Spiral of Life, Noris Vasquez Linares
by Jay Merill
It is Sunday. We have come to the market at Sicuani in the early morning. I am enjoying this arrival at an unknown place in company with a man I also do not know, and I ask myself why it is that I like the hiddenness of things.
Let me go back: I was in Juliaca, a town near Lake Titicaca and staying there for a while to help a herder tend his flock of llamas. When he no longer needed my assistance I decided to move north and no sooner had I come to the major road than a guy in a truck stopped and brought me to Sicuani. He said he was going to the Sunday Market there as he was looking for work bringing in the harvest and that was the place to go. What about me, he wanted to know? Did I too care for harvesting? I did not need to think about it as I was in pursuit right then, of new adventures. So, yes, I said I would be very keen on doing that and this is how it was that we came to the market place together. We exchanged names. His was Ramiro. He is twenty five maybe so quite a bit older than me. There is something about him which is likeable and I find I can relate to despite the age difference. And now I feel older than I was just a few months ago, by many years. Maybe years are less significant than the experiences of life.
So I don’t feel as much of a kid as I would have done in the company of Ramiro and this pleases me and gives me a sense of equality. I am travelling around the country and am keen to make new friends as I go and think this will help me to be lighter in spirit and to see the fun in things. I know I can be too serious but I am learning to be different. To be diffuse and yet I hope, to not lose sincerity. I don’t see why I shouldn’t make new friends, even though I am a stranger. Ramiro parks the truck and we walk to the market place and look around. There is a good and colourful atmosphere. Many flags are pinned up around the environs of the market and they give a merry, untroubled look. They flutter and I think this may be the first time I consider that fluttering is a sign of good feeling. It gives me a sense of a happy arrival in this unknown place.
I think of what it means to be lost. No one here knows me or where I come from. And for some reason this idea pleases me. Of course I am not lost forever, I am not dead. And then I drift into a train of thought about changes in a life, and about death, the biggest change of all. Of course many people believe that even death doesn’t mean you are lost forever because they say you will come back again. I think there are people who say your soul carries on though the body dies and it is the soul which will return, but in another form. And I’ve seen for myself that in this life there can be so much change in someone they may be unrecognisable from one time to the next, though they must be the same person underneath. So it’s like that at another level I suppose. Some say you may come back not even in a human form but as an animal maybe. I try to imagine myself returning as a llama but it is difficult. This llama with the soul of me would not be the same as the me I am now, surely. I can’t see how anyone could argue that. These are the thoughts in my head while at the same time I am looking around me, and talking a bit with Ramiro about land work. Ramiro says the maize crop is very good this year and this means they will be looking for extra labour.
At the Sunday Market in Sicuani there is much to see. All is colourful and cheerful, everyone seeming happy about the abundance of the maize. Ramiro greets one or two guys he knows a little and says we have both come here hoping to find work. Soon we hear of a farmer who has a chacra in the vicinity and is looking for reliable workers to help him in harvesting his crop of maize. He hires us without many questions about our previous experience and is to take us to his farm in the late afternoon. I sense I can do this work and I enjoy the thought of building a relationship with the land, which I have not yet in my life ever had.
As the pay he will give us is better than I’d hoped I think to buy a present at one of the stalls for Mother. First I look at the retablos, which are interesting to me as they depict scenes of many kinds. I study the little sculpted figurines for some time, considering whether a nativity or a crucifixion scene, might be something Mother would like to have. Also there are some brightly painted saints, the most popular appearing to be Santa Rosa de Lima. The figures are all formed of plaster or carved from wood, and to me it is fascinating to see how they are made and it’s hard to stop looking at them. But in the end, I think, no, and I move on to a stall which has many herbal medicines. I think Mother would appreciate having such a remedy more than a retablo, and I select one which is beneficial for lifting up the spirits as it seems to me that my mother is inclined to the depressive side of seeing things and so this would balance her. The smell is enticing too and the vendor puts it into a little woven bag for me which I know will delight Mother who is also very fond of handicrafts and the patterns here are bright red and yellow and this too will make Mother feel positive. I go to a bar and sit down to compose a letter. Though I wish to tell everyone at home about the things I have been doing and all that I have experienced since they last saw me I find the words dry up before I have been able to put pen to paper. No, I decide this is the kind of detail that must wait until we meet once more. I sort of think that these are things to talk of rather than to write. I spend a long time poring over what I do say and then crossing out words and putting in others, and in the end I simply tell them I am well and am to start working on a farm and that I hope to see them soon, maybe before the year is out. I do not put the gift in with the letter when I send it after all and will keep it with me for when I go home as I think it will be nicer to give it in person.
The afternoon passes and it is soon time to get the lift to the farm. A couple of other guys come as well and we chat a little on the way. Ramiro follows in his truck just behind us and so we are four altogether. At the farm there is a barn where we will sleep in bunks. It is quite comfortable and I have no fear of it. Tomorrow we start our work. There are several different jobs to do here. I am to load corn cobs onto a van which will take them to a processing plant. And I think, how amazing is the corn, how it sustains us. And next day when I am carrying the cobs and smelling that rich fresh smell they have, how I marvel at this grain and in my heart give thanks to the universe for this provision. In one corner of our field they have set up a cross where we must put twin corns, as it is said that those that are formed as two instead of being the usual single ears have special powers. After three or four days this cross bears many such. Ramiro says to me it is done to honour the ancient deities. A tradition to thank for this excellent crop and also to entreat the gods to provide the same next year.
As I lift up the loads of heady smelling corn and carry them I think of the pattern of things. I reflect on the example of the maize, how the crops keep returning, year after year coming back to us. I think of resurrection, how a being may die and yet continue. I think about what it means to be reborn. This is an idea which holds me. In the case of a human he may not look the same, in the case of the maize they all look alike, at least to our eyes, and yet it is possible that each one possesses its own particular spirit. I remind myself that this place has Aya Huasca and that it has been called Sacred. This idea gives me comfort as though balance is to be had here, and also self knowledge . Maybe a region like this one is somewhere all should experience. I feel then that I am lucky to have this opportunity. For it is true that I can sense something strange all about me, a kind of spirituality that’s in the air. Everything seems intensely real and yet unreal at the same time. I look down at my hands which lift a double maize from the pile in front of me. I walk with it to the special cross and attach it, conscious that I am making an offering. At the moment of doing this I am highly aware of zaramama, the spirit of the corn, and of the great Earth Mother who sustains us. Also I think of the Lord Jesus Christ our saviour who was crucified but then came back to life for us in his original form so that all would recognise him and we might have Him for all eternity. And I understand then that the cross for the twin corns is also for Him. It is in thanks and perhaps may contain the hope that He will continue to bless our land and protect us from starvation. I think how we have drunk the blood and eaten the flesh of our Lord and that in this way he has entered us and he is a living part of us.
When I go next to the church at Sicuani it is Harvest Thanksgiving and I say a special prayer. And I think how our blood in turn has been used for the fields as it is said that the Incas made annual human sacrifices to ensure a good crop. Nowadays we make these corn offerings to our Christian God in gratitude. But who would deny that blood is mixed in everything? It is the power and essence of continued life and perhaps has always been part of our rituals and our religious heritage.
After a little time I have a letter back from Mother saying she is so glad to hear from me and she waits for the day when I will make my return to Cajamarca. She and Father are both well she writes and then she gives me some surprising news. My sister, Chaska, is in Machu Picchu, which is not so far from here. She has a good job working in a hotel and is learning to make handicrafts which will stand her in good stead for the future. Mother is going to have a baby she writes and she says this will mark a new beginning for our family, and she wishes us all to be together as one, once more. She sends my sister’s address in the letter and as soon as I have finished my work for the day I sit down to write to her and already in my mind am planning how we will have our reunion.
Today I am harvesting in the cornfields. The weather is soft and mellow. I have got into a good rhythm of work and so hardly stop. I am thinking about the power which lies in what is hidden; I think of the earth itself. What is stored there and what comes out of it. I think of the blood which has gone into it, and the regeneration of things. Particularly I think of the spirit of the corn. Further ahead of me in the row I see Ramiro, also bent forward and working continuously, except for an occasional stretching up and a shake of the arms. Once or twice he waves back to me and I salute him. He is a sound worker and this I appreciate. The corns are collected from us at the same time and then we do stop for a minute or two and have a smoke and a chat maybe. We talk about casual things such as music or the humidity of the weather, favourite foods, favourite movies. But as to what he really thinks I don’t have any idea. I know which singers he admires and which celebrities, but I know no more about him than this. Maybe we all are like the earth, deep with secrets that only flourish and become visible at special times. Hiddenness may be a valuable thing for the protection it gives till the right moment for flowering. I have an instinct that this is what attracts me to the idea of secrecy. One day it is possible I will push up into the open like a ripe plant to the sun. The universe will tell me when is the correct time. I feel this. So as I work, in the steady rhythm of cutting corn followed by throwing the cobs into a waiting basket, I have a sense of ease and security about everything. I don’t think I have ever been a really impatient sort and so I am prepared to go with the natural flow of things. While the state of hiddenness feels right for me I will appreciate its merits and live with that. So I think of the earth under my feet and all around me. Today we are reaping what it offers us. Then we must re-plant. Again and again. It’s an endless cycle. Birth, death, and rebirth. Because what we call a harvest is actually the killing of the corn. But it has to be. We are cutting it down while it is still fresh and usable. God gives us this privilege. If we did not do this each ear of corn would die a little later on by degrees. But we regenerate too. We will put back into the earth what we are now extracting from it. Endlessly. I love to think about this cruelty, this circularity. It alarms but also comforts me.
When I am next in Sicuani I go to the post office and find there is a letter for me from my sister. I am overjoyed to hear from her and long to see her once more. We used to be so close, the two of us, being close in age and maybe having some similarity in temperament. Chaska has a wonderful gift of divining the souls of others, and I do not share this ability. Sometimes she just has to look at a person and can immediately fathom what is in their mind. I do not possess such a natural skill but must rely on trial and error and often remain completely at a loss about what motivates someone. How I used to enjoy her impressions of people and I look forward to hearing many more. I wonder what her stories are. She must have experienced much since we were last in one another’s company. I am glad to learn from Mother that Chaska is learning a handicraft as it is useful to develop skills. In her letter to me Chaska does not mention it. She focuses only on how she wishes to see me and how we may arrange for this to happen. I write back to her at once to let her know that I will be finished with the harvest here in a few more weeks and then will go to Cusco. I post my letter that same day.
As I walk down the street a little later in the afternoon a young woman I do not recognise speaks to me in a friendly way and asks me if I have used the herbal medicine which I bought. She says her name is Anita. Probably I look taken aback as she laughs and then says that she was the vendor at the stall who sold it to me. She says she picked out the nicest woven bag to put it in – the one with the best design and colour that she had. Then I see she is blushing as she mentions this and understand that it is a come on and that she is not so used to doing this and feels exposed because she has let herself go. I laugh too, and it seems to me I have such a clear understanding here because I have been thinking of my sister. I have fallen into her method somehow. I laugh because I too am shy and have not had so much experience with girls and feel vulnerable because she may see this. But the outcome is that we are laughing together, which is a good shared thing, despite the little pains involved for both of us. And the further outcome is that we go to drink a beer together, which is just a simple good, with no despite attached. There is a buzz to things. I’ve never felt so right about anything. We each quickly overcome any shyness because it is as though we have always known one another. And who could remain shy in that circumstance? Anita sells healing potions and lives in a trailer just outside of Sicuani.
After meeting Anita things change quite a bit for me very fast. To start with I find I can talk with her about things that matter. And once I start many thoughts burst from me as though they have been held inside for too long. I even tell her about the ideas which I puzzle over, such as how can it be that a person can change in one lifetime maybe more than once and become unrecognisable. I speak about the regeneration of plants and beliefs about resurrection. I tell her about my newly awakened love for the land and also about my earlier experiences of mining. How there was magic in finding the gold, but how it had to be teased out with special methods. I say how I love the feeling that beneath us everywhere is this striation of gold like embedded arteries of blood. Anita does not laugh at me when I talk in this kind of way. Most people would, I’m fairly certain.
We have sex together as naturally and unstoppably as I’ve always longed to with someone. We are calm afterwards and lie on Anita’s bed at late hours staring out of the window of her trailer and the dark outlines of the mountains. She introduces me to her friends and I don’t know exactly what I mean when I say this, but they are my kind of people, and I had not known there was anyone I would say this of. I suppose in a way my life has been very sheltered. Anita’s friends ask me where I am from and when I tell them Cajamarca, some become very interested, and one guy asks me if I’ve read any of the books of Carlos Castanada or if I have ever heard his name. I have not and feel a bit of shame to admit this when everyone else here seems to have done but they do not treat me badly over it and say I have plenty of time ahead of me to learn many things as I am only just starting off in my life. They are all quite a bit older than me and Anita herself is nearly twenty seven.
When the time draws near to the end of the harvesting I think of travelling on. I will be going to Cusco to meet Chaska. We have arranged by letter that we will both come to Cusco at the end of November. Before I leave I will spend one week with Anita at the trailer park. During this time I am to help her to pack up the herbal preparations into small containers for selling on her market stall. She has told me that an old friend of hers, a wise and talented man, is a practitioner of curandismo. He is living up north in Huancabama in the region of the lakes and she believes he is currently seeking an assistant to help him in his work. She wonders if this would be something for me. I do not know what to think of this but say I don’t mind giving it a go. Anita has exchanged emails with the curandero and I have been asked to add a few details concerning myself. She asks me in particular to tell him about some of my ideas – about being a travelling man, about the seeming paradoxes in life that make me reflect, and so on. Anita then says he is impressed with me, from what she has told him and also from my shared thoughts. And so it is arranged that after I have been in Cusco with my sister I will go to him in Huancabama and will work as his assistant. As he says, we will both give it a try and see if it is right for each of us. I like this flexible approach to things and so I agree. The name of the curandero is José. When it is settled I find I am filled with an unspeakable delight at this new prospect, but Anita says that even though I have not yet found the words to express my feeling over this she is able to guess everything from the shine of my eyes.
Soon I am saying goodbye to Ramiro and the others I have met at the chacra. I say goodbye to the corn. Maybe I will be back next year. I do not know. Ramiro is moving down to Arequipa after the season as he has his wife and family there. He is planning on returning to this region soon for the potato crop. I take a final walk through the cornfields, now bereft of the maize. It feels strange and empty. I think as I walk of the spirit of Inkarri, or primal man, whose body is buried in separate parts of the country. You could say this links the whole of Peru and makes us one people. I stare at the earth, imagine the lost blood of the primal deity running deep beneath the surface as gold runs through rock. There are also other stories with a similar theme, about a vanquished king who, killed and dismembered by his enemies, made a final promise that he would return one day to avenge his death and I know there are some who believe this to be true. It is under the earth that his separate parts will re-animate, and unite. The head, they say, is the seed of this re-forming being which has the power to make this happen.
When the time is come for Anita and I to part we are both happy and sad. Only she understands how these two are balanced. Our happiness comes from the pleasure we have taken together and from the knowledge that it will be our destiny to meet again. The sadness comes because we are to part and we know that we will miss one another very much. Even though we are certain we will be re-united once more in the future, this is still after all an ending.
I am taking the train to Cusco and Anita comes with me to the railway station in Sicuani. We kiss. As the train moves forward already this kiss is a sweet memory I will carry with me. Then we wave to one another through the window because waving is a less tender burden to bear and so it will help both of us to cope with this loss.
About the Author:
Jay Merill is published by SALT who brought out her first collection of short stories, Astral Bodies in 2007. SALT also published her second collection, God of the Pigeon in 2010. Jay was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize and has been Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing since 2011. She is currently working on a novel assisted by an Award from Arts Council England.