The Great Flood, Mapuche style

Many cultures have a myth of a great flood to purge the world of wickedness, rejuvenate the lands and give man a fresh start. Here is a retelling in English of a Mapuche variant, collected from a reservation in Neuquén.

According to the earth-people, some sixty thousand years ago there lived two enormous serpents. One of these was called Treng-Treng and the other Kai-Kai. Treng-Treng was truly huge, big as a mountain, but he was good and he loved people. Kai-Kai was equally big but he was not very fond of people at all.

One day, for no other reason than plain wickedness, Kai-Kai took it into his head to destroy everything and everybody. He began to shake his enormous body and as he did so he caused all the waters of the seas, rivers and lakes to grow, and the world started to flood.

But Treng-Treng loved the earth-people and quickly came to their help, engaging with Kai-Kai in fierce combat. As the water level grew higher and higher, Treng-Treng arched his back more and more, whistling loudly as he did so. Hearing his whistle, the people quickly ran towards him and climbed on to his back to escape the rising waters.

The two serpents battled for days on end, one lashing the waters with his tail, causing the water to grow higher and higher, while the other thrust his back further and further out of the water so the people could escape drowning.

Not all the earth-people survived. The more timid ones were petrified through shock, and their remains can be seen today in the human shaped rocks that still lie around the earth-people’s lands. Others were so angry that the water wouldn’t stop rising that their fury turned them into savage beasts, wild cats and boar. Yet others were too slow to climb out of the reach of the rising tide and were turned into fish and reptiles.

So high did Treng-Treng raise his back to save the earth-people from the water that he almost touched the sun. The few earth-people who were perched right on the crest of his back had their hair burned off and that’s why there are bald people today.

Finally Kai-Kai tired of writhing and fighting and slunk away. The waters began to go down and slowly Treng-Treng lowered his arched back. The few earth-people who had survived were able to return to their land.

They saw straight away that it was now a much better and cleaner place. The grass was green and fresh, the trees were in flower and the air was pure. In short, the earth had been rejuvenated. There were no more timid and fearful people; these had all been turned into rocks. There were no more quick tempered people; these had been turned into wild animals. Everything was better than before.

In time the surviving earth-people had children and grandchildren, and these in turn had more children, and soon the land was once again full of people. In fact all the earth-people today come from the few survivors who were saved by Treng-Treng. And there is a story that every so many thousand years, when the earth is old and tired, Kai-Kai will be back to cause trouble. But Treng-Treng will always be around to help (even though he is at present fast asleep and often mistaken for a mountain covered with trees and shrubs) and will once again save all the patient and stronghearted.

The city of Esteco

Few today have heard of Esteco. The records tell us that the first colony of that name was built on the western banks of the Pasaje river, some eight leagues to the south of El Quebrachal, in the province of Salta. When the city of Talavera was founded in 1567 the people of the earlier settlement re-established themselves there, giving it the name of Esteco Nueva, or New Esteco. It is to this second city that our tale relates.

The city of Esteco soon became the pride of northern Argentina; rich and powerful, and set in the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. Succulent fruit sprang from its fertile soil, to be eaten off the finest gold and silver plate. But all was not well. Scornful of outsiders, its citizens competed with each other in their ostentatious behaviour and their dedication to the pleasures of life, while slaves and beggars – for this was a long time ago – were treated with contempt and a total disregard for even the most basic human rights and dignity.

Over the years, Esteco grew increasingly decadent. The bells in the church towers tolled each morning in vain, for who, after a night’s wanton debauchery, would get up early for mass? Far better to lie abed until the cool of the late afternoon and then stroll through the Esteco streets, bejewelled and bedecked with their latest finery, all a flutter of furs, lace and pearls. It would all too soon be time for another night’s revels to begin. The churches were as empty as the minds of the citizens, but while behind the church doors all was peace and tranquillity, the halls of the city resounded with shouts and cries of dissolute abandon.

Years passed, and the Eighteenth Century dawned. One sultry evening, an elderly and infirm missionary arrived in Esteco, drawn by the infamy of this vain and vacuous place. Weak from his long and arduous journey and with the dust of his travels still clinging to his clothes the frail old man shuffled from door to door in the habit of a mendicant friar. Unsurprisingly, every door slammed shut in his face, to the accompaniment of cruel and uncivil remarks.

But the old man was determined to continue, to see whether there might not be one charitable soul, one glimmer of hope in this den of iniquity. Slowly, with increasing hunger but indefatigable purpose, he continued in his rounds. And at last he was rewarded. Right on the eastern edge of the city a woman who lived alone with her infant son invited him in to her humble home, where she sacrificed her last remaining hen to provide food for the elderly traveller.

Fired by the woman’s compassion, and perhaps also fuelled by the sustenance she had provided, Father Bárzana – for it was he – harangued the people of the town from the market place, from the street corners, from the entrances and pulpits of the empty churches, entreating them to return to the ways of Christianity. But his words continued to fall on stony ground.

Preaching in the market place, the friar told the people of Esteco that their city would soon be destroyed by an earthquake and that this would be a punishment for their unholy life and their unwillingness to repent. His warning was greeted with derisory laughs and from that moment on his life became unbearable. Wherever he went, people would jeer and joke about the end of the world. There was even a spate of ‘earthquake’ parties, at which the revellers made fun of him and his faith.

Finally, the old man realised that there was nothing more he could do. He went to the house of the poor woman who had helped him and ordered her to leave her house before dawn on the following day, taking her son with her. Before the sun was high in the sky she would hear the most terrible sounds; the sky would turn red, the earth would crack open and the city of Esteco would be swallowed up for eternity. Provided she did not look back, she and her son would be safe. But if she succumbed to curiosity they would also be punished.

The woman heeded the friar’s warning, and before the sun arose she was well on her way with her son bundled up in her arms. After a few hours on the road, just as the old man had told her, she watched the sky turn crimson and heard behind her the thunder of buildings crashing to the ground, the furious roar of flames and the crack of the earth itself splitting wide open.

Such was the ferocity of the holocaust that she could soon feel the heat of the fire on her back and through the deafening blast could clearly make out the shrieks and screams of the dying citizens of Esteco as they tried in vain to escape their destiny. Distracted by terror and the very real fear that she and her son might yet fail to escape the fate of her fellow citizens she let her curiosity get the better of her and, momentarily forgetting the warning of Father Bárzana, turned to contemplate the devastation of what had once been the city of Esteco.

As she turned, infant son in her arms, she froze on the spot, instantly transformed to solid stone. And there she stands to this day, in the shape of a massive rock structure that requires little imagination to discern the forms of the mother and her babe in arms. Recognisable from afar by all travellers in the area, there are those who say that every year she takes one step further in the direction of Salta, the city to which she was fleeing when she so unwisely looked back.

As for the city of Esteco and its inhabitants, destroyed by earthquake in 1692, nothing remains but this tale.


La Maldonada

Back in 1536 or thereabouts Don Pedro de Mendoza lay on his sick bed pondering the string of fortunes and misfortunes that had brought him on such an long and eventful journey, across that wide and inhospitable ocean, at the orders of his King and Emperor, Charles V.

Don Pedro was thinking back over the events of his life. The surrender in Toledo, his departure in San Lúcar de Barrameda the following year, the attempts against his life, the trial and execution of John Osorio, so many things . . . And finally, the foundation of this new city, Santa María de los Buenos Aires, in February 1536, the 2nd was it ? Or the 3rd ? He cared little now, anyway. He cared little for anything these days, except the thought of his next meal.

The officers and soldiers in his company and the seven or eight women who had accompanied them from the motherland, were as desperate as he was. Their strength and courage were not wanting, but like their leader they were trapped in the daily necessity to eat . . . and equally unable to find anything of sustenance. All these herbs and sand were no good for hungry Spaniards, and the meagre rations that Ayolas was able to scrape together were every day more miserable and less satisfying. Although forbidden, they had even sacrificed their horses in order to survive, as they sat there, helplessly contemplating the immense river, which beat against the coast as a constant reminder of the impossibility of their return.

And such is the degradation of man that they were reduced to stealing from each other; snatching at the frogs and snakes or the rotting meat from the dead animals they found lying around. In their desperation even family ties meant little: father stole from son, brother from brother, husband from wife. Such morals as they had once possessed seemed to have been wiped out by the spectre of famine, and robbery and assault had become a way of life.

A soldier called Maldonado was hanged, no one now remembers why, and his wife, unable to face a life alone and in starvation, decided to leave the settlement and throw herself on the mercy of the Indians she had seen from time to time on the outskirts of their new town. Frightened and desperate, she thought that these strange people might have more pity on her than her fellow Europeans.

One evening she left the camp, and following the coast came to a place called Punta Goda, in the area known today as Monte Grande. As night came on she looked for somewhere to sleep and seeing a likely cave in the hillside she boldly made her way inside.

Now life was more dangerous in those days than it is today, and perhaps Maldonado’s widow was made of stronger stuff than many of us. However, she was surely not prepared for the surprise that awaited her. For, as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw a pair of gleaming, phosphorescent eyes that seemed to move in the dark, cutting off her only exit.

Terrified, she crouched still, and heard a low growl as if of an animal in pain, followed by what could only be described as a purring sound. But no cat could have eyes that size, and she slowly realised that she must be enclosed in the cave with what the Spaniards called a lion, and what we today would call a puma.

Who knows how many hours they spent together in that cave, woman and feline, nor which was the more frightened of the two. Poor Maldonada squatted petrified until the first shafts of morning sum began to filter into the cave and she could see that it was indeed a puma, a female puma, very fat and very pregnant.

Maldonada began to edge her way to the entrance of the cave. But the movement evidently disturbed the cat who, now clearly visible on a ledge some two metres above, stood, stretched, snarled and prepared to pounce on the unfortunate woman. But at that very moment the ledge gave way beneath the animal, which fell gracelessly, and painfully to the floor of the cave, apparently unable to move. Its snarls of fury turned into whimpers of pain, then silence.

The woman could now see quite clearly that the puma was about to give birth, and was in a very poor state to do so. No longer afraid of the semi-conscious cat, she set to help and in a short while the mother was delivered of two fine cubs. The puma soon recovered consciousness but by some divine luck seemed to be aware of the part that Maldonada had played in the birth of her cubs and to accept her as one of her family, bringing her meat to eat as if she were one of the cubs she had helped into the world.

And so she stayed in the cave for several weeks until one day, when she had gone to drink at the river, she was suddenly surrounded by a group of Indians. She fought desperately to be allowed to stay with her new-found family, but in vain, and the Indians carried her off. Meanwhile, back in the Spanish camp, nothing more had been heard of Maldonada, although a story had been going round that one of the Indian Chiefs had taken her for his wife.

Time went by. Pedro de Mendoza survived the famine and eventually left for Spain, never getting there of course because as we all know he died on the high seas in June of 1537. The new Governor of Buenos Aires was now a certain Francisco Ruiz de Galán, a severe and inflexible man who everyone feared and many hated. Indeed the people came to blame Don Francisco for all the hostile animals and the ubiquitous Indians who made their life such a misery and made it almost impossible for them to leave the safety of their encampment.

One day one of the captains, on an exploratory mission with a group of soldiers in Indian land, came across a white woman and brought her back to the town. It was Maldonada, and surrounded once again by her own people, many of whom well remembered her flight, she was happy to tell her story, and happier still to be safely back amongst her own kind.

But the new Governor saw things in a very unfavourable light. To have chosen to leave the encampment for Indian lands was for him the gravest of crimes, punishable only by death. Nothing would make him change his mind, neither the pleadings of his nearest and dearest nor the rational arguments of his wisest advisors. He gave orders for the wretched woman to be taken a league or so outside the town and left tied to a tree, to be devoured by wild animals. The soldiers had no choice but to obey, and unwillingly carried her off to her fate.

And so once again the poor woman spent a night alone with wild beasts. That night so many wild animals gathered around her defenceless body that the growls and roaring kept the townspeople awake. Nobody slept a wink, and at dawn the townspeople, with a few soldiers for protection, hurried to the tree to see what had happened.

There was Maldonada, still tied to the tree, still alive. At her feet a lion stood watch accompanied by two cubs. The weary animal silently moved aside to let the men in to untie the woman’s thongs. It was the lion from the cave of course, the lion that the woman had helped in that difficult moment. Scratched and bleeding still, the lion had fought off all the other wild beasts in order to protect her benefactor and thus repay the favour.

The Magic Ball

The story of Aylen, Nahuel and the Magic Ball

This was an attempt to recapture the style and language of books I read as a child.

Long, long ago, there was a wicked witch who lived in the eastern foothills of the snow-capped Andes. For much of the year she was harmless for she would sleep through most of the spring, summer and autumn, but each year, as soon the first snowfall began to dust the lower slopes she woke up, hungry and ready for her first meal of the winter.

And each year, as wintertime drew on, the people in the valley became more and more frightened, because winter after winter their children were vanishing without trace. One moment they were there in the village, or playing in the nearby fields, and then suddenly they were gone, never to be seen again. The villagers all suspected that it was the witch who was stealing their children, but they had no idea how she did this, or what she did with the children she spirited away.

The witch had a secret – a sparkly, brightly coloured, magic ball, very attractive to children but quite invisible to grown-ups, or those whom the witch did not want to see it. Such was the power of this ball, and so great the children’s desire to play with it, that they would throw all caution to the wind and follow it anywhere.

One day two small children, Aylen and Nahuel, were playing by a lake in the foothills, about half a league from their home. Aylen suddenly spotted the shiny ball in the long grass and ran towards it with a shriek of excitement. But just as she bent down to pick it up the ball rolled forward just beyond her grasp, rolling gently a little further in the direction of the hillside.

Again Aylen tried to pick it up, and again it seemed to blow out of her reach, like a leaf in the autumn wind. Nahuel, who I should have told you was her brother, tried too, but he had no better luck. The two of them spent a happy ten minutes or so chasing the ball, but each time they thought they had it in their hands it rolled a little further forward. And, although they didn’t realise it, each attempt was taking them just a little bit closer to the mountain slopes.

The two children stopped for a moment to decide what to do. It really was time to be setting off for home, but somehow the desire to hold the ball or to follow it seemed to take over their common sense.

The shiny ball had come to rest for a while by a stream, lying under a bush lush with tempting red berries. The children were not slow to eat some of the fruit and wash it down with cool, fresh water, before setting off once more in pursuit of the elusive ball.

And so the afternoon wore on, with Aylen and Nahuel taking it in turns to chase the ball, albeit with no success, alongside the bubbling mountain stream as it ascended gently through the valley. What they didn’t really notice was that the ball kept stopping in places where there was fruit to eat and fresh water to drink –which they were unable to resist– and that it was taking them closer and closer to the steep mountainside.

They followed the ball alongside the brook into another valley where the sides of a canyon rose beside them as they made their way higher. It was darker here, and the landscape was much wilder, with stark rocks scattered among the sparse vegetation. Patches of snow were beginning to appear and flakes of snow were blowing up around them. Still the ball rolled on, more slowly now, until –as the air became colder and crisper– it finally rolled up against a black rock and stopped.

Aylen picked up the glittering ball and cradled it in the palm of her hands. As she gazed into the crystal depths of the magic ball, all flecked with gold and silver like the finest marble, the surface gradually clouded over and then, like a soap bubble, suddenly burst, leaving her hands holding … nothing. In fear and disappointment she began to cry, and her brother, finding that her hands were frozen, led her round to the northern side of the rock where she was sheltered from the bitter wind.

Aylen leant back against the side of the mountain and quickly dropped into a deep sleep. Nahuel sat beside her holding her hand and wondering what to do. “As soon as she wakes up”, he thought, “we must get back home”. But he too was beginning to feel drowsy, and after wresting for a while with increasingly heavy eyelids he too soon dropped off.

Some hours later Nahuel awoke and wandered down to the stream to wash his face and drink some refreshing water. Lying in the safety of the stone refuge her brother had found for her, Aylen was dreaming that she was safe in bed at home, her mother sitting beside her combing her hair. But her mother must have been angry with her, as she was tugging her hair roughly and hurting her so badly that she gave a whimper of pain and woke up.

She tried to get to her feet, but couldn’t move her head. Somehow her hair seemed to have become tied up in the rock and bushes where she was lying, or perhaps frozen to the rock. The wicked witch was weaving her magic, but would wait until dark for her dinner.

Nahuel heard his sister and ran towards her, but as he came close he came up against an invisible wall, soft yet firm, that would not let him go forward. He could see Aylen in front of him, small and frightened, but although he could hear her sad little voice he could not reach her.

“Nahuel, help me. I’m frightened!” cried Aylen through the invisible wall the wicked witch had made.

“I can’t”, said Nahuel. “There’s something stopping me. It’s like a fence you can’t see. I can see you but I can’t get through”.

“Can’t you climb over it?” asked Aylen.

“No”, replied Nahuel, “it seems to go up and up. What can we do”?

At that moment a large white owl flew slowly over their heads, and as it circled sang out to the children:

You can undo this wicked deed
Fire and heat are what you need.

“Did you hear that?” asked Aylen through her sobbing.

“Yes, Aylen”, replied her brother.

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know”, said Nahuel.

“Fire and heat. Why do we need fire and heat?” sniffled Aylen.

“I think it means that the terrible things in this valley are afraid of fire”.

“Then we have to get hold of some fire. But where?” asked Aylen.

“I’ll go and look. You stay here, and don’t move”, Nahuel said, showing no sign of movement.

Which was a fine thing to say, thought Aylen, who was completely unable to move even if she tried, but she didn’t say anything.

Just then a huge Condor swooped down and as it glided by they heard him call from on high:

Burning fire her death will stay.
Follow me, I know a way

“I have to go”, cried Nahuel. “The condor must know something, and seems to want me to follow him. I’ll be back before nightfall”.

The Condor was circling above the children, as if waiting for Nahuel, to guide him.

“Yes, go and get fire”, said Aylen, in what she hoped was a brave voice. She certainly didn’t feel very brave.

She watched Nahuel set off down the hill, following the Condor, who glided from rock to rock, glancing behind to make sure the little boy was following him.

The big bird seemed to know where he was going, and Nahuel followed him along the stream, down the hill, until the stream reached a larger river. There he saw a little woodcutter’s cottage, with wisps of smoke puffing lazily from the chimney.

As Nahuel reached the door of the cottage the Condor soared into the sky and flew back over the mountains, until he was just a speck in the sky. It was as if his work was over. The door was ajar and Nahuel knocked timidly but there seemed to be nobody there. More boldly, he pushed the door open.

The cottage was empty, but clearly someone lived there. The fire was still going, but there was very little wood left so Nahuel did what he would do in his own home, that is he went out and gathered twigs and branches to build up the fire and fill the wood store. He filled his pockets and shoulder bag with kindling, and seeing that the water buckets were empty he also took those and filled them with clean water from the stream.

Back in the house he used his fire making skills and soon had a better fire burning. Exhausted by his efforts, he lay on the floor in front of the fire he had made and almost immediately fell asleep.

When he awoke he saw a man sitting on a three-legged stool, sipping from a mate and looking pensive. He offered some bread to Nahuel, and passed him the mate. Nahuel ate and drank greedily, while the woodcutter peered closely at him. As he ate and drank, Nahuel told the old man about his poor sister, breaking into tears, as he thought of poor Aylen all alone on the mountainside.

“It’s the work of the wicked old witch of the mountain”, muttered the woodcutter as Nahuel told his tale. “Tell me boy, how can we rescue your sister?”

Remembering what the Condor had said, Nahuel repeated “burning fire her death will stay”.

“Ah yes”, said the man, “the Condor is old and wise and always knows what to do”.

And at that moment the Condor, who had been back to the mountain to see how Aylen was, appeared at the doorway and called out:

The freezing cold now saps her will
But burning fire can save her still

It was clear what to do. The old man gave Nahuel a burning stick from the fire, and Nahuel ran out of the house, retracing his steps back up the mountainside to where his sister lay.

He came to a small lake. It didn’t seem very deep, and to save time he decided to wade through it. But as he ran the water splashed up on either side and after a few minutes the stick had become so wet that the water put out the flames. Feeling wretched, Nahuel turned round and ran back to the woodcutter’s cottage.

“Please give me a second stick”. I was foolish and the fire went out. This time I’ll run around the lake”.

The Condor, who was still there perched on a gatepost, called out:

Only fire can save her now
You have to get it there somehow

The woodcutter poked around in the fire and gave him a second stick, and this time Nahuel ran carefully around the edge of lake where he had lost the fire before, through bog and marsh and up the mountainside where his sister awaited him, only pausing to catch his breath.

But as he reached the place where the snow started he slipped on a patch of ice, and putting out his hands to steady his fall he thrust the burning stick into the deepening snow. Rising to his feet he saw he was now holding a charred, black useless stick. Crestfallen, he once again turned round and ran back to the woodcutter’s cottage.

The old man was waiting for him, and was pleased to give him a third chance. Just then the Condor flew back, and they listened to what he had to say:

The cold, cold night is drawing on
Without fire she’ll soon be gone

For the third time Nahuel set off, back up the mountainside, this time clutching the burning stick so tightly that his hand ached. Carefully he made his way through lake and marsh, hill and valley, until once again he reached the place where the snow started.

It was so slippery that he could hardly walk, and poor Nahuel was frightened that he would drop the burning branch in the snow again. But at that moment a pure white flamingo appeared by his side and ran beside him, wings spread wide. Nahuel put his free hand on one of her wings, and thus balanced, he was able to continue on his way.

Faster and faster the flamingo hurried, and Nahuel gripped her tighter and tighter. Suddenly he found his feet were no longer touching the ground. The flamingo was flying now, and the two of them were soaring up the last bit of mountain to where Aylen lay.

Nahuel was hanging on to the flamingo for dear life, and could see the burning stick, fanned into flames by the wind as they few, burning the poor flamingo’s neck and breast badly. But the noble bird did not complain and very soon they arrived at the rock where Aylen was lying. As Nahuel approached with the burning stick in his hand he found that the invisible wall was no match for the fire, and with only a little difficulty he was by his sister’s side.

He threw the burning stick into some dry moss at the foot of the rock. The moss crackled and hissed, and suddenly burst into a small flame. In his pocket and shoulder bag he still had some twigs and small sticks that he had gathered for the woodcutter, and with some fanning and blowing he soon had a blazing fire.

Suddenly there was a great crack, a horrible scream and the rock split into a thousand pieces, breaking the witch’s spell and freeing Aylen. The little girl hugged the flamingo, trying to soothe its burns, but for all her efforts she could not completely heal the poor bird and to this day its descendants carry in their crimson feathers the marks of this one bird’s bravery.

The wicked witch was never heard of again. Some say she crossed over the Andes and went to play her tricks in another land. As for Aylen and Nahuel, they lived long in that quiet valley in the foothills among the birds they loved, and the shiny coloured ball soon became a distant memory.