By Teresa H. Janssen
Village life in the upper reaches of the Ecuadorian rainforest continued among the trees and flowers. By April, the suffocating heat gave way to the cooler winds of the rainy season soon to start. The mountains hovered, ever constant. From our valley, their broad flanks and craggy peaks filled half the western sky. They blocked the afternoon sun, punctured clouds sliding past, and shed rock onto our roads.
We had arrived in southern Ecuador four months before. My husband, Claus, was a medical volunteer, and I was teaching English. Our four children attended the village school, putting their Gringo parents to shame by their quick acquisition of Spanish and easy acceptance of the new culture in which we were immersed.
We went to Cuenca that April to enjoy the pleasures of the big city, and before returning back to our village, decided to take a bus into the mountains to see Cajas National Park. At 13,000 feet, it was a stark land of gray and scraggly green.
Our bus crawled above a thick cloak of trees and through the mountain’s necklace of cloud. The children tumbled from the bus and ran through the brown páramor grasses. Claus pointed out the twisted quinua trees, which grow at a higher elevation than any other tree in the world.
We wound up a thin trail through the grasses, past boulders and midget shrubs, over the breast of the mountain. From the ridge, we looked down at spindly rivers braiding through a glacier-scoured valley, and at deep blue lakes and ponds that glimmered like gems of lapis. We left the ridge and descended past trees that looked as if they’d been frozen in a crazy dance. The kids laughed at their Dr. Seuss forms. We followed a path that dropped into a cleft in the mountain and entered the shadows of an underworld at the top of the earth.
The thick limbs of the stunted trees intertwined like wrestlers locked into permanent holds. Exposed roots tangled in knots. The kids stopped, bewildered by the scene before them. Then they scurried into the shadows to climb deformed trunks, jump from limb to limb, and swing from branches as if from monkey bars. Claus and I leaned against a trunk of a dwarf tree and watched, silenced by the eeriness of this somber otherworld. It was Middle Earth come to life – the fantastic land we all had imagined as we read aloud Tolkien’s words. Enchanted, we heard too late the prattle of rain on leaves overhead.
We led the children out of the ravine, into gray light and rain and helped them put ponchos over their damp clothes, then trudged across the barren mountain along a narrow path down to the river. As we walked towards the highway, a blast of cold wind hit us from the snow fields above, and the clouds let loose a barrage of icy raindrops saturating the thin soil. The ground became slick as wet leather.
Claus and the older children hiked ahead next to the river. Seven-year-old Britta walked in front of me in her green slicker, her little legs bounding over rocks and puddles, like a nimble frog. As she turned a corner, I lost sight of her. When I heard her scream, I raced around the bend. The waterlogged trail had collapsed. She’d fallen into the river.
“Momma!” she cried, struggling to keep her head above the roiling water. I reached for her but the earth gave way under my feet and I fell in, head first, pulled deep into the frigid water by my heavy backpack. Strangled by fingers of ice, I clawed my way up and gasped for air, then I grabbed Britta’s arm and swam for the shore.
“Don’t come too close,” I shouted to Claus and the kids who’d run back to help. “The path will give way again.”
I grasped a root jutting from the muddy bank, pulled Britta next to me, pushed her up the steep side to Claus’s outstretched hand, and climbed out behind her. We sat in the mud and shivered. Britta started to cry. Claus peeled off her clothes, dressed her in dry clothes from his pack, rubbed her limbs, and urged us to walk. We slogged through the freezing rain, shaking with cold. Then Britta stopped and sat down, and Lukas, her eight-year-old brother, squatted next to her.
“I’m too tired to walk. I want to go to sleep,” she said.
Her face was pale, her lips blue. I stared at her, too numb to respond.
“Everybody jump and dance around,” Claus shouted. “You have to keep moving.”
I knew what he was thinking – hypothermia.
He started dancing and singing, ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’. The kids and I reluctantly joined in, hopped around, patted our heads, clapped our hands, and touched our toes. I looked at the contorted trees on the hill above us. Time for our crazy dance. Anything to survive.
Claus wrapped Britta in a towel, pulled her onto his back, and started walking. I grasped Lukas’ arm and we stumbled after them. At last we saw a trail of chimney smoke and followed it to a shack just below the road.
We crowded onto benches in the cozy hut as the couple who ran the refugio served us cups of steaming tea. An hour later, warmed and alert after a pot of caffeine, we climbed onto the bus which threaded its way through ridges and valleys, back to Cuenca.
As the children dozed, I craned my neck to see the peaks above.
Claus reached for my hand. “Men have died up there,” he said.
They say a mountain is a place where truth is near. The Incas believed ‘father’ mountain held ominous power that must be appeased. Near its top, the closest place to heaven, they made sacrifices: an animal, food, a treasure, and sometimes, a child. I wondered what kind of person could sacrifice a child to a mountain.
I looked at my reflection in the smudged window. I was that person. I shuddered to think how close we’d come to losing Britta.
That night, as she lay sleeping in her blanket, I kissed her, grateful for her twitching eyelids and warm cheeks. Outside, I gazed at the outline of a rocky mass above a shroud of mist. I stepped back into the darkened room and lit a candle—a humble gesture, an appeasement to the mountain that held power over us all.
Teresa H. Janssen is a teacher who writes about migration, spiritual travel, and the power of place. She has an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Washington. She has received the Norman Mailer/NCTE non-fiction award, the Pacific Northwest Writers 2017 essay prize, a Travelers’ Tales Solas Gold award, and was a finalist for the 2017 Annie Dillard creative nonfiction contest. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Anchor Magazine, Obra/Artifact, Snapdragon, Dos Gatos, Tidepools, and Gold Man Review. Teresa lives in the Pacific Northwest where she is at work on a memoir about a year in Ecuador.