Moon Blood and Salt Flowersbytalismania©
This story is set during the first decades following the Spanish conquest of the Incas. Part of the story takes place during All Saints Day, which in South America is the time many of us call Halloween.
Special thanks to nomoretears00 for beta reading and offering valuable insights.
* * * * * * * * * *
1576, Viceroyalty of Peru
The llamas stood in a half circle, their hums ruckling across the morning silence. Amaya had been walking the hills in search of the herd sire and his harem since the first thin light of dawn. Morning now painted the high plain with long pink fingers while serrated mountains marched in the distance, snowy crowns aglow.
When she drew near, she saw why the llamas hummed. A party of Spanish soldiers had camped for the night in a hollow where late winter rivulets pooled. Between dark boulders that glittered with threads of ice, the soldiers had sought relief from cold winds. Their puna grass fire had died and the men, most still wrapped in blankets, sprawled and twitched upon the stony ground in the last throes of dying. Trickles of blood ran from staring eyes, swords and harquebuses unused near their hands. Weapons would not have helped them.
Their enemy, luminous ghostly stalks sprouted from the hard earth, had come upon them while they slept and now overarched the prostrate men. Mottled pods, swollen like melons, wove above two of the unfortunates and were in the midst of feeding, tendrils drawing the souls from their mouths and eyes in soft, gauzy tatters. The souls looked like alpaca fleece being pulled apart for spinning. Tiny spangles of light, bright as stars, flashed on that fabric as the bloated flowers drew it into black throats surrounded by translucent white petals.
Moved by instinct that overrode the headman's warnings about how the Viceroy's soldiers brought only trouble to their village, Amaya ran to the soldier nearest her and kicked him.
"Wake up!" she shouted. If he woke up, he might escape, because salt flowers moved very slowly and never far from where they sprouted.
The soldier did not wake, nor did the one next to him. They lay inert, blood running from their eyes and speckling their open lips. She had arrived too late. The salt flowers had been among them for too long.
Saddened, she moved to the edge of the camp to wait out the last minutes of sunrise. Sunlight drove malevolent spirits back underground. Already the stalks were thin and pale, fading. Salt flowers only bloomed at night and only during jiwa, the three days of the dead moon, when all living things stopped growing. On such nights spirits of the underworld wandered and held sway. The soldiers should have known better than to be out in the open, where they risked running into something ugly. Maybe they did not know because they were Spanish and were not afraid of losing their souls.
A priest of the conquerors came infrequently to Kullaka, where he insisted on performing marriages even for couples already married, and marking the children with holy water to make them invisible to evil things. He gave crosses and new names to all the villagers, but they used them only when he came to visit.
More chatter from the llamas intruded on her thoughts. Amaya knew them too well to think it meant nothing. The herd had wandered only a short distance and she found them standing beside another shining pool from which, later perhaps when the sun was strong and had melted the ice, they might drink. The white-coated male, ears pricked and nostrils snuffling, stretched his neck above a figure on the ground.
Another soldier, only this one was clearly alive. He flailed his arms at the curious llama and clumsily propelled himself along the ground with one leg, the other dragging.
Amaya chided and drove off the herd, then squatted beside the man. Her bulky winter skirt puddled around her feet and an edge of her warm mantle brushed his cheek. Eyes the color of spring grass stared up at her from a frightened, scantily bearded face.
"You are spirit?" he asked. His voice distorted the words in the way of the Spanish, but he spoke her language. "The demons . . . not attack you?"
"I can see them," she said. "They are gone now. The sun makes them go away."
The young soldier flinched when she reached for him, but he could not escape her touch. With hands accustomed to tending llamas, she assessed his infirmity. He had a strong body with broad shoulders and long, well-muscled legs. The left leg bore a stained, dirty wrapping indicating a wound. He had been hurt before the salt flowers had beset the camp. Perhaps he was even the reason the soldiers had stopped for the night. Gold buttons and colored ribbons adorned his fitted doublet.
"I will go to my village, get men to help you," she said. He was too big for her or her llamas to carry. Only rarely could a llama bear an adult, even of her small people, on its back.
"No, please." Desperation tinged his plea, but also a hint of command.
"You cannot walk, and I cannot carry you."
"The demons kill horses?"
Horses. She had not seen any, but neither had she thought to look. The village had no horses, but the Spanish almost always did. If she found a horse, it could carry a man easily.
Before the sun had cleared the mountain, she located four of the Spanish beasts on the next hill, their halter leads trailing as they grazed on a patch of thin yellow grass. After taking hold of all four, she returned to fetch the soldier.
* * * *
The village headman was angry at Amaya for bringing a Spaniard among them. He called her young and foolish. The Viceroy's soldiers only ever came to their village to collect the mita, the labor tribute the Spanish demanded of the native towns. Earlier that year, soldiers had commandeered twenty able-bodied villagers to work the mines at the Spaniards' wealthy city built at the foot of a mountain of silver. Kullaka's herds and fields would suffer if the village lost more men. Worse, the elders feared the Spaniards would blame them for the deaths of the soldiers.
They discussed these matters as they sat in a circle near the hut where the village's hidden mummies resided.
"They will think we killed the men in their sleep, and stole from them," the headman said.
The villagers had gone to the Spanish camp. To prevent wandering spirits, they had buried the dead soldiers beneath a layer of thin soil and soothed the ghosts with libations, after which they had—very practically—salvaged the blankets and weapons and rounded up the remaining horses.
Another man disagreed. "The soldier survived. He knows the truth. If we tend him, he will tell the corregidor we saved him."
After several hours spent talking and imbibing large quantities of fermented corn juice, they agreed to send word of the soldier to the Spanish priest, Padre Ignacio, in San Lazaro.
Amaya went to tell the soldier this. During the long walk it had taken them to reach the village, he had told her his name was Fernando and that he was from Lima, the Spaniard's capital near the sea. Though he spoke like a child, she thought he might be intelligent.
She found him wrapped in a warm llama wool blanket and seated by the fire in the headman's house. The cup in his hands held tea made from coca leaves, given both to dull his pain and because the headman's wife believed it would render him less dangerous. A fever burned under his skin and his rumpled clothing had begun to sour from sweat, but he would not change into clean garments of the kind the village had to offer. The anxiety in his expression lifted when Amaya approached and sat on the floor facing him.
"What they say?"
"That they will send someone to the priest at San Lazaro, and tell him you are here."
Fernando looked pleased by that.
She peered at his injured leg. The headman's wife was skilled in healing and had tended his wound with black potato powder and a new dressing. No blood stains marred the cotton covering the moon-pale skin exposed by cut-off breeches.
"Is it better?" she asked. "Less pain," he said. But his gaze stayed on her face, moving over her face, her lips.
"You were fighting?"
"These hills, many rebels. One got me with knife."
Remembering the headman's fears, that her village might be linked to the rebels and its inhabitants enslaved as punishment for attacks on soldiers, she fell into silence.
"This house, is safe?" he asked. "Safe from night demons?"
"Yes." Salt flowers shriveled from contact with gold, the metal of the sun. Beneath the mud floor of this house—and two others in the village—was another floor of thin gold bricks. But she could not tell him that. The Spanish had stripped Inca palaces, leaving them unprotected.
"What of you?" Fernando asked. "How you see demons?"
Amaya debated whether to answer. Though her origin was not secret, it branded her as different.
"A Spaniard forced himself on my mother when she was menstruating. I am born of moon blood." When he looked puzzled at her words, she realized he did not fully grasp her magical conception. "A woman should not couple then. Blood opens the doors to spirits and shadows."
"Ah," he said, and cocked his head with a small smile. "A spirit girl."
A waxcha, she would have told him if she'd thought he might understand. A mixture of semen and blood, not a true child. But that was not why she saw salt flowers.
"What you see kill my soldiers? I no sleep with pain, I hear scream, see nothing. The chieftain, the kuraka," he properly used the word, "told me flowers." Disbelief shadowed his eyes and tugged at the corners of his mouth.
"Spirit flowers, salt flowers. They come when the moon is dead. Evil spirits escape the salt lakes to steal the souls of the living."
"Chojja?" He named the lake nearest to the village.
She nodded. "The one with water the color of your eyes."
He smiled. Her cheeks burned at her own impudence. She did not usually get silly because of men. Rising, and giving a quick knee bend like she would make to the priest, she left before he could ask more questions. Her heart protested against telling him her other curse, that salt flowers had sprouted in the unprotected hovel where she nursed as a baby at her sleeping mother's breast. Her mother had died, as adults always did, but she had survived, a child without a soul.
Her name, Amaya, meant "corpse."
* * * *
Salt flowers sprouted on moonless nights, when they rose from the earth and swayed above the surface. Just as water flowed above ground to form lakes, springs and rivers, so it also flowed beneath. Subterranean, heated by angry gods, supernatural effluvia nourished malevolent forces.
The high hills and grasslands on which Amaya's people lived were surrounded. Mountains and volcanoes harbored deities men feared to displease, lest they send plagues of lightning or cease to water the pastures. North, west and south of her village stood vast lakes too salty to drink, home only to flamingoes and frogs.
The year she reached puberty, Amaya had gone with the headman to Qa'pi Panti, a lake with waters the color of blood, and to Chojja, with waters so blue-green it glowed like liquid turquoise. He had thought if she would drink from both, the evil spirits might return her soul.
She had gotten very sick, but on the next moonless night following her recovery she still saw the salt flowers.
Only people without a soul could see them.
* * * *
Seven days passed before the priest came. Fernando's fever decreased and soon he could walk as far as the lowland pasture at the base of the village, and often he joined Amaya there. She laughed when he would use wrong words, and teased him for not wearing a warm poncho or fine lluchu, which at least would have covered his ears. Instead, he proudly shivered in his fancy Spanish jacket until his ears glowed red from cold.
One day he saw a young man using a bronze disk to reflect sunlight onto a girl in the fields, and smiled when she told him it was a way of showing interest.
The next day a bright light danced across her mantle and cheeks and Amaya swatted at it until she looked across the corral to see Fernando with a bronze disk in his hand. Beside him on the dirt wall, laughing, sat the boy who had showed him how to use it. The boy ran off before she could reach them but Fernando stayed where he was.
Amaya liked the way he watched her, the way his lips were always ready to smile and his eyes warmed with welcome, so unlike the guarded expressions of the village's men. Even his body moved in ways that drew her gaze to admire his strong shoulders, long legs and slim waist. She wondered to herself if Fernando's penis would be as handsome as the rest of him.
"Now they think you like me," she told him this time.
"I do like you. You are pretty. Interesting. Smart. Do you like me?"
"I think you are annoying."
He squinted toward the huts of the village, where men gathered outside, sometimes looking their way. "Why the men not stop me from talking to you?"
He had noticed they kept the other girls away from him. Amaya looked at the ground and swallowed the lump of embarrassment in her throat. "They know I am not like the other girls and they think you are not smart enough to see that I have no value."
"Value for me. You saved my life."
"I did not say I was not useful."
For a time he was silent. Spaniards did not always understand what her people said, even when they understood the words.
"They find you useful. You protect them," he said.
"I see things they cannot."
"So do I."
He looked at her without smiling, but the piercing directness of his gaze, the knowing tension of his lips, made her flush with understanding. She liked him in the same way.
"I think you are beautiful, natural. Except you see demon flowers," he said.
"The moon blood's gift. I am not a true child, so I survived losing my soul to a salt flower. Now in the dark I can see evil spirits—and souls."
"You see souls outside bodies?"
"If they are dead. Dead souls visit their families during the jiwa and I can talk to them then, but most of the souls are living, so they stay behind their owners' eyes." The tilt of his head compelled Amaya to continue, so she did. "Souls shine behind the eyes and I can see them. I can tell who has a bright soul or one that is taken over by an evil spirit."
His doubt looked back at her. The Spanish priest had told her human souls were invisible except to the Christian god, who took them to live with him when they died. He had also told her not to believe in salt flowers, though of course she still did. Fernando believed in them, too, although the pure, strong soul shining behind his eyes prevented him from seeing them.
He will go away, she reminded herself. He will go back to Lima and his Spanish women. He will tell them about the half-breed girl who helped him until he could find his way back to civilized men.
"Your eyes shine, too," he said. He struggled to find the right words. "Shine like your hair shines in the sun. They shine like gold and water, like honey."
The llamas bleated, reminding her that her chores for the day were not yet finished. Departing from Fernando with a smile, she went more lightly to her work.
But that night after the village had provided a feast of quinoa and boiled ch'arki and the men sat around the fire, playing music while the women danced, Fernando joined them. As kenas and panpipes trilled in song, he kept beat on the drum with reasonable competence and followed Amaya with his eyes as she danced with the women, skirts swinging and legs moving to his rhythm.
* * * *
As the headman had feared, Padre Ignacio did not come alone. The short, balding priest rode into town at the head of dozens of soldiers. At his side rode a man with a red-gold beard who wore the shining armor of a conquistador and announced himself as Diego Garces, Corregidor of La Plata. When the villagers had all gathered and knelt on the hard ground, the corregidor demanded return of the horses and weapons taken from the soldiers and to know where the bodies were buried. Silently, the village yielded all he asked.
The Spaniards dug up the dead soldiers, saying they had not been given a Christian burial. The dry cold of the high plains had preserved the corpses very well and the bodies were examined for evidence of having been killed by men. When none was found, the corregidor wanted answers.
Amaya trembled, growing more afraid as Fernando spoke and the corregidor's questions grew quieter, and slower, his gaze increasingly fixed upon her. The priest, too, looked agitated, and his stubby fingers stroked the large gold cross he wore upon his breast. The corregidor did not speak her people's language at all; Fernando only somewhat. The priest, however, spoke it perfectly and when her turn came, it was that man who addressed her.
"Tell us, Clara," he said, using the name he had given her, "is it true what Don Fernando says, that you saw the demons that killed these men?"
"Only because I have no soul, Father," she whispered. He knew this already from his many visits to the village.
The priest frowned. "All God's children have souls. This village is superstitious and believes nonsense and so, therefore, do you. I have been telling all of you for years that you very clearly have a soul, yet you persist in believing you do not."
The corregidor interrupted in his deep voice. The priest answered, then asked the headman and other villagers about Amaya. She blushed as they described the circumstances of her conception and birth, how her soul had been stolen, how her mother had died and the headman had raised her. How she protected the village during jiwa by staying awake and rousing sleepers from danger, because salt flowers could enter the world through any form of earth, including floors and the stone walls of houses. They did not mention the floors of gold.
The priest related their words to the corregidor, whose gaze on Amaya sharpened. The words he spoke next were clipped and sure. Soldiers ran to do his bidding. Fernando shot her a worried look.
The priest sighed and nodded. He bowed his bare head above the cross he clasped, then looked up with sad eyes. "That you see demons is worrisome and your soul certainly is in peril. The corregidor has ordered that you be brought to Potosi, where he may get better answers from you. The priests there can determine how best to tend your soul."
"I have done nothing wrong!"
Father Ignacio's dark eyes delved deep into hers. "Have you followed the example of Our Lord's Mother and preserved yourself for God?"
"Yes, Father." Blood rose to her cheeks. Most girls her age had already coupled with one or more of their admirers; most had husbands and babies. She was untouched at nineteen years only because no man of her village wanted to risk his penis in her female parts.
"Submit to examination, child, and no fault will be found with you."
She wanted to say goodbye to her llamas, and the headman and his wife, who had raised her as their own, but she was given no time. Soldiers took her by the arms and hustled her to where the corregidor and Padre Ignacio had already mounted their steeds.
The horses stamped like demons spawned by thunderstorms. Their nostrils flared as the soldiers mounted unafraid, perhaps knowing that astride such beasts they resembled gods. Fernando sat atop a tall brown horse, his green eyes bright with happiness at being among Spaniards again. Though she prayed they would not put her on one of the creatures, a soldier grabbed her around the waist and swung her up to the corregidor. The bearded man's strong arm clamped under her ribs and he set her on the saddle in front of him.