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PICA, THE FLOWER OF THE SAND
A TOWERING, scoop-topped wagon, fruit-filled, dragged by nine mules, lurched through the desert. Far in the distance, on the first low swelling of the mighty chain of the Andes, there was a faint dark line whence it came.
The driver of the wagon handed me a small branch of a chirimoya tree. The three narrow, fleshy lobes of the chirimoya flower lie close together among the pale green foliage and send forth a perfume as poignant, though faint, as if there were rain-drops for conductors. The aromatic, gently acid flesh of its fruit lies in rays, the exquisite scent of the flower tasted in the fruit. Warmed by the sun on its journey from the valley oasis, the whole freshness of the desert was condensed in this single flavor, like the crystallization of a perfect moment. Strange imaginings sprang from tasting it.
A gallop across the desert is a good prelude to anywhere, especially if one has silver bridle and stirrups and a long lariat with silver knobs. The muleteers sat upon high black saddles of alpaca hair. The colors of their mufflers must have been brilliant underneath the dust. Their trappings were embroidered in red with a red-worsted fringe, Inca-fashion, over the mules' temples. Our little unshod ponies picked their way between the stones, up hill and down, over the roadless road to Pica.
The desert of Tarapacá now belonging to Chile, is called the Plain of the Eagle. A fit arena for gaunt battles in former days, a road across it is now distinguishable by the bones of beasts of burden which have dropped on their way.
There are valleys of nitrate to explore, hills of nitrate to be climbed, plains of nitrate to gallop across, and the only break is one windswept tamarugo tree. Does it exist upon the morning mist which the sun disperses? Or does its tough life go on underground, like some uncouth monster in the depth of the sea? Or does its tap-root bore down into a deeply buried flow of water? Every one believes that there is a honeycomb of tunnels from water-giving strata in the mountain-sides, far antedating the days when Uiracocha went to Tara-path.
No convulsion of nature is unknown to this pitiless land. Volcanic bombs lie about, and fantastic heaps of lava from molten mountains mingle with corals from the sea-bottom. Streams come to the surface, ripple for a short distance, and disappear. Their water tastes of sulphate of soda. Sometimes it springs suddenly from a cave, suggesting a system of underground rivers. Sometimes it is brought by water-works of prehistoric days, whose exact position is not known, making life possible for their would-be destroyers. Whether freaks of nature or remnants of the vast system of irrigation, importance enough has been given to the underground waterways of Peru to bring a scientist from the United States to chart them all.
Curious symbols and conventionalized llamas are cut into the hills of pink trachite and black slate rock whose strata have been jostled and overturned by earthquake. Pictures of serpents, foxes, and birds endure through ages of merciless sun. Were they the work of a megalithic people of a megalithic age, when cyclopean stones were transported to build cyclopean edifices, and gigantic ant-eaters and other jungle-dwellers swarmed in this desert of Tarapacá? Their irrefutable bones are found here, but so are shells of the sea-bottom and waterworn stones of green jasper with red spots. Moreover, the nitrate is filled with the petrified eggs and bones, even the feathers of sea-birds, suggesting that the nitrate was originally guano. Why should it not be true? For this desert was once beside the sea, as it was once beneath the sea.
But the law of compensation works even here. It has always been common opinion that the desert of Tarapacá shelters fabulous riches. Lured by the glisten of a fallen meteor, men have squandered their fortunes and risked their lives searching for gold, while they trod the nitrate under foot.
The large dark cave was gently steaming. The water filling it gurgled out from sunless twilight, hot from the hold of the earth, cool as it spread over the desert valley from the mouth of the cave. A brown man and his little daughter, lying in it, were being waved to and fro by the water as it issued, just their heads visible. Saturating the bamboo tangle, it left a wake of gardens, orange and guava trees, citrons, figs, and slender paltas, tall chirimoyas and pacays, grown to fruit-bearing size in six months. Trees of the jungle bathing in incandescent desert light! There were thick mimosas, geranium trees, and darts of poinsettia, grape-vines a foot across at the root, and spikes of heavy-smelling tuberoses. Jasmine trailed on the trellis above my head, and bougainvillea made a roof of purple flowers.
The slope of the sand-hills was crossed in the foreground by shadows of orange groves, "indefinitely elongated." Domestic constellations glowed in their black foliage. Men in ponchos whirled up on mule-back, unbuckled their three-inch spurs, and flapped their saddles down. This time the mirage was real.
Old Dorothea came down from her bright green veranda, where the sunshine glistened from a humming-bird's wings as it hovered above a passion flower, a whirl of black fringe with yellow deeps, the favored blossom which the Incas carried in their hands as a sign of greatness. She held a dove in the crotch of her arm and offered me a bunch of narcissus and white fleurs-de-lis, unthinkably sweet. She was dressed in yellow ocher and an old straw hat which she removed on being introduced to ladies. Her little earless dancing dog did a cueca (native dance) for us, while she clapped queer aboriginal time, and the gold hands danced in her ears.
Birds sang in the thorn hedgerows, and frogs croaked in the warm pool, frogs which die in cold water.
Dorothea said that some day the desert will again be covered with forests and gardens, as it was before it became a desert.
In a cloud of dust made luminous by the sun, a drove of llamas galloped down over the desert hillside to drink, soft eyes wonderingly looking out from tall fuzzy heads, legs bungling with heavy wool. An old Indian woman in Panama hat and brilliant blankets followed slowly, puffing at a pipe.
A Characteristic Peruvian Church
This pool in a shadowed vale of the western Andes, a shady, sweet-smelling spot, lost in an immensity of desert, is a little solitude in the midst of a great solitude, hospitable by sweet contrast. It takes very little water to make a perfect pool for a tiny fish, where it will find its world and paradise all in one, with never an intimation of the dry bank.
A large butterfly poised gently on the water's surface. It was sunset time, the butterflies' drinking hour. A copper bell tolled slowly. The reverberation pierced far into the silence and was "prolonged by the whole surrounding desert." A boy perched on an overhanging rock was playing a flute. The frail sounds echoed through the quiet air, "hesitating within a silence almost too large." What can give such an impression of space as a flute? Or, in ceasing, leave such utter stillness? A gorgeous peacock preened itself against the crimson bougainvillea in the sunset, then folded its fan for the night.
It is curious how the atmosphere of a dream cannot be conveyed in words.
Sitting beneath the mango tree by a lily-edged brook, I watched the low bonfire roasting desert quail and smelled the scent of heliotrope hedges, while I listened to an old man's plaintive song, mingling with a quiet desert waterfall. A wild youth with a bullet gash across one cheek told me of reckless escapades in the valleys above. He twisted off oranges with a stick of bamboo and dropped them into my lap, as the moon, poised on the crest of the mauve-colored Andes like a discus thrown by a mighty arm from beyond, disengaged herself and traveled upward. Moonlight, he said, is brighter in the mountain defiles. The moon sometimes drops a rainbow up there, a faint, round, dream rainbow, made of thin far-diluted sunlight. Pushed by a little breeze, it divides the cloud and disappears.
He pointed out the false Cross preceding the true Cross, preparing its way into the sky.
"Some violets have got in here," he said suddenly, tweaking one out by the roots. Intrusive violets!
A man with spurs passed picante and young kid and trays of fruit, their crevices filled with flowers. Was not Amiel right when he said that "Un paysage est un état d'âme?"
It was an "ambrosial night," in a place to attach affection, except that affection is not for places, either actually or in retrospect. One heart-beat faster, and the nitrate desert has fairy illusions. Why is it that merely seeing foreign sights leaves only craving, while a whiff of feeling in a distant, lonely spot fills one with the meaning and the mystery of everything and brings tears to the eyes of memory? The purple of the bare mountains is significant in the afterglow. Dripping water is significant. The moon sheds a different light. The heat of the desert sand just below the surface becomes suggestive. The air is filled with indefinable odors never perceived elsewhere, and the sight of a sand-colored bird explains all the secrets of the universe.
The beauty which alone would have woven a spell about the place merely lapsed into a background. In itself the voice was not faultless, nor the moon different from other windless, immaculate nights; but the air was sweeter, and the guavas were at the season's climax, their one day of perfection. They tell you that if you eat guavas in Pica, you become either ill or enchanted; in either case you cannot leave.
He must have been talking for a long time. It was as if his voice had been beneath my range of sound, or too soft — though I heard well enough. All at once I began to understand.
"Perhaps you have heard of the bush which grows in Patagonia. It is covered with pale yellow flowers. When a match is placed beneath it, the bush blazes forth and is reduced to immediate ashes, all its strength exhausted in a single dazzling effort. It is called escandalosa.
"Had you let me know two weeks ago that you would come, I would have put a bit of nitrate on the roots of my rose-tree, and it would have blossomed viciously for you!"
"Yes," I said, "but afterwards?"
"Oh, to be sure. Then it would have died."
An owl screamed from the top of a ciruela tree, a little owl-of-the-desert, just a few inches high.
Pica, the Flower of the Sand! With what golden words borrowed from Hindoo poets might not its charm be told? By what enchantment its suave breezes be recalled? Everybody knows it is a magic spot. Its quiet existence is a sort of self-expression of inmost thoughts without technique.
Doctor Stübel, the earthquake specialist, says Pica is an eruption center.