Stories of Celebration
Release Date: July 22, 2014
Age Category: General
The Blessing by Holly Barbo
The darkened room was redolent with the chanting voices overlapping soft moans. From the brazier in the corner came the smell of herbs. Upon a raised bed lay a feverish man. His sweat-slicked body was covered in a red rash erupting in pustules. The priests attending the man bathed the body in a vain effort to lower the fever. Unguents were laved on the angry sores in an attempt to draw the infection out. A white clad priest entered through the blanketed doorway and murmured to the attending healer, “I have hung fresh charms to the gods and ground more herbs and salt for a poultice. There is nothing more I know to do.” He studied the sick man with concern. “His son isn’t responding. I believe he will pass into Inti’s realm before sunset.” Shaking his head, he raised his gaze to the healer’s eyes. “For the good of all of us, Huayna must name a new heir in case he follows his son to the gods.”
* * *
At Machu Picchu, high priest Urcon gazed into the twinkling firmament. The past few nights a comet had been visible moving through the kite-shaped constellation that the Inca honored. This evening, as the heavenly traveler faded from the Incan sky, Urcon was startled to see a meteor shower streak in its wake, showering starlight toward the sacred peaks. His brow furrowed as he contemplated the possible meanings that portended something momentous. It felt like a disturbing omen. He spun around and dashed to the stairs. The other priests had to be informed!
Apu woke and rubbed his eyes as dawn touched the morning mist with pink. He wove his way through the llamas; a few began to stir. Chita, a white llama, was close to the young boy who cared for the small herd. She hummed questioningly. The boy scratched the curly fleece near the animal’s ear. “Yes my friend, it’s time to get up. We’re moving to a terrace closer to Machu Picchu. Miski and her newborn need the tender grass that’s growing there.”
Chita hummed a pleased sound as she leaned into the affectionate caress then rose and lifted her head to take in the spring-scented air. When the boy wasn’t looking, the white llama leaned her long neck forward and whuffed a gust of warm air on the boy’s neck.
Apu laughed at the llama’s play. “Come on. Once everyone’s settled into the new grazing area, I’ll go into the city to get my breakfast.”
It didn’t take long to get all the llamas moving. The new cria was keeping up, weaving around her mother’s legs as they traveled.
The boy was proud that he was given this as a way to contribute. His was the special herd that was used in ceremonies with the emperor or for communicating with the gods in sacrifice. Many of the llamas in his group were white or nearly white and a couple were completely black. These were the sacred ones.
Apu was eight summers old and this responsibility was an unusual honor entrusted to him by Urcon. The man was a priest but also a good friend who comforted him when an earthquake knocked his mother off one of the narrow Incan roads. Since then, he’d been on his own.
When the herd was grazing, Apu started the three minute trek back to Machu Picchu. Before he turned and entered the city, he stopped at the top of the rise and looked back toward his herd. Other than Urcon, Chita was his best friend. He felt so blessed. What more could he ask of the gods?
The boy grinned and ran into the city. The place was its usual bustle of activity. The stone masons were chipping away on boulders as walls of buildings, granaries and ceremonial centers continued to form on the narrow rib between two mountains. Digging, weaving and cooking activities added other rhythms to the tapping of construction. Apu’s steps unconsciously moved to the Incan beat as he ran to get his food for the day.
Urcon met him as he emerged from the hut with his bag of jerky and oca tubers. He put his arm around the boy, brushed the hair out of the child’s eyes and led him to the steps of the temple. “Did you look into the sky last night, Apu?”
The boy shook his head.
He explained what he had seen and the boy’s eyes rounded in wonder.
“We aren’t sure what that portends but I fear that we are being warned of peril. The equinox festival is soon. We’ll need a male and female pure white llama to give to Inti. They will carry our homage to the gods as we ask for guidance and intervention from what is ahead.”
Apu nodded, his expression solemn with the responsibility. “Thank you for your trust. It will be done as you asked. I’ll groom them in preparation for the ceremony and lead those two back to you this evening.”
He turned to leave but stopped. “Oh, Urcon! I want to show you something.” With a grin, he reached into his shoulder bag and withdrew a carved miniature llama. Fleece, from their grooming, was affixed to the body and head making the small piece very lifelike. Apu had even twisted strands into fine twine and dyed them with berry juice to make a colorful harness and blanket.
Taking the piece with gentle fingers, the priest looked at the exquisite replica. “I’m impressed. You show great promise as an artisan. This is Chita isn’t it? You even captured the sweet expression she gets when you’re grooming her. How did you manage the long eyelashes?”
The boy’s mouth had a shadow of a grin. “That was hard. I used the sticky sap from the flowering vine. I showed it to Chita and she seemed to approve. At least her hum sounded that way.”
Urcon handed back the miniature. “Keep working on your skill. Maybe someday we can include them with special offerings.”
The little carving was tucked carefully back into the sack and with a wave, Apu ran back toward the terrace path. Once there, he selected two and set about cleaning the mud, twigs and leaves from their coat. It wasn’t an easy task and sometimes the snarls refused to give up their debris. As he worked, he talked excitedly to the pair about the honor bestowed on them and the wonderful journey they would make to meet the god Inti. “We’ll look for you in the stars and your children will hum songs of praise.” He tugged at a stubborn snarl and the male swung his head in irritation. “Don’t spit at me. I’m making you beautiful.” He started to sing a soothing chant that his herd loved and the llama went back to grazing. By late afternoon, the two llamas were groomed and led to the upper meadow near the city. As Apu left them in the care of a young acolyte, he noticed an imperial messenger running to the temple. Perhaps that’s the news Urcon needs to divine the meaning of the shooting stars.
The gathering in the temple was solemn. The weary messenger had been taken away to rest and eat. His news was grave. Emperor Huayna and his heir were both dead from the cursed rash. In his illness, Huayna’s fever was so high he didn’t realize his heir was also deathly ill and didn’t name a successor. The attending priests tried to make him understand, but he wasn’t lucid enough and kept repeating “Ninan.” The realm was now without a leader at such a critical time. There were other sons, but none were trained to rule. Huascar had the proper parentage but was only experienced as a low level administrator. Atahualpa was illegitimate but was favored by the Incan army where he had shown leadership.
Now more than ever they needed a strong emperor! Serious problems threatened the Inca: The cursed rash was sweeping though the population, the men in metal, riding strange animals, had returned and were killing and burning cities in the far flung Incan empire in their search for gold, silver and the pretty stones that Inca used for ornamentation to link themselves to the gods. If the foreign soldiers could not be stopped, the outlying communities would break free from Incan rule, crumbling the cohesive world they’d built. The comet and meteor shower now took on an ominous meaning.
After much discussion, arrangements were made to take one beautiful, physically perfect child to each of the four holy peaks to sacrifice. Priests would be with them and studying all omens when each child was gently wrapped and laid into the small ice caves. The four priests went to the house of the blessed children to prepare their envoys.
At dawn, four llama caravans left Machu Picchu with singing and joy. Each child was carried on a gilded litter with respectful ceremony. Apu and the people of the city waved them onto their holy journey. The young boy hugged his llama friend. “Whatever is wrong, the gods will set it right. The chosen children will be accepted into Inti’s arms and we‘ll be safe.”
When the priests returned from the four holy peaks, they called a meeting and met around the Intihuantana stone: the holiest place in Machu Picchu. All day they conferred, examining every nuance of the sacrifices to divine a message from the gods and learn what they needed to do. Unfortunately, the signs were not conclusive. To make matters worse the remaining child honored for sacrifice had been stricken by the cursed rash!
Into the night, the priests burned incense and chanted as they watched the heavens. As the sun rose, Urcon suggested a more encompassing action. “There’s the underground chamber that the engineers and diggers have been working on. Its use hasn’t been determined even though three of us were told in a dream to have it made. This would be the time. We must place many special gifts to the full pantheon of gods: sun, moon, earth, water and the sacred mountains and river that surround us here at Machu Picchu. We’ll need to seal it with a sacrifice who will guard it and make it holy.”
One by one, he studied the face of each priest as they weighed the suggestion and examined it from all angles. Almost in unison, they nodded. Once a consensus had been reached, the youngest dashed away. There were a few days before the equinox celebration and time was critically short. Runners were dispatched to gather offerings to fill the underground chamber. Urcon splashed water on his face to wash away his weariness and lighting the incense, he studied the portents. Though his devotion and faith were absolutes in his life, sometimes Inti asked difficult things. He took a few moments to look into the sky before closing his eyes in acceptance. Minutes later, he walked to the city fringes in search of Apu.
The day of the spring equinox dawned with a mist which lifted to a beautiful clear day. There was music and feasting. Everyone was wearing their finest clothing. For the occasion, Apu had been given new clothes in a soft colorful weave. He proudly led three white llamas. They too were decked with beautiful blankets and tassels with pieces of gold ornamentation. His smile was so big, his cheeks threatened to cramp. The joyful festivities were amazing and Apu was offered many cups of wonderful beer, coca and delicacies. Soon, he was feeling very relaxed and euphoric.
As the sun reached its zenith and touched the sacred Intihuantana stone, two of the white llamas were led away to the alter of the condor and their throats were slit. The animals collapsed silently and the blood was collected as part of the offering. The music increased in volume. Apu had too much to drink and was chewing several coca leaves. Chita was warm and solid to lean against. The llama hummed to him and all was wonderful in his world. Urcon and another priest approached. Apu looked at the man who had been so special in his life…and smiled. “Is it time for our journey?”
Urcon nodded. “May the gods bless Machu Picchu and our people and welcome you into their arms.” At the same moment that the knife opened Chita’s neck, a garrote slipped over Apu’s head and tightened.
As the southern cross constellation rose in the sky above the sacred city, Urcon tucked Apu’s lifeless body into the entry of the underground chambers. He’d wrapped the beautiful little boy into the finest cloth made and adorned him with jewels. Tucked unto the material wrappings were gold figures of llamas and one small llama made of wood with white fleece affixed to the top of the head and body of the carved figure. The priest placed Chita’s embroidered bridle and blanket next to the boy. The pieces matched those of the carved miniature. Apu, blessed son of the Inca would guard the sacred crypt and show all of the gods the gifts his people offered them. Urcon knew in his heart the young boy was leading his friend Chita into Inti’s presence. Murmuring his goodbye, he brushed Apu’s hair back from his closed eyes then stepped back so the masons could fit the stones and seal in the cave. This place was now holy. Apu’s sacrifice would forever bring blessings and protection to his city in the clouds…Machu Picchu.
The desire to celebrate is intrinsic to human nature. Whether it be a victory or a new season, humans have found something to use as an excuse to get together and party. The authors at Paper Crane Books have written original stories to showcase the days we all love best: holidays. Seven stories. Four seasons. They span across time, countries, and even worlds. Come and celebrate with us!
Featured holidays include:
Spring equinox celebration