The Muleteer of the Sun

In this Andean town, here, at more than 3000 meters above the sea level, sun must come out at six in the morning so that every inhabitant can enliven himself without fearing any remorseless cold striking, a cold that, however, likes to retreat before the first golden rays of the dawn. Only with those rays the town starts to wake up. Farmers hurry up to get out of their houses and go work their lands; wives get up to get water because they find water only from six to eleven in the taps; traders sweep their streets and open their stores... in brief, everybody to their occupations, some after the others, but everybody since six. A little later, I also had to get up to go to school. I couldn't opt for the old and childish excuse of being cold as the sun, beautiful and yellow as it was, stroked me just on the face since my father positioned my bed in front of my bedroom's window on purpose to achieve it.

Things were that way every day and every year. Even though the sun delayed a little in winter, something everybody knew, no surprise, for me —and for everybody— the sun simply had to come out. Period. Nobody would have ever thought that the sun didn't come out on its own but because there was someone who incited it to do it. Our beliefs turned into doubts a day in which the sun didn't come up at six in the morning nor at eight not at ten, though...

I remember it very clearly. I was turning over in the bed, with my head bloated because of the loathing of having slept too much, but without enough courage to get out of the bed as there was a terrible cold striking at will, specially given the sun's warm absence. Surprised by the sensation of having slept more than enough, I decided to take a look at the watch. I reached for it on the bedside table and I put it in front of my eyes, but it was so dark that I couldn't even see my own hand. I had to push its top right button to turn on its light and finally read what time was it.

—Half past seven! —I exclaimed, very surprised, throwing myself out of the bed and appearing almost immediately standing up, hurrying for the door and then to my parent's bedroom. In the middle of the way, coldness stopped me. I went back quickly for a blanket and I went to the patio. My parents were there, with a lantern, surprised to see a dark sky, many stars, cosmic dust and the half-moon.

I got close to them and they longed for me as well when they felt my presence. They hugged me, and it was then when I noticed my mother shaking and murmuring something that had to do with the end of the world.

—It's half past seven on my watch —I said.
—On mine, it's seven thirty-eight —replied my father, contradicting with his expression and the tone of his voice, a comment that tried to be peaceable.

After a long silence, the three of us were anxiously scanning the sky, as if the moon was to give its room to the so awaited star.

—There has never happened something like this before —commented my mother with that convincing gesture that looked so well in her and which I couldn't help noticing even under those circumstances—. Sure there are times in which the day is so cloudy we can't see the sun, but look at the sky! with stars and with moon, as if it was the night!
—Let's go to the square —suggested my father—. Everybody must be meeting over there.

As any of us slept with pyjamas but with old track suits, we went out of home without changing them. It wasn't time to show off fashions and we didn't want to lose time either. In the square, the scene was picturesque (and I can only use such adjective now, fifty years after, when the panic is completely over). Many men, saddle-bag in the hand, on horse, on motorcycles and on foot were together at the square, and, without lowering their heads a bit, staring among the clay-coloured mountains at the east of the town, hoping to see the sun, as it always came out from that same place. Women were looking in a variety of ways, hugging among themselves, some laughing nervously, others crying their eyes out. Traders were also there, looking scared, everyone with a torch (flashlight) and a vacuum flask of hot water. In addition, in the pergola, the priest of the town was sitting down with such expression that I wouldn't have dared to asked anything to him afraid of causing him a heart attack; that sad and worried he was! The major, in turn, couldn't do much besides commanding to turn on every light post.

—What the hell's going on? —a trader suddenly asked in an aloud voice. After having a drink of what he had in his flask and that now I suspect it had a liquid capable of giving him the courage to ask that without qualms and even continue—. Mr. Priest, do you know? Could this be any kind of punishment?

That moment, I closed my eyes strongly. I thought the priest was going to faint.

Everything seemed to me so nonsense I couldn't believe it was true. I took another look at my watch. Almost ten in the morning and the sun didn't come out!

That day, beyond the river of green stones, as always, as he always did, a man got up in the dark and rubbed his hands. Maybe it was because it was cold, maybe because he was used to do that century after century. He got out from where he was and called his animal. This was not a mule nor a horse nor a donkey; he didn't know that kind of beasts. His animal was a llama and he rode it with great ease. This was not as fine and slim as the majority of the llamas. It was robust, of thick paws, strong legs and firm back as few others; a llama like those that were once mentioned in certain chronicles and which existence was denied in others; one of those that still live under natural care and win the scarce contests that are made to promote their raise and improvement. He was about to ride his llama, when he noticed that one of its back paws was shaking and that it was then lifted by its tame animal, like preferring to stay on foot on three legs only. Puzzled, the man decided to knock it over to see what was going on. So he did and he could realized scared that on top of the hoof of his animal's paw, there was a wound which, despite the fact it wasn't very big, it did look deep; not to mention it wasn't bleeding because it had already made a scab so unluckily that the object that caused such wound was still covered by the thick layer of reddish brown scab. The poor owner and friend of the llama got up and went right away to a spring that was nearby, got a piece of cloth and wetted it into those clean waters. While he was doing it, he noticed his reflection on the water and he got first curious for analysing himself a bit. He had a big face, rough features, his forehead with three deep lines, small lively eyes which never blinked. His nose was rather wide, he had thick big lips and prominent cheekbones that highlighted even more due to the little flesh which covered them and which also seemed to be dry and stuck to the bone. All his features seemed to be craved on rock and had a coppery colour. As for his height, he was shorter than meter and seventy, and he had a thin and agile complexion. If someone would have seen him in the town, he wouldn't have drawn any attention unless someone would look at him a long while and could notice he never blinked not scratched his head. He didn't clean his nose nor felt the need to swallow the saliva everybody accrues in his throat, either. Strangest even, he never grew any older nor he had ever been any younger. He had always lived liked that, and he has always done the same.

He approached his llama again. It continued laid on one of its sides, like aware that his owner was trying to heal it. He wetted the scab in order to take out the object that had hurt it and he did. When he finally took it out, he saw it was a sharp piece of iron, quite rusted. Puzzled, he thought that the accident was maybe the previous day, near a river in which people were building a bridge; and he grumbled because of the few ways he had to go out of his house and return every day... Oh, whatever!, he said to himself, like resigned. He got ready to cure its animal. He looked for herbs that could help him and soon he mashed the few he could find. He knew how to heal a wound, but he had never got to heal any before. It was the first time he saw one, and he didn't like it. He was scared.

Thus, it was late, his llama didn't heal, the cut was deeper than he thought, and despite the iron was out, the llama didn't want to get up.

The worried owner made his mind to go for a walk; perhaps near the river he could find more good herbs; perhaps crossing the river, near the town.

There, nobody was out of his astonishment, but it wasn't time to chat. Everybody obeyed the order to check out the surroundings of the town, to see if they found anything strange. The major had explained us that with the advance of science and technology, day after day more things were possible, including the chance that a bomb could have been launched against the town bringing the absence of sun. It was then when my teacher said that was nonsense: who would bomb us? Questions and answers multiplied. Curiously, who knew more were the ones who made the questions and who answered were the least educated, based on their very dazzled imagination.

At last, the most believable theory was that aliens were attacking us (or maybe just experimenting) and that's why they had thrown a kind of object during the night with so terrible consequences. They resolved that there had to be samples of the said object and that everybody had to seek evidence of that. Some of them at home, others in the streets, others in the outskirts, all of them with powerful torches was looking for something, without knowing exactly what. I decided to go to the east of the town, to the "holy cross". That was a more open zone and it would be easy to spot any of those things... but there wasn't anything. I kept walking and, without noticing, I got near the large river of green stones. There were two women and a small peasant there. I didn't notice anything strange then, but later I noticed that while the women and I were looking everywhere without knowing what to look for, the short peasant was pulling some plants up and putting them in his pocket and continuing searching. It was strange for me, wasn't he as worried as everyone else? Was he there for something else? To get herbs?

—Why are you taking those herbs for? —I asked him, unable to control my curiosity.

I was expecting him to smile, lower the sight and, with all respect, replied saying "Niñacha”, which is how peasants called honourable girls, but he did not do that. First, he didn't reply at all (I think he didn't notice I was talking to him), but then, when I repeated the question and poked his shoulder, he looked at me puzzled, he then saw the people around, everyone looking for something with torches, the light posts and finally the sky. Next, with an expression I couldn't interpret, he got instantly up and ran away, crossing the river jumping. I couldn't follow him further with my sight, as it was dark. I wanted to tell about him to the people who were still looking, praying and crying. There were more people there now and some of them where even crossing the river. I made up my mind for not saying anything, but I kept thinking about it. I recalled the peasant's face, well, more his expression than his face because his face was just like the face of every camayo in the farmland. What could he be doing?

—Oh!... —I exclaimed at last— how fool! Sure they are going to adore the sun in the mountains to summon it out and he was collecting sacred herbs... Yeah, it sure was that. What if that was what missing? Oh, God... Heaven grant! Heaven grant!...

It was the first anguish of his life and no surprise. Worried about his llama he had forgotten to come out that day! He had gotten up early as usual, he had searched a little among the hot ashes and he had taken out very carefully that "thing" that always had to be hot. He was about to place it on his back, like a bag, then he was going to ride his llama and go towards west going down between they clayey mountains and crossing the river. As every day in his life, after him, the sun was going to come after him in an unexplainable way and fly across the sky to reflect itself on the rider's "thing". Only this reflection could produce its bright and light all. The rider would only stop when he was at the other side of the town, he would get down of the llama, turn the "thing" towards him, so he wouldn't be followed by the sun when he rode back home again. But he failed to do that this day and the sun didn't come out! Anguished, he felt his mind was going to blow. He didn't know what to do. He recalled the people in the town he had seen, all of them looking desperately for something on the ground. What if they had learnt it all? Would they be also looking for herbs? His desperation was so big, not because his job was that important but because he lived for that... and he had failed...

So distracted was I thinking about that peasant that I almost got scared when a heard a woman shouting:

—I found something! It's pretty strange, come everybody!

The poor woman never imagined how fast her command would be obeyed, because immediately a lot of people surrounded her with desperation.

—What did you find!? —they asked, shouting.

She, confidently, raised her right hand and found a piece of cloth. I could distinguish any better. It was too dark and there were a lot of people in front of me. Besides, the cloth was so firmly in her hand that between her fingers you could barely notice something.

—That's a piece of cloth, woman! —one of the men said, and, for his tone of voice (and undoubtable style) I would say it was the man who disturbed the priest.
—No! —said she, firmly—. It's not just that. There's a sacred image on this cloth, and it's drawn with blood!

By then there were many more people, everybody talking and pushing. I tried to step back, I was lacking air, the noise was dumbing me and I felt very dizzy. Suddenly, an arm held me firmly, with a strength I knew very well. It was dad, pulling me away of all that confusion.

Damn! I fainted in the best moment and I couldn't see anything else. When I got up, I was at home and mum was beside me, sacrificing as always.

—Mum —I said—, I'm better now. I can stay alone.
—No —she replied—. There are too many people. Everyone's in the square, but the crowd gets up to the corner of the house. Your dad's there. Let's wait for him to listen to what has happened. I just hope all other families were this careful. It's better to see only men going. Women and children to their houses! We are too many and we don't fit in the square.
—But, mum, they are making the decisions by themselves, should there be need of any? Wouldn't it be better that every family send a representative, either man or woman?

She didn't reply. I guess she didn't take it into account. I didn't repeat it either. Suddenly, I recalled the peasant I saw pulling up herbs and I remembered it was there where the woman spotted that cloth... Could there be any connection? I wanted to tell mum about it and I was about to do it when a ray of light came straight to my bed and mum saw it as well. Both of us came to see what happened.

What a joyful sensation! It was the sun! It couldn't be a lie. It's light, although dimly, was starting to light everything. Between the mountains, as always, the sun was coming: bright, radiant, round, yellow, warm. I couldn't keep my tears in my eyes. Mum was crying, too. I don't remember the scene very well. We were laughing and shouting like maniacs, running, hugging each other... I don't know, I don't remember very well, but those shady memories still move me a lot and they even make me cry.

On the other side of the river, even the worries perplexed him for a moment and he couldn't make up his mind about doing something or not, when he reacted, his first action was to do what he had to do minutes before six. He didn't care crossing the large river of green stones without being careful of being seen or not. Thankfully, there was no one there and he could get to the other side of the town and go back home without any troubles. Just then he went to see how was his llama's paw. He had forced it a lot but there wasn't any other option. Only after their journey, he allowed it to rest. He saw its paw again. It was much better. The herbs had done their effect and the idea of being able to get out again the next day left him rest at ease. He could come out again always, and he felt great relief, but not at all. He also felt a great irresponsibility, despite the fact he wasn't able to do more than he had done. A feeling of impotence overwhelmed him again, shivered all his body and caused ardour in his eyes, in those small lively eyes that felt for the first time in his life a tear wetting them and then falling to his cheek. Little by little he relaxed, he cried a little more, he get lied looking at the sky, closed his eyes and gave a deep sigh.

Although all the town commented about the sacred image, I must admit I never saw it. As a matter of fact, my parents didn't get to see it either, but they didn't mention it. All the town was boasting of having seen it, of having touched it, or having made the sign of the cross with it, but I also said that and it was a lie. I think everybody lied about that, that's why some of them saw Jesus on it and others saw the Virgin. The priest said it was a very delicate cloth, that's why I never had access to it, despite I used to go to the church very frequently. To compensate, however, the priest had people bring us an image of the "Virgin of the Dawn". He explained us that is was to her to whom we would have to pray to have the sun come out at its proper time, as it was She who incited it to do it and because it was her image what he saw in that cloth. If all of us prayed as we should, he added, the sun would never stop going out again. It was a relief for everybody. Everything went back to normal little by little, except for the fact we all felt fortunate every morning. Soon, the Virgin got many devouts and a proper altar was raised for her, with a golden crown and everything. Well, after that, the sun comes out punctually. Time has distorted a lot the story of what happened that day. So foolish lies have been added that the youngest ones refuse to believe a thing. As for me, I always try to tell the true story. People need to know what happened, how the sacred image was found. That way, a sincere cult will be paid to her and the sun will never stop going out again.

In turn, that officer of the solar light would remember every day the tragic event of that morning, but the guilt faded away with time. Even 50 years later, he would still be thinking about that, but at ease now, like just an anecdote of his life. Not another anecdote, but the only one he had, the only thing that made him escape from his daily routine. When he made an effort to remember what happened that day, his dry and blue lips almost drew a gesture that resembled what we use to call a smile, and the smile seemed to become bigger when he remembered all the people he saw. What would they be doing? When he abandoned himself to imagine, he even had fun thinking of “repeating the incident” having the dawn come at midnight or leaving the town without light a couple of days. He'd never do it, of course. He could never fail again. That time was enough. That's why he became more careful and his llama never had any accident again. He would never fail again —at least, not by chance—, but he could have some fun changing the times the sun came out... not too much, he could delay an hour or come out an hour before now and then. He could do it, anyway, he was the muleteer of the sun.

© Mayra Canales Humala —unpublished.

Mayra Canales Humala (Lima, 1985). University student of Engineering of Alimentary Industries, despite the fact her professional orientation is very away from the world of literature, she was always affectionate to it, getting a second prize in a pre-university contest and a Honorary Mention the Concurso Nacional de Juegos Florales (National Contest of Floral Games) of Universidad Agraria la Molina (La Molina University of Agricultural Studies).

Arts and expression + Literature