Up in the mountains dressed in white, where the beautiful lakes are born, some green, some black, and others blue or turquoise, we find the native goose, called huallata, with its red legs and feet. The mountains are also the cradle of foxes whose nature is to be sneaky and vain. As a result from times immemorial in Cuzco it has been well known and respected.
They say that one day a goose and her goslings were walking close to a lake. As always the mother goose was keeping careful watch over her children. She taught them to swim and to find food. On the other hand a fox was in her home close to the same lake. She saw the beautiful ducklings with their feathers and their feet that were very red.
The fox looked and compared the duckling with her kits and realized they were very different. She wanted the baby foxes to also have red paws. Feeling jealous she went to go ask the goose what she did so that her goslings would have red feet.
Without thinking twice the goose responded that if the fox wanted her kits to have red feet she should get an earthenware stove and that when the carbon became very red she should put the feet of her babies on them and in that way their feet would turn red, the very color she wanted them to have.
Being very vain, the fox followed the goose’s instructions carefully but in the end got not what she wanted but something that broke her heart. Her children were burned and had died. She became very angry and went looking for the mean goose that had given her such evil advice that led to her babies’ death.
However she found the goose in the middle of the lake swimming with her goslings. The furious fox wanted to swim out to her but could not. She called out one time after another time trying to fake her into coming to shore, but the goose ignored her.
So she decided that if she could drink up all the water from the lake then the goose would be on the ground and she could trap her. She drank and drank but it was in vain. Finally she drank so much that she exploded.
Just like this story there are many others in Cuzco that draw us in and take us to places filled with life in the mountains.
The fox is a prominent character in Andean folklore and mythology. Always pushing the boundaries and getting in trouble the fox would seem a bit of fool, but from the fox often come acts of creation in a fascinating ambivalence. Andean stories do not create the universe of Western stories with their monolithic moralities, rather here there is desire and duality, destruction and creation.
In this story we find the fox and her children along with the goose and her children as if they were two different groups of people living next to each other, water people and land people. Interestingly enough, when seen this way there is a certain truth. The highlands have traditionally had water people, the Uru Puquina speakers who remain in the multilingual inscriptions in the amazing temple of Andahuaylillas, reminding us they lived in the Vilcanota River Valley.
The Urus of the floating Islands of Puno Bay on Lake Titicaca are a remnant of this once numerous population as are the Chipayas along the Desaguadero river that drains the lake. In their own language, one that may also have been spoken by the Inca as their private language, they call themselves the water people.
In contrast the land people are the Aymara or Quechua speakers who farm and herd on the grasslands around Lake Titicaca and on the valley slopes and floor of the Vilcanota.
The set up of the story is also about one of the main dualisms of Andean life which divided many large communities into two. This is the contrast between the lake or water place and the mountain or hillside place (qotapata and urqupata).
In this reading, the fox poses the question of dress, that is how the lake people, the geese, come to have the color red (which Andean geese do have). It might seem to many that the fox is posing a question of essence, that is about the nature of geese and foxes, except that the fox seems to think that she can obtain what the geese have for her children. In other words the fox seems to think it is not an essence but something she can get because the characteristic is potentially separable from the geese.
To the fox’s mind, therefore, the goose gives a plausible answer. She refers to a process of cooking. In other words, not only do geese have red, but so do coals when the fire gets very hot. They too become red. In other words heating, particularly in an Andean stove, a qoncha or fogón, can make coals red so by analogy one might think it could give foxes the color red too.
So the story is less a meditation about different nature than about different forms and colors of dress. The English does not make this evident. We have different words for baby foxes and baby geese, i.e. kits and goslings, while the Spanish or the original Quechua did not. The different words make them seem different kinds of things, animals, and not just different varieties of something that is fundamentally the same.
Color and pattern historically can carry the meaning of different populations in the Andes. Red, for example, was an important color of dress among the Incas, something celebrated today in the red and white flag of Peru.
As a dye for cloth it traditionally is obtained from cochineal, an insect that grows on cactus paddles far removed from the Andean highlands. As a result it is something for which people trade.
Cooking also makes good sense as something that could transform the fox and give her children red. When wool is dyed it is, in a sense, cooked since the raw wool goes into hot colored water and is stirred for the dye to take.
So the foolishness of the fox may not be so much thinking she could get red for her children but in the goose’s giving only partial information about dying wool. She left out key steps and the fox not knowing those steps managed to cook her children as if they were simple meat, rather than members of her family where she would cook their dress for them later to wear, or their food for them to eat.
In her rage, and her gluttony, the fox decides to drink the entire lake dry. To Western ears this just sounds impossible and marks the tale as foolish. However in fits in a frame of other stories of the fox’s gluttony, such as the tale of the fox falling to earth that explains how people got food. In that story the fox went to a celestial feast and ate way too much. As she was descending down her rope a parrot cut it and she plunged to the ground. She exploded, just as in this story, and in that explosion scattered food over the earth such that it came from the sky to the ground and people now had it.
As a result, we can suspect that there is more to this story. From the explosion of the fox due to overwhelming passion there may also have been some other kind of creation that is unmentioned here, or some celestial event, that would have been evident to the creators of this tale and the people listening to it for many generations, even if to us it is opaque.
In any case this tale is a marvelous story that tells us so much, in so few words, about Andean life and its cosmos.