02 Nov The Resurrection of Princess Munay
By Ricardo Segreda
It was a novel and inspired notion, born in Santi’s head, and his best friends – Gato and Bruz – eagerly went along, taking it from imagination to reality. In their small village in Ecuador’s Andean highlands, they would prank foreign and even local tourists and capture the results on a hidden camera that they would then upload to social media such as YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok. Fun as well as funny, they’d be local heroes, and make a little money from ad revenue besides.
On the edge of their village, Chullunku, in the Cotopaxi province, these sixteen year-olds years constructed a tourist attraction within an abandoned cabin that displayed, behind Plexiglas, the mummified remains of a thousand year-old Incan princess buried alive in a ritual human sacrifice. However, not only was the “princess” a fake – made of foam rubber, clay, and paint – but she was wired, at the push of a button, to thrust her hands forward and emit a painful and piercing scream.
The boys also installed a camera not only inside the cabin but outside as well, recording the shocked reaction of visitors, and capturing them as they fled in panic – at least that is what these young males anticipated.
At least they felt they had something to live for. In Chullunku – the village’s name meant “Ice” in the Kichwa language – opportunities for the boys were limited. Like their fellow villagers, they were poor. However, they were also outcasts. Santi was the product of an affair between his mother and her husband’s best friend. After Santi’s birth, his father turned him over to his maternal grandmother to raise, which she did reluctantly. Other children routinely derided him as a “bastard.”
Bruz, pronounced “Bruce,” and so nicknamed because of his passion for Bruce Willis movies, was born with a harelip, which made many in the village regard him with a suspicion born out of superstition – dating back to a legend about a demon with a deformed mouth who spreads lies. As for Gato, his father was the town alcoholic, embarrassing him with public displays of inebriation and lechery.
The inspiration for Santi’s idea originated in his lifelong fascination with the culture of his ancestors, especially their religion. As early as six he’d dress up like an Incan high priest and pretend to be speaking for the gods. When his grandmother suffered a stroke, he even convinced himself that his prayers to the gods save her from the brink of death, for which his cousins ruthlessly mocked him.
The three, in fact, felt this venture would bestow upon them an aura of rock-star glamour to counterbalance all the ridicule and exclusion they had experienced. They were particularly excited over the prospect of having girlfriends for the first time.
With their meager earnings as part-time farmhands, they purchased the material for their princess, whom they nicknamed “Munay,” a Kichwa word for “beauty.” Santi saved every single image of Incan mummies he could find on Google onto his hard drive. He was fixated on one in particular, an adolescent girl, discovered by archeologists 50 years earlier in Cotopaxi and now on display in a museum in Quito. Bruz, a natural artist, was able to construct a convincing replica of the mummified girl’s face and hands. Meanwhile, Gato, who had learned a few mechanical skills when he apprenticed at an auto repair shop in the city of Latacunga, created an internal metal skeleton discreetly wired to a car battery.
Inside the princess was a portable speaker that they could activate from their phones. They had downloaded an especially frightening “girl scream” audio file for the occasion. The next step was notifying hikers attempting to ascend the Cotopaxi volcano. On the most popular trail, they planted a simple signpost, in English, carefully crafted by Bruz: “Thousand-year-old Incan princess mummy, (only three dollars),” with arrows directing the hikers through a path to the old wooden cabin.
Their first visitors were a pair of young hikers from Austria. They paid Santi (adorned in a colorful wood chulo cap and poncho for an extra touch of native exoticism) the entrance fee, and he led them inside. On a wooden platform, behind a sheet of Plexiglas, the princess sat with her “legs” crossed. Like the mummy he had studied, she appeared to be about thirteen. While some of these ancient figures seemingly had mute, solemn expressions, as if they had resigned themselves to their destinies, others conveyed acute, defiant agony, and that was the case with the young lady who was their model. With her mouth half-open and fingers curled, Princess Munay, like her inspiration, gave the impression that she was screaming.
Gato tweaked the car battery while Santi activated the speaker. Munay thrust her hands forward and gave forth a scream that evoked the most primal human hurt imaginable. The Austrians reacted with screams of their own before turning and fleeing as fast as their rugged alpine legs could take them. Bruz, hiding inside, immediately bolted the door shut before exiting the cabin through a discreet back door that Gato had built for the occasion.
Now that this was captured on their phones, they had the challenge of having the world take notice. They started with their anonymous YouTube account, entitled “Ecua-travieso” (“Ecua-naughty”), and from there they passed it on to WhatsApp, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter. They were careful not to identify exactly where this happened, other than vaguely indicating that it took place in the Andes.
The video took off; within their first seven days, they had more than 300 visits to their YouTube page, along with many celebratory responses – “Gringos are such cowards!” “Atahualpa would be proud! “The Incas are avenged.” Within eight days, the number had climbed to over a thousand.
Their next victim was a short man from Japan. As he paid his three dollars, he conveyed to Santi, in his broken Spanish, how much he was enjoying Ecuador. Santi, Bruz, and Gato took their positions and waited for the right moment. The Japanese traveler leaned in, took out his camera, and they activated Munay. He didn’t scream or run – at first. Rather, he stood as if paralyzed while urine trickled from his white hiking shorts down his legs to his wool socks. He then sprinted out the cabin screaming something in his native language, the same two-syllable word, over and over.
That particular recording took off like a bullet fired at the sun. Within three days, the video had over 2,000 visits on YouTube and ricocheted around other social media platforms.
More videos followed, featuring a variety of terrified tourists, though some – after the initial shock – were also furious, with one Argentinian punching a hole in the wall of the cabin and threatening to beat Santi and anybody else involved. This only made their videos more viral.
The count on their YouTube channel now averaged about 10,000 visits per upload. At this point, Santi, Bruz, and Gato relaxed their code of fraternal secrecy, and leaked to select villagers in Chullunku that Ecua-travieso was their channel. For the first time in their lives, they were both respected and admired. Boys who taunted and bullied them would now invite them over to their homes to play videogames. More importantly, girls began to notice them.
One sunny Saturday afternoon, four months after they initiated their prank, a heavy-set, middle-aged American hiker, smoking a cigarette and sweating heavily through his flannel shirt, paid the entrance fee and wandered into the cabin. Santi, Gato, and Bruz all assumed their positions and gleefully waited for the inevitable. Princess Munay thrust her hands out, screamed. The American opened his mouth, but without making a sound, before collapsing to the cabin floor, gasping for breath.
The three boys gasped themselves, now feeling a much deeper fright than anything they had inflicted on their prank-victims.
“Help me, oh please help me!” the American cried out, between gulps of air. Santi, Bruz, and Gato rushed to his side. His face turned a light shale of blue before his body began to shiver. Santi removed his poncho and placed it on the man’s enormous stomach.
“Santi, what else should we do? You’re the smart one, you should know, right?” Bruz cried out.
“I’m not a doctor, I don’t know anything!” he replied.
“I’ve seen this on YouTube, in those reality shows,” Gato said. “Somebody has a heart attack, they pound the chest and blow air into his lungs, through his mouth.”
“Then try it,” said Santi.
“You do it. I’ll watch and tell you if you are doing it right.”
“I should run back to Chullunku and get the medicine man,” Bruz said.
“Don’t…let…me…die,” the American said faintly.
As Gato watched, Santi pounded lightly on the American’s chest, but as he moved to put his lips on the man’s mouth, the American spoke one more time.
“It’s too late. You boys will pay for this.”
He now became very still. Santi reached for the man’s wrist to feel his pulse. There was none. Santi stood up.
“I wish I’d never been part of this. I wish I’d never ever talked to you, Santi,” Bruz said.
“Shut up, Bruz,” said Gato. “Do you regret having a girlfriend, too? That would never have happened without Santi’s idea. We were just nobodies before. Everybody hated us.”
“Both of you shut up,” yelled Santi. “We have a dead man at our feet and we’re screwed. Other gringos are going to demand an investigation. If we don’t do something fast, we’re all going to go to prison.”
“An even if we don’t,” said Gato, “we’re going to lose everything. News about what we did is going to spread all over the world.”
“We have to bury him,” Santi said.
“I don’t want to touch him,” said Bruz. “Up until now I’ve never even seen a dead body.”
“We have to bury him and take down our channel. Then just act if nothing ever happened,” Santi said, before adding, “and we have to do this right NOW.”
Santi kept vigil over the body while Gato and Bruz (the latter sobbing), went to their homes and returned with shovels. Working until the early hours of the morning, they dug a deep pit in nearby woods. As if interring an Egyptian pharaoh, they buried the American with all his possessions, including his passport, cell phone (which they de-activated), and wallet (with 40 dollars inside). Dismantling their prank operation in the cabin followed, taking down the Plexiglas, removing the wiring and car battery, and, finally, destroying Princess Munay.
With the latter, in fact, almost as a form of ritual purification, they made a small bonfire out of sticks and branches before throwing her onto it, waiting until all that remained was the metal skeleton that Gato had constructed. Meanwhile clouds gathered and it was raining as they walked back to their respective homes. Sitting at his kitchen table, Santi took down the Ecua-travieso channel, deleted all the videos from his hard drive, and disabled his other social media accounts
Unfortunately, the deletions had the ironic effect of making the boys notorious, infamous, and unpopular. All anybody could talk about in Chullunku was the mysterious, abrupt disappearance of the Ecua-travieso videos. Speculation turned into rumors (such as that the Ministry of Tourism protested), and rumors took on the contours of fact.
The taunting resumed. “What happened to your channel?” people would ask. “What did you do to the princess?” Bruz’ girlfriend, Danila, bewildered by his refusal to talk, not only broke up with him, but moved on to Tacho, his principal childhood rival, who never passed up an opportunity to mock Bruz’ deformed upper lip. Unfortunately, Tacho, unlike Bruz, was also large, strong, and prone to violence. With Danila in the arms of his nemesis, he felt even less of a man.
His relatives, too, became cooler towards him, and having distanced himself from Gato and Santi, he sank into a profound depression. Finally, one night, he purchased a few bottles of some locally made chicha, a native beer made from corn masticated by locals. Sitting down in front of his small television and watched three Bruce Willis action movies in a row. Willis was his idol – so brave, handsome, confident, and popular. In so many of his reveries since childhood he saw himself as the Bruce Willis of Chullunku, flaunting a muscular body and a flawless face as he walked proudly through the village with the prettiest girls on his arms as other boys looked on with awe. If anybody challenged him to a fight, of course Bruz would win.
He looked up at a vibrant and detailed portrait of Danila, warmly smiling, he had painted during his brief happy period. The chicha taking effect, Bruz stumbled out of his house and wandered through Chullunku, past its’ rows of one-bedroom, cinder block homes with rusting, corrugated tin rooves, with the random goat or chicken in the front yard.
“Goats? Chickens? This is my life?” he asked himself. He kept walking, beyond the village, to the edge of the local river, and dove in. His decomposing body would not be found until fourteen days later.
The following evening, around midnight, Gato, was concluding his tenth consecutive hour playing videogames on his laptop. Gaming nearly every waking moment of his life had become his escape from all that had gone on. When he heard his mother’s screams from the kitchen, however, he bolted. She was on the floor, with a small trickle of blood from her nose, while Gato’s father – drunk as usual – was standing over her, screaming, “Don’t tell me how to live!” Gato immediately threw a punch to his father’s face that knocked him backward, before kicking him in the ribs and throwing him out onto the street.
When Gato returned, his mother was standing and applying a bag of frozen peas to her face. “He keeps promising me that he’ll stop drinking, I don’t know what to do,” she said. Gato didn’t know either, since he had heard her say this so many times before. Locking all the doors to the house from within he retreated to his bedroom and continued with his videogames, putting on headphones in order to ignore his father pounding his fists against the walls of the house.
Meanwhile, Santi, unable to sleep, got out of bed, dressed and wandered out of his house and back towards the cabin. He did not know why, but he felt the need to return there, to make sense of all that had happened.
By the time he arrived, it was nearly three in the morning. The sky was cloudless and crisp, with stars shining almost as brightly as the sun and the moon. Yet now that he was here, he felt no more relief from his anxiety, fear, and confusion than when he was back home, in bed, under his blankets. He started to trek back, when the air suddenly became colder, much colder, in fact, than he had ever experienced in his life.
His body shivered, his knees weakened, and his teeth chattered. He fell to the ground. Santi then looked up and saw an indigenous adolescent girl, her face painted red and back, her body bedecked in gold jewelry, feathers, and a multi-colored robe.
“Stand up,” she said. Santi nervously complied.
“Who are you?”
“You know who I am. You saw my image, you recreated me, and you used me. In my final moments, in a state of pain and grief.”
Santi’s bowels start to tremble. Impulsively he picked up a rock and slammed it against his temple, hoping that it would wake up him from this nightmare and he’d find himself back home. The blood that trickled down his right cheek quickly chilled.
“You’re not in a dream, other than the dream of life. And you’ve been in this illusion for all of your sixteen years. You, your friends, your parents, everybody in that village that made you and defined you. You were all once a proud tribe of warriors, men, women, and children alike. Now what do you live for?”
“But my ancestors sacrificed you.”
“Yes, we were cruel, even unjust, but we were not dead in spirit like you and your community, more dead than that American you buried.”
“I killed him!” he cried out, weeping.
“He forgives you. His journey was ending and he made a sacrifice, so you could come to this moment. You have been chosen to restore the honor of your people. You see, when you were small, we heard you, and you really did save your grandmother’s life.”
“So I wasn’t crazy, like they said.”
“From here going forward, you will receive more wisdom, through the moon, the stars, the owls and hawks, and in your dreams. For now, however, return home but tell no one.”
With that the Princess opened her arms, tilted back her head, cried out like a hawk, and faded like lifting fog before Santi’s eyes, while the chill in the air lessened. Wiping the blood off his face with his shirt, Santi started back to Chullunku, feeling humbled, yet also much larger and stronger than he had ever felt before.