When I reached the top of the Balam Ch’ab’s wall, I almost fell and could understand why Chahel growled. There were patches of a slippery substance on the rounded top. With care, I flipped my body over it to position myself to climb down the other side. The uppermost stone was a sand-colored marble, in the shape of half-cylinders, which matched the rock under it. It was slick and smooth.
Once I was inside the camp, I smelled my hands. They were greasy and smelled like smoked animal; it was lard. Either the Jaguar Knights were messy eaters or they took irritating measures to make their camp difficult to enter. The height of the wall was well over a man’s height, but someone could climb over it with assistance. The lard was merely an annoyance. I could not imagine that it would impose much of an impediment.
The training camp had fooled my eyes from the outside. Inside, I could not see the other side of the camp. The area I was in was broad with a worn perimeter path inside the wall. Beyond were footpaths through gardens leading to a trio of wooden huts. Behind the huts were trees and bushes. I could not see Chahel, yet felt that she was in the bushes.
The nobility, to indicate their territory, often used stone walls. They, however, would never accept homes made of trees. For a roof, it was acceptable, for a dwelling, it was not.
The Balam Ch’ab caught me laughing and asked me why. I told him that the place appeared to house nobles, beyond the wall, but inside it seemed that it housed peons.
He looked at the huts and told me that they only housed the finest men and women, adding that the vast majority were from the noble classes.
“Women visit their men in the training camp? How can you allow that?”
The Balam Ch’ab raised his eyebrows and blinked a few times as if unsure what to say. He smirked and seemed about to say something when he burst out with a deep snort and began laughing. “What do you think we are doing out here, Zaki, running a hiding place for sin? Do not tell me that you did not know that some of our knights could be women.”
I protested that I had not known and that it was unthinkable that they allowed women to become warriors and killers. Women should stay at home cooking, cleaning, and raising children, I told him. Underneath my words was the belief that women were not strong enough. I believed men should protect them and shelter them away from the realities of war. “Why are we burdening them with such awfulness and strife, don’t they do enough?”
The Balam Ch’ab doubled over and clutched his sides. The origin of his braid was at the top of his head, so it bounced more than a regular one. The braid danced along his back like an agitated snake. Irritated that he was laughing at me, I stressed my points over again.
Laughing, he laid face down on the grass with his hands stretched to the sides. I ended my argument with the words, “Once I am king, no longer will the women have to do these dreadful things.”
“Oh, please stop.”
I saw that tears were running from his eyes. Aggravated that he did not give my arguments the attention they deserved, I walked away and stared at the wall. When I was there for a short time, I realized, with wonder, that I was no longer nervous around the Balam Ch’ab and that I had argued with him. A cold feeling overtook me; it dispelled the heat I felt when I voiced my beliefs in anger. Now I felt exposed and foolish, and began worrying that the Balam Ch’ab would punish me somehow. I turned around to see where he was.
He sat up and brushed dirt from his palms. He looked over to where I was and motioned me to return and sit with him.
When I was before him, I began to apologize for my outburst, but he stopped me.
“Quiet yourself and sit down. Do not say another word or I will begin laughing again.” He waited for me to sit in front of him and told me that he had not laughed that hard in many years. He even thanked me.
Before he could stop me, I told him that I did not recognize myself and that I was not usually argumentative.
Stopping my apology with a wave of his hand, he said, “That is your reaction to stressful or difficult circumstances. Do not bother apologizing. You were unafraid and you thought clearly about your arguments. That is a good quality for a jaguar knight. I am pleased. Only afterward did you worry about your actions. In the fury of the moment, you are no coward.”
I slouched with relief. As soon as I relaxed, I noticed that I had been clutching all of my muscles, especially those in my buttocks.
“We do have to clear a few things up before we begin, though,” he said. “We use huts here because we are in the jungle and many creatures live in it. Occasionally, if we are not vigilant, we must set fire to the huts and build new ones. We could not easily clean stone buildings with fire.”
Mice infested the huts a few years back, he told me, and several knights and students died because of them. It was after a long rainy season, when the trees were particularly fruitful. Because of the abundance of food, the mice bred more profusely. They spread and began looking for hiding places and food. They chanced upon the training camp. Since the presence of the knights kept natural predators away, especially jaguars, the mice quickly reproduced and nested in the walls and roofs of the huts. The droppings were everywhere. No one noticed since the dirt floor was dark in color. The mice were stealthy and would hide or be still when people were about.
“Many breathed in that filth and died. We thought they only had minor fevers, but within days, they were dead.”
“How did you realize what was wrong or know how to fix it?”
“We called in the healers. They could not overcome it because it killed so rapidly. The Cabicacmotz came after they were baffled and saw into the problem. He also gave us the solution. Fortunately, we noticed quickly that those who slept in the huts were the ones who fell ill. Not one of those people were old or infirm, Zaki. We burned the huts and they scorched the earth when they fell. Fire kills, but it also cleanses.”
I asked him whether the original huts were stone and he told me that they were not because the outer wall made it too difficult to bring in stones.
“Why do you not use the main entrance?”
“There is no entrance to the camp. Either one enters it as a jaguar would or one is provided with a ladder as you were today.”
“Can you not cut a hole for stone to be brought in, then?”
He looked at me with disgust. “The wall is our most splendid tool for teaching the steps of the jaguar. We would never mutilate it for a mere luxury.”
I decided not to ask any further questions when I heard the acid in his voice.
“Come. We have sat for long enough,” he said. “I will show you where to leave your satchel and where you will sleep.” He walked to the smallest hut and I followed.
My spirits sank when I saw the crude lodgings and the hammock where I was to sleep. Only peons used hammocks. To sleep on a mat or bed indicated that a man was wealthy enough to have servants ensure its cleanliness. Recently, I saw my father’s home for the first time and was surprised to see that he slept in a hammock. It shocked me and made me feel embarrassed for him. A thought occurred to me.
“Was my father a Jaguar Knight?”
The Balam Ch’ab smiled with delight and said, “He trained here, but he cannot be a knight.”
It hurt me to ask, but I finally said, “Was he unable to transform himself?”
He shook his head. “Of course he could turn himself into a jaguar, Zaki. He is a talented and capable man. Never think otherwise. He cannot be a mere knight simply because he is the king who commands us.”
“Take off your clothes,” he ordered me, “and remove your stone.”
I protested, telling him that I did not wish to take a nap and that Zotabah, Ahtoobalvar and the Cabicacmotz demanded that I always wear my navel stone.
“You are mistaken if you think I will let you take a nap so soon. It is time for work. I am going to show you the wall.” He looked me over, focusing on my necklace. The stones were the same as the one I used in my navel. “Don’t worry about the navel stone, Zaki. The necklace will suffice to keep you safe. This way you will not lose your stone or ruin your belt. Now, remove your clothes while I fetch you a proper training garment.”
He left me in the hut. I took off my tunic and removed the leather belt that kept my navel stone in place. Afterwards, I stored the belt and stone in my satchel and threw it onto the hammock. His story made me paranoid about vermin. A few moments later, he peered in and handed me a leather thong that tied on either side of my hips. With chagrin, I put it on and emerged from the hut. The crotch area was too thick and unwieldy; it hindered my gait. I complained that it made me walk like a monkey.
I stopped complaining when I looked up and saw that he was wearing an identical thong. He did not walk funny in it, however. It looked well worn and discolored.
“Make sure that your sides are tightly tied,” he said as he walked to the largest hut. “This is what we wear for the wall. The wide crotch is used because no one wants their privates to fall out while they straddle the wall.”
The hut was a few times larger than mine was and it was as austere. There were a few more hammocks and some trunks of trees for seating.
Near the entrance, there was a large clay vat of lard. He directed me to apply the lard to my leathers, thighs, stomach and chest area. When he saw that I was being sparse applying the lard to my groin, he told me that I would be uncomfortable until the lard seeped into the leather and made it supple. After hearing that, I slapped it on as thick as I could. I sniffed myself and knew I smelled like a roasted boar.
The Balam Ch’ab deftly applied his own lard and then dipped his hands in a vat of talc. He told me to do the same, telling me that the talc would soak up the oil on my hands and make them less slippery.
When we reached the stone wall, he told me to stay on the ground while he demonstrated what he wished me to do. He climbed the ladder and straddled the wall.
“The first step to becoming a jaguar is to learn to move like one,” he said. “The jaguar is a being composed of balanced sides. Its sense of self is located primarily upon its spine at the base of its head and its awareness switches from the left to the right side alternatively. The eyes connect to the shoulders. You will see.”