Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘What the Wind Brings’
I was in the spirit house, meditating on breath. The men of the village were in the men’s house, where Pidi had called a meeting to discuss something to do with the crops. The women were in the women’s house, brewing corn beer and making jokes about each other’s husbands and children, but keeping an eye on the men’s house across the central open space.
I did not go to the meeting; I was not a man. I did not go to where the women were gathered; I was not a woman. Besides, I knew that Pidi would come to me in due time. He was staunch for the proper ways of doing things, despite all that had befallen us and the other towns of the Nigua nation in the years since the Spaniards had passed through.
I returned to my meditation. I had been thinking about breath a great deal lately. Now it was time to consult my guide.
Under my predecessor Pallu’s tutelage, I had learned how to control my breathing, to channel and focus the life force so as to perform acts that were impossible for the untutored, unless they took the mushrooms called “the openers,” as the men did in some of their ceremonies. But the openers brought them only dreams – though sometimes those dreams could be of serious import – instead of truly opening the doors to the upper and lower worlds.
I could climb or descend into the other realms without openers, simply by regulating my breathing while repeating the secret words that Pallu had taught me after he took me into his keeping. After he prevented Manda, the father of Pidi, from dashing my infant head against a rock because of my . . . discrepancy.
Thus I had chosen today – the signs were auspicious – to go beyond meditating, to go down into the lower world and seek wisdom from my guide. Thus I was sitting cross-legged in the spirit house, with my back straight as Pallu had long ago taught me. I fixed my vision on the central post, the axis between the upper and lower worlds, and took charge of my breathing, slowing it gradually, until my abdomen and chest would scarcely have shown movement – if anyone could have been in the spirit house to see it.
The interior of the house grew brighter, one of the signs that I was becoming detached from the middle world. The blond wood of the axis post began to glow with a golden light, telling me that I was nearing the threshold of the channel to the upper world. I reached without looking for the small wooden bowl and took two small sips of the clarifying tea, then set it down and continued to concentrate on my breathing.
The tea began to work within me, opening the ways. I felt my pulse throbbing in the seven parts of my body. My torso became a great hollow tube, extending from my buttocks to the inside of my mouth, but I kept my lips tightly sealed to prevent my inner parts from rushing out; if I let them escape I knew it would take a long time to recover them. Gradually, the pressure ebbed away while the glow grew brighter and moved to envelop me, until my view of the spirit house was completely suffused by the light and I saw only gold, with the usual rim of blackness at the edge of my vision. The Old Deceivers hissed and chattered at me from the darkness, but I had long since ceased to give them any heed.
Motionless, I waited for the expanding light to absorb me completely. When I was sure I was surrounded by its warmth, I let a portion of my innermost self seep from one nostril and make contact. A lightness filled my chest and I felt as if I could float up to the thatch above me, to fly out the smoke hole and perch on the roof- it was a better perch than Pidi’s for listening in. But I resisted the urge and called instead on the one who guarded and advised me.
She came, as always, in the form of a monkey-eagle, her feathers gray above and pale below, showing bands of light and darkness as she spread her wings then closed them. I offered my own courtesy and a greeting. She turned her head and looked at me from one golden eye.
She did not speak; she never did. But I felt her presence within me and knew that she waited for me to begin the conversation. I spoke in my spirit voice, that none but she would hear, “I have been thinking about breath. And life. And fire.”
The word mystery formed in my mind.
A great mystery, said my own voice, though I knew it was speaking for her, woven through the world.
Consider the wind, my inner voice said, and what it brings.
It was a thought that had already passed through my mind a number of times. The wind was like breath, but none knew where it came from, or where it went. Did something breathe the wind? If so, whose breath was it? Or did it breathe itself? These were old questions, never answered.
But the guardian had spoken of what the wind brought, which was a new consideration, and now I said, “What does it bring?”
The answer came not in words but in a sudden sense of motion. I was rising up, as if I were a monkey seized in the eagle’s claws, though I felt no pain and knew I would not be harmed; it was not the first time I had flown like this.
We climbed through the leafy canopy, as I had often seen such birds fly in the forest, their short, powerful wings finding holes and pathways among the branches. Then we were out in the open air and still rising. Far off to the east I could see the forested hills climbing to the blue mountains, obscured today by overcast. To the west was the sea, as gray as the sky, the line where one met the other made invisible by rain. We passed over the ruined town the old chief – Manda, Pidi’s father – had led us away from in my childhood, when the spotted sickness came again. Then we flew on, out beyond the horizon, out to the deep sea where our men used to sail on balsa rafts, trading with towns three and four days sail away – towns that were all gone now.
We flew through rain and out into sun again. The water turned blue, marked with snails’ trails of currents. But now, farther out, I saw something I had never seen, though I recognized it from descriptions I had heard: it was a ship of the Spaniards, rounded at one end and squared-off at the other, with tall posts from which great swatches of pale cloth hung motionless in a windless calm. Unlike a canoe, its hollow spaces were roofed over with wooden planks, and on them were the first Spaniards I had ever seen.
I saw them with the bird’s eyes, sharper than any human’s, and the image became even clearer as my guardian tipped one wing and glided down toward the scene. I saw that they were of two sorts. There were many of the pale ones, like those who had come to our town wearing metal over their puffed-out clothing, carrying swords and the wood and iron things that smoked and shot deadly fire. How did they get fire into iron, I wondered and my thoughts went along that path until my guardian returned my attention to what was beneath us.
Besides the pale men there were dark-skinned Spaniards, men and women, walking in a circle, each with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front. Hupuka and the other men who had been taken to carry burdens had spoken of these dark Spaniards. In the high country they were common. Some were labourers, grubbing and carrying, and not just for a period, as the Quechua-speakers were forced to be for months at a time; the lowest of the dark Spaniards were worked all the time. But some were craftsmen and seemed to have some license to decide for themselves how their days would go, whereas a few others were no different from the pale Spaniards – these wore armour and carried weapons; they swaggered and caroused and beat the Quechua-speakers just like the others.
These ring-walkers were not swaggering sort. They were clothed in tatters and went barefoot. And they were watched by pale Spaniards who held swords and spears and those terrible spear-axes our men had seen do murder. Two more Spaniards stood on a raised platform at the rear of the vessel, and these held long objects of wood and iron from each of which a thin trail of gray smoke rose into the air. That caught my attention, but my guide had other interests. It tipped a wing and slid lower through the air.
A pair of pale Spaniards were hauling buckets of water from the sea and throwing them on the circling dark ones, I supposed to clean and cool them. But that was not what my guardian wanted me to see. As I looked where she looked, I saw a dark face glance up, then stare right at me. He was not one the circle-walkers, though. He was young, dressed in the padded, tightly fitted clothes that some of the paler ones wore, the sleeves ridiculously filled out. He wore shoes with squares of bright metal on them. I could see his eyes blinking as he sought to focus on me.
Now my guardian’s gaze shifted again and I saw another dark face, though this one was not looking up. This one was mature, had wielded power, and in his expression I saw rage and dignity mixed. Unlike the others, he had both hands on the man before him, and his wrists were circled by dark metal bands joined together. I knew that those hard eyes did not see the man in front of him but watched scenes that played out like shadows on the wall of his mind.
Once more my guide’s attention moved on and I found myself seeing the face of a woman who walked behind the angry man, her face still, but her eyes no less thoughtful than the man whose shoulder lay under her hand.
Then we were spiralling up into the air, the ship shrinking like a toy. We flew toward the eastern clouds. The voice spoke in my mind again: What the wind brings.
A moment later I was back in my body, the glow fading around me. I was shaking and chilled, as I often was after returning from the upper world, and my mouth was dry and foul from the tea. Near me was a calabash half-filled with corn beer. I took a mouthful, rinsed it around then spat it through the gaps in the floor. Now I drank properly, my throat narrow and normal again.
I waited until the shivers subsided, then I rose, stiff in my joints for all I had still not yet seen thirty rainy seasons. I went to the door and descended to the open space.
Only a short time had passed. The men were still in their meeting. A rack of poles served as a ladder up the door of the men’s house. I waited at the bottom and made the gesture that courtesy required. I could see some of the men seated in the common space within, passing around a jug of beer. One of them glanced down and saw me.
“Expectation is here,” he announced.
I heard Pidi’s voice say something, then the man near the door looked down at me and said, “You are not needed this time.”
I inclined my head and went back toward the spirit house. I had only briefly considered telling them about the ship and the pale and dark Spaniards. Clearly, the vision was important, but I would need to dwell upon it for some time before I could understand what it all meant. And what the wind was bringing us.
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