Monday, July 5, 2010

White Christ

The horses come back. Moving slowly, their woolly bodies plod down the small plain above the ruins. Just close enough to the tumbled rocks that the dyed-blonde tourist on the lead horse leans half out of her saddle to snap a jiggling picture. She will take more when the horses reach the edge of the field, at the spot where the ground plunges away to the valley and grants unobstructed views of the city one thousand feet below. All the tourists do. They all want pictures of Cusco sprawling through the valley and, on the edge of the cliff, the white statue of Christ the Redeemer reaching ninety feet into the air. They do not notice the snow-capped mountain opposite Christ's spreading arms, the one the natives call Apu--mountain god. They prefer the statue in its circle of barbed wire, strung there to keep the vandals away.

The group stops in front of the cluster of wooden buildings where I wait for them, and I slip into my pocket the letter with the U.S. postmark which Gabriel brought me that morning from town. I take the reins to keep the tourists away from kicking hindquarters and bared teeth. But the horses are too tired from their afternoon ride across the hills to cause trouble and only shudder with freedom as the weight slips from their backs.

The tourists chatter--they think the stable is quaint, so third world, complete with weathered siding and chickens pecking in the dust, the smell of horses, and laundry drying in the courtyard. They love the open-sided barn attached to the house, in such a way that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, and they ooh and ahh over the peculiar view which mixes the timeless beauty of the Andes with the kitsch of the cristo blanco. One of them even snaps a photo of our dirty Volkswagen van.

From the road, a campesina approaches on bare feet, wearing the brightly colored clothes and full skirts that the local women have worn for generations and now wear for the tourists. Two nuevo soles per posed photo. A blue and orange blanket on her back contains the cheap pottery pieces she sells to the tourists in the ruins--Inca colors, she recites her mantra eight hours each day, Es Inca, very pretty, you like...She smiles for the group of women and reveals a mouth filled with rotted teeth stained by tobacco and coca leaves, then pulls a cloth doll from her pack. A miniature version of herself.

"Oh, look--a doll!" One of the women reaches for it. "How cute--we don't have one of these yet, do we?"

Her friend shakes her head. "No, but if you want it, remember to barter. Only offer half of what she asks for."

"Es muy bonita, sí, señora?"

"How much?" The woman asks, loudly and slowly, as all the tourists do, as if yelling will bridge language barriers.

The campesina knows just enough English to barter. She asks for ten soles. The blonde holds up her hand, palm forward, a gesture which could mean either that she is either offering five soles or that she is pushing her away. "Cinco."

They finally settle on a price, and the blonde woman gives her seven soles, more happy that she bartered than that she bought the doll. The coins rattle as they disappear into the folds of the campesina’s black skirts.

"Gracias, señora." She pulls a pottery jar from her pack and holds it out--a pitcher, a puma face on its side. "Es feo, no? You like?" She pushes the pot toward the blonde. "You like--es Inca."

The blonde retreats a step. “No, I don’t want anything—“

“You like—diez soles?”

"Basta!" I turn on her angrily. "Ve tú--Ve tú a tu casa."

"Pero yo trabajo--"

"Ve tú antes que llamo mi marido."

"El no es tu marido." She laughs. "Tú eres su mula!"

In a burst of rage, I whip the long leather reins at her. They hit her arm with a loud crack, biting into her flesh. I pull back to strike again, as hard as I can, but she steps away. Just out of reach of the reins and the prancing horse.

With a look at me that is more mocking than angry, she tucks the pitcher into her pack and heads slowly toward the road. She glances over her shoulder to see if I am still there, still guarding my own tourist prey, and I watch her until she disappears into the shallow ditch running beside the ruins. The ditch which leads to the old Inca steps descending down from the fortress to the city. The setting sun behind her silhouettes her plump figure against the sky for just an instant, then she drops below the edge of the hill, out of sight. I can still hear her laughter.

"Thank you," the blonde tells me. "Gracias--mu-cho grac-ias."

I shrug and mumble, "De nada." They are looking at me closely now, now that they have seen a campesina beside me to compare me to. My hair and eyes are dark, my skin browned by the high-altitude sun, but not dark enough to dispel suspicion. They stare, wondering why my clothes are different from the campesina's, why my face is more oval, my nose pointed, if I speak English...

I turn my face away from them. "Esa campesina es un monstruo quien vendería su chiquilla por ciento soles," I comment rapidly, thickening the Peruvian accent which I have learned to mimic, hoping they will not notice that I am one of them. An American.

The blonde cocks her head. Perhaps she recognizes the difference in my eyes. "Do you speak English?"

I only stare silently at her.

She frowns, a little embarrassed. "Never mind. Here--" She presses a one-sol coin into my hand. A tip. Thirty cents American. "For you."

I bite my tongue against the sharp English words flooding my mind. None of them right. What do I say to them? That their sol tip is an insult, when they think I should consider it a windfall? That I choose to live in a drafty shack between the ruins of Sacsayhuaman and Christ? Or that I was once like them--perhaps even better--once working as an executive in a corner office in downtown Chicago with an assistant and a ten million dollar client base? They wouldn't understand my decision to be here any more than my family, even if they were capable of comprehending a dual existence between the business executive I used to be and the native I have chosen to become.

Instead, I reply quietly, "Gracias."

Gabriel walks out from the courtyard. He smiles at each of the women, asks them in fluent English if they enjoyed the ride, flirts innocently with them, offers to sell them a horse as a souvenir. Their relaxation in his presence is instant and expected, as it is with all the female tourists who come to the stable. He is more of what they are used to than the other men they have seen since landing in Lima--taller, more slender than squat, with skin which is more olive than dark, an appearance more Spanish than Quechuan. Even the sharpness of his nose comforts them. And with stubble on his face and ponytail at his neck, he could be mistaken for a hippie. If he weren't Peruvian.

He collects the money for the ride, sorts the bills neatly with the heads all facing the same way, and slips them into his trouser pocket. One of the few mannerisms he still possesses from his previous life in Lima. Or, I assume that it is, having met him after, when he had already forsaken his banking job and bought the stable on the hill above Cusco. I watch the tourists, who in turn watch him--even the way he handles the money is familiar to them, a westernized movement, a comfort in the middle of a strange continent. And because they are accepting of his appearance as bridging two cultures, they are more accepting of me and falsely believe that I was born here.

Gabriel says goodbye and wishes them well with a kiss on each of their cheeks--a common practice which they find exotic and romantic--then he points them in the direction of the paved road where a taxi is waiting to return them to their hotel in the city. But they fuss about the road, playing the routine of the helpless tourist, so he agrees to walk with them and see them off in the taxi. I watch them leave, with Gabriel in the center of the group. As always. The sun has dipped behind the mountain tops, creating a flood of shadows on the valley floor, but golden light still falls across the tops of the hills and on Gabriel as he strides easily down the road. And the head and shoulders of the white Christ are illuminated.

The flirting is necessary, I know. The primary business of the stable comes by word-of-mouth, spread by happy tourists to other travelers, to hotel staff, even to taxi drivers who are then asked by other tourists about activities among the ruin sites. But I do not like it. Just as I do not like the way Gabriel allows the guides to have free run of the stables and the two rooms comprising our house, as if they live there with us, as if it is just another part of the stable. They do not listen to me when I tell them to stay outside, when I give them orders about the horses, or when I assign the tours to them. They always go to Gabriel and treat me as if I have no more authority than the boy who mucks out the stalls. My mother says that Gabriel has the best of both worlds, so why should he change?--the bachelor's quarters he desires, and the maid he sleeps with. His mula--his mule.

But I am free to leave whenever I choose, I remind myself. When I have grown too tired of cold nights with no hot water, of limited electricity which goes out more than it is on, of dust in the dry season and mud in the rains--of giving my affection without clear reciprocation--then I will walk down to the city, to the AeroPeru office on the Plaza de Armas, and purchase a one-way ticket to Miami.

When Gabriel returns, he shows me the same smile he gave to the tourists. "Not a bad group, eh? Good pay."

I hand him the sol.

He frowns. "What's this?"

"Good pay," I say and lead the horses away.

* * * * *

I lean against the post supporting the courtyard gate and stare out at the way the night has blackened the fields and valley. The thin air is cold. From the living quarters, I hear the horse guides talking around the tiny fire. One of them plays the pipes. A few notes of El Condor Pasa--the one the tourists all love to hear because it is the only song they know--then they break into raucous laughter. They are drinking the chicha that Maria brought from the settlement just beyond the eucalyptus grove and ingesting coca leaves, telling tall tales, sharing the woes of their marriages, trading opinions on horses and soccer. The night muffles their voices; beyond the buildings is silence, stillness, a deep and dark void hovering over the edge of the cliff.

But the night is not completely dark. The lantern in the courtyard behind me casts yellow shadows across the VW van and spills out into the gravel road. The large moon shines coldly on the mountains, on the short rock walls edging the fields, on the alabaster Christ which glows like a specter. A holy ghost.

The letter is still in my pocket. It is from my parents, written in my mother's elegant handwriting. Two pages to tell me that my father is dying. But letters from the States arrive slowly in Peru, and those four weeks to live have dwindled to one.

The last time we saw each other, we fought. About Peru. About erecting a life with some dirty, foreign hippie who didn't even have a job, in a shack between a statue and a bunch of rocks. My life was too good to leave, my job too lucrative, they insisted, and Gabriel wasn't good enough for me...My father never came to visit us here, he never opened the photography book of the Andes I sent to entice him to come. But mother came and reported back that we were living in a barn.

The night air chills my face and arms, but still I do not go inside. I want to be alone, away from the guides' jokes about Americans with their open purses and closed minds. This is why I stay, I remind myself again, trying to be convincing--the glow of the moon over the mountains and ancient ruins, the sound of horses mulling around the feed troughs mixing with the haunting melody of the pipes, the freshness of the cold air. Somewhere in front of me in the darkness sits Apu Ausangate, unseen but still present, somewhere beyond the white Christ with its glaring floodlights. And somewhere, much closer, just up the hill behind the stables, stands a one-room house made of mud and straw, where a family huddles together in one bed against the night.

"I knew I'd find you here." Gabriel approaches me from behind and drapes a blanket of alpaca wool across my shoulders. He touches my face. "You're cold." He slips his arms around me. "Come inside."

"I will, soon."

I cannot relax within his arms. He is warm, solid, and I inhale the familiar scent of him--that mixture of man and horse--but tonight, that is not enough. I nestle my head against him, against the spot where his chest and shoulder meet, hoping for the usual comfort it brings, but finding none. When we first met, even when he was still a stranger, I wanted to crawl into his arms. Even as he helped me onto a horse and set me off across the mountainside with Carlos for my guide and another guide on foot bringing up the rear. He must have laughed at the scene we made, resembling a warped tableau from Don Quixote. And yet, he invited me back the next day and rode alone with me into the hills. We did the same the following day. On the fourth day, I came to the stable and never left.

"What are you doing out here?" His voice is deep and low.

"Nothing. Just looking at the ruins."

He nuzzles the side of my face, and his warm breath tickles my ear. "Sexy woman," he teases, a play on words. On the trick the guides use to teach the tourists to pronounce the name of the ruins--Sacsayhuaman. Sexy woman.

Usually, I laugh at the old joke, but not tonight.

He notices my sadness and strokes his finger against my cheek. "It's that letter, isn't it? I knew it would upset you. Querida, forget them. Your life is here now--"

"My father is dying."

My words drift into the darkness, mixing with the faint pipes before vanishing. Their dissolution only reinforces the enormity of space before us.

He kisses my forehead. "Lo siento," he whispers into my hair.

"Mother wants me to come home and stay until he passes."

"When will you leave?"

"I'm not sure I'm going."

"You have to, you know that."

He is right, I know, but it also seems too easy for him to tell me to leave. To go away from the mountains and from him.

"I'll come with you," he tells me.

I'll come with you...but it is an empty offer. We both know that he will never be accepted by my family, not even if he cuts his hair and dresses in one of his old suits. They will never see the mountains reflected in the depths of his eyes, realize how tranquil the horses and valley make him, or experience the quiet strength that radiates from the Sacred Valley. Nor will they ever see it in me. Instead, they will only notice the olive tones in his skin, my now wild hair, his heavy accent, the strangeness of my clothes. But perhaps that really is all there is to see.

"No," I force a smile for him and kiss his hand, "it's tourist season. You have to stay here."

He says nothing, not even to protest. In the darkness, I wonder if we share the same fear, or if it strikes me alone--the fear that I might not return.

From behind us, the pipes play again, a Quechua melody as old as the city below. Someone joins in with a guitar. In the distance, the tourist train from Aguas Calientes winds its way down the mountainside toward the valley and announces its presence in the darkness with a low, mournful whistle.

"Come on." Gabriel takes my hand and pulls me toward the ruins.

The moon lights the field, allowing us to step easily over the hand-plowed furrows and stones. Our shadows intertwine on the ground. When we reach the massive rocks which form what is left of the fortress's walls, he scales them easily and disappears over the top.

But I am too short to follow.

I run further down the wall to the only set of steps cutting up steeply through the rocks. My feet do not falter even in the patches of darkness hidden from the moon. Testament to the countless times I have wandered these ruins, and to the instincts of steps and mountain slopes which have developed inside me. Instincts which continue to grow each time I walk up the hill from the city, each time I stare at the ruins, each time I watch the children at play in the fields. My feet have forgotten the feel of American concrete; business suits seem fantastical now, along with skyscrapers which suffocate and block out the sun. My freedom is the mountains, my religion lies in a stable between Inca ruins and a giant white Christ.

Breathing deep in the thin air, I reach the top of the walls--Gabriel isn't there. I look for him but see only the tumbled rocks on the field behind me and the artificial lights of the city below. For a moment, I panic, frightened of being alone. My heartbeat quickens, my breathing stops. A sickening feeling of sudden and intense desertion overwhelms me--

And then I see him. At the edge of the wall, he faces out into the darkness toward Apu Ausangate. His hair loosed from its ponytail and spilling freely across his shoulders, his arms outstretched. A replica in flesh and blood of the white Christ glowing behind him.

As I approach, my footsteps silent on the rocks, he senses me. He turns toward me and smiles, his face beaming with an expression of deep love. I feel my chest expand with adoration and passion, reciprocated.
I reach for his hand, and I am home.

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