Maria plucked at her heels, six sharp inches of shiny red leather, then cursed her choice. These shoes were not for walking. Whereas it was increasingly getting clear they had a lot in store. She slowed her steps and gave an audible sigh.
Alberto held her hands with desperation. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“No, I am not!” Maria retorted. “How can I be, after walking for ages in these heels? What is it with men and directions? It is all my fault for agreeing to go to the festival with you.”
Alberto flinched at the words. The words cut him like a sharp knife slicing potatoes. Maria wondered how the day could have gone from delightful to deplorable in so few hours. It had all begun beautifully enough.
Alberto had joined the office the Monday before last, and Maria’s day had immediately brightened. She had fallen head over heels for him. His honey-golden skin made her want to lick him up and down. And not only in a culinary way. His silken hair with unruly locks that kept falling into his eyes like a homing pigeon made her want to run her fingers through them at leisure. So when he had asked her for a date to the IntiRaymi, she had not hesitated.
IntiRaymi was the nine-day festival of the Sun celebrated in June at the ancient ruins near the Sacsayhuaman mountains. Nine days when all the rules of civilized society took a backseat and everyone returned to their pagan roots. A time for drinking, dancing, and lots of fun. So what if the festival invariably led to a host of drunken hook-ups, minor misdemeanors, and rioting? With so many people gathered together, there were bound to be some inconveniences.
A few disappearances were the norm every year. Rumours were rife about secret sacrifices, sometimes animals and sometimes humans too. Maria thought they were just people who wanted a clean break and took the opportunity of the anonymity provided by the swelling crowds the festival pulled. Of course, her mother, like most of the mothers she knew, had other ideas.
Her mother balked when Maria told her she was going to the festival with Alberto.
“What? That new gringo? You barely know him. I cannot allow you to go there with a total stranger. You have heard the tales just like I have done.”
“Mama,” she pouted. “First of all, he is not a gringo. And second, those tales are just to scare kids, especially girls, to stay home, eat less, and stay thin. Wow, what horrors did your generation dream up? That story is a lasting trauma. Twisted…,” she chuckled.
“This isn’t how I raised you. We don’t laugh at ancient wisdom. Please don’t go. You’ll only join the list of the disappeared. Disappeared, my foot! They are all dead, probably sucked dry like a berry stone.”
Maria laughed at her mother’s words. She could be such a drama queen when it suited her.
“Mama, please keep your dire warnings for someone who actually listens to them. Many of my friends return each year from the festival safe and happy. I have never gone to that festival before, and I won’t drop my plans because of your silly warnings. Not when I have such an adorable date.”
She had made all the plans: bought that gorgeous little red dress, the hem a bit high for her conservative mother, and heels which were too much. The look in her eyes was affirmation enough of their inappropriateness.
And now she was cursing her stubbornness. The stampede had happened in the blink of an eye. It had all metamorphosed into a tornado of red dresses, ruby feathers, and scarlet rivulets of blood, violent and demanding more blood. The two of them had somehow managed to limp away from the Sacsayhuamanmountains, but in their hurry to avoid the people leaving the site, they had somehow missed one of the turns. They had been wandering through unknown hilly ruins for two hours at least.
Unless they discovered the proper route soon, they were in for a difficult time. It was a cold June day, and her dress was merely ornamental. The rocky terrain was difficult to navigate in her heels. The sky was getting darker by the minute. Keeping their hands clasped in each other’s, they trudged on, tripping, slipping, and sometimes even falling on the pebbles that lay strewn around.
“We need help. At least a flashlight would be helpful. Can’t even see what is in front of me,” Maria moaned.
All around them, the ground stretched out rocky and weathered, as long as they could see. It was interspersed with little hillocks that resembled ancient giants crouching for their prey in the darkness. They had no idea where they were.
Her wrists jerked at Alberto’s unexpected stop.
“Can you see that light?” He whispered.
She looked where Alberto was pointing. A dim light, like that from an old-fashioned lantern, spread its tangerine glow far in the distance. “Maybe we should go and ask for help,” Alberto muttered. Maria didn’t concur. Who knew who or what was out in the dark? Not a good Samaritan, for sure.
“Should we? And what if they are criminals or something worse?” She shuddered, recalling the stories that her mother told her.
“What could be worse than being lost in these ruins in the dead of a winter night?” Alberto asked.
“Haven’t you heard the tales of the poor souls lost in these ruins? The mountains surrounding Cuzco harbour many secrets. One of them is the legend of the Pishtaco.”
“For a moment, I thought you said fish taco,” Alberto grinned.
“Grin all you want, but the legend is far from funny,” Maria continued. Alberto immediately got serious. “Tell me.”
“There have always been strange disappearances around Cuzco since anyone can remember. Some were never discovered, but a few bodies turned up. However, they shriveled beyond recognition. Rumour was the bodies had been sucked dry of the last ounce of fat. Stories have come down to us which tell us of a hombre, a pale-skinned stranger walking the forests and the ruins. He takes unsuspecting victims deep into the woods and then…”
Alberto squealed. “Hey, the light is moving. I think it is coming towards us.”
Maria stopped speaking. She felt a giant hand gripping her heart and crushing it with all its might. The light bobbed towards them, spearing the inky darkness. The moments seemed to stretch forward like movements underwater. Maria gasped as she saw a well-dressed man stop before them. He held up a lantern and spoke, his rasping voice sending shivers down their spines.
“Hey, Amigos. Are you two lost? Do you need any help?”
The mellow amber light fell on a well-dressed Spanish man in his late forties. His skin was pale and white, like someone who rarely saw the light of day. His eyes matched his skin, the pupils just a pinprick of black.
“Hey, Chica! Don’t be scared. Your pretty face displays the scary thoughts running through your mind. Don’t believe them. You’re tired are hungry. Follow me. I know where you can find food and shelter.”
Alberto looked at Maria. Hope lit up his face. “What do you say, Maria? Should we? He seems a decent hombre. I don’t see any way of getting back to civilization tonight.”
Maria hesitated. It seemed insane to follow a stranger. One that looked like the monster straight out of the legend? Alarm bells were ringing in her mind.
“But Mama’s warnings?” She whispered in Alberto’s ears.
Another voice answered.
“What? Those fantasy tales? Of monsters who sucked fat? Don’t you know mothers are manipulative?” The guy chuckled.
‘It seems like a children’s horror story,” Alberto said in a small voice.
Maria opened her mouth to speak, and a cloud of fine powder enveloped her face. She choked, the stench overwhelming her senses. Maria gasped, trying to breathe air into her lungs that were on fire. Her insides felt scraped, like a scrubbed dish. she fainted under the relentless onslaught of burning and choking.
When she regained her senses, the position of the stars showed that more than a couple of hours had elapsed. She groaned at her burning larynx but couldn’t utter a sound. She tried moving her limbs. They refused to comply. She lay there like a trussed-up fowl without even being bound.
A strange sound attracted her attention. There was movement at the edge of her vision. She strained her muscles and felt something give. She could now turn her face just a little. What she saw made her wish she hadn’t.
The Spanish guy sat on his haunches with his back towards Maria. He sat hunched over something broken and red. The sounds were coming from the same direction. He kept slurping and making noises like a vacuum sucking wet garbage. Maria’s skin crawled at each wet whoosh, and she wished with all her might for it to stop.
She got her wish. The sounds stopped. However, new sounds of skin tearing, and bones crunching, replaced the earlier ones. Maria felt doused in a bucket of ice water. She whimpered. No sound emerged, yet the Spanish guy stopped the crunching and slurping.
He rose like an avenging angel from the ground, and Maria winced. All the prayers her mother had taught her tumbled to her lips unbidden. The thing that lay at the hombre’s foot had once been a man, but it could only be called that on faith now. The body had its head missing. There was no way to identify who it had been when alive. The entire body had been skinned from neck to toe. Blood should have been sprouting like fountains from the exposed muscles, but it was dry as the ruins that surrounded them. The body was shrunken as if the very essence of its soul had been sucked dry. One arm had been torn at the elbow, and the bone, picked clean of all flesh, still dangled from the guy’s fingers.
The guy barely looked human. Blood soaked his clothes. Yellow blobs, soft and repulsive, stuck to the corners of his mouth. The corneas had taken over the whole of his eyes. The pupils disappeared entirely. But what horrified Maria the most was the strange appendage that hung from where his mouth should have been. A slimy pipe-like thing, still dripping fresh blood and yellow fat blobs. He grinned at her wide-eyed look, and the thing slowly retracted into the depths of his mouth from where it had come.
“Oh, Amiga.Poor thing. Look at the terror on your beautiful round face. I know you would run if you could. That is what my special powder does. Made from the bones of victims, it can render anyone motionless.”
“You’re right. I am the Pishtaco of your legends. You have landed right into the nightmare. The one your mother warned against! It was not just a plot to get you to eat less and stay thin. Kids these days are so hell-bent on diet and exercise, being skinny, and not embracing lard, the thing that brings a sheen to your skin and a glow to your face. Your friend Alberto hardly had any deposits. But you, you are not like everyone, Chica, Si? You do what you want. You eat, you drink, and you have fun. Your plump body is a testimony to the fact, isn’t it? I’ll have so much fun sucking all those layers of fat off you.”
“You love antagonizing your mother, don’t you? But you should have listened to her more. You see, mothers are always right.”
He smiled, all his sharp teeth glowing, and the whites of his greedy eyes like luminous orbs. The appendage crawled out, extending toward her. Maria screamed, the voice chords finally obeying her. The screams reverberated around the ruins, but there was no one to hear them.