Sendero by Max Tomlinson, First Chapter

May 2, 2012

Novel Excerpts

Max Tomlinson, author of Sendero
1987— Huañin, Peru

The day the soldiers came, Nina was with her brother, sowing potatoes on terraces the Incas had built. She remembered thick clouds, heavy with moisture, roiling up over the jagged Andean peaks. It was colder than usual, and her bare feet had grown numb in the furrows as she followed Miguel with the cloth full of cut potato eyes. She was twelve.
“Papi says there’s already ice on the river,” Nina said in Quechua.
“En español, chica.” Miguel was bent over in front of her, breaking open the ground with a wooden hoe. Nina sensed his frustration, for there were places a sixteen-year-old would rather be. Two kilometers below, the Río Apurimac thundered off the canyon walls. “Speaking to the apu,” Mamá would say—the spirit of the mountain.
“Where is Mamá?” Miguel said, hacking away. “She was gone this morning before I got up.”
“She went to make an offering,” Nina said in careful Spanish. Nina had felt the cramps in her belly for the first time yesterday, and Mamá said it meant she was now a woman. Lying on her mat in their little adobe early this morning, Nina had listened to Mamá’s feet padding back and forth across the hard-packed dirt floor, knowing she was about to hike up to the summit with an offering, to thank the apu for her daughter’s blood and to ask it to protect her from the soldiers, who were already eyeing her when they patrolled the village, looking for terrucos of the Shining Path.
“Offering!” Nina saw Miguel’s back tighten beneath the faded red and white Peru soccer jersey as he slashed dirt out of the furrow. “So that’s why we have less seed!”
Throwing down the hoe, he turned around. He had their father’s face, lighter-skinned than Nina, who looked more like their Indian mother, and she could see the flush of anger. He pushed his long black hair back with earth-covered fingers. Even in this cold, he didn’t wear the knit chullo with earflaps, or the rough alpaca chompa that others wore. “Isn’t it enough that half our crops fail or that the soldiers take what’s left? No, she has to squander what little we have on sacrifices . . . to a mountain!”
“But she does it for us,” Nina said.
Miguel’s face relaxed, and he became a younger version of Papi again—a man people felt good just being around. It came to Nina that people were like the sky: cloudy one moment, sunny the next. “You know, Nina,” he said, grinning, “in Cuzco they have much better ways of wasting money: cafés, discos . . . girls.”
“You’re not leaving yet, are you?” The cloth of potato eyes jiggled a little in her hands. With all the fighting between the terrucos and the soldiers, more and more people were fleeing the mountains for the pueblos jóvenes—the shantytowns that grew up like weeds around the cities.
“And leave little Llama Eyes for the wolves?” Llamas had the most beautiful eyes of any animal: large and brown and glistening. Pulling his hair back into a tail, Miguel tied it with a piece of string and picked up the hoe. “Is that what’s bothering you?” He stood up and slung the battered tool over his shoulder as one might a rifle. “Don’t worry, Papi and I will make sure the soldiers and the senderistas are long gone before I go make my fortune.”
“What’s wrong with living here?” Nina said.
“Nothing, if you don’t like electricity or hot water—oh, and maybe a little excitement.”
“I see,” she said, folding up her cloth of seed potatoes, holding it in one hand on her hip. “So you want to be a big shot like Uncle Oscar, selling coca paste to Colombian thugs?”
Miguel shook his head. “No, Ninasisa. I’ll make my fortune the legal way. I won’t spend my life running from the police and militares and dealing with those narco pigs.”
“How long will you stay, Miguel?” It was a question she found herself asking more and more.
“Until you have a husband. And that might be a very long time indeed.” He gave her a playful frown. “I mean, who would want you?”
Miguel laughed, and they went back to planting. And for a while, it didn’t seem as cold, and all Nina could hear was the river’s deep voice rumbling thousands of meters below. She thought of Mamá, burning seed potatoes and coca leaves and crumbled cigarettes. To keep Papi healthy. To keep Miguel here. To keep Nina’s virtue safe when the soldiers came. To keep them all from harm.
While they worked, the air sharpened with the late-afternoon chill.
Then, like ice snapping underfoot, a rifle shot cracked in the distance and echoed through the canyon, high and lonely.
The shot sent a chill down Nina’s back as it reverberated off the canyon walls.
Soldiers. Huañin wasn’t a Shining Path village—not yet, anyway. If it were, the villagers would have been raped and killed and the whole place burned to the ground. But things were getting worse. Last week, terrucos attacked a patrol by the hanging bridge, killing two soldiers. The week before, they beheaded the doctor in Pampahuaya for adultery and blew up the post office in Cheqquerec with explosives strapped to the back of a burro. But for all the soldiers that came, there seemed to be more and more who agreed to the cuota, the Shining Path’s pledge to give one’s life in sacrifice to Abimael Guzmán and the people’s army. Miguel called them the “mad Maoists,” but only among family—and quietly even then.
A woman’s shriek pierced the air—far off but familiar.
“Mamá!” Nina whispered hoarsely. She thought of Mamá’s tense features illuminated over a fire in the predawn, mumbling prayers up on the mountain.
In front of her, Miguel froze. Had Mamá’s prayers not been answered?
Nina saw her brother turn slowly, ashen faced, almost as if he himself had been shot. They stared at each other in silence.
Then they heard another distant cry, deep-throated and hoarse. Willian, Papi’s friend. He was shouting at the soldiers.
“¡Bastardos!” he was calling them for shooting his friend.
And Nina saw her father’s same dark fire in Miguel’s eyes, as if it had flowed into him from the body it was leaving behind. It was as clear to her as the snow that would soon be coming: her father was dead. She dropped her cloth of potato eyes and broke into a run.
Sendero by Max Tomlinson  Purchase Sendero

One Comment on “Sendero by Max Tomlinson, First Chapter”

  1. cwcpeninsula Says:

    This is a wonderful novel, I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s an action packed thriller which leaves you with much to ponder.


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