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Serendipity: The Singing Letter

Mural of Inca Indians

Mural of Incas and Spanish

I have read some experts that say that the Incas had possessed a form of phonetic writing with knotted cords called quipus, whereas others say that these cords were used only for inventories and such—much as the Minoan Linear A and B was used in Ancient Crete. Last night, I ran into a tale from around 1541 quoted by Peruvian writer and antiquarian Ricardo Palma, which sheds some light on the whole issue:

The time came when the first harvest of melons was taking place in the Barranca melon fields and that marks the beginning of our story.

The overseer selected ten of the best melons, packed them in two boxes and put them on the shoulders of two of the Indians serving there and gave them a letter for the master.

The two Indians had carried the melons a few leagues when they sat down to rest near a wall. As one would expect, the aroma of the fruit awakened the curiosity of the Indians and a battle began between fear and their appetite.

“Do you know something, brother?” said one of them to the other in his Indian dialect. “I have discovered a way to eat some melons without anyone finding out. All we have to do is hide the letter behind the wall. It won’t be able to see us eat so it won’t be able to accuse us of anything.”

The naiveté of the Indians attributed to writing a diabolical and marvelous prestige. They didn’t believe that the letters were only symbols but that they were spirits, which functioned not only as messengers but also as watchmen or spies. [Italics Mine]

The second Indian thought that his companion’s idea was a very good one, so without saying a word, he placed the letter behind the wall, put a rock on top of it and then the two proceeded to devour, not eat, the inviting and delicious fruit.

As they were nearing Lima the second Indian gave himself a blow to the head and said, “Brother, we are making a big mistake. We need to make our burdens equal, because if you carry four and I carry five our master will suspect something.”

“Well said,” replied the other Indian.

And so once again they hid the letter and then they ate a second melon, that delicious fruit that according to the saying is gold before breakfast, silver at noon and death in the evening, for it is true that there is nothing more indigestible and causes more upset stomachs after a full meal.

After the Indians arrived at Don Antonio’s home they delivered to him the letter that announced the fact that the overseer was sending ten melons.

Don Antonio, who had promised to give some of the first melons of the harvest to the archbishop and several other individuals, began to examine what the Indians had brought.

“What do you think you are trying to do, you good-for-nothing thieves?” bellowed the irate landowner. “The overseer sent ten melons and two are missing.” Whereupon Don Antonio read the letter once more.

“There were only eight, master,” protested the two Indians.

“The letter says ten and you have eaten two of them on the road. You over there! Give these scoundrels a good beating—a dozen blows for each one.”

And the poor Indians, after receiving a thorough thrashing, sat in the corner of the patio gloomily considering what had happened to them.

Then one of them said, “You see, brother? The letter sings.”

Don Antonio happened to hear what the Indian had said, whereupon he shouted, “Yes, you rascals. And you better watch your step and not try any more funny business because now you know the letter sings.”

And Don Antonio related the incident to his friends at the next tertulia. The saying became popular and eventually made its way to the Mother Country.

The quote is from Palma’s Peruvian Traditions (1872-1910).