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The Boy Who Rose to the Sky

The Boy Who Rose to the Sky

A heartbreaking Peruvian Legend

Freely translated from José María Arguedas “Canciones y Cuentos del Pueblo Quechua”

There once lived a man and a woman who had an only son. The man grew wonderful potatoes in a plot far from the house. They were luxuriant, and he alone had the seed to grow them. But at night thieves would come and tear up the plants and steal the potatoes.

At last the father and mother called their young man and said to him, “Why should thieves carry off all our potatoes when we have a strong young man like you? Stand guard. Sleep next to the garden and you’ll catch the thieves.”

The boy set off to look after the garden. Three nights went by. The first night the boy remained awake, watching the potatoes without sleeping. But at daybreak sleep overcame him and he nodded. At that moment the thieves came into the garden and dug up the potatoes. Disappointed, he returned to his parents’ house and told them what had happened. When they had heard his story, they said, “We forgive you this time. Go back and watch more carefully.”

The boy went back. He watched the garden until daybreak, his eyes wide open. Just at midnight, however, he blinked for a moment. And during that moment the thieves slipped into the garden. The boy opened his eyes and kept on watching till dawn. He saw no thieves. But in the morning, he had to go back to his parents and tell them, once more, that they had stolen the potatoes. He said to them, “I stood guard the whole night through. But the thieves came at midnight just as I blinked my eyes.”

Hearing this, his parents replied, “What? You expect us to believe they robbed you before your very eyes? You were off chasing girls and having a good time.” And with that they beat him and scolded him endlessly.

The next day they sent him back to the garden, still sore from his beating. “Now you’ll know what we mean when we tell you to stand guard,” they said.

The boy returned to his task, and from the moment he arrived at the edge of the field he watched attentively, without making a move. That night the moon shone brightly. He kept watch until dawn, his eyes fixed on the potato field. And yet, as he watched, his eyelids trembled, and for a moment lie slept. In that instant of sleep, in that twinkling, a swarm of beautiful princesses, dazzling little maidens, came and filled the garden. Their faces were like flowers, their hair shone like gold, they were dressed in silver. With great haste, all working together, they dug the potatoes. Though they seemed to be princesses, they were in fact the stars come down from the sky.

Just then the boy opened his eyes, gazed at the garden, and exclaimed, “Such beautiful creatures. If only I could catch them. Yet how can they be so lovely and shining and stoop to such work as this?” As he spoke, his love-struck heart nearly burst. Then he thought to himself, “Perhaps I could keep just two of them for myself.” And he leaped toward the beautiful thieves. But only at the last moment and with great difficulty was he able to seize one of them. The others rose into the sky and disappeared like fading lights.

Then to the one star he had caught he said angrily, “Why were you stealing from my father’s garden?” And with that he led her to the little hut that stood beside the field. He spoke no more about the theft, but said, “Stay with me and be my wife.” The maiden refused. She was frightened and pleaded with the boy: “Let me go! Let me go! Have mercy! Don’t you know that my sisters will tell my parents about this? I’ll give back all the potatoes we’ve stolen from you. Don’t force me to live on earth!”

The young man paid no heed to her protests. Again, he seized her. But he did not return to his parents’ house. Instead, he and the star maiden remained in the little hut. Meanwhile, his parents were thinking, “The thieves have stolen more potatoes from that worthless boy. What other reason can there be that he doesn’t come home?” It was getting late. The mother brought some food to him out at the garden and see for herself.

From inside the hut, the boy and the girl were watching the path. When they saw the mother, the girl said to the boy, “Neither your father nor your mother must ever see me.” Then the boy ran out to meet his mother and called to her, “No, Mother! Don’t come near. Wait for me there! Back there!”

He took the food from her in back of the hut and brought it in to the princess. The mother, as soon as she’d delivered the food, turned around and went home. Then she said to her husband, “Our son has caught a potato thief, a girl come down from the sky, and now he’s keeping her in the little hut. He says he will marry her. But he won’t let a soul come near.” Meanwhile, the boy, thinking to deceive the maiden, said, “Now that it’s night, we must go to my house.” But the princess insisted, “Your parents must not see me. I can never meet them.”

But the young man lied to her, saying, “I have my own house.” And in the dark, he led her along the path. Against her will he brought her home, and he showed her to his parents. They were astonished at the sight of this radiant creature, so beautiful that words cannot describe her. They kept her and took care of her and loved her dearly. But they did not allow her to go out. No one ever met her or saw her.

Now when the princess had lived with the young man’s parents for a long time, she became pregnant and gave birth to a child. But the child died mysteriously, with no one knowing why. As for the princess’s shining garments, they kept them hidden away. They dressed her in everyday clothes, and so she lived on in this way with the boy and his parents. One day the boy went off a great distance to do some work. When he had left, the girl could slip outside, acting as though she were not going far. But in fact, she returned to the sky.

The boy came back to the house. He asked for his wife but couldn’t find her. And when he knew she had disappeared, he burst into tears. They say that he wandered out into the mountains and went everywhere, weeping crazily, walking on in his sleep, entranced. And on one of the desolate peaks he came to a sacred condor, and the condor said to him, “Young man why do you weep like this?” Then the boy told him all that had happened. “And so, my lord, this most beautiful woman was mine, but I do not understand which path she has taken. I am lost and I fear she has gone back up to the sky.”

When he had finished, the condor replied, “Don’t cry young man. It is true; she has returned to the heavens but if you wish, and if your misery is so great, then I will carry you up to that world. All I ask is that you bring me two llamas. One to eat here, and one to eat on the way.”

“Very well, my lord,” said the boy. “I will bring the two llamas you have asked for. I beg you to wait for me here.”

Without delay he set off for home to fetch the llamas. When he reached the house, he said to his parents, “Mother, Father! I will get my wife. I’ve found someone who will take me to where she is. All he asks is two llamas, and I will bring them to him now.”

He brought the two llamas to the condor. The condor took one of them and devoured it down to the bare bones, tearing off the flesh with his beak. He made the young man slit the throat of the other one so he could have it to eat on the way. Then he had the boy throw the carcass over his shoulders and stand on a rock. As he picked him up, he gave him this warning: “You must close your eyes and keep them shut. Don’t open them for any reason. And every time I say to you “Meat!” you must put a piece of the llama into my beak.” Then the condor took flight.

The boy obeyed and never opened his eyes even for an instant. He kept his eyelids shut. “Meat!” the condor would say, and the boy would cut off large pieces of llama and put them into the condor’s beak. But in this soaring voyage, the meat ran out.

Before they had left the ground, the condor had warned the young man, “If when I say ‘Meat!’ you do not put meat in my beak, I will drop you no matter where we are.” And so, out of fear, the boy began to cut pieces of flesh from the calf of his leg. Each time the condor would ask for meat, he would give him a tiny portion. And so, at the cost of his own flesh, he had the condor carry him up to the sky. And they say it took a year to reach such a great height.

When they got there, the condor rested awhile. Then he lifted the boy again and flew with him to the shore of a distant lake. Then he said to the boy, “Now, my dear, you must bathe in this lake.” The boy bathed himself at once. And the condor also bathed.

When they arrived in the sky, they were dirty and bearded. They had grown old. But when they came out of the water, they were handsome and young. Then the condor said to the boy: “Before us, on the other side of this lake, is a great temple. A ceremony is to be held there soon. Wait at the door. The sky maidens will come to attend the ceremony; they will come in great numbers, and all their faces will be just like the face of your wife. As they pass in front of you, you must keep still. The one who belongs to you will be the last to come; she will brush against you. Then you must seize her and not let her go.”

The young man did as the condor told him. He came to the door of the great temple and waited. Soon a host of young women arrived, all alike. One after another they went inside, glancing at the boy with expressionless faces. It would have been impossible to tell which one was his wife. But just as the last few were passing by, one of them brushed against him with her arm. Then she too entered the temple.

It was the shining temple of the Sun and the Moon, the father and mother of all the stars. It was the place where the sky people gathered; and all the stars came there each day to worship the Sun. They sang, making beautiful music for the Sun. The stars were innumerable white maidens; they were princesses.

When the ceremony was over, they left. The boy was still waiting beside the door. They glanced at him with the same expressionless faces. It was impossible to tell which one was his wife. Just as before, one princes touched him with her arm. Then she tried to run away. But he caught her and would not let her go. She led him toward her house, saying, “Why are you here? I would come back to you.”

When they got to the house, the boy was cold, for he had had nothing to eat. The young woman knew he was hungry and said, “Take this bit of quinoa and cook it.” And she gave him a scant spoonful of quinoa grain. The boy was watching, however, and he saw where she kept the quinoa. When he noticed how little she had offered him, he thought to himself, “What a small portion! How can this fill me up when I’ve had nothing to eat for a year?”

Then the young woman said, “I have to go to my parents for a moment. They mustn’t see you. But while I’m gone, make a soup from the quinoa I’ve given you.” When she left, the boy got up and went to the place where the quinoa was kept, helped himself to a good-sized portion, and threw it into the pot. The soup rose in a boil and came gushing forth. He ate as much as he could, filling himself till he could eat no more. Then he buried the rest. But it continued to swell.

Just then the princess returned, and she said to him, “This is no way to eat our quinoa! Why did you increase the portion I gave you?” Then she helped the boy get rid of the overflowing quinoa so that her parents would not discover it. She warned him, “My parents must never see you. You must hide.” So he remained hidden, and the beautiful star brought food to his hiding place.

For a year the young man lived with his wife in this manner. But when the year had passed, she neglected him and no longer brought him his food. One day she went out, saying, “The time has come when you must leave.” After that she did not come back to the house. She had abandoned him at last.

The boy’s eyes filled with tears and he returned to the edge of the sky lake. When he got there, he saw the condor rising in the distance. As he ran to meet him, the condor flew to his side, and he saw that the sacred condor had grown old. And the condor could see that the boy, too, had grown old and wrinkled. As they met, they both cried out at once, “How have things been with you?”

The young man told him all that had happened and said, “Aye, my lord, it is sad. My wife has abandoned me. She has gone away forever.” The condor lamented the young man’s fate. “How could it all have turned out like this? Poor friend!” he said. Then he came close and stroked him with his wings.

As before, the young man begged the condor, “My lord, lend me your wings. Take me back to earth to my parents’ house.” The condor replied, “Very well. I will take you. But first we must bathe in the lake.” Then they both bathed and were made young.

When they had come out of the water, the condor said to him, “If I carry you, you must give me two more llamas.” “My lord, I will give you the two llamas when I get back to my house.” The condor was willing. Then he took the boy on his wings and set off. The flight to earth lasted a year, and when it was over the boy fulfilled his promise and gave the condor two llamas.

Then the boy went into the house and greeted his parents. They were old, very old. They were grieving and there were tears in their eyes. The condor said to them, “I have brought back your son, safe and sound. Now you must care for him.” The young man said to his parents, “Dear Father, dear Mother, there is no other woman I can love. Never again will I find a wife like the one I have lost. I will remain unmarried till the day I die.”

His old parents answered him, “Very well, my son, you may do as you choose. If you do not wish to marry, we will take care of you ourselves.” With a heavy heart, he lived on.

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