Elena Vochin - An uneventful hike on Mandango
The sun was out of the clouds and Victorino Garcia could feel his sweat sliding down his back as he was climbing the Mandango Mountain, which was closer to a hill than a mountain. In his youth, he could run up and down on it a couple of times a day, taking money from tourists and offering his services as a guide. It was an easy way to make a living during his student years. But now, at 50, used to live in the city, he was short of breath. The comfortable life in Toronto and the convenience of having everything within reach turned him into a weakling. His body was now soft and doughy, no longer hard and muscular. The slow climb seemed so much harder; he didn’t remember it this way.
In spite of everything, being all by himself on the trail, without his relatives, made him feel happy, happy to be back in Ecuador after so many years.
That morning he snuck out of the house very early, while everybody was still sleeping and the town seemed deserted. At first, he thought he would only take a short stroll. He hoped that he would not meet anybody, or at least that nobody would recognize him. He was safe - there was no one on the road. That gave him the courage to go further and finally, he took the old trail to Mandango.
The truth was that he would have liked to have his wife by his side, Mariela, but she was a geography teacher and could not take time off work on such short notice. Because of this, he ended up without her emotional support, forced to confront his family on his own. And his brother had made up his mind to sell their mother’s house.
From up the hill, he could still recognize the red roof of the house but the further he climbed, the town of Vilcabamba became smaller and smaller. Soon enough, it started to look like a children’s miniature game, with its small colourful Andean houses and the white colonial Cathedral placed right in the center of the town. In dissonance, a few new mansions, big and ostentatious, started to appear along the edge of Rio Vilcabamba. They belonged to foreigners that retired here. They cared more for comfort than for keeping the character of the place. Victorino found it strange how people fell in love with a place and then, as soon as they moved in, they started to change it into the place they were running away from, in the first place. He knew that his mother’s house would probably be bought by one of them and would be soon turned into a modern monstrosity of cement and glass. The carmine adobe walls would be torn down and a tall electrical protective fence would soon embrace the garden like a possessive and demanding lover. At the same time, Victorino was already a stranger in his birth town, his own brother often called him a gringo. He belonged neither to Vilcabamba nor to Toronto.
Little by little, he started to accustom himself to the pace of the hike and his breath got back to normal. He recognized the path and the bend where he took a picture of his wife, twenty-something years ago, the first time he brought her with him. They had just met a year before, both of them newcomers to Canada, while taking ESL courses. She would pronounce his name with a strong Eastern European accent and he sometimes pretended he did not hear her, just for the pleasure of listening to her saying his name all over again. When he brought her to Vilcabamba, he was afraid that she would think little of him, coming from such a forgotten corner of the world, but she embraced the place right away. She loved to draw maps, a habit she acquired as a student, and while she visited, she asked him to take her on all the trails he knew, even the shepherds’ trails. She made little maps that she later framed and placed around his office. Maybe she recognized sooner his longing.
As soon as he entered the small forest at the base of the peak, the heat subsided and a fresh breeze cooled him down. He could walk a lot easier now and he quickened his steps. As a child, he used to come here a lot with his friends. There was a large wilca tree, the sacred tree that gave name to his town. The tree had a huge crown and it covered a lot of ground, giving him and his friends enough space to play soccer under it. His brother and he would slip out of the house and come here to wrestle, whenever they had to settle anything between themselves. Maybe this is what they should be doing now. Somehow, all of these years, Victorino had forgotten about the tree.
“I have been caught in this life, in these illusions- - these years focused on what?”- he thought. At this point, his anticipation grew and he realized he was now running. He suddenly felt anxious and wanted to make sure that everything stayed the same way he remembered.
The tree was still there, nothing changed, as if it were waiting patiently for Victorino. Somebody placed a log under it and there were fresh coca leaves left as an offering, as was the custom of his people. His mother used to leave food often for the spirits of the forest. Victorino searched his pockets – a few coins and the key from his mother’s house, which was pointless to carry as the door was never locked. Nothing suitable to give to the tree. Maybe a prayer will do. He sat down on the log and put his head between his palms. He could smell the fresh scent of the wilca bark and his mother’s image came along as she toasted the tree’s seeds. Without knowing why, he started to cry, large drops falling on the ground - “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” he whispered. The breeze stirred the leaves above him and they rustled as if they were comforting his lament. Wiping his tears, Victorino got up. He made a decision and buried the keys under the tree.
His walk back home was easy, going downhill. The town awakened and people were starting their day.
Elena Vochin is a student at University of Toronto, taking Creative Writing. She has also received the Mihai Eminescu poetry prize for Romanian poetry, many years ago. She has started writing short stories and I am currently working on a couple of novels. My writing could be categorized mostly as magic realism.