The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
Mayas in the Cenote
Words by Eve Kalyva
Nights are always long, and never the same. Rumors have it that the time that stretches over them and in between is linear, but it isn’t. It moves on too slowly on a whim, and then disappears all too quickly like an experiential wave followed by silence.
A child of time, the jungle moon hangs lazily over the crystal waters of the cenote. It overlooks a ground that is like cheese, the kind of cheese that has holes in it. Craters, gulches and hollows gape open along Earth’s rocky surface and, this being the tropics, quickly fill up with water. A flooded grotto, then, the moon is staring down at, of incalculable depths. And the grotto doesn’t stand alone. Tunnels lace out underground for miles and miles without end, interconnecting every crevice, ditch and pond. In waiting the cenote lies, amidst thick vegetation.
A Maya swims in the calm waters, stealing some time away from the busy day ahead: to grind, to sow, to scratch, to weave, to hunt and to gather and collect, to dry, to water, to feed and to shoo away all before daylight breaks over the flat horizon. And then again and again until the end of times.
The Maya’s short-statured and strong body glides effortlessly over the bottomless cenote. The beads around his ankles, wrists and neck amplify the pale light of the moon and scatter it over the water’s surface that now shines with a million more stars. The night is humid and the wind is quiet.
Occasionally a bird or a lizard rustles through the thickets. The one tweets and the other licks the air with its forked tongue, but such disturbances never last for long. The night falls back into silence. If the Maya’s father were here, he would tell him stories about the jaguar god. Its head is fully feathered in green and blue and red and yellow, and its paws hide diamond claws. The jaguar is the shifting god, masking his presence, and yet his presence can be traced on every living thing.
The Indian looks up at the sleepy sky. He ponders whether the firmament stretches ever farther than the abyss that extends under his feet. Or whether it too is capped like all existence, living inside the narrow reflection of a dream that the mother of all gods dreams. The jaguar god is one of her sons, wearing the mantle of the night as its hide. The bright stars of the sky up there revert to the black dots of the jaguar down here. This world and everything in it hang upside down over nothingness.
The smells of the forest, sweet and musky, bring the Indian back to his senses. The air is mixed with the water. The water is mixed with the earth. The earth is mixed with the fire that burns under his skin. Birth, death, rebirth. His awareness is amplified beyond the restraints of his mind, and aeons pass by. When everything stands still, that is too easy to happen.
His people make pyramids, carve altars and craft calendar stones to fasten time down, but he always thought that it is they who invariably run after it. Time either doesn’t exist or is too far ahead of everything to have much importance. The lush multitudes that are the jungle trees already grow on top of ancient ruins where gods and then kings and then men lived and died. The air and the water and the earth and the fire that surround him will soon claim his body back like everything else before him.
The Maya swirls in the transparent waters a few more times. It will be time to go when it will be time to go, and all that is left behind or will remain ahead will not diminish in magnitude or in consequence by his decision. He has thus made up his mind when bubbles rise around him, upsetting the surface of the eternally calm cenote. A water snake would not be so indiscriminately bold as to come so near. The man observes closely to make sure. The bubbles start their thing again, catching the reflection of the moonlight more greedily this time. He is certain they are not coming from him.
The bubbles turn into little wobbly waves and the Indian decides to make his way towards the edge of the cenote and possibly back home. Perhaps he should throw a stone or two amidst the trees to see what animal or fruit might give up and fall down. Returning from the jungle empty-handed is never a good sign.
Before he finishes his thought, the surface of the water germinates with little pockets of dispersing air. The froth rises quickly, and if it weren’t for the otherwise pastoral setting, one would think that the gates of the inframundo had blasted open and the lords of Xibalbá and their minions had begun marching forth. But what rises before the Maya’s eyes is something else.
It is not one, but three bloated figures. Three sets of lidless, bulging eyes gain shape first. They lie still and unresponsive in contrast to the frantic manner in which the rest of the bulk to which they are attached sprouts from the water. The three sets of eyes possess the bigger part of the heads, which are sleek and bald and black as the night. Another gush of air is released, and the waters part like curtains to reveal two pairs of floundering shoulders coming after each head. One pair protrudes outwards from each creature’s flank, and the other, silver in color, is twisted around each furless neck. Wider than trees those bulbous bodies are, and humanoid in shape. Yet, the veins that connect the sleek heads to the googly eyes and the paired shoulders pump inverted outside their skin.
“Is it dark already?” says the one head, and a muffled mouth is dispatched behind a wet tube. “We must really have lost track of time.”
“Not really,” another head replies, revealing a patch of white skin under a transparent mask. “The air cylinders have limited capacity and the monitor measures time and pressure to a T.”
“Technically, it measures duration,” the third creature says, with an expression on its face as baffled as the rest. “It doesn’t tell you what time of the day it is now.”
“True. And in the tropics, days and nights have equal value, for nothing much is happening here with the natives.”
“Excuse me, amigo,” one of the floaters exclaims in an almost human voice. Foam and spray still escape its frame but its verve remains intact. “Where are we?”
The Maya would have dropped his jaw open if he wasn’t still trying to swim. The edge of the water he thought of reaching now appears to be the farthest of all things the human mind can possibly conceive. And those creatures are blocking his path.
“Pues,” he replies, “here.” That was the first and only thing that came to the Indian’s mind.
“Yes, my friend,” the second sleek head orates impatiently. “But where exactly is here?”
“Some two hours from Tulum.” The Indian gives an honest reply. “If you take the shortcut it could be shorter, but not this time of the year. It is not far from the main road directly up. The path is clearly marked and you might even find eggs along the way.” He is filling up his sentences with details to have more time to think. His heart is already racing like the speediest of arrows.
“I knew it!” the funny accented voice squeaks. “The cenotes are keepers of great cosmic powers. And we, my friends, have been granted some of those cosmic powers to transverse both space and time and claim all that we see. For the city wasn’t more than ten minutes away from our holiday resort where we entered the waters.”
The head turns around in circles and two sloppy arms slither under it. The arms extend outwards and the googly eyes follow their course, registering everything that they see. But the jungle trees don’t flicker.
“I think he means two hours by foot, not car.” The third head says, and brings a duck-like foot to the water’s surface in full display. There, it tries to keep still for as long as possible. “Unless we are still in it?” it adds, flapping its limbs gracelessly like a duckling. “That is quite probable since the resort takes up the bigger part of the coastline.”
“Or we might have passed through to the one next to ours. All land is private here and we paid good money for it. Do you think our bracelets will still work?”
“What I want to know is whether they let pool boys inside the pools here or whether this one is slacking off.”
Such common interest seems to take precedence over all other concerns, and newly found entitlement lights up the creatures’ bulging eyes.
The Maya backs away as slowly and as discretely as a sea cow. He reaches the rim of the rocky cenote and pulls the stem of a leafy bush to lift himself up to the ground. There, he stands to get a better perspective on things. If the bottom of the world has cracked open and creatures of the underpass have come through in full war gear, he better not find himself swimming in the same waters, no matter how crystal clear they might be.
Fully naked, he swifts past the border of the rocks and enters the jungle. His hair is long and unkempt, his body covered in dark paint. This doesn’t strike an impression with the intruders, who have resumed discussion on their location and the possibilities of profiteering thereof.
After stopping for few chores along the way, the Maya reaches the sandy beaches of palm-coved Tulum. Making sure that it is all still there as it should be, he seeks one of the temple priests. A ribbon of deep amber is already flirting with the dim horizon. The Maya remembers how his grandmother used to say, “If in doubt, always look at the sky.” Her presence has never left them despite everything his people have endured.
Without rushing he finds the priest, who is surely better equipped to deal with the threat and more cunning. With an entourage of potions, charms, chants and ablutions, precious stones, concoctions and mosaic mirrors, paints, feathers, snails and dried-up animal parts, the priest sits on top of the granite pyramid, vast and well-rooted to the fertile ground.