The following is story titled “Quachi”, from my collection Quachi and Other Stories and Poems, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other websites. I hope that you enjoy my tale of ancient Peru.
Note: This story was inspired by a documentary about the ancient monuments of Peru. The archaeologists could not understand why the people simply abandoned their great cities and religious centers. They offered several possible answers, and this story is my answer.
Father held his head high as he proudly led his family up the rocky path to the plateau where the sanctuary stood. All of them – his wife, three sons and three daughters – carried offerings for the nobles. Each year in the season of offering, they brought their gifts, and each year in the season they prayed for the Great Quachi to play his flute and grant them the gift of rain.
The rain must return. When it had rained, ten seasons past, the vicious torrent had torn long gouges into the earth with its claws. The farms of the high plain needed gentle rain to fill their canals. Father’s youngest son never had seen the rain.
On the shore stood cliffs filled with the shells of dead creatures that had suddenly found themselves lifted out of the sea by the uplifting of the earth. The family farm would soon be a dead shell, as well.
Father looked back now and then, to make certain that his family stayed together and maintained a respectful silence in this most holy of places. He worried about his youngest son, Tlati, who had let the llama bolt and run last year. That must not happen this time. They must see the Great Quachi.
Tlati led the llama colt by a fiber rope looped around its neck and tied around its nose, while his older brothers carried sacks of corn, melons and other fruits to offer to the Lords of the nation. They had walked this maze before, making the annual pilgrimage to the high plateau of Perqat Namu on the western edge of the Terraced Mountains and entering the packed dirt path between mud brick walls that rose twice as high as their heads. The path through the maze started out wide and open to the air, then narrowed as the walls closed in, finally coming to the part where they must walk single-file in the darkness under a thatch roof. It felt good to be walking, after waiting for two weeks in makeshift tents on the beach by the Great Ocean for their turn to approach the Lords. Other families still dotted the sand with their temporary encampments. They littered the sand with the detritus of daily life: fish bones, potsherds, corn husks, broken toys, scraps of discarded clothing and such. The beach stunk of dead fish and cooking fires.
Every year they offered their corn to the Lord of the Fields, their melons to the Lord of the Gardens, and so forth, finally offering one young llama of perfect conformation and without blemish to the Lord of Livestock. The llama must be less than one year old and raised in their house as a member of the family. Every year they were turned back without having seen the Great Quachi at the center of the maze, their offerings having fallen short of perfection. This was Tlati’s second year of pilgrimage, but he knew of years before from the stories that his three older brothers told.
Father never told stories. He led them through the maze in silence, maintaining an air of authority over his family, turning around to shush them with a stern look if they dared to whisper in this most holy of shrines. His two oldest boys carried the gifts of corn and melons. His youngest son, as was the custom, led the llama colt. Behind the line of men came the women, their mother and three sisters, carrying household goods to offer to the Lords: hand-woven textiles of the finest wool and most precious colors, clay pots filled with delicacies of bean curd and llama stew, rough gemstones and small common stones carved with blessings and prayers.
The family hoped, with these offerings, to reach the center of the maze and petition the Great Quachi for the gift of rain. Their canals had been running dry too soon, their fields scorching under the harsh sun, their crops shriveling and yielding fewer and smaller fruits each season. Each year they dug the canals anew to better carry the scant rainfall. Each year they brought the best of their produce, their finest handicrafts and their most perfect young llama as offerings to seek admittance that they might implore the Great Quachi to play his flute and, in so doing, to cause the sky to yield up rain. Each year they were turned back, disappointed but determined to try again next year, when the season of pilgrimage came around again.
Dust swirled around Tlati’s bare feet with each step he took. The llama, raised in their own house as a member of their family, walked by his side like a little brother, making the rope seem superfluous. He kept a tight grip on his end of the rope, nevertheless, remembering last year when the llama had balked. This llama would also try to run away, Father had warned him. They always do. Tlati resolved in his heart that he would not disappoint Father again. They must see the Great Quachi. They must have rain.
They walked in solemn procession down the path, which turned left and then right, then right again, winding in ever tighter spirals as the walls gradually closed in, making the path narrower at each turn. In each of their minds, the same thoughts ran through, the same words they had spoken every night around the cooking fire: “We must have water, we must have rain. The Great Quachi must play his flute and bring the rain.” Here and there a tapestry of red, green, yellow and black hung from the mud brick wall, illuminated by a candle set into a niche on the opposite wall. Each tapestry bore the insignia of rulership over the people and the land on its top half, and the seal of a Lord near the fringed bottom. When they passed under the edge of the thatch roof, walking single-file, they quickened their pace in the excitement of knowing that they were near to the offices. The thatch roof darkened their path, to impress upon them the brightness of the light in the offices of the Lords. Each Lord had his own alcove, a small room open to the sky, that one person might enter through an opening in the side of the tunnel, for now the roofed walls felt more like an underground tunnel leading into ever deeper darkness than a path leading to the high sanctuary of the gods.
In the first alcove sat the Lord of Stones, dressed in feathers and seated at a stone table. The wall behind him displayed a painted scene of women gathering stones from the fields around their mud house. Mother watched as Tlati’s youngest sister, Chalca, placed a cloth bundle on the stone table and pulled its corners apart, displaying her offering of a dozen stones, some precious and therefore not engraved, others common and therefore having prayers and blessings scratched and painted into their flat sides. Stones of violet, red and green sparkled in the sunlight. Mother moved her lips in silent prayer to be allowed to go forward and walk that much closer to the Caller Down of the Rain. The official nodded, the top feathers of his headdress nearly touching Chalca’s head, then lifted his head and looked to one side. It was the side of the path leading to the next official, so their first offering had been accepted.
The children found it unbearable that nobody spoke to them and that they must not speak. They suspected that their parents also felt ready to burst with speech, and that they would speak long and loud on the way home, when at last they were turned away and forced to leave the holy place. They always did.
The next sister offered a pot of llama stew to the Lord of Kitchens, and he must have savored the aroma, for he lingered over the pot for several minutes, mumbling to himself, before he finally nodded and sent the family on to the next office.
Each offering left the family group waiting outside the office while one of them offered the best they had. Each offering that a Lord accepted gained them access to the next Lord, where another one would make the next offering. Mama’s bean curd won the Lord’s blessing and a smile of delight at its delicate aroma.
Next came the brothers. Father watched them with the silent prayer upon his lips, we must have water, we must have rain. The melons were small but sweet, the corn stunted but edible. The Lords accepted those offerings from Tlati’s brothers, but they did not seem well pleased.
The family walked deeper into the narrowing maze, their sense of anticipation growing with each step they took. Tlati’s apprehension grew, for he knew that the last offering must be his, to hand his young brother llama over to the Lord of Livestock. Father made his offering of a bundle of firewood, cut to the proper dimensions and tied together with cords made of dried vines. The Lord of Fire cut the cords and inspected each piece separately for the quality of the wood and the size and shape. It seemed to take forever, but at last the Lord nodded and sent the family on to the next office.
Finally, they came to the next but last office, the Lord of Livestock. They had spent most of the day, beginning at first light, making their progress through the maze to this point near the center. The thatch roof in this end of the tunnel let in the dappled sunlight of late afternoon through a looser weave than in the halls outside the offices of the lesser Lords. The walls stood somewhat farther apart, allowing two adults to stand side by side outside the alcove where the last Lord but one awaited their offering of a fine young llama. Father and Mother watched from the doorway, while the children jockeyed for position behind them, trying to see around them and into the office.
Tlati stepped into the alcove, giving the rope a tug to encourage the llama to come along. The llama must have smelled the blood, for it balked, rearing back and dragging the boy backwards and pulling him off of his feet. Tlati fell to the ground and had the breath knocked out of him, but still he held tightly to the rope. His family watched with concern but did not move, for it was forbidden to help. Tlati must perform this task himself. Regaining his feet, he spoke softly to the llama colt and stroked its neck, reassuring the frightened animal that all was well. He felt like a traitor, for he knew what lay ahead, but the family’s need was great and this was the only way to meet their need.
He rubbed his brother llama behind its ears and whispered soothing words of affection, promising food and all other good things that a llama might want. This colt had slept in his own bed and eaten out of his own hand. It trusted him as if he were its own brother. So, with a little coaxing, Tlati convinced the llama colt to enter the office.
The heavy-set, bronze-skinned Lord of Livestock, dressed only in a leather apron, reached out a huge hand and grabbed the llama by the neck. With his other hand, he flashed a black obsidian knife of exquisite sharpness and slit the llama’s throat, sending a shower of blood over himself and Tlati.
The boy nearly fainted in horror, even though this was his second time and he had known what to expect. He watched the Lord carefully to see which way he would nod his head. Would this be the time when they were finally allowed to beseech the Great Quachi for life-giving rain? Or would they once again be turned away to struggle through another year of drought? He had heard his father and mother whispering about it in the wee hours of the night, when they thought he was asleep. They could not survive another dry year. If the Great Quachi did not play his flute and bring forth the return of the rain, then the people must move away or die. These two choices were all that lay before them.
For himself, Tlati could not bear to lose another beloved pet. He did not mind the hardship, the lack of water and the shortage of food. Working in the fields gave him pleasure, and he took pride in the calluses on his young hands. But he swore that he would never again watch the murder of a pet that he had raised with his own hands in his own house. The Great Quachi must bring rain.
The Lord inspected the corpse of the young llama, running his hands through its sleek, well-groomed wool, pinching its hindquarters to check the depth and tenderness of the muscles, bending its legs to examine their delicate bone structure. He began to turn his head, and it was the wrong way.
Tlati ran out of the alcove into the midst of his family, and he kept on running. His brother Texco tried to grab him, but he ducked and sped away toward the center of the maze, toward the Great Quachi, Lord of the Sky.
Father ran after his youngest son, afraid to believe that Tlati was committing this great sacrilege. Nobody approached the Great Quachi without permission. Surely the boy had turned the wrong way in error, meaning to run out of the maze and begin the long journey home. Mother and the children followed, walking slowly and seeming dazed. Some twenty or thirty feet down the path, they stood at the entrance to the central office, the shrine of the Great Quachi, and they watched their youngest son approach the greatest Lord of them all.
The thatch roof ended and the walls opened into the central chamber. In the center of the circular office sat a little man on a round stone platform. Shriveled and old, the Great Quachi had deeply wrinkled skin and a round bald head that seemed too big for his body. His chin lay upon his chest; he was either sleeping or deep in thought.
Tlati stopped a few feet away from the Lord and shouted, “Quachi! Great Quachi, you must help us!”
The family watched in horror, but also relief, as the youngest boy delivered their prayer to the Caller Down of the Rain.
The shriveled old man raised his head and blinked repeatedly as if the sunlight were too powerful for his old eyes.
“You must play your flute and bring the rain,” Tlati implored. “The land is dried up, the crops are failing and the people are suffering. Please bring back the rain!”
The old man spoke slowly, as if it were a great effort to push out the words. “You want,” he said, and gasped for breath. “Rain?”
“Yes. That is why the people come here every year, just after the harvest, to beg the Great Lord of the Sky for rain to water our crops and bring us abundance once more.”
The old man bent his head and sighed, but he did not speak.
Tlati urged, “We need your help. Our fields are parched and our livestock thirsty. We must have rain.”
“So sorry,” Quachi said. “The sky contains no rain for my flute to call down.”
“But you are the Lord! You may command it!”
Tlati had expected some sort of guards, or even his own brothers, to come and fetch him from this place. Apparently there were no guards. He did not have permission to enter, but his family was also forbidden to come into the presence of the Great Quachi. They waited outside the doorway, peering in but not daring to set foot inside.
“The sky,” the Lord said slowly and painfully, “has no rain to give.”
“None at all?”
“Then what shall we do?” the boy implored,
“Go. Find a new land where the sky gives rain freely and in abundance.” The words came out slowly and with long pauses in between, but the Lord said them with authority and the boy obeyed.
Tlati bowed before the Lord, begged his forgiveness for this intrusion and walked slowly backwards until he was outside the central office and in the hallway with his family.
The family walked home in silence. His brothers did not tell their usual stories, having no stories as great as this one to tell. Tlati felt the need to consider the story in his heart, so he did not tell it for many years after the family had packed up their meager possessions and faded away into the forest, far from the desiccated fields of their former home, far from the Lord of Hopelessness.
* * *