The Flute Player


Trying to protect himself from the cold, Manco hunched with bent knees and pulled his pointed knit cap tightly over his ears. He was glad his brightly woven poncho hugged his body. A fierce wind swept up the rocky canyon, carrying snow as it came.

Impatiently, Manco shifted his weight. When will Papa come? he wondered. He promised me that it would be today. The boy’s stiff fingers touched the bamboo flute that had been tucked into his belt only this morning.

“My son,” his father had said with just a trace of a smile pulling at the corners of his wide, wind-wrinkled mouth, “here is the flute I have been carving for you. Today, I will teach you to play it.”

Manco felt a flush of pleasure as he remembered his father’s words. His father was Tupac, the finest flute player in the region.

Manco carefully noted the location of each of the family’s llamas and alpacas. When he was certain that the flock was safe, he drew the flute from under his poncho.

Tupac had carved the tiny finger holes and the mouthpiece with the greatest care as he sat by the cooking fire in their home high on the mountainside. He and his family grew corn and potatoes on the steep slopes there, and he and Manco climbed even higher each day to tend their small herd.

Manco put the polished wood to his lips. He wanted to send a shimmer of sound—a sound like the ones his father made—into the crisp air. But he knew he could not. He would wait until Tupac returned and taught him how to do it properly. And, he thought, I will someday be the finest flute player in all Peru. Someday my fingers will fly over the tiny holes, rippling like the birdsong I will play. And someday the women will weep at my songs of mourning, even as they shed tears when Papa played for Sinchi, who was called to the land of spirits.

Manco stood suddenly. He saw a small, dark speck descending the white ridge high above him. As the speck grew larger, the boy could see his father’s bright red cap against the snow, his face bent down to protect it from the icy blasts. He was struggling awkwardly to keep the wind from blowing him off the ridge.

The boy quickly scanned the hillside. One of the young animals was missing! Why had he not noticed it before? He had failed in his task. Now he knew why his father was having such trouble coming down the mountainside; now he could see the young llama gathered securely into his father’s warm poncho.

Suddenly Papa uttered a sharp shout. His legs twisted under him. He was caught in a snowslide!

The snow rolled over Papa’s dark figure, and Manco could see him no more. Manco plunged toward the rocky canyon that split the shoulder of the mountain. It would take a long time to descend to the bottom, then climb upward to where the snow had buried Papa.

Manco thought of going for help, but he knew there wasn’t time. Papa needed someone now, and Manco was the only one there.

When the boy reached the snow line at last, his arms and legs were like stones. His hands were bleeding, and his eyes were blurred with stinging perspiration and with his own tears. If only he could find Papa, he would never again fail to perform his tasks.

Searching the mass of snow and debris before him, Manco couldn’t see Papa anywhere! But wait—above the gasps of his own breathing, Manco heard a low moan. Swiftly he climbed higher and a little to the right. He saw a large, rough mound of snow moving slightly. “Papa?”

The boy tore at the snow with his bare hands. First he uncovered the young llama, which hobbled over to join the flock as soon as it was freed. Then Manco’s rapid digging uncovered an arm, then Papa’s shoulders, then his capped head. Tupac’s face was a strange color. His eyes were closed.

“Papa? Can you hear me?”

Tupac’s eyelids fluttered, then closed again. The look of tenseness and pain never left his face.

Manco pushed the snow from around his father’s limp form. He knew that he would not be able to get Papa home—it was too far.

There’s a shelter just over this ridge, he remembered. It’s only made of fallen tree limbs and branches, but it will be warmer there and out of the wind.

As Manco struggled to lift his father to a sitting position, Tupac came to and cried out with pain. But he struggled to his feet, saying, “I think that with your help, Manco, I can make it to the shelter.”

Evening shadows closed in on them as they made their way over the ridge. A few meters before they reached the shelter, Tupac slumped to the ground, overcome by pain and by his exertion. Manco was forced to drag his father the rest of the way.

Manco laid his father on a hastily made bed of twigs. He took off his own poncho and covered Tupac with it. Then he quickly cleared a space near his father, built a small fire, and set out to get help.

Manco soon found his uncles, who climbed up the mountainside and carried Tupac to his home. The boy’s mother and Cora, his sister, carefully tended to Tupac, cleaning and bandaging his wounds, and giving him soup to eat, and administering medicine. Manco watched anxiously until he saw his father fall into a relaxed sleep. Then the boy went to his own bed, exhausted.

It was late the next morning when he opened his eyes. His father, still in pain but feeling better, spoke his name.

“Yes, Papa?”

“The flock—is it safe?”

“No, Papa. I—I left them on the mountain.”

“You are the man of this house now,” his father told him. “Gather them and care for them. Go. And God be thy friend.”

Manco could not believe his ears. He was “the man of this house now”? But it was his negligence that had caused Papa’s accident. Papa knew why Manco hesitated, yet he called his son, who had erred, a man. The boy’s eyes stung suddenly. He bent over his father to hide tears of gratitude. “Yes, Papa. Thank you,” he whispered.

Manco stood, feeling somehow taller and older. He would not fail Papa this time. He would care for the herd alone.

Manco put on his poncho, pulled his cap over his ears, and went to the rough-hewn door.

“My son?” Tupac lifted himself slightly.

“Yes, Papa?”

“When you return, I shall teach you to be the finest flute player in all Peru.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Brown