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Letter from Anta: Until we meet again

 Sarah John
Illustration: Sarah John

Just before boarding my flight to Cusco from Lima’s crowded airport, I call my partner Miki to wish his father a happy 80th birthday.

Miki’s voice breaks when he answers, followed by a long pause.

‘Tío David died,’ he says.


‘A few minutes ago.’

Tío (Uncle) David had been ill for a few weeks but no one expected him to depart so soon. The evening before he helped Miki’s father Coco blow out candles on his early birthday cake.

I take my seat on the plane in shock and try to finish some urgent accounting.

Shortly before our descent, the pilot announces we’re passing over Apu Sallqantay, a glacier the Inka worshipped as a mountain spirit. I look out over the snowy peaks glinting in the sunlight, floating among white clouds. Suddenly I’m hit with the sensation that Tío David is there.

‘You finally made it to the top,’ I whisper.

In his youth, Tío David roamed the mountains hunting deer, but in later years exchanged his rifle for a garden hoe. He and his four adult sons took in countless stray dogs and cats. Injured wild animals were nursed back to health and set free; goats and sheep became pets with names.

‘Ahhh, I’ve gone soft,’ he’d say with a dismissive wave of his calloused hand. But there was nothing soft on the outside of this tough widower who was still getting up at dawn to water his plants when I went away a month ago.

The drive to the farm from Cusco winds along a single-lane highway, past Sallqantay and finally circling down into lush river valley.

I push open the heavy front gate and step onto the dirt path that leads to the old farmhouse, which was once a Jesuit seminary. It’s lined with ancient trees, wild flowers, thick foliage and the sweet odour of jasmine. I nod to the nopal cacti, shaped like people waving, their pink fruits half-eaten by birds. This is where I often came across Tío David using his strong-arm cane to reach his avocado orchard. He always stopped to chat and predict the weather.

The feeling of loss hits me, like gazing into an infinite black hole.

‘Who will tell me when it’s going to rain?’ I ask the trees.

Tío David is laid out on his bed, freshly washed and clothed. Miki’s sister Soledad has covered him with white and orange flowers and eucalyptus leaves. Candles burn on the dresser. The large double window is open, with the sound of the river flowing past below.

Visitors wander through over the next two days. Children play football on the grass patio outside while older fans watch pre-World Cup friendlies in Tío David’s room. Excited shouts of ‘goooaal’ break the tension. Evenings are spent eating and drinking in the kitchen and space is found for anyone who wants to sleep over.

On the third day Tío David is cremated and the next morning the family gathers in the flower garden. David had asked his sons to bury him under the purple bougainvillea, beside the simple wooden cross marking his parents’ graves. His daughter Silvia sings a haunting melody in her throaty voice. David’s remaining four siblings stand embracing each other’s shoulders before the grave and address him from the heart. Other family members follow. The ceremony ends with Tío Enrique bidding ‘hasta pronto’. Until we meet again, Tío David.

Everyone is worried about Coco, who has been unusually introverted during the rituals. The following day I find myself alone with him at the lunch table, lingering behind the others. He chews intently, his head of thick curly white hair bowed low over his plate.

I ask him cautiously what he thinks happens when we die.

‘Ahh,’ he exclaims, looking up. ‘The Great Mystery,’ and waves his hands as though trying to conjure a white rabbit.

He returns to his food. After a few minutes he looks at me intently with his clear blue eyes. ‘Personally, I think we become one with the universe,’ he says, slowly moving his hands through the air as though touching invisible particles. ‘There, here, over there,’ he gestures.

Then he gulps the rest of his herbal tea, brushes the crumbs from his white beard and walks outside to water his garden.

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