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“So comes snow after
fire, and even dragons
have their endings.”
There were some – not many – who refused to believe Presidente Gonzalo was dead after so many years of terrorism, after he had said that he was willing to see a million Peruvians be killed in order to see the triumph of his revolution. And it was not his followers who believed that, but those he had decimated, those whose parents and children had been killed at his orders. Those peasants saw him as a great supay who would never die, a figure from the Inca underworld. Wasn’t he able to live for twelve years directing his “millenarian war” without being found? Wasn’t he everywhere at once, responsible for the murders of thousands in every corner of the country? Didn’t everyone know that every time the military got close to him, he would turn into a bird or a serpent in order to escape? And wasn’t it common knowledge that one time during a massacre of quechua peasants he had turned into a rock and that his followers had used that very rock to crush the skulls of dozens of Amerindians? No, they didn’t believe it. The military men who had announced his death were trying to conceal the fact that he had simply disappeared or become a rabbit.
Champi had always believed there was something supernatural about Presidente Gonzalo. At first, before the Shining Path arrived at the little hamlet in the highlands of Ayacucho where he lived with his parents and his two younger sisters, he believed that Presidente Gonzalo might be the Inkarri, the reincarnation of Atahualpa who had come back to rescue the quechua peasants from the Españarri, in other words, the white man. That was the theory that many Andean peasants subscribed to, at least at the beginning. The myth of the Inkarri, like so many Indian myths, had transmogrified over time. At first, the thought was that the last Inca, Atahualpa, had been dismembered and decapitated at the orders of Francisco Pizarro and that the sapa Inca’s head and limbs had been buried in different places. The hope among the peasants was that Atahualpa’s head would grow a torso and limbs in the ground and would return to seek revenge on behalf of the Indians, that he would return them to the days of Inca splendor.
As the myth changed over time, some said the Inkarri was really the reincarnation of Tupac Amaru II, who fought a brutal and ultimately unsuccessful battle to oust the Spaniard from Peru in the eighteenth century. It did not take long for the myth to arise in the remote hamlets of Ayacucho, that Presidente Gonzalo was the Inkarri, Atahualpa and Tupac Amaru II all at once. After all, the quechua-speaking peasants lived with magic every day. They did not have doctors, but miraculous curanderas who tended to all their needs, physical, emotional and spiritual. And their whole history was based on magic. How but through the intervention and aid of Inca spirits could they have survived four hundred years of incessant domination by the white man?
Everybody knew that Presidente Gonzalo had been a philosophy professor at the Universidad de San Cristobal, but still the legend grew. After all, he promised to oust the gamonales, to take the land back from the mistis, to transform the country into one where the Indian peasantry would rule. It didn’t seem outlandish to Champi, a twelve-year-old at the time, that Presidente Gonzalo, the bespectacled professor from Arequipa who vaguely spoke of a renewed Tahuantinsuyo – the ancient Inca empire – might be the Inkarri himself. Certainly, that is how some of the Indians thought about him at the beginning, sure that he would usher a completely new world for the peasants, a cosmic reversal, a pachakuti which happened only once every five hundred years. And Champi’s mother did not try to dissuade Champi the first time he broached the subject with her.
“Yes, perhaps he’s the Inkarri,” she told him, as she sat in the marketplace with her infant wawa strapped to her back. “He might be, since he means to make the peasants kings.”
Champi didn’t go to school, so he learned his people’s history from his grandfather Achiyaku, the varayoc in the village, whose stories about the past always had something of the supernatural about them. The old man told him the history of the quechua-speaking peoples since the beginning of time. According to Achiyaku, the sun-god Inti sent Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo to build a great empire for the Indian people, telling them to establish it wherever they were able to plant a golden staff into the ground without much difficulty. And then Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, who were married siblings, appeared miraculously over Lake Titicaca and began to look for the place to build their empire. After much searching, they arrived in Cusco, where the golden staff miraculously sunk into the ground. Ever since, Cusco was the Inca capital and the Indians learned to worship the sun-god Inti with fervent devotion.
Soon the peasants began to refer to Presidente Gonzalo as puka inti, in other words the “red sun,” which suited Presidente Gonzalo just fine. For one thing, it was the name given to the greatest god of the Inca pantheon. For another, that was the same sobriquet given to Mao, the man he most admired and the one he had decided to emulate, ultimately resulting in a massive bloodbath in Peru – more than seventy thousand dead – a lot fewer than those killed by Mao, but still a monstrous number. Champi knew of those numbers by the time Presidente Gonzalo was reported dead by the military authorities and he no longer viewed him as the Inkarri, but neither did he see Presidente Gonzalo as an ordinary man. Puka inti certainly had magic powers – evil powers – otherwise his war against the country would not have lasted as long as it did nor would it have resulted in almost a hundred thousand casualties. Perhaps he was the Amaru, a dragon from the subterranean world of Ukhu Pacha who had appeared on earth disguised as a man in order to do evil. Hadn’t Achiyaku himself taught Champi that Amaru often caused the violent overturning of established order and taught men the value of revolution? Wasn’t that the reason the sanguinary rebel Tupac Amaru II chose his name when he decided to exterminate the Spaniards?
Champi remembered his own encounter with Presidente Gonzalo after Champi’s town was taken over by the Shining Path. His grandfather Achiyaku was killed after a “popular trial” given that he was the varayoc in town and represented power at odds with that of the senderistas. After his hanging, the guerrillas dynamited his corpse in the public square and even burnt his house down to the ground. Presidente Gonzalo and his followers would brook no competition from local leaders. And Achiyaku had refused to submit to the power of their rifles and grenades, invoking the aid not only of Christ but also of Pachamama, all to no avail.
Nobody believed him at the time, but Champi swore that he had seen Presidente Gonzalo in the plaza where his grandfather had been hanged. His face was unmistakable – Champi had seen him in a dozen posters – and he was dressed in the same way he was depicted everywhere. He was a heavyset man in a gray suit and a white shirt, without a tie, holding a book with one hand and a revolver with the other. And Champi could never forget his face: whiter than the rest of the men in town and at the same time somehow redder. As soon as Champi locked his eyes with those of Presidente Gonzalo, the homicidal professor simply vanished. And suddenly the runa boy saw a condor flying across the heavens, a black kuntur among the clouds. Champi didn’t forget that the condor is the animal that takes humans to the afterlife. Soon many other Indians reported similar experiences and even some white people from Lima. Puka inti was seen everywhere, he was ubiquitous like the god Viracocha, and yet for more than a decade he was never found by the Peruvian government. When he was finally captured by the police, he didn’t present any resistance. After all, why would he? He had already achieved his highest purpose, to steep Peru in what he called “a river of blood,” a terrible yawarmayu which spared only the lucky few blessed by higher spirits.
No, Champi thought, this was no ordinary man. He was the personification of evil, a spirit who delighted in bloodshed, a hundred times more fearsome than the pishtaco, the legendary ghoul who preyed upon the Amerindians in the middle of the night and killed them, suctioning off their fat. And Champi wasn’t even sure that the man initially apprehended by the police was the real puka inti. Maybe it was not Presidente Gonzalo, but his double. So the fact that the military had announced his death did not make Champi believe Peru was rid of its great menace. Champi needed incontrovertible proof that the great supay had died and nobody could provide it. It was probably impossible. If Presidente Gonzalo was the god of death himself, how could anything or anyone kill him? Wasn’t Inca mythology full of stories about supernatural tricksters who had been killed and come back to life?
On the day the capture of Presidente Gonzalo was reported in the news – nearly thirty years before his alleged death – the Peruvian government made a big show of it for television. The bookish professor was trapped in a small cage like an animal, wearing the uniform of prison inmates in old movies, a black-and-white striped jumpsuit. On that day, the personeros of Champi’s town celebrated with huaynitos, killed the fattest hogs and drank chicha until everyone was drunk. And they heard on shortwave radio stations that the white residents of Lima were doing the same, uncorking champagne bottles, feasting on prime rib, singing and dancing to the wee hours, celebrating that the invisible butcher had finally been caught. It had been a twelve-year millenarian war between Sendero and all of Peru, a litany of massacres that killed quechua-speaking peasants by the thousands and even terrified the white coastal elite with bombings, targeted assassinations and apagones, when Lima was steeped in darkness after the guerrillas bombed electric transmission towers. So everyone was celebrating, at last seeing the end of a tunnel that many had despaired of ever seeing.
There were no televisions in Champi’s village, but the news about how the authorities in Lima had put their captive on display had been reported on all the quechua-speaking radio stations. At the beginning of Presidente Gonzalo’s quest, many of the runa people were with him or at a minimum took the position of neutral spectators, but as the war continued, it was the Andean peasants who did all the dying, killed by Presidente Gonzalo’s guerrillas, killed by the Peruvian military. But at some point the military had changed its methods and stopped decimating Andean towns while the Shining Path had doubled down, murdering anyone suspected of not toeing the party line. While there were still some peasants who supported Presidente Gonzalo, they were few, and many Indian villagers had even formed rondas campesinas, local self-defense committees, to take up arms and oust Sendero from their towns. So when his incarceration was announced, the entire country celebrated, the rich mistis as well as the impoverished runas.
And yet Champi was not convinced.
The Peruvian government certainly had a reason to fabricate the capture of the elusive terrorist, since everyone was fatigued by twelve years of incessant atrocities, especially in the departments of Ayacucho, Huancavelica and Apurimac, and more recently in Lima after an apartment building in one of the best neighborhoods had been bombed by Sendero. But Champi thought the prisoner presented to the public by the Special Intelligence Group was probably a double, a doppelganger. He suspected it was a means for the authorities to quell the ever-growing dissatisfaction among the population by deceiving them into thinking the great puka inti had been arrested. But the story told by the government made no sense. They claimed to have caught Presidente Gonzalo on the second story of an apartment housing a dance studio run by Maritza Garrido Lecca, member of one of Lima’s most storied families, in a neighborhood where many members of Peru’s military also lived. What could be more implausible? What theory could be more half-baked? Obviously, a dance studio would be filled with people so there would be no logical reason for Presidente Gonzalo to have chosen such a refuge. And a general lived across the street, making it absurd to think the wily puka inti would have hidden there.
So the day after his capture was announced, the seventeen-year-old Champi made his way to the small thatched house of Brother Anselmo. He was the only religious authority in town after the Shining Path had dynamited the Catholic church and Father Alvarez had been forced to escape, never to return. The Church had condemned the excesses of the Shining Path and the Shining Path had retaliated by pursuing priests and nuns relentlessly, labeling them – as expected – bourgeois reactionaries. The Church had also announced a “preferential option for the poor,” which the senderistas felt was anathema to their cause as it would mitigate the masses’ revolutionary fervor and provide an alternative to Presidente Gonzalo’s “armed struggle.”
At some point, when the Shining Path had achieved maximum power in the entire department of Ayacucho, a group of evangelical Christians fluent in quechua, members of the Assembly of God, had made their appearance in Champi’s village to announce Christ’s imminent return. They were all young Americans and Champi thought they were brave, even foolhardy. Didn’t they realize the Shining Path persecuted religious figures? Didn’t they recognize Champi’s village was in a zona roja and the senderistas could arrive at any moment to hang them for their religious revisionism? Didn’t they know that Presidente Gonzalo had sworn to strangle the American pishtaco if he ever appeared in Andean lands? And yet they came. They said they wanted to evangelize the entire Peruvian sierra and that Jesus would protect them from the Shining Path. They even built a very small adobe templo meant for the comuneros to pray in quechua, and before they left they made Anselmo a pastor.
Above the altar, there was a simple message: “Wait for the Lord.” The evangelistas said that the main reason the Shining Path opposed them is that they feared them and were secretly afraid that they would be converted to evangelismo.
The truth is that Champi’s religious faith was a hodgepodge of different traditions. He had been “born again” as an evangelical Protestant, but he also celebrated the Catholic virgen del Rosario every October. He had no doubts about the immanence of the Eucharist but also trusted that some of the evangelistas were able to speak in tongues like the apostles at Pentecost. He believed in the Resurrection of the Christ but also prayed to the various Inca deities who controlled the seasons and the harvests. He revered Axomamma goddess of potatoes, Huari god of agriculture, Mama Koka goddess of coca leaves, and of course Mama Pacha, since all the harvests depended on her intervention.
He also believed in the various evil spirits of the quechua pantheon and was sure Presidente Gonzalo was one of them, even after the mistis in Lima said he had finally been apprehended. The main reason he thought Presidente Gonzalo was a supay, in addition to his ubiquity, was that he had not only committed evil acts himself but had convinced thousands of people who would otherwise have lived impeccable lives to do the same. Even though Presidente Gonzalo had never killed a man himself, he had somehow caused ordinary university students and teachers, runa mothers as well as white limeñas, to commit unspeakable atrocities. He had immersed an entire country in a twelve-year chaqwa, a time of limitless violence and chaos. So when Champi went to the home of Brother Anselmo, Champi had a lot of questions.
“Good morning, Brother Anselmo,” said the young Champi.
“Hello,” Brother Anselmo answered. He was a man in his mid-forties, with rugged features and calloused hands showing he had spent a lifetime working the fields. He was famous in the village for speaking in an incomprehensible language when he was inundated by the Holy Spirit.
“I wanted to speak to you about yesterday’s events, the capture of Presidente Gonzalo.”
“I don’t think they’ve captured the right person. I’m afraid it’s an impersonator. I’m terrified that he may return to our village, in one guise or another.”
“Oh man of little faith,” replied Brother Anselmo. “Why do you doubt? Jesus has saved us. Why are you afraid?”
“I think Presidente Gonzalo has magical powers, that he could come back as a guinea pig or a long-billed macaw. At a minimum, he’s protected by dark Inca spirits – Illaca, the god of war, certainly the malevolent Manañamanca and Pikiru, the god of evil. Maybe Vichana, the god of vengeance, has finally had it with the mistis and is now punishing all of us for not having resisted them.”
“Those are all myths,” answered Brother Anselmo. “I thought you knew that. The only power is that of Jesus.”
“You’re forgetting something,” replied Champi. “That the Christian Church also teaches that there are spirits bent on evil. Presidente Gonzalo was evil incarnate and he killed nearly seventy thousand people, displaced five hundred thousand others, frightened millions. Most of his victims were poor and innocent Indians like us. I’m not sure we’ve seen the end of his shining path to death and doom.”
“Yes, but Jesus always wins,” responded Brother Anselmo in a professorial voice. “Twenty-five million Peruvians, from the most destitute to the wealthiest, prayed for an end to the Shining Path and at last their prayers have been answered. Christ has quashed puka inti, do not doubt it for a second, even if he were an evil spirit as you think. Sure, it’s been a long time, but God requires patience. Patience attains all. The Hebrews’ war against the Philistines wasn’t settled in a day.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Champi. “I think the man on the front page of the newspapers of Ayacucho is an impostor. Have you ever considered that Presidente Gonzalo might be the Antichrist? By their acts, you shall know them. Isn’t that what you teach in temple every week?”
Even when the Shining Path controlled most of the department of Ayacucho, Brother Anselmo had been fearless. He simply refused to live by the rebels’ dictates and continued delivering his quechua sermons in the small temple in Champi’s village, even after having received “warnings” from the Shining Path. He did not even hesitate to preach the Gospel along the length and breadth of the highlands of the beleaguered Ayacucho, whose name appropriately means “corner of the dead” in quechua. He even traveled around the countryside with a band who sang huaynitos about Christ in the Indians’ native tongue, recited the psalms to the tune of their flute-like quenas. He simply refused to doubt that the Lord Jesus would protect him, and he sometimes said public prayers even when he knew members of Sendero were among the crowds. His motto was “Jesus for the peasants of Ayacucho! Jesus always!” He seldom spoke about politics or about the insurrection directly, but it was clear from his sermons that he felt Sendero was offering the wrong path to the runa people – a road of perdition completely inimical to that of Jesus.
“Someone has to bring the Word of God to the people,” Brother Anselmo repeatedly told Champi. “Most of the priests and nuns have been ousted or killed, most of the evangelical ministers expelled. I think that more than five hundred religious have died at the hands of the Shining Path in our department alone. And the people are all so despondent, so desperate, doubting Jesus is still among them. How could they not doubt, given the atrocities they’ve witnessed? If I don’t quench their thirst for Christ, who will? Who else will baptize them and lead them to the Lord during this long night of despair? Who else will prevent their abandonment of Christianity and their submission to the dark ancestral powers?”
And then Brother Anselmo did something that surprised Champi even though he was well aware of the pastor’s bravery. For months he had collaborated with a group of evangelical missionaries who had decided to translate the entire New Testament into quechua. Brother Anselmo wasn’t a learned man – he had barely finished third grade – and yet he was very useful to the American evangelicos. He had the gift of being able to read their translations and tell them what was wrong – an awkward phrase, a line unintelligible to the runas, a sentence which would make no sense to the Andean peasants. So as they continued their translations in a small, rented house in the capital of Ayacucho, Brother Anselmo was always at their side, happily seeing the completion of a task that was very near to his heart. If the quechua-speaking peoples could hear the Gospel in their own language, how much easier would it be to convert them!
And then came the day which confirmed Champi’s belief in Brother Anselmo’s bravery. At the behest of the American evangelicos, Brother Anselmo had agreed to distribute the quechua Bibles to the denizens of Ayacucho. Boxes and boxes of Bibles had arrived from Lima and were ready to be sold to the Indians for a meager price – three soles. Brother Anselmo asked Champi to help him and Champi felt he could not refuse, despite the fact he thought they would be in mortal danger. After all, Champi had done so little for his brethren and felt a pang of shame. He had refused to oppose the Shining Path in any way, believing they were invincible, had even refused to join the rondas campesinas to protect his village. And he still believed in the Christian God despite his belief that Presidente Gonzalo was a powerful pishtay. So Champi traveled on a rickety bus to the capital city with Brother Anselmo, whose joy and ebullience were contagious.
What happened in the city of Ayacucho confirmed Champi’s belief in the miraculous. Five-thousand peasants had traveled from their Andean hamlets to obtain the precious quechua Bibles – never mind the threat of the Shining Path guerrillas. It was arduous work for Champi and Brother Anselmo, as well as the twelve American evangelistas who were working with them, to lift huge boxes full of books for distribution to the impoverished Indians. Three soles was a substantial sum for them, since most of them did not receive a salary and lived off what the land produced. Sendero had long before prohibited the public markets where the Indians were used to selling their produce – it was a form of capitalism after all – and had demanded that the Indians harvest only what was necessary for their own consumption. And yet thousands of indigenous people came one after another to pick up their Bibles, in a great, collective defiance of Sendero. The next day, the same thing happened – five thousand quechua Bibles were sold. And on the third day, there weren’t enough Bibles for all who wanted them. By the end of the week, another forty thousand Bibles had been sold. The Indians weren’t just defying the Shining Path guerrillas. They were quite openly spitting in their faces.
Champi knew that puka inti would be infuriated. Presidente Gonzalo had ordered the translation of Mao’s Little Red Book into quechua, as well as certain pages from Lenin’s writings, but never in his wildest dreams could he think that sixty thousand copies of the Little Red Book could be spread among the Amerindian masses. And most of the Indian peasants found Mao’s Little Red Book to be inscrutable anyway, even as many were forced to memorize it. But the Indians felt there was strength in numbers. With so many runa people buying their quechua Bible, it would be impossible to punish all of them. Sure, it was well-known that the Shining Path had “a thousand eyes and ears,” that there were always peasants who supported Sendero and were quite willing to accuse fellow peasants who had engaged in reactionary conduct, but there were not enough “eyes and ears” to find and punish all the natives who had bought their little Bibles. So Presidente Gonzalo did the next best thing – Champi was sure it was done at his behest, perhaps while he was watching from a distance disguised as a pigeon or a stray dog – and he sent a team of senderistas to kill those who were selling Bibles.
At first it was a young man dressed in a poncho and chuyo. There were half a dozen Americans taking a break and smoking cigarettes – unmistakably gringos – and the man approached them and simply blew himself up to kill them. Then an Indian woman in a polleron skirt, with a wawa strapped to her back, got close enough to Brother Anselmo to stab him twice. By then, half a dozen police arrived and quickly restrained the woman. Champi attended to Brother Anselmo bleeding on the ground and thought for a moment that he might be dead. But the pastor merely smiled at him and said, “God isn’t quite finished with me yet.” Three days later, he was back at the plaza, distributing more Bibles.
After the “supposed” apprehension of Presidente Gonzalo in 1992, terrorist activity in Peru dropped sharply, but it did not end. Every time there was a rebel attack, Champi would speak to Brother Anselmo and remind him that the Shining Path was still a threat. In fact, the activities of Sendero after the reported capture of Presidente Gonzalo had become something of an obsession for Champi. Every time an attack was announced on the radio, he went out of his way to travel to Ayacucho to buy newspapers from Lima which he then asked Brother Anselmo to read for him. And after Brother Anselmo gave him the details about the most recent attack, Champi would shake his head and tell him, “See? Presidente Gonzalo is not imprisoned. Either he was never incarcerated to begin with, or he has the gift of bilocation. Maybe he is in his prison at the Callao Naval Base at the same time he directs attacks in the Upper Huallaga Valley and other regions. I tell you the man has magical powers. The latest attack is proof of this.”
One morning in the summer of 1995 – three years after the supposed incarceration of Presidente Gonzalo – Champi heard on the news that a Congressman and his chauffeur had been assassinated in the town of Quispe, in the northern sierra. It had happened again. Although the reporter on the radio said that the attack had been coordinated by Comrade Feliciano, Champi knew better. He was sure that it was the work of puka inti. Either Presidente Gonzalo had magically sent his instructions to Comrade Feliciano, or he had been there at his side, since puka inti had the gift of ubiquity. Or the man in the prison who was supposedly puka inti was an impostor. Perhaps Presidente Gonzalo could still roam at large and was directly involved in the assassination. At any event, it was a very dark day for Champi, reminding him of the “popular trial” of his own grandfather – he could still see his dynamited corpse in his nightmares – as well as the thousands killed during the heyday of the Shining Path.
Perhaps the chaqwa wasn’t over.
Champi went to Brother Anselmo’s templo to express his confusion. This time he found the pastor cleaning up his small church, sweeping the floor and tidying everything up in preparation for the evening services. When Brother Anselmo saw Champi’s face, he knew something was wrong.
“What is it?” Brother Anselmo asked. “Why do you look so perturbed?”
“Puka inti is at it again. Didn’t you hear the news? There has been another assassination.”
“Those are manotazos de ahogado,” Brother Anselmo responded as he continued to sweep the floor. The last throes of a drowning man. “Why do you insist on worrying about a battle that Christ has already won for all Peru? Terrorism has gone down dramatically. A single assassination is a tragedy, but it’s not a return to the massive bloodshed of the 1980s. I tell you the Peruvian people have returned to the days of celebration and feasting, to the days of the wedding at Cana.”
“Still,” said Champi. “The attacks come again and again. It’s not unlike the beginning days of the Shining Path revolution, when everybody downplayed their acts and said they were just a bunch of harmless Communist hotheads.”
“That period was an aberration in history, like when Hitler attempted to destroy the Chosen People and launched a war that killed millions. The world is full of sin and that is why such things happen despite Jesus’ unfathomable love and mercy. I agree with you that the enemy loomed large in Peru at that time, but Presidente Gonzalo himself was not the enemy.”
“I think Presidente Gonzalo is a supay difficult to defeat. I’m not sure his ‘millenarian’ war is over. Isn’t that what he called it? Doesn’t ‘millenarian’ mean something that lasts a thousand years?”
“Why do you obsess over it, Champi? Don’t you realize that for every act of evil there are a thousand acts of kindness? It is Jesus who is ubiquitous. Presidente Gonzalo is just a brilliant man who used his intelligence to devastate Peru. But God felt pity for the Peruvian people, just like once He felt compassion for the Israelites, and now we have been delivered from the evil of puka inti. Believe it. Presidente Gonzalo is now in prison and he will never escape.”
“The spirits of our forefathers could be found in inanimate objects or elements of nature – the mountains, the rivers, the plants, the sun and the moon. Why do you find it so hard to believe that puka inti could transform himself into a cloud or a flower, even the rising sun? I’m not the only one to have such thoughts.”
“Ahora estas desvariando,” Brother Anselmo responded in exasperation. “You are delirious. Presidente Gonzalo is but an ordinary man. These beliefs you have aren’t normal. They are the result of the trauma of war. Perhaps you should come with me this afternoon to be baptized once again in the Mantaro river, to cleanse your soul from such rambling divagations.”
And so Champi joined Brother Anselmo on his trip to the Mantaro river. About forty men and women were waiting for them, all dressed in white, ready to confess their sins. Brother Anselmo believed in baptism through total immersion, and the men and women sunk their entire bodies in the river as they were baptized. Then it was Champi’s turn. Brother Anselmo placed both hands on his head and prayed for the Holy Spirit to enter his body.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, may all anxiety and tribulation depart from your spirit.”
But Champi remained unconvinced. He himself had seen puka inti appear as his grandfather was killed and then saw him turn into a bird. Surely Presidente Gonzalo was not an ordinary man. Nobody could dissuade him from this belief, not if they tried a thousand times.
After the death of Presidente Gonzalo was officially announced by the Peruvian government, many shared Champi’s questions about whether he was truly dead, and it wasn’t just the peasants in the highlands of Peru who doubted, but also many in the white suburbs of Lima. “Without a corpse, there’s no dead man!” was the mantra repeated day in and day out on Twitter. Yet the government was silent. There were no photographs of the corpse, and the government of President Pedro Castillo – himself a man with ties to Shining Path – refused to turn over the body to his widow Elena Iparraguirre, once known as Comrade Miriam, or to a fellow Shining Path convict, to whom Comrade Miriam had given power of attorney. His lawyer fared no better.
The government’s excuse was that if Presidente Gonzalo was buried like any other man, his burial site would become a place of pilgrimage for his followers and possibly renew effervescence for his cause. But Champi knew better. The government didn’t turn over his body because they never truly had him or because he had transformed himself into a butterfly to escape through the prison bars. It wasn’t a coincidence that at about the same time as his reported death, the news was full of stories about how Sendero was making inroads in the area of Peru known as VRAEM, Spanish acronym for Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers. How convenient, thought Champi, that when puka inti’s Shining Path was returning in full force, the government suddenly announced his death but refused to produce his corpse.
For more than a week, no one knew anything about the whereabouts of Presidente Gonzalo’s cadaver. Given the public’s increasing questions, the authorities announced that it had been placed in a giant freezer to avoid the body’s decomposition. And yet nobody was allowed to see it, not even his surviving relatives, nor was access given to the press. Peruvian law forbade the cremation of prisoners and stated unambiguously that they must be turned over to their heirs at law, so the quandary increased among the citizens of Peru: What did the government intend to do with this frozen corpse? Why did they wait so long to give him a proper burial? After all, other senderista leaders had died in prison and their remains had been promptly turned over to their survivors. Champi became more and more convinced that it was all a massive cover-up, that puka inti was neither dead nor in prison. The fact that the current President had links to the Shining Path guerrillas only increased his certainty that something mysterious was afoot. And when Daniela Ramos, the medical examiner, was finally interviewed, Champi’s suspicions were confirmed. When asked about the cadaver, the woman answered that it was “a decrepit body, very old and quite difficult to recognize.” How could it be difficult to recognize a man whose face had been plastered on the front pages of all of the newspapers in the country for so many years? And yet she was the person who had to officially confirm that the body supposedly found at the Callao Naval Base was that of the terrorist leader.
Soon the crowds converged in front of the building where puka inti’s body was supposedly being held.
“We want to see the body! We want to see the body! We want to see the body! We want to see the body!”
And yet no one was allowed to see the body. Someone on the radio said what Champi already knew.
“In death, as in life, Presidente Gonzalo remains a dark mystical figure.”
Then Champi learned of other news. Congressman Jose Cueto, member of Renovacion Popular, a Christian right-wing party, had appeared at the morgue and demanded to see the body of puka inti. The congressman was told by the medical examiner that he could not see the corpse. He protested, he threatened her, he cried out in anger and still she would not budge. He reminded her that he was a member of Congress, and she told him it didn’t make a difference. It was as if the entire nation had to accept that Presidente Gonzalo had died based on her word and that of a few government officials. Nobody could see the corpse. Then the rumor spread about the country, that he would be incinerated, even though it was strictly forbidden by Peruvian law. After that, it would be impossible to know if the corpse had actually belonged to Presidente Gonzalo or to another. The only thing that would remain would be the nameless ashes thrown into the great Pacific Ocean.
Soon the clamor of the Peruvian populace increased. They demanded proof that the man who had terrorized the country for so many years was actually dead. Among some of the Indian peasants in Champi’s town there was no doubt about it. Puka inti had simply disappeared; he had never died, had simply become a black crow flying across the gray Lima sky. So Champi decided to go to the capital of Ayacucho to hear the news coming from Lima for himself on television. And the news he heard continued to confound him. A journalist by the name of Ricardo Leon described how he and about twenty others had been transported to the morgue unawares by the authorities in the middle of the night in order to prove to them that Presidente Gonzalo was actually dead.
The journalist reported that he and a large group of people had been taken on a van, without being told that they would be shown the cadaver. Finally, they were ushered into a small room, with bright white lights, where there was nothing other than a naked body placed on a metal table. The journalists were forbidden from videotaping anything and had to look at the corpse at a distance of about ten meters from the body. Ricardo noted that from such a distance it was impossible to see the face of the dead person on the table.
When he heard that, Champi turned to another indigenous man sitting next to him in the bar and said, in a voice which was almost mournful, “I knew it. Puka inti is not dead.”
But then the journalist continued.
“The medical examiner moved the body slightly and for a few seconds we could see the face of Presidente Gonzalo. We froze in front of that face, as if the butcher could still hurt us. But he was dead. Still. Totally harmless. His face was somehow placid, not reflecting the state of his soul. Then we were taken to another room where the body was incinerated, never again to haunt the people of Peru.”
“Praise the Lord!” cried out Champi. “Brother Anselmo was right all along. We can return to the days of the wedding feast at Cana, after so many years of tribulation. The long chaqwa is over!”
And yet as he returned on the bus to his village, Champi’s doubts resurfaced. Maybe the corpse was that of puka inti’s double, maybe everybody present at his necropsy was lying to deceive Peru. A few months later there was a terrorist attack in the province of Junin, sixteen soldiers had been killed, and nobody knew who was responsible for the act. Comrade Feliciano had been dead for years, nobody else was caught, and Champi thought the guilty party was Presidente Gonzalo himself. Champi was sure that puka inti would continue to terrorize his country.
So, as usual, he sought solace in Brother Anselmo.
“I need to talk to you,” said Champi.
“What’s worrying you today?”
“There’s been another terrorist attack, this time in the province of Junin.”
“Oh, dear,” said Brother Anselmo. “Come, let’s have a beer.”
Although he was a religious man, and never got intoxicated, he was not averse to having a beer from time to time. They went to the small cantina owned by Doña Juana, one of many businesses that had suddenly appeared, like flowers, after the days of Shining Path occupation. Now there were restaurants, small stores, barber shops and even a nightclub open every Saturday night. And a Catholic church had reappeared, situated in the same place where Father Alvarez had once delivered his sermons before being ousted by Sendero. The Sunday marketplace was thriving like never before, with peasant women selling produce they brought from their small parcels in the highlands.
“You have to understand one thing,” Brother Anselmo said to Champi. “The days of Shining Path domination are over. And they’ve been over for a long time. You have to get rid of your morbid thoughts. Even before Presidente Gonzalo died, life returned to normal. And he’s been dead for several months. He will not return.”
“But I think he’s a supay. How can we ever know that the body they incinerated was really that of puka inti?”
“Don’t you think that if Presidente Gonzalo was still around, la violencia would continue? You’re forgetting that his followers killed thousands upon thousands every year. Now there are sporadic attacks, mainly by those in alliance with the cocaleros. In the last year, there have been no more than twenty deaths. And even the Ashaninkas in the remote jungles have been liberated.”
“Still, what if he returns?” asked Champi as he held his glass of beer with both hands.
“You have to realize that your anxiety isn’t normal. Your faith in Jesus has to be greater than your fear of puka inti. I know that you were scarred when you were but a boy, seeing how your grandfather was murdered, and that since then you have mourned and been terrified by every loss. Like a black snowball that grew and grew with the years, your fear has mounted with each death. But the days of terror are over.”
“But I saw him with my own eyes after they dynamited my Achiyaku, saw him transformed into a kultur who escaped into the sky.”
“Saint Paul said you have to walk by faith and not by sight,” Brother Anselmo replied in a weary voice. “Whatever you saw when you were a boy is not proof that Presidente Gonzalo was a supernatural spirit. The Incas didn’t even think of condors as portents of evil. To the contrary, they thought the condor was a messenger from the heavens. You have to let it go. Let it go, Champi, let it go. Place your hope in Jesus. He can carry you through every storm. Look at Him and not the waves.”
“So you think puka inti won’t come back?”
“I am sure of it. You must remember the words from Isaiah. Be strong, fear not! Rely on God, who comes with vindication. With divine recompense, He comes to save you.”
At that moment, a quechua woman in her fifties interrupted them. She approached them with hesitation, as if she was unsure of what to say.
“You’re the pastor at the local templo, aren’t you?” she asked with great timidity.
“Yes, my name is Brother Anselmo.”
“I’ve thought of reaching out to you for a long time. I live in the neighboring village of Tambo. You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“But I can’t forget your face,” the woman said. “Even after all these years, I still remember you.”
“How can I help you?”
“Until quite recently, I wasn’t even sure you were still alive.” The woman paused, took a deep breath. “I thought – how can I say it? – I thought I had killed you. I was the one who stabbed you while you were selling Bibles in the Plaza de Armas.”
“I remember now,” said Brother Anselmo.
“I never tried to kill anyone else, I promise you. I had just joined Sendero. They demanded I do it to prove I was loyal to Presidente Gonzalo. Then while I was in prison, I found Jesus. I can’t believe I tried to murder someone doing the work of God.”
The woman halted. She averted her eyes from those of Brother Anselmo and gazed at the ground. For a few minutes she was silent. Then she looked up and spoke.
“I wanted to know,” she said in a tremulous voice. “I wanted to know if you could ever forgive me – if you could find it in your heart to forgive me. I need your pardon to find my peace in Christ.”
“You have my blessing,” said Brother Anselmo. “I declare you righteous, forgiven! If the Lord has not retained your sins, who am I to withhold my pardon?”
“Thank you, thank you so much!” the woman said as she kissed Brother Anselmo’s hands and began to weep.
“The people are at peace again, aren’t they?” asked Champi once the woman left. “All the wolves have turned into lambs.”
“Yes! Yes! The lamb has conquered the ravening wolf! All you have to do is look around. Look at the comuneros working happily, happily raising families. You have to put all anxieties aside and just trust God.”
“It’s going to take a while for me to overcome my fears,” said Champi. “I’ve held them all my life.”
“Yes,” replied Brother Anselmo. “It will be a constant struggle. It won’t happen overnight. But the victory is absolutely assured.”