Death in the Andes

By Nicholas Asheshov

The hot tap in our bathroom is on the right-hand side, not the left like everyone else’s. The windows on the verandah overlooking the wood don’t shut properly or those that do can’t be opened, and the fireplace in the study smokes when we light it, as now, in the winter.

In other words, Anselmo, our handyman, had been at work. He was a friendly, willing soul who brought kittens for the children and who was always available to do his best to mend a doorknob, fix the wheel on the llama cart or unblock the drains.

But Anselmo is dead, killed in one of those accidents endemic to life in the provinces.

He was working on the construction of a small building in Urubamba on what was to be a balcony. He was carrying a couple of those long steel construction rods and as he swung round they connected with a high-tension line drooping, illegally of course, just over the rooftops.

The shock must have killed him instantly. In any case it knocked him off the balcony 10 metres to the concrete below which crushed his skull.

There was no investigation into the constructor, the electricity company or the municipality. The wife and daughters whom he had supported could barely be persuaded to come to the funeral which my wife organized.

A week or so earlier there had been a big funeral in Urubamba for four prominent fruit-sellers in the market who had died when their lorry, full of tropical fruit had gone over a precipice on its way here from the Valle de Lares. It seems that the brakes failed but no one really knows.

This same institutionalized carelessness saw me, accompanied by my boy William, attending the funeral of a three-year-old, the son of one of our employees, Alejandro Huaman, on a sad New Year’s Day.

The simple coffin of the child was painted white and was on a couple of portable worn old bronze coffin-stands with a disconsolate group of family on the steps of the old church in the Plaza de Armas. We had to wait for a half-hour because the priest had forgotten the key.

Looking at the coffin, Huaman said every few minutes. “He was one metre twenty. “Then he would add, “He would be three today. It was his birthday.”

The child had died after drinking Parathion, a pesticide that the Urubamba agro-products store told me later had lately been discontinued as “too strong” and “against the environment”.

Pesticides are routinely retailed in small quantities at market stalls and corner stores here and is often taken away as powder in a paper bag and mixed in the same kind of plastic containers as those in which chicha or aguardiente are stored

The Huamans were hard-working and reliable people, as we assured the District Attorney, who left it at that. As Huaman kept saying at the church, “He was our only child.”

The little boy had been left in the care of an 11-year-old nephew in a maize field next to us. The child had taken a drink of Parathion and the nephew had run off to find Alejandro.

Eventually it was our pick-up that rushed Alejandro and the baby into the Seguro Social a few blocks away. But the baby was dead on arrival.

The priest arrived and the sexton tolled the bell as the dreary service began. When it ended we walked the half-mile through the town under a harsh midday sun to the cemetery, stopping at each corner for a prayer.

There were a few more prayers at the niche into which the coffin would be slid. A neighbour knocked a few final nails into the coffin, a dreadful sound.

Then the young, pleasant-looking mother was allowed to fall on the coffin for her farewell.

“Please, my son, wake up, wake up.” My boy William, like everyone else, watched in stony silence.

The great snow peaks and glaciers of the Chicon massif stood nearly ten thousand feet above.

Outside the cemetery, they drank some ritual chicha but the Huamans weren’t the drinking type and they soon walked slowly off, a little apart from each other, into the afternoon. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of July 5, 2008

 

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