FORWARD: I began writing the following in my pocket notebook, then was interrupted—as you’ll read below. Later when I reproduced the whole story I decided to stick with the present tense.
(Mayocc, Peru) Town population: forty relatives, seventeen dogs. Today I camped in the middle of this one dusty road town. The main plaza where I sit now is an intersection where two slabs of cement form an X, diagonal sidewalks line the chest-level gates that meet at a central obelisk monument, basketball hoop height, neither majestic nor demanding of respect, but fortified by fence as if housing royal bones. It has no plaque to dignify who or what it commemorate; a cannon ball-like hole is bashed into the upper reaches of its point. After my sleeping bag was spread and dinner boiled, this is my 8:00pm view: a gated, grassy lawn edged by flower pots, a tent batted down for the silent storm flashing from behind the mountains, a bike and trailer cabled to a tree, a forgotten hollow monument.
In front of the church a neighborhood soccer match spills into the street, the elders spectate from the curb, the youth are a blur of shoes and sweat under an orangish lamp light. Kids are everywhere in the park too, still dressed in school uniforms, looking more like soccer players than the youth in the road. I notice these kids noticing me, their giggles shoot out piercing, their whispers travel like bats in the night. Their gossip is reasonable enough: I’m the only foreigner who climbed the gate, lifted a heavy bike trailer over metal bars, unfolded a magic tent, and pumped Frank Zappa from computer speakers while eating pasta from a pot. I doubt this happens everyday.
The stars are beautiful from my triangle lot, three shooting stars fell on cue, just after sprawling out in the grass, and Frank’s weirdness, in the most spot-on way, compliments the fact that I’m a stranger in strange land but feel perfectly at home.
Without warning a hello pulls me from my mouth-up, arms-folded-behind-head, legs-crossed mediation, and I’m forced to let star ice streak the sky without me. The voice is faceless. It’s difficult to see through the horizontal darkness after so much upward infinity. The general decibel is not one age but all ages, youthful like a candle-less birthday cake with toy frosting designs; the tone is indecisive as if the conversation was started on a whim, but it’s definitely a female, a timid girl with a curiousness that couldn’t be contained. She stays on the opposite side of the gate, curled up into the corner of a bench, with an outline faintly lit by the distant street lights. An orangish-red halo sits atop her as little hands pick at grass through the grates.
“What are you doing here?” immediately followed the child-like hello. I sit up and squint my energy into her direction until I recognize a school uniform. She must be fourteen. ‘What am I doing here?’ I repeat in my head, really ‘what am I doing here?’ again like rocks in a bucket, reading more into the question than she could ever imagine. Invalid responses light up my circuitry. Errors and Try Agains. Blank whiteness and blackness and silence. An unexpected star reversed itself invisible. I didn’t know.
My perfect house shattered.
“Watching the stars,” I reply, not wanting to get philosophical with a middle schooler.
More silence, like air sucked from lungs. A bad sign. It’s obvious this is not the answer she fished for, not any kind of serious conversation filler that takes into account my bike, my strange accent, my foreign music, the blue flame that boils water for tea. The black between us is a thick oatmeal.
“And traveling by bike to Cusco,” I quickly add. This makes more sense. The cranks are turning now toward goodwill, toward mutual footing, maybe friendship. She continued with questions, the same ones her mother, aunt, or grandmother would ask if I’d have rolled up to their storefront. The child-like posing of them, however, keeps my interest and I answer them with great detail. Her innocence is too refreshing for generalities.
From this short dialogue an instant companionship, the kind of which only kids and dogs are capable, grew from nothing, and I suddenly realize that everything—not just metaphorically but actually, physically, scientifically—grows from nothing. She accepts my invitation to jump the fence, lie in the grass, and listen to music she doesn’t understand. We watch the stars together.
“We thought you were a phistaco,” she admits impatient for a shooting star to arrive.
Phistacos(pronounced like pish tacos) are different things to different people. Simply put, it’s a Quecha word for murderer. The definition, however, has expanded and mutated beyond your run-of-the-mill cold-blooded killer.
I first heard about phistacos when pedaling out of the Amazon toward the Andes. A gentleman who let us sleep on his riverside deck explained that the rural Andean people—his politically correct way of saying ‘indians’—are very superstitious, guarded, and weary of outsiders. In some regions, phistacos are blond-haired foreigners—literally giants to the tiny mountain race with colorful clothes—who eat babies. In other regions, phistacos are bandits who cut your throat when you sleep, apparently for no reason whatsoever. Sometimes they steal your baby to send to Chinese adoption clinics. Sometimes they sell your organs to Canadian doctors. The varieties are endless. Be creative and you too can have your very own brand of phistaco rumor whispered through the highlands.
“I saw on the news last night that phistacos are killing people on remote roads, cutting their throats, then removing their fat to sell as airplane grease, to Italians I think,” she blurts in those one-breathe sentences so common to kids her age. Though pushed through her lips with an undescribable cuteness, an innocence incapable of attaching meaning to the horrific acts described, there was fear there too. And experience has taught me it will grow with age. So this encounter has purpose after all: I was meant to show her the irrationality of her story. I can save her from paralyzing this fear.
My questions begin in similar one-breath rapid-fires that are meant to replace the lies with logic: Have you ever known a victim? How would they remove the fat? Who buys human fat on the street? They can get grease for airplanes in much simpler ways, you know. How many people own airplanes anyway? Then a little deeper: You know newspapers are businesses and must sell papers to make advertising revenue, right? Blood sells. Violence sells. Sex sells. I stop at mention of sex, a little surprised by my passionate speech to an audience of one. It’s all a bit over her head, but her story was too strange to let fester into a fear that would stop her from enjoying her childhood innocence.
“Did you see it?” She nods in excitement, shaking the now rust-red halo outline from her head. It was the fourth shooting star of the night. A sign. My work is done.
You can imagine my surprise then when I read the following BBC article a few days later:
‘FAT FOR COSMETICS’ MURDER SUSPECTS ARRESTED IN PERU
Four people have been arrested in Peru on suspicion of killing dozens of people in order to sell their fat and tissue for cosmetic uses in Europe.
The gang allegedly targeted people on remote roads, luring them with fake job offers before killing them and extracting their fat.
The liquidised product fetched US $15,000 a litre and police suspect it was sold on to companies in Europe. At least five other suspects, including two Italian nationals, remain at large.
Police said the gang could be behind the disappearances of up to 60 people in Peru’s Huanuco and Pasco regions. One of those arrested told police the ringleader had been killing people for their fat for more than three decades.
The gang has been referred to as the Pishtacos, after an ancient Peruvian legend of killers who attack people on lonely roads and murder them for their fat.
At a news conference in the capital, police showed reporters two bottles containing human body fat and images of one of the alleged victims.
One of the alleged killings is reported to have taken place in mid-September, with the person’s body tissue removed for sale. Commander Angel Toledo told Reuters news agency some of the suspects had “declared and stated how they murdered people with the aim being to extract their fat in rudimentary labs and sell it”.
Police said they suspect the fat was sold to cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies in Europe, but have not confirmed any such connection. Human fat is used in modern cosmetic procedures but in most cases it is the patient’s own fat that is used and under strict legal guidelines.
Medical authorities have expressed scepticism about a black market for human fat, partly because of the wide availability of fat for use in surgical procedures.
Gen Felix Burga, head of Peru’s police criminal division, said there were indications that “an international network trafficking human fat” was operating from Peru.
The first person was arrested earlier this month in a bus station in Lima, carrying a shipment of the fat. The Associated Press news agency quoted Colonel Jorge Mejia as saying one of the suspects had described to police in detail how the victims were killed and their fat removed.
The suspect said the fat was then sold to intermediaries in Lima and that the gang’s leader, Hilario Cudena, had been carrying out such murders for decades, AP reported. The alleged buyers of the fat are also being hunted by police.
What a strange, strange world we live in.