As the wheel turns in the stone calendar, so also do our collective definitions of truth and humanity. My interest lies in what is beyond the wheel, in what is the origin and finality of our essence. Time does not itself change, but times do. I can attest to it because having retained my awareness for thousands of years, I enjoyed and suffered countless lifetimes. Due to a confluence of events, and more than one deal, the miracle of a new body was granted to me through the vehicle of incarnation.
My previous existence was spent as a seer in the Golden Age of my people, the Toltecs. There, a rare art rendered me nearly immortal. Since man first learned that death lurked, waiting for us all, he has contrived to avoid its touch. My people unraveled the mysteries of longevity and I became the recipient of the secrets of how to prolong my life.
Only one problem confounded me. Immortality is worthless without apotheosis. Man must evolve himself into a power before reaching for immortality. My master, the great Lord Quitzalcuat, understood the timing of such a feat. In my haste, I reached for the prize prematurely. This time within the wheel, I will temper my ambition and pluck the fruit of my labors when it is ripe.
My season upon this earth opened when humans knew the secrets of perception, shape shifting and the fluidity of time. When ziggurats were the storehouses of knowledge and scant wisdom, I danced around, upon and in them. In those days, my people were not savages, but one would not truly call us civilized, either.
Portents and the paths we walked upon determined what our names would be. Strong omens dictated the name that I would be given. I am Zaki Raxa Palo, named for the white churning waters of a sea chilled green by the hurricane that blew through my land at the time of my birth. I refer to myself as Zaki, Raxa, Palo, or other names that I give myself now and again. The names are not important, but the missive is.
Even today, my chosen names must always have meaning and significance, even if it is only personal. To do otherwise would be to sever myself completely from my origins and symbolically repudiate them, to lose myself truly in time. Such a modernity is too progressive for an old-fashioned thing as me. I could not bear it.
Ask me who I am and I will tell you that I am a dreamer who knows the exultation of being the enemy of the creatures of the abyss. As a dreamer, I released my stare upon this world and saw wonders beyond the curtain of my eyes. I have lasted to this day because of my resolve and because I entered the eternal order of those who wage war against the enemies of humankind. Those enemies are called the Xibalbans.
They turn man against man, they use owls as messengers,
they foment sin, wickedness, and cruelty,
they are lords of falseness and hypocrisy,
their true flesh is black and white,
lords of folly, lords of confusion,
as it is stated. They disguise themselves as what we most fear
to despair us, to separate us from hope.
Popol Vuh, Part Three
They are indeed black and white. I know because I have seen them. Their realm is the underworld. Once again they are in our midst and active. They are abominations. The story of how they can be battled must be told. That battle was, eons ago, only capable of being waged by a player on the grand ball-court. Times have changed. The arenas are many.
Now, it is the duty of every member of mankind to fight those beings. The game has already begun. The stone markers are mounted and the ball is in motion. The stands are filled with the fans of the opposing team and few of ours are there to wish our side well.
We are currently losing. We must change that.
We must fear.
The man who fears nothing has never seen Xibalba, and he loves nothing.
PART I – CHAPTER 1
Up in the banyan tree, the jaguar climbed. Silently pacing the wild peccary that lingered beneath the shade, she maintained her position out of its sight.
The peccary sensed danger and pawed the ground with its hooves, tasting the air for predators with its snout. Every few feet, it changed the direction of its path. Beady eyes scanned the jungle beyond the clearing of the banyan, searching to discover the reason for the stillness in the wood.
Undeterred by the peccary’s erratic path, Chahal walked along the massive tree’s limbs. Fluid and sinuous, she flowed through the canopy like ocean water past anemones. Her careful steps did not warn the beast of her approach. Only the atmosphere noted the passing of menace. A careful huntress, she had taken time to rub herself against trunks and branches that the peccary left its scent upon, a hunter’s camouflage.
The banyan she was on possessed seven trunks. Thick lattices of branches connected the differing trunks with a network of walkways up in the air. The clearing they were in bordered the jungle.
Outside of a dense wood, a banyan would ravage and strangle weaker plants. Our banyans were sacred and often their growth was guided to create sanctified earth. Those places abhorred the hunt. This glade, having seven trunks, could only be natural. No priest would fashion a septenary temple. Here, blood could be spilled freely.
Blowgun in hand, I looked up to where I last saw Chahal and could not see her. After having spent a long time looking at the green in the jungle around me as I tracked the peccary, the sun filtering through the leaves distorted my vision and rendered the jaguar invisible. Giving my eyes time to adjust, I saw her perched a man’s length away from the animal, above him. Her yellow fur and black rosettes became discernible only when I focused on them.
Chahal caught my gaze and looked to my left, indicating that I should circle around to cut off the beast’s escape.
The peccary snuffled the ground, using its snout to sniff underneath the fallen leaves.
I waited for the wind before moving beyond the bush where I crouched. Soon the wind would envelope everything in the clearing under the banyan tree. Shadows ghosted among the greenery as I watched it approach the peccary.
The gusting wind stirred the large dry leaves around the beast, giving me audible cover. Hunched low, my feet touched bare ground instead of leaves as I ran watchful of my path. Almost parallel to the peccary’s position, I found myself in mid-stride when the wind died.
“Craaack,” the dry branch, under my foot, sounded.
I grimaced as my extra step disturbed the silence of the jungle.
The peccary took off. Grunting and wild-eyed, it ran my way.
Chahal pounced, missing the beast by two man lengths.
Flustered, I dropped my blowgun. The peccary did not change direction and I realized it was charging me. Hooves pounded the earth in its efforts to escape Chahal. I scrambled up a trunk of the banyan moments before it could gore me to leave me wounded behind for its enemy.
The jaguar growled as she barreled past me after the fleeing swine.
Staying up in the tree for a while, I waited for my heart to calm. A short time later, I spotted my blowgun and various darts on the ground and climbed down to pick them up. After I retrieved them, I looked around and turned to look behind me.
The jaguar sat among the bromeliads, watching me. Calmly she sat, as if the chase had never occurred.
I walked towards her and she stood. Turning her back on me, she led me to the edge of the jungle, where cultivated fields lay nearby. When I stepped on to the plain that marked the boundary between the wild and the domesticated, she left me and returned to her hunts.
I tried to follow her back into the jungle and pushed aside foliage to peer back in, but could not see my cat and sole friend. Skilled though I was with the blowgun in the privacy of our home, the hunt revealed my deficiencies in stealth and action.
She had given me the chance to hunt with her and I spoiled the hunt. Many suns would pass before she allowed me to try to hunt with her again.
I turned to the west, towards my tribe’s lands, and saw our temples glistening beneath the late afternoon sun and made my way alone.
Not yet was I a man. I carried no bounty home.
Among my people, a boy became a man when he could survive alone in the jungles or when his body was capable of producing semen. Girls became women when they had their first menses. Manhood and womanhood depended upon the potentiality to reproduce. Every child looked forward to the day when he could enter the fellowship of adults. I was not the exception.
How they precisely knew when a boy became a man is unknown to me. I suspect it was the duty of the matrons, who cleaned my quarters, to check my mat, bedding, and clothing for moisture. They needn’t have bothered. I was so proud of my issue that I took my proof, a soiled loincloth, to my father Naualalom, our king.
“Father. Father. Look. X el nu puz nu naval pa nu varam (I had a wet dream). I’m a man,” I yelled as I ran into the throne room. He was there with his advisors and a common man who had come in for assistance or judgment. The men backed away and grimaced when I passed by them, holding out before me the brown cloth I had worn to sleep, which was still shining with wetness.
The throne room was in an underground cavern, lit by resin torches and perfumed with incense. Various natural shafts led to open air, which allowed fumes to escape. It was a much-coveted room in the cavern system. Some of the other smaller caves smelled dank with stagnant air. Here, however, the air was fresh, easily supporting the flames of torches and incense.
Ornate murals covered the walls. At various paces, large niches were carved into the walls. Some led to passageways and others were solely recesses without any escape. Woven tapestries and large painted cloths blended with the murals. The walls without openings had benches carved into the walls. In the farthest region from the main entrance, my father’s throne stood flush with the wall. The benches stopped two man lengths from the throne, so that its back did not have a recess behind it.
My father sent everyone away, even the guards. When we were alone, he told me, “Ah, you have finally become a man.” Glancing down at the cloth I still held, he laughed. “What a fine thing.” Ruffling my hair, he rejoiced and congratulated me some more.
I loved his laugh. Never was it reticent or restrained. Instead, it was full and rumbled out of him like thunder, causing his belly to shake. He was not an overweight man, but he was stout and had a bit of a paunch. I had not inherited his bones. Instead, I was skinny and slight. His thick hand could wrap both of my wrists easily.
How different we were. Full lips lent color to his round red face. My mouth was smaller and my weight caused my cheekbones to jut out. His brows were straight, lending him a cruel look unless one noticed the playful glint in his eyes. We dressed alike, however, and both wore our hair in long braids that went past our waists. That was typical of the men in my tribe, though, I could not claim it as a true trait that we shared. If I looked more like my father, I would not feel like as strange as I did. How I envied the russet skins of my siblings.
“My son has entered manhood, and overnight, nonetheless. As your father and the first man you told, I am obligated to teach you two things before you go back to your quarters. Are you ready for your first lesson, my son? Here it is. When I am holding counsel, you are not to burst in again as you did today. From now on, you must carry yourself as a man would.”
This was not what I expected. I was crestfallen. Immediate celebration had been what I envisioned. Apparently, that was not to be.
He moved his head back to peer at me. “You are how I was when I was your age. It was a fine thing you did. I would not have had it any other way than for you to be yourself, Zaki. Now, however, you are a man and have been declared as such by the king of your tribe. No, as my son and future heir, you will not be allowed to burst in again as a child would. You will enter as an adult and will observe the customs of conduct, which are used in the places of authority. You will learn all of these things. It is time.”
He stood and seated me upon the throne, a large stone platform cushioned with the symbol of his authority, his ceremonial mat. He knelt on one knee and looked up into my face. “There is a promise you must make me now.”
“What is it, father? Anything you ask, I will do.” I was apprehensive about his solemn demeanor and felt that I would do anything possible to make him smile or feel pleased again.
“You must learn as much as you can and you must come to me whenever there are questions you are too shy to ask others. Do you understand? There will be times when your heart will not allow you to approach or bother another living being. I know this because I was only a bit older than you are now when I first sat upon the grand mat of ruler-ship. My own father passed away soon after I became a man and now all that I have of him are memories of being his child. Few memories do I have of him after I became a man. We are fortunate that I am still here with you. You must come to me whenever you need to discuss what you have learned and seen. Let conversation bind us, as father and son. Allow me this.”
“You will have what you ask, father. You shall be my confessor.”
“I do not need to be your confessor. There are others who will supply that need as they braid your hair. No, I need to be with you as my own father was not with me. It is enough that I can hear from you about everything you learn.”
“Why do you speak of such horrible things, father?” His words about my grandfather pained me; I did not want to think about becoming an orphan. In addition, the superstitious part of me believed that to speak of death was to invite it. My mother died giving birth to me and my only full blood relative was my father. My half-sister, Maricua, raised me and was a mother to me. I had other half-siblings, whom I rarely saw.
“Nonsense. You are now a man. I am telling you to cherish it. Time has the curious quality of forever flowing on, regardless of our presence.”
“Why must we speak of this?” I asked.
“I speak of this because today I have been reminded of how little time we have. I want you to learn and be aware of everything that goes on among our tribe. One day, you will sit upon my mat and rule our people.”
“What happened today?”
“When you ran in here, you reminded me of how I was when I was your age. This led to thoughts of my father.” He paused for a moment, as if weighing his words. “To speak the full truth to you, today my oldest advisor left his body behind. He was the last of my father’s counselors and now he has gone,” he said.
The man he spoke of was an elderly man whom I had seen accompanying him many times. He was kind to me and always produced a sweet treat for me whenever I ran to my father and he was around. I didn’t know his name and regretted never having learned it. It shamed me to ask my father what it was, so I didn’t.
“Now,” he said looking intently at me, “It is customary for me to ask if you have a question for me. My only requirement is that I answer you as if you are truly a man… who you now are, unless you have collected sap from a tree and tried to pass it off as something else.” He winked at me and grinned. “Well?”
His question caught me by surprise. I didn’t know what to ask him, so I asked the first question that floated through my mind. “Why don’t we wear leaves as clothing?”
He looked at me for a few moments and chewed his upper lip. I soon realized that he was trying to keep himself from laughing.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “If humans were alone in the matter and although I wasn’t there, I would guess that too many people got rashes from the plants. Since man did not know, at first, which ones were bad for wearing, they probably took them haphazardly and experimented with different leaves. Some of those must have been poisonous, of course. Then, we need to broach the subject of dry leaves. They tend to crumble and make great homes for insects. Clothes that cause itching have never tended to be too popular. They aren’t often stylish, either.”
We laughed, he with heartiness and me with embarrassment.
“So?” he asked. “Were you serious when you asked me that question?”
I shook my head and admitted that I hadn’t actually been interested in learning about that, but had not been able to come up with a better question. He laughed until he was hoarse.
Back then, a part of me wanted to be the noble man of rhetoric, but I was far from eloquent. Many days, I would sit anywhere where men congregated, in order to watch them speak. In court, I watched the men argue the merits of certain courses of action or the fates of other people. I admired those who were able to speak well and answer rapidly. Sometimes, I would merely delight in the cadences of their voices without listening attentively to what they said. Their rapidity of speech dazzled me. I yearned for the ability to answer questions and converse without having to mull everything in my mind before I said it. My quickness to answer my father was the result of this wish. I had spoken without the requisite thought that must accompany speech.
He watched me with soft curious eyes. We sat in silence until one of the guards approached to advise my father that he had a visitor.
“Go on, Zaki. Go see your sister, Maricua. Tell her that I will be by later to speak with her. Also, think of another question that you would rather ask of me. It isn’t right that your first question should be without relevance.”
I left. Chahal waited for me at the cavern entrance. People were accustomed to seeing her, yet they gave her a wide berth whenever they had to pass her.
We walked home, side by side.
A festival, celebrating the boys who had become men, occurred once every year. My father would announce to the court that I had reached manhood and they would allow me to attend. It was to take place eight days after I stormed into my father’s court with my dirty undergarments.
There was no end to the relief I felt from not having to wait another year for the festivities. No one of minor age could take part or attend.
Once, when I was younger, I sneaked out to try to see what went on at the festival, but Maricua caught me as I reached the outskirts of the crowd. Well, soon I was to see the whole thing. A sense of exhilaration filled me whenever I imagined being a part of those throngs of tall people celebrating.
In the late afternoons, it was my custom to sit in the walled garden outside of my sleeping quarters. Lush plants, fruit trees, and flowers of intoxicating fragrances were in bloom. The seclusion and quietude of my little orderly wilderness often put me to sleep or led me to reverie.
Chahal lazed under a citrus tree.
The garden led to a larger enclosed area, which ended near the river. Since it was not the rainy season, the water ran warm and sluggish. I took a swim to cool off, but it did not ease my discomfort. It was very hot outside and as soon as I dressed myself again, I was sweating.
When I reached my quarters, twilight was near. Calling Chahal to me, I parted the curtains leading to my rooms and allowed her to enter before me. She seemed to love these little courtesies. How I knew that, I didn’t know, but I was certain of it. It pleased me to pamper her.
Servants had already lit the torches beside the entryways. Somehow, I preferred the evening’s false lights to the sunlight. When the shadows danced along the walls, I would often sit for hours and watch them. That night, however, I didn’t watch shadows on the wall or play with Chahal. I tried to imagine what the festival would be like, when I heard footsteps in the hall.
Maricua and my father came in and sat down in front of me. Her face was flushed and she would not meet my eyes. I had no idea why she was upset. It was rare for her to pout or frown. Her face was alien without her customary grin. Her face was formed for smiles and laughs, only. She held her hands clasped and stared down at them, while my father grinned from ear to ear.
“So, how is our little man?” he asked.
“I am fine. What is happening? Maricua? What is it?”
She would not look at me. Something was definitely wrong and I felt a horrendous sensation of expectancy in the pit of my stomach.
“Oh, Maricua is just worried about you, dear boy. Don’t worry. It is just that she expects that you will stay her little brother forever, but we all know that such things are not to be. It is the natural order that we all grow up and come to have responsibilities. She will get used to it,” my father told me. “I have arranged everything.”
Maricua began to cry. She was certainly not one to cry gracefully. Her body was racked with sobs and her delicate bronze face soon became red and swollen. If I had not seen it happen, I would have not believed that she could change so rapidly. Never had I seen her cry before. Seeing her, that way, put me into a near state of panic.
I leaned forward to brush tears from her face. She grabbed my hands and held them to her face. Hot tears soaked my hands. After a time, she began to calm and let go of me. I looked over at my father.
He did not look upset or worried about her and merely shrugged. “She will be fine, Zaki,” he said as he stood up. “Come with me, we have things to discuss.”
I hugged her and then went to him. He smiled and put his arm around me to lead me to the hallway. I looked back. Maricua was watching me with a sad face. When my eyes met hers, she grimaced horribly yet nodded and motioned for me to go with my father with a wave of her hand. Only then did I feel comfortable leaving with him. I saw her lie back and close her eyes.
My father shrugged again and said, “She’ll be fine, I assure you.”
As we walked, my father said, “Today is the burial day for my eldest personal advisor. You have never been old enough to come with me to attend a funeral procession, so watch what I do and learn from it. Let us take our time walking there, though, because there are a few things I want to tell you.”
I nodded my head. I felt guilty about leaving Maricua distraught. We reached the main entryway of the estate Maricua and I shared and began walking towards the temple grounds. Four guards surrounded us, two beside us and two behind us. They were unobtrusive and I was used to having them near whenever I walked with my father outside.
“Not tomorrow, but the next day, you will begin learning under the Cabicacmotz.”
“Who is that?”
“Remember all of the times that you have tried to get my attention, but my guards would not let you through to talk to me?”
Many times, I had sought him out, only to be rebuffed by the guards. Most of the time, they let me through with impunity, but every once in a while they would stop me. I told my father that I believed it was a joke they played on me occasionally to amuse themselves when they didn’t see Chahal with me. Since it did not happen often or regularly, I didn’t pay much attention to it.
“Well, that was because I was with my special advisor, the Cabicacmotz. He is the lead teacher of wisdom as well as my closest friend. He is one of the few people I trust implicitly. He and I studied together. His understanding and knowledge are the meat of legends. He has invited you to be his pupil, after I made it known to him that you had become a man. It is a great honor. Tell me, what do you think of that?”
He was guaranteeing me entrance into a world that I knew nothing about but had heard whispers of. I was intrigued with the possibility of becoming a great man like my father and those around him.
One thing made me pause, however. I thought of Maricua. Perhaps she knew better than I did what was happening. She was sad or, worse yet, horrified about this. As my surrogate mother, she was unparalleled as my protector. It was a joke between us that every victory of mine was equally hers since she felt pride whenever I accomplished anything worthwhile. She had taken the responsibility of raising me after my mother died while giving birth to me. She took care of me and dried my tears. My father’s other wives did not even glance in my direction.
I decided that there might be reason for caution. Maricua’s love for me was evident in everything she did. Knowing that she was not given to emotional outbursts or fits of crying, I suspected that there were valid reasons for her concern. This tempered my joy and I began to ask my father questions pertaining to what I would be doing and what I could expect from going through with it. There was really no question as to whether I would go, of course. I knew I would, if only to please my father. Still, I had to uncover information that I could use to placate Maricua and put her at ease with the situation.
“You will be given the keys to unlock power and knowledge,” he told me. “There is not much to tell, really. Once you go, it is self-explanatory. I will be here to answer your questions at the end of the day, but no words of mine could prepare you for what is ahead. It is an adventure. Just remember that you are there as my son. As such, you are expected to behave yourself with the utmost diplomacy and discipline.”
“That’s all that you can tell me? You have made me even more curious, but I still don’t know what to expect.”
He laughed and put his arm around my shoulder. “Then expect what you don’t expect, because it is what will happen. Don’t be surprised by the feats of other humans,” he cautioned. “Whatever you see, remain calm at all costs. There is more to people than meets the eye, or there could be if they just trained themselves properly. We are fortunate to have the means to better ourselves.”
We walked in silence along the dirt path until we reached the base of one of the larger stone temples and sat down on the steps. Twilight was almost over and many people held torches. The guards positioned themselves before us in a fan arrangement.
“Let’s stay here until the crowd leaves,” he said as he indicated the people walking in single file towards one of the smaller pyramids. “Let us allow them to give their tribute in peace.”
A grand procession of the tribe was paying homage to the memory of my father’s friend. Up they went, laden with gifts that properly showed their respect. They came down empty handed. Many cried. Others were calm or did not know him well enough to cry tears for his absence.
“Have you thought about the question you would like to make me answer?” he asked.
For once, I was prepared. “Yes,” I told him. “I would like to know how you met my mother and where she came from, since she was not of our tribe.”
He looked at the ground with a sad smile on his face and said, “Ah, the eternal gap in the one-question rule. Make the question complex.” He took a while to compose his thoughts and finally spoke. “She came from beyond the sea. She and her brother were found shipwrecked on the little atoll west of here.”
“What? She had a brother? I had an uncle?”
“Yes, you have an uncle.”
“He’s still alive? He survived?”
“Yes, he’s still around. You will meet him soon, I promise.”
My mind reeled. “Why has he never wanted to come and see me? Does he understand that, other than you, he is my only full-blooded relative?”
“He spent a lot of time with you when you were a baby. The rest is considerably more complicated. He has been away for quite some time and has only recently returned completely. Perhaps he will tell you the story of what happened to him. I assure you that there are valid reasons as to why you have not seen him for such a long time.”
I didn’t know how to respond to his words. Clearly, he didn’t want to disclose to me why I hadn’t seen my uncle for a decade. I wanted to question him further on that, but instead I asked, “Where were they from?”
“I honestly don’t know. I did not recognize their descriptions of their land. From what I gathered, they were from a place beyond the sea, on the other side of the world.”
Although modern Western man has experienced the embarrassment of knowing that in their recent history their ancestors forgot that the world was round, my people always knew it. We were foolish in other ways, but nothing could have made us ignore the obviousness of that one fact.
“Did they look like our people?”
He smiled broadly and shook his head as he ran his hand over my head. “No.”
Was he indirectly telling me that I also looked foreign? Could it be? Was that why no one wanted to claim me as his or her brother, except for Maricua? Foreigners were welcomed, in my tribe, but they were not trusted implicitly, either. The thought that I might be considered an outsider in my own land, frightened me. “Do I look foreign?”
He tilted his head and pursed his lips as he looked at me. “Perhaps. Your hair is a bit different. Instead of red highlights, you sometimes have yellow highlights when the sun touches your hair. You are also a great deal lighter than most of our people. You don’t notice that because you have spent years allowing the sun to kiss your body. I know that you are not this dark naturally; I saw you when you came into this world. Your skin was the shade in between your mother’s and mine. You are a mix of the two of us. You do not look foreign to most people because the features are a blend, but I see her in you.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Son, she was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her hair was a silk of brown and gold. And her eyes! Her eyes were gold. Never have I seen eyes like that. Oh, every once in a while, a green or a blue eyed one lands on our shores, but never a one with golden eyes. Her brother has told me that it was not a common thing from where they came from, either. I cannot properly convey to you her beauty. I will have to take you to my private home one of these days because one of the plasterers captured the exact likeness of her face as she looked when asleep. It does not give one a good idea as to what she actually looked like, with her beauty, but you will at least be able to see her features.”
“I would like that very much,” I said.
“We can talk more about her some other time, Zaki. In fact, it is not right that you should use your first question in manhood on things that I should have told you about before. Please think of another question. We will talk about this again, so do not worry that the subject is closed. If I were you, I would spend a little time with the Cabicacmotz before I asked my question. Your question should concern the subject of being a man, not wasted asking me about things that you have a right to know, such as your heritage.”
The crowds of people were now only a trickle. My father and I sat on the steps, in a comfortable silence, and waited until everyone left. The moon was low on the horizon, and it was in no shape to illuminate much.
The guards were now carrying torches and I noticed that the darkest man wore a bundle on his back, making him look like a hunchback. I wondered where it came from, since I had not noticed it earlier. Could he have had it the whole time or did I simply fail to notice when he picked it up?
The guards were solemn men and took their post seriously. They were ever alert, yet they were in repose, never seeming to make sudden movements unless they detected a threat to my father’s safety. When they needed to move, they were like wind. One could also ignore them easily for they kept to the background. They were like gliding statues, gracefully moving, yet never expressing sound.
My ruminations about the mystery stopped when my father stood and indicated that it was time to make our way towards the temple.
As we walked, we conversed and reminisced about the entombed man. I was only able to mention that the sweets the man gave me were the best I had ever tasted and that I appreciated his kindness. My father explained that it was customary to approach a grave while speaking well about the life that the person had led. Naturally, this led to the subject of his succession.
“You do not yet know whom he chose to sit on his mat after him, do you, Zaki?” my father asked me as we reached the base of the stepped temple.
I was at a loss for words. While I could identify some of the people in my father’s court, I was never a fixture there and knew only a few names and faces. I didn’t want to let him know that I had not bothered to learn who was in his court and said, “No, I don’t. Who is it? Do I know him?”
Father laughed. “How is it that you do not wait to have your first question answered before you ask another and another? It is like the little boy who grabs at sweets and reaches for more before he has even swallowed one. You are a glutton. Except that, you won’t become obese. Rather, perhaps, you will become engorged with information. At least I can console myself that my son does not have one of the more difficult vices to contend with.”
“No, he doesn’t,” a man spoke from behind us.
My first reaction was to look at the guards. They did not react to the newcomer among us.
I turned around and saw the man who spoke. He wore a dark hooded cloak that concealed his facial features. My father did not look back at him and kept facing forward. It annoyed me that someone had intruded into what I considered a time meant solely for my father and me. It was private and I felt, somehow, cheated. “Who are you? And do you often butt into conversations that don’t concern you?” I asked as I walked towards him.
Still facing the temple, Naualalom whispered to me that I should shut my mouth. The man raised his head and laughed. Just the sound of his laughter made me want to hit him. I knew that he was having fun at my expense. I could have sworn, at that moment, that he had rudely insulted me. My mind raged and I cherished the thought of having the guards seize him and whip him for his insolence. How dare he insult me in front of my own father?
“No. Pride and violent thoughts are his vices. They intoxicate him,” the man said.
Red fury filled my eyes and I moved to strike him, confident that my father’s guards would help. My fist moved through the air and struck only empty space. Where was he? I looked around. The man had only been an arm’s length away from me and now he was gone.
I turned to look at my father for an answer and was surprised to find that he also was not there. All of the guards were looking up at the temple. I looked upwards to see what they were seeing. My father and the hooded man were almost to the top of the pyramid, looking down at me. Oddly, the guards were there as well. When I glanced to where the guards had stood a moment before, they were gone. What was happening? It was impossible. Determined to find out, I ran up to them.
When I neared, I saw the look on my father’s face. He glared at me with eyes that were cold and fierce. They were not the kind eyes of my father. Never had I seen him look at me like that. I knew that my father had no compassion towards me, at that moment. I felt his desire to kick me down the steps. I realized that I had embarrassed him before someone very important to him and that he was ashamed of my behavior. I knelt. “Forgive me, father.”
“It is not me whom you should be apologizing to, Zaki.”
I turned to the man at his side. “Please forgive me my irreverence; I did not realize who you were.” I didn’t know who he was, but it sounded good to my ears.
The man glided towards me, over the steps, as I stood up. My eyes widened with surprise and my mouth hung open. His movements were unnatural and I became very frightened. I stepped back before he reached me. My fear that he would touch me was so great that I felt that I would vomit.
“You still don’t know who I am, but don’t be frightened, little one,” the man said. “I am not going to touch you or strike you as you intended to do to me. Your apology has been accepted.”
He then became a blur and was gone.
Father looked at me and said, “The next time I tell you to shut your mouth, do it. If that was your best effort at diplomacy, then you are going to have a very difficult time of it with the Cabicacmotz. It is he whom you just insulted.”
There were no words to express my regret. I sat down. “What have I done?”
“Unfortunate as it is, the ugly truth is that you insulted the man who has offered to teach you all that he knows and who could, quite literally, squash you like a beetle under his foot, if he so desired it.”
My regret was complete. I began to retch and would have fallen down if my father had not grabbed me by my braid. When I was finished, I looked up at my father and saw him grinning down at me.
“Don’t worry too much. I happen to know that he won’t step on you like a bug. He’s my friend. He will do everything he can to turn you into a man of wisdom. When a man reaches the stage that the Cabicacmotz is at, he has overcome his anger at others. He reins himself in. He’s probably having a good laugh about you right now.” He began to snicker. A few moments later, he was fully laughing at my predicament.
I was in the throes of desperation and he tried to console me. I had to banish any remembrances of how the man glided over the steps like a phantom or else I would get sick again.
“He probably saw a lot of me in you, Zaki. Oh, I was once unruly and incorrigible, so I was quite capable of making our teacher pull his hair out of his head. But, like you, I was the son of the ruler, so he took my best interests upon himself and wound up scaring me half to death.”
“He has come into my dreams and will not give me a moment of peace,” my father said in a ridiculous falsetto, like a woman’s voice. “I told my father, ‘He is haunting me. What am I to do?”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing, of course. He knew that I had to bring myself to order and that my teacher was merely doing what I needed to have done to me.”
“Is that supposed to cheer me?”
“Don’t be so dour. Either you never act like the brat you are, as you did back there, or you get the crap scared out of you. I am sorry. Perhaps I did not spend enough time with you while you were still a boy. It is clear you need outside disciplining. The basis of your view on life should not be based solely on what Maricua and I have told you. Someone else will now demand your attendance and attention. I have given the Cabicacmotz permission to teach you and to do whatever is necessary to mold you into a man of genius. Try not to act like a complete fool, please.”
I was aghast. There was my father, telling me that I behaved like an idiot child and that he was leaving me in the care of a man who terrified me. “What have you gotten me into, father?”
“The adventure of a lifetime. It is not easy for the teacher when the student does not make the necessary effort, though, so strive to learn how to command all of your energy,” he said. “Let’s get along now to Zotabah’s tomb.”
We climbed down and went to another temple, the smaller one where the people had gone into.
Instead of climbing the outer steps, we entered through a small opening at the base of the structure that led to a steep inner stairwell. This was the eeriest temple we had and its sole purpose was for the dead. None of the other pyramids, to my knowledge, contained inner chambers.
It took us a while to climb the steep stairs. Normally, I would run up the steps, but that would have been unseemly for a funeral. Finally, we reached the place where the mourners had ascended to, upon the roof of the temple.
A short distance away, on top of the temple, stood another structure. There, a large room awaited us. Two guards were posted inside the entrance. They stood alongside the largest torches, which stood at the portal. Several smaller torches were arrayed throughout, illuminating every corner and suffusing the room with a golden glow.
My father told the guards to wait outside to prevent any who might have entered the subterranean route behind us. After my father’s personal guards satisfied themselves that no one else was in the room with us, two kept watch with the others over the passageway while the other two protected the entrance into the room.
Flowers, pottery, and jewelry filled the chamber. A long sarcophagus, adorned with shiny stones, was in the center upon a platform. The walls of the room were formed from large square blocks of stone, which had been carved to show scenes of warriors engaging in various endeavors. One of the blocks had been removed. I looked for it and did not see it around.
“Why is this missing?” I asked as I traced the edges of the hole.
“Tomorrow, he will be placed in there.”
I looked at the sarcophagus. It did not look as if it could fit in the hole. “How?”
“Yes, it doesn’t seem as if it could fit in there, but I assure you that it will for it has been perfectly measured. The sarcophagus will reside in the temple, with his body, for a period of seven days. Thereafter, it will be placed inside the earth.”
“Where is the stone that covers the hole, though?”
“One of the stone workers is carving the inside of it to include an image of him. Don’t bother with worrying about that, Zaki. Look around.”
I examined the articles that people had left behind.
My father was pleased. “Look at how revered he was. Tomorrow when his wife comes, she will see the testaments telling her how much people loved him.”
“Then, these are gifts for her?”
“In practicality, yes. She may take them home if she so desires it. I doubt that she will, though. She already has many possessions. Among the people who have no wealth, the wife takes what is left for him. Our customs take into consideration the fact that the widow may need assistance, but she, as I said, is already wealthy and may decide to have many things placed inside with him or she may even give it to the poor.”
“Everything will stay here, for now, then?”
“Certainly, unless some buffoon tries to steal something. I would feel very sorry for that person.” He looked around, smiling with satisfaction. “Burial rituals are strange, are they not? People leave things for him, but no one is stupid enough to believe that Zotabah could take these things with him. There is, however, a chance that his spirit will become curious about his burial and may come back to look it all over. Then he will see what those people who loved him left. That is a possibility. Who knows? Either way, the practical result is that he is no longer here and no amount of riches or keepsakes could entice him to come back to life. I am happy for him. My feeling is that he has accomplished what he needed to do here and is now enjoying himself every moment. He certainly deserves that. He was a wise and good man.”
I noticed several ornate pieces of jewelry and was surprised that mourners had left such costly objects. “Why do some people leave such valuable things?”
“Perhaps that person has wealth and is not bothered with leaving it or they may have given it from their heart regardless of its value. Or both, maybe. Whether a person has truly given or just pretended to is often hidden. Some people may leave an arrangement of art showing what the person meant to him, others leave things that held special significance to the two of them. Their reasons for doing so are as varied as the number of people. Notice the flowers, Zaki.”
“It is evidence that he was revered even among those of our tribe who do not have riches. The widow might even see this display and decide to donate the valuable articles to the poor.” He thought for a moment before continuing, “The poor, when they walk to the grave of those whom they loved, pick the most beautiful flower that they can find and leave it as a token of their respect. It is a custom among them. They have little upon this earth, which is why they are often the ones who leave the most appropriate and beautiful of articles in a grave. It finely echoes the transitory nature of life… Anyway, I tell you that when a man can earn the respect of the poor, we know his true worth.”
“How is that? I don’t understand what you mean.”
“It means that the man did not treat them as if they were unimportant or worthless. He saw them as people. If only those with riches visit a man’s tomb, we can conclude that he never learned where the true wealth of our tribe lies. These flowers mean to me that he affected those who did not have our advantages, and that they knew him as a friend. He made progress into making their lives more manageable or easier. The exact circumstances, I don’t know, but I see that he did not confine his interactions to those who hold court. That impresses me and it should impress you as well.”
I looked into a clay jar that sat near the base of the sarcophagus. Oval stones of many colors filled it. Some had intricate designs carved into them. Many were polished, while others were rough. The only thing similar about them was their size. “How curious, father. What are these?”
He came over to where I was and peered into the jar. “Those are probably from his students. He was the man who knew how to use stones and taught others how to use them. His knowledge was formidable.”
“Yes, but what are they for? They’re all rounded and about the same size.”
“They fit into the navel.”
“Really?” I took a blue one out and tried to place it in my belly button. My father slapped my hand and sent the stone rolling to the floor.
“Don’t ever do anything like that again!” he yelled.
His reaction stunned me. Why would he care that I had tried on someone else’s jewelry? I asked, “Why not?”
“Because it’s dangerous. These stones were on another person and are not toys. They are not mere decorations. They were devices to focus the attention of warriors and men of power.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I did not want to argue with him. Tonight had been strange enough and here I was adding to my problems because of my ignorance. I vowed to keep my hands at my sides and not touch anything else.
My father removed a strange cylinder from under his robes and placed it upon the sarcophagus. I did not know what it was and did not ask. I removed one of my bracelets and placed it next to my father’s gift. We left and walked in silence back to our home, the home he most often stayed in, in any case.
In general, the men in my tribe only had one wife per man. Tradition demanded that the king have four wives.
They represented the east, the west, the north, and the south. Each woman represented a cardinal point. Certain familial lineages belonged to different directions and each direction demanded that the king take a wife from one of their lineages.
My father, much to everyone’s chagrin, once had an extra wife. That wife was my mother. I would have been considered a bastard except for two very important reasons. I was the first son and he married my mother in a ceremony before the whole tribe where he declared her the wife of his spirit. She was the only one that he had truly chosen for himself. Being a foreigner, she had not been in the line of women who would marry him.
The marriage was a renegade maneuver. One that would cause me untold grief, but I had no standing to complain since I would not otherwise have been born.
None of the other wives had been able to bear him a son before she came into his life. To their horror, however, she had become pregnant with me three years after my father married her.
I had six older sisters when I was born. Maricua was father’s first-born child. She was the daughter of his first wife of the east. The current easterly woman married my father after Maricua’s mother died. My mother was the only wife who was glad to have Maricua around and who was willing to share a home with her. When my father married my mother, she, reportedly, was happy to move into the home occupied by one of my father’s former wives. Maricua became a daughter to her. When my mother died while giving birth to me, Maricua took over my care. Therefore, the home I lived in was once the first eastern woman’s home.
Sadly, the wives of my father were touchy and selfish. For three years, Maricua was alone after her mother passed. Since none of the other women wanted to care for another woman’s child, my father was forced to keep the east estate solely for Maricua, her maids, and guards. He quickly had the workers prepare and build the new east wife’s home to the east of Maricua’s home.
As to the physical locations, my father’s home was in the middle ground, a place of solitude. The women were only allowed to enter the outer courtyards. Why this was so, I have no idea, but that was the tradition. Adjacent to the masculine home were the private homes of the women. These were sprawling one-storied estates, surrounded by gardens.
Because the current east wife’s estate was to the east of our home, it was called the East-East. We lived in the West-East. The East-East was not as pleasant as ours was. I’m sure the east wife was not pleased to be relegated to the outskirts of my father’s private properties, especially considering that we had the choicest land. Being unwilling to compromise, sometimes works to one’s detriment. She was such an unpleasant woman, that I was quite pleased to imagine her jealousy whenever she looked towards the west, towards us.
A hastily built home is never as durable as one that has been there for many generations. For a few years, the other wives were envious of her home. It looked new and pristine. Over the years, however, the lack of time spent in planning and building it became quite apparent. Many walls failed and had to be repaired. Something was always wrong with it and the woman came to regret her inflexible stand towards my eldest sister.
One of my father’s duties was to have as many children as possible, it seemed. He was always spending his evenings at the women’s homes. These homes were considered his, of course, and he kept a private suite in each home. Curiously, though, he always slept at his own estate or in the suite he kept at our home.