In the Andes, many fervently believe that special men can call the Apus, the spirits of the mountains, in order for them to materialize as condors. There are also those who believe that the practice is a deception. The Apus in the bodies of condors are called papitos(1) or angels. They give advice to those who consult them. In Cusco, there are three groups that call the Apus.
Christian and pre-Hispanic rituals intermingle in Andean ceremonies. For example, Jesus Christ is considered an Apu. There is a song sung in Catholic churches that begins, “Apu Jesucristo.” During mass, some priests call upon the Apus for blessings, especially when there is a powerful Apu near their church. The Papitos bless in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There is a sacred, pre-Hispanic, waist-high stone in the Cusco Cathedral. Worshippers connect with the stone by embracing it or placing their hands on it.
Dialogue reflects the speech patterns common to the Andes.
“There is nothing we can do for you.”
“Nothing. We don’t know what caused your paralysis. Your tests and scans were all normal.”
I looked at my legs. My feet were perched on the foot rests of the wheelchair borrowed from a neighboring family. Their grandmother had sat in it, immobile and speechless, head dropped against her chest, as she neared the end of her life. For a second, a picture of myself in a similar state flared in my mind. No, no..I will not be like her.
If the doctors at the Social Security Hospital were unable to assist me, perhaps the medical staff at the Hospital Regional(2) could.
Several days later my wife pushed me down the corridor that led to the doctors’ offices at the Hospital. After waiting my turn, I was escorted by a nurse into an office where a young doctor sat behind a scarred wooden desk. His hands were folded on top of blank white paper.
Perspiration formed on my face and hands as I recounted how one morning, two weeks ago, I got out of bed and to my shock collapsed on the floor. My legs splayed out. I struggled to control them, to stand up. They wouldn’t move. I turned my body so I was face down on the floor. Tears formed and ran down my cheeks. I tried to hide my sobs from my wife who pushed open the bedroom door after hearing the thump when I slumped to the floor.
“Did you notice any symptoms prior to that morning?”
“No pains in the legs, nothing that you felt that was different?”
“We’ll run some tests and do a scan. Your records from the Social Security Hospital show normal results.
“My condition isn’t normal.” My hands clenched into fists. When I opened them my fingers had left imprints in my palms.
The doctor wrote notes, handed me a list of the tests to be done and an order for a scan and shook my hand. “Return in a week. The results will be waiting for you.”
After a week, I took a deep breath before entering the doctor’s office.
“We find nothing wrong with you. Your tests and scan show the same results as those from the Social Security Hospital. If you think of anything that happened to you before this occurred, please come again so we can discuss it.”
In that instant, my mind, overwhelmed by anguish, went blank. My wife wheeled me out of the room, down the corridor and out to the waiting car driven by my neighbor Sergio. So she tells me. It was as if a gust of the wild wind that was blowing that afternoon swept away the memory of the trip from the doctor’s office to my home.
The following day fear seized my heart. To go to a private clinic cost more than I could afford. “What can I do? I am helpless!” I cried out. I heard a deep voice. “You are not helpless! You are a strong and healthy man!” Who was talking to me? I glanced over my shoulder to see if the pronouncement came from someone who had entered the room. No one was there. The message, so contrary to what I was feeling about myself, made me uneasy. “Who are you?” I called. There was no answer.
Not long after, my wife knocked on the door, probably worried that I was crying again. She set a tray with lunch down on the handles of the wheelchair. I eyed it and thanked her. She tiptoed out of the room. I picked up the utensils and held them in my hands. My stomach growled. Tears crept down my face spilling on the food. My hands shook. The knife and fork rattled on the plate. I waited until I took command of my emotions, and then began to eat, a small portion at a time, chewing it thoroughly to take more time out of the day that stretched endlessly before me.
In the afternoon my friend Ricardo visited. His eyes were downcast as he approached me and laid a hand on my shoulder. He settled himself in a chair close by me. His easy silence was comforting. At last he spoke. “I’ve heard the news that the doctors have decided that there is nothing wrong with you.” He cleared his throat. “Why don’t you visit the Papitos? Have you thought about them?”
“I hesitate to consult them. My condition is complicated.”
“Think about it. They help many people. I’ll take you. They hold services near here.”
The following day, the manager at the bank where I worked came to my home. His eyes sought out a point on the opposite wall. What did he see there? The man I used to be? His voice was steady but held a steely edge as if trying to convince himself that he was doing the right thing. “Tellers don’t use wheelchairs,” he began. “There are no handicapped access routes into the bank, only a steep flight of stairs. The guards at the entrance are unable to carry you and the wheelchair upstairs to your window. I’m sorry, but I have to ask you to leave our employment. If your legs become mobile, you can reapply for a position with us.” He stood up, shook my hand, swiftly turned and walked away.
After he left, the only pain I experienced was the pain in my soul at how useless I had become. Useless to my family, useless to my employer, but most importantly how useless I was to myself.
Remembering scenes from the recent past added to my grief. Arriving home with cash in my wallet to pay for food for the family. The glow on the faces of my wife and sons as they unwrapped the small purchases I had bought to surprise them. The outings we used to enjoy together. Helping grateful customers at the bank with difficult transactions. How I had been able to fix anything in the house that needed repair. How independent I had been, able to come and go as I pleased.
Day after day my wife and elder son helped dress me, bathe me and take me to the bathroom. Visitors came: neighbors, relatives who lived near us in Cusco, former colleagues at the bank. Everyone, except for my friends, Ricardo and Sergio, were uncomfortable faced with my distressing situation. They avoided talking about my condition. Some sat still and made small talk; others fidgeted in their chairs and hemmed and hawed; a few paced around the room. Except for a twitching nerve in my cheek, no one could tell that they drove me crazy.
Time blurred. I was no longer sure how long I had been sitting in a wheelchair looking out the window at an empty weed-filled plot of land, aimlessly turning the pages of magazines, watching endless TV programs. Suddenly, I recalled the strange voice that had spoken to me. Now that I thought about it, the words had seemed to come from inside me. Could it have been one of the Papitos? Their powers are well known. I straightened up in my wheelchair. For the first time since I had fallen, I smiled. The Papitos are my hope!
I called Ricardo on my cell phone. “Ricardo, the Papitos. Will you take me?”
“Of course. Let me find out when their next meeting is. I’ll get back to you.”
Within minutes the phone rang. “The Papitos hold a service every Wednesday. Be ready tomorrow at 9 a.m.”
The next morning Ricardo pulled up in front of our house in his red pickup truck with a flourish and a beep on the horn. I picked some lint off my jacket and smoothed down my unruly hair. His strong arms lifted me into the car. He folded the wheelchair and put it in the back.
We arrived at the temple, a square, red brick building with a portico at the end of an unpaved street. People were sitting on benches outside its door. Ricardo got the wheelchair, lifted me into it and wheeled me close to the entrance.
Women were removing their mantas(3) filled with the morning’s purchases from their shoulders, knotting the ends together and placing them on the concrete to one side of the door.
“Six soles(4),” said the man at the door to each person entering. “Wheel him down near the table on the right side,” the man told Ricardo.
We entered a large hall. To the right of the entrance there was a life size statue of the Virgin. Burning candles and vases of white lilies and colorful carnations were in front of her. Long wooden benches lined the right and left walls. Above them were pictures of saints and Our Lord. A stage took up the entire width of the end of the hall. On it sat a massive table covered with a white cloth.
“Look.” I exclaimed, “There are no windows. How odd!”
The benches were filling up with people pressed shoulder to shoulder. Attendants scurried back and forth from the door to the table with food and drink for the Papitos – plates of cheese cubes, plates of green olives, bowls of rice, bottles of Inca Kola(5) and beer. A thick set man who stood in the center of the temple repeatedly announced, “Anyone with a cell phone must leave it outside.” Several people hurried out to tuck their phones into their mantas.
Without warning a man rose from where he was seated near the door. He pulled a cloth down over the entrance. He shut and bolted the door. At the same time, a woman extinguished the candles burning before the Virgin. The hall was plunged into darkness.
What if there’s a fire? How do we get out? Never mind, I thought. The Papitos will save us. I relaxed against the back of the wheelchair.
A sibilant, high-pitched whistle rang out from near the table. Its haunting sound sent a shiver down my spine. The calling of the Papitos had begun. After each whistle, the voices of the participants, chanting prayers to the Blessed Mary and to Our Lord, resonated throughout the hall. After the whistling and prayers had ended, there was a long silence.
Deafening bangs and raps came from the roof.
A loud thud of feet on the table heralded the entrance of the first Apu. “I am Apu Ausangate.”
Another terrific thud… “I am Apu Salcantay.”
And another…”I am Apu Sacsayhuaman.”
Each Apu introduced himself in a gruff voice.
There was scuffling and scraping on the roof. A landing on the table. A female voice proclaimed, “I am Apu Mama Simona.”
The plates and bowls clattered on the table, followed by sounds of chewing. I could visualize the Papitos dipping into the olives, rice and cheese with gusto. They certainly liked the beer and Inca Kola from the slurping noises they made! I was inside an interior that was blacker than the night, but I could see in my mind’s eye what was occurring.
It was time for the participants to approach the table to ask the Papitos for advice. I was second in line. The woman next to Ricardo whispered, “Address the Apus as Papitos and the female Apu as Mamita. State your name and where you live.” I sensed that a man took Ricardo’s arm and guided him to the table with me in the wheelchair, just as another man brushed past my shoulder as he walked the first person back to his seat. I had repeatedly rehearsed what I wanted to say the previous day. Now I was nervous.
My throat tightened. I stammered as I began, “Papitos…and Mamita, my name is Alfonso…I live in Cusco. I woke up…one morning about two months ago. When I tried…to get out of bed I collapsed…on the floor.” And then the words poured out, ending with a plea for help.
A raspy voice said, “I am Apu Ausangate. Let me feel the star on top of your head.”
I almost yanked my body away as I felt a cold, hard talon on top of my head.
“Let me consult with the others.”
Murmurs and low mumblings all ran together in an incomprehensible sound. Were they arguing? I grasped the arms of the wheelchair with all the strength I could muster.
“We have reached a decision. You must use your will to exercise daily in order to get well. If you follow our advice, we will assist you. Come back next week and report to us.”
My heart beat faster in response to my excitement. The Papitos will help me! They want to see me next week!
After Ricardo and the assistant returned me to my place, I listened intently as the people directed their questions to the Papitos. I knew I had come to the right place when I heard the Papitos’ answers. Their invited each person to work on a solution to his or her difficulty. Then they would intervene. The Papitos made sure that the petitioners were serious about solving their problems…that they wouldn’t depend on the Papitos to do all the work. Teamwork, that’s what I liked!
On the way home, Ricardo broke the silence between us. “The man that led me to my seat released my arm precisely in front of the spot where I had been sitting. How did he do that when there was not even a glimmer of a tiny flashlight? These assistants are remarkable! They can see in the dark.”
“It’s inconceivable how the assistants could guide everyone to and from the altar. What impressed me most was the Papitos wanting to see me next week. Also how vivid everything was even though it was dark: the Papitos’ arrival, their eating and drinking, their voices, Apu Ausangate’s talon on my head.” I shuddered as I recalled the talon.
After Ricardo left, I shared all the details with my family. My wife proposed an exercise plan. “I and our eldest son will hold you while you try to move your legs. We will begin with half an hour and gradually increase the time to an hour. Let’s start tomorrow morning so you can rest this afternoon.”
The next day I tried to stand. My face revealed my discouragement. “I am a failure,” I told them.
“No, you’re not,” said my wife. “We’ll keep at it. You have to strengthen the muscles.” Each day until I returned to the Papitos I tried to stand while my wife and son held me. It exhausted me so that I would have to rest on my bed after each session. I would fall asleep trying not to despair.
The day before I visited the Papitos again, I gave an explosive cry as the sharp stab of pain from a muscle spasm in my right leg ripped through me. I massaged the area until the pain faded away. I was bewildered by this unexpected development.
The only difference in the next visit to the Papitos was that after I told them about my exercise plan and the muscle spasm, they told me, “We will come to you in your dreams and be in your heart now that you’ve taken the first step in your healing.”
I continued the daily routine we had established. Sometimes my spirits were low; other times high. Every Wednesday I eagerly awaited my visit with the Papitos. Their message concerning my progress was always encouraging. “Good work. We’re with you all the time. Keep trying.” Their confidence in me kept me going. Each day I tried harder to move my legs in order to prove to the Papitos that I was taking responsibility for overcoming the paralysis.
At night just before going to bed, I felt the presence of the Papitos egging me on to regain my mobility. In my dreams, they flew above me, circled round me, soared in the currents of air with their mighty wings spread. Occasionally one would glide close and touch my heart with its wing tips.
After two months of weekly visits, I informed the Papitos that I could shuffle my feet a couple of steps while my wife and son held me.
After three months, I could take a couple of real steps without support. The perspiration poured down my face and splattered my clothes like raindrops. I persisted, braving the consequences of falling when my family removed their arms from me. I began to visualize myself walking normally while I rested after my exertion. I can walk. Thank you Papitos for believing in me and being with me every tentative step of the way.
After the fourth month, I had mastered holding onto the wall with my left hand and standing erect. At first, I had tottered and trembled. My wife had piled cushions beside me on the wood floor in case I fell. I began to take a step with my hand on the wall. Success! I was so elated that I toppled over.
By the end of six months I could walk a short distance. I felt good about myself. There was now definite hope that I would completely recover. I basked in the comments of the Papitos: “You’ll be healed in no time. Keep going, keep moving. We are with you as you take every step.”
I was grateful to my friends, Ricardo and Sergio. Ricardo never failed to take me to my weekly meeting with the Papitos. Sergio always stopped by the day after to hear what the Papitos had to say and to encourage me to continue my routine. My family, the Papitos and everyone who checked on my progress inspired me to test my limits each day.
After eight months, I made it alone across the room. Joyous shouts erupted from me. Cheers went up from my family. I called Ricardo and Sergio to come and watch while I went across the room for a second time. Everyone hugged me. My wife hurried to the pastry shop to buy a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, my favorite. As a surprise, she had “Bravo Alfonso” written on it in white icing. We invited the neighbors. They all congratulated me and embraced me. It was a splendid party!
That week the Papitos told me, “Your time with us is finished. You need to go up and down stairs and increase the length of your walks. You can do this on your own. We still will be watching over you.”
I bowed my head and rested my hand over my heart as I listened to them. A hoarse voice announced, “Apu Ausangate will bless you.” Apu Ausangate placed a talon on top of my head. Now that he was my ally, the talon was a reassuring gesture. I felt at peace with it resting there. “Te bendigo en el nombre del Padre y del Hijo y del Espiritu(6),” Apu Ausangate intoned.
I returned home determined to achieve the goals that the Papitos had established for my complete recovery. And as soon as my legs became more powerful, I would call the manager at the bank and ask to be reemployed. I knew deep in my heart that soon I would be a useful man again.
(1)Papitos (Spanish): little fathers.
(2) Hospital Regional: a public hospital in Cusco.
(3) Manta (Spanish): a rectangle formed by joining two squares. It is used to carry babies and transport other items.
(4) Sol (Spanish): sol (soles plural) is the Peruvian currency.
(5) Inca Kola: a sweet yellow soft drink popular in Peru since its inception in 1935. In 1999 Coca-Cola bought 50% of the Inca Kola Corporation. It also bought 30% of the corporation who owned the Inca Kola Corporation and granted all bottling rights for Coca-Cola products in Peru to the corporation.
(6) Spanish: “I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”