Moon Blood and Salt Flowers

bytalismania©

* * * *

Fernando promised the priest he would return her to the convent, then led her from it and swung her up behind him on his brown horse. She hugged his ribs as he cantered his mount through city streets crowded with merchants and craftsmen and miners milling around vendors whose stoves perfumed the air with delicious, exotics smells. They crossed a stone bridge and rode up a road that led to the top of the mountain where Spanish priests had built a church. But it was not the church he wanted to show her.

Halfway up the mountain he halted and pointed to a chain of mountain lakes that sparkled in the sun. When he spoke, his exhaled breath mingled with hers in the thin, cold air. "We capture water from the mountains. We use this water to move machines, make silver."

Haltingly, he explained how machines crushed the ore from the mine into dust, to which the Spanish added quicksilver from Upper Peru, salt from Uyuni, and water to form a paste which hundreds of mitayos trod on patios until it was all mixed. The water that powered the machines flowed into a broad stone channel that ran through the center of the city, on which flat boats carried the silver bars to a big house where it would be stamped and counted. Some water was diverted into an aqueduct to be carried to cisterns for drinking water in the city.

Pride glowed in Fernando's wind-reddened face, bright joy claiming his eyes when he glanced over his shoulder to see her reaction. Amaya smiled, happy that he was happy. The Spanish, she decided, were a clever people, to have captured the power of the mountain waters.

During the ride back down the mountain, he taught her Spanish words that lifted her tongue and played like music to her ears; she told him stories of condor boys, Inca princesses, and the Puma King who had reigned long before the conquistadors. The time passed too quickly and when it ended, they were back in the city and he returned her to the big stone building and the waiting priest at the door.

Before Fernando could remount his horse and leave her again, she looped her arms around his neck and turned her face up to his and was pleased when his lips descended to capture hers. Her mouth opened hungrily and she devoured him. He tasted of sunlight and grass and the spices of distant Spain. When the priest coughed a warning, he stepped away, but not without his bright gaze seizing hers so hotly her flesh threatened to melt.

"Clara," he said for the priest to hear, "you cannot do that again." But his eyes and the lift of his lips told her that if she did he would not stop her.

* * * *

When night fell, the mountain blotted out the stars—then replaced them with its own. The mountain was spangled with light. Thousands of lights. Torches and lanterns lit the paths for trains of mitayos and llamas bearing ore. Lower, toward the base, pinpoints of flame flickered from base camps.

Dressed in a simple shift and escorted by the overseer and a priest, Amaya climbed the mountain. They passed gangs of mitayos, backs bent nearly double beneath heavy sacks, trekking downhill to where machines waited to grind the ore. One of several mine entrances loomed before them when they turned back to see the shadowy shapes of a horse and rider.

Fernando pulled his mount to a halt and leaped down to join them, thrusting the reins into the hands of a nearby slave. He wore long breeches and high boots fit for the mine and the hilts of two weapons glinted at his hip. In his arms he carried a cloth bundle.

"I go also," he said.

"Don Fernando—"

He responded to the priest in Spanish, his words crisp with the command Amaya sometimes sensed in him. The priest and the overseer exchanged glances. Though they clearly wished to oppose him, they surprised her by giving in.

While the overseer prepared another lantern, Fernando walked to her side. Even among Spaniards he was tall.

"I wish to walk with you." To her inquiring look, he shrugged and looked sheepish. "I need something to do. My men who died, I saw, and . . . now at night I cannot sleep. In dreams I wake to men's screams, men dying. I cannot sleep in the dark. If this mine has such demons, I will face them with you."

"There will be nothing to face, nothing to fight. Look up, see the moon? Salt flowers do not sprout beneath the moon, even one so thin. I will see nothing, because there will be nothing." She hunched against the chill wind.

"Are you cold? Look, I brought you this." He unfolded the length of cloth in his hands and draped the shawl across her shoulders. "When I came to Peru, I was told your people do not feel the cold because they are closer to animals than men, but this is not true. In Kullaka I see that your people have learning, and heart—and they dress to be warm."

Amaya ran the vicuña shawl's weave through her fingers and examined its beautiful pattern of mountains, llamas, and images of the sun. She knew such wonderful cloth came only from weavers in Qusqu.

"This is Inca weaving, meant for a princess," she protested.

"You save me from demons. If not for you, I die alone on cold mountain. To me, you are a princess," he explained. He produced two long glints of gold. Tupus, pins women used to fasten such a garment. Her pins, made of bone, had been taken from her along with her native clothing. These were much finer, Inca work, with golden heads adorned by pearls and small figures of birds.

Grateful, she drove the sharp points through the weave of the shawl, fastening it securely at her right shoulder. Fernando gazed upon her softly.

"Beautiful," he said.

"We go." A lantern in his lifted hand, the overseer gestured to the mine entrance.

Stone blocks fitted without mortar but lacking the finesse of Inca wall work framed the opening into the mountain. Light from a thin sliver of waning moon filtered down upon the heights and traced shadows. Already the place stank of metal and filth. As Amaya entered the horizontal shaft into the underground, her sandals slipped on patches of ice and slush and Fernando gripped her arm to steady her. Icicles hung from the wooden beams.

The overseer pressed a wax candle, its base wrapped with leather, into her hand. "Hold this."

The tunnel branched, then branched again. What began as a fine vibration shaking motes of dust around her candle soon filled her ears with tapping. With every step, the tapping became louder until it dulled her ears and she could not hear the overseer speak. Bent over, bodies crowded by cold walls, they edged along the shaft. Mitayos toiled in narrow side shafts, breaking silver out of deep veins with hammers or by swinging broad heavy blades against the mountain's walls, prying loose chunks of ore. Dust filled the air and coated Amaya's black dress and the cassock of the priest until they were as gray as the miners.

Walls slashed by the glow from the overseer's swinging lantern curved ahead. Rounding the corner, Amaya saw the man ahead of her illuminated by a ring of faint light—and a single stalk of ghostly inflorescence. From the rough floor of the shaft, the salt flower uncoiled with pale menace, its single pod weaving slowly as the overseer moved past and also through its insubstantial form.

Perhaps the priest detected some chill as he walked through the apparition, because he pulled his garment more snugly about his shoulders.

When Amaya stopped and opened her mouth to speak, the overseer snarled and turned, reaching around the priest to grab her by the arm.

"Don't be lazy!" he snapped, dragging her forward. Her candle fell to the floor and guttered out of reach.

Her arm brushed the flower's shimmering stalk and she felt its icy malevolence even through the Inca shawl. She twisted frantically, looking behind her for Fernando. He rushed to rejoin her and began speaking sharply to the overseer. The salt flower's pod, black orifice open and slender tendrils emerging from between spread petals, turned slowly toward them, seeking the souls behind the men's eyes. They exchanged quick Spanish words with each other, never seeing the danger.

"Go forward!" Amaya pulled at the overseer, still gripping her wrist.

Indistinct cries echoed ahead, terror beneath the words. Two men ran up, miners in filthy rags, babbling of blood and death and pointing to the passage from which they'd come. The overseer ran, pulling Amaya with him.

"Now we will find out!" the overseer said.

"They're here!" she cried, "The flowers! I see them!" She stumbled after the overseer along the passageway. Somewhere behind her were Fernando and the priest.

The shaft opened to a larger space, a cavern. In front of her, but feet away, the floor of the mountain yawned and gave way, descending into darkness. A narrow bridge of planks had been laid across the chasm. Amaya edged away, refusing to step onto the wet, glistening wood.

"Where are the flowers? Where do you see them?" the overseer demanded.

Everywhere.

To her eyes, the cavern rippled with ghost light. Salt flowers blossomed like stars over their heads and trailed down the walls in luminous chains of fetid light, their pods swollen and beckoning. Even the chasm depths were pocked with spirit life. Here inside the mountain the salt flowers bloomed freely, watered by wounded rock and human tears.

Beside one wall of the chamber, two men gasped in the throes of death. Bloated pods on phantom stalks waved over their heads, tendrils snaking into gaping orifices, feasting on tatters of gauzy soul being extracted through blood-filled eyes. Already the sagging mouths had ceased to scream. Several other men huddled and wailed on the floor nearby, where their bosses forced them to remain after beating them for trying to escape.

"Do you see anything?" The overseer shook Amaya, hard, forcing her to look at him.

"Yes! Let these men go, let them run! The flowers are killing them! If they move they cannot be caught and killed."

"Where do you see them?" Fernando pushed the overseer aside. "How many?"

"Everywhere! They are all through the mine." She grabbed him by his arms and pulled him back toward the shaft. "We walked past one, but now they are overhead and . . . and two are attacking the men whose eyes bleed! I was wrong about the moon. There is no day, no night, no sun or moon inside a mountain! You must run, before more spirit flowers can sprout to block your escape. They are slow, but you cannot stand still. They will attack you, too!"

Though he already knew he would see nothing, his eyes flitted about the chamber. Then he nodded sharply and barked something to the overseer. The bosses shouted at the mitayos on the floor to flee and they did, running ahead of them down the passage. Fernando grabbed the overseer by his collar when he tried to follow and snatched the lantern from his hand.

"You are dog piss!" he spat. The man had been about to leave them in the dark.

"We must go!"

"Not without Amaya and the priest."

Amaya ran to the priest, who had gone to pray over the dying men, and tugged at his robe. "Their souls are eaten, Father. You cannot send them to your god, not now. Come with us to save your own."

As salt flowers, drawn by the presence of fresh souls, bubbled, then blossomed from the walls, Fernando drew one of the knives at his hip and handed it to her.

"I trust you. Help me fight demons."

Amaya took the knife. It was small, with a ceremonial blade broader than it was long, but she held true Inca work, heavy and made of gold. He had listened to all she had told him. With a tight smile, Fernando took the other golden knife into his hand and indicated that they were now ready to go.

With the priest holding the lantern and Fernando propelling the overseer in front of them, they began their trek back the way they had come. A dozen salt flowers now bloomed along the shaft, but they could hurry past most, though each time their skin turned white and cold as ice. As they ran, they stumbled over fallen men who, in their panic to escape, had trampled each other and allowed the salt flowers to catch them. While the overseer moved emptied corpses from their path, Amaya and Fernando stabbed and slashed at the flowers.

Any flower their gold knives touched turned black and dispersed . . . but for every two they vanquished, another blossomed.

It took nearly an hour to reach the moonlit mouth of the shaft, the last part of the way brightly lit by torches and lanterns and hot from the press of soldiers newly arrived to restore order.

Released from Fernando's grip, the overseer turned to the soldiers and barked orders. The soldiers began pushing workers back into the mine. As they did so, the priest raised his voice in what sounded like protest.

"No!" Amaya added her voice, but Fernando restrained her. She turned to him. "They cannot go back! Don't let the soldiers do this."

"I have no say. Inside, I had weapon. Here, I have nothing but name. He has authority."

"But—"

"No argue. Come, quickly." Leaving the priest to argue with the overseer, he hustled her away from the soldiers and the mitayos being forced back into the mountain. Finding the man he had charged with holding his horse, he mounted and pulled her up behind him.

Riding as fast as they dared in the dark, they left the mountain and descended into the city.

* * * *

"The owners want you to go back into the mines, but too dangerous. We know now what demons we face. Putting a gold sword in your hand will not rid these mines of infestations. Too many mines and you just one girl."

Fernando had been practicing her language. Though she strove to learn his also, he had improved more quickly. As they often did, they stood with their palms pressed together, allowing her to marvel at how shapely his hands were, and how strong. His fingers were straight and perfect, with skin not as calloused as hers. She felt him as vividly as she felt the sun. Just his touch was enough to heat her blood.

"I make myself useful here," she said. Four days had passed since they had confirmed what lurked in the depths of the mountain. After much argument and to protect her from being preyed upon by powerful mine owners, she was staying in the corregidor's palace again. "I walk the halls at night, protecting sleepers just like at Kullaka, except only for one house."

"This house bigger than your village."

She did not try to put a meaning on his words. As often as not, Fernando stated only fact. At other times, she detected what could be attempts at humor. He was getting better at that, or maybe she was getting better at interpreting him.

"Tonight's party is important," he continued. "People will be unguarded, many will be drunk."

She pulled her hand back from his. "Only stupid people get drunk during jiwa."

"I promise. I will get only a little drunk."

"Good. Then you will end up only a little dead."

"Will that make you sad?" He did not quite conceal the tug of a smile.

"Yes. You have become less annoying. Perhaps I like you a little after all."

Tonight the moon would be dead and she would not be at the party to protect him. Only Spanish would attend. From Fernando she knew they would dress extravagantly and wear masks to conceal their identities from each other. They would do better to wear them to hide from wandering spirits. This night was the eve of All Saints Day, and also the time when departed souls returned to the places where once they had lived. It was unlikely, however, that many of those souls would be Spanish or seek out the party.

When he moved to kiss her, she let him. They kissed often now, and more and more he pressed his body hard against hers, his erection pushing on her belly with an eagerness she welcomed. In Kullaka she would have pulled him down with her onto a blanket in a hollow and found some way to undress him so that she might explore his body. Spanish clothing, with its buckles and hooks, still confused even her nimble fingers.

"I will not stay with the others," he murmured, moving his lips over hers while she pursued them. She shivered when he eluded her and nibbled beside her ear. "When the others dance, I will leave. I will come to you."

"Maybe I will hide. This house is as big as a village."

"And I will find you. I will go into every woman's room to search for you. I will make them all scream—"

She laughed, earning a growl and tug deeper into his arms, where he held her close and pressed his cheek to her hair.

"You will scare the visiting souls and make them vengeful," she warned.

"Meet me here, in this place, and I will do nothing that will scare them."

Darkness had settled over the palace, which was built in the mountain's shadow. Through the violet-tinged dusk Amaya saw the faint eye-glow of Fernando's lambent soul. Like all true men, he was fire and heat. And she was dark, hidden, awaiting discovery. She brushed her lips again over his.

"Come to me," she whispered, "because if you don't, I will need to find you."

* * * *

Hundreds of Potosi's elite descended on the corregidor's house to celebrate the coming holy day. Wearing dresses of cloth that shone like water and jewels that sparked like stars, they strolled among the tall torches that lit the colonnade connecting the house to the ballroom, and wandered among the statues of saints and dead Spanish rulers that served as the residence's garden.

Upstairs, Amaya danced alone across floors lit by candle-glow. Fernando had taught her some of the Spanish dances, showing her how to move with him across glimmering floors in night-shadowed halls. He had taught her for naught. She understood, with the pragmatism of a people twice conquered, first by the Incas and then by the Spanish, that she was part of the fabric of conquest: a brown-skinned, honey-eyed girl of mixed blood and no consequence. Even the Inca princesses had been taken by Spanish men as concubines, accumulated like plunder.

Dutifully, she made her rounds of the corregidor's household. Though she wore a yellow Spanish dress everyone agreed made her look pretty, and had pinned Fernando's gift by golden tupus at her right shoulder, she felt less like a princess than she had standing in front of the mine. She felt like a servant, useful and silent.

Music and laughter drifted from the ballroom and gardens to the second floor, where the apartments of the corregidor's concubines lay cloaked in night. Extending her candle, Amaya looked into each room. In the second nursery, she found Beatriz's oldest child, a five year-old boy, peering out the window.

"Amaya, look!" he cried. Her candle's glow played across straight black hair and young features that proclaimed his descent from Inca emperors.

She looked to where he pointed, toward the city. Walls and roofs obscured the streets, which were filled with people, but a gap near the church provided a view of the canal. A faint luminescence traced ribbons on the water, unnatural and shocking. But something else had drawn the child's eye.

Fire was flowing down the mountain. Pinpoints of torches—hundreds of them, maybe thousands—moved on the mountain roads in trickles of fire that, when they converged, would become a river.

Mitayos.

Even before her arrival, they had been dying in the mines. Every morning Amaya heard the tally from the lips of native women who had followed their husbands to the city, women who slaved in the corregidor's household by cooking meals, weaving clothes, mending sandals. They whispered the names of the dead. But now . . . now the mitayos knew the mountain not just deadly, but cursed, filled with demon flowers that ate men's souls.

Though the miners clamored for protection, only a few mine owners had agreed to let them sleep out in the open or allowed them to build shelters: ramshackle, dirty and cold, perched on the mountain's shoulder like animal pens. There, at least, the mitayos had felt safe. Had been safe . . .

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bytalismania© 24 comments/ 32157 views/ 18 favorites

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