Papi throws our potatoes at the birds. White socks and sandals, long jean shorts with big pockets, brown leather belt, purple golf shirt, a black moustache that doesn’t move when he talks. It all shakes as he grabs two or three potatoes with his long hands and pitches them at the black vultures that like to drink water from our backyard pool. They also like to shit on our windows and cars and on the basil and cilantro Mami grows next to the pool. Papi has joked before about buying a gun and shooting down the vultures: “una escopeta,” he says as he holds an imaginary gun aimed at the birds whose feathers adorn my bedroom window, “y PUM! desaparecen.” The heavy bag of papa chola I helped mom place in our grocery cart a week ago ends up opened, plastic bag lost with the wind, potatoes spread around our backyard, a few decorating the downhill of the cliff, and some, even, swimming in the Machángara river that encircles our neighborhood.
“Don’t you end up just feeding them?” my brother Carlos asks my dad as we spend a day outside, bird shit smell lingering.
“No, they only eat what’s already dead,” I respond.
We don’t know much about the black vultures, except that they remind us of other beings: a giant black chicken, a mean dog, a snake that likes to linger under the sun after it’s fed, a resentful cat, a pig that eats too much, and the Ecuadorian condor, a majestic and endangered bird that flies so high only clouds can witness its splendor.
I don’t want my father to kill them.
The myth of the Condor of Galope Kaka takes place in the Andes. The fable occurs before the Incas dominated the pre-Columbian cultures that resided in the long city we now call San Francisco de Quito. In the páramo of Galope Kaka, yellow flowers sprout from the riverbed and sometimes stay still when the night is too cold. It is the type of place where pulling a fistful of grass only produces another. Where the Andean wind is a vessel for secrets, chants, songs about love and curiosity, claims about life. Those who dipped cupped hands inside the river were immediately cleansed from pain. The water streaming down their throats is a liquid mystery, curing illnesses beyond physical ache. A river that cleans curses. It is the river of the condor and, as such, its powers are immeasurable.
My father says these birds are plotting something huge. We haven’t seen them in a while. Potatoes intact. From our backyard, we look for clues around the swimming pool. “Anything that seems suspicious,” Papi says from the other corner of the lawn. I spot pieces of feathers near my bare feet. The plumes are so small, almost rectangular. Borders sharp yet soft to the touch. Grey, white, and all the shades in between. Rainbows of black that disappear with the moving clouds above me. These feathers belong to baby birds. Perhaps they were born here. Or maybe they flew above this specific spot a while ago, guided by their parents. The feathers are entrenched within the sharp grass and little bits of dandelion that flew from this morning’s winds. I hope Mami doesn’t see me touching the little feathers. Anytime Papi throws potatoes at the birds, she turns away, places her colorful apron over her mouth, and closes her eyes. “We have no business with those animals,” she says as I too turn away and approach her. It’s as if she doesn’t want them or any part of them entering her. Mouth closed, eyes locked, nose open, “but my nose hairs will catch it all.” I look over at our kitchen. Right now, Mami’s cooking lunch. She’s not watching. I then turn my head to the river down in the crevasse and remember the meeting spot of these beings: the giant rock that almost splits the river in two. We don’t know how all the birds—all of them, no being left behind—fit on this rock. We also don’t know what they do on it. But it’s one of the few places in our landscape that’s not covered in white shit.
Several of the neighborhood children—stupid boys that like to chase rabbits, wild rabbits they call them, but they are just the pets of our neighbor Juanjo—have tried to climb down the quebrada. They don’t want to touch the water (nobody does. The water is dark brown and, from what we can tell, thick as yogurt). Kids wearing expensive clothes want to jump from the little river beach onto the bird rock as a dare. From what I’ve heard no child has ever made it. They fall into the brown yogurt, cry for help, and the neighborhood guards—with shotguns strapped to their chests—climb down and rescue them. Ecuadorian law prohibits people from tampering with rivers, but our neighborhood knows others don’t follow these regulations.
The Machángara River carries plastic bags and bottles, sometimes several car tires at once, used baby diapers, our poop, and, once, a baby some woman didn’t want. The infant floated on the river and his journey went unnoticed until the river ended in Esmeraldas. The baby—now a child living happily in the beaches of Esmeraldas, he sells seashells to tourists—took several weeks to reach the coast. It is still a mystery how he fought the pollution, animals, and other dangers in his way. He—Roberto is his name—was featured as a headliner in El Comercio for five days straight. Then the next news trumped him: an American visa was granted to the indigenous man suing Shell.
The black vultures could be mutants. They were born in dirt water and fed with chlorine water from our pool. My brother says this is why they haunt our neighborhood: they are animals that don’t know how to act naturally. This is his working theory.
Papi and I give up in our search. I don’t tell him about the baby feathers I found. As we enter the kitchen we are welcomed by Mami’s cooking. Mami cooks too much food for lunch today: coconut shrimp, baby spinach salad, spicy chicken, meat with garlic and purple onion, rice, menestras, caldo de pollo, and two different juices, both made with azúcar morena, my nickname.
“What’s with the feast?” I ask her, helping her put away some of the ingredients she already used.
“Viene Nicolás,” she says. My tongue burns with the shrimp I grab from the serving plate. Coconut bubbles sizzling at the tip of my tongue. Nicolás is one of Papi’s friends. Like father, he’s an aficionado of golf, Scotch whisky, rum and coke with too much lime, and homophobic jokes when inebriated. What they don’t have in common, however, is Nicolás’s obsession with birds and bats. Over brunches and dinners, Christmases and summers, Nicolás looks out of the terrace of every house we’re in, examining branches and leaves, looking for winged things. And what he doesn’t see he imagines, like the Galápagos penguin or the great curassow, both beings lurking in his brain and around our kitchen table. He discusses their behavior and how it matches ours, their beaks and eyes, how they take flight. He moves his hand—pink and dry—as he mimics a bird taking flight, how his pinky is so distant from his thumb, how his cuticles are manicured, how his palm could grab and suffocate all the black vultures residing in our neighborhood. The lines on his hands tell stories of golf sessions with Papi, of his trips to the Amazon for work on the oil fields, of the birds he wishes he could cage.
“Why is Nicolás coming for lunch?” I ask Papi.
Papi dismisses me with a hand motion that means your worries are silly, mija.
“We’re going to talk about los pajarracos,” he says while helping Mami toss the salad.
“There are none,” I say back.
“Yeah, you killed them all with your potatoes,” Carlos says as he enters the kitchen. He too burns his tongue with the coconut shrimp. I forgot to warn him.
“He never even hit one,” Mami says. She laughs at Papi.
Papi’s face gets serious. This is the same look he gets when he stares at the golf ball that missed the hole after he putted. The same stare he gives me when I ask too many questions. And the same expression he gives anyone—including Mami—who hurts his pride.
“We can’t keep living like this, haunted by giant black birds,” he says, moustache not moving.
The myth of Galope Kaka is about an adolescent girl. This oral narrative didn’t give her a name, but I think that if no one is willing to assign her one, I will. I’ll name her after me. Her name is Ana. Ana, like most girls my age, was going through a breakup. She hadn’t officially broken up with her boyfriend, but she knew she had to. He was flirting with too many girls. Ana couldn’t keep count of them with her two hands. Jealousy took over her actions: she dismissed her mother’s advice, told her boyfriend’s secrets to others, and imagined her escape from Galope Kaka to a place beyond the mountains, maybe to the place where all the blue and purple seashells come from. Instead of dirt she wants to taste the salt entrenched within the conchs her culture trades for obsidian. She no longer wants to see her reflection in the clouds above her but in a space where her boyfriend does not exist.
Ana’s long hair touches the floor; she can’t cut it unless a full moon lingers in the sky for days. But every time a full moon takes over the landscape, she decides she’s not ready. Her breath smells like flowers. Eyes the color of the dirt when wet. Her skin is a soft leaf with tiny thorns which, when touched, makes men bleed. Ana’s heart is heavy and she can feel it through her breasts: they ache as she cries for him.
She knows the cure for her heartache is the river of the condor. Her mother once bathed her in it when her body would not stop trembling; days later, hair still wet from the river, her body stopped shivering. Today Ana wonders if the river of the condor will save her broken heart.
I eat lunch quickly. I don’t even sit down at the table; I hover over the kitchen counter like an eagle cutting the air with my wings and barely dipping my claws into the water. I let my tongue burn with everything straight out of the frying pan and cool it with lettuce and juice. I eat it all and fast because I don’t want to see Nicolás. Mami looks at me with confused eyes.
“Mijita, you’ll burn your mouth,” she says to me.
“And you’re not leaving much for the rest of us,” Carlos says.
“I don’t like Nicolás,” I say.
“¿Y eso por qué?” Papi asks as he washes his hands before lunch.
“Last time you both got drunk on the terrace he was being too loud,” I tell him. And this is the partial truth. The entire truth is they were both so drunk and vulgar Mami had left them alone hours ago. They sat out on the terrace, whisky glasses never empty, talking about their coworker Andrés and his husband. Their homophobic rants echoed throughout our neighborhood. I’m sure even the pajarracos heard it. Their jokes about penises probably reached the outer corners of Cumbayá, the places yet to be gentrified. And when I went inside Mami’s room to complain, she was wide awake sitting at the edge of her bed. Mami can’t sleep either, I thought as I approached her. Mami was crying, mascara goops forming at the edge of her eyes, black tears running down her cheek and settling in the riverbed above her upper lip. Our conversation didn’t make much sense because she didn’t want to talk to me—all her answers were lies—and I assumed she was crying because our grandmother had passed away recently and this was a constant scene, her hiding from us to cry—Papi doesn’t console her, a side effect of having friends like Nicolás.
Nicolás is the type of man that doesn’t bring his wife with him when he’s invited to lunch or dinner at our house. This has been happening for years. We sometimes theorize that she doesn’t exist because every time Papi asks him about her—her name is Luciana—he says she’s ill or busy, often dismisses the question with his hand, just like Papi does with my questions: your worries are silly, mija. But we have met Luciana and, from what I can remember, her tres leches cake is delicious. Now Papi, too, after years of friendship with Nicolás, has been leaving Mami behind at home while he attends company dinners and other festivities.
I sat next to Mami and heard her lies about our maid, Marianita, and her growing belly. “She is pregnant,” Mami cried. “She will leave us.” Marianita, an eighteen-year-old Mormon, had gotten pregnant, and mornings without Marianita seemed impossible: the cooking, cleaning, bird shit wiping, and plant watering all at once were too much for one person, and it is, but who else would help? Not us. Mami’s tears felt cold on my neck. This is when I spotted Nicolás walking up our stairs.
The guest bathroom is downstairs next to the kitchen entrance. At that moment, I wondered where Papi was—was he occupying the guest bathroom? But I doubt even a drunk Papi would do so. What bathroom was Nicolás planning on using? What if he wasn’t planning on using a bathroom? Mami’s tears streamed down my chest as I held her head near mine. Nicolás popped his head inside my bedroom, stared at the darkness, perhaps trying to decipher if the lump of blankets and comforter was me, the child of his good friend, his good drunk friend whose laughs still echoed beyond the Machángara river, beyond the birth of the black vultures. Nicolás closed the door behind him.
About fifteen seconds later he walked out looking disappointed, his steps betraying him, hands strapping back the brown leather belt he unbuckled. My blankets warm and displaced, half of their body cascading down towards my bedroom floor. He looked at me as he walked downstairs. And today Nicolás is visiting our home and lunching in our dining room. He’s going to use the guest bathroom, plant bombs or poison or venom in our backyard to scare or kill the big black vultures, and kiss my cheek when he says Hola. It all angers me. I let the food burn my tongue and my gums. I down the juice with the excess of azúcar morena. I tell Mami gracias and head upstairs to my room where I hide. I’m still chewing the coconut shrimp. Here no Nicolás enters, ni ningún otro hombre.
Ana leaves in the middle of the night. Stars stare at the crescent moon quickly traveling the sky. Ana, too. She secures her long hair from it. Ana carries some seeds tucked beneath her breasts, life close to her skin. She carries them with her because she wants Pachamama close to her now, skin-deep, in case the river has other plans for her. Her toes pull grass as she walks. She turns around and memorizes her life in this community: a guiding mother fast asleep, a father who trades obsidian for spondylus, a man who is gone too much for far too long, five brothers and sisters who would love to watch the river of the condor fail her. The páramo’s yellow flowers are drenched in moonlight and all kinds of blues. A scene frozen in time. Ana walks with determination. She doesn’t want her heart to ache any longer because her whole body aches with it: her knees hurt when she runs, her back when she lies down, her eyes when she laughs. If the river of the condor does not heal her, she will have to live with the disappointment that perhaps her heartbreak is not important, perhaps the river only cures real issues, like her illness when she was a child, and she will have to live with this secret, too, because Ana doesn’t want others to know the river refused her. What a disappointment. She is sure they’ll call her a liar—the river cures all aches and people, maybe Ana is cursed beyond repair, maybe Ana never stepped foot in it, why would she bring us such shame.
Mami knocks on my door. I know this because her knocks are rough—they shake the rosary she herself hung above my bed. Not even Papi with his long hands knocks like this.
“Entra,” I tell her.
Mami tells me about Papi’s plans to kill the birds. They will all die tonight. Obsidian feathers will float around Cumbayá and land on muck, feathers replacing the shit on our windshields. And the feathers on my window will remain remnants of a night caller, a being who feeds on the dead. She often points at the feathers embellishing my window when referring to the big black vultures Papi and Nicolás will envenom. This is all I will have to remember them by. Weeks ago, I heard some scratching on my window while I slept; something was grazing it roughly. I got up, turned on the ceiling light, and spotted one of the birds leaning on my window frame. A beak that could pierce glass. Claws orange and strange, held together like bones without cartilage. Eyes that looked out into the river with hope. And a featherless grey head—cracked skin and mountain ranges. My own condor. I didn’t know what it wanted: I didn’t have any dead animals in my room. So, it just left a few of its feathers behind, perhaps as a reminder that it is the size of my bedroom window, it is large and grand and majestic, its feathers infectious.
Mami leaves after she complains that I have not folded the laundry she placed near my bed four days ago. I nod as she reprimands my behavior, focusing specifically on today’s lunch. Whose daughter am I that I don’t lunch with the family, that I eat standing up hovering and flying over the sink taking care of the crumbs that fall?
“Perdóname, Mami,” I ask her. She nods, and I read the worries swimming in her brown irises—she doesn’t like Nicolas either, or at least what Nicolas does to Papi: he transforms him, and he hatches a new self.
She leaves after she folds all my laundry and tucks it away in my closet. I lie on my bed thinking about the vultures that dominate our neighborhood, the children who one day would like to crown the bird rock theirs, the Machángara river and its smells, the hours until bedtime, Nicolás, when will he leave, Nicolás, will he stay for dinner, Nicolás, poison, venom, bombs.
Ana’s feet feel like roots; they now penetrate the land below her, grabbing the soil molded by the river and the purple flowers that died years ago. She’s reached it. The river of the condor flows in front of her—it carries wisdom and secrets and a million stories of salvation. Ana is petrified. She hides her breasts from the river and stares at its waves: small tornadoes and hurricanes created by rocks, moonlight reflections and wind, how many universes contained within this water, how it’s travelled from the peak of the Andes down to the edge of her toes, how it’s shifted landscapes, healed the broken, astonished her. Ana feels small. The pumamaqui tree that hovers over the river smells like serenity; her mother boils and drinks its paw-like leaves to calm her nerves and worries, especially all her concerns about Ana—she’s young and fragile, big breasts and little knowledge of what’s around her, she’s dating a young boy, too, who is lost in space and time. Ana’s mother wishes she’d focus more on her gifts and less on boys.
She lays her back on a stone embedded in the riverbank, her toes buried in yellow and green shards of grass. The sharp grass tries to breathe but the almohadilla, a sea of grass that covers the entire mountain rage, prevents it. Ana can feel the tiny páramo sacha amor white flowers closing at the sight of the moon. The petals move inwards so slowly, the river seems to lose its speed, too. Her back is cold. The rock’s humidity seeps into her skin, and as the cold reaches the echo chambers of her broken heart, she steps inside the river of the condor.
I hear them talking downstairs as I braid my wet hair until there’s nothing left, only thin orquetillas I used to claim were orquídeas, but a black mane with split ends is not an orchid, Papi once assured me. Now my hair smells like coconut shrimp, the smell of Mami’s cooking seeping from my fingerprints shaped like swaying volcanoes. The braid that rests on my chest smells like the tiny orange bubbles of used oil sprinkled around our kitchen counter, like the sea animal Mami deveined and dipped in eggs and panko salted with white shreds of coconut, fried until brown, blotted with paper towels and torn apart by the teeth of a predator.
Papi calls my name, and I don’t say anything in response—I’m sure his moustache quivers with disappointment. He calls it again, and I throw my braid back, the weight of my hair bruising my lower back. The ceramic floor feels cold, but the warmth emanating from my soles leaves no sweaty footprints. Before I reach our kitchen, I step out into the terrace. Another night of drinking is set: two wooden lounge chairs, a side table, two bottles of imported whiskey, the kind Papi asks Carlos to purchase at aduanas when he comes home from college, and a bucket of ice.
I don’t see them, the birds who will die tonight. I smell the Machángara river and the constellation of trash it carries this evening. The moonlight fights grey and deep blue clouds and brightens up the river. The river trails around our neighborhood, separating houses protected by guards—security guards who live well beyond the boundaries of Cumbayá, out in Puembo, out by the red rose plantations—from a parroquia of sculptors and veterinarians. These men and women live on a hill that constantly implodes with every month of heavy rain. Mami fears the hill will definitely disappear this year during abril aguas mil. “Where will all those people go?” Mami wonders, hands over nostrils, Machángara river smells protruding. The dust from the cement sculptures—lions and fountains, tiny babies with wings—has inundated the puppy mills from time to time, this tragedy making it to the starting segments of the eight o’clock news.
“Buenas tardes, Ana,” Nicolás says to me.
Ana swims in a river that’s not deep. In fact, the river of the condor only reaches her knees. But it deepens for her. It is wide and bottomless. Ana washes away her resentment and frustrations, the pain her boyfriend caused her. She feels her heart weaving back together, chamber to chamber, vessel to muscle. Certain memories come back to her: her brothers exploring a cave with her, the color of pumpkin squash and the taste of chicha, her mother’s hands as big and as long as the pumamaqui tree hovering over her, watching her bathe. Ana comes up for air and sees him.
A man wearing a thin and long black poncho gazes at Ana, llama fibers swaying with the gusts. He steps forward as Ana swims away a bit.
“Come forward,” he says, voice similar to her boyfriend’s. “Who are you?”
The clouds blocking most of the moonlight part, and she really sees him. What smooth skin, what brown eyes, what puckered lips, what face. Ana’s renewed heart beats faster. She exits the river, the water that healed her clinging to her pores. Ana walks to the man who now stands still, pumamaqui leaves turning away. The river is loud. It washes over rocks, muds, and flowers, these noises echo the Andes and unsettle the lava hiding underneath volcanoes.
“What are you doing here?” Ana asks the man. But Ana doesn’t get a response. As she steps out of the river, water trickling down her spine and legs, he steps closer to her, grabbing her by the waist. Her heart beats loudly in response. This is the gift from the river, a boy who holds her like she’s the only one for him. He begins to stroke her long hair with his palms, removing bits of dirt.
“How soft, your touch,” Ana says.
The smooth touch turns into rough rasping. The man’s fingers pull Ana’s uncombed hair, multiple knots once undone by the river of the condor now reappearing, locks twisting. The sky turns darker. And the man’s fingernails grow into sharp claws, his poncho into black wings, his puckered lips into a beak. The condor raptures Ana into his control, and they fly away, bird and woman, into the distant open mouths of volcanoes.
From the terrace, I can see my mother. Mami walks up to the fence that divides our backyard and pool from the cliff and the river, sandals struggling through our newly cut lawn. She places her hands on the grey rail and admires the river’s strength. How it avoids the rock of the birds, how it carries Quito’s waste, how it defines us. Papi, next to her, raises his index finger and soars it across the equatorial sky. The stars shine above them, twinkling messages to each other. Words travel above us and leave us. I hear Carlos shutting our front door shut. He unlocks the car, enters, and drives away from us, out to Quito for a night out. And Nicolás places his hands on my shoulder, he has me, he’s reached me, I am his, claws sinking into my skin.
Galope Kaka is divided. There are those who blame Ana’s disappearance on herself: she left us, she played with the river, and the river won. And then there’s Ana’s family. Her mother who stands under the pumamaqui tree and awaits its response. Where is my daughter? The páramo responds with noiselessness and apathy.
The oral narrative skips eight months. The time it takes to grow a child in a womb. I don’t know what she ate or where she slept, if the condor protected her from evil energies. If she cut her hair or if it reaches her toes. And when the culture residing in the Galope Kaka páramo watch Ana—the girl who left a trail of seeds, the girl who never came back—walk up a blossoming hill of sacha amor, they become unresponsive. Weeks later, inside her adobe house and next to an illuminating fire, Ana gives birth to the child of the condor, a zoomorphic baby with belly button and wings, with legs and skin like a mountain rage, with puckered lips and hopeful eyes.