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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: South America (02/05/09)

TITLE: Illapa Dances Behind My Eyes
By Jan Ackerson


I’ve had this blasted headache for three days now. If I were home in Chicago, I’d hibernate in my dark and quiet apartment, with plenty of aspirin on hand and one of the many willing and lovely grad students to pamper me. Here in this tiny, primitive Peruvian village, the Indians are probably still making herbal remedies reeking of roots and dung. My doctoral thesis is on the mythology of the Inca, and living in the shadow of Machu Picchu has certainly provided me with the necessary atmosphere—but I find that I miss civilization. I am surrounded in this tiny room by mildewing books and crumbling fragments of pictographs—is it any wonder, then, that Illapa, the god of thunder and lightning, is dancing behind my eyes?

One day, Illapa was carrying his jug full of stars when he fell…no, make that ‘stumbled’…stumbled on a mountain. The jug of stars fell from his hands, shattering on the sharp rocks below. The stars fell down to earth, but they changed to…the pictograph shows ‘cloud’—changed to cloud?—no, to rain…but they changed to rain. Illapa grew angry, and he stomped…

I’m distracted from my translation by noises outside. My little thatched house has no glass in its one window; I poke my head outside to see a child of about six or seven years carrying a protesting chicken down the dirt road. He is barefooted, and his nose is running. His life here must be very like that of his Incan ancestors—brutal, filthy, diseased.

Despite my academic interest in the lively gods of this region, I believe that I’d have been an agnostic Incan, just as I’m an agnostic Chicagoan—there is cold comfort in gods whose only purpose is to explain misfortunes of the weather. If I were in the business of inventing gods, I’d invent one who was more concerned with how people were treating each other than with creating thunder and lightning.

The boy is singing as he carries his prize into a small white building across the road. The chicken squawks, and after a few seconds, I hear a thunk, then silence. Lucky chicken--my head continues to pound. Perhaps a different translation…

Supay left the underworld of Uca Pacha to find something to…burn? consume? No, it’s ‘eat’, or maybe ‘devour’…He snatched up llamas and rheas…note to self—check translations for native wildlife… ‘llama’ is possibly some other large mammal…but they did not satisfy his hunger. Supay scooped up some water from the river to quench his great thirst when a voice from the water called out…

There are voices outside my window again. I look out, annoyed at the interruption to my work. The little boy is still there, and he’s been joined by perhaps a dozen Indians in their colorfully woven clothing. They are all singing now—some dissonant melody no doubt descended through generations of post-Incan Peruvians. I pity these people, who seem not to have evolved in several hundred years. Just as their song finishes, I start to cough, a deep chesty bark that won’t stop. When the paroxysm finally passes, I glance outside one more time. Several of the natives are staring in my direction.

I wish for the millionth time that my doctoral advisor had let me do as I wished—to study these myths in the comfort of a paneled cubicle, with my computer and my iPod. The Incan pantheon—Catequil, Pachamama, Ekkeko—is full of fascinating personalities. This little village is not.

Another spasm of coughing shakes me, and when at last I look up, an Indian woman is standing in my doorway, holding a steaming pot of…something. She speaks to me in her native tongue—I can translate half a dozen pre-Columbian hieroglyphic languages, but I have no idea what she has just said. She holds out the pot and tries again, this time in Spanish: Aquí esta alguna sopa, señor, in el nombre de bendito Jesus Cristo. Para la tos suyo. She is offering me soup—chicken soup, I guess, remembering that squawk from earlier—for my cough, in the name of blessed Jesus.

Suddenly I want nothing more than this very cup of chicken soup, offered humbly in the name of a surprising god. I accept it from the woman with a hoarse gracias, señora and she smiles shyly. She is missing several teeth, and she is perhaps fifty, perhaps seventy--and it seems to me that she is very beautiful.

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This article has been read 1352 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Chely Roach02/12/09
This was superb. I love the wit of the MC ("lucky chicken" made me laugh out loud). The humor was mixed masterfully with the tender ending. Awesome.
Lynda Schultz 02/12/09
Very good story—looks like the "great unwashed" have something important to tell the well-educated agnostic after all!
Seema Bagai 02/13/09
The MC in this piece has a great voice.
Joanne Sher 02/14/09
Excellent characterization and message. Powerful.
Connie Dixon02/16/09
I'm with your MC. I would have wanted to study from a cubicle also. Chicken soup? Are you sure? Great story - wonderful descriptions......amazing.
Margaret Gass02/16/09
I like the juxtaposition between "advanced" and primitive--using ipods and computers from a cubicle to study people lacks the human touch, which the MC needs to truly understand his subject...and his real need: to set aside his agnosticism and trust in a simple gift of love. Well done!
Bryan Ridenour02/17/09
Excellent writing. Honestly, I'm grateful that I will be in advanced...Your writing is just too good! :)
Verna Cole Mitchell 02/17/09
Having studied that same general area, I loved the creative approach you used to tell about the country and its people. There are so many levels to the story, and you excelled at all of them.
Benjamin Graber02/18/09
Jan, this is an excellent piece of writing. I'm left with a sense of wonder once again... :-)
Dee Yoder 02/18/09
I've been in his shoes with the "lucky chicken' thing. This is funny and touching, Jan. I like that you came at this story from a perspective other than the missionary, yet wove the Christian POV in through a lovely example of kindness. Totally unique.
Laury Hubrich 02/18/09
Oh! I've been wanting to be in this chicken's place, for sure. But anyway- love this piece. And there certainly is something universally comforting about chicken soup. Lovely writing as always.
Diana Dart 02/18/09
Your MC's voice was so authentic - I loved the grumbling and questions amid the translating. Great piece with a nice, surprising ending.
Shirley McClay 02/18/09
Excellent as always, Jan! I loved the background of the chicken woven into it. From the boy at the beginning and the MC's disgust and pity now "beautiful" older lady offering the comforting chicken soup in His name. Hmmm... maybe even a shadowing of Christ's sacrifice? Or am I reading into it?
Marlene Austin02/18/09
Love your title. A beautiful telling of a highly detailed piece. : )
Sonya Leigh02/19/09
Wow, so vivid...way to draw in the reader. Excellent writing.
Angela M. Baker-Bridge02/19/09
Amazing how many details, facts, emotions, insights, and beliefs you were able to weave into 750 words! Oh yeah, and several smiles too :)
Benjamin Graber02/19/09
Congratulations, Jan!
Janice Fitzpatrick02/19/09
This is amazing. I love the voice of the MC and I always love your humor in your writing Jan! :0) Congratulations!Yor pieces move me to inspiration. Now, if I can just get my creative juices flowing ahead of time and not the night before or two hours before deadline. (Unfortuanately, I have many stories that didn't flow until the last minute so they remain quiet expressions of the heart.):0)
God bless ya hon!
Leah Nichols 02/19/09
I felt that I was somehow cheated out of the rest of the story....and yet the ending does come to a satisfying conclusion as one can assume that he changes his perspective and finds Christ. Definitely one that makes you think!
Of course, a first place win is not a surprise when it comes from the amazing Jan Ackerson!
Sharon Kane02/25/09
Awesome writing! I was caught up in the story from start to finish. Congratulations on a brilliant first place.
Joshua Janoski04/20/09
I love how this educated MC learned something from one of the poor villagers that he didnt think very highly of. Great lesson in this.