Golden Light

By Anne Gibson


His feet beat rhythmically on the closely fitted stones as he flew down one short slope and up another. The finely crafted retaining walls on either side of the road slid by in a blur, unnoticed by the young man. To his left, the mountain stretched upwards, its gray slopes masked by a sprinkling of green and a layer of mist. To his right, the slope dropped off, giving way far below to lush terraced fields of potatoes and maize, then further down to a fog shrouded gorge, its sides bristling with trees. The young did not give this familiar sight so much as a glance as he raced on, his mind overflowing with thoughts of his mission.

Truthfully, it was no more than routine. He reminded himself of this fact repeatedly, to no avail. The importance of this run kept forcing itself to the front of his thoughts, and he finally decided it was a good thing, as his excitement gave his legs increased speed. He clutched the bag in his right hand more tightly and tried to refocus his attention on his breathing, even as his thoughts kept returning to the start of this journey.

The young man sat quietly, staring into the distance with glazed eyes still seeing the impossibility that he had witnessed less than an hour ago. The soft sound of sandals on hard packed dirt caught his attention and he stood to meet the men walking towards him. The Royal Astronomer, clad in his tunic of finely spun llamaís wool and wearing his traditional shawl of office, stopped just before him, flanked by two of his apprentices. The young man dropped to one knee and lowered his head without conscious thought, anticipating his orders. The Astronomer took a bundle of multihued twine from one of his apprentices and held it up before the young man, who raised his head to view it. He spent much of his idle time between runs learning to read and construct quipus from any apprentice he could find willing to help him, and all were impressed by the speed at which he grasped the complex task. He now tried desperately to make out any of the rope held before his face, knowing it would be one of the most important things he ever beheld in his life. The piece was complex, however, and he realized he would be able to make nothing out without touching it.

"This, as you no doubt realize, my son, contains all the information we could ascertain regarding the great event that just took place. It must be passed on to the Astronomers at the Coricancha with all haste. They will inform the Inca of all we have learned." The Royal Astronomer spoke with forced conviction and an inward gaze, as though he were not trying to convince just the young runner before him. "The correct thing will be done," he added with a nod and a slight furrow of his brow.

"ButÖ What needs to be done, sir?" the man asked, giving no attempt to mask his worry.

The Astronomer sighed, his entire body seeming to sink in on itself. "I honestly do not know. We have never seen such a thing as this before. My job is to observe, record, and calculate. The Inca will have to decide how to proceed this time."

The young man rose, taking the knotted rope from the Astronomer and placing the brightly colored coils into the bag he removed from his waist. He drew the drawstring closed and wrapped it around his wrist, gripping the neck of the bag tightly in his right hand. He turned to go, but hesitated and whirled around, a distraught look in his eyes.

"Sir, I must ask, what happened? What would cause Viracocha to lose his light in the middle of the day? I could see Chasca, andó"

The Astronomer held up a hand. "I know, my son. But we do not understand yet. We must confer amongst ourselves to determine what this message means."

The thought of this message had been hounding the young manís mind since he had left the outer wall of Machu Picchu in a thunder of feet and cloud of dust. Was it truly a message from Viracocha? And if it was, what could that message possibly be? Why would he choose to darken himself in the middle of the day, so much so that the stars and black clouds became visible? And what was the strange purple light that emanated from around him? The runner could find no suitable answer.

As he turned a sharp corner on a set of switchbacks, his arm scraping against the hard twig of a mountain shrub, a thought occurred to him. The words of Viracocha that he had heard so many times since he was a child, that the great Sun had spoken to his children, filled the manís mind. "Teach the people to be kind and good. I will provide warmth and light." The thought so surprised him that the runner stumbled and threw out a hand to catch himself against the wall of tightly fit, asymmetrically shaped stones the bordered one side of the road. If Viracocha withheld his warmth and light, would that not mean that he did not believe the people were being good and kind? Maybe this was a warning, that if the people did not improve their behavior, the Sun would hold back his light forever. The man shook his head vigorously as he ran, as though trying to shake the very thought from his head. It was not his place to decide the meaning of this sign.

The first of the terraced farms began to fly past on either side as the runner continued his descent. The leafy tops of potatoes poked up through the thin soil and llama manure, approaching the harvest time. A llama looked up unselfconsciously from where he grazed lazily on a fallow field. With winter coming, we have all the more reason to fear the anger of Viracocha. Soon he will come to the midpoint of his travels across the sky and we will celebrate Pacha-puchy before he continues on his journey north. A farmer looked up from where he worked the soil of a tuber field with an old and battered hoe. He raised a hand to the young man even as he raced around a bend and out of sight. But what if he decides not to return?

But this is foolish, the runner thought as he sped over a small stone bridge, under which flowed a stream, shining like crystal. Viracocha is the father of our people, and he put his own children here to teach us and care for us. He threatened us, but it is only as a parent threatens his child; he means to scare him into obedience, though he would never truly hurt him. For a moment, the manís mind was relaxed, but doubts floated back to the surface. Or would he? The Sun sometimes caused draughts and sometimes famine, became scorching hot, or held back his heat in winter to make the land like ice.

And perhaps it was not the people who had misbehaved at all. Perhaps it was Viracochaís direct descendants who had angered him. Did the Inca give enough to his father, did he celebrate the festivals appropriately? The runner quickly shook his head, and forced such thoughts from his mind. He had no right to question his emperor. He again attempted to refocus his attention on his breathing and quickened his pace, to refuse himself the luxury of thought. Before he knew it the station came into view before him, rising up before the small village that covered the top of a gentle slope.

He gathered a breath. "Message for the Inca, from the Head Astronomer of Machu Picchu!" Another man emerged from the station building, a small stone structure in which the runners rested and waited for messages. The young man held out the bag and thrust it into the waiting hand of the other runner, who immediately burst off, down the road toward the great city. The young man came to a jerking halt, and bent over, hands on his knees, drawing in deep breaths as sweat dripped from his face. May the Inca deliver us from this trial, he prayed, watching his counterpart race down the mountain.

That night the young man tossed fitfully on his bed. He slept only brief moments at a time, and when he did, stories from his childhood came floating up from the depths of his memories.

* * *

The runner floated above the world, and the vast expanse of it stretched below him, green and vibrant. He realized he was drifting through the air and found himself above the familiar landscape of the Andes, though he had certainly never seen it this way before. As he drew closer, the young man could see the plants and animals of the earth. He soon began to see people as well, but they were not his people. They wore no clothing save for tattered skins, they were dirty and skinny, and they had no shelter save for caves. The young man felt a twinge of pity for them. Just then, he saw a brilliant figure, like that of a man only gigantic, clothed in fantastic garments and glowing, radiating with a warming light, arise from the east and bend down over the land of the Andes, stretching forth his hands toward the Lake Titicaca. Itís clear waters rippled at the approach of his hands and sparkled with the reflection of his glow.

Then the figure pulled back its hands and stepped over the mountains into the ocean, fading as he went. The young man watched as the clouds caught the last few rays of his light in the west. The runner looked back to the lake, and there, on the banks, stood a man and a woman, garbed in finery and jewelry. A few of the miserable humans crouched in the bushes near the water, huddled together, awed by what they had seen and the presence now before them. The young man heard the man and woman, the brother and sister, the son and daughter of the sun, Pachacamac, Viracocha, call to the people and gesture them forward. The men and women, encouraged by the kind faces of their new teachers, hesitatingly at first, ventured forth from the shrubs to learn the ways of civilization.

The young man found himself in a field, pulling potatoes from the dark earth and throwing them into the basket strapped to his back. He paused for a moment to stretch out the kink in his back, and as he stood he saw the Inca and his sister-wife approaching. He fell to one knee and called out the greeting of the time. The Inca lifted a hand in acknowledgement and he and his wife smiled at the man. He felt joy spread through his body at their happiness.

"This seems a nice valley, my friend. Tell me, how is it called?" The man noticed that in his hand the Inca carried a golden rod. He had heard that wherever the Inca and his wife stopped, they planted a rod into the ground, and there the people were to build a city. Perhaps they would stop here, and a city would be made at this very spot, the manís home!

"We call it Huanacauri, my lord," he said, voice warm with pride. "It is a wonderful valley, as my lord said. It is full of water and it produces bountifully."

"Then this shall be an excellent place to stop." The Inca raised the golden rod above his head and plunged it into the soft earth. The Inca removed his hands, but still the rod sunk into the ground until it disappeared!

"This must be a sign from our father, Pachacamac!" the Incaís sister said, placing a hand on her brotherís shoulder.

"Yes, he must want this to be the city above all cities, the capital of our nation. We must gather together the people and bring them to this place. And over this spot we will build temple to our father, to honor his strength and benevolence. Young man, tell me, where do the people live in this area, that we may go and gather them together?"

The man clutched the club at his waist tightly, fighting off the impulse to attack. The plates of his hardened hide armor rattled as he shifted tensely, his eyes darting from enemy to enemy beneath the rim of his helmet. A pair of the pale skinned servants came forward and took led off the llamas by their harnesses, and their heavy loads of gold with them. He eyed the strange foreigners with their metal armor and odd weapons, which were now lowered at the man and his comrades. They spoke to each other now and again, but the man could not understand their language.

He flicked his gaze across the open area of the camp, surrounded by the strange tents of these treacherous invaders, to where the Inca was held by several men. Their leader, whose strange name would not stay in the memory of the man, stood nearby, grinning arrogantly. The young manís warrior pride flared again and he had to look away in order to put his anger in check.

The llamas were led to the area between the two groups, and the servants began to unload them. They grouped the baskets in groups of five, their contents gleaming brilliantly with life and power. One of the baskets was carried before the leader. He flipped back his crimson cape, revealing his intricately decorated armor beneath. He smoothed the hair on his face before reaching down to pick up a piece of the gold, his arrogant smile persisting all the while.

He looked closely at the piece he had picked up, tossed it several times in his hand and then bit lightly on an edge. He nodded, dropping the piece back into the basket and motioned for the payment to be taken away. The pale skinned leader began to turn, as though getting ready to leave.

"Wait!" cried the young manís commander, taking a step forward. "Weíve given you what you asked for. Give us back our leader!" A moment passed as the foreignerís translator quickly whispered in his ear. He laughed, a revolting sound.

"I had almost forgotten," his words came through the mouth of the translator. "Here you are." He nodded and the two men holding the Inca stepped closer to him. The rest seemed to happen with excruciating slowness. One of the foreign warriors put his hands around the Incaís throat, and painful realization dawned in the young man. He heard his commander cry out and lunge forward and he did the same, drawing his club and rushing at the enemy soldiers. Several loud cracks filled the air and the young man had a second to wonder what they were before pain shot through his body like lightening. He suddenly found himself on the ground, and through a red haze, the last thing he saw was his emperorís body as it crumpled to the ground.

* * *

The runner sat up with a gasp. He sat for a moment in the dimness of the small hut he shared with the other runners at his post. He then shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, before rising quickly and slipping out past the sleeping bodies around him.

What a strange dream, he thought as he gazed around in the pre-dawn light, then headed towards a hill that rose up behind the house. At least I can understand the first two: when Viracocha sent his children to teach us, and when they founded the great city of Cuzco. But what was that last dream? He shook his head. He walked swiftly up the path to the top of the hill, then agilely climbed to the top of a wall there, settling himself on the flat top with an excellent view to the east.

He waited there, telling himself he had no reason to be nervous, nothing to fear, but he found himself getting more and more tense with each moment that passed. But the sky in the east grew brighter and for an instant, Chasca was visible there, heralding the coming of his master. Then the sun, the great giver of life and warmth, Viracocha, peaked over the edge of the mountains and his first faint rays struck the young man, warming him. He gave a quick prayer of thanks and hopped down from the wall, heading back to where his companions were beginning to rouse, to prepare for the great festival the Inca had proscribed to show proper respect to his father, the sun.