Sorcerers’ Tales

Renato Cardenas crop

RENATO Cardenas lives alone in a bleached wooden house, shielded by pine trees and the kind of mysterious smile you might expect from a wizard.

Not that he will admit to being a wizard. “I’ve heard that people call me El Brujo Cardenas,” is all he will concede, tantalisingly, as he ushers us inside, amusement twitching at the corners of his pointed grey beard.

He has good reason to be reticent. According to the luxuriant folklore of Chiloe, this mist-shrouded archipelago a few miles and several worlds away from mainland Chile, any wizard or brujo who reveals his own identity will die within a year. So, if we want to get to meet one, Ali and I are going to have to be a little less direct.

It helps that our host, who would not look out of place in an illustrated editions of The Hobbit, also happens to be an anthropologist and resident expert on Chiloe’s folklore. So he can at least pretend to be objective.

“You must understand that people do not always wish to speak of these things to outsiders,” he says, leading us into a kitchen lined with jamjars of unidentifiable herbs. “Mythology is not just a way of understanding reality – for many people on this island, it is reality itself. Tomorrow I will show you places where these beliefs are still very strong. But first, let’s eat!”

He disappears off into the night to buy some food, leaving me with large book called The Dictionary of Chiloe, which bears his own name on the cover. A small white cat emerges from under the woodburning stove.

BRUJO: A wizard who exercises dominance over nature by using magic practices, begins one promising dictionary entry. Brujos, it continues, have the ability to fly using a glowing magic waistcoat made of skin taken from the breast of a exhumed Christian corpses, preferably female virgin ones. They can also inflict mysterious scratches on enemies using a kind remote-control magic, and have the ability to change shape and become animals at will.

I pause and scrutinise the cat suspiciously for any sign of a pointed beard. It is disappointingly bald. Renato’s study, however, looks more promising. Pebbles and snail shells line the window ledge, an old gnarled walking stick is propped by a drum of stretched animal hide. A branch taps on the window as the wind gets up. It is as I am putting the dictionary back on the shelf that I notice the human skull.

In fact it is an entire head, albeit an oddly shrunken one, severed at the neck. I gaze appalled at the fine dark hair still attached to the desiccated skin; the gaping jawbone, the mummified eye sockets, a piece of broken cranium lying next to it like corroded pottery. “What kind of man keeps a severed head on his mantelpiece?” I whisper to Ali, who is stroking the cat. It is a good question, yet when Renato returns minutes later, swinging a large smoked salmon from one hand and a carton of wine from the other, something prevents me from asking it. Not yet.

*  *  *  *  *

West Coast ChiloeA legend of the indigenous Mapuche indians has it that Chiloe was formed millennia ago when the evil sea serpent Cai Cai did battle with her good counterpart Tren Tren, shattering the earth in her anger and creating a scattering of tiny islands. On a day like today you can almost believe it. Bruised clouds brood low over slate-coloured seas as our small boat, No Surrender, pitches doggedly onwards towards Chaulinec, one of the more remote islands in the archipelago.

A small green boy is trying to vomit into a yoghurt pot and missing, with interesting results. Even hardened locals are lined up along the side. Renato, who has agreed to take us on one of his “teaching tours”, is meanwhile down in the hold snoozing beatifically among sacks of potatoes and coils of barbed wire. I am expecting him to get up at any moment and calm the storm.

Two hours later we stagger ashore, disorientated and queasy, as if from a time machine. A team of oxen drags a sort of wooden sledge across the beach in front of us, laden with apples. Seaweed hangs drying like wrinkled tights on a barbed wire fence, and among the dense green vegetation, a cluster of huts tries its best to be a village.

“The Chilote’s life is always very hard,” says Renato, hugging his long sheepskin duffelcoat around him. “We are rich in natural resources but we remain a poor community. Like the Irish, we love our potatoes – we have 230 different genetic types – but a whole sack of potatoes is worth only five dollars.” The fleets of tiny painted fishing boats also struggle to pay the bills, particularly compared to the growing number of salmon farms owned by outside businesses.

In the absence of much material comfort, Renato’s mission is therefore to encourage his fellow Chilotes to keep hold of the one thing they have in abundance: the folklore and language of their ancient forefathers.

Pacing around Chaulinec’s tiny wooden schoolhouse (one teacher, two dinner ladies and four pupils), he has a kind of magnetic energy as he conjures up the Mapuche names of trees and birds, even children. “Did you know you are a kind of god?” he asks a small boy with wide eyes. “Your name, Caipillan, comes from Cai Cai, the great serpent, and Pillan, god..” The small boy cannot contain his delight.

Not that tradition appears in too much danger of dying out here. On the walls of the classroom, above a row of tiny models of wooden anchors and ox-drawn carts, is pinned an essay entitled: “How we killed the school pig.” Another is a story about the Caleuche, the ghost ship which appears from the fog and houses the souls of drowned sailors. I ask Renato about this, probing for more hints of wizardry.

“These traditions are very important to the identity of a people,” he says, deftly evading my real question as we walk along the beach. “The very language is full of colour and magic.” By way of example he pokes at beached jellyfish with his toe and gives us its indigenous Mapuche Indian name. It translates as ‘seal vomit’.

640px-ChicharronesChiloeLinLinaoThe mention of brujos often seems to illicit these colourful diversions. Other sly enquiries among villagers are met with nervous laughter, or abject fear. But as we travel out further along the archipelago, there is a definite sense we are getting warmer. Especially on the little island of Apiao. “Of course we believe in brujos,” says a serious little 12-year-old called Maribel, incredulous that I could have asked. She tells me about the strange death of a woman in the village. “The morning after she died her son woke up with his shirt full of strange holes,” she whispers. “They say the whole house was surrounded by witchcraft.” A huddle of other schoolchildren stare at us mutely.

It is not the first such story we have heard. The other night a middle-aged schoolteacher told us how as a child she once woke screaming from a dream about a clawed creature and found herself covered in scratches. Her mother traced her curse back to the day before when the child had been taunting an old woodcutter. “I knew immediately that it was him,” the woman told us. “I went straight outside and shouted at him ‘You are a Brujo!’. And the strange thing was that within a year he was dead.”

Brujos have haunted the imagination of this island for centuries. As part of his initiation into the rumoured underground brotherhood or brujeria, the apprentice brujo must reportedly undertake a macabre chain of rituals. First washing away his baptism under a freezing waterfall for 40 consecutive nights, he must then prove his strong mindedness by murdering his best friend. And then, of course, get down to the business of digging up a recently buried Christian corpse to make his flying waistcoat. More level-headed academic studies have linked the origins of the brujeria to an underground organisation of native resistance to the occupying Spaniards, who in turn sought to demonise it in the popular imagination. As recently as a few decades ago, indigenous people were being dragged off to prison on the merest mention of witchcraft.

Now, on this tiny outpost of Apiao, children still jostle to tell us about a whole menagerie of folkloric characters, from the llorona, a crying woman in black who visits your home the day before a death, to Trauco, a hideously disfigured forest dweller with rotten stumps for legs who seduces virgins with a single glance. “I would never go to the woods alone,” concludes Maribel, and a small moon-faced boy nods vigorously at her side.

Across the dirt yard by the school office, I notice Renato standing watching us with Joanna the headmistress. For the first time I can recall he is looking a little uncomfortable. He beckons me over. “The children don’t really need any encouraging when it comes to brujos,” says Joanna, looking tired. “They pick it all up from their parents and grandparents. At school we always try and keep the balance between our traditions and mythology, and the more scientific world like geography.” Behind her a radio handset wired to a car battery murmurs through a fog of static as the 20th century struggles to get through.

Later, Renato introduces me to Maria the local social worker, making her monthly visit. “These legends have good and bad elements,” she says carefully when we tell her of our interest. “They can sometimes obscure the real problem.” Teenagers who find themselves pregant, for example, are said to have “wrestled with Trauco”, conveniently absolving the real father of responsibility. In reality, they may be the victims of rape or even incest. “We have a very rich folklore,” concludes Maria. “But sometime you need to look behind it to find the truth.” Renato does not attempt to argue.

Gazing out over the darkening waters, I think suddenly of a little girl waking in her own bed, covered in scratches. It makes you wonder.

*  *  *  *  *

The seaweed on the beach shines a livid green in the weak afternoon sun, as we approach the wooden village church, followed by Alejandra, a six-year-old sporting a toothless grin. A bird perched in the twisted dark-red branches of a Tepu tree makes the kind of noise you might expect to accompany a wrong answer on a particularly silly game show. “That’s a Chucao, the bird of luck,” pronounces Renato. “Good luck or bad luck?” I wonder. “That depends on a lot of things, whether it is on your left or right, what kind of sound it is…” Sometimes folklore can be downright exhausting.

Inside the dusty church, even Catholicism seems to have tangled with the local magic. Extravagantly-frilly porcelain saints stare out from glass cases. And on the altar, like some kind of omen, lies a tiny green hummingird, panting and unable to fly. “It can’t find a way out!” cries Alejandra. I cup the creature in my hands and carry it out into the churchyard, where Alejandra gently dribbles water onto a dalia and props it under the bird’s head. Presently, a translucent tongue parts its black beak and pokes inside a water droplet, lapping weakly. Then with a final shudder of irridescent green, it dies.

Renato shrugs sadly, and tousles Alejandra’s hair, looking suddenly more like a benign uncle than a wizard. I am beginning to suspect that the Brujo Cardenas is nothing more spooky than a committed anthropologist. It seems as good a time as any to ask him about the shrunken head on his mantlepiece.

“What makes you think it is shrunken?” he asks, with a strange smile. “I found it in the northern desert, with many others. It was sacrificed many years ago after a tidal wave to appease the forces of nature. It is the skull of a child.”

Some traditions, we agree, are better left to die out. We watch as Alejandra carries the body of the bird up a hill and lays it reverently under a bush. I wait for Renato’s inevitable pronouncement on its meaning, but he stays silent.

I am grateful for this. On this misty island of twisted creatures, dark beauty and pregnant symbols, it is a relief to know there are times when the death of a hummingbird means nothing more than itself.

First published in shorter form in the Independent on March 26th, 2000

Posted on: 30 Oct 2013 in Features, General, Journalism, Spirituality

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