Nona Fernández

Illustration by Dianna Xu

They say Lautaro was fifteen when Don Pedro de Valdivia took him prisoner down in the south. They say the conquistador was fond of the little Mapuche because of his eyes, bright like an olive, and his cool brown skin. They say that because of this he took him to the camp and made him his personal servant. He put him in charge of his horses. He taught him to ride them and told him all his secrets. Soon Lautaro had grown into a great horseman. He would gallop around and around for whole days, his master looking on. An Indian dressed in feathers and silk, his hair in disarray from the movement of the horse. A thick-lipped Indian yelling incomprehensible words, thighs gripped firmly around the animal, sweat running down his chest and soaking his white shirt. Valdivia liked the Mapuche. At times he would simply stare at him. There was something so strange about him. Half-animal half-man, half-day half-night, half-confident half-suspicious. What went on in the mind of that Mapuche? Did he think in the same way as he did? Did he feel the same things? He had already noticed he was much more resistant to pain, to cold and hunger. Was it that his skin was thicker? Did it tingle at another’s touch in the same way his did? Did he have feelings? A soul? They say that Valdivia wanted to get inside that dark-haired head, to dive into his thoughts, get inside his indigenous body, under his dark skin, look through his eyes, see things in his language. That’s why he never left his side. He made the Indian his confidant. He christened him Felipe. He trained him, gave him his own horse.

They say Valdivia never wanted to touch him. That he was content with Doña Inés de Suárez whenever he stayed in Santiago. They say the only thing he ever dared do was put his bearded chin in Lautaro’s dark hair when he came back from riding one afternoon. But there are also those who say that this is a lie and that the Spaniard wanted more, and that one night, unable to stand the heat, he went to the stables where Lautaro was sleeping.

They say it was summer and that the Mapuche was half-naked, clothed only with the heat of the horses, what with his thick skin being able to handle icy temperatures with little complaint. They say the Spaniard arrived with a knife in his hand and that he approached silently until he was grazing Lautaro’s hair with his fingertips. They say Lautaro woke up and almost died of fright when he saw Valdivia holding the weapon over his head. He wanted to shout, to call for help, but the Spaniard put a finger to his lips to quieten him and explained that all he wanted was a lock of his hair. They say that Valdivia made Lautaro slowly turn around and stood looking at his back and his long thick mane. His hands were on his hair, beginning to dive in and grope around, his fingers untangling the locks stuck together with grime and sweat, pulling out little pieces of hay, carefully combing it. The Mapuche trembled, sensing the knife closer, feeling the Spaniard’s breath shivering against his neck. Suddenly the knife fell with a clatter to the floor. Valdivia could stand it no longer and pushed his beard into the Mapuche’s unruly hair.

They say he licked the back of his neck and inhaled deeply, trying to gulp down all the smells, all the ideas, all the mysteries inside that head. They say he wanted to eat him. Mouth sucking at the Mapuche’s skull. Lips stammering his name. Lautaro, he said. His hands began to run down his neck and take control of the indigenous body. Fingers crawling over his shoulders, his back, trying to capture it in its entirety, to consume it whole. They say he took his legs and pushed himself into that body like he had wanted to for so long. Beard wet with saliva, dripping onto the limp mane, chestnut moustache, sticky with sweat, blending together with the Indian’s dark hair. He sucked him, licked him all over, and the Mapuche silently accepted every fresh onslaught of the Spaniard’s tongue.

They say that night Lautaro learned more than ever. While his body was joined with that of the conquistador, his indigenous blood was taking in every gesture, the Spaniard’s every weakness. His flesh understood the similarities between his own body and Valdivia’s, naked, without its metal armour, without its shield. His pores absorbed all the information that Valdivia’s sweat was transmitting; the nape of his neck, all the revelations that the conquistador’s saliva left with each lick of the tongue. They say Lautaro became brave that night. They say that while Valdivia groaned and moved on his back, he watched him carefully. Their bodies were the same, but there was something ridiculous about the Spaniard. That white skin, almost bluish. That stomach hanging greasy and fat. His hairy mouth groaning in that grotesque language.

They say that Lautaro laughed. They say he let out a tremendous roar while Valdivia and his white buttocks moved in triumph, believing that the Indian was enjoying the game. In front, behind, as on a battlefield. The lance piercing him in the back, wounding him, and a laugh in his mouth because that plump white flesh was shaking jelly-like, toad-like. That’s what Valdivia was. A pallid toad croaking in the nape of his neck, icing him with his toad’s saliva, with his toad’s semen.

They say Valdivia finished, exhausted, and lay down in the stables. They say not a word was exchanged. Don Pedro looked like he was falling asleep and Lautaro waited in silence until he was. When the Spaniard’s first snores snorted out among the horses, Lautaro got up and contemplated the sleeping body. A toad. There was no doubt. The knife still shone on the floor. Lautaro took it, looked at it with a sardonic smile on his face, and approached Valdivia. He did not feel afraid. He stood over him, one foot on either side of his soft body. With his left hand he took a lock of his own hair and cut it off with the knife. The hair fell onto Valdivia’s chest, but he didn’t notice and continued sleeping. Then Lautaro cut off another lock, and another, and another, until he was completely bald. All his hair that had been drooled on by the conquistador, now carpeting the floor. He saved only a single lock. A crest on top of his head like the Spanish Generals used to wear on their metal helmets. Lautaro threw the knife down, just beside Valdivia’s ear, grazing his skin. The weapon stood piercing the floor. Then he put on the Spaniard’s red shirt, took his horse and left the encampment for good.

They say that Valdivia woke up naked, buried in Mapuche hair and with the knife cutting into his ear. They say it was the first time the Spaniard had ever been afraid.

That night Lautaro rode until dawn. He rode at full speed, crossing the Bío-Bío, until he reached the place where he was from. They say the Mapuches almost turned and ran when they saw an Indian like them mounted on a horse. Lautaro arrived at a gallop and presented himself to the chieftains, the leaders, with his red shirt and his shaven head. Total silence. What is this? Who is this creature who speaks of the Spanish as though he were one of them? It wasn’t easy for Lautaro to win the confidence of his superiors. They all refused to believe what he was telling them. I’m not lying, the Spanish really are the same as us. Their horses aren’t part of their bodies. They’re animals and anyone can ride them. The Spanish have flesh and blood just like us. They only use metal shields when they’re fighting, but at night, when they sleep, their naked bodies look the same as ours. Whiter, hairier, more susceptible to cold and hunger, but the same as ours.

They say they eventually believed him. What’s more, they say they believed him so much that they trusted him blindly and named him Toqui, military leader. Lautaro quickly began to instruct their warriors. He taught them all he’d learned at the Spanish camp, all he’d observed on the battlefields. He gave them military training, organisation, strategy. They had to fight in groups, keep back fresh soldiers, retreat when necessary, attack on multiple fronts. He told them where they should aim their arrows, the places that weren’t protected by a suit of armour, he invented weapons that would bring down horses and raw leather shields to cover their own bodies. Soon the Mapuche were ready for their first battle. They rubbed their bodies with feathers taken from the swiftest birds, and launched themselves into flight, into the fight.

They say it was in Tucapel. In a southern fort the Spaniards themselves had built. Valdivia arrived half out of his mind. He came with his troops thinking there would be other Spaniards waiting there for them, that it would be safe there, because the Mapuche rebellions were happening further south. They say that when he arrived and found the fort destroyed his face suddenly changed. They say he had wanted to make camp and assess the situation, but didn’t even get as far as dismounting his horse before the forest began to roar with Mapuche screams. Indians appeared on all sides with their lances raised. A whirlwind of men covered in leather. Valdivia watched them in fear. He hadn't expected anything like this, he had fallen into a trap. There were so many, they rushed toward them and kept being replaced with fresh men not yet exhausted by the fight. Indians, more Indians. They wouldn’t stop appearing from behind the trees. Valdivia fought asking himself how they had deceived them, how they had mounted an attack like this one. Could it be that they think the same way we do?

Valdivia was worried. His men were falling one after another, and those who were still standing were close to exhaustion. Suddenly a new group of Mapuches appeared, yelling, at the Spanish rear guard. Lautaro appeared in front of them with his red shirt and bald neck. Only a single lock of hair stood up from his head. Valdivia looked at him for a second and his skin bristled with fear. There were the olive eyes, the dark, cool skin. His heart fluttered in his armoured chest. He felt naked and trapped by that absent head of hair. They say he didn’t think twice. He kicked his horse and fled. He ran as fast as he could, riding between trees, heading full of panic past his own dead littering the ground. It was all his fault. He knew now. The blood of every Spaniard who had fallen at the hands of Lautaro was on his hands. Every tactic, every weapon, every trap Lautaro had laid had been his own idea. He had let him in on the secrets of war and now he was paying for it. Valdivia ran as far as he could, but his animal was brought to a standstill by a bog, sinking and throwing him off. He couldn’t escape. He was trapped in mud up to his neck.

They say they carried him to a cinnamon tree. They say that there they stripped him naked and tied him up in order to examine him better. Lautaro had not lied. The body was very similar to their own. More ridiculous, of course, but very similar. They say that many of them laughed when they saw it. Their laughter was contagious and eventually it spread throughout the crowd. Everyone was laughing at Valdivia. They came closer, touching his white belly, his hairy chest, his loose legs. They say that Lautaro quietened them and approached with a knife in his hand. Everyone held their silence and made a space so the two could face one another. The Spaniard trembled and moaned in fear. Lautaro held a finger to his lips to silence him, and Valdivia stilled when he said that all he wanted was a lock from his beard. With his left hand he took the mud-caked hair on the Spaniard’s chin, looked at it for a moment, smelled it, touched it with his dark fingers and then lifted it up, exposing his neck. He then brought his lips to the conquistador’s right ear and, they say, murmured slowly, so no one else could hear: I’ve changed my mind. There’s no point taking this beard without your head to display it on.

With a single gesture he ordered the Spaniard to be untied and pushed onto his knees in front of a tree trunk. A Mapuche cut through Valdivia’s neck with a heavy axe. His head rolled in the mud and settled by the cinnamon tree.

They say the Indians played chueca with the conquistador’s head. That they spent an entire day doing this, hitting it and passing it from one side to another. They say that afterwards they took it and placed it in a hole next to Valdivia’s fat body, later covered with earth. They also say that, before he left, Lautaro visited that cursed grave. They say he went alone, asking no one to disturb him. It was a poor grave. There were no flowers, no crosses, nor any indigenous symbol. It was just a mound of earth. They say Lautaro stood in front of it and with a knife cut off his last remaining lock of hair. They say the hair fell to the earth on the grave and that the rainwater took care of burying it.

When the news of Valdivia’s death reached the capital, the Spaniards lost their minds. They were left without a leader to guide them. The founder of Santiago had fallen at the hands of his own disciple. They say they lost all the fighting that ensued. Lautaro won battle after battle, obliging them to retreat. The border moved further and further north. Lautaro took the city of Concepción and still they kept advancing. The south was Mapuche again.

They say that in Santiago they were afraid of him. They knew that at any moment he’d be there, settled in the Plaza de Armas. They believed he was a demon. The Devil Rider, they called him, because the rumour was that he rode dressed in red. The fear had spread throughout the city. Women prayed in the churches. They asked the Virgin to prevent the demon from setting foot on Santiago soil. But nothing could stop him. Not even the plague and hunger that tormented the Mapuche people. He kept advancing on horseback. He arrived at the Maule river, near the capital, and there he settled, waiting for the right moment to attack and take Santiago.

But the Virgin speaks Spanish and not the Mapuche tongue. She listened to her children’s pleas and pulled some strings to change the course of events. Lautaro did not enter Santiago to take back the Mapocho river and the Cerro Huelén. Lautaro did not reach the Plaza de Armas. An Indian approached the Spanish offering them the Toqui’s head before he could firm up his plans.

They say it was in Peteroa. They say that Lautaro had set up a large camp and that the previous night they’d had a great party until very late. They say that the Spanish arrived at dawn, hidden by the river, and that they waited for first light before attacking. It was a surprise. They say that the cock had barely crowed when they rushed in, yelling. They say they lost no time and went directly to find Lautaro. They grabbed him—he was dead in an instant. Nothing solemn, nothing special. They had to avenge the death of Don Pedro. In a single axe blow they cut off the Toqui’s head and carried it, on the army’s longest lance, to the Plaza de Armas in Santiago. There the bald head was visible for days. People went to see it and crossed themselves when they caught sight of his furious demon’s eyes. The Devil Rider had entered the city, but he’d entered it dead and impaled on a lance. His body was discarded in Peteroa along with the rest of the Mapuche corpses.

They say that after a week a soldier was ordered to take down the Indian’s head because it was now rotting and you could smell it from a long way off. The soldier took it, lance and all, down to the banks of the Mapocho, and threw it in so the current would take it. The head caught between some rocks in the river and was whipped against some tree trunks, but eventually the water washed it away and it disappeared.

They say it had been no more than a month when one night, very late, a horse’s hooves were heard galloping at full speed through the Santiago streets. The animal whinnied and the noise woke up everyone around. Women stuck their heads out of windows. Men appeared in doorways with weapons in their hands, terrified, ready to shoot the intruder, the drunk, or whoever else might be causing the commotion. The soldiers on guard also heard the noise. They raised the alarm and followed the echo of the horse through the streets to try and trap it. They ran and ran after the sound, chasing it, searching. The echo stopped in the Plaza de Armas. When the soldiers got there they saw the horse standing on two legs, neighing, right in the middle, the same place where Lautaro’s head had been displayed. On the animal’s back was a half-naked rider wearing a red shirt and holding up a lance in a warlike gesture. The soldiers looked at him in terror. Some of them pissed themselves in fear, others fainted or fled. It was a demon rider. It was a rider without a head.

They say Lautaro has moved through the streets of Santiago ever since. He runs like crazy, from one place to another, from the Plaza to the Mapocho, from the Mapocho to the Cerro, from the Cerro to the Plaza and back again. He kicks his horse, rides and rides without ever stopping. They say he never rests. They say that until he finds his head, he never will. They say. That’s what they say.

translated from the Spanish by Ellen Jones