When I was halfway down the temple, I noticed that he was almost to the base and said, “Uncle, wait for me.”
He looked back with a frown and sat to wait for me. When I reached him, he patted the step he was sitting on to invite me to sit with him. I did. He said, “Zaki, I have been remiss in teaching you formal manners. I told you not to refer to me as your uncle because you would inadvertently do so in front of your fellow students. I am the Cabicacmotz, the blazing star from the Pleiades; refer to me by my title.” He jutted his chin towards the slow moving group we were to meet. “Only call that man Ahtzic Uinac. His time is near; give him the tribute of his title. Do not refer to him in the honorifics of polite social speech. Only use the formal, Ahtzic Uinac. We become our titles. If you do otherwise, you deny him the power of his office and you will diminish his story. In addition, to do otherwise is disrespectful. Do the same with the Balam Ch’ab.”
There was no way that I was going to call the Balam Ch’ab anything else. I appreciated the advice. Anything that kept me out of trouble with the man was a worthy activity in my eyes. I nodded and told him that I would do so.
We waited for the palanquin, as we stood before the temple. Pale green cloths that fluttered in the early breeze covered the compartment. I could see that the men chosen to uphold it were all of the same height and build to ensure a smooth ride for the one traveling. When it neared, I heard a man laughing behind the canopy cloths. “What a memory you have, Cabicacmotz.”
“T a kazah r a vach (lower your eyes), and bow your head briefly, Zaki,” the Cabicacmotz whispered to me.
I did what he asked as the child of innocence, Tukumux, parted the curtains to reveal a wizened man with a long white braid. He was wrinkled from age and sun, but still his eyes were sharp and bright.
The old man smiled at me and motioned me with his hand to come closer. “Come, come,” he said. “Let me see you, young prince.”
The closer I came to the palanquin, the more I could smell jasmine. At its threshold, I saw that bits of the vine were scattered around the man. Underneath, was the smell of age. Not yet was it the scent, which signals the approach of death.
Again, I did as the Cabicacmotz had told me. The Ahtzic Uinac imitated my movements. Then he touched my cheek. His hand was cold and dry, yet soft like a scholar’s palm. “You favor your mother,” he said and looked towards the Cabicacmotz. “Perhaps you will even sprout hair upon your chin as this one did. I see he has tired of using unguents to remove it.”
Unlike the men of my tribe, the Cabicacmotz had a small beard that he kept trimmed close to his face. In the sunlight, it was almost golden, marking him as foreign.
“Thank you for remembering my youth to me,” he said to the Cabicacmotz.
“You honor me with your thanks, Ahtzic Uinac.”
They continued to exchange polite words until the Ahtzic Uinac clapped his hands lightly and Tukumux pinned the curtain of the palanquin back. The other attendants set the story-master down and rubbed their hands. Two fresh attendants took hold of the rear bars and lifted them up so the Ahtzic Uinac was tilted towards the sky. In the compartment, he stretched his legs and rested them against a foot brace. He seemed to be leaning back as they began dragging the palanquin towards the jungle. “Come, young man. We are off to see my son.”
We left the Cabicacmotz behind. Chahel walked next to Tukumux with his hand on her neck. I should not have been surprised; my cat had many friendships that I was only now learning about.
“You come from an esteemed line, Zaki,” the Ahtzic Uinac said. “Your father, mother, and uncle have the blood of genius. It is good that the king has more than one wife. In that manner, your uncle can further combine his blood with your father’s. Much is expected of you and any offspring he and your sister, Maricua produce.”
The Cabicacmotz was soon to marry my half-sister. She was the first and only child of the first eastern wife that my father married. Unfortunately, Maricua’s mother had died before I ever knew her. The current eastern wife was a harridan. When she married my father, she refused to accept Maricua and forced my father to build her a new home. Her property was the East-East home. Maricua and I lived in the West-East home, where she grew up. My mother had loved Maricua and treated her as her own child. My father had thrown protocol to the winds and taken on a fifth wife, my mother. Many in the tribe considered mine a bastard birth even though the sacerdotal chief, before the whole tribe, had united them through the marriage rite.
“When I was a young boy, I watched the famed building engineer, Puch’um Maram, build the temple you and the Cabicacmotz descended.”
His statement excited me. Never had I seen the building of one of the great temples. Even now, in such an early generation, the building of the temples was shrouded in secrets and myth. The architects and masons were a close-lipped group and deliberately restricted knowledge of proper construction. If someone hoped to learn anything, he had to ask the men who built roofs. The two groups were always at odds and despised each other. The roofers wanted no part in secrets and refused to help the others give themselves airs.
“How did they do it?” I asked.
He smiled and said, “In the most obvious way. They used sand.”
“Sand? For what?”
“Think about it. It is one matter to drag a large stone with a rope across the ground and another matter entirely to lift that same stone up steep and narrow steps. Why did you think that the temple complex was so devoid of any greenery? We are on the same level as the jungle, but the jungle is verdant and fertile. Life blooms easily in its soil. Here, it is the barren sand of wastelands and deserts because we see the deep sand, which the temple builders dug up to assist them in their works. They spread it around the construction site and the job was easier for them.”
I told him about a game I had as a young child. It consisted of small blocks of stone and I often built pyramids with them.
“But did your temples have rooms inside?”
“Only on the top-most level, as these do, did I include rooms.” I always believed that I had built accurate and perfectly formed temples.
He leaned out towards me, beyond the shade of his canopy and whispered, “These do have rooms inside.” He chuckled softly and leaned back as he saw my eyes widen.
Now it was my turn to lean towards him. “What do you mean, Ahtzic Uinac?” I said in a low voice. “Do you mean that they are hollow inside?”
He grimaced and tilted his head side to side as if unsure how to answer my question. “Not completely. Some only have a small room and some have more.” He raised his eyebrows and jutted out his bottom lip. “What do you think about that?”
I was amazed because there were no indications that they were not solid. They had no openings. “What did they put in there? Are they tombs?”
“No, they are not tombs. The temporary tombs are used for three days on the topmost level before the sarcophagus is transferred to the earth or the body to flame. Your question would be more apt if you asked me about what they put in there now.”
My speech stuttered as I asked him.
“Two or three priests or acolytes are always at attention within each opening. When they hear a particular noise from their comrades, they push the stone outward and other attendants push the stone back in.”
His statements confounded me. I looked at the temples in fascination. The knowledge that people were in there in the darkness filled me with horror. “What do they do in there?”
“Indeed, that is the question.” His lip curled up in disgust. “Beware of those who call themselves solely by the name of Balam.”
“Do you mean that I should be scared of your son and the Cabicacmotz?” My body was in a state of alarm and the heat of the day could not take away the goose bumps on my arms and neck.
“No. No. I do not mean that. My son is the Balam Ch’ab. The Cabicacmotz plays with the Balami, the Jaguars. No. They are both honorable men and you have nothing to fear from them. No. I mean the priests who call themselves only by the unadorned title of Balam.”
I did not know what to say. Never had I spoken to one of the temple priests. Many times, I had seen them in the marketplace or around the temples. They always wore black and seemed somber and unapproachable. My father disliked them and refused to take any as an advisor. Because of that, there had never been any opportunity for me to meet any of them. From what I had heard, my father was not the only one who disliked them.
We were at the entrance to the pathway into the jungle. The two attendants gently set the palanquin on the ground as eight men prepared to carry it back up. No longer could they drag the conveyance. Level earth was behind us.