SIERRA NEVADA de SANTA MARTA
The small man wore white from the tip of his pointed hat to the rolled-up cuffs of his baggy trousers. His shapeless tunic hung to his narrow hips. His feet were bare, and his mochila, the hand-woven bag slung over his shoulder, was broadly striped in brown and white, with a touch of bright yellow, like an unexpected flower. He was less than five feet tall, and young, but his brown skin was lined, so he didn’t look like a young man. His pace was slow, which added to the impression of age, but that was because his outer vision was poor. His inner vision was keen and he progressed with a steady gait, his feet firm on the rocky ground. He knew how to walk; he knew the right way to walk, the old way, the way the Mother had taught the first people. He knew how to dress, in white like the snow, with a hat like the peak of the snowy mountain. As he walked, he chanted in the old tongue, in the simple language of the Elder Brother, now known by only a few.
It did not make him sad that so few Elder Brothers remained in the great world. Everything was how it should be. He had brought the sacred offerings, the white potatoes, the white grubs, the special things that nourished the spirits of the Mothers of the Lost City. He had brought food for the Mother of the Jaguars and the Mother of the Water Spirit and the Mother of the Green Plants, and he spoke the proper words of offering as he walked the proper way.
“There are all things in Aluna; in Aluna there are all things.”
The repetitive chanting brought him to his center and gave him peace, but the words of Mama Parello still rang in his ears. He had little outer vision, but the other mamas saw like great hunting hawks, and they said the snow on the highest mountain peak was not as it should be, the small tundra trees dead or dying, the grasses of the páramo turning yellow and dry. That was very bad. If the snow was not deep, as it should be, then the icy water in the streams would not be as it should be. If the water was not good, the maize, the plantains, and the potatoes would not be good. If the plants were not good, the Kogi could not thrive. All these things were connected as all things were connected on the great earth. “In Aluna there are all things.”
He used his poporo then, as a man does, taking the coca leaves from his mochila and placing them in his mouth the right way, the way the Mother taught since time began, using his stick to add the ground lime from the gourd. As he chewed, mixing the lime with saliva and leaf, he thought about the Mother and why she had allowed the Younger Brother to come back from his exile across the Great Sea.
Once, he knew, the Elder Brother and the Younger Brother lived in harmony here in the heart of the world. Much was known then, of spirit and sky; all the ceremonies were new and fresh. The people traded their crops up and down the mountain, fish and salt from the sea, monkey and alligator meat from the jungle, sugar cane from the wooded savannah. The mamas taught the right ways and the people prospered. The spirit was strong then, and the mamas danced—how they danced!—with the holy gold.
But the Younger Brother took the wrong turning. He fell in love with his machines and forgot the old ways. He hurt the Mother’s body with his machines, and for his carelessness, and for the protection of the Older Brother, he was banished to the far side of the world.
Peaceful were the years of his banishment, but he had returned. He had come back to the pain of the Elder Brother, to the diminishment of the true people. He had brought grief then. And now, now, what had he done? Had the Younger Brother, in his folly, made trouble even with the snow on the holy mountaintop?
The coca leaves were fresh and the lime strong. As he chewed, the tiredness passed from his body like a wave passes through the sea, and he walked the earth refreshed and smelled the good smells of the spicy grasses and the crisp thin air. He chanted to keep his thoughts on the right things to do when approaching the Great City of the Mother. “There are all things in Aluna; yes, in Aluna there are all things.”
Aluna was the place of creation, where all things began, where time was stilled and everything that was or that would be existed in the garden of the Mother’s great and eternal mind. He tried not to worry about the melting snow, but it was a thing to bring trouble. Still, if he nourished and cared for the good Mothers of the City as he always did, as the Elder Brothers had always done, then it would go well. There was much lost, yes, much lost, but much remembered of the Old Ways. The Elder Brothers knew how to keep the good in the world, how to keep the snow deep, how to make the rain fall, how to make the plants grow. The Elder Brothers would not falter. “There are all things in Aluna.”
When he crested the high ridge, he heard the low hum, the pesky sound of the great moth, a troubling angry buzz. There are all things in Aluna, so even the ugly iron moth of the foolish Younger Brother was there, an idea before it had a form, an idea in the mind of the Great Mother. This moth was hard to see, fuzzy and far away, but it grew closer and bigger and louder, a great black moth hovering near the City of the Mother, an ugly iron moth that came singing out of the sky, out of the pure white blanket of the clouds. The moth was black like night and gray like ash. The Younger Brother made the moth, but he did not build it from sticks or weave it on a loom. He did not create it with the proper spirit in the proper way, with humility and prayer and guidance.
The small man’s feet hurried on the stones and he had to remind himself to do the thing right, to approach the city in the correct frame of mind, in the right way, so that his holy offerings would be good. Things had to be done right, or they were no good. There was a way to do things. This was what the Younger Brother had never learned. As the buzzing faded away, the small man slowed his pace and spoke the words carefully, remembering to say them the way Mama Parello said them, remembering the right melody and the right rhythm, remembering the way that was the one right way.
Another steep path led to a flight of stone steps. The steps, edged in emerald moss, were not slippery to bare feet. The small man thought they looked like the petals of a great flower. He knew how to walk them. He took deep breaths as he climbed, and he thought how short the long journey had been, how many good things he had smelled along the way, how many strong steps he had taken.
What was that noise, that rhythmic pat-pat-pat? It wasn’t the echo of his own climbing steps; no, his feet traveled as silently on stone as they did on sand and earth. The sound was one he knew, a melody of planting time, the steady thud of the iron spade digging the earth, but there were no people in the City and no crops to till. He tried to keep the right thoughts in his head, the right words on his tongue. He quickened his pace, and when he’d climbed every step, when he stood on the flat holy ground, his eyes did not have to see well to see that this was wrong.
The ancient words dried on his tongue. What were the words for this new and terrible thing? Unbidden, they came to him, the words the mamas of the Sierra Nevada sang long ago when the Younger Brother first returned from across the sea, words he had known in darkness and in light. He chanted them with all his breath, with grave concentration, as though they could make this wrong thing right:
When Columbus came, they took the things that were ours.
They took our golden things, all our sacred gold.
They set dogs on us and we had to flee.
We ran in fear from the sea to the jungle,
from the jungle to the mountain.
We ran in fear, and as we ran we left everything behind us.
They took our soul. They took everything.
Before then, everyone knew how to dance,
All the Indians, all of them, all of them,
Every Indian knew how to dance.
He knew the next words, the next lines, but the words would not come. On the rise of a ridge, strangers worked the holy ground. Men in uniform raised iron tools and cut into the thin soil. They were laughing, drinking, even using the black picture boxes of the Younger Brother to create unholy images of the desecration. This was evil beyond carelessness, evil beyond thought. They were digging the very bones of the Mother. They were tearing out her lungs. They were tearing out her liver and her heart. Here in the Holy City, they were digging up the last good Mothers, stealing them from the great earth.
The snow would fail; yes, it would fail. The life-bringing rain would fail. The cooling river would fail. The root crops and the cotton and the maize would fail. The Elder Brother could not protect them from their folly now. If the Younger Brother stole all the Mothers from the earth, everything would die. Everyone would die. The earth would die.
The small man stood still as the iguana stands, stunned by the heat of the sun. He watched as though his eyes were the eyes of a swooping condor instead of the weak eyes of a half-blind man. He felt the violation of the Mother in his stomach, in his liver, and in his heart.
Never before had they come to the sacred mountain. He did not know what to say. He did not know the right thing to do.
Copyright © 2006 by Linda Appelblatt Barnes