Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Death stalks the valley

One of my most treasured memories is of a winter night sat listening to Jesus' aunt Hayde telling tall tales in the garden of their old family homestead in the central Andean highlands. The two hundred year old house sits in a small village in the Mantaro Valley. At that altitude, at over three thousand metres above sea level, the air is pristine : the moonlight, the stars, the sounds of the valley drifting through the stillness of the night,  its a special kind of magic. 

This story describes a similar moonlit night. The place is Cuzco's Sacred Valley. The year 1942. Tello's Urubamba expedition has arrived for their first night at Huiñay Huayna. But the sounds Hernan hears coming out of the darkness turn the magic to fear.

Death stalks the valley 
In which our explorers get a nasty fright

It was the 25th of August 1942, a beautiful calm, starry night, and the first night that we stayed in the Huiñay Huayna expedition hut we had constructed close to the ruins on the edge of the forest.

We retired early as usual at seven o’clock. But for some reason, at ten o’clock, when all the others were sleeping peacefully, I was still awake. 

I was listening to the sound of the crickets and mulling over a thousand memories in my mind when a distant but clear shriek of anguish tore through the silence of the night:

 “Oh my God! God have mercy, Mercy!”

The scream echoed through the secluded valley. I froze in my bed. What on earth was happening?
There were more screams, both in Spanish and Quechua. At first I could vaguely make out the Spanish cries for help, but the noise grew louder and soon they were indistinguishable from the general clamour.

For a few seconds I was paralyzed, suspended in that first shock of alarm. Then I came to my senses. My immediate thought was to wake the others. The uproar was growing all the while, the sound by now increasing to an infernal din, distant, but clearly carried to us across the night air, and one by one they were also waking up in fright.

The howls were coming from the Yuncapata camp, where the peons who had made the six day journey from Huarocondo and Ollantaytambo to come and work on the Huiñay Huayna deforestation were installed. 

The two camps were separated by a deep gorge. They were about a kilometre’s distance from us by the footpath we had cut, but closer as the crow flies.

But what terrible thing could be happening over there at this hour of the night? No one could imagine. The only thing that was clear was that they were indeed screaming out for mercy, and from the desperate tone it was something serious. They were obviously terrified, and a wave of fear passed over us all.

Suddenly the shouts became a little more legible: "Jatarichis ... jatarichis!" (Get up, get up).

“What on earth can be happening to them?” – Tello was perturbed. We all began to speculate.

“Doctor, perhaps someone has been bitten by a viper; there are quite a few around here”. This was Jenaro Farfán’s explanation.

I don’t think so,” Mejía Xesspe cut in. “They sound really desperate. It must be some graver danger. Perhaps it’s a puma attack. They are almost completely surrounded by forest over there.”

Mejía Xesspe’s conclusion was the most logical. A puma attack. Frankly we were all scared, especially since none of us had so much as a penknife with which to defend ourselves. We never carried weapons. Unless you counted the few blunt machetes we had for cutting through the dense undergrowth. 
Meanwhile the pathetic wailing continued. The gorge was filled with desperate bilingual pleas for divine mercy.

“This is unbearable.” Tello was getting very concerned.

“Doctor,” said Jenaro Farfán. “Perhaps there was an earth tremor that we didn’t feel and part of the terrace has fallen on them there where they had their shelter. When I was in Cusco yesterday there were four tremors.”

At first this seemed likely. It was true that we had felt a tremor the night before. But when I explained that I had been awake and hadn’t felt anything, we were forced to revisit the puma theory. There could be no other explanation.

Then a little voice piped up. It was Eduardo. He was thirteen and was from Ollantaytambo. Tello had taken pity on him and the hard life he had, and allowed him to sleep in our hut.

According to him, it was not the pumas we should be worried about. He spoke Quechua and had been able to make out some words from the general cacophony.  It seemed that the peons were calling us heretics and threatening to attack us unless we left.

Tello was inclined to take the boy seriously. “It is possible I suppose. These people can be very superstitious, and they’re sometimes afraid of working in the ruins.”

All this was strong incentive for us to jump out of bed. None of us fancied being stoned, which was apparently their chosen method of attack. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of men get dressed so fast. All except Tello, who regardless of the hullabaloo around him, remained in his sleeping bag. A few of us ran out of the hut, ready to defend ourselves with the few paltry sticks we might be able to find lying around. Happily we were only metres away from dense forest. In the worst of cases it would not be too difficult to run and hide.

“Oh this is ridiculous,” said Tello. If this continues much longer….

 “That’s Bejar!” interrupted Eduardo. “I recognize his voice. It’s him who’s stirring them up.” The boy was talking about one of the labourers, a smooth talker much given to practical jokes.

And so saying, Eduardo suddenly remembered why the southern Indians shrieked out like this from time to time. He looked up towards the moon. There was our answer. It was an eclipse.

The news was music to our ears. In fact it acted as something of an instantaneous tranquillizer. It was so many months since we had read a newspaper that we were totally unaware that there was to be an eclipse that night. The southern Indians were simply observing old Peruvian beliefs.

One of those beliefs is that an eclipse signifies the Moon being attacked by a malevolent being. The reason they were creating so much noise was to drive it away and stop it from destroying Mama Quilla
It was a well-known custom in those parts. All around Cusco that night you could hear howling, shrieking and the noisy banging of tin saucepan lids. No one really believed the moon was dying – they were just having a good time!

Mejía Xesspe and Espejo Núñez took down some lanterns and began to signal to the workers across the gorge that they could shut up now. And no doubt happily satisfied in the knowledge that we had been suitably disturbed and roused from our slumber, the peons went back to bed, as did we.

Gradually the valley settled once more into the silence of night time. Mama Quilla and the stars watched over us sleeping peacefully. All was well once more in the Sacred Valley.

No comments :

Post a Comment