Don't Write What You Know;
Write What You Care About -- Passionately!
- Kimberly Wade
859 A.D. Yohl Ik'nal ("Heart of the Wind Place") is alone with her two starving children on their drought-stricken farm. Her husband and two grown sons have been drafted to fight in a distant war. Will they ever return? Yohl can't afford to wait. Her hungry children must be fed. It's time to dig up Yohl's past, for her mother was a princess, her grandfather a king. She still has relatives amongst the Maya royalty. They are her best hope for salvation.
Follow Yohl and her children as they travel Maya causeways, highways of the ancient world, through ravaged jungle and depressed homesteads to the capital city, itself on the verge of economic collapse. Can the religious spectacle of human sacrifice provoke the Gods' beneficence? If the Maya ceremonies and myths fail, Yohl has recourse to the older, deeper traditions of the forest people. She'll do whatever necessary to survive.
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“We had no name for ourselves, but simply called each other ‘people.’ The Mayas we called, ‘un-people.’ In my tribe, we didn’t know hate amongst ourselves. The first time we knew hate, we hated the Maya. Because we didn’t understand them, they didn’t seem human to us. Yes, they looked like us, but they behaved so strangely. They cut down the trees, and they cut out stones from the earth and hauled them over long distances. They built strange structures, many of which were not even used for habitation. They dressed in feathers and cloth and performed pantomimes, only the blood they spilt was real.”
Yohl removed the stone disk from one end of the hollow section of log that hung horizontally from the thatched eaves of the house. The dry air inside smelled sweet, but when she tilted her ear to the opening, it was quiet. The bees had flown to a new hive. She’d have no more honey to take to the market. She looked again to the cloudless sky. She dropped her gaze to the thin yellow vines of beans and squash growing close along the ground. There were no signs of ants between the rows. If rain was coming, it was still a long way off. Looking out over the dry, cracking milpas, she could just make out the distant tree line. Yohl not only heard her grandmother’s voice, but she saw her face clearly within her mind.
“You know, you have seen and watched with the benefit of understanding. Such understanding is important. Of course, now I know the story of the gods, because your grandfather told it to me on long nights as I suckled our son, your father. He is better suited to telling such a story. It’s important knowledge to have, so pay attention when he speaks. I want to give you different knowledge, although I don’t know if it will ever be useful to you or not. This one here, for instance…”
Yohl watched her grandmother squat down and fondle a plant sprouting in the dappled shade of the jungle canopy. She squinted hard, trying to focus her memory to reveal the exact shape of the leaf that was framed by her grandmother’s cupped palm.
“Ah, yeah, it’s dry,” said her sister-in-law, Xpuch, who apparently had been waiting to be noticed for too long a time.
Yohl turned a forced smile on her.
“If only our boys were here to make a rain ceremony.” Xpuch worked her chewing gum so it gave an alarming snap.
Yohl nodded; the smile was too much to keep up.
“But what do we have left to offer anyway?” Xpuch grinned as if about to laugh, but Yohl glared at her. Did she need to be reminded of this? Her eldest had been called to war four tun earlier, her second son a tun later, and the tun before it had been her husband, a man of two katun, along with all the neighboring farmers. When she looked over the milpas, it was only women she saw wielding the mattocks amongst the wilted stalks of maize.
Her sister-in-law offered a change in tone, “They’ve surely made the ultimate sacrifice by now, but our husbands may yet return with captives.”
Yohl made no reply.
“You have royal blood,” said Xpuch. “Maybe you should consider spilling a little for all our sakes.” This time the laughter spewed out in a short burst. She choked it back, when Yohl turned away. “A ballgame is what we need. That would get the gods interested in us again.”
Yohl made careful work of fitting the stone disk back into the opening of the empty hive. Her second son had not even a chance to play in the ballgame. The army recruiters had come for him, and she felt a pang in her chest as she recalled the delight with which he donned the feathers they offered, his feet still sunken in the mud of the milpa he’d been tending. Before long she heard her sister-in-law’s footsteps crunching away. She turned to look at the back of Xpuch’s coarse cotton huipil. It was tied up around her thighs, showing her hard calves covered with dust. The thick knot of black hair at the top of her head was coming undone. Yohl smoothed up the hair from the back of her own neck. I needn’t have been so rude, she thought.
She listened again for the sound of her grandmother’s voice. It came on a breeze that cooled the sweat collected on her brow.
“We, the people, were always moving further and further into the trees, trying to put distance between us and the Mayas. But some Maya hunters came deep into the forest in search of jaguars. The first time I saw your grandfather, he wore a fan of blue macaw feathers on his head. I was dazzled. He didn’t have to try hard to capture me, but I hadn’t expected that he would take me away from the forest. I didn’t go willingly.
“Your grandfather brought me to the city. I had never seen such a place before. My eyes, accustomed to the green of the jungle, nearly popped out of my skull they stared so hard at all the colors. Colors, colors everywhere. The one I remember most was red.
“In the beginning, he kept me locked up. If I were free, I would try to run, but then I got pregnant, and the baby got big in my belly. My hips were loosened, and I’d been locked up so long my limbs had grown weak. I despaired of ever being free again. Then your father was born. As I gazed at him, it seemed his form ate up all my thoughts of escape. He looked just like his father, and somehow this resemblance transformed the man I hated into something beautiful again. I wanted more babies like this one I held in my arms.”
Yohl watched her grandmother cradle the air. She swayed as she gazed lovingly at the space between her arms.
“I had to wait for you to come along. As a baby you looked just like your father, and his father. I waited for you, but I never forgot about the trees, my home. Here, I want to show you,” and she took her by the hand.
Frustratingly, Yohl’s son, Ch’ok, chose this moment to bound up to her, swinging a lizard by its tail. “Mommy, look what I caught,” he spouted, full of pride.
She took the lizard from him and walked around to the front of the little house, its walls of saplings daubed with mud. She dropped the lizard whole onto the pink granite grinding stone that sat in the courtyard, facing the houses of her two sisters-in-law, Xtale and Xpuch. Dipping her hand into the pot of lime water, she scooped out the last remaining kernels of maize. She ground the lizard’s body together with the kernels, watching its blood streak the grinding stone. By the time her biceps began to ache, the stone was covered by a fine, damp, pink meal. She mixed the meal with water in a clay pot that she pushed deep into the coals of the hearth. She listened as she worked, hoping to hear her grandmother’s voice. The only sound was the thumps of her children’s feet on the rubber ball they kicked between them. Then she heard Ch’ok, saying, “You’re a girl, and girls can’t play ball.”
“Yes, I can!” was followed by a mighty thump.
“Why’d you go and do that?”
Yohl smiled to herself as she heard their feet crunching through the milpa dirt. Then she thought, don’t let them work up too much of an appetite. Their once plump bodies had already thinned so she could see their ribs. On the other hand, it was good if they tired themselves. They’d fall asleep quickly after their scant meal.
~ * ~
She waited until it was almost dark, and Ch’ok and Xunan were sitting on their mat, eyeing the pot, before she took down the painted platter from its high shelf. Her husband had built the shelf for the purpose of displaying the platter Yohl had once treated with reverence. Even now she lifted it down gently and took a moment to study it in the dim light. It was all she had left of what her mother had brought from the palace to the more modest home of her in-laws. She looked at its design, the glyphs she could not read around its rim. In its center was the World Tree with its face of the Corn God. She knelt and heaped the cooked maize on top of the design and smiled. I cover Your image with Your body, she thought, and pushed the platter toward her hungry children with her foot.
She scraped a few remnants from the pot for herself. Her stomach rumbled, but she could see satiety had already made her children sleepy. They leaned against each other in the crackling light of the fire. A few scraps rimmed the platter, and she licked it clean, winking at the Corn God as her tongue crossed his mid-section.
She crawled to the incense burner with its crude molding of the god. His form was not important. Her in-laws had given the incensario as a wedding present, and her mother-in-law had already enlivened it by placing the fives stones in its top. Yohl counted them, saying aloud for her children, “There is Your liver, there is Your heart, Your lungs, Your stomach.” Each of the god’s smooth pebble organs was coated with the sticky black residue of burnt pom. Though the rain gods may be ignoring their recent pleas, she’d managed to keep this god alive. With two sticks, she transferred a coal from the hearth to the base of the incense burner. She sprinkled pom over His organs. As a curl of sweet smoke started to rise, she stared hard into the god’s black, vacant eyes, willing it to speak in her grandmother’s voice, but, as always, it chose the voice of her grandfather, the kindly old man it was impossible to believe was once the strong hunter her grandmother described. It was just like the god. He wanted to hear his own story.