically. She plucked a purple flower from the plant and crushed it between her fingers to inhale the savoury scent- all while I frowned on in the background.
'We'll have to remember to wash our hands when we get back.' I commented, ever the worrier.
Halfway up the hill we were presented with two choices; We could go by the steeper path that led up to the ventilation shafts and cages or we could head to the left and go explore the ruined village. We stopped to decide and take a drink.
'There's an old church I'd like to see, but you have to go through the ruins and...' Jo started.
'What?' I pressed, after she let her voice trail off.
'Well...' she went on reluctantly. 'There's a guy in the distance over there... See him? Between the stairs and the low building with the circular windows?'
'The one with no roof?' I clarified, and she nodded as I followed her pointed finger. There was indeed a man in the midst of the ruins- or at least the silhouette of one. From what I could tell he was wearing a dirty white t-shirt and dark jeans.
'Hmm. D'you think he came up here by himself?' I asked her, once I spotted the strange Spaniard. Joanne nodded, still squinting and shielding her blue eyes from the sun as she watched the mysterious figure.
'Wouldn't be the wisest if he did...' she answered. After a moment she added: 'Let's just go up to the mines, we can see the village on the way back.' I didn't disagree with her. In fact I thought it was a splendid idea. We walked the next half mile in relative silence because the hill was quite steep.
At the summit there are two ways you can go, you can double back on yourself and explore the buildings around the poisoned lake or you can carry on straight ahead and visit the newer San Antonio mine first. We went straight on.
We talked at length about the beauty of the landscape as we went. It's a complete juxtaposition out there; between the natural beauty of the mountain and the streams of manmade colour and destruction. It's an industrial wasteland that splits wildlife and greenery in equal parts with the dried, destroyed earth and dunes of spoil. The land is so strewn with colours...the red and green, the yellow and silver, the deep black of the scorched smelt. All around is glass shards and spongy underfoot that looks like sand but feels like stone under the fingertips. Before long we were approaching the lift down into the mines and we had negotiated our way through so many dunes of not-really-sand that it felt like we had walked onto an abandoned film set from an old western. Between the evident now-dried rivulets in the sand and the cracked bed where pools of poisonous run-off sporadically dotted the landscape it all felt strangely surreal. We walked along a path that we weren't sure really was a path until we emerged at the defunct mine.
We emerged from between a derelict wall and a scorched dune onto a sort of plateaux. Erosion had worked merry havoc on that particular section of the path. Deep ruts criss-crossed the ground and rendered the seemingly flat land treacherous. Joanne all-but ran the final stretch to the crane in her excitement while I picked my way carefully over the rock. The huge iron structure was maybe twenty foot high, with the wheel in a roofed section at the top and with iron legs holding it there. The ladder leaned against it to one side, bolted steadfastly in spite of over fifty years of exposure to the elements. I inspected the ladder while Joanne oohed and aahed over the suspended platform that still hung from the crane. I tested the first rung and it seemed secure- but there was absolutely no chance of me testing the rest.
'Do you think it would take my weight?' she teased me, pointing to the suspended platform.
'I do hope you're kidding.' I deflected.
'It was strong enough for twelve men to go down at a time.' she pointed out.
'Yes- in the fifties.' I replied drolly. I crossed the uneven ground to where a futile attempt at a grey concrete wall separated tourists from potential death. The wall stood three blocks high and I scoffed at it because I could clear it with a step. Jo—on the other hand—dangled her foot over it precariously and laughed at the expression on my face. About a metre below the heavy platform looked deceptively steady- if a little rusted. It hung from the wheel above and squeaked occasionally when the strong and cool Spanish spring wind caught it just the right way.
'If you step on that thing I'm leaving you here.' I warned her, absolutely serious. This place was dangerous enough without taking stupid and unnecessary risks.
'You won't. I've got the car keys!' she quipped in response. Finally she removed her foot and proceeded to skip frighteningly close to the edge as we left the shaft behind.
On the grounds below the copper mine were two square concrete protrusions that came into view just as we moved on. We headed towards them out of pure curiosity. They turned out to be walled off, uncovered open shafts...although at least these two had decent defences. I had to stand on my tip-toes to see over the edge—and then when I did see my head swam with vertigo and I had to take a step back from the high height. Not unusually Joanne laughed at my fear while I stuttered something about there not being so much as a layer of chicken wire to stop people from plummeting to their deaths.
'Jules... You are not going to fall in. You would have to climb the wall first and neither of us is twenty any more.' Joanne first scorned and then joked. She knew about my vertigo, and she also knew that I didn't let it stop me. In a flash of inspiration I whipped my phone from my pocket and selected the little camera icon, then I put my hand over the wall and took a photo. Safely on steady land I examined the view. The shaft was not much to look at. It resembled an old well, walled off and excavated and, for the most part, it didn't look like it was on the verge of caving in. The hole led deep down into darkness, and gaped ominously back at me from the screen. The gaping fissure buzzed with the thrum of a thousand tiny wings, and I realised that this must be where the local mosquitoes hid throughout the day.
'Oh you have the camera out!' said my best friend, she struck a stupid pose while leaning back on the wall, lifting her leg to pretend she was going to climb it. I laughed at her and took the photo. I still have it on my phone.
I took the camera over to her to show off our handiwork when there was an unexpected noise from the shaft. It might have been a scratching, but it turned into a shuffle and was quickly followed by a rush of air. Joanne peeked over the wall again even as I backed away. A flapping noise ensued, the sound of sheets being straightened out to dry on laundry day- but (given its source) much more terrifying. Joanne screamed and leapt away as a pigeon emerged from the mine followed by a small army of its brethren. I am not ashamed to say that I screamed too, and both of us ended up in the fake-sand, laughing at each other and the flying rats that had caused us so much fear.
After the two shafts of the San Antonio mine we doubled back on ourselves because we couldn't walk any farther. It took a time to find the path again, since everything was that dry yellow colour. It was the blackened dune of smelt that gave it away after we retraced our steps up to the crane again. Not long after that things started looking familiar again, and we followed the path back to the steep incline that led down to the village. This time we went right at the crossroads, and headed towards the peak where the logo of the mining company could still be seen on the ruins. Ventilation shafts lined the path alongside fallen caves that led dangerously down to the deep darkness beneath. I was taking pictures of one such cave when I turned my ankle and lost my footing. I spun to find that I had tripped on a second, smaller such hole...and I watched in mute despair as my water bottle plummeted away into the darkness.
'I've got you.' said Joanne calmly from my left and while simultaneously gripping my arm. She let me lean on her while I tested the ankle for sprain. I could put weight on it fine, but still...
'My water bottle...' I pointed out.
'It's fine I have more than enough for both of us.' she reasoned.
'No... I still haven't heard it hit the ground.' I told her. Both of us peered into the darkness of the half-metre hole. I took out my phone the same as before, put my hand inside the darkness and took a picture. I gazed at the photo and solid, unending darkness gazed back at me.
'Dammit!' I cursed as I slapped at an opportunist mosquito that feasted on my wrist.
'Let me see.' urged Joanne, and she took the phone from my hands and promptly gave it back. She searched the path for a stone and, once she had a suitable lump of yellowed rock, she came back to drop it in the hole.
'One seconds, two seconds, three seconds...' she counted. When she reached five seconds she glanced nervously at me and I joined her in the counting. At ten seconds we both fell silent and listened intently. The rock was gone and apparently the hole had no bottom. I shuffled on my bad ankle, suddenly wary.
'What if it caves in while we're up here?' I voiced the concern rising in my stomach.
'Relax Jules, the boys know where we are and we have our phones.' Joanne argued.
'Yes but I've no signal up here, do you?' I asked her, but she shrugged in response. 'I'm starting to think we should call it a day.' I persisted. She glanced at me, and then stared at the peak of the mountain, and then back to me again.
'Can we at least just climb to the arsenic lake? We've come all this way...' she said in her best pleading voice. I didn't like it but I agreed. I really, really wish that I hadn't.
Less than a quarter of an hour later we rounded what was once a workhouse and came to a stop overlooking the fabled arsenic lake. I imagine it is quite something spectacular to see...when it's wet. As it was it had been dry for a whole month, and all that was visible were a few blood-coloured pools barely a half meter in diameter and scattered across the manmade plane.
'It looks like blood.' Jo pointed out, gesturing towards the cracked pool bed, dried and reminiscent of a wild-west drought. In the middle of the dried bed stood a dilapidated building, mostly rubble now and with what little roofing was left protruding dangerously. A tree twisted out from the centre of it- not Eucalyptus this time...maybe a fig but we were too far away to see for certain. It was getting towards siesta hours and the fair wind from earlier had wilted with the strengthened sun. The tree stood strong and silent and I pondered it awhile. God knows how it had grown up there: on the summit of a mountain, in the centre of a poisonous lake and straight up through a house- but it had, and it stands there now as a testament to the fact that nature will always find a way.
It was silent on the peak, beautiful and dangerous and deserted... So when a second man tore up the steep slope, disturbing the sanctuary with the roar of his scooter, we shook our heads in disbelief. The man pulled to a stop at the opposite end of the lake from us, planting a dusty boot into the fake sand to steady himself. We watched him, because the path was dangerous in itself- never mind doing it on a bike...and he didn't even have a helmet! What he did have was dark trousers, a blue open-collared shirt, and a leather strap across his chest which we assumed supported a camera on his back.
'Oh he's a photographer!' announced Joanne, about the same time as the man waved to us. 'Ola!' she called to him, and returned the gesture. The man reached for the leather strap and we quickly found out that he was no photographer. The blood drained from my face as he brandished a shotgun, and not a camera at all.
'Holy crap!' Jo swore. She grabbed me by the arm but I was frozen, rooted to the spot and having flashbacks of nightmares where my legs filled with lead and became useless, and I couldn't even run away from whatever was chasing me.
'Jules!' my friend hissed in my ear as I stared at the Spaniard. He stopped waving to casually load the weapon...the glint from the sunlight reflecting on the muzzle filled my world.
'Wha- what's he doing?' I stammered, but Jo wasn't waiting around to find out. She tugged and dragged until my stubborn legs remembered how to work and we dived along the path- now running in unfamiliar territory. We ran for a full minute before the dunes of smelt rose up on either side of us and provided us with cover. There we rested a moment, panting hard from our exertions under the hot midday sun. Joanne recovered first, and took a drink while she peeked back the way we had come.
'Oh Lord! Oh good God! He's following us!' she warned as she tossed me the water bottle. 'Map.' she demanded, and I fumbled to find it before quickly gulping some of the life saving water. She crouched over the flimsy paper, using the side of the dune as a surface to lean on. She traced our path over the lines with a finger and then shot frightened eyes about herself to get her bearings.
'There! There's another way back!' She announced with great relief. She lifted the map high and pointed ahead. 'If we can get through the buildings at the peak we c-'
A gunshot rang out clear across the mountain. We both ducked instinctively from the deafening roar. With the noise of it still ringing in our ears Joanne and I exchanged a glance. With no further need of words we bolted along the path, heading for the buildings and our one chance at escape.
A second shot split the silence of the the dried plateaux. This one came from farther away but was untraceable in source. It may have come from behind us, it may have come from the village or from the mine we had visited. I do not know. What I do know is that we emerged from between the high dunes and faced a crumbling ruin of the work buildings. Joanne was ahead of me and she tore up three of the steps there before I stopped her. I stopped her. So I suppose what happened to her was my fault...in a way.
'We can't go up there, look at the stairs!' I stage-whispered at her. I pointed upwards to where, a halfway up, a full three metres of the aged staircase had almost completely eroded. There was no way across, and my friend looked at me with wild panic in her eyes.
'We can hide in the buildings.' she said uncertainly. I shook my head, flustered.
'He'll find us.' I answered. The two buildings we could reach without using the staircase were hollow and roofless, and provided little to no protection at all. I scoured the landscape behind, expecting a bullet or a menacing Spaniard at any second. My eyes fell on a low entrance that seemed to be some kind of drainage shaft.
'There!' I exclaimed, and ran towards it in blind desperation. I could hear Jo running along behind me. The manmade cavern was only a metre high and sported a stone archway that told us it had been used for something at some point. Now it was filled with trash, and I heard the scurrying of claws as I startled the rats when I got to my knees and scrambled inside. The detritus of a defunct mine greeted me...a strange, earthy smell mingled with a sour stench on my nostrils and I crunched a thirty year old crisp packet underfoot. Joanne squeezed through the hole behind me, and I pressed my back against the cold stone on the left hand side of the entrance while she moulded herself to the wall across from me. The two of us gasped for breath in the darkness, too scared to rest our tired muscles and with adrenaline holding us rigid.
We crouched there, waiting, on either side of the entrance...reluctant to go further into the darkness beyond and peering out in absolute terror. We were certain we were going to be murdered there, on that desolate mountaintop. A whimpering started, a whining so high and so pitiful that it took me a full ten seconds to realise that it was coming from me. I slammed a hand over my mouth and we trembled in the cold, intermittently stealing frightened glances around the edge and listening to footsteps coming closer, closer...despite my many silent pleas to the Almighty.
A shadow passed over the entrance, and I jumped as Joanne slid her hand into mine. She pointed deeper inside the waste shaft, towards the inky darkness and away from the entrance. I nodded, and the two of us bent our backs even further to pick our way inside. I stepped carefully over molten glass and loose rock until it became too dark to see the ground any longer. Joanne stopped leading and we hid ourselves there as the entrance darkened with the shadow of a man-hunter...aware that we were equally as trapped as the rats which cannibalized each other in the fruitless mines below.
'Ola? Ola bonitas? Ven aqui...' called a gruff male voice. The Spaniards dusty boots came into view in the entranceway, and I pressed my hand to my mouth again, lest I make anymore unwanted sound.
'Ola?' queried the black-clad shins of the gunman. We stayed exactly where we were, still and silent in spite of the adrenaline coursing through our veins. The shins became a whole torso as the man crouched. 'Ola? Are...you...there?' he continued, in an accent so heavy I might (under different circumstances) have missed that he was speaking English. He pumped the shotgun in his hands so that it slid and clicked, and then he raised the muzzle so that it pointed towards us. Joanne put her hand to her mouth and screwed her eyes tight shut. The silhouette in the entrance shifted, a hand went to a pocket and I realised we were doomed when I saw the sunlight catch the rim of a torch.
'Eduardo!' boomed a second male voice from somewhere nearby. Again, with the echo of our cave and the buildings on the summit the voice bounced around and seemed source-less. I held in a whine as the local mosquitoes discovered I was edible and started feasting on my arm. I brought my arms to my chest and bit into my tongue against the nipping. In our first stroke of luck so far our assailant turned to the sound of his own name and straightened from our hiding spot. He walked away as the two of them rattled off a quick conversation in Spanish. I saw him point to the buildings moments before he disappeared from my line of sight. I rested my head back against the wall and waited for the thumping of my own heartbeat in my ears to subside.
I thought that we should move then and there, the two men were headed for the hollow buildings I had earlier refused as a hiding place. Jo halted me with a hand on my shoulder.
'We wait until they are on the stairs, then we run fast back the way we came.' she whispered seemingly calmly in my ear. My heart was racing like a frightened hare and so I acquiesced. I slapped at the awful blood-sucking mosquitoes while we waited a little more, and longingly imagined the tin of bug spray that resided in the first aid box under the seat in the car.
'Take a quick drink.' Joanne instructed me as we got ready to make our run for it. I took a long pull at the miraculously still cool water and passed it back to her. She gestured me to go first in the tight space, and I obediently edged towards the sunlight. Once I was in place—crammed uncomfortably against the left wall just before the entrance—I turned to watch her creeping towards me carefully through the dark. And then it happened...and I'm still not a hundred percent sure what 'it' was. I saw Joanne's face illuminated in the sunshine filtering through the low arch door, and then I saw...something...else. Something dark, and black, and that wrapped itself around her neck like a snake coiling for the kill. I reached for her, and tendrils peeled away from the blackness of the tunnel to slide towards my hands. Joanne never reached me. It was as if when she moved the darkness moved with her. It pulled her backwards, trying to envelope her and steal her away from me forever. I lunged after her as it tugged her away and Joanne—my best friend—made a small choking sound as it whisked her backwards and she vanished.
I gave up all pretence of hiding after that. I would much rather be shot in the head than be subjected to whatever- whatever monster that was. I screamed her name, over and over and over. There came no reply. Even the mosquitoes had gone quiet. I jumped so that I cracked my head on the low roof when something moved in the tunnel. It was her water bottle. It rolled to a stop against my toes and that was just about all I could take. I propelled myself through the entrance and out into the relative safety of the sunlight. In my panic I leapt onto the smelt dune above and scrambled upwards on my hands and knees. The ground beneath me fell away like scree but I still moved, uselessly trying to put some distance between myself and the shaft. A gunshot rang out from behind, and this one I heard strike home. It narrowly missed me, ricocheted off the arch and slammed into the imitation sand a meter behind me. I screamed, or squealed, and tried to find purchase on the dune at unrivalled speed. A second shot echoed across the mountain and I struggled and squirmed on the dune, pulling handfuls of rock and rubble down on myself in my useless effort to run.
'Senora!? Senora!' the one named 'Eduardo' was calling in a voice full of sympathy—and it finally occurred to me that his shout was not a threat. It was a warning. We had never been his target. I stopped fleeing and slowly turned, just in time to witness him discharge his gun a third time. He was aiming into the tunnel where I had just lost Joanne. He had been trying to save us all along.
There was a shudder underfoot- somewhat like an earthquake but apparently localised to my rocky dune. Suddenly I was falling—falling and screaming—as whatever monster lurked beneath cracked the dune wide and attempted to steal me away. One second there was scree; the next second there was a crevice...and down I fell. Down, down, down into the pitch black rubble of the broken tunnel.
'No!' I heard the second man shout. I tumbled in rock, smashing into the sides on the way down and taking scrapes and bruises all over. I took a serious bump to the head that must have knocked me out for a second, because when I next blinked the falling was over and the darkness had one ice cold and clawed tentacle wrapped painfully around my ankle. I grasped at the debris around me, reaching thoughtlessly for anything I could save myself with. In blind terror my hand clasped finally around a rock and I worked it free. In a daze I pulled myself upright and, even as a second tendril reached for me, I smashed the rock down on the blackness that had a grip of my foot...to no avail. I batted aside the second tendril and brought the rock down again. Tears cut fresh tracks on my dusty face as I smacked it again and again with the rock. The creature would not let go its grip on me. I realised that I was going to die. I thought it was going to whisk me away to its lair where I would suffer the same silent execution as my friend had, minutes earlier. There was no flashing of my life before my eyes. There was only the pitch black hollow of the tunnel and the imminent threat of death.
There was a gunshot. And then another. And then I lost count. The two men—the two foreign strangers who saved me—reloaded again and again. My ears rang from it as the deafening sound reverberated up and down the tunnel. There was more shaking, more tremors in the dunes...In amidst it all they hauled me free, and I remember screaming because my arm was bitten and my ankle was broken and my head ached and my throat was dry- and I needed them to find Joanne.
I watched the whole thing collapse. The tunnel caved in, the dune turned back into scree and fell across the entrance, blocking it from sight forever, and Joanne was gone. Lost in the rubble even if she wasn't dead already. I was hysterical. I was injured. There was nothing else I could do.
'I don't know what happened after that, Officer. I woke up in the hospital in Cartagena, and I came straight here when they released me. We need to send a search party up there. Men with guns...to find her.'
'Senora...It has been five days. Five days without food or water? Your friend is dead.' said the Guardia Civil Officer. He leaned back in his chair, a toothpick hanging from his mouth where he'd been attempting to remove his lunch from his teeth for the last twenty minutes. He gave a heavy sigh, a sigh that told me I was wasting his time. He looked at me squarely, and then removed his cap to run a hand through his crew cut. He bit his lip as if he were about to share something with me, and then he opened the folder on the table between us. He sorted through some documents, and then pushed a sheet of white A4 across the table to me.
'I like you Senora. You are a nice lady...so. You sign this? You go home. How is that?' he said, smiling as though we were best friends. But he was not my best friend. I lost my best friend in those cursed mines. I glanced at the neatly typed paperwork and frowned, wishing I could understand the Spanish it contained. A few words popped out at me but it was largely undecipherable.
'I don't understand...Is this some kind of confession? I didn't do anything wrong!' I protested, but he silenced me with a pacifying gesture he had probably been taught at the academy.
'No, no, no, no Senora...it's a declaracion de silencio...hmm. A statement de-'
'Silence. A statement of silence. I don't believe this... What about the next people who go up there?' I couldn't understand what they were telling me. Joanne was dead and I wasn't to tell anyone? What? I pushed the paper back across the table and shook my head. Tears threatened, but I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. He gave a deep intake of breath and grinned at me.
'No Senora... You sign this, you go home, you sleep in your own bed. You don't sign..?' he threatened, and let the warning trail away with a shrug. I stared at him a long time, but in the end I signed. I wanted to go home, I wanted to call her family (and my own) and I wanted to sleep in my own bed... And I never, ever wanted to set eyes on the mountain of San Cristobal ever again.
© 2017 Katrionawrites