Read Death in the Andes Online

Authors: Mario Vargas Llosa

Death in the Andes

 

Mario Vargas Llosa is the author of sixteen novels, most recently
The Bad Girl
. He received the PEN/Nabokov Award in 2002 and lives in London.

FOR BEATRIZ DE MOURA

a dear friend and an exemplary editor

Cain's City built with Human Blood,

not Blood of Bulls and Goats
.

—
WILLIAM BLAKE
,
The Ghost of Abel

Part One
1

When he saw the Indian woman appear at the door of the shack, Lituma guessed what she was going to say. And she did say it, but she was mumbling in Quechua while the saliva gathered at the corners of her toothless mouth.

“What's she saying, Tomasito?”

“I couldn't catch it, Corporal.”

The Civil Guard addressed her in Quechua, indicating with gestures that she should speak more slowly. The woman repeated the indistinguishable sounds that affected Lituma like savage music. He suddenly felt very uneasy.

“What's she saying?”

“It seems her husband disappeared,” murmured his adjutant. “Four days ago.”

“That means we've lost three,” Lituma stammered, feeling the perspiration break out on his face. “Son of a bitch.”

“So what should we do, Corporal?”

“Take her statement.” A shudder ran up and down Lituma's spine. “Have her tell you what she knows.”

“But what's going on?” exclaimed the Civil Guard. “First the mute, then the albino, now one of the highway foremen. It can't be, Corporal.”

Maybe not, but it was happening, and now for the third time. Lituma pictured the blank faces and icy narrow eyes that the people in Naccos—laborers at the camp and comuneros, the Indians from the traditional community—would all turn toward him when he asked if they knew the whereabouts of this woman's husband, and he felt the same discouragement and helplessness he had experienced earlier when he tried to question them about the other men who were missing: heads shaking no, monosyllables, evasive glances, frowns, pursed lips, a presentiment of menace. It would be no different this time.

Tomás had begun to question the woman, writing her answers in a little notebook, using a blunt pencil that he moistened from time to time with his tongue. “The terrorists, the damn terrucos, aren't too far away,” thought Lituma. “Any night now they'll be all over us.” The disappearance of the albino had also been reported by a woman: they never did find out if she was his mother or his wife. The man had gone out to work, or was on his way home from work, and never reached his destination. Pedrito had gone down to the village to buy the two Civil Guards a bottle of beer, and he never came back. No one had seen them, no one had noticed any fear, apprehension, sickness in them before they vanished. Had the hills just swallowed them up? After three weeks, Corporal Lituma and Civil Guard Tomás Carreño were as much in the dark as on the first day. And now it had happened a third time. Son of a bitch. Lituma wiped his hands on his trousers.

It had begun to rain. The huge drops rattled the tin roof with a loud, unrhythmic noise. It was not yet three in the afternoon, but the storm had blackened the sky, and it seemed as dark as night. In the distance, thunder rolled through the mountains with an intermittent rumbling that rose from the bowels of the earth where the serruchos, these damn mountain people, thought that bulls, serpents, condors, and spirits lived. Do the Indians really believe all that? Sure they do, Corporal, they even pray to them and leave offerings. Haven't you seen the little plates of food by the caves and gullies in the Cordillera? When they told him these things at Dionisio's cantina, or during a soccer game, Lituma never knew if they were serious or making fun of him, a man from the coast. From time to time, through a crack in one of the walls of the shack, a yellowish viper bit at the clouds. Did the mountain people really believe that lightning was the lizard of the sky? The curtains of rain had erased the barracks, the cement mixers, the steamrollers, the jeeps, the huts of the comuneros among the eucalyptus trees on the hill facing the post. “As if they had all disappeared,” he thought. There were some two hundred laborers, from Ayacucho and Apurímac, and especially from Huancayo and Concepción in Junfn, and Pampas in Huancavelica. Nobody from the coast, as far as he knew. Not even his adjutant was a coastal man. But though he was a native of Sicuani and spoke Quechua, Tomás seemed more like a mestizo. He had brought Pedro Tinoco with him when he came to Naccos. The little mute had been the first to disappear.

Carreño was a man without guile, though somewhat given to melancholy. At night he would confide in Lituma, and he knew how to open himself to friendship. The corporal told him soon after he arrived: “You're the kind of man who should have been born on the coast. Even in Piura, Tomasito.” “I know that's a real compliment coming from you, Corporal.” Without his company, life in this wilderness would have been grim. Lituma sighed. What was he doing in the middle of the barrens with sullen, suspicious serruchos who killed each other over politics and, as if that weren't enough, went missing too? Why wasn't he back home? He imagined himself at the Rfo Bar, surrounded by beers and the Invincibles, his lifelong buddies, on a hot Piuran night filled with stars, waltzes, and the smell of goats and carob trees. A wave of sadness made his teeth ache.

“I'm finished, Corporal,” said the guard. “The lady really doesn't know too much. And she's scared to death. Can't you tell?”

“Say we'll do everything we can to find her husband.”

Lituma attempted a smile and gestured to the Indian that she could go. She continued looking at him, impassive. Tiny and ageless, with bones as fragile as a bird's, she was almost invisible under all her skirts and the shabby, drooping hat. But there was something unbreakable in her face and narrow, wrinkled eyes.

“It seems she was expecting something to happen to her husband, Corporal. ‘It had to happen, it was bound to happen,' she says. But of course she never heard of terrucos or the Sendero militia.”

With not even a nod of goodbye, the woman turned and went out to face the downpour. In a few moments her figure dissolved into the lead-colored rain as she walked back to camp. For a long while the two men said nothing.

Finally, the voice of the adjutant rang in Lituma's ears as if he were offering condolences: “I'll tell you something. You and I won't get out of here alive. They have us surrounded, what's the point of kidding ourselves?”

Lituma shrugged. Usually he was the one who felt demoralized, and Carreño had to cheer him up. Today they had changed places.

“Don't brood about it, Tomasito. Otherwise, when they do come, we'll be in such bad shape we won't even be able to defend ourselves.”

The wind rattled the sheets of tin on the roof, and little gushes of rain spattered the interior of the cabin. Surrounded by a protective stockade of sacks filled with stones and dirt, their quarters consisted of a single room divided by a wooden screen. On one side was the Civil Guard post, with a board across two sawhorses—the desk—and a trunk where the official record book and service reports and documents were kept. On the other side, next to each other for lack of space, stood two cots. The guards used kerosene lamps and had a battery-operated radio that could pick up Radio Nacional and Radio Junín if there were no atmospheric disturbances. The corporal and his adjutant spent entire afternoons and evenings glued to the set, trying to hear the news from Lima or Huancayo. There were lamb and sheep skins on the packed-dirt floor, and straw mats, a camp stove with a Primus burner, pots, some crockery, their suitcases, and a dilapidated wardrobe—the armory—where they stored rifles, boxes of ammunition, and a submachine gun. They always carried their revolvers and kept them under their pillows at night. Sitting beneath a faded image of the Sacred Heart—an Inca Cola advertisement—they listened to the rain for several minutes.

“I don't think they killed those men, Tomasito,” Lituma said at last. “They probably took them away to the militia. The three of them may even have been terrucos. Does Sendero ever disappear people? They just kill them and leave their leaflets behind to let everybody know who did it.”

“Pedrito Tinoco a terrorist? No, Corporal, I guarantee he wasn't,” said Tomás. “And that means Sendero is right outside the door. The terrucos won't sign us up in their militia. They'll chop us into hamburger. Sometimes I think the only reason you and I were sent here was to be killed.”

“That's enough brooding.” Lituma stood up. “Fix us some coffee for this shit weather. Then we'll worry about the latest one. What was his name again?”

“Demetrio Chanca, Corporal. Foreman of a blasting crew.”

“Don't they say things come in threes? With this one we'll probably solve the mystery of what happened to the other two.”

The guard went to take down tin cups from their hooks and light the Primus.

“When Lieutenant Pancorvo told me back in Andahuaylas that they were sending me to this hole, I thought, ‘Great, in Naccos the terrucos will finish you off, Carreñito, and the sooner the better,'” Tomás said softly. “I was tired of living. At least that's what I thought, Corporal. But seeing how scared I am now, I guess I don't want to die after all.”

“Only a damn fool wants to die before his time,” asserted Lituma. “There are some fantastic things in this life, though you won't find any around here. Did you really want to die? Can I ask why, when you're so young?”

“What else could it be?” The guard laughed as he placed the coffeepot over the blue-red flame of the Primus.

The boy was thin and bony but very strong, with alert, deep-set eyes, sallow skin, and jutting white teeth—on sleepless nights Lituma could see them gleaming in the dark.

The corporal ventured a guess, licking his lips. “Some sweet little dame must have broken your heart.”

“Who else would break your heart?” Tomasito was visibly moved. “And besides, you can feel proud: she was Piuran too.”

“A hometown girl,” Lituma approved, smiling. “How about that.”

The altitude did not agree with
la petite
Michèle—she had complained of a pressure in her temples like the one she got at those horror movies he loved, and of a vague, general malaise—but, even so, she was stirred by the rugged, desolate landscape. Albert, on the other hand, felt marvelously well. As if he had spent his entire life at an altitude of three or four thousand meters, among sharp peaks stained with snow, and occasional flocks of llamas crossing the narrow road. The old bus rattled so much it sometimes seemed about to break apart as it faced the potholes, ruts, and rocks that constantly challenged its ruined body. The young French couple were the only foreigners, but they did not seem to attract the attention of their traveling companions, who did not even look around when they heard them speaking a foreign language. The other passengers wore shawls, ponchos, and an occasional Andean cap with earflaps as protection against the approaching night, and carried bundles, packages, tin suitcases. One woman even had cackling hens with her. But nothing—not the uncomfortable seat or the jolting or the crowding—bothered Albert and
la petite
Michèle.


f« va mieux?
” he asked.

“Out, unpeu mieux.”

And a moment later
la petite
Michèle said aloud what Albert had also been thinking: he had been right at the Pensión El Milagro in Lima, when they argued over whether to travel by bus or plane to Cuzco. On the advice of the man at the embassy, she had wanted to fly, but he insisted so much on the overland route that
la petite
Michèle finally gave in. She did not regret it. On the contrary. It would have been a shame to miss this.

“Of course it would,” Albert exclaimed, pointing through the cracked pane of the small window. “Isn't it fabulous?”

The sun was going down, and a sumptuous peacock's tail opened along the horizon. An expanse of dark green flatland on their left, with no trees, no houses, no people or animals, was brightened by watery flashes, as if there might be streams or lagoons among the clumps of yellow straw. On the right, however, there rose a craggy, perpendicular terrain of towering rocks, chasms, and gorges.

“Tibet must be like this,” murmured
la petite
Michèle.

“I assure you this is more interesting than Tibet,” replied Albert. “I told you so:
Le Ptrou, ga vaut le Pfrou!

It was already dark in front of the old bus, and the temperature began to drop. A few stars were shining in the deep blue sky.

“Brrr…”
La petite
Michèle shivered. “Now I understand why they all wear so many clothes. The weather changes so much in the Andes. In the morning the heat is suffocating, and at night it's like ice.”

“This trip will be the most important thing that ever happens to us, you'll see,” said Albert.

Someone had turned on a radio, and after a series of metallic sputterings there was a burst of sad, monotonous music.

Albert identified the instruments. “Charangos and quenas. In Cuzco we'll buy a quena. And we'll learn to dance the huayno.”

“We'll put on a costume party at school,” fantasized
la petite
Michèle. “
La nuit piruvienne! Le tout Cognac
will come.”

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