Conquest of the Desert

The day came when the eternal god Kooch grew displeased with the fierce people. And so across His sea of tears, He sent a great scourge to sweep them away . . .
Cayupil woke to sticky wetness.
He touched his forehead, and his hand came away smeared with blood. A heavy smoke burdened the air, and for a precious moment Cayupil did not know where he was.
Then he remembered the dawn attack on his village, the Argentine soldiers gunning down every Tehuelche man, woman, and child. The fierce people fought back, but their bolas proved useless against the greater range of the soldiers’ artillery and deadly new type of rifles. Cayupil’s last memory was rushing into his tent for his bow, one of the few in the village, when a cannonball collapsed the tent.
Cayupil pulled himself from the ruined tent and stood, sucking in a sharp breath from the pain of a twisted ankle and coughing out ashes.
Bodies lay in every direction, left to rot on the arid Patagonian plain. The soldiers had taken the clan’s horses. For a long time nothing moved in the smoldering wreckage. Then Chono the dog burst through the smoke, bounding to Cayupil in joy to see one of his masters.
With Chono trailing him, Cayupil limped through the ruined village. Sifting debris, he found those he most wished not to find. His parents, bodies lying in a shared pool of blood. The shaman Inacalpul, who had taught Cayupil so much but left much more untaught. And Nahuel, who was to be his bride. Cayupil held her body tightly. He had thought to feel her against him all the rest of his days; instead, this would be the final time, and he could find no comfort in her cold embrace.
Inacalpul’s death left Cayupil the village shaman, if only for a day, with but one duty to perform.
Cayupil scattered dry grasses across the empty circle between the tents and arranged the village firewood. Through the morning he carried into the circle the bodies of everyone he ever knew. As best he could, he piled stones to support them in a sitting position facing east. Wearing the death mask he retrieved from Inacalpul’s tent, Cayupil set the grass afire, to scorch his people’s skins and release their spirits. He doubted he could summon the energy to sing for the village, but soon fell into a deep trance and heard the death song surge from him powerfully, the spirits swinging and jerking his body to the rhythm. And thus he knew that Inacalpul’s wayuwen had transferred to him, making Cayupil a true shaman.
Cayupil had watched Inacalpul perform the death song in the past, had seen the smoke encircle and enter him, as Inacalpul’s wayuwen prepared the departed for the spirit land. But that had been for a single soul, not an entire village.
While Cayupil sang and danced, the smoke from the fire spun about him in an ever-tightening spiral like a cyclone. Then at some ineffable signal, it flowed into him, through his nostrils and open mouth. Cayupil inhaled and kept inhaling, until he thought his chest would burst. He feared, or perhaps hoped, the torrent of smoke would kill him, but somehow he drew it all inside himself without missing a step in his dance.
He could feel his new wayuwen touch each of the spirits entering him, comforting and guiding. His wayuwen communed with each spirit individually, one by one, and yet also all at once.
From all the spirits, Cayupil received cherished memories and images. In a timeless moment, he lost his virginity over and over, he bore a hundred children, he felt the thrill of the hunt, and sharp fresh rage at an implacable, senseless enemy that could not be driven off.
Amid the mad rush of thoughts and feelings, individual memories surfaced, memories he had never known, yet which felt familiar.
. . . His mother’s finger being bitten off—she always told him she lost it in a cooking accident—as she defended the infant Cayupil from a puma with her bare hands.
. . . Inacalpul on a solitary pilgrimage into the mountains, blessing the gods for sending him the son he had long wished for, but never received of his own flesh.
. . . Cayupil’s father, who never expressed to him anything but pride in Cayupil’s choices, cursing the same gods for taking away his son, sending him to the shaman, when he would have been a great hunter.
. . . Nahuel fiercely staring down her parents, assuring them she would drown herself in a mountain lake if they should accept a marriage gift for her from any but the man she most wanted. . . .
Spinning dizzily in his dance, Cayupil flung tears at the sky, tears of bitterness but also joy.
As the death song finally faded, Cayupil sat and gazed into the fire for what felt like hours. But when he emerged from his trance, the sun had crossed only a hand’s breadth of the sky.
He tilted his head back and released a breath that seemed to go on forever, relieving the pressure pushing at him from the inside. The air leaving him was clean and pure, free of smoke or ash. Cayupil silently wished his friends and family a safe journey to the spirit land, where the sea and sky meet. But he also sensed that some part of all his people would remain here, inside of him.
Cayupil recalled Inacalpul’s proverb that a shaman is not of the village, he is the village. He had never understood that before. He had known only that Inacalpul possessed magical powers, and for years Cayupil had longed for such powers.
But now that he had them, he could think of only one spell he cared to cast. He would need a guanaco.
Even before the eternal god Kooch brought first-men and dogs to this land from the spirit world, guanacos had grazed these plains; horses came much later, with the Europeans.
Without a horse, Cayupil feared it would take him days to find a guanaco. A rhea would do as well, but the great flightless birds were difficult to catch.
Setting off in a random direction, however, he soon came upon a grazing guanaco herd. He wondered if the remnants of the villagers’ spirits had somehow guided him.
Cayupil commanded Chono, a skilled hunting dog, to separate a guanaco from the herd and steer it into range. Cayupil swung his bolas. The two metal balls, a gift from the evil dwarf Tachwüll, blurred into a circle over his head.
Cayupil was out of practice with the bolas, yet with a crisp snap of his wrist they whistled through the air and snared the animal’s legs. Cayupil leapt forward and quickly cut its throat. From the back of his mind, he thought he could feel his father’s proud approval.
Cayupil hacked away some cinnamon fur to expose Chono’s reward meal, then claimed his goal: the guanaco’s windpipe.
The guanaco’s long and slender neck was ideal for the spell of finding. With the beast’s blood warming his hands, Cayupil sang into the windpipe the song to locate any of the fierce people nearby. Turning a full circle, he felt only one slight vibration, when the windpipe pointed at the northern mountains. Cayupil would not have felt such a faint tremor, had any of his clan been near. Now he knew for certain everyone else was gone. He could not even detect anything from the neighboring villages.
How far had the Argentines carried their attack? Cayupil realized with shock that the Spanish descendants meant to eradicate all the people who preceded them here.
Cayupil sat motionless for a long time, despondent and defeated. He wondered if he would ever have the strength to move again, until he distantly felt Chono lick his face. To the Tehuelche, dogs belong to a clan, not to one person, a gift from the eternal god Kooch to all His people. But Chono had always shown a particular attachment to Cayupil. As the only member of the clan left, Cayupil supposed Chono was now his dog. They were their own clan now, a village of two, and Cayupil would have to keep moving forward for his new village, if not for himself.
With nowhere else to go, Cayupil followed the spell’s one faint tremor toward the mountains. Ignoring his ankle’s protests, he walked with Chono the rest of the day and into the night. A gentle breeze urged them along, Cayupil blowing often in the windpipe for guidance. Together they ascended from the dry terraced plains, until beech trees clustered about them.
The windpipe led them off the mountain pass the Tehuelche usually follow, onto a treacherously narrow path overlooking the plains. Finally, Cayupil spotted a flame. Approaching softly, he saw a cave, decorated with elaborate paintings, and before it a cookfire under a brass pot, tended by a dwarf, man-shaped yet hairy as a beast. Cayupil had never seen him before, had never known whether to believe in his existence, but recognized him at once in the firelight: the last of the first-men, Tachwüll.
Cayupil pulled his bolas from his belt and flung them at the dwarf, using Tachwüll’s own gift against him. Cayupil sprang past the fire as the metal balls wrapped around the first-man’s legs. Pinning Tachwüll’s chest to the ground, he quickly untied the leather strap from the grooves of the bolas and used it to bind Tachwüll’s hands, immobilizing the claws that legend said carved those very grooves.
Turning the dwarf onto his back, Cayupil held a knife to his neck. “If I cut your throat, Tachwüll, will you die?”
Tachwüll flashed an uncannily wide grin. “Worth a try,” he said in a raspy voice. “I’ve lived so long I begin to doubt whether I can die.”
Chono barked at the mouth of the cave, and Cayupil glanced up to see movement from a bush beside it.
Show yourself,” he called, “or I shall cut him open.”
A woman emerged from the shadows. She was a giantess—a head taller than any person Cayupil had ever seen, and the Tehuelche are known for their height—and beautiful, her magnificent form covered only by a guanaco pelt tied at her waist. As she stepped into the light, Cayupil glimpsed the shell encasing her back.
Elemgasem,” he whispered, and she nodded. He had heard fierce people of the northern villages speak of this creature, but Inaculpul had assured him they were only stories.
Why do you bear me such ill will,” wheezed Tachwüll, “that you should humiliate me before my beloved?”
Cayupil pressed his blade deeper into the first-man’s beard. “My teacher Inaculpul taught me you were evil, and I wondered how that could be when you gave my people our bolas, so much easier to use from horseback than a bow.”
Tachwüll started to laugh. “Every gift is also a curse.”
So I learned this morning, when my village was attacked.” Was it really only that morning? Cayupil felt he had been alone for ages. “My great-grandfathers would have defended themselves with bows, but we were as helpless children.”
Elemgasem stepped forward and sat, staring into the fire. “You believe he planned the destruction of the Tehuelche,” she said blankly.
Cayupil held his gaze on Tachwüll. “Did you?” Inacalpul had told him the first-men had never learned to lie.
Can I plan what I have already seen?” Tachwüll said. “What has happened, what is happening, what will happen, they are as one to me. I have long seen the destruction of the Tehuelche.”
Cayupil shook his head in bewilderment. “Why did they do it?”
Tachwüll looked into the flames. “A man named General Roca coordinates the campaign. He intends to wipe out the ‘Indians,’ as they call us.”
We have done nothing to him.”
Tachwüll shook his head. “The Mapuche have attacked Argentine towns. But mostly, the Argentines covet the land.”
And the people of Argentina, they approve of this?”
Tachwüll smiled wryly. “Soon they will make General Roca their president. They will celebrate his victory, at least for a time. One day they will call it the ‘Conquest of the Desert.’”
How do you know that?”
Tachwüll answered softly, “I see all that lies ahead.”
And what lies ahead now for me, for all my people?” asked Cayupil, though he already knew the answer.
You, Cayupil,” the first-man said, though Cayupil had not told his name. “Your future is short. And after you, the future of the Tehuelche is a vast, empty desert. Some natives to this land will survive this campaign, but not the fierce people. This pleases me.”
Why?” Cayupil whispered.
Elemgasem and I have lived a long time,” Tachwüll said. “I knew the very first shaman of your people. It enraged him when my wife chose me over him, so he did that.” Elemgasem stood and turned for Cayupil to see her back and legs, completely encased in a shell like a giant armadillo. “The shell denies me,” Tachwüll continued, “and I have not lain with my wife for many centuries, long years for my hatred to grow.”
Some of the strange memories he had received during the death song returned to Cayupil. And his own memories, of Nahuel, her soft skin, her bright smile. A lonely tear slid down his cheek. “I have never lain with a woman,” he said, “nor will I.”
Tachwüll closed his eyes, as if watching something inside the lids. “So I see. Should I weep for you?”
Little good your tears will do me in my short future.”
But perhaps my pity can help you in your past.”
What do you mean?” Cayupil asked.
I told you, yesterday and today and tomorrow are the same to me. I can make them the same to you, make today yesterday.”
As Cayupil stared at Tachwüll without understanding, Elemgasem stepped forward with a clay cup, and poured into it a thick liquid from the brass pot over the fire.
Drink this,” she said. “You will go to sleep tonight—”
“—and awake yesterday,” Tachwüll finished.
I will be here, a day earlier?”
No,” said Tachwüll. “Your spirit will travel back to where your body was one day ago, before the attack.”
Is this a trick?” Cayupil demanded.
Tachwüll smiled. “Everything I say and do is a trick.”
You need a hobby, old man.”
Tachwüll chuckled. “I trick, but I do not lie. This potion will return your spirit to before the attack.”
Cayupil put his knife back into his belt, took the cup from Elemgasem. He sniffed its pungent tang, then drank deeply, downing half the cup in a single draft. The sweet liquor numbed his throat.
He said to Tachwüll, “You can see past and future. Will I save my people?”
Tachwüll threw back his head and laughed. “Your spirit will be in a new past, but I don’t see how it could be different.”
What?” Cayupil croaked.
I am of the first-men, born in the spirit land where the sea and sky meet,” said Tachwüll. “That is why I can see what has not yet occurred. But a creature of this land cannot. Your spirit will go back to yesterday, but your body will not have the memories from this day.”
I won’t remember the attack?”
Tachwüll continued to laugh. “No, only one native to the spirit land could remember.”
Then there is no purpose to this potion,” Cayupil said.
You have a limited imagination, Cayupil. This liquid will send your spirit back, shaman, and you will live that day over again. And then you will drink this potion and live it a third time. And a fourth and a fifth and a thousandth, until I am satisfied with my vengeance.”
Cayupil reached for his knife, but could feel the drink quickly draining his strength. He looked about for some means to disrupt Tachwüll’s plan, and his eyes fell on Chono. Cayupil set the cup gently before the dog, then darkness claimed him.
Cayupil wakes to sticky wetness.
He feels Chono licking his face. The tent is completely dark, not yet dawn.
Go away, Chono,” he moans.
Chono whines, then barks loudly. And again and again, until finally Cayupil relents and rises. Under the unblinking stars, Chono leads him to another low tent and barks once more.
Cayupil hears a rustle, then Nahuel, his bride-to-be, sticks her head out the tent. “Cayupil, what are you doing?”
He can only laugh. “I don’t know. Chono seems intent on bringing us together tonight.”
She flashes him a grin, bright even in the dim starlight. “We wed at the full moon. Can you not wait?”
Talk to the dog,” he answers.
Chono continues to bark, until finally Nahuel pulls a fur over her and joins them, taking Cayupil’s hand. He feels the warm skin of her palm against his.
Chono trots through the village, turning often to be sure they are following. Cayupil can see the dog is determined to get them away from home, but cannot imagine why.
Chono barks repeatedly at other tents they pass, but no one else stirs.
What is wrong with that dog?” Nahuel asks.
Cayupil wonders if Chono’s behavior is an ill omen.
But after they clear the ridge just north of the village, Cayupil pulls Nahuel into a tight embrace. So long as he can hold her like this every day, he decides, surely that will be a good life, no matter what the gods send their way.
. . . Then the eternal god Kooch in His mercy decided to create a new people. And so He brought forth a man, and then a woman, and to keep them company He gave them a dog from the spirit land, where the sea and sky meet.

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