A bolt of ornate woven fabric hung in the doorway of the shack. Our guide swept it aside and ushered us into the darkness. Streams of light cut through the space. Cinder blocks stacked like puzzle pieces to make up the walls, and the corrugated metal roof had been stabbed a multitude of times to let in a confusion of light.
“Ba’ax,” said a man in the old tongue.
The guide, Xavier, bowed to a shrouded corner of the room, and rattled out a reply in the same language. As my eyes adjusted to this other world, I saw a man sitting in the corner opposite the door.
His square face turned to me. “Está aquí,” he said, as if we had agreed to meet at this place, this time.
“Sí,” I said. Scott placed his hand at the base of my spine.
“Está buscando algo.”
“Las histories. Sí,” I said.
“No,” the old man said. “Tiene preguntas. Busco algo.”
Xavier grinned at me, and introduced us. We were Annabelle Maize and Scott Young. Wanderers, seekers, and social anthropologists. We were traveling through Central America gathering oral histories from anyone who was willing to share them with us. We had talked with milky-eyed abuelitas, shy young women, giggling children, and stern patriarchs. The children had monsters, and the women had honor. The men had glory, and the grandmothers had wisdom about the beginning and ending of things. The man sitting in that dark shack was the first genuine elder we had encountered.
I bowed my head. “We are honored to spend time with you. To learn from you.” But beneath the surface of my words, the old man’s assertion was corroding me. It took away the anchor of my intention—that I was here to collect the stories of the surviving Maya—and planted something else in its place.
Scott took out the recorder, and gestured at it. A pantomimed request for permission.
“Do what you will,” said the guide. He slipped through the darkness and sat in the empty corner in the same cross legged pose the elder held. Rigid spine, like the spired trunk of a Ceiba tree; chin tipped up in a simple assertion of superiority.
Blank faces stared at us. Hostility seemed to shine in their eyes; but just as quickly it was gone.
Scott placed the record on the floor. “May I start?” he asked. And without waiting for a response he continued: “What are your most important stories?”
“Es la pregunta?” the elder asked me.
“We’re here for your stories?” I tried to say, but it came out like a question. “You know that.”
The silence of people filled the room, accented by the noise of the jungle. Howler monkeys grunted and screamed in the distance. All around insects shrieked.
“He doesn’t want to talk to us.” Scott’s mouth barely moved.
“Maybe we offended him,” I said.
A shadow passed over the roof, and darkness rippled through the room.
Go back to the beginning Annabelle. That’s what I told myself. “Stories are the fabric of us. They give us history, they give us shape and purpose. They give us identity.”
“You need a story to tell you who you are?” the old man said in English.
“Don’t you?” I asked.
“Stories are guides. It is life that tells me what I am, and death that tells me who I am.”
Fear gripped my bones. “Do you know who you are?”
He just smiled and nodded. The guide echoed the movement.
Scott turned to me and muttered, “What in the hell is going on here? I thought this guy was an elder.”
The fear spread from my bones to my capillaries, veins, and arteries. It seeped into my muscles, and oozed through my organs.
“No lo ve,” said the elder. And for a moment, pinpoints of jewels glinted from his grinning teeth, and giant jade plugs stretched the lobes of his ears.
“What don’t I see?” Scott asked.
“It is not something to explain. It is something to feel,” said shape-shifting, fear-conjuring elder. “You want something for your memory box? Here. Die violently, die gloriously, else face the black obsidian of Xibalba.” The old man cackled.
“I want to leave,” I said. Scott was already backing out of the cramped shack, toward the entrance.
“But your questions,” Xavier said in his thickly accented English.
I bared my teeth in an almost smile. “We have what we are looking for. Thank you.” I bowed to both of them. “Dyos bo’otik.” When I turned, Scott was gone. A vast pool of water lapped at the threshold of the doorway. Its farther shore lingered just beyond reach.
“What is this?”
Xavier shrugged, and the old man laugh. Then a pattern on the dirt floor, made by the light coming through the perforated roof, came into focus. The water shimmered, and extending from it was a glittering path of light. Three wavy lines intersected it before it reached a crossroads. One branch still glimmered, while the other two diminished into darkness. At the end of the bright path, twelve dots lined up behind one slash of light. Throughout the entire scene, the faint line of nine concentric circles hummed.
“Es una mapa,” the old man said. “Es su mapa.” A slight smile curved his mouth and his head tipped back.
I turned from him and stared into the water, its surface like hematite. “I do have a question.”
“Of course you do.”
“Do you avoid the abyss, or do you embrace it?”
Before my brain could think about it, my body acted. I took two long strides and jumped. My hands broke through the surface first. Then the water wrapped itself around my arms. It swallowed my head and the rest of me in one cool gulp. Falling through the water. A rustling of leaves transform into the rattle of bones, and I couldn’t tell in which direction I traveled. Was it up, or was it down? However I moved, there was no amicable drifting. Just a constant driving force.
Lights swarmed, and crashed into each other. Some winked out before they made it to the first gathering place, which was on the other side of another pool of water. I smashed through the pool’s belly of creamy alabaster and its surface of flat black onyx.
There we stood. All of us. Strangers on a dismal shore. And from that shore stretched a single road, on which a cascade of souls traveled. So many people—the road ceased to look like a strip of hard packed dirt, and instead resembled a river of skulls.
Crush them, I imagined the old man saying to me. I imagined splinters of bones, and sprays of blood, and I ran. Bodies fell away from me as I moved, like a spear, down the road. I crossed rivers of scorpions and rivers of blood, born on a raft of bodies.
Finally I reached the crossroads, where a man stood in a white suit, complete with a white vest and top hat. He was an immaculate giant, rising up over the perpetual grey of the landscape, at home among the thin forest of barren ceiba trees. “Greetings traveler,” he said as I approached.
No words this man had to speak were worth hearing. Licking the sweat and gore from my lips, I spied a fallen branch. I grabbed it, and without slowing, I struck the man’s head. Felt it give beneath the blow. Flame ignited from the desiccated wood. Without slowing, I chose the right spoke of the crossroads. I had the map, those pinpoints of light stuck in my mind. And now there was a torch in my hand. Instead of dull darkness, Xibalba glittered. Obsidian covered its entire surface. One shard called to me, and I plucked it from the pool of blood from which it grew. Xibalba in my hand.
The horizon lightened. Flames danced in the distance. Gradually, a jagged line condensed into a banquet table, at which the court gathered. And he stood before it.
A jaguar paw batted at my heart, but I continued to run, and didn’t stop until I stood before him. Death 12. His face was a mask of everything I hated and feared.
He sneered at me. His hollow, insect-infested orbits saw everything I was. Everything I wasn’t. “You,” he said, drawing it out in one long breath, which smelled of necrotic flesh and rancid fat.
I held the torch high, and inscribed a circle around his face with the obsidian clutched in my hand. Pus dripped from him, and I tore off his raw and bloody facade. Even with no eyes, he seemed to glare at me, dissolve me. Shadows and images of violence glimmered inside his crystalline skull, and from the depths of his feathered cloak he extracted a barbed spear.
I slashed at him with the torch, and set fire to his garb. He did not howl.
The spear hurtled toward me. It pierced my skin, ripped through my intestines.
And I smiled, too, as I brought the torch down on his head. If bones were glass, this was the sound they would make when they were breaking. Then I sawed through his neck and he drilled into my heart.
Light danced over my eyelids, and with it warmth. I could smell the jungle all around, and in the distance a warped recording of an old man’s story played back through fuzzy speakers.
And I knew who I was.