City of Silver

A Mystery

Annamaria Alfieri

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books


SANTIAGO YANA APPROACHED the mine by night. He had climbed the steep, winding path worn smooth over a hundred years by the hooves of llamas and mules and the barely shod feet of thousands of Indians like himself. Up the Cerro Rico in the weak gray light of the waning moon. His barrel chest heaved. He gulped the icy, rarefied air. Below, the great stone-and-stucco city of Potosí sprawled out at the base of this silver mountain, like the train on a Spanish woman’s gown. On the near side of the river, an occasional torch flickered in the yards of the refineries. Across, in the grid of streets surrounding the central plaza, dull candlelight glowed in the windows of the many rich houses. Spaniards burned wax as if it were cheap as stones.

Santiago paused at the mouth of the mine. Always before, he had gone down in daylight, with his comrades. Standing shoulder to shoulder among them, he sensed himself as part of one large animal, a beast courageous enough to descend the deep main shaft. At the bottom, he became a digit on that powerful creature’s hand, making it possible for him to thread himself through the tight, dusty tunnels and, in the gloom and the din of iron banging on stone, to tear away chunks of silver to be refined and sent to the King of Spain.

Alone here in the night, he was riveted, bound by terror to the entrance. Dank air rose from the main shaft and froze his back and legs.

He blessed himself thirteen times and whispered a prayer to the Virgin of Candelaria. He drew from his pocket a wad of coca leaves and lime and chewed them reverently as he prayed.

He stepped out of the wind onto the top barbacoa, the wooden platform at the mine’s entrance. As he struck his flint to light a candle, his callused hands trembled, and it took four tries to get the flame. How the other miners would tease him if they could see him frightened like a child, like a white woman. When the candle was finally lit, it cast grotesque shadows against the rocks. He placed it in its holder on his black felt hat and grasped the ladder’s heavy ropes of twisted hide. With his foot, he felt for the first wooden rung and immediately slipped. "Madre de Dios!" He had forgotten to take off his sandals. He scrambled back up and left them. He repeated his prayers and began again the descent.

When the captain first gave Santiago the package for safekeeping, he promised that if Santiago would hide it where no one would find it and return it when asked, he would give Santiago ten pesos, equal to a month’s wages. The mine was the only place Santiago Yana knew where surely no one would find the package.

He reached the bottom of the first ladder—ten estados down—the height of eleven men. There were seventeen more. He prayed again and descended.

Ten days ago, when he had hidden the canvas-covered package in the mine, he had expected—when it was called for—to bring it up at the end of his next shift. But tonight the captain had demanded to have it before dawn.

As Santiago descended, the air grew even colder and sudden currents made the candle flicker. He felt in his pocket to make sure he had his flint. "Dios mío." He had left it at the entrance. Too far to go back. He moved more cautiously, trying to keep his head still so the candle attached to his hat would stay steady. If it went out, blackness would envelop him.

This mine was cursed. Every Indian knew the story. Their ancestors had found silver here before the Spanish came, but when the Indian people tried to take the silver from the mountain, a great god voice had boomed out from within, "Stop. This silver is not for you. It is for someone else." Some miners believed the gods had been keeping the silver for the Spanish, but some said it belonged to the gods themselves and that it was sacrilege for any mortal—even a Spaniard—to take it.

Santiago shuddered as he descended from the twelfth barbacoa. It was no darker in the mine at night than during the day, yet he felt the blackness more. Water dripped. Strange rumbling noises echoed in the stones. "Pachamama." He spoke the name of the old Indian goddess. Her image and the image of the Virgin converged in his mind. Both protectors. But Pachamama could also be cruel. He concentrated on the Virgin. The priest said she was more powerful than Pachamama and never cruel.

At the bottom of the last ladder, his lone candle gave him only a small circle of light. Traces of silver glinted in the reddish brown walls of the tunnel. Santiago longed for his comrades, even for the brusque orders of his Spanish masters, anything not to face this darkness alone.

Rubble left by the mining slid beneath his feet. He crashed into a pile of hammers and picks that awaited the next shift. "Mierda!" They clattered, and the noise echoed off the stones. He held his breath for a moment. The sound died.

He limped to the back of the tunnel, past the filthy place where the men relieved themselves, and held his breath until his chest ached. He inhaled and wanted to retch. At the end of the tunnel, where the stench was worst, the sloping ceiling forced him to stoop more and more until he was snaking along on his belly. There, under rocks he had carefully arranged to look as if they had fallen, he groped and grasped the packet.

He scampered back to the ladder and bound the packet to his leg with a leather thong, as he would have bound heavy sacks of ore if this had been a work shift. In his daily climbs with the ore tied to his legs, he paced himself to be able to bear the weight to the top. Without the burden, he was as light as smoke.

Tonight, climbing was like dancing. What worries the ten pesos would remove. Debts weighed on him as heavily as twenty bags of ore. With the money from hiding the packet, he would pay them all and still have enough to buy maize, potatoes, charqui, chilies, maybe even a bit of fresh meat for the feast of Easter, if Rosa would allow such an extravagance.

Rosa did not believe in the religion of the Conquistadores. She said no one should believe in a religion that required people to fast during the harvest. Santiago had asked the priest about this strange rule. The priest had explained that in his country it was the end of winter now, not the end of summer. What a magical place that must be, that it could exchange the seasons. But the priest also said the fast was not about making sure there was enough food, but to prepare the soul to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. Rosa did not believe a man could come back from the dead.

By the fifth barbacoa, Santiago’s chest constricted. Every breath hurt. He had climbed much too fast. A pain in his side doubled him over. He lay back on the wooden platform to rest. Then it happened. His hat! His candle! He felt them go, grabbed for them. He yelled as he watched the light stream away until the candle went out and the glow of the wick died completely. He groaned. The darkness was total.

He lay trembling so violently that he thought the spasms would throw him off the platform to his death. In the thunder of his thudding heart and the creaking of the mountain, he heard Pachamama laugh.

"Madre de Dios," he whispered over and over. "Help me."

He groped for the ladder leading up. "Oh, Virgin Maria, please. My children. My wife. Please."

He scrambled onto the next barbacoa on his belly and slithered across until his hands found the next ladder. Disoriented in the dark, he could hardly tell which way was up. Water rushed somewhere near, coming to wash him away. He panted and struggled to grasp the leather ropes with his sweaty palms. Air. He felt a current of air. Oh, gods, be merciful. The top! The entrance must be near. He scrambled up to the next platform. But there was another. And another.

He had lost track of how many were left. When he worked, he always counted as he climbed, always knew exactly how far he was from the air.

Now he began to weep. What shame he would feel if his comrades could see him.

Before bringing the package to the mine, he had let Rosa convince him to look at the contents, even though the captain had warned him not to. He had scolded her for being too nosy, but he was curious, too. She carefully removed the thick blue thread that had bound it, keeping it in one piece and laying it across his knee. He had been disappointed. The parcel contained only papers, with writing they could not read. She had sewn it back up again with the blue thread, stitching the canvas in the same holes, pushing the needle in backward for the last stitch because the thread was so short. No one would ever know they had opened it.

At the next level, a weak shaft of milky moonlight floated before his eyes. He blinked, bit down again on the wad of coca leaves in his mouth. Yes. Yes. He scrambled up the ladder now, panting, wheezing.

He arrived, covered with sweat, at the mouth of the mine. A blast of frigid wind froze his skin but gladdened his heart. He untied the packet from his leg, slipped his feet into his sandals, and began to grope around for his flint.

He smelled the horse before he heard the man approaching. The captain must have become impatient waiting at the inn.

"Señor, I have the package here," Santiago said to the figure in the black cape who approached him in the gloom. He held out the packet and his palm, waiting for the feel of the coins.

The man snatched the package from him and stuffed it into a bag. He laughed. A familiar laugh. But this was not—

The man grabbed him, lifted him as easily as a baby. The world spun. "No. No!" Santiago cried.

With a grunt, the man flung him down the mine shaft.

Santiago Yana did not even hear his own scream of terror as he fell to his death.

AROUND MIDNIGHT THAT same night, Inez de la Morada prepared to go out to collect the packet of papers that would bring her heart’s desire. She had no fear of being discovered by her father, Francisco—the Alcalde, head of the City Council and the richest, most powerful man in Potosí. He had left the house at eleven, as he had done every night for many weeks, to oversee the departure of a mule train. Many believed that Francisco de la Morada was, little by little, sending his enormous fortune out of Potosí to hide it in the vast, desolate high plain that surrounded the city.

Friends and enemies alike speculated on the reason for the removal of his wealth. Some said he expected another war—like the one fought between the Basques and the other Spaniards twenty–five years ago. Others said he foresaw that the dams, which held water in lagoons above the city, would break again and that the ruination would be even worse than the last time. The rational laughed at these fears. How could anyone, even one as powerful as the Alcalde, predict such events?

His daughter Inez knew the reason and the false impressions behind the mule trains. But tonight she would take possession of her own fate, and what her father did or desired would mean nothing.

The first time Inez stole out of her parents’ house at night, her heart had nearly stopped with fear. She wished she could slip out unnoticed as effortlessly as she would brush an errant dark curl from her forehead, but tonight her breathing fluttered once again. On this second Sunday in Lent, she was leaving this place forever.

She dressed in heavy velvet clothes and light slippers that made not a sound as she walked through the darkness. She glided down the wide corridor and entered her father’s study. In the flickering orange light from the torches in the courtyard outside, she opened a secret drawer in the tall desk near the window. She withdrew a bag of silver and hefted it. More than enough. The papers she was about to reclaim would bring her all she longed for. Until then, these coins would pay for what she needed.

Silver, she had learned from infancy, was the most powerful substance there was. Everything in Potosí depended on it. The city’s whole existence, the importance of its citizens individually and collectively, stemmed from silver and only silver.

Her father had taught her this, as he had taught her so many things. She felt a small pang for him. She had loved him so when she was a little girl. But seeing him through her mother’s eyes, she had grown to scorn him. Briefly, when she was thirteen or so, she had openly mocked his pretentious manners, his vanity about his clothes, the lumbering way he walked. Rather than evoking his ire, her barbs wounded him. She learned then that she could get whatever she wanted by giving and withholding her love. His weakness for her only made her despise him more. By now, she had pretended to love him so often that sometimes she almost did.

She made her way noiselessly back down the corridor, dragging her fingertips along the smooth plaster wall until she felt the jamb of her mother’s bedroom door.

She hated her mother. Only for a few months—when she had been threatened by a fever—had she cared anything for her. But she was not worth a daughter’s notice. Even the servants mocked her. Not when they knew their mistress was listening, of course. In her presence, they feigned respect. Away from her, in their own language, they freely criticized their weak, self-indulgent padrona in front of the smiling little girl they thought did not understand. Everything they said was true. Her mother was a pig. She had been so drunk once that she had vomited in the central plaza, in front of half the nobility of the town. Inez could not walk in the Calle de los Mercaderes with her without seeing the other shoppers whispering behind their hands. Never again. tonight Inez would collect that packet of documents, her passport to freedom.

Holding her breath, Inez gently turned the latch of her mother’s door, entered, and in a flash exited again by the servants’ door opposite. The stairway led her quickly through the kitchen and out to the silent, stone-paved street.

BEHIND THE DRAPERIES of her disarrayed bed, Ana Rojas de la Morada smiled. Her daughter probably assumed she was asleep when she stole through the room. But Ana waited each night to see if she would hear the faint click of the latch and to sense, not quite to hear, her daughter moving through the room, to revel in this betrayal her husband so deserved.

Husband and daughter both despised her. And she had learned to despise them in return.

She giggled, like the lovely, lively girl she had been when her bankrupt noble father gave her to Francisco Morada in marriage. Morada, the commoner who dragged her from her elegant, benign Lima to this money-grubbing Gomorrah with its intolerable society and unbreathable air. From the first, she had loathed her boorish clown of a lowborn husband—his coarse speech, his rough manners—everything about him, except his sex. On her wedding night, Francisco had taken his pleasure of her without regard to hers. But even as a girl she had learned to find her own satisfaction alone behind the curtains of her virgin bed. With him, she discovered that the same fantasies that had served her before their marriage brought her to ecstasy as he moved within her. Each night, when she lay down and drew the finely embroidered marriage linen over her, she welcomed the only part of him that interested her—what he thrust through the slit in the sheet.

He was intense. He believed that true vigor in their coupling would give him a son. To her enormous gratification, he had kept at it nightly for almost a year before he impregnated her.

She brought forth Inez.

When he returned to her bed three months after the birth, he came with increased energy and stamina. For more than two years, she did not conceive, but she had him nightly, giving her pleasure beyond her imagining and, as was seemly, completely without his knowledge.

When she gave him Gemita, another daughter, in return, he gave up.

At first she had tried to persuade him to return to her, reminded him that it was their duty to procreate as God had ordained. She had even said she wanted to give him a noble son. Noble was a word that she thought would entice him, since noble was what she was and what he longed to be. But that common worm of a social pretender had had the gall to reject her.

"I want no other child but Inez," he had said, as if the second dainty pink infant in the cot were nothing to him. Inez was then barely four years old, yet father and daughter were bound in a potent rapport that was to grow and blossom and make Inez dearer to him than any son could be. Or any wife.

Ana grinned. Weakling that he was under all his bluster, he adored his daughter. He thought he knew her.

The mother rose and glanced through the shutters at the shadowy figure disappearing down the deserted street. When he discovered Inez had gone out into the night, it would wound him worse than the knife Ana dreamed of plunging again and again and again into his flesh.

Excerpted from City of Silver by Annamaria Alfieri.
Copyright 2009 by Annamaria Alfieri.
Published in August 2009 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.