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The Travellers, The Canyon and The Storm

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The Travellers, The Canyon and The Storm

The old man looked across the canyon into the melting golden-ember heavens of the dying afternoon. He paused for breath and glanced at the boy and the donkey. He sighed.

For the last seven years the man had accompanied the boy on the monthly journey from the town where the boy schooled during the dry season back home to their village tucked away deep within the heart of the vast, cloudy canyon.

But the journey was long, arduous and time-consuming. They had been walking for several hours now and the man’s frail, withered body plagued him with searing pain. His bones ached. His feet were blistered. His skin was raw. He would no longer be able to meet the boy. Not any more. This would be their last journey together.

The old man’s name was Achiq. He walked awkwardly with a crooked stoop born out of long days hunched over in fields tending maize, potatoes and quinoa. Years of unprotected exposure to the fierce Bolivian sun had turned his skin to cracked brown leather and his eyes to weak misty pearls buried deep in dark, mossy caverns. His face was wrinkled and pockmarked, ingrained with the weathered remains of eroded youth and framed by a mane of thin grey and silver hair combed back into a wispy vapour trail.

The donkey was equally ancient and weary. Its hooves scuffed at the soft ground, thickening the air with dancing flakes of mud and dust. Achiq held the donkey’s reigns, pulling the animal to a stop and stroking the creature’s neck. He put his ear against the hot, matted flanks of the animal and listened to its thumping chest. “Ah, you have a strong heart, my friend,” he whispered. “But you must go slower, for you and I are not young like the boy.”

The boy’s name was Shanu. He paced restlessly ahead of them. At twelve, he was a mass of hormones and enthusiasm with jet-black hair, olive skin and a blur of gangly limbs. His eyes sparkled brightly with eagerness and unfocused determination. He was keen to arrive home in time for evening supper, as his mother had promised his favourite meal of guinea pig with rice, beans, manioc and butternut squash.

Shanu stopped and looked across at the sun casually descending towards the canyon ridge while the old man eased himself wearily down onto a flat rock and exhaled loudly. The boy sighed too. Achiq had slowed them down too much and they would not be home before dark. There would be no guinea pig or squash tonight. They would have to make one of their evermore frequent stops to camp on the canyon slope.

They continued slowly for another half an hour before settling down to camp. They found a small, enclosed nook to shelter within and unloaded the packs of food, water, wood, tarpaulin and clothes from the donkey. Shanu and Achiq donned the extra clothes and heated up a basic meal of maize, rice and beans over a fire.

During the night the donkey remained outside in the open but was not forgotten. The old man brought him food and stroked his nose. “People say that animals do not think or feel anything,” he said gently to Shanu. “But they are wrong. The pig, the llama, the horse…these animals all have feelings and thoughts of their own. A donkey can be as useful and welcome a companion as another man. Especially on these paths.”

The boy knew that some people in the village believed the old man to be foolish when he spoke whimsically of his animals, but Shanu liked the way he talked about the creatures that had been with him for many years.

As they sat beside the fire in the cool evening air Achiq surveyed their surroundings. A gentle breeze lapped at their ankles while pollen, earth and dry grass floated softly like idle spirits in the ether. Opposite them the sun sank below the horizon, flushing the jagged incline with warm splashes of orange-red radiance. The thick shadows of the rocks and trees stretched down the slope like black paint sliding down a canvas awash with vivid colours.

Achiq curiously observed the boy’s reaction to the settling night. “Do you think the canyon is beautiful at this time, Shanu?” he asked.

“Yes, very beautiful,” the boy replied, hesitantly.

For a while there was only the sound of insects buzzing around the popping firewood. Then Achiq frowned quizzically at the boy and asked, “Why is the canyon so beautiful at this time do you think?”

The boy shrugged. He had no idea. But a coy smile broke out on his face. He knew Achiq was always eager to try and teach people something. Sure enough, the old man wasted no time answering his own question.

“I think, Shanu, that in the early evening when the sun is low and the sky is clear like this, it is more beautiful than at any other time because the conditions are that way only for a moment. It is a temporary impression, like…like a dissolving photo taken by nature of itself. The picture develops slowly – without us even really noticing – and then, in that precious moment when the light, the sky, and all the colours come together in the right way at precisely the right time, then, for just a short while, everything is wonderful. Everything is perfect. That is beauty, Shanu. It is acknowledging and observing that moment. Being present for it. Breathing it in. The canyon right now is an example of that.”

Shanu quietly pondered this.

Achiq casually offered, “Of course there are many occurrences of such moments everywhere in life. Other examples are the youth of a handsome girl or the blooming of a flower.” He waited.

Shanu looked up. “Or a sunset?”

“Yes!” said Achiq, excitedly. “Yes, very good. But then what happens, Shanu? The woman ages, the flower wilts, and the sunset…” He paused.

Shanu frowned thoughtfully. “The sunset…it turns to night? To darkness?”

“Exactly.”

For a moment they were quiet again. Then Shanu tentatively ventured, “So…something is only really beautiful if it does not last forever?” 

Achiq smiled at the boy. He drew him close, ruffling his hair and holding him in the cool evening air. If this was to be their last trip together he wanted to savour it, to breathe it in. He held Shanu tightly and felt the warmth of boy’s young, vital body next to his aged, weathered husk. Shanu clung on and nestled into the old man’s embrace. He felt their hearts beat together as they watched the final saturating flares of red briefly lighting up the skyline as the sun reluctantly departed from view. The sky was soon empty and dark once again. Achiq sighed. Another moment had passed.

Sometime later the fire went out. The nook was dark and cold. Embers crackled and spat from the dying cinders of the fire as Achiq and Shanu shuffled uncomfortably on the damp, hard ground, unable to sleep. Shanu asked the old man more about the many birds that lived within the canyon but were seldom seen anymore.

“Condors are clever creatures, Shanu, because they are one of the few species of bird that do not kill their own food and can fly without flapping their wings. Did you know that?”

Shanu had heard these stories before, but sat there, captivated, as the old man told him how the relationship between the people of the canyon with the condors had remained strong for many hundreds of years. Achiq explained how condors were symbolic in the old culture of representing the gods, and how the villagers respected them enormously and still superstitiously sacrificed a sheep or cow every month as a gift. But despite this enduring affection, Shanu knew it was rare to see more than a couple of condors in a week.

After the old man became weary of storytelling they tried to sleep again. As he dozed off Achiq wondered about Shanu’s future. He knew no one stayed home in the village much anymore. Often they were drawn to the smog filled streets of Lima or the congested white city of Arequipa. Such were the times.

Less than an hour later Achiq woke suddenly. Something had unsettled him. He gently crept to the nook entrance. Though his eyes were weak, he could make out the lights of the village in the distance on the opposite side of the canyon. He inhaled deeply.

The air was cold and moist and the breeze was stirring and restless. There were no stars visible. In the sky heavy, grey clouds were joining to form opaque brushstrokes of solid darkness above. The wind spoke in low, ominous whispers. The heavens are not quite angry yet, but when they become so, we shall know it, Achiq thought.

He looked back at Shanu. His heart was heavy. He knew with the storm came the rains. It was nearly December and the wet season was due. It was dangerous walking the canyon path during the rains, and soon it would rain every single afternoon. The boy would soon have to remain home for months.

Achiq prayed that the rains would not begin the next day. Often they would greaten the flow and raise the height of the river at the foot of the canyon, making the water rage venomously. The bridge that crossed the river was flimsy and vulnerable in such conditions. Sometimes it would simply be washed away, temporarily cutting off the village from the world even further.

That night Achiq slept a light, restless sleep. In his dreams his arms transformed into wings and his skin became feathers. His mouth hardened into a giant, solid beak and his body twisted and shrank.

He suddenly became aware he was a bird. A condor. He was soaring through misty clouds and over mountains beneath the stars. He felt the air pass through him as he flew high into the endless heavens before gradually descending down through the moonlit canyon to search for food below.

Achiq had dreamt this dream many nights over many years. Time after time he returned to it, twisting, transforming, soaring into sky.

Night after night. Ready to fall again.

*

The next morning Achiq and Shanu awoke to find huge, pendulous dark clouds blanketing the sky. They were both exhausted, having slept little during the cold night. As they prepared to leave their campsite Achiq surveyed the canyon with grave concern. Above them the heavens rumbled like ravenous stomachs. Around them the wind furiously whipped dust and soil into the air. And below them thick spots of rain were beginning to appear on the path.

They fed the donkey and hurriedly got on their way. They walked briskly, though the tension between the travellers was palpable. Even the donkey muttered and stumbled anxiously.

While they walked Achiq attempted to distract them all by pointing out the coca fields around them. He plucked some of the dark green leaves from their stems and shared them with Shanu. They both grimiced as they sucked and chewed the leaves to extract the energising plant juices. Shanu detested the bitter flavour and spat many of his leaves out.

Achiq nodded. “I know, I know. But they kept you alert and prevent hunger. We must be strong to get back home if things get worse.”

About half an hour after setting off a great gale blew up around the travellers. The rain gushed solidly and relentlessly from the heavens. Achiq, Shanu and the donkey were soaked through in minutes. Shanu held his heavy, drenched blankets closely around him as the wind made repeated attacks upon them all. Achiq wiped his furrowed brow. They had done the journey in rain before, but never during a storm with such spiteful venom.

An hour into their slow descent down the path Achiq stopped them. His knees and ankles ached from the strain of walking steeply downhill in such conditions. The path was quickly becoming a thick brown soup of mud, rock and stone. Shanu noticed across the canyon there was a deep, sunken hole of earth where masses of soil, slate and stone had collapsed, leaving a huge gap like a cleft palate on the face of the canyon.

The old man went ahead, testing the way with his stick in the mud and Shanu following behind with the donkey. The river will surely be overflowing, thought Achiq. A degree of panic crept into his thoughts. He worried whether the bridge would be there. He worried whether it would be destroyed.

They struggled on for a while longer, but walking the path soon became too difficult. Rocks slid down the watery slope and settled on the track ahead. The donkey was snorting hard and making strangled, anxious cries. It moved erratically, refusing to continue.  Achiq took over the reins and steadied the creature. He held the donkey firmly and patted down its sides. His hands glided over the cold, wet fur. “Be still and calm, my old friend,” he said. “We shall find a place to rest.”

After a brief search they came across another suitably rocky cavern to shelter within. Shanu found some cactus fruit in one of the packs on the donkey and they ate them. Although Shanu and the old man were both sodden they had drunk much of their water and the juice from the flesh of the plant was refreshing.

Outside, the wind had dropped slightly but the rainfall was heavy and constant. If we are not back by this evening the people in the village will be very worried, thought Achiq.

They had never stayed out a second night before.

The afternoon passed them by as they sat out of the relentless storm. The sun descended in secrecy behind the huge grey clouds. Rock and earth slid slothfully down the slope as the deluge continued. Shanu and Achiq could not even distinguish a path now. The light was fading and a decision needed to be made. As the old man pondered, his thoughts were pre-empted by the young boy.
 
“What will we do?” cried Shanu, “We have never come home in such weather before.”

Achiq held Shanu closely to him, smelling the boy’s head tenderly and ruffling his hair. Although they were both damp and cold, Shanu felt warm and safe in their huddle. Softly the old man said, “Do not worry. Perhaps it is my fault. You should have not returned home so close to the arrival of the rains. And I have slowed us down. But do not worry, we will stay here tonight, and tomorrow we will find a fresh route down to the river.”

Shanu protested, “But what if the bridge is gone?”

The boy is very smart, thought Achiq. “Then we shall find a way to cross it, Shanu. There is always a way.” Shanu glanced up at him. Achiq was adamant.

There was no beautiful sunset that night. The sun shyly set behind the black clouds overhead, and the canyon was bathed in an eerie grey gloom from the lingering clouds above. The insects remained quiet and the birds sung sparingly. As the light died Achiq scanned the horizons for condors, but as usual he saw none.

There was no possibility of making a fire. Everything they touched was wet; wood, shoes, Shanu’s school exercise books. There was little food to eat. They forced down some cold rice and some bread with water and gave the last of the beans to the donkey. The old man stroked the creature.

“Tell me a story,” Shanu requested, eager to think of something other than their current predicament. “Or something about the condors.”

“Very well,” began Achiq. They huddled together again and spoke loudly to be heard above the hiss and splatter of the falling rain. Achiq continued. “The condor is a scavenger by nature, Shanu. You know now that it cannot kill its own food. But unlike the common vulture, the condor is a very majestic bird. Though it lacks the nobility of the eagle and wisdom of the owl it is still a wonderful creature. It glides like a magical spirit upon the lightest of winds and it soars like the most powerful bird of prey upon the heaviest. We can see this anytime we see one flying.”

Shanu was quiet as he nodded and thought deeply about this. Achiq misread the boy’s silence. “Forgive me, Shanu. When you become as old as I you become sentimental and nostalgic. I am merely a farmer, but some days I think I am a philosopher and talk much nonsense.”

Shanu looked up lovingly at the old man and quietly said, “It’s not nonsense. Not at all.”

Achiq smiled.

Shanu loved listening to Achiq tell stories. He liked to close his eyes and try to breathe in the old man’s words. His favourites were the ones of the Achiq’s epic travels and adventures.

Though Achiq had travelled far as a young man, there was, of course, little truth in the stories. But Shanu listened rapturously nevertheless. He loved hearing of how Achiq had single-handedly explored great mystic regions discovering forgotten ruins in the mountains of the north, fighting off alligators in the jungles of the east, conversing with spirits in the vast deserts of the south and wrestling with sharks in the rivers of the west.

For once Achiq paused mid-adventure. “Why do you like these stories, Shanu?” he asked. Shanu pondered this for a moment. “Because they take me somewhere else,” he said. “Away from storms and rain and the cold. They make it possible that I can travel with you, wherever you are.”

“But you know that some stories are not real? They are just an invention to enchant the listener. Though I have seen great jungles, I encountered no fearsome alligators.”

“But often you tell them to let me know the excitement you feel,” Shanu quickly responded. “The excitement you felt at the time, I mean. When you were there.”

Achiq lifted an eyebrow quizzically. “So…”

“So in a way they are real,” Shanu jumped in. “They are your feelings.”

Achiq smiled.
 
*

On the morning of the third day the downpour continued. The unrelenting drops ran down Achiq’s craggy, furrowed brow as he searched for a way down the incline of the canyon. They started down a steep route that the donkey took some persuading to attempt. Achiq led slowly, carefully feeling out the unstable rocks with his stick.

Shanu’s eyes searched the landscape that surrounded the trio. He looked anxiously at the sliding mud and shifting earth. Achiq also noticed that transformations of soil and rock were taking place around them. He knew a landslide of stone and debris could hit them at any time in this weather.

This concerned Achiq, but nevertheless he reassured the boy. “The canyon maybe constantly changing, Shanu, but it is also always the same. It is many millions of years old.” He said. Shanu looked up. “Believe me, it is we humans and animals that change faster than the earth around us. To the canyon we are just a few passing seconds in a day and your feet are just two of thousands that will ever walk these paths. We will be fine. I promise.” 

His words seemed to have the desired effect. Shanu immediately seemed calmer. However at just that moment Achiq felt a shifting rock unbalance him and his knees gave out beneath him. He fell and landed awkwardly on his hip, but the real pain came from his knee. It seared and burned, shooting pain up his leg. Aggravated, Achiq breathed in sharply through his teeth. Shanu helped him up gently. The old man stood upright, trying each foot for support.

They continued as best they could. The morning stretched on into afternoon as they made agonizingly slow progress. As they neared the bottom of the canyon, the rain fell heavily once again. Eventually Shanu, Achiq and the donkey found themselves on the canyon floor. They stopped. For a moment they stood there quietly, and simply stared at where the bridge was supposed to be.

The river was dark and brown and moved violently fast, a liquid highway full of speeding foam, water and mud. Achiq looked first at Shanu, then the water, and then back at the boy. “Very well,” he said, defiantly. “We will find a place to cross.”

Shanu looked in horror at Achiq. “A place to cross? But the river is too wide, too fierce! It is impossible!” He shouted, his small, scared voice barely audible above the crashing foam. But Achiq was undeterred. “There is always a place to cross a river, Shanu. Always.”

The pain was building up in Achiq’s knee again, but that was the least of his worries. High behind him wet, heavy dirt above was slowly breaking free. Clumps of earth and stone began to tumble down the incline. The ground rumbled loudly. They knew exactly what this meant. Soon a massive void was about to carve open the side of the canyon under the weight of tons of collapsed earth right above them. “We must move quickly,” said Achiq firmly.

They moved hastily along the river’s edge looking for the narrowest stretch of water. Shanu leaped and bounded across from boulder to boulder, but the donkey was tired and slow and the old man slower still. For several agonizing minutes they clambered over rocks, clutching at shrub branches and large outcrops.
 
Shanu could see earth slowly begin to fall away above them. He had never seen such a thing and it terrified him. “Hurry!” he cried.

Finally they found a section of the river that was reasonably narrow, maybe only twenty yards wide. Achiq caught up with Shanu and moved toward the water edge. The old man balanced on the rocks, his tattered wet sandals locked into cold, slippery stone grooves. Shanu thought he seemed almost agile now, plunging his stick into the water, attacking different areas of the river systematically with determination and purpose.

After a moment Achiq shouted, “Here, Shanu! Here it is shallow enough! Come quickly!” The boy hopped across the rocks, pulling hard on the donkey’s reins.

Shanu stood next to Achiq. He did not understand. The old man’s stick was completely underwater. How would he get across?

Achiq took some rope and tied himself to the donkey. Shanu stood frozen, holding his breath as his grandfather stepped into the dark, rushing brown liquid. When he was up to his ankles he stopped sinking.

“Now, Shanu,” he said, “Come here. I will hold you and take you across to the other side.”

“But I-”

“No arguing Shanu! Come here now!”

Behind them the earth growled as it began to lose its grip on the canyon side. Shanu jumped onto the old man’s fragile embrace. Achiq wrapped his arms around the boy and steadied himself as the water gushed over his feet, ferociously pulling at their tentative foothold. The force of the river was incredible, Shanu thought, and he tried to avoid the sight downriver of foam rapidly gushing over sharp, jutting rocks that rose up just above the surface.

The old man braced himself against the pull and glided through the water. He breathed hard and deep, summoning all of his faded strength. He held the boy on his right against the flow of the river, and on his left pushed against his stick to balance against the crushing weight of the freezing water.

The force of the river was incredible, and they had to rely on the donkey to brace itself and stand firm, holding them steady via the taut line of rope. The creature tensed its old, weary joints, snorting and growling as it strained desperately against the inexorable force of the river. Achiq cried out as he drove his ankle down into narrow, jagged footholds beneath him. The pain shot up his body as a small trail of blood ran speedily downriver away from them.

Halfway across the river’s width Achiq began to tire. His burst of strength was exhausted and his arms were near to giving out. His breaths were short and gasping, interrupted by mouthfuls of freezing, muddy water. Across the river the donkey was struggling to hold its footing on the shore. Hold on, my old friend, Achiq thought. Hold on just a few moments longer.

All about the canyon the air reverberated terrifyingly with the epic movement of earth. Great masses of dirt, slate and stone started their slow, gargantuan descent down the slope behind Achiq, Shanu and the donkey. They knew they had a matter of moments before the canyon floor was filled with overwhelming amounts of displaced earth and rock, burying them beneath it.

Achiq struggled onwards. He spluttered as his head kept falling under the water. Eventually he felt solid forms ahead of them and with great effort he heaved himself onto the rock near the side of the river. The old man let go of his stick and with a final push forced Shanu up onto the elevated shoreline.

Achiq immediately slid a few yards downriver and grabbed onto a small protruding island. He looked up at the boy. Past Shanu he could see some strange, swirled shapes in the sky, but he could not be sure what he was seeing. Bringing his eyes back to the boy the old man weakly shouted, “Go, Shanu. Climb.”

“Come too! I will help you,” Shanu protested tearfully.

“Leave! Go now, Shanu!”

Shanu paused. He watched as Achiq clung weakly onto the rock for his life. Panic ate into his heart and his pumped cold poison round his body. The anxiety and fear gripped his stomach and crippled him.

Suddenly a silent desperation seized Shanu. He leapt forward and reached out for the old man’s arm, stretching as hard as he could. He extended himself with all the might in his small body, straining every sinewy muscle. But it was no use. He could not reach Achiq. He fell back on the riverside and sat, motionless. Tears welled in his eyes, and their falling lines ran through the smudged dirt on his cheeks.

Achiq coughed, spluttered and sighed. He lay upon the wet stone taking deep breaths and wheezing slightly with the movement of his withered, sunken chest. He pulled as hard as he could on the rope and the donkey obliged, wading into the swell. It awkwardly crossed the river, struggling against the force of the current. When it reached the other side Shanu tried to galvanise the creature to pull Achiq out of the river. But this was also no use. Just like the old man, the donkey’s strength had left him many years ago.

Straining against the force of the river, Achiq felt the last of his remaining might ebb away from him. His wrinkled fingers slid off the rock as he slipped away and was pulled by the water to midstream where he stopped and floated on his back with the water running past him.

Achiq looked up in confusion. He realised he was still attached to the donkey by the rope. His weight was pulling the beleaguered old animal back towards the water. Exhausted and agitated, the donkey rocked and swayed against the pull of the old man on the rope line. If it was dragged back into the water, Achiq knew it would never get out again.

He desperately fumbled through his clothes in the freezing water and brought out a small, slightly blunted knife. Quickly, he worked the rusty serrated blade against the rope. With shaking hands the old man furiously moved the knife back and forth again and again. Shanu just knelt by the river, crying. Screaming. He called out in vain for the old man to stop. To come back to him. But it was futile.

Just before the rope snapped Achiq gave a final order to Shanu, who reluctantly turned and ran from the riverside to safe distance, taking the donkey with him as he went. Achiq held onto the rock with his hands for a last few seconds while he glanced towards the heavens and the falling rain that, all of a sudden, stopped completely.

Achiq was ready. He braced himself against the pummelling torrent, yet felt perfectly peaceful and calm. The intense roar of the river became as like silence, and in the sky above a few clouds parted briefly to allow fantastic shards of light to pierce through the clearing purple-blue ceiling. As he prepared to let go of the rope, Achiq looked to the sky one final time. He was astonished.

Amongst the parting clouds above him flew a group of eleven or twelve adult condors gliding upon the wind. Achiq could not believe it. He had never seen so many together. He watched as they majestically twisted and spiralled and soared in the air, forming stunning shapes and formations while rising and falling, their feathers glistening from the rain. He watched as they hung in the stormy air, all of them beautifully in control of their ethereal flight. He watched as they circled above him, the gods from the old culture ever observant of all things below them.

For one perfect moment they were there, floating above Achiq magnificently. And then, seemingly just as soon as they had appeared, the birds broke apart and dispersed in all directions. The sky was soon empty and dark once again. The moment had passed.

Achiq smiled for a few last, precious seconds. Then he closed his eyes, let go of the rock, and surrendered himself to the river.

Comments:

1 Laura | on 03 September 2009

I really liked this, and found it intriguing. The descriptions are brilliant, and don’t fade at all as the story continues. I especially like the sunset description. It moves swiftly from a calm atmosphere to a frantic one which I think is clever (:

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