Read The Compass of His Bones and Other Stories Online

Authors: Jeff VanderMeer

Tags: #fantasy, #short story, #anthology

The Compass of His Bones and Other Stories

BOOK: The Compass of His Bones and Other Stories


Jeff VanderMeer

Cheeky Frawg Books

Tallahassee, Florida

This edition copyright © 2011, Jeff VanderMeer and Cheeky Frawg Books.

The stories herein previously appeared in the collection
Secret Life
(2004), with prior publication in individual periodicals.

“Falling into the Arms of Death” is previously uncollected.

Cover and Cheeky Frawg logo copyright 2011 by Jeremy Zerfoss.

Ebook design by Neil Clarke.

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

Check out the full line of Cheeky Frawg Books at:


This ebook contains the novella “Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac” and four related short stories: “The Emperor’s Reply,” “The Compass of His Bones,” “La Siesta Del Muerte,” and “Flight Is For Those Who Have Not Yet Crossed Over.” “Falling into the Arms of Death” owes a huge debt to the writer Lucius Shepard. Together, these stories set in Latin America were to have formed the backbone of a never-completed mosaic novel addressing issues of colonialism, storytelling, appropriation, and myth. The author’s interest in Latin America derived from trips there as a child, including a visit to Machu Picchu in the 1970s. Subsequently he studied Latin American history as a minor at the University of Florida.


Ghost dancing was not simply a phenomenon central to the North American Indian mythos, but also an integral part of the ritual of the indigenous South American populations, particularly to the descendants of the Incas. The primary difference between the North and South American versions of the ghost dance is that the Incas danced more for remembrance than renewal. To the Inca, the future, unknowable, was considered to be at a person’s back and the past, known, opened up before a person to be seen clearly.

— Sir Richard Bambaugh,
Inca Ritual
(Harper & Row, 1986)


At times it seems to the reporter as she scribbles notes in the dim light that this is his last breath, that the lungs will collapse in mid-sentence; the arms — hands twiglike but supple — will punctuate his stories with a flourish and then convulse, become limp, cold, languid. The eyes, shining from the sunken orbits, will dim to the color of weathered turquoise. The mouth will die a hummingbird’s death, slackening in a final flutter of lips. Already a smell, old as parchment and strong as vinegar, has begun to coat the hotel room. Outside, Cuzco’s moonlit streets are silent.

She can taste his death on her tongue: a bitterness softened by the sweet-sour of incense burning in a bowl. Her pen falters on the page, then hurries forward ghoulishly, to catch his essence before it vanishes into the air.

But he does not die that evening, despite the heaving of his breaths, the pauses and halts that disrupt the urbanity of his voice and its subtle hints of accent, none of which can quite break the surface of syntax.

Behind him, black machinery sputters and jerks as it feeds his lungs. At times he is lost within the machines that engulf him, their own cough-cough threatening to drown out his words, or snatch them before they can reach the reporter’s ears, and by extension, her pen.

She thinks it odd that a machine, a collection of cogs and wires and bellows, should keep a man’s soul in his body, the two having no natural connection, nor even a common meeting ground. Yet, when she looks up from her page, he appears to have melted into the machine, no longer a figure draped in sheets, lying placid on a wooden bed.

Then, too, she finds it odd she should be here, having closer kinship to the machinery than the man. At least she can understand the machinery. Peru stonewalls her. It has nothing to do with who she is or what she desires from life. The hotel, for example, carved into the mountainside, and the hotel room with its small window that winks from the wall opposite her chair. The window, during daylight hours, shows a cross-section of mosses and lichens, the loamy soil alive with beetles. Now it is just another shadow, rectangular amid deeper shadows.

The window reminds her of the grave and, staring again at Manco Tupac, last true descendent of the Inca Emperors, she realizes just how small, how birdlike, he is. She had expected a giant, with the sinewy, leathery health of a man who claims to have survived one hundred forty winters in a country that already has her gasping for breath, ears popping. The man lying on the bed looks as though a breeze could strip the flesh from his ribs.

Her expectations have often led her astray; her vision of New York City before she moved there from Florida was of a citadel of shining chrome and steel — evenings at the Met, operas at the Lincoln Center, walks in Central Park. Cultural Eden. It was an image that, as her editor at
Vistas: Arts and Culture Monthly
often says, “Got turned on its ass.”

When her thoughts stray, as now, to home, or the hypnotic movement of his hands lulls her toward sleep, his
muscular and tight, bring her back to her notes, to the physical sensation of the pen in her hand, to the nerves in her wrist that tense, untense, tense again.

Already she has been writing for an hour, her tape recorder broken and discarded an isthmus away in Mexico, her wrist ready to break on her now, with no money to replace that, either. She feels a spark of resentment toward the old man in front of her and then rebukes herself. She asked for it. It was the type of assignment her rival freelancers regularly had orgasms over as they drummed up articles from their pathetic little stomping grounds in Manhattan and Brooklyn: interviewing the last of a breed, with all the echoes of faded glory, lost triumphs, a hitherto overlooked pocket of nostalgia that readers and award judges alike could fawn over. Dramatic headlines dance through her head: BRUTAL IRONY: LAST DESCENDENT OF THE INCAS DYING OF ASTHMA; THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE 20TH CENTURY, AS REVEALED BY THE LAST OF THE INCAS. She does not know much more — yet. She knows that the old man requested the interview and that he holds an honorary degree from the National University of Lima at Cuzco. Beyond this, nothing. A void as black as the window carved into the mountainside.

“Do you think you have transcribed my words accurately thus far? It must be difficult.”

His voice startles the reporter, because now it is directed at her. She squints at the page. Her eyes blur. The words become hieroglyphics. What did it mean, really, as a whole? Where is the article she dreamed up while still in New York? The perfect story and yet, almost indefinably, she can sense it going sour, going south.

“Yes, I think so,” she says, smiling, looking up at him. Even her feet and ankles ache, a healthy, well-used ache, as if she just swam ten laps at her local gym.

“Good,” he says, and spins out the dry reed of his voice until it is impossibly thin, impossibly tight, tighter than the quipo knots his ancestors wove into compact messages: scrolls of knots sent across the Empire by fleet-footed men with muscles like knots beneath their skin.

She has only her pen.


In 1879, when I met the man who called himself Pizarro, though Pizarro had been dead for over 300 years, I knew the Inca knots better than the Español of the usurper. I had not yet left my village for renown on the Brazilian coast, nor infamy in the United States, where I would spend many years being hunted by Pancho Villa over one misunderstanding and two exaggerations. I had yet to become known by the moniker of “Jimmy Firewalker,” and still relied upon my given name, Manco Tupac, which I have returned to in these later years.

And also in 1879 my mother and father were still living. My parents, my four brothers, two sisters, and I all worked the land, never owning the land, although we were allowed to plant some crops for our family’s use. The hours were hard and we had few pleasures in our lives, but, for better or worse, I was always scheming to do better, to get out of our ruined hut of a house, to be
For the man you see before you is dissipated and jaded from too many years traveling this world, but in 1879 I was very, very
 . . .

The man who would be Conquistador again entered my village, two miles from this very city, as winter began to settle over the land. The trees had lost their few leaves, the sun had a watery, distant quality, and in the far off mountains, I heard the raw sound of avalanches as falling snow dislodged packed ice.

The man who would be Conquistador again rode up the old Inca road from Cuzco. He rode a nag, was himself a nag of a man: thin to a shadow, arms like poles of balsa wood, and his age above sixty. Wedged into the wrinkles of his face, his blue eyes shone with a self-assurance that beggared the decay of his other parts. He wore a rusted helmet from the past century, such as the men of the Peruvian viceroyalty wore before Bolivar swept them into the sea. At his side hung a rusty sword in a scabbard and a flintlock rifle, aging but oiled and shiny. Supplies weighed down his horse — blankets, water skins, pots, pans — and it was the banging and clanging of these supplies that alerted me to his presence.

As this oddity approached, I sat idly in a chair outside our leaky house and pretended not to see him. Our family had just eaten our noontime meal and everyone was already in the fields, my father yelling for me to join them. I pretended not to see him as well.

The stranger’s shadow fell across my body. The voice that addressed me held no trace of quaver, more akin to the Damascus steel in his eyes than the ruins that surrounded them.

“Manco Tupac?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I am called Pizarro. I require a guide.”

I stared up at him, saw the yellow cast to his face, smelled the
berries on his breath.


He pointed to the mountains.

“Up where Tupac Amaru used to rule. I seek the Lost Treasure of the Incas.” He said this with precision, capitalizing the phrase. “In Cuzco they say you are the best guide, that your ancestors are descended from Tupac.”

I nodded and folded my arms. I was not the best guide. I was cheap. I had gained my meager reputation from my name, which combined the names of the two last and greatest Incan Emperors, this an act of bravery on the part of my mother. It had been several months since anyone had requested my services due, no doubt, to the landowner wars that sputtered and flared like brushfires across most of the lower country.

“I have a map.”

I stifled laughter. They all had maps in those days, whether it was black-clad Dominicans searching for treasure for a European diocese, or the newly coined “archaeologists” who dug up our graves, or common thieves from Lima and Quito. Maps on parchment, lamb’s skin, papyrus, even tattooed on their skin. Never once had I heard of their quests turning up anything more profound than pottery shards, skulls, or abandoned mercury mines.

I nodded and stated my fee for such a venture.

“Of course.” He inclined his head, an odd gesture of deference that almost made me forget he claimed the inheritance of Pizarro.

Our quest began amicably enough. I said goodbye to my family, my father stern, his brow furrowed with worry, as he handed me his own set of bolas, with which I could bring down wild game. My mother, feigning indifference, had already returned to the fields by the time I left with the Spaniard. I cannot pretend they did not fear for me, but the money I earned would keep us fed and clothed through the winter. All the while, Pizarro upon his nag looked neither left nor right, harmless as statuary from another age.

We set out into a morning sharp and bright enough to cut our eyes, he upon his horse, myself following on foot. We traversed the Incan highway, still intact after four hundred years, which ran from Cuzco into the mountains. The road was pockmarked with rubble, shot through with sweet-smelling grasses. We would not leave the highway until well near the end of his quest.

Every few miles my companion would point proudly to the etched initials of a Spaniard immortalized in stone. Some of the crudest carvings dated back to Pizarro’s original few score men.

As we traveled, he spoke to me of his ancestors, of what they had endured to bring my ancestors into the light of Christendom.

“It was a time of great energy! A time of great industry, unlike today, when Spain has fallen back on its haunches like a toothless lion.” He grimaced at the thought, but then he brightened. “Perhaps a time will again come when . . . ” He trailed off, as if realizing to whom he spoke.

“You are Christian, are you not?” he asked.

“I am not,” I said.

“But you have been baptized?”

“I have not,” I replied.

“Your parents?”

“They have not.”

He shook his head, as if this did not make sense to him.

“There is but one true God,” he said, in a lecturing tone, “and His Son, who died for our sins, is Jesus Christ. If you do not believe in Jesus Christ, you shall be eternally damned.”

“What do you hope to find?” I asked. I had no religion, only a faith in the myths my mother had whispered to me even as a baby at her breast, a faith in the confident way she told them. It gave me secret pride that such tales had outlived the Spanish conquest, for the Christian god was by contrast colorless.

“What do you hope to find?”

A one word answer.

The only honest answer, ever.


We did not converse much after that first brittle exchange, but contented ourselves with watching the countryside unfold, always ascending along the winding road. The mountains surrounded us ever more and if we looked at them for too long, perspective seemed to place them within reach, as if we had only to clutch at the glittering domes of snow and they would be ours. But when we let our gaze drop to the ground beneath our feet — and we did this rarely — we quickly noted the precariousness of the path: our feet often came to the edge of open air, almost stepping out into a sky that could plunge us one thousand, two thousand feet to a valley floor, a river bed. Pizarro developed the habit of glancing down, then over at me, as if he wondered whether I would lead him to his death.

Near dusk of the third day, weary and ready for sleep, we came upon a troupe of Ghost Dancers. They danced around the ruined spire of an old Inca guard tower. The tooth of stone had served as a home to animals for at least three hundred years, but they danced to restore the guard tower to its former glory and purpose. The bittersweet smell of sweat and exertion was a testament to their faith, their hope — a dream I could not share, for I found it impractical at that age. It would have accomplished much more, in my view, to rebuild the tower and refit the stones into the highway.

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