The sun’s glare stung my eyes like a fistful of sand as I cautiously stepped down from the chartered Gulfstream jet and onto the tarmac at Cuzco International Airport. There to greet me was the high priest, or villac-umu, and a half-dozen of his hulking attendants.
A slight, copper-skinned man in his fifties, the priest had a pleasant, inscrutable face. Like the storied Incas of five centuries past, he wore a funky headdress that resembled a helmet, gold hoops in his ears, a one-piece multicolored tunic and leather sandals. His attendants were outfitted the same way, but with smaller earrings. By contrast, I was decked out in an off-the-rack, twilight-gray suit; the breeze that spilled down coolly from the green, towering peaks around us caused my scarlet tie to flap like a dog’s tongue.
Smiling broadly, the priest stood in front of me and pumped my hand. I wondered which of the dour-faced men behind him would act as interpreter.
“Mr. Purdue?” the priest said. “Welcome. You may call me Atoc.”
I told him I was honored to meet him, and humbled to visit his magnificent homeland. “You speak superb English,” I added.
“Thanks,” Atoc said. “Cornell, Class of ’87. Your English is good also.”
I think most would agree that the sudden resurgence of the Incas in South America was a compelling story in itself. Their unprecedented comeback had caught nearly everyone by surprise, even the putative experts who worked, as I did, in the U. S. State Department. Long believed extinct, the Inca culture proved instead to be healthy and active, having bided its time in the numberless tiny and forgotten villages that dot the Andes mountains, waiting for just the right moment to flare up and sweep across the continent like a raging fire.
Once underway, the Revolution triumphed in a matter of weeks. Peru fell first, and was soon followed by Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile. All across the embroiled region, encamped political leaders, duly elected or otherwise, were deposed swiftly, violently, their places filled on the same day by chanting Inca fanatics. The legendary stockpiles of gold and silver reemerged from their hideaways deep in the jungle, and around the globe many began referring to this rich new confederation, with a certain awe and disbelief, as the Inca Empire. Others resurrected the ancient name of Tawantinsuyu, meaning the “Four Quarters of the World.”
Apart from a thriving circle of arms dealers, few who’d tracked these unlikely events could find reason to applaud. Those South American nations not yet under the yoke of the Incas expressed concerns about their security. Brazil in particular, hanging there like a bloated grape ready to be plucked, urged a hamstrung United Nations to levy sanctions against its belligerent neighbor. In the U.S., the Pentagon kept a wary eye on the enormous quantities of tanks, bombs, missiles and warplanes the Empire was buying (mainly from America itself), and liberals in Congress were outraged by the Incas’ repressive style of governing. It seemed that in Tawantinsuyu, nearly every civil transgression one could imagine was punishable by death, which was usually effected by some primitive method involving knives. When word got around that the Incas routinely practiced human sacrifice as part of their pagan religious ceremonies, the mutterings and outcries from abroad reached a crescendo.
As one distinguished senator put it, his stately cheeks quivering with righteous indignation: “Let me be absolutely clear. Murder is one thing—but human sacrifice? Well, that’s something else again!”
After another minute or so of amiable chitchat, Atoc gestured toward a gleaming white stretch limo parked a short distance from where we stood. The car’s side paneling was set off by an abstract rendering of a jaguar, painted in vermilion, baring its elongated fangs. We made our way in the direction of the vehicle, but with the exertion of only a few steps my head seemed to fill with helium and my chest began to burn. I staggered, and was obliged to stop. At a glance, Atoc diagnosed the problem.
“Soroche,” he called it. “Altitude sickness. We’re at 11,000 feet.” He reached into a black pouch he had slung over his shoulder and came out with a cluster of dried coca leaves. “Here. An old Inca remedy. Chew them.” I put them into my mouth—they tasted alkaline—and chewed reluctantly. “It always takes outsiders a while to adapt.”
I told him I felt better, and I did, but he would hear none of it. He signaled for some of his retinue to go and retrieve a palanquin, a contraption that looks like a giant stretcher bearing a gaudy cabin. The two of us got on board and were carried like royalty the rest of the way to the limo.
As we drove through the refurbished city of Cuzco with all its brightly named boulevards and landmarks—Street of the Sun, Temple of the Sun, Square of the Sun—Atoc saw an opportunity to launch into a windy speech touting some of the Incas’ recent societal achievements. “We’ve gotten rid of doctors,” he said, “and replaced them with sorcerers. The health of the people, those who are still alive, has never been better. Naturally, the cost of our medical care is rock bottom. Those coca leaves? No charge.” The crime rate was close to zero, he claimed, and the economy, which was based on a weird combination of agriculture and precious metals, was booming. Each and every citizen believed in God, he noted. Several gods, in fact. “We’re also hoping to outlaw all forms of writing by the end of the year. We’ll go with nothing but the quipou, as we did in the old days. Hey, if it was good enough for Atahualpa, it should be good enough for us, right?”
Though I nodded and smiled courteously, I was only half listening—perhaps I was bothered by the altitude, or by the speed at which events were occurring. Just days before, I’d been a low-level nobody, my office so buried that I had to take the elevator up to the basement. It was a rare workday that permitted me even a glimpse of the sun. I spent most of my time fretting about my winsome young wife Bunny, who was about to become my winsome young ex-wife. She’d left me for a hockey player, the center for the Washington Capitals. Yuri was a man of action, she explained, and not some mere paper shuffler; action excited her. “He once gave Sidney Crosby twelve stitches,” she loved to brag. Unable to accept reality, I kept her picture next to my “Out” box and began popping Prozacs like salted peanuts.
When I received a terse email one desultory afternoon indicating the Secretary wanted to speak with me privately, I had no doubts about why. I was convinced he’d taken two minutes out of his overbooked schedule solely for the purpose of firing me.
Not for the first time in my life, I was mistaken.
To my amazement, I soon learned he wanted to send me on a below-radar mission to Tawantinsuyu. My expertise in South America was nil, but no one who did have expertise was willing to go. Diplomats, especially American diplomats, enjoyed no special protection in the Empire. Indeed, one of our first casualties had been our Ambassador to Peru, who, along with his staff, family and pet Labrador, had vanished without a trace during the opening salvos of the Revolution. A desperate man, the Secretary hoped I would agree to make the trip—that I would establish a channel of communication with the Incas, chide them for human rights violations, and probe the status of the missing Ambassador.
“Why not?” I shrugged, still pining for Bunny.
Now, in the limo, I allowed my dazed eyes to catch on some of the alien sights that swept past my tinted window. Among them were scores of stone monuments, stone walls and immense blocky stone buildings, all of them decorated with beautiful, carved, rectilinear motifs. (I gathered from my preparatory reading that the stones were not mortared together, but were instead precisely fitted as only the Incas could do.) Most of these granite and porphyry structures were spanking new, I could tell, but they seemed to resonate with the grandeur and mystery of the ages. I was also intrigued by the many silly balloons floating high on poles along the streets; the balloons looked something like people.
“They are people,” Atoc told me. “Or they were. On occasion, our criminal justice system likes to set examples. In these cases, the offenders’ bones and organs were removed from their bodies, and their skins were smoked and stuffed with straw. Produces a rather sobering effect, doesn’t it?”
I agreed that it did, and wondered silently if our lost Ambassador might not be up there someplace, riding on the breeze.
We arrived at the fortresslike Imperial Palace, where I would be granted a suite in which to stay, and where the talks would be held. The first discussion, in fact, was slated to begin just minutes after I dropped off my bags with a fawning mitayo. Ah, the Incas and their reverence for time, punctuality, the calendar!
Without delay we convened in a spacious conference room whose huge windows provided an excellent view of the busy Main Square, or Haucaipata, below, and the brawny mountains and the clear, sunny skies above. The room was filled with artworks: silver statues of men, women, deities and animals; hand-painted goblets and egg-shaped urns. On the walls were shimmery gold tiles encrusted with emeralds and turquoises. Strangely, the floor was bare; it was made of stone except for a peculiar metal grating next to the table where we would sit. Atoc took charge of the Inca delegation—on my side, I was a delegation of one—and he graciously handled the introductions, offered me some toasted maize, and showed me my chair.
I spread some papers on the table in front of me and cleared my throat, ready to speak. “Not yet,” Atoc cautioned. “First, we shall have a divining.”
Hearing a scuffling noise, I turned to see three burly men wrestling a llama into the room. The creature’s coat was all black. When they got to the metal grate in the floor, they halted and looked to Atoc, who ceremoniously rose and joined them. The three lieutenants gripped the straining beast as tightly as possible, allowing Atoc to thrust a golden knife deep into its left side. The llama shrieked. Blood began to pour. Around the table, the onlookers’ expressions were tolerant, patient, indulgent—they reminded me of fathers who were watchingtheir children perform in a school play. Following some rough, vigorous hacking, Atoc plunged his hands inside the animal and brought out the lungs, pink and wet, and flopped them onto the table. We observed that they were still palpitating.
“A good sign,” Atoc said. “We may proceed with confidence.”
The llama-men carried away the limp, dripping carcass and tidied things up as best they could, wiping the table with a cloth of fine vicuña wool. Though speckled, my notes were still quite readable. Atoc apologized for the inconvenience and invited me to make my opening statement.
“But before you do,” he said, “I would ask you to bear something in mind. My colleagues and I are entirely willing to discuss any subject under the sun, but with one proviso. We will tolerate no criticism of our public policies—none!—since everything we do follows directly from our religious faith.”
I picked up a slim stack of papers, tapped their edges against the tabletop and put them down again.
“I’m kind of new at this,” I said, “but when you use that phrase ‘no criticism’—”
“I mean, Mr. Purdue, not a single negative word. You see, to question the ways in which we carry out the dictates of our gods would be a terrible sin, and would require that the sinner be punished in the extreme.”
Once again I picked up my papers, tapped them and put them down. My thoughts had trailed off to the human balloons jiggling over Cuzco’s streets.
“You know,” I said, “that toasted maize really hit the ol’ spot. You mind if I try some more of that?”
A kindly host, Atoc slid the heaping tray toward me.
Thanks to the favorable omen, I guess, the first day’s meeting was smooth, congenial and businesslike. It was also rather one-sided. Mindful of the ground rules, I declined to make an opening statement, and then declined to make any further statement whatever. Atoc, on the other hand, held forth for two or three hours on how the Empire was in truth a peace-loving nation that had been grossly misrepresented by the world’s media. “Peace is what we are all about,” he insisted, and predicted that the Incas would one day impose their brand of peace on every country in existence. Now and then he would pause, giving me a fair chance to counter his arguments. At such times I would automatically take another colossal bite of maize and munch wildly until he resumed his spiel. Encouraged, Atoc proposed that we continue our discussions over the next several months.
In my comfortable bedroom somewhere in the stone heart of the Imperial Palace, I lay in bed and tried to nap but couldn’t. I felt anxious, strung out, and the disorienting symptoms of soroche, while reduced, were with me still. I found myself staring up hypnotically at a garish frieze that unfurled along the top of a wall. It depicted what I would later recognize as the Inca version of humanity’s birth. There was a wide, baby blue lake, Lake Titicaca, from whose ruffled waters the god of creation, Viracocha, was surging like a sea serpent, a yellow lightning bolt in his massive fist. The god had a square head, square features, a square body; he seemed intent on hurling the lightning bolt right at me: right at my nose. The more I stared at the frieze, the more tensed up I became.
When someone knocked on my door, I almost jumped into the painted lake.
Eventually, I opened the door.
Not knowing what to expect, I certainly didn’t expect anything like the vision that confronted me. My visitor was a lovely, long-haired girl, probably in her late teens. She was fragrant with exotic perfume. Wearing the traditional Inca garb, but with the addition of a see-through veil and a flowing cape that matched her modest anaku, she flashed her dark eyes straight at me and said in wonderful, halting English:
“I am Paccha. I am here for you.”
She nodded. “Atoc sent me.”
“To . . . to be my bed partner?” I asked hopefully.
“Fat chance,” she said, and pushed by me into the room. She was carrying a medium-size, brown cardboard box that she plumped down on my bed. “To communicate with us, you
must first come to know us and understand us. I am here to help.”
I closed the door. “You’ve been sent to tutor me?” She nodded again. I could live with that.
“What’s in the box?”
She reached into it and pulled out some clothes. Inca clothes. “Go into the bathroom and try these on.”
“Aw, come on, I’m not gonna . . . If you think—”
“Atoc would be disappointed if you spurned his gift.”
I was forced to acknowledge that possibility. I took the duds into the bathroom and started putting them on.
“I hope the usuta fit,” she called from outside. “I got you a size ten.”
“Sandals. And the llautu’s got an adjustable strap, so that shouldn’t be a problem. The headdress.”
Restyled, I peered skeptically at my reflection in the full-length mirror. I decided I looked like a mummer in a San Francisco parade, but I felt surprisingly at ease.
I stepped back into the bedroom and Paccha studied me, spending undue time, I thought, on my knobby knees.
“What about the earrings?” she said.
I held them out to her, a pair of gold circles, in my open palm. “They won’t work. These are for pierced ears, and mine aren’t.”
“No problem. We have people in Tawantinsuyu who are very good at piercing things. We will take care of your ears tomorrow.”
As indeed we did, early the next morning.
During the succeeding weeks, as the great Sun Feast, or Inti Raymi, approached, Paccha and I were together almost every day. We went places, met people, saw and heard the spirit of the land, all for the sake of my education. In a state-supplied jeep, we tooled around the city, visiting its colorful and diverse districts: Collcampata, Cantutpata (named after the cantut, a delightful flower resembling the Spanish carnation), Pumacurcu, Tococachi, Munaicenca. . . . We viewed remnants of the original highway system, the old palaces, the first temples, most of these structures then undergoing determined renovation. One evening we ate in a cozy restaurant known as The Condor where I gorged myself on stuffed lamb, sweet potatoes and cakes, and washed it all down with more chicha than I really needed. Another time we were coptered off into the mountains to see the fabulous “lost city” of Machu Picchu, which was being remade into a resort—destined to be the Aspen, Paccha assured me, of the truly deep South.
While our conversations tended to be impersonal, we did talk extensively, and I enjoyed the contact. She taught me the Inca language, their calendar, their history. “Who was the enemy of the people, the enemy of justice, the enemy of life and love?” she would demand of me, her cheeks aflame. “Pizarro, Pizarro, Pizarro!” I would cry. Mostly, we talked about religion. I learned that the Inca pantheon has its share of major gods—Viracocha, Apu Illapu, Mama-Kilya—and plenty of minor ones too, but chief among them all is Inti, the vaunted God of the Sun. “He alone is the giver of light and warmth,” Paccha preached. “Without him, we simply could not exist.” I kicked this notion around in my head, and had to conclude that whether one deifies the sun or not, Old Sol is pretty damned important. I asked myself: Throughout the millennia, haven’t many people worshipped gods less potent and worthy than the almighty sun?
On rare occasions Paccha inquired into my background, my homeland. I told her about Snapchat, vaping, Xbox, Britney Spears, Jeopardy, Botox, Coke Zero and the Washington Capitals. The only time she showed more than a perfunctory interest was when I described hockey’s penalty box. “Why doesn’t the NHL just take its worst troublemakers immolate them?” she asked.
She was twenty years younger than I and not given to playfulness. But she was intelligent and mature and self-possessed. In her veil and cape, she looked like a comic book superheroine. And I was a long way from what I called home. Inevitably I was drawn to her, and one starlit night, after toasting the Pleiades, I let her know how I felt. She gave me a Mona Lisa smile—she did not smile often—and gently, sweetly, explained that she was not for me or for any man. She was a Chosen Woman, chosen by the clergy for a life of duty to state and temple. A life of celibacy. In that aching moment, my admiration for her actually intensified. She was wholly pledged to something larger than herself, to a cause she deemed sacred.
Life went on. Next day, a chasqui handed me a letter, forwarded through the State Department, from Bunny. Yuri had dumped her, she confessed, for a rap artist. Bunny did not know where I was, she said, or what I was doing, though she’d heard I was living abroad and working on some perilous assignment. She regretted the misunderstandings we’d had, and wondered if I might be open to a reconciliation.
I wrote her back a brief note in Quechua, a language whose lively nuances I was beginning to appreciate, telling her to kiss off. As I scribbled, I found myself whistling, for no apparent reason, that old Jimmy Durante tune, “Inka Dinka Doo.”
The meetings with Atoc and company continued at the rate of two or three a week. My new attire, to which I’d fast grown accustomed, brought me a shower of compliments, as did my increasing familiarity with the culture. The later talks followed much the same pattern as the first one. We’d begin by sacrificing a llama and reading its lungs. Atoc would warn me not to criticize the Inca program since to do so would be tantamount to sacrilege. I’d prudently clam up, and he’d then unleash a stemwinder billing Tawantinsuyu as Utopia. His speeches, which at first had struck me as bombastic hype, seemed to’ve become more persuasive of late; perhaps I’d gotten used to the tides and currents of his rolling rhetoric. Toward the end of one session, he let slip a reference to the impending military incursion against Brazil. “But let’s be honest,” he said with a dismissive wave. “What have the Brazilians ever contributed to the world anyway, except Brazil nuts?”
I glanced down at my hands as they clapped and clapped.
The Secretary and I stayed in touch by exchanging coded cables. He asked me if I was getting along satisfactorily with the Incas, and I told him that our progress was splendid. He asked if I was giving voice to the stern set of American admonitions, and I said I did so as often as practical. He asked if I’d heard any significant rumors about Brazil, and I philosophized that rumors, by their very nature, could be so ugly, so cruel, so destructive. In all, he seemed pleased with my upbeat reports, and genuinely mournful when he finally advised me that the Administration’s posture regarding the Incas was about to become even tougher and more aggressive, and that I was being recalled to Washington.
I had just one responsibility left to discharge before taking my scheduled flight out. I had agreed, at Atoc’s friendly request, to stay for at least a portion of the Sun Feast.
“You seem dispirited,” he had sympathized with me. (And so I was. I wanted to believe that departures always saddened me, but I remembered how buoyant I felt when I’d left to come here.) “Inti Raymi is like New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July rolled into one,” he said with a twinkle. “Being part of it will do you wonders.”
I asked Paccha if I’d see her there, and she promised me I would.
As always, the mad celebration erupted in every pocket of the far-flung Empire, though its central locus was the Temple of the Sun, a stadiumlike huaca in downtown Cuzco. Festivities started at dawn, when the first faint, blood-red rays of the sun trickled onto the city’s rooftops. Even at that normally sedate hour there had been a general outpouring of prayers, songs and jubilant shouts of “Hailli! Hailli!” (“Victory! Victory!”). Hordes of faithful Incas, eating, drinking and raising a merry ruckus, clotted the streets, bent on marking an event part astronomical fact and part mythical belief: that the sun, having strayed to its northernmost limit in the heavens, was now returning, moving southward, to visit once more with its own blessed people.
I’d hoped to arrive at the Temple by the Holy Hour of noon, but with the dense traffic I ran twenty minutes late. The magic of my royal pass got me inside quickly, however, and also earned me the envious grumbles of those who had to stand in line. I left my sandals with the shoe-check girl (since barefoot is the only way one may enter a temple) and found myself a seat up in the bleachers.
The gala scene reminded me of halftime at one of the snazzier college bowl games. Noisy spectators were packed into the stands, and noisy vendors roamed up and down among us hawking their wares, which included miniature loaves of holy bread, cups of pisco, and gold Inti Raymi pennants. Soon I spotted the supreme Inca himself, the King, the Son of the Sun. Sporting his proprietary red turban, he was kicked back, surrounded by family, bodyguards and concubines, in a box seat close to the action. The field, if I might call it that, was a square, earthen acre with a gorgeous gold altar at its center-point, and rippling waves of singers, dancers, jugglers, acrobats and musicians, all performing, everyplace else.
I sipped some pisco and listened to the kenas, panpipes, drums and bells. The music didn’t rock or swing, but it wasn’t bad either, and I realized that Atoc was right: my gloom was lifting already, boiling away like a fog in the sun. I noticed, too, that in spite of the rushing I’d done to get to the Temple, I was breathing normally. My lungs and heart had adapted.
In due course I saw Atoc in front of the altar, motioning to a pair of his attendants. They strode over to him, knelt in unison, and scooped up a smudgy, furry heap that had lain without movement on the ground. The heap was apparently the remains of a sizable dog that’d been sacrificed before my arrival. A dog? I didn’t know the Incas ever sacrificed dogs—but then my education was still ongoing. After a short bow to Atoc, the subalterns carried their burden away.
Now Paccha appeared at his side, her veil and cape flickering lightly in the breeze. With both hands she was holding a puffy, cherry-red pillow that supported a semi-circle of big, glistening gold knives. Atoc went to her and inspected the cutlery. As he did, she gazed in my direction, and briefly her eyes found mine; they seemed to plumb my insides.
On some cue invisible to me, the music stopped and the babble of the crowd ceased. The entertainers stood still. An awful silence fell on the Temple of the Sun, broken only by the rapid-fire chanting of Atoc and the clanking of the bronze chains that hung on the prisoner. A Caucasian, the gaunt man was being dragged, pushed and prodded across the field and toward the altar. From my first view of him I thought he looked dimly familiar, but it took me a minute or more to place him. It was the missing Ambassador, and he was about to be sacrificed.
A powerful emotion tore through my chest; I tried to suppress it but couldn’t. Standing up, I bellowed the name of Atoc. He turned and faced me. On edge, the crowd waited.
“Atoc!” I repeated. Then, with all my strength: “Hailli! Victory!”
Atoc, who by now had selected his knife, raised it over his head and returned my cheer.
“Hailli!” he cried.
I and the others, even the King, began to shout the same searing word again and again, louder and louder, until the shouts became a roar that threatened to swallow us alive. The hard, stone Temple shook with the force of the din, but still we kept on: we, the chosen, the Servants of the Sun.
BIO: Greg Jenkins is the author of four books, including A Face in the Sky, and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in journals ranging from Prairie Schooner and Chicago Quarterly Review to Weirdbook and Cafe Irreal. He has also had eight plays produced.