|Guest Author: Rinda Payne|
Written by Rinda Payne
Jimena was 30 years old. She lived in a village near Paucartambo in the same house that she had shared with her mother until her mother’s death. She missed her mother’s company. Without her mother, Jimena felt that what once had been a home now seemed like an empty shell. Her father and brothers and sisters had died in a tragic accident two years ago. They were traveling on the bus to Cusco, a four-hour trip. The only route from Paucartambo to Cusco is a treacherous dirt road that winds through the remote mountains until it descends to join the paved main road to Cusco. In places it is wide enough for only one vehicle. Towering cliffs are on one side, precipitous drops into deep valleys on the other. There are no guardrails. The bus missed a curve and plunged into a ravine, killing all on board.
Jimena’s mother had been a respected healer who used the herbs from her garden to cure patients. Her healings had brought in a small income, enough for the two of them to live on, but Jimena never took her mother’s ability seriously. Jimena considered herself to be a modern woman. She believed that physicians with their pills, injections and treatments provided the best cures and care for the sick. There were no hospitals or specialists in Paucartambo, but when Jimena was sick, she always consulted a doctor in general medicine at one of Paucartambo’s postas medicas1.
Furthermore, her mother had learned how to heal with herbs from Jimena’s maternal grandmother who in turn had been taught by Jimena’s great-grandmother. It was a family tradition passed down from a long time ago. “Times have changed,” she used to say, “What is the use of herbs when you can pay a physician in Paucartambo to treat you?”
Jimena’s mother had had a dream just before she died. It had revealed that Apu2 Ausangate would call Jimena to a new life. Lying on her deathbed, her mother had struggled to speak. “It is a great honor to be called by Apu Ausangate. I believe you will become a healer if you accept his calling.” During moments of lucidity, she told her daughter, “Speak to the Apu about the calling. Offer k’intus3 to him.”
A grieving, but practical, Jimena evaluated her situation a day after her mother’s death. “I now am on my own.” She stopped momentarily overcome by sadness. “My relatives live far away in Arequipa….there’s no contact with them.” She wiped tears from her eyes and continued, “I’ll care for the herbs my mother gave to the sick…and tend the vegetables. The guinea pigs…I’ll keep them. They’ll provide me with meat.”
She went to stand on the balcony. Ausangate loomed in the distance. The mountain was massive, covered in white snow. It rose up above the surrounding landscape, huge and intimidating. It was the highest mountain in southern Peru, and it was home to the most powerful apu in that region of the country.
As she gazed at Ausangate, she wanted to howl with pain, not so much at the loss of her mother but at finding herself alone in a country where family meant everything. Andean customs dictated that she remain stoic unless she was in the privacy of her home. She sighed. “If I wail on the balcony, the neighbors will hear me.” She stifled her anguish.
Jimena worried about her mother’s dream. “Was it a vision? Or was it my mother’s attempt to leave me, her last remaining child, with a vocation?” Jimena was troubled by the fact that the dream hadn’t disclosed how the Apu would call her or what Jimena’s new life would be. As she looked at Ausangate, it seemed cold and aloof. “It’s not in the least ready to grant me a calling,” she said aloud. She turned and went into the house.
After the funeral in the nearby church and burial in the local cemetery, Jimena returned to her house and went to the balcony, drawn by the message of her mother’s dream. What if the dream were true, she thought, and I am to be called? The mountain looked back at her with its haughty splendor.
She decided that the best tactic to take with the Apu was to trust the dream and disregard her conflicting views about her mother’s revelation. “After all,” she reflected, “the Apu has a commanding presence, and everyone in the community respects it.” She began talking to the Apu.
“Dear Apu Ausangate, please give me a sign about my mother’s dream. Tomorrow I’ll buy some coca leaves and make a k’intu in your honor like we Andeans do to honor the apus and Pachamama4.” She waited patiently, but the Apu remained silent.
The next day she took a colectivo5 into Paucartambo to purchase the coca leaves. After alighting from the colectivo near the entrance to the town, she crossed the bridge over the river and headed in the direction of the main plaza. She turned down a narrow side street lined with the typical two-story white-washed buildings, their doors, shutters and balconies painted a deep sky blue, which are a highlight of the town, and entered a small store. Inside, the light was dim. Baskets and paper bags holding the offerings to make despachos6 crammed the store’s shelves. Beans, rice, candies, silver and gold stars, llama fetuses, confetti, and many more items filled the containers. She moved to a large sack of coca leaves that stood on the floor in one corner of the shop. Shifting the leaves through her fingers, she bargained for a small bag.
She returned home and sorted the leaves. She put the perfect ones in the pocket of her apron and ventured out onto the balcony. She made a k’intu just as her father had done when he was alive. She gently breathed into the k’intu her prayers to the Apu, “Apu Ausangate come to me. Most sacred Apu hear my plea. Send me a calling to honor my mother’s dream. In return, I offer you my finest energy as ayni7.”
She talked to the Apu daily. Sometimes she felt a sharp influx of energy enter the area just below her stomach. “Ah, perhaps that’s a sign that the Apu hears me. On the other hand, perhaps it’s just the wind,” she would exclaim.
Isabel, a neighbor who lived near Jimena, told her, “It is an Andean tradition that Apu Ausangate always calls twice.”
Jimena murmured, “Why wasn’t once enough? Probably the first call was my mother’s dream.” Her mood brightened. Days passed. Nothing happened. She didn’t feel any different. There were no mystical experiences. There were no visions. No one came to consult her for a healing using the herbs from her mother’s garden. She was irritated with the Apu. “The Apu is ignoring me because I believe in modern medicine,” she grumbled. She felt frustrated by her efforts to elicit a response from the Apu.
Jimena had a pleasing personality. Everyone whom she met succumbed to it, even her family when they were alive. She always got her way without any effort on her part. She was not used to having anyone, not even Apu Ausangate, deny her wishes. Surely, she thought, the Apu eventually will realize that I am sincere in my appeals to him.
After several months had elapsed without a sign, she was exasperated. She vented her annoyance to the Apu. “Why are you so silent? I daily ask you for my calling, yet you do not respond to my repeated petitions. What must I do to gain your attention?”
Days passed. Jimena complained, “I’ve never encountered a situation like this.” She refused to accept a lack of a response from the Apu as an answer. “Don’t be discouraged,” she told herself. “Perhaps the calling will come at night.” She extended her hours with the Apu long into the evening, imploring it for a calling. The winter winds swept down from the Andes, turning the grass and leaves of the trees brown and driving the temperature down to freezing as soon as the sun set. The bitter, cold nights would force her into the house to get a warm, thick manta8 to wrap around her in order to keep warm. “The cold is nothing; the Apu is everything,” she would mutter.
About a month later, she declared, “He will call me in the early morning.” So she began her day on the balcony communicating with the Apu. By this time, her persistent attempts to win the Apu’s favor and to prove that her mother’s dream was true had turned to obsession. She stood on the balcony from early morning to late evening, petitioning the Apu for her calling and paying tribute to the spirit of the mountain with k’intu after k’intu. She watched the early morning rays of the sun light up the sacred mountain and the rays of the descending sun turn its mantle of snow from white to a glowing pink. Every night, she would say “buenos noches9” to the Apu and crawl into bed.
Another month passed. The more her desire to receive a calling from the Apu consumed her thoughts and feelings, the longer she stood on the balcony. She failed to notice that the hours that she devoted to herself and her surroundings grew less and less. She was spending almost her entire days and nights with the Apu, falling asleep on the balcony from exhaustion.
Soon, she was neglecting everything around her. Jimena repeated to herself ritualistic phrases: “I must cook. I must clean. I must tend the animals and the garden. I must go to the Sunday market. I must visit my neighbors.” Her mantra became, “Tomorrow I’ll take care of everything,” but tomorrow never arrived.
Then, late one evening, a fierce hail storm erupted while Roberto was walking along the dirt road that led from a distant pueblo10 to his home in Jimena’s village. He saw a light in Jimena’s window and knocked on her door in order to take refuge from the storm. There was no answer. Sensing that something was wrong, Roberto pushed open the door and looked around the house. He saw no one. He noticed the door to the balcony was ajar. He opened it wider. There was a white bundle lying on the floor of the balcony amidst coca leaves coated with hail. Moving closer, he turned the bundle over with his foot with a strength that came from walking long distances and doing heavy labor. Roberto suppressed a cry of horror. It was Jimena, her manta white with hail.
Roberto fled from the house into the raging storm, which was bending the tree branches low to the ground and sending dirt and pebbles swirling into the air. Covered by hail, he looked like a phantom as he passed from house to house to rouse the residents of the community to tell them about Jimena’s untimely death.
After a mass in the village’s church, the neighbors buried Jimena facing Ausangate, next to her mother. At the grave, the mourners formed k’intus of coca leaves and invoked the Apu, “Most sacred Apu, honor this woman in her life after death. Apu Ausangate, grant her peace and happiness in her new life.”
1Posta medica (Spanish): a small medical clinic.
2Apu: (Quechua): spirit of the mountain. In general, apus are male, although several apus are female. Apu Ausangate is male.
3K’intu: (Quechua): three perfect coca leaves held in the shape of a fan and used in rituals.
4Pachamama: (Quechua): Mother Earth.
5Colectivo: (Spanish): a taxi that transports passengers where there is no van or bus service.
6Despacho: (Spanish): A dispatch, an office; in the Andes, it means an offering made to Mother Earth (Pachamama) or to the apus.
7Ayni: (Quechua): the principle which forms the foundation of the social and mystical worlds of the Andean: reciprocity among humans and the sacred interchange of energy among humans and the natural world.
8Manta: (Spanish): a blanket made from two large rectangular weavings sewn together.
9Buenas noches: (Spanish): good night.
10Pueblo: (Spanish): a town, city or village.