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Dog Town

I’ve been sorting through papers and putting old field notes into chronological order, when time permits. This morning, I found a single page in my mother’s handwriting, tucked into a book of field notes from 1977. I’m transcribing it here in full because I’m thinking a lot about my parents right now; in the next few days, I’ll weather both my mother’s birthday, and the tenth anniversary of my father’s death.

Here it is: a field note of my mother’s from 1977.


When a person dies, his soul begins to journey over a very difficult and rocky oad. After much difficulty, he arrives at the village of the spirits of dogs, which is on the edge of a wide and raging river. He cannot hope to cross the river without the help of his dog spirit helper, for whom he must search. His life in the Dog Town reflects his former life in that the dog spirits treat him as he treated dogs in his former existence.

On the 5th? 8th? day after he has died, his family try to do their share to help him across the “strait,” through the passage. They take his clothes and go to the nearest confluence of the river — in Chinchero, just at the bottom of the archaeological site — and wash his clothes. This helps to have the effect of allowing his anima and his espiritu to reunite, his espiritu being his essential being (which is in the Dog Town) and his anima being that which has flowed out from him in his existence on the earth — his acts — his karma, I suppose. This has a tendency to be left behind in his clothes, his house, and so on.

In fact, in Chinchero, it appears that when a head of family dies, the X is put over the door, but when a particular family branch that has been occupying a house dies out — 2 old people whose children haven’t been living with them, for instance — the house is abandoned rather than new people moving into it. It may even be dismantled to build a new house, but on DIFFERENT FOUNDATIONS. Once the old foundations and their former occupants have passed beyond living memory, however, it would seem that the foundations may be re-incorporated into a new house — after all, most of Chinchero is built on Inca foundations.

Anyhow — to the spirit still in Dog Town it would appear that his family spirits await him on the other side of the river where the road to “Paradise” is also easier — smooth, straight, inviting (I have not yet heard what the concept of “Paradise” consists of) — and finally, on this 5th or 8th day, whenever it is (this is long after the burial has taken place, which is relatively unimportant in all this, the important thing being the spirit passage — presumably spirits that don’t make it wander the earth, discontented, causing trouble, in half-human, half-animal forms (AUKIS?), scaring people to death, especially children. At twilight, the spirits out and abroad are only visible to dogs — who bark and howl, needless to say.

I think, perhaps, this whole process is shortened, less rigorous, for children — they pass more directly to the “other side” — the mourning is also shortened. It would seem that the Karmic principle operates in some form. Question: it seems that any spirit doing what it’s supposed to be doing stays in Paradise — any one that’s on earth is pestering people. Do the Quechua Indians ever see spirits as helping out on earth? Clearly they see reverberations for every act being done in the right or wrong way — these presumably bounce off the spirit world but don’t just have consequences for the afterlife but also more immediate: houses burning down, etc.

Chris' funeral procession enters the plaza next to our first home in Chinchero

There’s a poignance in all this which I still can’t quite find the words to describe. I’ve joked often about being the child of anthropologists, and what that means for how I see the world in which I live. I’ve talked about growing up in “the field” and all kinds of cultural and identity dissonance as a simple fact of my life. But I don’t know what could exemplify the crux of it all quite like knowing you’ve laid your mother to rest in a once-foreign world that became her home and called her one of its own. For my mother, it was always more than study; it was always personal, always real. And even so, she (like my father) chronicled a great deal, and urged me to do the same all through my own life: not with abstracted, clinical eyes, but as a participant observer who can never be detached from life.

As I go through piles of old notebooks, as I handle my mother’s estate, I feel like I’m washing her clothes at a confluence of rivers. It just takes a long, long time.

2 thoughts on “Dog Town

  1. The real teachings I learned from my mother seem to begin after her death. For me, 3 years now, and I continue to be taught by my mother. My appreciation for her seems to grow, and I feel more connected to her now than in life. My hope is that it will be true for you as well.

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss, Abby. To have parents who love and encourage you, and who give you the gift of a bigger world than most of us get to experience is a wonder. You are an intelligent, gifted woman who has lost her compass, and I’m glad you are sharing the experience. Not because losing your mother is good, but because by sharing you are allowing us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Perhaps this post will touch someone in a way that will expand their world just a little more. Isn’t that what your parents life work was about? What could be better then opening a mind to a new experience, and sharing grief in a constructive way that gives meaning to loss and sadness? I hope your passage through this is not so sad that it makes life difficult and that it is eased through love and kindness. Be well.

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