They told of trills, they told of masks. They told of feathers, hills and neighing trees. They told of embers. The wind swept the fire westward, and their footsteps could be heard over the dry, uncultivated earth. It was seven against one. Seven heads of bear fur and tiger teeth. The children crossed the valley of ringing rocks, of bird bones, of fox feet. Their hair was pulled back into ponytails, and tagua necklaces hung around their necks. Their faces were painted, their nails black, their bodies excited by the solstice dance. Behind them the festivities glimmered, a pool of light in the middle of a mountain range where the adults, inebriated, were dancing Sanjuanitos. The sky was the turbid color of blood, and the kicked-up dust rose to their eyebrows, but the children ran, jumped, bellowed, panted, following the trail of the four-eyed elephant, the white rhinoceros, the blind hippopotamus: Huguito the snitch, Huguito the traitor.
‘We’ll hunt you down, you stupid walrus!’
‘We’ll eat you up, you ugly mammoth!’
Daniel and Alan sang out their threats while Ingrid, Mene and Max pounded their chests like gorillas. Every time she climbed to the top of a rock Gala let out a howl. And beside her, Belén pawed the dirt with her left foot like a bull. The fire at the heart of the festivities was nearly imperceptible from a distance; insects crawled from the rocks, and birds flew in the opposite direction of their steps. Had he been there, the shaman would have warned them that this was a bad thing, an omen of danger still to come. ‘Birds sing of the future,’ he had told them earlier, holding the yellowing skull of a condor in his hands. ‘The light of the sun and the stars show them the way.’ The children knew nothing about ornithomancy, but they were nine, eleven, thirteen years old and feverish from the sun. The future was that scorching glow burning their innards, that Andean sunset gleaming over the frailejón plants, and that image of a white rhinoceros crossing the paramo, making its way to the river.
‘Run, asthmatic whale, run!’
From very early in the morning they had been witness to the unflagging dancing of the Diabluma, his two-faced mask, his delirious, planetary eyes hiding behind the smoke of the bonfires. ‘Jump, children, jump!’ yelled Ingrid’s mother and Mene’s mother, disheveled and sweaty with veins drawing promontories across their foreheads. ‘Diablo Huma brings chaos to the Pachamama!’ Max’s father sang, stomping the blackness of the earth. ‘He brings chaos to the universe!’ Once a year, the adults brought the children with them to the valley where they braided each other’s hair, dressed in colorful clothes, drank San Pedro and turned into strange people. It has always been this way during Inti Raymi: the songs, the dancing, the concoctions that make their eyes roll, the crowd of plump, flaccid bodies twisting to the rhythm of the drums, quenas and guitars. But last year was different. Something had happened to them amid all the celebrations, far from the central square and beyond the thick-trunked trees that looked like a herd of frenzied horses. They couldn’t explain to their parents the nature of this difference, nor did they try, but they recognized it in the way that mountain animals are capable of perceiving even the faintest flutter. This was the first time they had ever sworn a pact of secrecy, the first time they had the feeling of something intimate being put in jeopardy by that cowardly tapir, that wild piggy, that blonde boar.
‘Fat traitor!’ Ingrid sang, hopping around.
‘We’re coming for you, butterball!’ Belén shouted.
They had sworn an oath to keep the secret despite the cattle tongue clenched in their jaws, the black frog squatting on their chests. They had joined their hands, blackened with volcanic ash, and buried their baby teeth beside the stream. Together they said: ‘Any tattletale gets thrown into the crater.’ ‘Tattletales into the magma.’ Only fear could forge a secret. They were nine, eleven, thirteen years old, but they already knew about power, about the night and about fervor. About limits, the great expanse and destruction. They were, as the shaman told them, descendants of the serpent, children of the macaw, creatures of mud and feathers. They had suspected Hugo right from the start, especially the eldest ones, Daniel and Alan, who could smell the fear on him, its stench of weakness. They all knew their friend: he trembled in the wind, bled with the moon. He would cry when someone dropped to the ground, exhausted from dancing, or when his parents’ bodies convulsed before Aya Huma’s floating feet, his eternal dance. Even the youngest of them understood that it took courage to keep your mouth shut, it took the heart of a surviving animal, and survival meant knowing how to make a secret of fear.
‘What’s a secret?’ Gala once asked her mother, and she responded: ‘Something that good little girls don’t have.’
At the festival they amused themselves with the smoke, the laughter, the colors, the food, the fire. They let the music outside of them grow inward toward their hearts. They galloped around on all fours, imitating the power animals the shaman had assigned to them. They spat chicha at each other. They sang words they didn’t understand until they discovered that shouting was also a song that moved through their bones and made their bodies vibrate. Their parents never watched them during Inti Raymi, and maybe that’s why they realized too late that Hugo was missing. They searched for him among the violet legs, the orange and earth-splattered legs, among the jubilation, the frenetic stomping of feet, the saliva. They caught sight of him crying, his face red like a slab of raw meat, pulling on his mother’s dress and pointing at the submerged spirit, at the Diabluma, who kept jumping and jumping with the energy of water, streaming torrents of sweat, letting groans of pain and exhaustion escape from beneath his mask. ‘The little piggy’s gonna tattle!’ Belén shouted, tugging at Alan’s sleeve. ‘He’s gonna tattle, he’s gonna tattle!’ But Hugo’s mother’s eyes were black as coal, a panther’s eyes, deep and sinister, and with her elbow she pushed her son’s chubby body away. ‘Bad piggy!’ Ingrid shouted. ‘Oink, oink!’
Their vengeful glares threatened him. Hugo was confronted by Daniel’s angry brow, Alan’s clenched fists, Mene’s bright white teeth, and he ran. He fled the people telling stories of a boneless god, an oculate god who created the first men and turned them into monkeys, foxes and lizards. He fled the people telling of ancient times, when the mountains were gods floating in the fragrant waters of the newly birthed world, of trees that had horses locked inside their trunks, of condor women who soared in the night with their arms extended, of flowers that bled and sorcerers who could separate their heads from their bodies. All the stories that thrilled everyone but Hugo: his fear had always hovered like a threat.
‘He’s over there,’ Max shouted, pointing toward the volcano.
The stuttering triceratops’s footprints inevitably led them to the cave, a deep hole carved from volcanic rock they’d dared to explore the previous year. ‘We got him! We got him!’ Gala ferociously screamed before howling for what felt like a full minute. ‘Auuuuuuu!’ The children followed her, quickening the rhythm of their legs as they followed the trail of shoulder blades, pelvises and skulls. There was light enough. They could see fissures, dust, carrion. The wind pushed them toward the mouth of the rock, straight toward the labyrinth of gray stalactites, green scarab beetles and white spiders that descended to the very depths of creation. That’s where their secret had begun twelve months earlier, in that place of terror and wonder. But there was nowhere else to hide in the whole valley. Like his friends, Hugo knew the magnitude of darkness, the heaviness of blood. ‘Fear makes a refuge of fear,’ the shaman sang at daybreak with his arms spread wide. The children alone understood his words, that’s why they threw themselves into the cave with leaden breath, frightened, convinced that if they concealed their fear it would all go away.