Fiction: The Man in the Valley
By José L Recio
I was at work in one of the valleys in the Salcantay-area of Machu Picchu in the year 2021, trying to photograph a particular hummingbird species, known as the Long-tailed sylph, when I sensed something uncanny had made its presence behind me. I half turned and saw a small, slender individual with a conspicuously elongated head and abundant black hair, quietly standing some six feet away from me like a divine apparition; a man of a hard-to-estimate age, between twenty and thirty years old, dressed in a knee-length dark grey poncho and esparto sandals; a peaceful and anodyne human being, as he appeared to be. If he wasn’t an angel descended from the clouds, did he spontaneously arise from the earth like a rare wildflower among the native Fuchsia and Orchid? I wondered.
“Good morning,” I said, friendly, as one would casually greet a fellow citizen on the street—it was a gorgeous mid-morning sunny Peruvian early winter day. The man remained still, staring at me. “Buen día,” I repeated in Spanish, but he said no word, which caused uncertainty in me. Perhaps he only spoke Quechua? “Allin punchay,” I ventured to say. Nothing. Was he mute or in shock? I resisted the thought of the individual being an alien.
I am a Nature photographer with the National Audubon Society in Oakland, California. Observing small birds in their natural habitat and recording images of their behaviors is my specialty. I’m interested in the Long-tailed-sylph because of its vivid feather colors, unusual long tail, and selective taste for the nectar of the Inca sacred flower. And frankly, I’m intrigued by the tales associated with this species, which I find fascinating and even connatural to this bird’s looks and behaviors. But on this occasion, in lieu of a bird, I faced an odd specimen of the human race, not ugly or scary but odd, aberrant.
For quite a while, the man and I stood immobile there on the ground like scarecrows; I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, and he gazed straight at me, looking perplexed. I didn’t know how to proceed. Ultimately, I opted to return my binoculars and camera into my bag and slowly walk towards one of the nearby trails that wanders through the mountainous valleys in one direction and connects with a narrow secondary road that leads to Cusco, some forty miles south-east, in the opposite sense. The stranger silently followed me like chicks following a hen.
I had parked my Jeep at a small clearing near that road. I deposited my bag with photographic paraphernalia in the back seat, opened the passenger door, and extended my hand in the air as a friendly gesture for my companion, whom I’ll call Peter, to climb in. Peter hesitated. He took three steps backward, looking mistrustful, and then two forward, looking more confident, and finally, he decided to get in the car. He sat still on the passenger seat, his eyes glued to the narrow road in front. He or I (Julian Scala, my name) didn’t speak a word during the trip. While driving, I took furtive looks at Peter’s profile: his peculiar head, his aquiline nose, his prominent lips, his golden skin… Unmistakably, these were Inca features, but it baffled me that he looked more like an ancient than a contemporary subject.
When we arrived at the famous Plaza de Armas in Cusco, I rang Federico (Fede) Satini, my partner of five years, to let him know I was coming back home. We rented a one-bedroom furnished apartment in the Barrio de San Blas, near the Cathedral in Cusco.
“Hello, Jul,” Fede answered my call. He and I are in our early forties. Our families were originally from Italy.
“I’m bringing home an unusual guy, a rare flower I met in the valley.”
All of a sudden, I heard hard breathing on the phone.
“What’s wrong”? I said. A silence followed.
Fede is two inches taller than me (six foot), handsome, with curly dark hair. He works as a software developer, often from home in Oakland, California, where we live in a condo. Sometimes, he joins me when I go on assignments, as he did on the occasion I am talking about.
“Please, Jul, don’t do that to me!” Fede then said, and I noticed a pleading tone in his voice.
Meanwhile, Peter remained silent beside me, his eyes wide open. I wondered whether he understood I was talking to someone over smartphones.
“What do you mean, Fede?” I felt unsettled.
Another silence; then, Fede’s voice again: “Take the guy to a hotel room. Don’t bring him home, please.”
Hearing these words, I immediately realized I had made a mistake: Unlike my way of seeing the world, Federico is not quick to catch metaphors; his mind works in concrete, graphic patterns.
“Oh! God! It’s not that, Fede.” I emphasized ‘that’ as if ‘that’ meant Peter was not a threat.
“Whatever. I’m pissed off,” Fede said and ended the conversation.
I was upset. Suddenly, I wanted to undo, turn around, deliver Peter back to the valley where I found him, and leave him there among the native Fuchsia and Orchid. I also felt angry at myself for my lack of tact in conveying the situation to Fede; angry at Peter himself, whoever he was, for being in the passenger seat like a mummy; and angry at Fede for his narrow interpretation of my words. Still, I told Peter, 'It'll be all right, man.'
I parked the jeep in the parking lot assigned to the tenants of the apartment building where we stayed, grabbed my bag from the backseat, and got out of the vehicle. I moved to the passenger side, opened the door, and friendly signaled Peter to jump out. He looked confused but obeyed my gesture and followed my steps behind me as if he had definitely developed an attachment. Suddenly, I felt responsible for bringing him home, for his fate. The angry feelings triggered by the words exchanged over the phone with Fede hovered in my mind as I turned the key inside the lock to open the apartment door. I stepped in, and Peter, docile like a puppy, followed me; despite my awkward predicament, his docility pleased me.
Federico sat on the sofa in the living room with a can of Peruvian beer in his right hand and a cigarette between his left fingers. His expression denoted internal turmoil.
“Hello, dear,” I said as I approached him, with Peter three feet behind like my shadow.
Fede remained sitting but turned his head sidewise to offer me his cheek, not the lips, as I tried to kiss him. That was a rough move, and I felt the rejection.
“What’s this?” he whispered in my ear thrusting his chin to Peter.
His incisive question disconcerted me. It slowed me from quickly finding appropriate words to name what ‘this’ was. I wanted to say, ‘It’s an angel,’ because something in Peter spoke to me of a divine being, but I smoothed out the metaphor fearing it would sound platonic in Fede’s ears.
“A lost soul, it seems,” I said. “I’ve named him Peter.”
Fede said nothing; instead, he finished the beer with a gulp, got up from the sofa, walked to the kitchen, and grabbed another can of beer. I thought that next he would take off as he had done before when we got into some argument and stay out for a few hours. But he returned to the living room and sat on the sofa again. He lit another cigarette and crossed his legs as he does when leafing through a magazine. Meanwhile, I accommodated myself in one of two armchairs in the room and signaled Peter to sit on the other, which he obediently did.
“What are you going to do with him?” Fede said. He popped the can of beer open, drank, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I was glad he said ‘him’ instead of ‘this’ when referring to Peter.
“I’ll buy some up to date clothing for him—”
“I see,” Fede cut me off. “Will you also buy him sexy underwear and take him to bed?”
His words infuriated me. I’m not a cheater. Fede’s hinting that I had a crush on Peter blew my mind. I wanted to counterattack verbally. But again, I couldn’t think fast enough to rebate his veiled suggestion with piercing words.
“It’s not that, Fede,” I said instead.
At that very moment, I caught Peter staring at the can of beer Fede had released onto the accessory table in front of the sofa. I guessed the man was familiar with corn beer, and I went to the kitchen to fetch a can for him. When I returned, Peter still sat in the armchair, but Fede was uneasily pacing around the room while drinking his beer.
“This is an off-beat fellow,” Fede said softly in my ear. I had sat on the same armchair. Mentally, I agreed: Peter seemed weird. It dawned on me then that my liking for Peter laid not in his physicality but in his weirdness. He struck me as belonging to another time, an idea that fired my imagination.
“We should find out where he comes from,” I said, intentionally speaking in plural.
“Not ‘we,’ Honey,” Federico hurried to say. “This is your affair. I’m going back home.”
For a split second, I felt disconsolate. But I realized that my official assignment in Cusco would end in three days, and therefore, Fede leaving ahead of me, although uncaring, was pretty close to our initial plans. Besides, we had traveled separately to or from a place on other occasions, depending on particular circumstances. And in this situation, I opted to remain in Cusco until the end of the contract and further investigate Peter’s origins.
“But, Honey, aren't you the least curious to find out if Peter belongs to this world or if he’s an angel?” I said, half serious, half joking.
“Not at all, and you know it.” He squished the empty beer can in his hand and went to the kitchen to throw it in the trash bin.
Federico is an atheist and can’t stand anything that sounds in his ears like a religious myth. We each come from a family background of devoted Roman Catholics. However, Federico and I have given up on church practices independently and at different phases in life. Nevertheless, I’m still unwillingly influenced by the tales associated with the dogma, which I absorbed throughout my earlier years: the idea of mortal sin, forgiveness by confession, the belief in an immortal soul, the existence of a Purgatory, etc. I can’t help but enjoy hearing and reading about these stories.
Peter spent the night in the living room, where I extended a sheet over the sofa for him to lie down and sleep. Fede left in the early morning. He refused my offer to drive him to the airport with Peter in the car; instead, he called a taxi. Before he left the apartment, we said goodbye to each other. But Fede, looking askance at Peter standing behind me, sidestepped and shifted his face to avoid my touching and kissing. And again, I felt the rejection and feared he would leave home for good before I would return days later.
Moments after Fede’s leaving, I felt empty, incapable of finding my course, and for the first time since seeing Peter, I sensed the measure of my capricious commitment and attached responsibility. Forcing my mind to think and trust that Peter would follow my steps like a faithful pet, I fed him breakfast with a sandwich and beer, and we left the apartment. I figured that the two of us strolling in tandem back and forth on the busy Hatun Rumiyuq drag, full of shops and attractions for locals and tourists, not far from our apartment, there would be a chance somebody would recognize Peter and his identity revealed. But an hour passed, and nobody cared, and I lost hope my strategy would work.
While strolling, I approached one of the many little shops along the sidewalks and bought Peter a pair of blue jeans, a colorful poncho, and sneakers. He managed to change his clothes in public view prudently, and I put his old things in a plastic bag to throw in the trash bin. He looked handsome, and I thought what Fede would have now seen in him.
Our wandering led us to the Cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of Cusco. Two years ago, I met Father Huaman, a native Catholic priest in the service of the Bishop; a friendly, thin man with a quick mind and a fondness for native birds. He contacted me asking to meet me because he wanted to learn more about birds and later accompanied me several times on field trips. I called him on the phone and briefly explained what I was dealing with. He was available and told me to find him in the Archdiocese. When I entered his little office, followed by Peter, he gazed at him, fixing his eyes on his elongated head for a minute.
“Your friend here has more ancient Inca genes than I do,” Huaman said. His statement triggered all kinds of questions in my mind. The priest sat at a little desk, crowded with books and worn-out yellow folders, and invited me to occupy one of two chairs before the desk.
“Is he mute?” I didn’t know where to start. I was eager to obtain answers.
He pressed his lips with the tip of two fingers as if reflecting and again glanced at Peter, standing beside me.
“I think so,” he said.
“Do you think Peter is—” I started saying (I had told Huaman that I named my companion Peter).
“Do I think this man is a reincarnation?” He cut me short as though he had read my mind. “No, I don’t,” he answered to his and my question, and I noticed a condescending smile.
I knew the Incas believed in reincarnation—one of their reasons, it is documented, to mummify and preserve the dead. My mind resisted accepting the priest’s opinion, and my enthusiasm to ask questions suddenly ceased. I got up to thank him for his input and leave when Father Huaman also got up, and, standing behind his desk, said that if I was interested in Peter’s ethnic background, I should contact an American researcher by the name Dr. Reginald, an expert on ancient Inca relics at the Inca Museum. I nodded, thanked him again, and left his office with my companion following.
The Inca museum was near the Cathedral, and I thought to walk there. But I was hungry and guessed Peter would also want to eat. Consequently, I opted to walk back home, cook some dinner, and leave the visit to the museum for the next day. On our way home, I thought of how to word my questions for Dr. Reginald, and while doing that, strange ideas were piling up in my mind: Was Peter the result of incarnation or transmigration of souls? Both were ancient Inca beliefs. Or maybe he was an escapee from some madhouse? Or was he the victim of an organized, mystified touristic excursion to Machu Picchu? Was he really mute?
As these ideas overlapped in my mind, and once in a while, I stopped and looked back at Peter’s profile again to see if I detected from the shape of his nose or chin any resemblance with the features of a hawk or an eagle or even a condor that would incline me to embrace the concept of transmigration of souls. Suddenly, I felt apprehensive, as though my wallet was not in my pocket, and had an urge to check on Peter again. He was not there! I looked all around; he was not in sight. I felt disoriented, irresponsible, and guilty without knowing why. In a frantic mood, I search my surroundings and the entire Barrio de San Blas. When exhausted, I returned home.
On the next day, at dawn, I searched again. In vain I hoped I would find Peter lying on a bench in Plaza de Armas. I checked in the Cathedral and walked through other parts of Cusco, wishing with all my heart to see him before giving him up for a lost soul. At the edge of midnight, tired and hungry, I returned home alone. I missed Peter, and most of all, I missed Federico. The following day, I managed to put my priorities in order, pack my belongings, and return the rental jeep and the apartment keys, and text my partner that I was going home alone.
A month after I returned home to Oakland, I received an email from Father Huaman to communicate that researchers at the Universidad Andina de Cusco had discovered a new shrub of wildflower species in the valley where I first saw Peter. The ongoing study of the diversity of native plants, he wrote, was aimed to increase the ecotourism in Machu Picchu.
A week after the first email, I received another informing me that the workers had unearthed a mummy while digging the ground on the plot where these shrubs grew. ‘It may be of your interest,’ Father Huaman wrote, ‘to know that the uncovered mummy’s head is oblong like Peter’s head was shaped.’ This news intrigued me. I suspected that Peter had been a member of some Inca group that lived in that region, and when he died, his body was embalmed, mummified, and buried in the valley, and had mysteriously returned to life as a zombie. But I didn’t dare share my suspicion with Fede because he has threatened to leave for good should I verbalize what he calls witchery, and I love him.
José L Recio was born and raised in Spain, where he studied medicine. He came to the States young and practiced medicine in California for decades. He also developed a parallel interest in creative writing and has grown to become bicultural. He writes both in Spanish and English. In 2021 he published a book of fiction, “Transitions: twenty-four bilingual short stories.” He has also written several short memoirs and essays. Currently, he and his wife live in Pasadena, Los Angeles. They enjoy hiking with their whippet and traveling.