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When Mountains Walked

When Mountains Walked

4.0 1
by Kate Wheeler

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Named a "Best Young American Novelist" by GRANTA, Kate Wheeler received numerous awards and the highest critical acclaim for her story collection, NOT WHERE I STARTED FROM. Francine Prose wrote, "This is a book you mention to your friends . . . Wheeler is a writer to follow, wherever she chooses to travel." In her much anticipated first novel, Wheeler takes readers to


Named a "Best Young American Novelist" by GRANTA, Kate Wheeler received numerous awards and the highest critical acclaim for her story collection, NOT WHERE I STARTED FROM. Francine Prose wrote, "This is a book you mention to your friends . . . Wheeler is a writer to follow, wherever she chooses to travel." In her much anticipated first novel, Wheeler takes readers to opposite ends of the earth in a story of passions that weaves together past and present. WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED tells of two parallel love affairs, years apart, in places as remote as the deepest canyon in the world, as vast as the Indian desert. In the 1940s, Althea Baines follows her seismologist husband to the heart of the Indian subcontinent to trace the origins of earthquakes. Here, awakening to a form of spirituality she had never imagined, she eventually finds solace with a Hindu priest. Years later, her granddaughter Maggie follows her own idealistic husband to a canyon in central Peru to set up a health clinic. Alive to the culture and the place, Maggie falls recklessly in love with a revolutionary leader and follows him on an apocalyptic trip into the rain forest. The lives of the older and younger woman echo and illuminate each other as each gets swept up in her own time by powerful forces. This is a novel about love and compromise, about the difficulties of establishing an identity in the midst of extravagant desires. Like Wheeler's short stories, WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED features American women seeking love and enlightenment in distant parts of the world. As the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW said of her, "Wheeler has a capacity for compressing the insights of cross-cultural dislocation into deliciously memorable epiphanies." Romantic and wise, evocative and compassionate, WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED reaffirms Kate Wheeler's reputation as one of our most captivating writers.

Editorial Reviews

Kate Flatley
In When Mountains Walked, the strength of this book lies in Ms. Kate Wheeler's lyrical use of language. She has gift for tangible, descriptive writing. The reader will be able to see the land of India as as "the color of lions...the color of eternal dust" and feels Maggie's relief in Peru when [the nights] descended, bringing coolness, the scent of leaves, wet dirt, and flowers, and dissolving the canyon walls. When Mountains Walkedsubtly questions how much is too much to sacrifice in a relationship. It is a deftly written debut by a gifted storyteller.
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Eagerly awaited since Wheeler's debut short story collection, Not Where I Started From, this atmospheric, insightful and suspenseful first novel confirms the ambitious range and depth of her literary skill. The narrative intertwines the story of two women struggling to define themselves in the vortex of overbearing men. Assigned to Peru as health care workers, Maggie Goodwin and her husband, Carson, find themselves in Piedras, a remote, primitive village set in a deep river canyon, not far from where, 60 years earlier, Maggie's grandmother, Althea, and her husband, seismologist Johnny Baines, suffered the tragedy of their baby son's death. In alternating accounts, Wheeler depicts both women's lives, each of them suffocating in the shadow of a domineering, ambitious husband and facing wrenching dilemmas concerning the father of the babies they have conceived. If these mirror-imaged lives seem too conveniently symmetrical, Wheeler adroitly emphasizes their differences as well. Now 79 and dying, Althea made a momentous decision in India, and preserved her marriage at the expense of truth. Maggie wants to emulate her grandmother's adventurous life, but knows Althea is emotionally dislocated from her true identity. Smoldering against Carson's chauvinistic behavior, Maggie is drawn to Comandante Oquendo, aka Vicente Quispe Cruz, the benevolent leader of a failed terrorist group called Black Rainbow, now in hiding from the Peruvian military, whose dealings in the cocaine trade brought fleeting semiprosperity to Piedras and fostered democratic cooperation among its citizens. When Carson discovers that the Canadian owners of a privatized gold mine in the hills above the village have callously poisoned the district water supply with toxic effluents, causing malformed babies and serious health problems among the peasant populace, he and Maggie enlist Vicente's support. Vicente exhibits the bravery and intelligence of a natural leader, and his innate idealism stands in contrast to Carson's stubborn self -importance. It is inevitable that Vicente and Maggie become lovers, and that her naivete about their future together will lead to a crisis culminating in Maggie's transformation from an easily cowed marital subordinate to a courageous, morally sure woman. Maggie's epiphany occurs when, alone and hiding from soldiers in the forest, she finally understands the nature of selfhood and of commitment, and determines the direction of the rest of her life. Wheeler's descriptions of the interior of Peru are both lush and graphic, conveying the "pulsing, vivid heat'' in sensuous terms, the abject poverty of the villages as well as the harsh beauty of the landscape. Ably articulating the themes of a woman's role as wife and mother in a patriarchal society, and the political realities that occur when relentless economic deprivation victimizes people in Third World cultures, she has written a psychologically lucid and emotionally resonant novel. Agent, Denise Shannon. 3-city author tour. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Wheeler, an award-winning short story writer (Not Where I Started From), specializes in tales featuring Americans caught up in foreign cultures. Her first novel (whose title refers to earthquakes) is no different. Maggie has followed her husband to an impoverished Peruvian village to provide free health services. In a politically unstable environment, they attempt to ingratiate themselves with the suspicious locals. After treating too many newborns with deformities, the couple accuses a mining company of polluting the water. Maggie begins an affair with a fugitive revolutionary and eventually flees with both him and her husband as they become political hotcakes. Maggie's grandmother makes regular appearances throughout the novel, showing the intertwining of the two women's fates. Although this book is sensitively written, its vague, unsatisfactory ending leaves the frustrated reader wondering at the destiny of every character. Recommended for larger public libraries.--Carol J. Bissett, New Braunfels P.L., TX Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Katherine Dieckmann
Male protagonists usually come of age by becoming adventurers, while their womanly counterparts tend to do the same by quietly searching their souls. Creating a heroine who follows both paths is but one of the strengths of Kate Wheeler's brave, expansive first novel, When Mountains Walked, her follow-up to the much acclaimed story collection Not Where I Started From. Wheeler's insight is that nearly drowning in a swift river holds nothing on the potential danger wielded by an uncertain heart.
The Village Voice
Kate Wheeler comes to the publicarion of her first novel with a fistful of prizes, glowing reviews for her short ficiton...and a reputation as a fine travel writer. When Mountains Walked showcases both sides of her talent...The background to the action is all very clear, observed by a writer who has trained as a traveler...But When Mountains Walked is also a real novel, almost an old fashioned one. It has plot and character, a climax, a denoument—all assembled by a creator with a sure hand.
From the Publisher
"As fine as [NOT WHERE I STARTED FROM] was, however, it's clear now that it was a mere warmup for her remarkable first novel, 'When Mountains Walked.' First novels are often damned with faint praise - arguably, the term itself is a polite way of saying an author's not half-bad for a beginner - but there is nothing apprentice-like in this fine and accomplished book." Boston Globe

"Kate Wheeler comes to the publication of her first novel with a fistful of prizes, glowing reviews for her short fiction (collected in Not Where I started From) and a reputation as a fine travel writer. When Mountains Walked showcases both sides of her talent. Though the Rosario River Valley is fictitious, Wheeler gives it concrete form...The background to the action is all very clear, observed by a writer who has trained as a traveler...You can see everything as if in a photograph. But When Mountains Walked is also a real novel, almost an old-fashioned one. It has plot and character, a climax, a denouement—all assembled by a creator with a sure hand." The New York Times

"The kind of novel you gulp down, curious to find out what happens next . . . A real novel, almost an old-fashioned one. It has plot and character, a climax, a denouement—all assembled by a creator with a sure hand." The Washington Post

"In WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED two women joined by blood but separated by chronology follow their men, with love in mind, into two very different cultures. They find love, but not how or where the expected it, as they are tossed between idealism, hidden tenderness, lust, loyalty, and discovery. Rich details and a lyrical language make their physical and inner voyages at once restrained and intensely powerful."—Elena Castedo, author of PARADISE

"Kate Wheeler's WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED again demonstrates her felicity of language, insight, and control. Ever since the early stories in NOT WHERE I STARTED FROM, Ms. Wheeler has been our best observer of the American condition transplanted and adrift in unfamiliar traditional societies."—Robert Stone

"Kate Wheeler's descriptions and intuitions are quite wonderful—she writes very well in indeed."—Peter Matthiessen

"...takes readers on a series of journeys—into a Peruvian canyon, the desert of India and...into the hearts of two restless women...The strength of this book lies in Ms. Wheeler's lyrical use of language. She has a gift for tangible, descriptive writing..."When Mountains Walked" subtly questions how much is too much to sacrifice in a relationship. It is a deftly written debut by a gifted storyteller." The Wall Street Journal

"WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED is a remarkably passionate and engaging novel and a glimmering showcase for this young writer's gifts." The San Francisco Chronicle

"Her first novel, WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED, is a triumph in every way—as enthralling story, vivid evocation of faraway places, deft portraiture and sharply observed social criticism...Wheeler's parallel narrative, in alternating chapters, tells the story of Johnny and Althea in Peru and India. This strategy richens our perspective on women's struggles for self-assertion in different eras. They are, the author implies, not so different as we like to think...In her ability to endow a fast-paced story with moral and political depth, Wheeler already displays mastery in the Graham Greene-Robert Stone tradition...In tightly focused yet metaphor-laden prose, this superb novel sets the mountains in motion—shaking up relations between sexes, generations, and rich nations and poor. It's up to Kate Wheeler to deal with the aftershocks of literary acclaim." Newsday

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Chapter One

The Rosario was the deepest canyon in the world. Four thousand meters, twice as deep as the Grand, cut by a fast, north-flowing river of the same name which eventually turned eastward to braid itself into the Amazon. A chasm full of sky, too vast to think about. Even those times when Maggie was actually standing on the Rosario's top rim, she could never quite withstand the sight of it. She always had the same unbidden thought: This cannot be real. So much void, full of so much hazy hanging light; and the opposite wall striped like a tiger (Cretaceous limestones, according to her grandfather, who had been the first to map them); and past it, the black horizon; and past even that, the rain forest, invisible on the back slopes but sending up sweet white puffs of cloud in the afternoons. The rain forest, full of ruins and bones and gold but uninhabited, stretched endlessly, the local people said, or anyway as far as the Atlantic Ocean.

At the bottom of all this was Piedras, barely clinging to the slim gravelly terraces of the Rosario River, which was cutting all too quickly through soft rock, rushing to attain the level of the sea. In Piedras, where Maggie and her husband, Carson, were living, all was airless heat and flies and bushes coated in dust. Somehow it never seemed to have sufficient reason for existing, let alone the importance it had possessed in Maggie's imagination ever since she was a child.

Back in February, when she and Carson had first arrived, Maggie had known immediately that she would never get used to the bus ride. It was near the end of the rainy season, and the road fromCajamarca had only recently been reopened after a section fell off during a torrential December rain. Going over the canyon's western lip, the bus had tilted like a roller coaster, and her stomach had dropped away.

She could not see the bottom of the canyon, just the road like a limp string flung impossibly far across the dark shoulders of the mountains. The canyon was vast, unexpected, a hole in the ground bigger than any idea of it could ever be. Then its east wall rose up, suddenly contradicting everything, a frozen angry- looking wave of black stone. Distant details were clear, grainy as in an excellent photograph, so that Maggie felt she could have picked out a fly on a cliff face.

"Cliff tombs," she said to Carson, "waterfalls!" Her grandmother Althea had told stories of the strange things hidden in the canyon's folded cliffs. Tombs, waterfalls where you could take a shower. Maggie could almost feel a rope of frigid water shattering against her own skull, driving out every thought; and how it would feel, then, to step out onto the bare, bright, burning trail again: clothing drying instantly, skin staying cool.

Carson was making a guess that the canyon sides were about twelve miles apart.

Twelve miles, Maggie thought. How far was that? How did Carson think he knew?

She started shivering.

A cold wind whistled through the cracked window as the bus began threading its way down through standing rocks that looked like a demolished, or an about to be constructed, Inca fortress, of the type she and Carson had visited last week in the southern part of the country. They'd taken a honeymoon in Cuzco and Machu Picchu before settling down to a year of serious work, reopening Piedras's medical clinic.

"So then don't look," Carson said as Maggie gripped his thigh. But she couldn't stop. The chasm drew her in; its emptiness exerted a suction. In comparison, the road was too narrow. For the first time she realized what defined the edge of any mountain road. Nothing. Nothing was fine on its own terms. That was exactly what was wrong with it.

The road here was slimy white mud with big rocks in it and turns without protection, all causing the driver to manhandle the wheel, hand over hand; and to anticipate in the application of the brakes. The bus was overloaded and topheavy, too, partly because of Maggie and Carson's gear tied to a rack on the roof. They had purchased a small refrigerator in Cajamarca and had it reinforced with iron straps. If only this refrigerator could be sacrificed, she thought, they'd all have a chance to survive.

The road grew worse as it went down, mostly because the mud got deeper. Though it hadn't rained in a week, none of the mud had hardened. It did change from white to red, and brown, and yellow. Some places were as badly churned as if an army had recently retreated along them, full of ruts and hoofprints and the tracks of the heavy equipment that had gone down to repair the bad section, which was still ahead. Steering and braking would have been difficult under the best of circumstances, Maggie thought, but now the driver seemed desperate, wrestling with the wheel. Likely this bus had things wrong with it, such as thin brake shoes, loose tie rods. Often she felt the wheels leave several feet of muddy skid. What if another vehicle came at them around these blind, unprotected curves? Fortunately, the bus was going downward; because of this, it stayed next to the mountain's body instead of the edge. The road was barely wider than one lane, so the bus would push any opponent off, but Maggie found little comfort in that idea. One day she'd have to leave, and it would be her turn on the outside.

Carson pointed out a wooden cross on the shoulder. "Third World warning sign," he joked.

"Comforting, aren't they?" Maggie said sarcastically. Grateful for an excuse to talk, she told him how, when she and her sister were little, in Mexico and in Colombia, they'd ritually crossed themselves each time they'd passed a roadside memorial, despite not being Catholic.

"The maids taught you how," guessed Carson.

"You know me well." Their Colombian maid, Gloria, had sat in the middle of the back seat, telling stories so enthralling that Maggie and Sonia had never needed games, nor pinched each other.

The bus heaved up to the point of a curve where a thicket of crosses surrounded a hutch of raw cement. With her right hand, Maggie performed a series of quick figure eights, fingertips swooping just short of her lips. "Bad spots are a lot of work," she said, though she couldn't remember any place as bad as this one. A whole bus must have gone off the edge here.

Carson leaned forward to peer at Maggie from the front. She was doing the crossbar backwards, he said. "That's Greek Orthodox or something." He ought to know: he had been brought up Catholic. Gently he corrected her, brushing his fingertips across her breasts. Left to right, opening her heart like a door - or closing it, depending on which side she imagined the hinges.

She crossed herself Carson's way at the next bend, kissing her fingertips at the finish, then let her hand fall into her lap. Despite the dire reminder, she was glad to see the crosses. They returned her to herself. It was curious too, she thought, how Carson saw them in reference to safe, North American highway warning signs.

He'd grown up in Baton Rouge, in the same house all his life. When he spoke, she could feel his childhood inside him, a solid grid of hamburger stands, summer lawns, blacktopped highways sticky in the sun.

Maggie Goodwin had been born in Mexico. She'd lived there until she was five, and then the family moved to Colombia. She was ten and her sister Sonia thirteen when their father's shoe factory had failed unexpectedly. Calvin Goodwin's Colombian partner had suggested to the authorities that they might inspect the books, enforce certain laws that protected against imperialism. Calvin's capital became the fine. By coincidence, Sonia had caught typhoid in the same month when Maggie's mother had begun firing the servants, packing some things, selling others. Her parents were euphemistic about what had happened, so Maggie first blamed her older sister and then her mother, Julia, for their departure. Julia kept insisting she was overjoyed to go back to the United States. She'd had it with the chaos, envy, and dishonesty that ruled the rest of the world.

Then Maggie had known that her mother was betraying herself, not to speak of everybody else in the family. Julia had been born in Bengal, and brought up in all the most unstable places, Peru, Turkey, Chile, India, and Afghanistan, where her father, a seismologist, had studied the world's most grievous faults. Maggie's grandmother Althea could always draw a protest from Julia by joking that Julia's dark hair and fathomless eyes came from all the Indian sun Althea had absorbed while pregnant. Maggie's features were almost the same.

Maggie liked to think of India as an explanation for her own thin ankles, and the way her skin turned yellowish when she was tired, and for the tiny hook at the tip of her nose, comparable to a drop of water beginning to form under a faucet. Julia wouldn't hear it, any of it. Her father, Johnny Baines, had always attributed Julia's coloration to a Cherokee great-grandmother of his. To the end of his life, he'd called Julia his Indian princess, Princess Oh-What-a-Part-o- Me.

Princess indeed: as soon as she'd reached ninth grade, Julia asked to leave Ecuador, where Johnny was inspecting the Cotopaxi volcano, and go to a Swiss boarding school instead. Not long afterward, arthritis and financial stress put an end to Johnny's geological explorations. Despite his reputation for eccentric thinking (he was determined to produce a theory predicting earthquakes), he'd gotten a job lecturing at Harvard, based on his work measuring tension in stable rocks.

Maggie was the opposite of her mother. She'd always been glad of her dark hair and eyes, jealous that her parents had given Sonia a name that was the same in Spanish. She blamed the United States for causing her to be a foreigner in every place she'd ever lived, including, eventually, itself.

As for her father, Calvin Goodwin, Maggie had always understood how hard he had fought to escape from Connecticut. Through all her childhood, he'd seemed a foreigner in the family, paler than his wife and daughters, the red-haired gringo Julia married. They'd seen him as if from a distance, slurping his dinner cold long after the girls and their mother had eaten, alone in the dark kitchen, late home from his factory. He'd sit worrying over his papers on a Sunday in his study, his presence defining the farthest room in every house. She'd been shocked to realize that it was Calvin who had held them in particular places on the surface of the earth; when he'd lost his grip, the rest must lose theirs, too. He'd been happiest in Colombia, but in the end he'd been lucky to get a job in his family's hardware distribution business, outside Bridgeport. His snake- proof boots grew mold in the closet.

Around noon, the bus reached the bad section of road: even softer mud than elsewhere, nothing but a few tons of new dirt dug out of the hillside and pushed together. Carson said, "Maggie, look." There was the old road, a small landslide spilling down for about a hundred yards before it reached the edge of a cliff and disappeared.

To Maggie's relief, the bus got stuck here, in an awesome slough where some kind of quicksand lurked at the bottom of a puddle twenty yards long. The driver and his helper donned rubber boots and first tried tossing some cabbage-sized rocks under the wheels. Soon they had to ask all of the men to get out and push. Maggie would have liked to help, but she was told to sit inside with the other women.

At least, she thought, there was little danger of the men's pushing the bus too far. She watched as her new husband took off his hiking boots and rolled up his jeans as far as he could, revealing calves as pale as fish and covered with long, dark, fine French hairs. She told him she was worried that he'd cut his foot on something sharp.

"Pfft," said Carson, stepping into calf-deep, murky water.

Despite twenty men's heaving, the bus rocked only slightly. The driver's boy stuck his head in to announce that the women must get out, too, in order to lighten the burden. Maggie declined his offer to be carried piggyback across the puddle, but the other two women accepted. She took off her shoes and waded through the opaque brown water. The bottom was silky, safe, the water cold.

Oh, it was grand to stand on solid ground again. Soon the bus was high and dry, a matter of rocks and ropes and grunting. Several men celebrated, sipping from a flat bottle. Carson had a slug, then came up to where Maggie stood on a tussock of muddy alpine grass that seemed to have been chewed down by sheep.

"What was it?" she wanted to know.

"Anisette. Pure sugar. It's coated all my teeth." He wiped one hand across his beard. His forehead already bore a streak of war paint. "Whew, that was rough. You okay? You look kind of pale."

"I wish I had an excuse to walk the rest of the way."

"Want to go home?"

He meant it, she saw. "No."


Maggie didn't speak to him again until they had sat down and the bus had begun to roll. Then she said, in a carefully quiet tone, "I can't wait to get to Piedras. It's just that I hate being trapped inside this box. I'd rather be in a truck I could jump out of."

"If we die, we die, that's my attitude," Carson said.

"If?" Maggie said. She returned to gazing out the window.

How dare he think he belonged here more than she did! She had no home, unless it was ahead of her. Even if she hated the road, she already loved the canyon. Its immensity drew her into a focused, particular joy, so that she felt she had discovered it herself. In fact, she had rights over it, at least compared to Carson. Her uncle had been conceived in Piedras, according to an intricate and perhaps unreliable story of her grandmother's. That was why, when she and Carson had been searching for a place to do health work together, and the name of Piedras had scrolled down the computer screen in white letters on royal blue, Maggie had stood up and looked for an atlas, then phoned her grandmother. First thing the next morning, she'd called up Catholic Charities, begging them to modify the job to accommodate two North Americans: a physician's assistant and an administrator-trainee. They agreed, perhaps because the post had gone begging for so long, or because Maggie had insisted, as her grandmother Althea was famous for doing, that two could live on the salary of one.

Getting to Peru must be the greatest achievement of her life so far - the only deed, Maggie thought, that had ever flowed from her own true character. She hoped happiness would ensue, of course, though she knew happiness was often too much to expect. This trip was an experiment, to see what resulted from acting purely on the intuitions of one's heart.

Her friends approved of her leaving Larry, they just thought she should have stopped there, rather than remarrying and running off to South America two weeks after the divorce was finalized. "Far," and "away," Maggie had argued, were relative concepts. Far from what? Away from what? In her own mind, she was running toward something. From the point of view of Piedras, it was the United States that would seem distant and bizarre.

Moreover, she loved Carson and he loved her, and she was pretty sure of both these things even though they'd known each other less than a year and had married mostly in order to satisfy Catholic Charities, which would not have allowed them to work together otherwise. Maggie hadn't revealed this detail to her mother, for whom Carson's willingness to marry her questionable daughter was his chief merit. Julia Goodwin believed that a wedding band was a woman's first line of defense, all over the world, beginning in her own house. She'd even pushed for Maggie to take Carson's name, Miller, but Maggie had refused, claiming she disliked the initials MM, which was true. She told Julia she'd do it the grand old Latin way, "Maggie Goodwin de Miller," and left it to her mother to recall how good it was that Maggie had never let herself become "Mrs. Larry Fabularo."

People made big changes all the time, Maggie thought. There would always be voices, inside and out, shouting reasons why one shouldn't. If this venture didn't work, she could always go back and make peace with a half-life, like everybody else. Until then, she couldn't identify any one thing she had to lose. Until then, at the very least, she and Carson were in this together.

She jerked her head back, a reflex, for her window had come within inches of an outcrop. The bus had not ceased to fling its passengers violently about, lurching unpredictably on several tilt-axes at once, as if attempting to dislodge their vital organs. Carson turned away and stuck his long legs into the aisle to avoid crushing his knees against the steel back of the seat ahead of him. Absurd, under these conditions, to wish for him to kiss her. If she wanted a kiss, the back of his neck was available, but then she ran the risk of crushing her lips between Carson's spine and her own incisors.

She picked out a dark spot on the opposite wall of the canyon, a cave, or maybe just a huge black spot of mildew that had dripped from the roots of the hanging vegetation. This scenery justified everything it had taken to reach it.

"Carson," she said, turning to him again and finding, happily, that he was facing in her direction. She asked permission to lick a speck of mud off the corner of his eyebrow. "No," he said, but he was tickled, she could see; he permitted her to rub it off with the ball of her thumb while with the other hand, invisible to the other passengers, she caressed his penis. He clamped his hand between his legs for a few seconds. "Dirty girl," he said approvingly.

By now both of their clothes were dry. Halfway down, still before you could see the river bottom, the canyon had suddenly turned into a desert. A rain shadow, Maggie explained: the upper slopes took all the moisture. Cactus and mesquite grew here, just like in a western, but there were orchids in the jacaranda trees. Nothing smaller than trees grew from the bare yellowish dirt.

The road here was no less bad, except for being dry. All by itself, the mud on their jeans began cracking off and falling to the floor. Dust came in the windows until Maggie's teeth were gritty.

She exulted when the bus finally rattled off the wall of the canyon onto the relief of the river flats. She pinched her husband's biceps. "We're here. I can't believe it. I'm totally happy."

Carson pinched her back, more gently. "Yeah, I know."

They were entering a mango grove, surely the same one her grandmother had talked about. You could hear the river even in the bus. These crumbling buildings must belong to the hacienda, maybe the same one where Althea and Johnny might have taken shelter after their raft broke up in the whirlpool, back in 1932 or so - her grandmother was bad at years. "Piedras, Arenas, Aguas, Piedras. Yes," Althea had said. Did Carson remember hearing about the raft that had the live cow tied to the back of it? He did not, even though Maggie was sure she had mentioned it, high among the marvels of her grandparents' trip. What could have distracted him? The cow's fate had worried her deeply as a child. Which was worse, she had kept trying to decide: drowning tied up or having your throat slit by someone who had taken care of you all your life? She'd asked her grandparents about it again and again. Sometimes they didn't remember. Other times they just said whatever came into their heads - that they had sold her to someone before they reached the whirlpool, that they had eaten her somewhere downstream. Even today, with a fervor strong enough it could almost alter the past, Maggie still hoped that the cow had swum to shore.

"Points for spotting our first patient. See that guy on the verandah?" Carson pointed out. The man, about sixty, was staring at the bus. His clothes were so old they had turned the color of river water.

"Why is he our patient? What does he have?"


"I didn't see them," Maggie said. "What could we do for him? You can't operate, right?"

"We'll get a doctor down here. Line up all the cases, guy comes down for a few days? The surgery's easy."

"Great. I'll write the letters, translate the interviews." Maggie saw herself in the modest dark skirt she'd brought for formal purposes, persuading the Cajamarca health officer, a fat bureaucrat in aviator sunglasses, to disburse some tiny amount of funds.

"We'll do it," Carson promised.

Satisfied, Maggie went back to inspecting the hacienda, which consisted of several buildings and many walls. A trio of ragged children stood in a doorway. They might have been the same children who appeared in all villages. Maggie waved at them. The littlest one balled up a fist and lifted it halfheartedly to her mouth.

This hacienda must have been abandoned by its owner in the agrarian reform, then taken over by local families. Its stuccoed buildings and walls still showed decrepit remains of grace. Through the trees, Maggie glimpsed the chapel where Grandma Althea had looked into the glass eyes of the saint.

Here was an iron bridge, the only means of crossing the river for many days' travel in either direction.

They crossed, the bus tires loud on dusty planks, and almost immediately passed a low adobe building with a corrugated roof. It stood far from its neighbors, between the road and the river, and was painted a thick, shabby government-green with a blood-red cross. "That's it," Carson cried, "that's our clinic!" Shuttered for years, the building didn't offer any encouragement.

"Looks pretty well closed," Maggie observed.

It had been shut down five years ago, due to generalized subversive activity in rural Peru. Maggie had checked carefully, finding a few bombings and assassinations in Cajamarca, the nearest big city, but nothing in the Rosario area. Piedras was remote from everything, including terrorism.

Now most terrorist leaders were in jail, and even the worst parts of the mountains had been officially pacified. After years of internal warfare and lack of foreign investment, the new government couldn't afford to run its rural health care system, so international organizations had stepped in. Carson and Maggie had a one-year contract with Catholic Charities. If things went well, it would be renewed, but eventually the goal was to replace the gringos with Peruvians.

Now they were arriving in what they would soon call downtown Piedras. On the left side of the road, against the mountains, were more mango groves, and cane fields and corn and some low leafy stuff, probably vegetables. All this must be irrigated from the river. The first houses were half hidden behind a long fence of living cactus and hibiscus plants that were choked with road dust. No one came out to wave. One woman was trudging alongside the road. She stood aside, turning her back and putting her hand over her face against the bus's passing.

So this was Piedras: two dozen houses crammed between the river and the east wall of the canyon. Call them adobe or mud brick, they were of mud plastered together with mud, most of them unpainted, with corrugated roofs, shaded by mango trees and papaya trees with fruit like giant milky breasts. The stringy road ran in one end of town and out the other along the river's terrace. Skinny dogs slept curled up in the soft dust at the bottom of potholes. If a truck or the bus came (all year, there would be only one car), the dogs got up leisurely, inches ahead of the oncoming wheels, and sauntered off not looking back. At the center of town was the general store, with a small area of beaten earth in front of it, the main arena for Piedras's social life. On that first day, as on most days, the store owner had set out a lawn chair and collapsed into it, so relaxed that when Maggie first caught sight of him, she had felt with a little thrill of fear that he must be the local AIDS patient.

But he was only Don Nasir, the Syrian. As Maggie would soon learn, he was a person who did not rise to occasions unless rising was profitable.

The bus shuddered to a halt. So this was the center of town. Maggie spied a man sprawling face- down in the sun next to the door of the general store, inert as death.

Suddenly she felt a gut-sinking certainty that, having confirmed the existence of the canyon, river, hacienda, chapel, and mango grove, she had already done all that was possible for her here. The bus would leave, and she and Carson would stay, and there was nothing for them. No school, no phone, no post office, no movie house. No doctor other than Carson, and Carson was only a physician's assistant, though he'd worked for twenty years overseas and knew more about wounds and tropical diseases than many M.D.s.

"Oh, God, I'm sorry," she whispered, almost involuntarily.

"What?" Carson was watching the drunk struggle to his feet, revealing a face half covered with bright fresh blood. He turned. "What did you say?"


The passengers were crowding into the aisle all at once, pulling bags and boxes with them. The drunk fell down onto his hands and knees.

"Terrible," Maggie said.

"He's the reason we came." Carson began pushing forward through the struggling passengers. Maggie wondered whether she should follow, translate, but he'd left her with all their hand luggage. Besides, he hadn't asked for help. Before coming here, he'd requested that Maggie not hover excessively or worry about translating for him. He knew how to make himself understood; he'd done it in Thailand, India, Angola.

The drunk struggled to his feet again and zigzagged toward the bus, each step correcting a severe mistake made by the previous foot. He laughed at the disembarking passengers, who insulted him in return. A short, barrel-shaped, brown, indestructible- looking person. Maggie didn't like to think this way, but his face looked coarse and corrupted. His lips were purple, turned inside out. His forearms covered with blurring tattoos - one was a tick-tack-toe.

He and Carson met at the bottom of the bus's stairs. Maggie saw Carson step down onto the ground and raise his right hand tenderly toward the drunk man's cheek, indicating the bleeding wound. The drunk pulled his head back like a boxer and said something that gave his face an ugly look. Carson gathered a couple of supporters who seemed to be trying to explain to the drunk that he was offering help. At some point the message reached the drunk man's central nerve ganglion and he made an even uglier face than before. He put out his hand, insolently begging for money.

At this, Maggie slung all of the hand luggage about her body and squeezed forward through the aisle, straps catching, bags banging against the seats.

Carson had given up and gone around the back of the bus to unload their larger bags. The drunk was gripping the handrail at the bus steps, swaying as if a wind were blowing from the opening of the door. Clearly he intended to climb the steps and was only waiting for Maggie to start down them.

She waved at him to get on and he did. His smell was complex, shocking.

The bus driver explained to Maggie that this man was a minero and had spent the weekend drinking in Piedras. He had drunk, and fought, and slept, and his paycheck was gone, and now he wanted a ride back to La Tormentosa, the gold mine eight hours uphill, but he had no money left.

"This man is from Huancayo," the bus driver concluded. "He is not from our zone."

"Here you don't drink like that?"

"Oh, no, here we drink until we crawl home on all fours! Get on," he said to the drunk. "Sit down, you man without a conscience."

Maggie thanked the driver and got off. She found Carson standing behind the bus, trying to slow the boy helper, who was flinging their bags and boxes from the roof of the bus directly onto the ground. Three men struggled to lift down the refrigerator, but having completed this task, they disappeared.

The bus drove off, leaving Maggie and Carson standing amidst an immense amount of stuff. Together, they dragged their suitcases and boxes closer to the store. The refrigerator was a small one, but very heavy with its lockable iron straps, so they left it in what, now that the bus had pulled away, had again become the middle of the road.

The man in the lawn chair watched them, still immobile. A boy with a shaven head was fanning him with a folded glossy magazine.

They walked into the store wondering who was responsible. The air smelled edible, thick: motor oil, cheap perfume, dust, rancid flour, sunlight, cigars, and last night's frying onions. Voices could be heard from the back room. This was a restaurant, too: it had two long tables covered with plastic, with vases of dirty plastic flowers and napkin holders stuffed with sharp triangles of wax paper. A couple of used tumblers remained at the end of one table, with two related chairs pushed back at careless angles. A poster of a fat, garish baby decorated one wall. Carson said it looked like an ad for contraception.

They leaned over the glass counter, peering into the kitchen. It seemed deserted. Under the counter they saw wax matches and cigarettes, sold one by one from an open box. Carson pointed out a tiny brass scale, a miniature of the one used by blindfolded Justice; soon they'd learn that it was used for weighing gold dust. Maggie liked the dried piranha, apparently not for sale; and the loops of PVC joints, faucets, and machetes clipped to nylon ropes, festooned diagonally under the ceiling. Shovels, pickaxes, and hoes leaned in a corner. There were stacked boxes of yellow and blue batteries, hinges and chisels, open sacks of rice and flour and coarse gray salt, and a small shelf of items where the beautification of women commingled with good and bad sorcery: jasmine soap, bleaching cream, Florida water, myrrh, envelopes smelling of sulfur with dollar signs on the front, love soap, money soap, soap to get rid of devils.

Carson called out, "Hey! Hola!"

Eventually a woman came out. She was about four feet tall, stout, and her face had a kind expression. She wore a green-and-white-checked pinafore.

Maggie explained in her best voice that this was her husband, a doctor, el Señor Doctor Miller, and that she was his wife and assistant and trainee, Señora Margarita Goodwin de Miller. They were here to open the clinic. They had brought many things with them but would purchase more. Just now they needed transport. Was there a taxi, any kind of vehicle for hire?

"Nasir!" the woman howled, and went back into the kitchen.

At last the man unfolded from his chair. He smiled, showing incisors rimmed in silver. His shiny skin and small mustache reminded Maggie of a card shark; in another life, he would have worn a Panama hat. "Nasir," he said, offering his hand to Carson, but not to Maggie. She stepped forward and put her own hand out. With some surprise, Nasir took it.

While she repeated their introduction, Nasir smiled and actually rubbed his hands together. At the end he said he had a truck that he would rent to them for fifty soles.

"Fifty!" Maggie said. This was almost twenty dollars. The clinic was a thousand yards away.

"Tell him we expect a discount," Carson said. "Tell him we'll be buying all our food from him for a year. And tell him we may need to rent his truck at other times. Maybe, you know, we'll have some emergency and we'll have to drive someone up to Cajamarca Hospital in it. Oh, and ask him if we can borrow a crowbar and a hammer."

"You're so smart," she told him. Yesterday, the Cajamarca health officer had announced that there was no longer a key for the Piedras clinic.

"The padlocks are Chinese," Nasir told them. Taking one from under the counter, he showed where to strike it so that the lock sprang open.

"Descuento," Maggie reminded him. "On the truck."

Nasir said he paid to have all of the gasoline trucked here from the city. Surely they appreciated his difficulties.

"Ten soles," Maggie said, wondering why Nasir didn't drive the truck to Cajamarca and load it with barrels of fuel.

They agreed on fifteen.

The truck was stoutly chained into its own dark shed, a monster rarely allowed to emerge. When it did, it was so enormous that Maggie almost understood why Nasir had wanted fifty soles. He could have charged five just to look at it.

Its rust-brown cab had a tall oval grill like whale baleen. Its windshield was two dull eyes separated by a piece of metal, shielded by a narrow aluminum eyebrow. The gas cap was a petroleum-soaked rag that converted the whole thing into a rolling bomb. Tent cloth had been draped over part of its back platform, which was wood planks, surfaces white and eroded soft as suede. The planks were so long that Maggie was sure Nasir had stolen them off the bridge, which, she recalled, had been missing several.

The bridge had not existed when Althea was here, Maggie was sure of that.

Meet the Author

Kate Wheeler was named a "Best Young American Novelist" by Granta. Raised in South America, her debut collection, NOT WHERE I STARTED FROM, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book. She is the recipient of a Whiting Award, an NEA fellowship, and a Guggenheim fellowship. She writes regularly for THE NEW YORK TIMES' "Sophisticated Traveler," OUTSIDE, and TRICYCLE.

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When Mountains Walked 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Halfway between fiction and historic happening, in her newly released novel WHEN MOUNTAINS WALKED, Kate Wheeler has imagined a quasi-peace movement, centered in in the peruvian Andes and in a male protagonist. That is why in this age of rising feminine presence in every aspect of human endeavor Wheeler's heroine, journeying from the north of America to the south, seems to remain suspended somewhere in time between fantasy and fact, between the abstract and the real, a sojourning self on the path toward a new American reality, integral hemispherical consciousness. The direction of the final trek of Maggie, the female protagonist, is determined by the two male protagonists, her husband and her lover. So with proper variations Maggie takes her place in line behind a new kind of heroine - the sojourner - initiated in the classic THE PLUMED SERPENT in which Lawrence begins to formulate a concept of Anglo American literature. Perhaps the grandmother's tale was patterned after E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, the relation Andes/India from the work of textile research M.D.C. Crawford. Grounded in the image of the Black Rainbow, Wheeler's imagined peace movement brings to the mind of the informed reader the thread of peruvian history, spun from the raw materials of archaeology, museology and the centenary search in American for identity and patterns of our own. The Black Rainbow first appeared a a literary theme and icon of Andean renaissance in the 1960's with the translation of the poem APU INKA ATAWALLPAMAN by peruvian novelist and anthropologist Jose Maria Arguedas, who judged the Quechua original to be of 16th century, post-Inka origin. Later,in 1985 in Lima Mercedes Lopen Baralt, Puerto Rican researcher in aesthetics and communication, refuted this appreciation and stated the poem was written in the 18th century. The ground of her thesis was two-fold: linguistic analysis and visual semantics taken from historical sources of the 16th to 18th century, written drawn and painted. During her stay in Lima in a radio interview with well-known critic Hugo Salazar del Alcazar, Lopez Baralt had occasion to recite the poem and was heard by peruvian painter Lucy Angulo who was struck immediately by its messianic content, a theme introduced to the contemporary painting genre twenty-four years before by Fernando de Szyszlo. The rest, as the say, is history, a story with protagonists both male and female. For readers of Spanish an introdction to this history can be found in the book Identidad Nacional y Estetica Andina, as well as publications of the historic Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Antropologia and the Killka Project, available in libraries both public and private from coast to coast. For readers of English iniation comes with the book Andean Art: visual expression and its relation Andean beliefs and values, and more recently publications of the Society for American Archaeology. In North America the Twentieth Century search for new natural/cultural models, some journeyed to the East; others tried to bridge the Atlantic. In this sense Kate Wheeler in the Twenty-first century has taken the road less travelled and that, as once pointed out by a mellow and 'terrible' San Franciscan, has made all the difference.