May 25, 2012 – The Dead of Cahuachi
And how do we think of the dead? As spirits? As bone without flesh? As nothing but remains? When we pay respect to the ones who’ve left us here, is this for us or for them? When we disrespect the graves of those long gone, how does this change us, the living?Vito, Rodney’s guide from his morning expedition to the aqueducts, picks Rodney and me up in his blue Suzuki and speeds us out along the Pan-American Highway toward the ancient Nazcan city of Cahuachi. A fistful of kilometers later, we turn off onto a dirt road and roll past the farms where seaweed is laid out like trash on the ground to dry. We bounce over the pitted road. Dust billows out from beneath the wheels and the sun beats in on me through the side window. The mountains behind me rise up to meet the blue sky in varying shades of goldenrod, saffron, ochre, earth yellow and brown. Barren fields of sand stretch out to my left looking like the landscape to some alien planet.
“This is where my SkyCats live. In a place just like this,” I think, remembering a short story I’d written several years ago about a far off and two-sunned planet. It’s just how I’d imagined it (minus the second sun). I see the SkyCats flying over this desert, owning it, ruling it and know that eventually those stories will be written down. Some day after the sand of this trip has settled in my mind and I can see things clearly again.Off to my right there’s a surprisingly alive strip of land. Trees throw their limbs up to worship the heavens. Green shrubs and maybe even grass plunge their roots deep to thrive. I’m amazed by the contrast of death and life. Of barrenness and fertility. Maybe I shouldn’t be. Isn’t that just how this life is? Contrasted.
Vito tells us about the underground water channels that flow subterraneanly from the mountains. “The ancient Nazcans knew just where to live. They tapped the water and knew how to direct and utilize it,” he says. He tells us about how a great storm destroyed and killed many of these ancient Nazcans when El Niño raged in from the ocean and flooded the land. “They buried their dead either to the right of left of the valleys, careful to keep the burial grounds away from their immediate living areas. You can see off to the left that these graves have been dug up. Even recently, grave robbers have come to look for ceramics or gold.”I look to where he’s pointing. Bones adorn the dry land, a strange jewelry to the dry body of the earth. These bones call out to me more powerfully than the impressive terraces of the great pyramid I can see out of the corner of my eye. They fascinate me. I wonder at my morbidity. Is this curiosity of death a normal thing? These femurs and skulls and ilea were once joined like the dry bones of Ezekiel and danced with blood flowing through their veins and muscles, fibers, ligaments and skin that kept them all together. Like my veins, muscles, ligaments and skin keep me together now. I want Vito to stop so I can get out and talk to these bones. Try to imagine the lives they lived. The movements they made. The stories they told their children and their friends. The lies they wove for their lovers and enemies. But I don’t ask him to.
Several meters later, Vito pulls off to the side of the road and we tumble out. “Come on,” he says. He leads the way up to the top of a sand mounded hill. “Under this is a house. You can see the thrush they used for the roofs.” He squats down to point out the roofing material. “These branches were used as wall supports. You can see the shape of the houses by these.”Sure enough, I can.
“There are over forty pyramids in this site. Each of these mounds is a house or a pyramid. This place was the Vatican for the Nazcans. It covers over twenty four square kilometers of area and is the biggest mud construction in the world. This holy site, all these pyramids, they used for ceremonial purposes. Cahuachi was a pilgrimage site and only the few elite shamans lived here permanently.”Vito’s pride shows through as he tells us about the Nazcans. He keeps trying to pull me back to the tour when I get distracted by the bones.
“Look,” he hands me a woven rope, “see this, amazing!” I turn it over in my fingers. How many centuries old is it? Who made it? And for what purpose? I have no clue. I set it down and step carefully on. Vito points out the shards of broken ceramics scattered all over. “The Spanish took what they thought was the best of things when they raided the tombs. They came looking for gold and often left the valuable pottery behind either because they didn’t realize the worth or because it might have been broken in two pieces.”“I want to take a piece home,” Rodney tells me. He stoops to palm a smooth, ovoid rock. “I bet this was used to grind grain.”
“Yes,” Vito says. “They used stones like that to mash their food.”Rodney hands me the stone and I hold it, heavy, useful, for a moment before I hand it back to him. They move away and I turn to look out over the rolling dunes.
One lone tree stands regally in the middle of this place. Alone. Majestic. It’s like a tree right out of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I fall in love with that tree. I think of the beautiful sadness of the Little Prince’s tale. I walk over to another mound and gaze at the tree. Hi tree, I think to it.
What are pyramids when you have trees?But I go join them again.
We walk over the roofs that were covered at various times through history by weather, by the Nazcans themselves to hide the location from invaders, and then uncovered by archeologists and recovered by them again for preservation’s sake.We go up an incline alongside the great pyramid. I forget to listen to what Vito’s telling us about the Nazcans and their ceremonies and how some people think that they used the Lines as part of their rituals.
My soul flies out over the desert, communes with the spirits that hover there. My heart sings across the sand and swirls around the lone tree, flirting through the bare branches and then returns to me.When we drive back over the bumpy road, back towards where the living are, I put this experience into a locket in my mind and close it up tight to save it for forever.
The bones rest in the sand. I bid them farewell. We speed back over the SkyCats’ land and leave behind us:All their bones
as white as mine