Halfway up a hundred-meter cliff face is a terrible place for an argument.
Adela and I had spent the better part of the morning alternately notching our bodies and our gear from ledge to ledge, with only a limited length of rope. Roasting in the late-morning equatorial sun, salted and basted with sweat, we’d evidently made the gross miscalculation of attempting to converse like decent humans. Lovers, even, who had just discovered their bliss not twelve hours earlier.
“So you admit,” said Adela, as she stretched for the next handhold, “that this is all about money for you.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth.” I’d just told her about the Cristal del Alma — the Soul Crystal — rumored to be among the artifacts in the temple, and how I expected that it would set me up financially for life. “I mean, sure, I do expect there will be some money in it. But that’s not the only reason.”
She grunted as she swung a foot across a two-meter gap, and I sputtered as she kicked down a sprinkle of dirt. Probably by accident. “Figures. Typical American exploitation.”
“Says the woman who steals mototaxis for a living,” I said, sizing up the same gap, trying to ignore how high up we were. “And who herself wants to one day be an American.”
“Well, maybe America could use some more people like me then.” She sucked a fingertip that she’d scraped on a broken branch. “And I rented that mototaxi, remember? He got it back.”
Without warning, the stone outcropping below her left foot snapped off, and she clamored for balance. I gasped, watching the rocky foothold tumble down into the misty infinity, imagining it might have been Adela. Or me.
“So what is your other reason then,” she said, unfazed by her near peril, “if it’s not just about the money?”
Because I don’t want to be a failure, like my loser of a father?
“It’s personal,” I said.
“Well, I’m sure the Incan spirits that you’re stealing from would be so pleased to know they were able to help you with your ‘personal issues.’”
“Hey, will you cut me some slack? If it isn’t me, it will just be someone else,” I said. “Assuming Inti Uturuncu even exists.” The faint sound of the loose foothold’s impact at the bottom echoed up the cliff face.
And if I live long enough to find it.
Adela sighed. “I wish you’d never shown me that damned map. Curse my eidetic memory.”
Of course without that memory, we wouldn’t even be here, since the map itself had fallen into someone else’s hands — and we had reason to believe they had a head start on us, which is why we were dangling on the edge of a cliff, to make up time. I hoped that Adela’s memory of the map was as perfect as she said it was, or this would all be for nothing.
“Adela, what did you think would happen, when or if I found the temple? Assuming those guys haven’t already looted it, I couldn’t very well leave the artifacts in there, could I? Once word got out, they’d be gone in within a week. So it’s either take them with me, or forget the whole thing. Forget my dream.”
She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. “Fine. You might have a point. But let’s just put a pin in this and get to the top, OK? We’re wasting daylight here.”
The last leg of the climb was a rare form of torture. By the time I dragged myself onto the summit, every muscle in my body felt as shredded as sausage meat, and I lay face down in the grass, burning from both the sun and the lactic acid. I could hear Adela close by, panting the same as me.
“Noah,” she said.
“What?” I grumbled.
With great effort, I raised my head. Standing at the edge of the small clearing at the summit were two men, holding machetes. They spoke with some insistence in an unfamiliar Spanish dialect. Amazonic Spanish, I assumed.
“It’s them,” said Adela. “The same men from Iquitos. They said I must go with them.”
“And what am I supposed to do?” I said.
Adela sighed. “They only want me.”
I struggled to sit up, impotent to intervene, resigned to my fate. Connecting the dots.
This must all have been orchestrated. Suddenly, my folly was so clear to me. The beautiful and exciting Adela was but a wishful delusion. She’d dialed into my desires from the beginning. Gotten me to relax my inhibitions, to loosen my tongue. I’d been her pawn from the moment I got in that mototaxi.
I doubted any of them had any idea how valuable of an archaeological discovery Inti Uturuncu was to the scientific world. They’d loot it for precious metals and gemstones, and just like that, nine hundred years of history would be gone. Trashed, like my affection for Adela — who had obviously been nothing but an irresistible lure in these bandits’ hunt for pathetic, gullible foreigners like me.
I’d been taken for a fool, and ruined just like my father, when his loose lips had cost our family the mining rights to a rich vein of copper on our land. I’d become the very thing I’d despised my whole life.
My revulsion at them — no, at myself — must have shone on my face, because Adela turned on some Oscar-winning waterworks. “Noah, please, it’s not what you think. I don’t have anything to do with this.” She sobbed. “You have to believe me.”
“¡Cállate!” said one of the men, holding his rusted blade against her throat. The other man gathered up our backpacks, and the three of them headed off into the foggy ravine.
Now I was alone in the rainforest, with literally nothing but my clothes. I flopped onto my back in dehydrated, exhausted, total defeat.
I awoke in darkness. The full moon had replaced the sun in the sky. The voices of thousands of insectine, avian, and mammalian species wove a tapestry of presence and sound that emanated from the surrounding flora, suffusing my senses.
I was no longer on the summit of the cliff, but in a forest clearing, sprawled on my back beside a snapping fire. A clay pot warmed on a wooden fulcrum, suspended over the flames. Whatever was bubbling inside it saturated the air with an acrid, earthy aroma.
Through the flames, the squinted, rheumy eyes of a crimson-painted face watched me. He wore a crown of colorful feathers, and hundreds of beaded necklaces — some adorned with the hooked claws and talons of what must have once been imposing predators — hung from his neck across his leathery, naked chest. Through each of his dilated ear piercings dangled bleached and hollow bones.
The cross-legged man raised a pompom of leaves in one hand that rattled when shaken. With this crude instrument, he marked a rhythm, while alternately whistling and chanting something unintelligible, yet strangely reverent. The forest fell silent while he performed his unfamiliar and ancient-sounding song.
As the last syllable faded from his throat, he poured an oily, brown liquid from the clay pot into two hollowed gourds, and extended one towards me, nodding.
“Thank you — Gracias,” I said, raising the cup to my lips, blowing to cool it. The bitter brew repulsed me, but in my circumstances, I wasn’t about to decline anyone’s generosity. It was either accept this man’s hospitality, or face the jungle on my own. I figured my chances were better in numbers.
I swallowed the contents of the gourd in a single gulp. It tasted like salty, concentrated espresso, and had the consistency of vegetable oil. Nausea roiled in my belly almost instantly. The man across the fire smiled with several missing teeth, and let out a wheezing chuckle at my expense, then savored his beverage in small sips.
We sat in silence for some time as the forest came back to life around us.
And grew louder.
And louder still.
Colors bloomed from within the monochrome canvas all around. Colors I’d never seen. Colors that didn’t even exist. I could smell the trees. I could smell the musk of the nocturnal rodents that scurried all around us. I could smell the moonlight itself. Then I became the moon, looking down on the little stamp of life where my insignificant body sat slack-jawed by the fire.
A woman’s voice rose above the cacophony of the forest — from both nowhere and everywhere. She narrated the entire universe to me, and I understood it all. I moved between the organisms of the land, becoming each of them in turn. The trees — I knew how it felt to have leaves; the snails — I felt the sticky mucus beneath my undulating foot; the cicadas — I rasped into the night with my brethren. I was one with everything, and everything was one with me. I knew every purpose, and every dream, of every creature that ever was, and ever will be.
Then a jaguar appeared before me — and I knew at once that it was Adela. She had glistening fur of the darkest onyx, and the same almond eyes of gold-flecked hickory. She spoke to me without words; beckoned me to follow her. I took on the form of an Andean condor and flew after her, shrieking with elation. Together we vaulted the unseen trails, over hills and through ravines, past every landmark on the map I’d lost — until at last the enormous stone pyramid of Inti Uturuncu rose from the forest floor before us. All through the night, we danced around the temple, seeing into each other, seeing every thought, tasting every wish ….
Being one another’s very soul.
When I awoke in the misty morning twilight, I knew the way to the temple. But more importantly, I knew that Adela was not a party to the treachery of those machete-wielding men. I would need to find both her and the temple.
The shaman clapped his hands together, extended them towards me, then spread his arms wide and smiled. I imitated the gesture, then turned to begin my journey.
Through the day and through the night, I followed the path I’d flown in my vision. Everything was exactly as I remembered. Forest creatures peeked at me from every crevice, from behind every tree, from high within the branches. I felt camaraderie with each of them, having experienced their very lives the night before. I no longer felt any threat from this perilous land, of which I had always been a part, but had only now come to realize as such.
In the morning of the second day, I broke into a clearing at the base of a gentle hill. At its crest sat the crumbling ruin of an Inca temple, covered in moss, and overgrown by crawling vines.
This had to be Inti Uturuncu.
The massive square cuerpo at its base rose in narrowing stories, higher and higher into the diffuse morning fog. A towering center stairway led to a portal in a room at its apogee that was open to the sky. The low sun behind the edifice shone through the portal, giving the illusion that it was casting mystical beams from within.
As I approached the periphery of the structure, three figures emerged into focus. The first two were the eviscerated and burned corpses of the men who had abducted Adela.
The third was Adela herself, kneeling at the foot of the temple with her head in her hands. Had she overtaken these men with their own weapons? Had she somehow set them aflame?
Was she going to do the same to me?
“Adela,” I said, and she turned with a start.
“Noah!” She jumped up and threw her arms around my neck. “How did you …. ?”
“It’s a long story,” I said, not really sure how to explain it myself. “What happened to them?” I nodded at the twisted, grotesque forms nearby.
“It was Inti Uturuncu,” she said. “The Sun Jaguar. These men wasted no time invading the temple, and came out with armloads of gold artifacts. As soon as they stepped off the bottom … oh, Noah, you will think I am crazy.”
“You might be surprised,” I said.
“It was the temple itself. It came alive, transformed into a giant, fire-breathing jaguar, and smote them with fire and fang! It was terrible, and yet so beautiful at the same time.” She looked at the temple in awe. “So beautiful.”
Far away, somewhere in the trees, came the throaty rumble of a jaguar’s territorial roar.
“Oh, Noah, you mustn’t go through with it. I do not think Inti Uturuncu wants to be discovered. Please believe me, no treasure can be worth upsetting this living place.”
I smiled, and wrapped my arms around her trembling body. “There is only one treasure I wish to take from here.”
“But you mustn’t, Noah! The temple … it ….”
“Adela.” I placed my finger on her lips. “The treasure I wish to take from here … is you.”
Adela’s whooping laughter echoed through the canyon. I slid behind her as we careened down the packed powder on snowboards. We threaded between trees, and launched over boulders, spinning and flipping. She was a natural, and I almost couldn’t keep up with her.
We’d scraped up enough to open a sporting goods store in Whitefish — one of the top ski resort towns in Montana. With access to all the gear we’d ever need, our adventures like this were almost weekly.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of this,” she said, breathless, as we wedged to a stop near the base of the hill. The thrill in her gold-flecked eyes still made something inside me flutter every time.
“Me neither,” I said, sweeping my gloved hand across her silken hair. “Me neither.”