My first night in La Paz, I chewed coca leaf to ward off the effects of altitude sickness. My in-laws teased me that, because I was tall, I needed extra leaf. That part wasn’t true, but I was taller than anyone else in the house or, for that matter, the neighborhood. When I walked to the market the next morning, I looked out above the sea of heads like some kind of exotic meerkat.
I was young when I lived in Bolivia. I was twenty years old, tall and blonde, and I stood out like horse among llamas. Llamas are elegant creatures perfectly suited to their environment. With my long legs and proportionately bigger body, I was clumsy in small native spaces and simply looked out of place. I was almost always the only blue-eyed person in the vicinity.
My new relatives went to great pains to help me adapt. To protect my skin, they slapped a hat on my head every time I went out into the sun. The sun is stronger at 13,000 feet above sea level. They taught me to speak marginally in Aymara as well as Spanish, though the great preference of everyone I met—children in particular—was to speak English. Strangers would approach me on the street and ask me to say something. “I am very pleased to meet you!” was safe for every occasion.
My relatives were forever shooing people away. I was warned to not talk with the natives, the indios, unless they were servants or shopkeepers, and even then not familiarly. They were, I was told, beneath people like them, or me, with paler skin and higher status. I never quite mastered that restriction and my relatives often gnashed their teeth at my penchant for speaking to cholas and porters. Once a chola asked if she could touch my hair, which I thought was polite enough, but my mother-in-law chased her off angrily, then chided me because the woman, she said, might want a strand of my hair for no good. One had to be careful of witches.
Learning about Aymara and Quechua magic and practices was a huge eye opener for me. The Witches Market in the native quarter behind the Church of San Francisco was a favorite haunt simply because it was so different from any market I had ever seen. My vigilant mother-in-law, once away from the eyes of her husband and others, proved helpful: she spoke fluent Quechua and Aymara—her family was part Aymara, though that was something no one would admit to. She did eventually admit it to me on the promise that I not let her husband or mine know she’d told me. “It is not good to be Indian,” she confided. It was she who watched and listened, and often interpreted, while I talked with Aymara shamans and healers, vendors of potions, powders, charms and spells. This little woman came barely up to my breasts, but she and I formed a fast bond in great part due to my interest in her mother’s people and culture.
Over time, she was my co-conspirator in talking with llama herders in Laja, a ferryman in Puno, a shaman in Copacabana who was blessing the cornerstone of a new house with a llama fetus and beer, a man who sold ducks in the market on the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. Thanks to her, I can tell if a charm is for show or comes from a real sorcerer, alpaca wool from vicuña, or hand loomed shawls with authentic dyes and motifs from factory ones. She introduced me to Andean concepts of time and balance. She taught me Aymara humor (very cutting and dry) and about how women can be subversive and clever. She even made sure I could speak enough Aymara to invoke a blessing from Pachamama should I ever build a house and have a llama fetus and some chicha handy.
When I returned to the United States, I was astonished. Everything was so clean, so sanitized, so orderly and rational. Of course, I had come back to where I was born and raised. I understood it at a level I would never understand Bolivia or the Aymara. Yet my memories of the Altiplano and its people are so vivid and full I commune with them almost daily. And sometimes I weave parts of their stories into my own, hoping to share with others some of the beauty of what I’ve experienced and learned.
One of my stories based on those experiences is in the upcoming Storm Moon Press anthology, Devil’s Night, a collection of m/m tales of demons being bad. “The Seventh Sacrifice” depicts a collision of cultures, sex, and fate: In modern day La Paz, a young Spaniard hell-bent on revenge is attracted to a native sorcerer determined to break a centuries old curse.
Two stone steps flanked by tables of packaged, prefabricated charms led to the narrow hole-in-the-wall that constituted a store. Every spare millimeter of space was packed with arcane objects. Fully furred llama fetuses with huge, black eyes and grimacing teeth hung from a pole over the doorway, while more of the same—mummified and without fur—lay piled in baskets. The dried husks of armadillos, toads, and starfish held sway among racks of cheap beads, brass bells, and trays of colored powders. Beltran hoped the powders were herbs, but at least one looked like dried blood, and he knew the others could be anything from antlers to hooves, teeth, or bones.
But what caught his eye next, and took away his already scanty breath, was the man sitting on a stool just inside the doorway. Black hair, straight and shining, framed a brown face with strong features and high cheekbones. The heavy mane cascaded behind broad shoulders and a red poncho of alpaca wool. As the man rose to his feet, Beltran saw that he was taller than most native men, with a wiry, powerful frame. The shopkeeper’s eyes commanded him most of all: deep and black, they locked onto his with a hunger so fierce, the compulsion in them made him quiver.
Holy Mother of God, Beltran thought, forcing himself to breathe normally. Marisol never told me her shaman would be gorgeous!
Devil's Night is now available for pre-orders through Storm Moon Press. Not only does that mean it's up for 20% off the normal price, but when you pre-order titles from Storm Moon Press, you get double the reader rewards points, which you can earn and redeem for free books. Get your copy now while it's discounted! :D The pre-order sale ends on release day, October 19th (this Friday), so I hope everyone will take advantage and pre-order their copy now!
Links to me and my books:
Dreamspinner Author Page: http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/index.php?cPath=55_661
Resplendence Author Page: http://www.resplendencepublishing.com/m8/490-201-103-501-1--captive-heart-pride-of-uttor-series-book-one-by-tali-spencer.html
Storm Moon Press: http://www.stormmoonpress.com/books/Devils-Night.aspx
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