17 Aug Big Precipice – By Jorge Icaza Coronel (Translated by Pat McNees Mancini)
By Jorge Icaza Coronel (Translated by Pat McNees Mancini)
At the edge of the highest of the bleak plateaus, in a shack as dwarfish as the surrounding vegetation—velvety frailejón plants, tough buckthorns, rachitic straws of weed—the Indian, José Simbaña, and his young woman. Trinidad Callahuazo, had been living in sin for some time. Like good huasipungueros.* they worked from Monday to Saturday—clearing, planting, harvesting, digging ditches, cleaning up, doing extra work on holidays for liquor—on the property of “his honor, the big boss,” owner and lord of the hillside, the valley, the forest and the mountain.
On Sundays, at dawn, the pair living in sin would enter the town’s church, he wearing a double poncho of Castillian baize, she a dark waistband, necklaces of gold-colored beads, and a bright shawl. Lost in the anonymous crowd of Indians and cholos,** José and Trinidad enjoyed the Mass from a corner of the darkest nave. The liturgical pantomime of the symbolic sacrifice, the dazzling glitter of the priest’s dress, the fragrance of the incense clouds, mixing in the fervent current of emotion of the country people, took on a superstitious flavor of familiar witchcraft. But when, before the Consecration, the priest spoke against wicked common law union, against violators of the holy laws, against those who neglected the sacraments of Holy Mother Church. José and Trinidad cringed in terror, a childish terror that made them look at each other out of the corner of their eyes, in anxious self- defense, with mutual accusation. A viscous dampness—the same that no doubt paralyzed their remotest ancestors in front of arquebuses, swords, armor and horses—oppressed them with this evidence of their eternal damnation.
The good preacher’s realism in listing the punishments that Papa God, in His infinite power, had created for His misguided children led him into the most vulgar and exaggerated comparisons: “The indomitable fire of volcanoes, the big pot—the biggest one of all—of the old woman who sold tamales, the molten lead in the furnace of the one-eyed blacksmith. Melchor, the vipers of the forest, scorpions, spiders….” The holy man lifted his hands heavenwards and, in a cavernous voice that hollowed itself in the naves of the church, gave his nightmarish picture a realistic locale, concluding:
“Like Big Precipice with the horrible crevices in its walls! Like Big Precipice with its stenches of brimstone and carrion! Like Big Precipice with its breath of moaning air and its dilated gullet of rocks! Like that…! Hell is just like that! Just like Precipice!”
Reference to that place was enough to spread fear among the faithful. They all knew it. They all knew about the inaccessible depth that dropped three hundred meters down between sharp rocks and imprecise forms around which perennial fumaroles smoked in memory of ancient volcanic splendor. These excited the popular imagination to make the superstitious statement: “Old red Papa Devil smoked sulphur in stone pipe.” Keep in mind that at one time or another they had all smelled the rotten atmosphere the swamps of the innumerable caves and windings at the bottom of Big Precipice breathed out. All of them had also heard the phantasmal wingbeats of bats, owls and large birds that rose from the heart of that abyss as night came on.
During the apocalyptic evocation of the priest, the mass of Indians and peasant cholos that packed three-quarters of the church shook with groans, pleas and uncontrollable trembling—reproduction of some sculpture group of clay idols in attitudes caused by a tormented subconscious. At moments like these, the priest—hands convulsed in holy anger, his eye a challenging young eagle’s—dominated his work with imposing power. His work! His sculptured work of faces printed with morbid and ancestral remorses, of hands posed in humiliating supplication and degrading anxiety for pardon, of eyes clouded by unexpected and hysterical tears, of eyelids prematurely reddened by the smoke of green firewood, by rot-gut made from sugar cane, by the dirt of the wind from the bleak plateaus.
A wail like that of newborn animals intimidated by torture, saturated with bad odors, would then rise with a regular beat—wave of inarticulate pleading—that rocked the multitude of sinners again and again. At such moments the good priest would almost always be overcome by nausea. Nausea after Holy Communion, sacrilege. No. He could not avoid the devil’s mockery—host and holy wine in the vicinity of so much nauseating dirt. In this situation, the worried and contrite priest, his voice dripping with pardon, offered to absolve all the crimes of the Indians in exchange for Masses at one hundred rogations at thirty, and responsories for the dead at two sucres. Yes. All the crimes of that wretched multitude—disobeying the boss, the majordomo, the political deputy, the sacristan, any idiot with shoes on. wasting minutes of work from six to six; drowning suffering with rot-gut on Monday mornings; stealing, through hunger, dead animals from the farm; telling a lie to protect the rest; mixing the fetishism and superstition of their remotest ancestors with the images of Christian saints and the Faith revealed by Papa Priest; persisting in sinful cohabitation before marrying by the Church and the law.
The offering of the cassocked one immediately reduced the swelling murmur started by the fear of punishment beyond the grave. Relief replaced the delirious anguish of the peasant mass. All trusted once more in the mercy of Dear Papa God and His minister on earth. The Indian, José Simbaña, and his young woman, Trinidad Callahuazo, were perhaps the only ones who did not draw comfort from the priest’s words of pardon and hope. It was so difficult to accept their reality. Their sad reality. To defend their sinful love from the interference of the majordomo, the fines of the political deputy, the anathemas of the priest, they—he and she—had had to build their shack and fence in their huasipungo a few steps away from the horrifying place the reverend father compared with hell.
Besides, they felt that their passion—unions interrupted and pleasures clouded by the mysterious night sounds of Big Precipice—was being consumed by the fire of silent remorse, heavy, hard as a daily bleeding of unspoken, mutual accusations. What was there to say? What to do? All the pleasure of the first carnal unions had disappeared and, especially in the woman, the thick broken thing left by portents of evil was quickly taking the dark form of guilt without pardon, a demon coiled around the throat. And so when the church was empty, after Mass and the sermon—a tombstone of peace without hopes in the air around them—José and Trinidad— she in tears, he pale, stony with suspicion—crawled up to St. Vincent’s altar, handsome and miraculous according to the country people’s belief but in reality foolishly dolled up with a straw hat, trimmings of gold paper on the skirts of his cassock and a brass bugle in his right hand. Once in front of the Saint, the woman, between sniffles and sighs, pleaded for help:
“Sweet saint. Dear little St. Vincent. Help me. Papa priest says all hell is for poor ones living in sin. For … for us, sweet papa. All alone in big pot, mountain of fire, with devils of Big Precipice. It’s not on account of badness we don’t get married … not on account of bad love … not on account of sin … no … why, then? My man, my man José right here. Oh…”
At the mention of his name, the latter stirred out of his bitter thought and, feeling that he played an important role in the female’s complaint, nodded, thinking: “Here…. Yes, I’m right here, dear little St. Vincent. What my little woman says is true, holy saint. Living together like we do is necessary for Indians. Indians are stupid. How do we understand what they say … if it’s good or bad, then… loving like poor little animals. There’s no other way for poor Indians to live, we can’t, well… think of it yourself, holy saint… like that… all Indians before have done it like that. Protect us from demons of Big Precipice, please … from wind that gives no peace whistling all night … from bats that make nests in ceiling … from all ghosts and noises that never let us love in peace. Does that make the heart stop suffering? Does it make poor Indians become better? Does it … defend us, holy saint. Defend us!”
The frightened woman also wrung her hands as if she were possessed. increasing the discomfiture of her lover—discomfiture of perspiring flesh of eyes made smaller by suffering and motionless by fear, of thick-hanging jaws of trembling lips—her lover, who out of compassion mentally took the Saint’s place to answer and mentally console the lamenting, troubled woman: “Sure I’m going to defend you, sure I’m going to protect you, that’s what I’m a man for…. A man, damn it!”
“Yes, pretty one, yes, little father…. When we have some eggs, little rabbits, we’ll make you a present of…. When the earth of the huasipungo produces corn, too…” the woman insisted.
“Yes, that’s right, good little saint. Mister sacristan will take them holding them with care to the convent,” the man added.
When the couple left the church, he ahead of her, and faced the indifference of people—future bleak with slave’s work, private scars of repentance without forgiveness—they both felt disheartened, sinking into a bitter depression that made them drift through the marketplace and finally, always as if by pure chance, pulled them into the street where the three bars of the town crowded together. On a Sunday or big fiesta night, lost in a fog of drink—in darkness, under the stars or the moon, in a drizzle or a storm, it was all the same—they staggered along the haunted roads. Sometimes they slept in a ditch or among shrubbery that edged some pasture. Ah! They were happy then, with the happiness that small, confused souls experience in the sense of their own absence: far from the cruelty of the cholo majordomos, far from the irrevocable orders of “his honor, the big boss,” far from the anathemas and sermons of the reverend father, far from the shack strangled by the noises of hell, far from the vicinity of Big Precipice.
Things became much worse with the pregnancy of Trinidad, whose fears increased until she felt death hanging over her. Overcome by a feeling of languor, she would lie down, shivering, in the middle of her work in the fields, and remain for long spells panting as if in pain. When José—accomplice, love and demon at the same time—drew near to console her, Trinidad looked heavenwards, the black abyss of her eyes burning with despair and supplication. Then she whispered in a tearful voice:
“Going to spend today up there in tall clouds.”
“In Papa God’s heaven?”
“How get up there? Only flying bird.”
“Plying with death.”
“Hail Mary. But….”
“Dearest… I want to….”
The Indian’s only answer was to make up naïvely hopeful solutions for the two of them: “When I pay big boss the debt. This year? Next year? When also … then we’ll give reverend priest and mister deputy cash to hitch us up legally. Matrimony of the law and of Papa God. We’ll change our little plot near Big Precipice for land on the hillside. We’ll be in good standing with Papa God. Just be patient till then, little woman. Just be patient, woman of my heart.”
“For mercy’s sake, for the baby hurting in my belly, don’t let … you won’t let me end in hell, please. Give me Christian burial!” insisted the pregnant woman, anguished, filled with evil presentiments.
“Go to hell? For pity’s sake, why?”
“She must be bewitched to think of kicking the bucket just like that.” the Indian thought, looking with superstitious fear at the swollen body of the woman. Sometimes he forgot his prudence, his slow, cunning prudence, and instead of contemplating the pregnant woman in deceitful silence would shout in resentful anger:
“Be patient! Be patient, damn it!”
One Sunday, like all the last ones of her pregnancy. Trinidad bought one of those candles that come in one pound bundles of five at the grocery store in town. Next to her lover in the church, after Mass and the sermon, she spoke as usual to St. Vincent, holding out towards him. in a childishly threatening way, the offering she had brought:
“Look … look now, dear little saint… I have need of your charity. Are you listening?”
“Stupid woman. Talking to St. Vincent as if he was an Indian,” the man mumbled, while his mate, kneeling in a comer next to the altar, facing the wall partly to hide her shamelessness, raised her blouse and waistband up to her navel and, between moans and groans, rubbed the candle over her stomach deformed by the later months of pregnancy and sinful sex. Then with feminine naturalness she placed the offering, contaminated by guilts that reeked of hell, in the large tin tray where about twenty candles of different sizes were burning. That day, while she persisted in her plea to the Saint, the woman suddenly doubled up., seized by an unbearable pain. A pain in her belly—to her it was the devil biting. With a mad look in her eyes, grasping her middle with both hands, she begged José:
“Dearest… Sweetest… I can’t stand the pain of our sin any more. Here! It hurts, right here!”
“Holy Mary. What is it? What is it?”
“Dearest! I can’t! I can’t stand it anymore! I just can’t anymore! Help me, please!” insisted Trinidad, pale and trembling.
Afraid that his concubine’s scandalous pleas would become public, the Indian man grabbed the pregnant woman as well as he could and dragged her out of the church, speaking low:
“Hold on. Hold on hard. Just a little longer … until I carry you … until I take you….”
On the road that twisted uphill, the woman realized which way they were going and. in a moment of dark despair, screamed:
“I don’t want to, dearest!”
“I don’t want bad wind of Big Precipice. Don’t want bats. Don’t want vultures. Don’t want mountain ghosts. Noooo! I don’t want to stay with old red Papa Devil!”
“Hold on, damn it!” José ordered, pressing on. He was breathing in long, deep, wild gasps.
“Mother of God … sinful mule … my man is like sinful mule of Papa Devil… my man … my devil…,” thought Trinidad, seized by a vertigo of pain.
The next day the pregnant woman woke with one long groan. Instead of going to work, the man went in search of the midwife. On entering the sick woman’s shack, the expert midwife—a wizened old crone with dirty hands, reddened eyelids, strings of grayish hair, an odor of cow dung—looked around her with plain suspicion. She blessed herself several times, chanted prayers she made up for her own special use against witchcraft, and then asked the Indian, dazed by his woman’s condition:
“Why do you live right next to Big Precipice, next to the evil wind, next to the wind of the evil one?”
“For mercy’s sake, just cure my poor woman. My poor….”
When the old midwife had accustomed herself to the semidarkness of the place and warily examined the woman tossing on her pallet of dirty goat skins and old ponchos, she could not hide her diagnosis, her wise diagnosis:
“Mother of God! She looks bewitched!”
“Bewitched?” Jose said, a strange terror gripping his veins like ice.
Without further comment, the wizened old woman undid her hemp bag which she had brought under her arm like a satchel of fine instruments. She drew a pregnant rabbit out of it, which, in spite of convulsive struggles to free itself, was handed to the Indian man. Next, the midwife stripped the sick woman completely and ordered her to lie on her back. When everything was set, the old woman took the pregnant rabbit from the Indian’s hands and, skilfully sadistic, massaged the patient’s body with it again and again: over her dark shaking legs, her deformed belly, her sex organ straining to give birth, her neck whose muscles and veins tightened as if trying to stand great pain. Soft and velvety at first, from the heat of constant rubbing the animal’s fur took on the painful, burning torture of mustard plaster. The procedure lasted—long, groan-producing. useless—until the pregnant woman passed out and the rabbit died. The midwife moved to the door to see better and so that José too might observe, in the entrails of the bruised animal, the mysterious and unusual illness that was killing poor Trinidad. She slit open the rabbit’s belly with the rusty blade of a knife whose handle was a piece of stick. She rummaged through the viscous and bloody entrails looking for something definite and. after a few minutes of carefully probing and separating, extracted and exhibited a dead diminutive foetus, murmuring with consternation:
“Jesus. Sweet Jesus. Mother of God. You can see, you can see it so clear, the baby dead in her belly. Dead it is.”
“Can’t you see? Poor baby. Sorry little thing.”
“But it’s only a rabbit.”
“That’s how the baby is inside its mother. I rubbed the animal to find out.”
“Possessed by the evil one, as you can see. Possessed by the Evil Wind of Big Precipice too….”
“Then cure her, sweet mother. Please cure her!” José Simbaña begged, at his wit’s end. But the midwife’s only response was to drop the entrails and the dead animal on the floor. She wiped her hands on her waistband several times, gained the door and. blessing herself and mumbling prayers to free herself of the evil she had disclosed, tied downhill.
Discouraged by the cowardly and evasive behavior of the only one who could cure his woman, the Indian huddled up beside the pallet like a whipped dog. Something like an ancestral sense of guilt burned in his blood, something like grief filled with repressed anger. He did not, could not believe what was happening. Some evil spirit advised him to run away like the midwife. To run downhill, roam the hillside, cross the valley, through the woods, the marshes.
But he did not move. He could not abandon his naked woman, twisting and trembling in the grip of fear and death—for him, these were the impalpable lashes of the Evil Wind and the Evil Spirit. Maybe he ought to wait. But wait for what? For… Papa God to show mercy. But hours passed and, as they passed, the poisonous fear of superstition grew in the Indian’s nerves and blood like an insane and delirious power, growing with the help of the whining wind that was always Hogging the shack, the cawing of birds of prey in the sky, the distant barking of dogs, the presence of bats steadily circling.
At times Trinidad, her sense of time completely lost, knelt on the tattered ponchos, her pulse feverish, in strange imploration. She appeared to be asleep … dead! Then the man would lean over her with hitter interest, near her face and her breasts, over the memory of the first night of their illicit love. Yes. He leaned over her to question, too…. Unfortunately words stuck, confused, in his throat, in a net of despair and tenderness. All they could do was rouse more affection in his blood towards that small miserable woman, that female who had managed to break the solitude.
“Damn it. Oh damn.” was all José Simbaña could say then.
Later, peaceful, covered up, sweaty, she opened her eyes with their languid lids. Her breath was thin. Finding the man beside her—at the Mine time her accomplice and refuge in pleasure, grief, punishment, and in the great silence that surrounded them—she persisted in the old plea for pardon and order, protection against the threat of hell:
“Swear that… swear, dearest.”
“That they won’t… the devils won’t drag away poor Trinidad like the good lather said.”
“You’ll protect me. Protect me, dearest!”
“But how, little woman?”
“Burying me in a Christian manner when I kick the bucket, not like a worthless dog.”
“But how, sweet woman?”
“With Mass in church, with black cloth. With large candle. With incense smoke. With bunches of white flowers. With painted box. With responsories of three sucre. With holy water. With….”
“Only it you want to go ahead and die leaving your poor man all alone, abandoned like a grain of corn dropped on the road to town, like…”
“Swear it. Swear it, please!”
The heartbreaking pleas, the pitiful tears of the dying woman, as usual tore the sincere and touching oath from the Indian:
“All right, pretty one. All right, little companion. When it has to he. we’ll do it all: even if I have to rip blood from my feet and hands with work, even if I have to sink alive in the marshes, even if I have to steal cattle from the ranch, even if I have to take a whipping on my naked body. All of it, just as you say. When Papa God ordains it, I’ll bury my little woman like a Christian.”
Things became worse that night. The sick woman’s fevered eyes glued themselves on the light from the stove, dragging themselves across the floor. Then, straying without control, they went over the cracks in the door through which the wind whistled, the dark hollows along the walls where phantoms crouched, the junctures in the straw roof where bats fluttered. And, clinging to the body of her lover who stayed next to the pallet, still fully dressed, she whispered in despair:
“They’re coming for me now! Now. dearest! Now … now….”
“Who?” the man said, pretending not to understand although he knew what she meant.
“The Evil Wind!”
“The Evil One!”
“I’m here, right here to defend you, don’t worry!”
“The demons reverend father talks about.”
“The demons of Big Precipice!”
“The demons,” he echoed in a tone of fear. He felt weak and defenseless before heaven’s curse.
On the third day Trinidad died. The screams, the pleading had subsided in a tide of heavy exhaustion. Then, with a slight convulsion, the body of the woman became still, eyes sunken, mouth half-open, face livid. Perhaps the man thought she was sleeping. And yet he called her in a low voice:
“Little one! Little sweetheart!”
Receiving no answer, he thought, looking for stupid consolation: “She doesn’t want to answer, to speak…. She’s pretending … sly but…. Just like a dead cow or a dog…. Trinidad!” Realizing at last that his companion was really dead, the Indian screamed until he was hoarse, until his crazed heart, panting, strangled all possibility of lamenting. He rested a long time, crouched next to the corpse. Then, like an automaton, he left the shack. Lost, hopeless, he sat down under the agaves that fenced the huasipungo. Suddenly something warned him—with the intuitive knowledge of his blood—that he had to keep his sworn promise. An absurd anxiety, contempt for himself, for his impotence, made him wander over the countryside. A few hours later, quenching his thirst to regain his strength, dipping his face, like an animal, into a still pool in a shallow stream, he noticed that his face, black and blurred among the clouds of the sky, was repeating the woman’s supplication: “Swear that … swear, dearest … that the devils won’t drag away poor Trinidad like the good father said. Protect me, dearest! When I kick the bucket….”
It was only then that he felt with certainty that someone fixed very deep in his heart had died, had disappeared forever, was nowhere to keep him company.
“No, damn it.” he mumbled, rising to his feet. And scenting in the late afternoon air the only possible solution, he took the road that led to the ranch house. He found everything forbidding and impenetrable as the mind and whims of “the master, his honor, the big boss.” He stayed outside the servants’ quarters for a long while, not daring to make his presence known. Luckily the old woman servant, the oldest one, stuck her head out the kitchen door and asked with a haughty air:
“Well! Who are you looking for?”
“The good master, his honor.”
“He’s not here.”
“Anti boss majordomo?”
“He’ll be here this evening.”
“Then, pretty one, I’ll wait here in the corridor until he comes.”
And night fell on him. At a lost hour, in the middle of the evening darkness, dogs barked. The shadow of a man on horseback crossed the yard, of a rider who hitched the horse to the milking post and approached the corridor, dragging his spurs, swaying, with heavy step. A smell of cheap liquor told the Indian Simbaña that it was the majordomo, whose arrival could solve his troubles.
“Boss,” the Indian said meekly, approaching the shadow of the other who, noticing that he was being followed, arrogantly asked:
“Who the devil are you?”
“Just me, boss. José Simbaña.”
“The one from up … from Big Precipice.”
“Ah! So! The lost Indian, the lazy Indian. You finally showed your face around here, damn you.”
“My woman’s dead.”
“Woman? What woman? Ah! Now I know, damn you. You had a concubine. Corrupted Indian!”
“Mother of God. I come to beg you, please, boss. I beg your honor. To grant the charitable favor of giving me something in advance to bury my woman.”
“You damned Indian, drunkard, dog. When you already owe me so much money….”
“It can’t be much, boss.”
“Can’t be much? Almost a hundred sucres, over a year now.”
“For charity’s sake, boss. I beg your honor. For Papa God’s sake…
The damns, the curses and the threats of the cholo majordomo crushed the perseverance of the pleading Indian. Finally, the crack of a merciless whip cut short the supplicant’s voice. Satisfied and free—the ill-fated victim had scurried off like a rat—the majordomo dragged his drunken body, excited by his show of manliness, inside the house.
José Simbaña spent the night in a deserted shed. The next morning, he had no better luck with the people he knew in town. After listening to the Indian’s presumptuous request for an advance on a risky proposition of his, Eulalia Chavez, who made and sold fritters, stared at the entreating Indian as if he had gone out of his mind. Then she interrupted scornfully:
“Are you drunk or something? I’ve had far better propositions! Where have you ever seen people give credit to Indians, just like that, eh?”
“To bury my dead woman….”
“Dead woman? What woman do you have, lying Indian?”
“For charity’s sake, ma’am, your honor. I’ll bring you a little pig real cheap as soon as it gets big.”
“You must want the money to get drunk. No. I haven’t any! Go find another fool!”
“For charity’s sake, ma’am.”
“Get out, pig-headed Indian!”
“Jacintooo! Come throw out this nervy, nasty Indian!”
“Get out, damn you! Drunkard, filthy Indian!”
José Simbaña knocked at well-known doors, told his tragedy time and again, offered to do any kind of work, to hand over his animals, although he and his possessions were bound to his landlord for life. He begged with maddening persistence, with a drunkard’s desperation. All, absolutely all, regarded him with as much astonishment as the maker of fritters, everyone kicked or pushed him out. And when nothing else worked they sicked their dogs on him. Thus night overtook him and he slept in a corridor. When he woke up, he remembered the huasipungo of his parents, Papa Luis and Mama Rosa. He would have to ask their forgiveness, shed tears of remorse for having abandoned them. Still, that was no obstacle. On the contrary, he wanted desperately to submit his bitterness to the anger and reproaches of his parents.
Grateful for the long expected surprise, the old couple gave him a big welcome. Seeing him enter their shack with downcast look, determined to ask for pardon, they thought: “Anybody that comes looking so upset must come in great suffering.”
Mama Rosa spoke to him with her usual sweetness:
“My boy, my bewitched boy.”
And, after scratching his head and looking him over, Papa Luis gave him a couple of light slaps on the back.
He found everything unchanged in the place of his childhood: the impertinent and mangy dog, the stunted corn, yellow as if prematurely ripe, the line of geese sunning themselves, the pigs and the chickens next to his small brothers, the corn soup in the clay pot. on the floor the bedding of rags and dry skins where he had slept his heavy animal sleep.
When Papa Luis and Mama Rosa learned the motive and the reason for their “bewitched boy’s” return, they offered to give the woman a Christian burial.
“Even if we have to sell the little pigs and the lambs the compadre* left with us when he went away,” the old man offered.
“You go ahead, son. We’ll come later with the money,” added Mama Rosa with soothing hope.
José Simbaña ran along the zigzagging hillroads. Overwhelming happiness pounded at the pores of his skin. He couldn’t, it was almost impossible for him to believe in the kind, charitable solution the old ones had found for his suffering.
Entering the path that climbed Big Precipice, the Indian looked up at the sky with grateful fear, the sky where he noticed about twenty vultures flying in regular circles. “Mother of God … oh Lord … what can it mean?” he said to himself, an indefinite, painful misgiving biting into him. Misgiving about what? About nothing… about everything. He tried talking—broken, spontaneous phrases—with everything around him, with everything that appeared before his eyes as he ran: the stones along the road, the mud in ditches, the green herbs, the damp cow dung, the hard rocks, the hot sand. When he took the last turn in the road and drew near his shack, a stench of death knotted a violent oath in his throat. What? What? His ears fixed on the strange flapping of diabolic wings that beat the air, imitating the rhythms of hell, the Indian sniffed the air like a starved dog. Evil presentiments gripped him, absurd questions.
“Who can it be? Who can it be beating like that? Like Devils, like…
He peered over the fence. No! He had surprised something. Something that crushed him with horror, something to make anyone go mad. More than twenty dark, heavy, stinking vultures moved about, crowding the huasipungo in front of the shack. Someone was lying among their legs, in the middle of their quarrel and agitated wings. Someone! Satiated, some rested placidly in corners. Others more voracious and insatiable, picked at a being, a pile of human entrails. He made out legs, arms, a face without eyes. It was she. She had been dragged by the demons from the pallet, through the door, into the yard.
“Christian flesh! It’s my own little Trinidad!” Simbaña screamed, not knowing just what to do. But the echo of a well-known voice, of a loving memory announced: “The very devils of Big Precipice … in the shape of vultures, black, stinking. The demons reverend father talks about…” But the presence of what he thought were demons from hell, instead of intimidating him as usual, driving him into nightmarish flight, crammed blind strength and courage into his muscles. Her screams urged him on. The screams that boiled in his blood like a hurricane. He looked at the torn up figure of his Trinidad, like a bull about to charge, and suddenly leaped over the fence screaming:
“My woman! My little woman, damn you! My sweetheart! My big sin!”
Stunned by the flight of birds scared off by his unexpected appearance. the Indian remained motionless some seconds, as if he had been planted deep, forever, among the rags, the wrappings, the badly skinned bones, beside the eyeless face, the peeled chest, the breasts carved up by the beaks. Something like an order, a nagging, desperate need, a cry of fear, emanated from that tragic scene. Emanated and rose—warm, viscous—through the legs, the stomach, the shoulders, the throat of the disheartened Indian. Yes. It was a curse and supplication at the same time: “Swear that… swear, dearest… you’ll protect me so that the devils won’t drag me away like the good father said. You’ll bury me like a Christian, not like an animal. Protect me, dearest. No! You won’t let the devils of Big Precipice drag me away. You’ll help this poor one anyway you can.”
José Simbaña looked around him with despair and fury. What could he do against those fiendish, powerful birds that surrounded and then flew from him? How could he save at least what was still left of his dear woman? How?
“No. damn it! Damn you!” the Indian shouted, madly charging at the vultures every which way, into the bristling fence of agave thorns, towards the shack’s roof, towards the small empty pigsty, towards skies beyond his reach.
The failure of the Indian’s absurd, impossible chase increased the fury of his blind anger. He raced, leaped, dashed from side to side. But what was his senseless objective? Perhaps to rescue from the demons’ bellies the pieces of his loved companion, of what had been the ephemeral delight of the pallet, his silent companion in his work, on the long roads, in his foggy sprees and punishing hangovers. His woman! Like a loose-limbed scarecrow he continued to pursue the winged demons that mocked him, flying close in and then pulling away. He followed them over the stony countryside, screaming, cursing, leaping.
Always attracted by the black, slippery birds, a knot of anger now, exuding impotent hatred, frustrated because he did not have wings, he came to the edge of Big Precipice. Beating the air with his arms and furious curses, he performed hair raising feats of balance on rocks projecting high above the abyss, trying to catch the demons that were escaping with a deep part of himself. But they were more agile, leaping higher, and finally soared in flight to sink into Rig Precipice.
“They’re going down to hell like reverend father says, damn … with my sweetheart in their bellies. But why?” the Indian asked himself. at the peak of his despair, not daring to look down towards the bottom of the gigantic mouth of the earth formed by walls of calcined rock, while the well-known, dear voice of Trinidad urged: “Swear! Swear, dearest! Protect me … where are you? Now, my man, my own!” The voice of the dead woman seemed to cry out, demanding, pleading insistently from the putted bellies, the beaks, the bloodstained claws of the birds.
“No, no, damn you! My little one! My sweetheart!” the Indian’s howl ripped the air. And a blind impulse to join and obey the imagined pleas of his ill fated love forced him to open his poncho like wings and dive from the tip of the rock on which he was standing into the abyss, to be swallowed by its depths like a stone.
* Huasipungueros: Indian tenants of the huasipungo, a parcel of land granted to them by a landlord in return for work. They build their shacks on it and cultivate it during spare moments.
** Cholo: A person of mixed Indian and European breed.
* Compadre: Godfather and father of the child, each with respect to the other.