This “true fairytale” took place when I travelled to Chiloé Island, in southern Chile, after becoming intrigued by stories of its supernatural inhabitants. My narrative is interspersed with the island’s mythology, which soon began to weave itself into my own story as I set off in search of a legendary hiding place.
Clinging to life between sea and storms on the splintered coast of southern Chile, the remote archipelago of Chiloé is drenched in fairytale and legend. This soggy Patagonian wilderness and its hardy inhabitants, known as Chilotes, are both protected and threatened by the many mythical creatures who govern this part of the world: the evil witch who spews her intestines out every night until she is light enough to fly; the hideous dwarf who impregnates young virgins; the kings, keepers and bloodthirsty villains of the sea, which batters and breathes life into these tiny, tempestuous islands.
The archipelago was born of a violent feud between the benign land snake Ten-Ten Vilu and the wicked sea snake Cai-Cai Vilu, who tore apart the Chilean coastline with their writhing battles. As Cai-Cai Vilu flooded the valleys, Ten-Ten Vilu elevated the hills, sparing the land’s inhabitants from the rising waters. Although peace was eventually restored, the rugged islands formed by the life-saving hills remained stubbornly fractured from the mainland.
It’s not until landing upon Chiloé, however, with its howling gales and raging sea, formidable foliage and welcoming, weather-worn inhabitants, that these fairytales began to make sense – so much so that I, a cynical yet enthusiastic gringa, was about to be sucked into one myself.
El Caleuche is a white ghost ship covered in lights. The sound of music can always be heard. The crew is made up of the witches of Chiloé, of those who have died at sea, and of those who have made pacts with the witches in order to gain wealth and importance. The ship bewitches fishermen with its haunting music, and leads them to their death, in order that their souls might join el Caleuche´s crew.
The little ferry crossed the frothy, black waters separating Puerto Montt on the mainland from the island’s capital Ancud. Up on the deck, I could smell the churning sea, taste the salt on my lips and feel the dipping and diving of the little boat. It was bitterly cold and I couldn´t stop shaking, but my persistence was rewarded as I saw pointed forms taking shape in the waves – black and white striped creatures arching through the equally black water and white foam. Penguins. I forgot my aching, trembling body and my bare hands gripped the icy metal railings, watering eyes searching for black and white amid black and white. The magic had begun.
The Millalobo is one of the most powerful beings of the seas, and governs all who inhabit them. He has the torso of a man and the lower half of a sea lion, with shining golden fur. Even the malign beings respect the Millalobo. The many mythological marine creatures under his power raise and care for the fish of the sea, and even control the ocean´s climate and environment in order to protect them.
The Millalobo also watches over those who have died at sea.
The following day, the strong smell of wood smoke filtered into the island cabin, announcing a dark morning. I awoke sluggishly following a restless night, dreams interrupted by screeching winds and rain drumming the wooden roof like giant marbles. Sheet lightning was visible even through tightly shut eyelids. The lights strung up by the harbor were yanked from side to side, flickering, flashing, fading.
Tucking into warm, fresh bread, I gazed out at steely skies. The deluge drilled on. I drank more tea. Finally, a silver rental truck was delivered to the door, and my delightful Chilote hostess came out to wave me off. “You will visit la Cueva del Brujo, won´t you?” she suggested enthusiastically.
I frowned. The Wizard´s Cave? I hadn´t seen that in the guidebooks. But how often do you get to visit one of those?
“Where is it?”
“Somewhere near Dalcahue. Follow the signs.”
Dalcahue… I rolled my tongue around the strange Mapuche name. A good place for a wizard to live, I decided.
El Ivunche protects the entrance to the Wizards´ Cave, and although he is no expert on magic, he has learned many things about witchcraft during his time in the Cave. A deformed human with his head twisted to face backwards, his ears, mouth, nose, arms and fingers are all contorted. As he has one leg behind his neck, he must walk on the other, using his hands to support him. He cannot speak, and emits only grating, guttural sounds that chill the blood.
“¿Adónde van?” asked the red-faced man who had dropped off the truck.
“To Dalcahue,” I responded excitedly. “To find the Wizard´s Cave.”
The man smiled, showing all his teeth, and sniggered gently to himself.
The wizards use el Ivunche as an instrument of revenge. They carry him out of the cave and his howls and roars terrify the people of the villages, warning them of terrible things to come.
The great Pan-American Highway begins its long, lonely journey in Alaska. It perseveres through the coldest reaches of North America, crossing barren deserts and plains, before slicing through the cloud forests of Central America and clinging precariously to the Andes as it heads south from Colombia. Chiloé is its final destination. The road descends from the northern tip of the island, and peters out in the south, defeated by the stormy waters and scattered slivers of land. Bundling warm, waterproof clothes into the truck, I set off down this near-deserted highway, steering between deep, flooded potholes in the middle of the road and spikey bushes at the edge. I took pity upon a young, windswept hitchhiker, and he ducked down in the back of the truck to avoid the thorns, his anxious face red and damp from the freezing Patagonian air. As I dropped him off, several soggy miles later, I checked with him that I was on the right track.
“This is this way to the Wizard´s Cave, isn´t it?”
“The Wizard´s Cave?”
He grinned, amused. “Just keep going towards Dalcahue.”
Continued in A Modern Fairytale – Part II