22.04.2015 Junin de Los Andes, Argentina
The icy breath of the mountain bit my fingers and my nose as the dark clouds gathered around the peak. My trusty hiking boots – they had been my mother’s before me – were as old as I was and they treaded over the black volcanic grit with ease. I walked through a tunnel of wispy trees that had moss hanging off the branches like the beard of a weathered man. Through the arc of foliage I could make out the expanses of black rock bared by the wind nearer the summit, until they were covered by the clouds. It had been ten years since I had been there, and it would be a long time before I would be able to return; I implored to the Pillan, under my breath, for the wind to change and uncover the mountain.
As I walked, I remembered when one of the park rangers had told me about the sacrifice that had put the volcano Lanín to sleep. Every mountain has a Pillan, a guardian spirit, who lives at the summit. One day, the youths of the cacique tribe of Huanquimil were hunting near the northern part of the volcano. They caught a deer drinking from a stream and slit its throat, his warm blood flowing over the rocks. In the instant that blade had touched the creature, the ground shook violently and the sound of drums came from beneath their feet. A pillar of smoke, like a black fungus, grew from the top of the volcano until the sun was covered by ashes. The youths ran to the moss-bearded shaman, who scolded them for their foolishness and said the only way to calm the wrath of the Pillan was to sacrifice the youngest daughter of the cacique, beautiful Huifún, in the crater. Qechuan, the youth who loved Huifún, promised to stay by her side and travelled with her to the crater, where he pressed his lips to hers in a final act of love. A thunderous shadow, blacker than the ashes and with eyes of fire, rose from the crater and released a deathly call; the giant condor tore Huifún from Qechuan with his mighty talons. He flew to the centre of the fuming crater and released the girl into the fire. Qechuan kneeled, distraught, at the edge of the crater, and snow began to fall lightly upon his trembling shoulders. From that day, every hundred years, the Pillan of Volcan Lanín sent his Condor to make a sacrifice, tearing someone who was loved away from the Earth.
Finally, the trees grew sparser until they fell away behind me. The clouds had passed, and towering before me was the mountain, the tallest in Neuquén, in its inexpressible glory. It emerged from the black earth into a magnificent peak covered in snow; the apex seemed so far from me it might’ve been its own world.
I held in my hands a small spray of white flowers that I had picked on the way and lay them at the foot of papa’s tremendous snowy tombstone. I was engulfed by a tremendous silence, hypnotised by the whistling of the cold wind as it travelled through the mountains. I had understood the legend of Huifún and her sacrifice since I was little, but in my timeless daze, I knew that I had never felt it. I was the spirit of Qechuan thousands of years in the future, returning to the godly presence of the mountain. The Pillan of Lanín was content with the sacrifice that was of my blood; my blood calmed the temper of the lava. I felt as if every stone and leaf around me was tied to my core by a string.
The sun broke away from behind the clouds, forming the faintest rainbow, connecting the otherworldliness of the summit to the blackened earth where I sat. The celestial gesture jolted me – I began to cry. Qechuan mourned for Huifún, his pain split between the two of us as we sat in the bitter cold at the base of the mountain. I picked up a stone from the ground and turned it over in my palm. It belonged to us. It was owed to us.
In that stone lives the eternal spirit of Qechuan, alongside the love he shared with Huifún and the pain he didn’t share in losing her.
I know now that the sacrifice of my blood wasn’t pointless.