I am Huilen. I am Mapuche. It defines me, yet I am something more as well, as alien to my people as the white skinned conquistadors who came to our lands so long ago with their guns and and diseases and missionaries.
I am adrift, separated from the mapu, the land which sustains my people. I am among strangers of the wekufu. Their way is death and destruction. It is my way as well, and I no longer know where to turn to find my place in the world. Their words and their eyes confuse me. They make me wonder if there is not another way to live beyond the way of the wekufu. I long for the certainties of home, yet I feel trapped here.
I am Mapuche. This is my story.
I turned from my task of fixing the thatched roof, glad of an excuse to drop the rough grass fibers, and turned to my sister. Pire burst through the underbrush and rushed to my side, grabbing my arm.
She was lovely, my sister. She had skin like the snow on the far mountains or the glow of the moon in the night sky. Her brown eyes laughed at me, and she shrugged her cloak off her shoulders.
"I see you brought no fruit again," I chided, for her hands were empty. Mama would not be pleased.
"I'm sorry, Huilen."
Pire was instantly remorseful, and dropped her head to my shoulder as she had in our childhood when I'd carried her when she grew weary. I patted her hair, absent mindedly tugging the knot of her cloth headband to tighten it. It had worked itself loose, and Pire hadn't noticed.
"Hush, we'll go together to look for fruit once I've finished here," I told her.
Pire stepped back and realized the thatch I'd dropped was under her feet. Giggling, she bent to retrieve them and handed them over.
"Yes, let's forage together," she agreed. "I want to tell you something, a secret."
I affected indifference as I turned my attention back to patching up the hole in our hut's roof. The ruka's steeply pitched thatch angled down from the apex nearly to the ground. Some animal had pulled a section off, mistaking it for a meal.
Pire was like a butterfly, delicate and beautiful. Like them, she tended to flit from task to task often forgetting to complete the one before her attention wandered to something new. Whatever her secret was, it had distracted her from gathering the fruit for the day.
"I saw someone today." Pire paused and I could feel her eyes on me, waiting for a response.
"Who was it?" The thatch was being particularly difficult. I shoved it into place and reached around to tie it to the lattice of poles beneath.
My hands froze. Strangers had come to the village before. Usually it was men with guns in their hands in search of gold in the mountains, or missionaries who spoke of a foreign 'God'. All either left after a few years or died off. Our village was high up in the foothills and people came through seeking passage to the mountains higher up. They were not always kind, these Spaniards. My heart thrilled with fear for Pire.
"What stranger?" I asked flatly. It would not do to show my fear. Pire reacted badly to harsh words. She was a gentle child, and much younger than I.
"He is beautiful," Pire said, eyes dreamy and focused on the memory of the man.
"His name is Joham," she went on. "He is like none of the men in our village. His skin is so fair that it glows, and his eyes…they are the eyes of a god."
I feared where this was leading.
"Pire," I pulled my hands from the thatch and grasped her shoulders. "You must not have anything to do with this man. Do you not remember the time of sickness grandmother told us about? Disease follows the strangers. Half our people died."
The story was true, but it happened long ago. Still, if it frightened Pire into forsaking the stranger, it was worth retelling.
Shocked, Pire stammered, "but…but he is not like that. He is nothing like the strangers who pass through our land. He is like an angel, a dark beautiful angel."
I dropped my hands and stepped back. Now she was using the words of the white missionaries to describe him. I wondered if the man was one of them. Like the Spaniards they did not last too long in the forest. They taught the children then moved on."
"Just be careful," I warned her. "He is not Mapuche. He is not of our land. You shouldn't go with such a man."
Pire gave me an odd look. "I do not think he is a man at all," she told me, and went inside the hut, our plan to harvest fruit together forgotten.
My sister grew apart from me. She would slip out in the night, disappear in the afternoon when she was supposed to be foraging. She neglected the pentukum, the visits of greeting to relatives, so I was forced to become werken, the messenger of my family. Mother and father had no boy children. Mother's last pregnancy lost her my baby brother and ended all hope of other children. Grandmother is machi, the shaman of our village, but even she could not drive out the evil spirit causing my mother's infertility. Mother was very sad for a long time afterward, so I was the one to raise Pire.
I could not have loved her any more if she'd been my own child rather than my sister. Our cousins were always around, but it was to me Pire would run for comfort in times of tears. It was my advice and approval she sought first. Slowly that began to change. It began when she told me of her stranger.
I was down by the river when I first saw them, the marks of violence on her body.
Pire went to bathe. I'd told mother I would stay to help, and Pire went on alone. However, mother's sister came to visit, and preferring her company to mine, mother shooed me out to go bathe as well. I went to our favorite bathing spot and there was Pire. She was perched on a rock, leaning down to splash water on her legs. She'd thrown off her cloak, dress, and sash and the bruises stood out shockingly against her pale skin.
Some were as black as the dark volcanic rock edging the river. Others were yellowing with age. She'd been beaten repeatedly.
"Pire!" I exclaimed. "Who has done this to you?"
She slipped off the rock and retreated hip deep into the water. I followed, not caring that my skirts became sodden. Pire brushed her hands over her body, splaying her fingers to conceal the marks, then sighed as she realized it was too late.
"He does not mean to harm me," she explained. "It is only that he is so strong and I am so weak."
I glared. "When a man loves a woman he does not harm her!"
"What would you know of it?"
Pire, my sweet, good-natured sister, snapped the words at me. "You are not married. You know nothing of what happens between a man and a woman. He loves me! He wants to be with me, not with someone like you!"
I froze. I knew that I was not beautiful like Pire. The men of the village did not seek me out for marriage. Instead they waited for Pire to reach marriageable age. I didn't mind. When I reached marriage age I was too busy caring for Pire to think of such things. We'd never spoken of it until now. I felt my face take on the expression we Mapuche use to strangers, those not of our land. My features became blank, expressionless, to hide my hurt.
Pire saw and her face turned from anger to sorrow. She threw herself into my arms.
"Forgive me! Forgive me! I did not mean it," she sobbed, hugging me fiercely.
For a moment I stood still, then my arms moved to embrace her. I could not resist my sister when she was penitent. I hugged her back and knew as I did so that my expression thawed.
"I worry about you," I whispered into her hair. "This man, this…"
"Angel," Pire supplied tearfully. "I call him my dark angel. He prefers it."
My lips curled as I formed the word, and I was glad Pire could not see me snarl. "No angel would beat a woman so. He is a spirit of the wekufu; he does not follow the admapu."
Pire held me tighter, burying her face in my cloak. "Perhaps the admapu is a lie."
I drew in a breath, shocked. The admapu was the way of things. It was the beliefs, customs, and traditions of our people. The admapu regulates our lives, helps us to maintain the balance between ngenechen and wekufu, good and evil. It is our link between past and future. For Pire to question the admapu…
"Perhaps he is a demon," I countered sharply. "The christians' demon. Or a lobisomem."
The lobisomem legends came to our people from other faraway villages. They were wolf spirits that took on the form of men and killed people.
"He is not!" Pire protested. "You don't understand." She raised her head. "I love him."
I saw only sincerity on her face and it broke my heart. Whoever or whatever was marking my sister had bewitched her. Try though I might, I could not convince her to stay away from him. I could not tell our parents either for Pire tearfully swore me to secrecy.
All nature speaks to the Mapuche. The coming of the seasons is heralded by changes in the world around us. The moon's movement in the sky tells us when to sow and when to reap. The call and flight of birds whisper of comings and goings. When the quilas flower bloomed, I knew in my heart that catastrophe approached, for the quilas flower is always the harbinger of evil.
Pire was lethargic during the day. She still left the ruka each night, ducking out from under its thatched eaves, and returning soon after, sad and out of sorts.
Father and mother noticed nothing. There was talk of a war council. As machi to the village, grandmother called on mother to assist her in seeking the spirits' guidance. Father sharpened his spear and went with the men to seek a black llama. If the war council met and agreement was reached to ally against an enemy village to the east, the llama would be needed for sacrifice.
Our cousins, even little Poma, not yet two years old, sensed the tension rising in the village and played quietly in the shadow of the rukas.
Pire watched over them, sitting on a tree stump and using a spindle to spin washed llama wool into thread for mother's loom. I came to sit beside her, pleased to notice her attention was drawn to our baby cousin. Perhaps the spell of her dark angel was waning if she could look so softly upon the child.
"Poma grows quickly," I observed.
It was true. Already she ran after her older brother and sisters without hesitation. I could remember when she'd just learned to walk, legs bowed and falling constantly.
"Not as quickly as the child that grows within me," Pire whispered, staring at the spindle.
I looked at her. Her hand remained steady on the snowy mass, constant in her spinning as she revolved the wool into a thin line of thread, so delicate, so breakable. Her eyes left her task to meet mine.
"I am with child, his child."
My heart grew cold. The child of a monster was still a monster. When it was no longer possible to hide the bulge in Pire's stomach, mother and father would demand to know who was responsible. Pire was incapable of lying to them directly. The story would come out. They would have to sacrifice Pire in order to kill the evil growing within her. Our grandmother was machi, a good shamaness, not kalku, an evil one. To keep herself and the village from falling into the way of the wekufu, Pire's child would be destroyed.
Pire knew it too. I could see it in her eyes.
"Help me?" she whispered.
How could I say no? We left the next night, traveling deep into the forest. Pire was determined to find her dark angel, to tell him of her condition. I was determined to find him too. I packed a stone macana, a mace that once belonged to grandfather, in my traveling bag. I would kill the dark angel and its spawn when it emerged, then take Pire home again. She would hate me for a time, but she would be safe. That was all that mattered to me. The evil would die and the balance would be restored. The admapu would prevail.
We never found her dark angel, and the supplies we packed ran out. The child in her belly grew apace. Too quickly the bulge became a mound. New bruises appeared on my sister's body, from the inside. The thing kicked at her. She bore it all with a smile.
My mace was used, but not on the dark angel. My aim was good, and the animals I clubbed with the macana became Pire's food. She was so hungry she could not bring herself to wait for me to cook the meat, devouring it raw and sucking the liquid from the flesh. I became more and more certain of my course. The monster inside Pire had to die.
"I will call him Nahuel," she said one evening by the fire.
She was staring into the flames, propped up against a log. Her hand was on her belly as it often was. Dark circles rimmed her eyes and blood was smeared on her mouth from the lizard I'd killed that afternoon.
"It's a good name," I said cautiously.
Nahuel meant jungle cat. Its vicious nature suited the thing inside Pire. I hid my thoughts as usual. Pire did not know what I planned for her child. She couldn't or she would fight to protect it.
"He will be strong and healthy like my dark angel," she said, gently caressing the form that moved within her mounded stomach. She could no longer walk, so great was her burden. I knew she suffered from its kicks, and the way it moved within restlessly like a snake just under the surface of the river.
I shuddered and turned away from the sight, pretending that we needed more ferns for our bedding. No amount of padding could ease Pire's pain, yet she refused to curse her dark angel, and spoke lovingly of her child.
I set my face to hide the rage growing within me.
When the birth came, it was horrific.
One afternoon Pire doubled over, shrieking, just as I was about to leave to hunt for more food. Her appetite had grown insatiable, more proof of the gluttonous nature of the monster inside her.
I ran to her. I'd witnessed births before, but this was like nothing I'd ever seen. The child would not come out the usual way. It thrashed within her, breaking Pire's ribs, one of which broke through her skin. She screamed with pain.
I stared in horror, then placed my hand hard on her belly, trying to shove the evil down and out of her body. It was like pressing against a boulder. Pire only screamed louder. It was too large to come out the usual way. Sweat poured down her face and body. My baby sister was in agony and there was nothing I could do to help. How I wished I'd apprenticed to my grandmother and learned of the herbs and spells to ease the hurt of childbirth. If only grandmother were here to perform the machitun healing ritual.
But there was nothing to be done. Pire began coughing up blood. The thing in her belly was breaking her from the inside out. All the while she cried out to me, begging me to take care of Nahuel, until at last I swore I would do it.
I would have sworn to cut my arm off at that point, anything to ease her mind.
I think Pire knew she was dying even before the arm emerged.
It punched through her stomach, spraying us both with blood. Another tiny hand joined it, rending and clawing its way up through Pire's skin, followed by a bloodstained head. It parted the skin of my sister's belly like a knife cuts through cloth, shoving back the edges so the layer of fat and red flesh showed along the edges.
My breath became pants of horror as I stared, transfixed by the sight. I did not want to see, but I could not look away. Pire's hand, which had reached out to grip mine, loosened in my grasp. A gurgling noise came from her throat as she slumped back, her spirit leaving her body in a rush of pain and horror.
Still the child, the monster, continued to surge up from the wreckage of my sister's body. I watched and hated it with my whole being, wanting, needing to kill it, but I'd promised Pire.
I let go of her limp hand and got to my knees by her hips. Reaching over, I skimmed my palms down the arms, which were thrashing angrily at its confinement. Averting my gaze from the gore spattered head, I felt my way down the thing's armpits until I reached its ribcage. I tried not to think about the warmth staining my hands as I lifted the child out of my sister and brought him to my chest.
Pire's blood smeared the bosom of my dress, transferred off the tiny body of evil onto me.
I was just bringing an arm under its bottom to support it when the pain came, sharp as a snake's bite, on my neck.
White hot agony coursed through me. I'd been bitten. I could feel a gout of blood trickling down the side of my throat. With a cry, I dropped the thing back onto my sister's body and staggered back, hand clasped to my neck.
I did not know such pain could exist. There was no part of me that it did not reach. No one could survive such a thing. I was going to die.
Continuing to stagger back I fell, hard. My only thought was to flee from the monster, the source and cause of my agony. My hands scored the earth as I dragged myself away from Pire's body and the evil thing that had destroyed her.
The forest was dark, a cool welcoming change from the bright fire of our campsite. I pulled myself under the canopy of trees, dragging my legs behind a clump of brush, trying desperately to make myself as small and inconspicuous as possible.
From the campsite a mewling noise proved that the demon lived. Dried ferns from our bedding broke with a snap. I whimpered in fear, terror mixing with my agony.
It was coming to get me, to finish me off.
I closed my eyes and waited for the end.
To be continued…
A/N: To help with unfamiliar Mapudugan words, here's a glossary:
Admapu - The guidelines for Mapuche life and morals. 'Ad' means customs, traditions, the way things should be. 'Mapu' means land.
Epew – Literally translated, it means 'almost seeing oneself'. The Epew are stories of the past, both historical events and legends, that reinforce the Mapuche view of the world.
Kalku – A shamaness who is evil, a sorceress.
Libisomem – A Portuguese term, not a Mapuche word, it refers to a werewolf, usually the seventh son of a family. Meyer erroneously attributed the Libisomem (which she spelled 'Libishomen') to the Mapuche as well as the Brazilians, but it's primarily a Brazilian/Portuguese legend.
Macana – A mace, a stick-like weapon with a bulbous end, made from stone or wood.
Machi – A shaman, usually a woman who mediates between the natural and spiritual worlds.
Machitun – The mapuche healing ritual conducted by the Machi (shamaness) consisting of diagnosis, expulsion, and spiritual revelation about the illness.
Mapuche – Literally translated, it means 'the people of the earth/land'. It is what the native Chileans call themselves.
Mapu – The land.
Mapudugan – The Mapuche native language, it can also refer to the 'language' of nature since the Mapuche believe that their language developed when they learned to decipher nature's messages to them.
"Mapu ta choyuei" – A phrase meaning 'we sprouted from the earth'.
Maqui – Fermented corn beer, a traditional Mapuche alcoholic beverage.
Ngenechen – The force of good, light, creation.
Ngulamtun – Traditional system of Mapuche education where the elders teach the young children the customs, morals, and beliefs of their people.
Pentukum – Ritualized visits by younger Mapuche to the homes of elder Mapuche in order to practice etiquette, speaking skills, and social behavior. Usually a child is sent as a messenger (werken) to a relative's home to deliver a speech of greeting.
Ruka – Traditional Mapuche home made of wood with a steeply pitched thatch roof.
Wekufu – The force of evil, destruction, and darkness. All misfortune in Mapuche life is attributed to the wekufu.
Werken – A family's messenger, sent as ambassador on a visit to a relative in order to accomplish a task and to practice etiquette and approved social behavior.