The crowd, it seemed, spilled into every shop, every restaurant but this one. Outside, the Playa de Armas was filled with people, festive, giddy, boisterous. Some ate, some drank, some danced, some did all three. Weaving between them all were locals: small girls selling postcards and dolls; boys selling single-use cameras and CDs of native music; women of indeterminate ages selling belt pouches and shoulder slings to hold bottles of water. Every four steps they took they made a sale, their faces frozen in smiles as if each customer was Santa Claus come in June.
Inside, Mitch looked away from the window and the crowd beyond. It wasn’t any use looking for Carmel anymore. He couldn’t tell one face from another, and he wouldn’t even see her until she was right there, just the other side of the glass. She was late, but that wasn’t anything new. At every meeting, every rendezvous there was something, a reason, an excuse, each one distinguishable from the last only by the date given. Mitch had learned to live with that. And he had to admit, even in the best of circumstances she, who saw this every year, who would know how to navigate the crowd, would have difficulty doing so. Still, two hours late was a bit much even for her. She would be along sooner or later, Mitch knew that, but each passing minute felt longer than the one before, and he wondered if he wasn’t wearing out his welcome here in the restaurant.
A slightly balding man approached Mitch’s table. “Are you ready to order, señor? If you’re having difficulties, I can make suggestions, or—?”
“No,” he said, staring into what was left of his coca tea. “Still waiting. If that’s not a problem.”
The man ran a finger along his pencil-thin moustache, nearly erasing it. “Of course,” he said, and walked back into the bowels of the café.
Mitch swirled the leaves in his tea and took another sip. The locals swore by the tea as a remedy for outsiders not used to the high altitude and low oxygen of Cusco—“Trust me, señor, very reliable,” the waiter had said as he left it—but Mitch found hardly anything redeeming about it. A memory of boiling bark in water and then drinking it on a dare by a friend when he was eight superimposed the taste of the coca, informed it. Carmel, who had lived in Cusco for a dozen years, swore by it, but then she liked a lot of things he didn’t: ice in her coffee, rain in the sky, the lights low during lovemaking. After their affair in college was over, it seemed that all they’d ever had in common was the sex, but they remained in contact afterwards, frequently at first, then less and less over time.
The radio came then to the chorus of a song he only knew in English. He sang quietly over top of the Spanish, “And I don’t want to wind up / Being parted, broken-hearted.” Mitch put the cup of coca down and pushed the saucer away.
“Hey,” a voice said behind him. He turned and saw Carmel standing just inside the door, sunglasses pushed up into her hair, a smile on her face that said how happy she was to be here, to see him.
Mitch stood and held his arms out. “Finally made it, I see.”
“Would have been here twenty minutes ago, but the crowd—” She motioned out the window and rolled her eyes. The two hugged, and as they backed apart Carmel looked into his eyes with a penetrating stare that had always made Mitch a little nervous. “You look tired.”
“I am tired. Air travel in Peru isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.”
She frowned. “You know what I mean.”
The easy smile that had slid on his face a moment earlier slid off again. “Yes, well,” he said, taking his seat.
Carmel sat opposite him. The waiter placed a cup of coca tea and a menu in front of her, assuring her that should she have any questions she needed but to ask. She added a packet of sugar to the tea and took a sip, staring at Mitch over the rim of the cup. “I’m glad you called. I’m sorry about—”
“It’s okay.” Mitch looked everywhere but at her. If he was honest with himself, really honest, he was happy to see her again. All of his memories of their relationship were filled with regret, that if he had said this or done that then they would still be together. Talking to her on the phone, getting a letter with a Peruvian postmark, even reading an e-mail from her was trying. All that ever came to him was a wave of nostalgia followed by a wave of nausea. He cast about for something to say to fill the growing silence. “Is the square usually that busy?”
She took an extra beat before glancing at the crowd. “Inti Raymi. Festival of the Sun. You managed to come on Winter Solstice.”
The news confused him for a moment. It was a clear, sunny day in June, not the big snowy winter he was used to back in Detroit. Then it registered that he was below the equator, and the seasons were the other way around. “Oh.”
“Biggest day of the year in Cusco. About half an hour from now the King of the Incas will come onto the Playa, make a speech, then walk up to the Saqsayhuaman ruins above the city and sacrifice a llama to the gods to get the sun to come out. It’s pretty interesting, if you’re interested. Locals can get in cheap.”
“I’m, uh—no. Tired, actually. I haven’t checked in yet, and I think I’m starting to feel the change in altitude. But if you want to come around for dinner, I understand there’s a very nice restaurant in the hotel. I’m at the Monasterio.”
She raised her eyebrows and gave a low whistle. “I suppose I don’t need to tell you you’re at the nicest hotel in town. How’d you swing that at this time of year?”
Mitch shrugged. “Friend lined it up for me. He’s some upper suit in the company that owns it.”
Carmel gave a small laugh. “You know everybody, don’t you? Okay, how about nine, then? The locals tend to eat later here than you’re used to.” He nodded, and they both stood up. They said a few parting pleasantries before Carmel drifted out of the restaurant and back into the throbbing crowd. For a moment he could follow her as she weaved through the crowd, headed for nowhere special. Then he couldn’t see her at all, and the only hint she’d ever been there was the half-drank cup of tea.
Mitch hardly touched his lunch during the conversation they didn’t have. He had been looking forward to seeing her again ever since he called to see what she was doing for a couple of days, but now that he was here and in her company he was starting to think he’d made a mistake. The waiter asked if everything was alright with the lunch, was Mitch ill, he could recommend a couple of good remedies, but Mitch said no, paid and left.
Fifteen minutes later he was at the front desk of the Hotel Monasterio, winded and shaken. The crowd, spilled out beyond the Playa and into the approaching streets, was nearly impenetrable. He’d had to shout more than once to be let through and that, combined with the effort of pulling his very full suitcase uphill for two blocks at altitude, drained him. Then there were the vendors, charming from a distance but annoying and pushy upon experience. One, a teenage boy who called himself John Travolta, followed him for half a block trying to sell him artwork, and the children in general used pleading as a sales tactic. Mitch found them adorable for the first thirty seconds, but by the time he walked into the lobby he was happy they couldn’t follow him anymore.
“Reservation for Brand, Mitchell,” he said to the front desk clerk. Mitch confirmed his information, showed his credit card, “Oh, and there’ll be someone joining me for dinner at around nine, a Miss Carmel Rogers. Would you be so kind as to set a reservation for two in the restaurant?”
“Very good, sir. We’ll call you when she arrives. Oh, sir?” the clerk said as Mitch turned to go. “There’s a package for you. The airline brought it over about half an hour ago.” The clerk produced a box roughly a foot long and six inches to a side wrapped in brown paper. Mitch took the box and continued back to his room, more than ready for a shower and a nap.
The entertainment in the hotel restaurant was a two-man ensemble, one playing a guitar, the other tapping and thumping on a wooden crate, taking it in turns singing the songs. Mitch and Carmel were shown to a table across the room from the men, whose music was loud enough to be heard but not so loud as to preclude conversation. The restaurant seemed fairly large, looking like it could seat a hundred people, but theirs was one of only three tables occupied. Carmel commented on that after the hostess left them. “As many people as there are in town I thought this place would be fuller.”
Mitch scanned the room. He’d found out, reading the informational brochure in his room, that the building had been a Franciscan monastery in the 1500’s, back during the original Spanish occupation. The restaurant walls were of solid stone except on one side where arches opened onto a courtyard. The room lights were dimmed but not so low that the artwork, all of it of a religious nature, couldn’t be admired. “So, how was the ritual sacrifice?”
Carmel shrugged. “Same as it is every year. Some chanting, some praying, llama gets stabbed, the sun comes out, everybody parties. Well, except the llama.”
He shook his head.
“What?” she said.
“Amazed I ever thought that’d be fun to watch, that’s all.” Carmel once described the ceremony in one of her long, rambling letters. Mitch had expressed an interest in seeing it once some years earlier, but the idea was forgotten by the next exchange of mail.
“The needless killing of an animal to satisfy someone’s god?” Carmel smirked. “You’re getting old. Cautious.”
Mitch sighed. If he had a nickel for every time someone accused him of being old he could cover the national debt. Everyone around him seemed to be young, vibrant, alive. He felt himself slowing down sometimes, becoming circumspect in his thoughts and responses. He missed being impulsive from time to time, usually when he heard co-workers describing their latest after-hours exploits. He missed it again now. “I’m just not sure I see the point is all,” he said to fill the silence.
“You’re joking.” Carmel looked at him, eyes wide as anything, a smile barely contained on her face. “You can’t see the point of ritual?”
“Well, yes, I—” His voice trailed off as he thought for a moment. There wasn’t any real reason for the llama sacrifice. Incas five hundred years before believe the sacrifice held annually on the winter solstice would bring a fortuitous growing season. Crops would be plentiful, farm animals would be strong, and the sun would shine over them all day in and day out. Now almanacs and meteorologists could predict the weather without killing anything, and still the Incas carried on with the bloodletting. “I know it’s what they have and I know it’s what they do. I just wonder why they keep doing it.”
Carmel smiled and shook her head.
“What?” he said.
The two-man band moved to small alcove twenty feet from their table, and started playing another song. Carmel started singing along, her pleasant alto providing a contrast to the singer’s smooth tenor. “Bésame, bésame mucho / Como si fuera esta noche la última vez.”
“Stop,” Mitch said. “Please.”
She stopped singing and looked at him. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t—I forgot.” The song had been one of Angela’s favourites. Mitch serenaded her with it the night he proposed, and then again at the wedding reception. Her mother insisted on playing it before the funeral, something Mitch tried to stop from happening. Mitch’s mother thought it unconscionable.
“Listen,” Carmel said. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it. To the funeral.”
“I tried. I couldn’t get a flight out of Lima in time.”
“It’s alright. Really.”
“I just—I should have been there for you.”
Mitch remained silent. Angela’s family would have wondered why this random person had flown ten hours one way for a funeral. When they found out who she was, that Carmel and Mitch had been an item in college, there would have been talk and anger that Mitch didn’t need. He would have appreciated the gesture, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell Carmel that it was probably for the best she couldn’t make it.
“I keep meaning to visit. Every now and then I actually get as far as looking at airfares to Detroit, coming up and seeing how domestic bliss is treating you. I suppose that wouldn’t have went over very well. Or possibly invited you down for a few days.”
Mitch stared into the flickering candle centrepiece. He knew, on some level, that she was trying to be complacent. She had even mentioned in her letters once or twice the possibility of visiting, or having Angela and him down for a while. But the actions had never even come close to the words, not on his end and he doubted on hers, and he had no delusions that either would visit the other. He thought about responding, but the arrival of the food a moment later saved him from wondering further.
Dinner ended quietly without much more in the way of comment from either of them. Mitch could feel jet lag and the altitude change beginning to reassert themselves over dessert, and he’d had to stifle a yawn as he said goodnight to Carmel in the foyer. He’d only barely had the energy to strip out of his clothes once he’d reached his room, but now that he was horizontal sleep refused to claim him. Or maybe it had; the room was dark enough that he couldn’t tell if any time had passed or how much, and he couldn’t find the energy to reach out for the alarm clock. Outside the window some teenaged boys from the sound of it whooped and set off a string of firecrackers. One of them said something in Spanish and the rest laughed as their voices drifted away, leaving Mitch in silence again. There, in the dark with only the ceiling for company, every second lasted an hour, every minute a season.
Mitch’s thoughts drifted back to his last visit here, on his honeymoon with Angela. They’d had to stay a night in Cusco before continuing on to Aguas Calientes, the small village at the foot of Machu Picchu. The hotel was over in what was called New Cusco, the more modern half of the city, lacking in any of the Spanish Colonial architectural touches. That night passed miserably. A party louder and longer-lasting than the one that had just left raged seemingly just outside their door, ensuring that they were up until the small hours of the morning. If the noise hadn’t kept them up, the altitude sickness may have. Neither Mitch nor Angela had expected the difference in atmosphere to be quite so marked, the air quite so thin. Add to that the fleas that nipped at their ankles like playful pets and they were quite happy to leave. This experience was a vast improvement, Mitch thought, but it did not escape him that he wouldn’t have returned were Angela still alive.
The years, though, had been good to Carmel. She looked almost the same as the last time Mitch had seen her—was it twelve years ago now, or perhaps longer? There were maybe a few crow’s feet around her eyes, and perhaps her face was a little fuller than he remembered, but she still looked young, radiant, alive. She was flowering here in Peru, she had said at dinner, far more than she thought she ever could in the States. She would have been here when we came through for the honeymoon, Mitch thought. She might even have been out with the revellers that night. The thought of happening upon her that evening, with his new bride only paces away, didn’t please him, each mental reconstruction of the possible scene ending worse than the one before.
He wondered what would have happened if Carmel and he had stayed together. Would they be here, high in the Peruvian Andes, enjoying life at sixteen revolutions per minute as opposed to everyone else’s thirty three and a third? Would he look and feel as young as Carmel appeared to, enjoying life to its full? Or would they be back in Detroit, he successful in business but Carmel a shade of herself, the possibilities of her life going, going, gone in the wind? Would they still enjoy each other’s company? His thoughts drifted to the package that was waiting for him when he arrived, already tucked into the backpack he’d be taking tomorrow, what it was and what he was about to do. He began to fall asleep at last, knowing that it would be finished the next day, and he could move on.
They boarded the Hiram Bingham train at Poroy Station, twenty minutes outside of central Cusco. Though brunch was to be served during the first leg of the trip, between Poroy and Ollantaytambo, Mitch and Carmel partook of the breakfast buffet at the hotel. Carmel seemed to have one of nearly everything. She returned to the buffet thrice, leaving Mitch wondering where she stored it all. He, by contrast, ate very little. Although the buffet had been his idea, although he said he was ravenous, he managed only a banana and a glass of water. When Carmel asked him if anything was wrong he said no, everything’s fine, but he suspected she knew he was lying.
The train pulled out of Poroy Station at nine precisely. According to the schedule they would arrive at Aguas Calientes at half past twelve, then take a bus two thousand feet up to the ruins atop Machu Picchu. A guide would lead them on a tour, offering explanations and assumption about the Inca who had lived there. Then there would be high tea offered at the Sanctuary Lodge just outside the main gates before boarding the return train. The entire trip, from departure to return, would last just over twelve hours. The train had but three cars, one dining and two bar cars. As the train left Poroy Station the complement of two dozen passengers, Mitch and Carmel among them, congregated in one of the bar cars and enjoyed the first complementary Pisco sour of the day.
“I usually don’t drink this early, but,” Mitch said, and downed half the glass in one go. He licked his lips appreciatively. “What is this again? Rum?”
“Brandy,” Carmel said after taking a sip of her own. “Egg white, cinnamon, lemon juice, syrup, and local bitters.”
“It’s good.” Mitch sighed and looked out the panorama windows. Some enterprising people had carved out various things in the mountainside scrub: football team logos, political party references, the odd Biblical chapter and verse. It was difficult to tell, but the words and pictures seemed hundreds of feet high. The planning required to remove certain batches of scrub, leaving the desired picture or phrase, must have been lengthy. Then there was the skill involved. Some of the mountainsides where the pictures were looked nearly sheer. Mitch couldn’t imagine anything like it in the States, but here it seemed like it belonged. He was lost in the countryside, and it was a few seconds before he realized Carmel was talking to him.
“Did you sleep well?” she said.
“I suppose.” In truth, he didn’t feel like he’d slept well at all. Other than the party that had passed by his window, he’d woken a couple of times to use the bathroom. Nothing new there; he did that at home as well. But it took him longer here to fall back to sleep. It might have been the lower oxygen, he thought, or it might have been that he wasn’t in his own bed. But he was fooling himself with those reasons and he knew it. His eyes went to the backpack, resting next to him on the floor.
“Listen,” Carmel said after he’d been silent for a moment. “Listen. If you’re going to be mopey and sulky all day, that’s only going to make things worse.”
He sighed. “I’ll try and cheer up a little, if it’ll make you happy.”
“The point is for you to be happy. I’m fine.” Carmel took another long gulp of her Pisco sour. “You could have stayed at my place, you know. Saved yourself the money.”
“I thought about that. I appreciate the offer, really, but I find as I get older that I like my privacy more and more, my own space. And, you know, it would have just been awkward.”
Carmel grinned. “And this isn’t? An ex-girlfriend accompanying you on a pilgrimage for your late wife?”
“Point taken.” He sipped his drink and looked out the window. Their side of the train gave a view of a vast open space, the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Farms arranged in patchworked tiles covered most of the flat spaces. Here and there he could see dots of people moving, tilling the fields by hand or by ox. “Why did you agree to come?”
She didn’t say anything for a moment. “Because I know how important she was to you. You think I couldn’t see that in all your letters? The way you talked about her, everything she did, how wonderful she was to you. It was impossible to miss. I used to want you to feel that way about me, a long time ago. And I won’t lie, I got jealous at first when I read that in your letters.”
A beat went by before Mitch responded. “I had no idea.”
“Yeah, well. I grew out of it, I suppose. Focused on the good times. And I had a new life here, new friends, new lovers. And when you called and said you were coming, and what had happened, I felt a small tug again, hoping to reconnect, maybe answer an old question or two.”
Carmel took another drink of her Pisco sour, and smiled.
The road from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu was barely two lanes wide in most places. Buses going in opposite directions only passed each other near the frequent switchbacks along the 2,000-foot ascent. Although the road was reasonably well used—a bus a minute each direction eight hours a day every day—it was never paved and was littered with rocks and stones, and in some places there were ruts deep enough to hang up posters. Mitch and Carmel’s driver managed to find each and every rock and rut on the road, it seemed, and they felt like martinis but they time they reached the top.
The road came to a stop in front of the Sanctuary Lodge, the hotel outside the front gates of the ruins. The rest of the train passengers gathered in front of the hotel to wait for the complementary tour guide. Mitch and Carmel went to the entrance to the ruins, tickets in hand.
“You know where you’re going?” Carmel said.
“Pretty sure. It’s been a while, but I think I remember.”
Mitch and Angela had spent two days wandering through the ruins where they were here. Mitch had enjoyed wandering along the top of them, making the hour and a half walk out to the Sun Gate high above the ruins, the last stop along the Inca Trail. Angela enjoyed looking in the caves that opened into the mountainside below, at the bottom of a steep and shallow stairway. She had taken him down to the caves at the end of the second day, led him inside one when the roving archaeologists weren’t looking. He was only barely able to stand up straight inside. “The Incans believed the caves were the opening to the underworld,” she had told him. “They would come here and communicate with the departed, hoping to receive guidance and knowledge.” The words had rung in Mitch’s mind since Angela died, had only gotten louder with each successive moment he’d been in Peru, and now, as he crossed through the ruins and spied the stairway down, her voice was overpowering in his mind.
They made their way down the stairway to the caves. Mitch stepped inside one, nearly scraping his head along the ceiling. Carmel came in behind him. “Well,” she said, her voice echoing into the darkness before them. “Here we are.”
Mitch looked around the cave. It looked vaguely familiar to him although he couldn’t tell one cave from another. Some small rocks littered the floor, and the air felt damp and smelled faintly of mold. Outside, a light rain began to fall. “Yeah,” he said, his voice flat. “Here we are.” Neither of them moved for a moment, then Mitch slid the backpack off his shoulder, removed the package, and pulled from it the urn containing Angela’s remains. He touched his forehead to the lid for a moment, then opened it, stepped further back into the cave, and scattered the ashes against one wall of the cave. Just what you wanted, Angela, he thought. “I want to be buried here, looking out onto this beautiful valley,” you said. He put the urn away and stared at the spot where he’d spread the ashes. “And when you need to communicate with me, Mitch, I’ll be here. I’ll be right—”
“Hey,” said a voice from outside the cave. Mitch and Carmel turned to see a man in a white jumpsuit peering at them. “You’re not supposed to be in there.”
Carmel looked at Mitch before turning to face the man. “Sorry. We were just curious, you know, how far back in the caves go.” They climbed out of the cave and made their way back up the stair, the man gazing after them.
The next noon found them at the café on the Playa de Armas. The Playa today was not quite empty but it was nowhere near as full as it had been. All the tourists had already gone home, back to the States or Europe, or back to their small villages to wait for the tourism dollar to find them. The waiter, moustache hanging on by the follicles, breezed over when they sat down and took Mitch’s suitcase out of the way, a mostly unnecessary gesture: Mitch and Carmel were again the only customers. “I feel foolish being the only customers in here,” Mitch said. “Like we’ve come before opening.”
“We almost have. Siesta isn’t for an hour or so.” Carmel looked out the window almost absently. “I love this town. All the cathedrals and architecture.”
Mitch said nothing, scanning the walls instead.
“You should just come sometime. Here, I mean. Enjoy the town and scenery and—” Her voice trailed off.
“Yeah,” Mitch said, trying to sound non-committal. “Sure.”
Carmel looked at her watch. “I’d better go. I’m expected at the art studio in half an hour,” she said, and stood up. “You’re welcome to join me, wait for your flight there.”
He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Thought I might just poke around town. They’ll hold my suitcase here if I ask them to, I think, and there’s a couple of places I wanted to have a look at.”
Carmel nodded. “Well, call when you get home, okay?”
Mitch stopped rubbing his chin. “Yeah, I’ll—be in touch, I suppose.”
Carmel turned and left the restaurant. As Mitch watched her walk across the Playa he wondered if they would ever meet again. He shook his head and a moment later heard a discreet cough behind him. The waiter had come back with a Pisco sour.
“Pardon me, señor,” he said. “I couldn’t help but hear. You intended to spend the afternoon looking around our wonderful city. I’m very familiar with everything around here. Maybe I could help you find something.”
Mitch stared at the man for a moment, then took the Pisco sour and drank it down. In the background, the same song that had greeted him two days earlier was playing again. He could hear Angela singing in his head, “If you can’t make your mind up / We’ll never get started.”
“Direction,” he said then. “I seem to have lost mine. Could you help me find that?”
The waiter’s moustache vanished into nothing.
Peter Barlow received an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and serves as a reader for that school’s journal, The Literary Review.