Deborah S. Canon
Balam stepped over the jaguar tracks on her way to the mine. No one else in her village dared use this path, but she was at home here under the jungle canopy. Howler monkeys bellowed, marking their territory and warning intruders. She was careful not to disturb a tiny highway of termite trails constructed from the powdery remnants of a fallen mahogany tree. Velvety white lichen clung to the bark with a single drop of dew suspended from its edge.
As she bent closer to inspect the lichen, the bellowing stopped.
The dewdrop fell.
Out of the stillness, she heard another sound—a terrifying sound—come from her jungle.
At first, she thought it was the sound of a predator besting its prey, but, no, it was not an animal. It was a man, no, men—screaming. She froze. Her pulse pounded in her neck. The hairs on her arms were erect. The screaming continued. She crouched low in the dense underbrush, invisible in the lush green womb.
She could see nothing; sounds were magnified. Her head snapped around. Something was crashing through the bushes and vines no more than fifty paces from her hiding place.
Peeking through a gap in the foliage, she saw two men running. One was her brother, Ahk: their most learned scribe, their shaman; he clasped a bundle wrapped in banana leaves. His youngest apprentice was several steps behind.
She dared not call out but moved to intercept them, emerging on the path a few feet in front of her brother. For a moment, he didn’t seem to recognize her. Ahk cried out, but when he realized who she was, he managed to skid to a stop before plowing over her. His companion, glazed eyes blinded by fear, lowered his head and charged. The apprentice was two steps from her when she saw the glint of an obsidian spike in his hand
“No, NO!” Ahk stayed the other man’s arm inches from her skull. His panicked student doubled over and collapsed in the ferns, gulping air.
Ahk turned toward her and dropped the package into her arms. He bent at the waist and propped his hands on his knees. His ribs heaved as he tried to suck in more air. “No time. Take this—hide it. The Ts’ul, invaders—found the mine.”
Balam’s stomach lurched; her skin was slick with cold sweat. The Ts’ul: the white warriors had come from the sea and destroyed countless villages in just two summers. Now, they had found her home. They must never learn the true treasure in the mine.
Ahk stood and looked down at the bundle as a man looks at his first-born son. “They will take me. They must not take Uay. There is no one left, no one else.”
The space around her seemed to contract, squeezing the air from her lungs. She thrust the package back toward her brother and tried to back away. “You are wrong. I have not been prepared.”
Ahk closed her arms around the bundle and tightened his grip. His face was inches away from her. “Listen! They are coming! It must be you!” As he spoke, his spray hit her face; she smelled the sour scent of fear. She winced and closed her eyes as if that could stop her rising terror. He relaxed his grip and sighed, “Balam, please…”
It was the sound of his voice that washed away her fear. When she opened her eyes and saw her brother’s sagging shoulders, she felt the enormous weight he carried. Her choice was clear. She tucked the bundle in her clothing and took a deep breath.
“Be sure it faces the mine entrance.” Ahk turned to leave.
“The blood sacrifice—has it been done?”
He stopped, and when he turned back, his eyes spoke for him. His face puckered for a moment before he squared his shoulders and nodded. She started toward him for one last embrace, but stopped short when Ahk’s head whipped around at the sound of distant shouts. He had no more time for talk. The soldiers of the Spanish Army were coming.
“RUN!” Without looking back, both men fled in different directions.
Balam ducked down and became invisible in the jungle. Behind her, she heard strange clanging noises and words in a language she couldn’t understand. Peering from her hiding place, she saw a dozen men running.
These men were huge. They must have been twice her height with bearded faces and fierce eyes. They wore shiny breastplates and headpieces made of a substance she’d never seen before.
They were getting closer.
She flattened her body and listened. Cutter ants crawled over her forearm: one or two scouts followed by a swarm, scurrying across her skin, stinging and biting. Some leaves fell across her legs, cut away as a soldier slashed through the underbrush. Something pointed grazed her thigh. She held her breath. Like the dewdrop, she waited, suspended.
More shouting. The men ran toward the path Ahk had taken. She had to see. Slowly, she lifted her head above the bushes.
Run, brother—run. Run straight and don’t turn back.
The soldiers were marching back and they had Ahk. She watched them fasten a wooden yoke around his neck. They bound his hands. He looked in her direction, and, for an instant, they locked eyes before Balam, once again, became part of the jungle.
The sun was low over the mountains before she moved from her hiding place. Ahk had been taken with about ten of the village men—only ten. So many more had walked to the mine that morning. As the hours passed, grief turned to anger, anger into dread. What would she find back at the mine?
She exited the jungle curtain surrounding the site and stumbled over the body of a young boy, partially decapitated, his hand reaching for a stone. The strength drained from her legs; she locked her knees to remain upright. She hugged the bundle to her chest and walked on.
Village men, artists and laborers, lay slaughtered, their bodies strewn throughout the site. Balam saw the carvers’ tools left behind in the dust, waiting to be taken up to work the jade as they had for generations. She scanned the site for signs of life. No one moved. No one moaned.
Unable to absorb the horror, she dropped her eyes. There, next to her foot, she saw a tiny glint of color. She reached down and brushed away the red dirt to reveal a lavender pendant, dangling from a torn leather cord. The jade felt warm in her hand. Her thumb moved slowly over the creamy surface of the triple twisted loop. She thought of the artist who had turned a rock into this exquisite jewel. The hours he had spent, carving and polishing, until it reached a level of translucence that made the jade glow.
She secured the pendant around her neck and looked skyward, struggling to choke back the primal wail that fought to be heard. Wide veins of sky blue and lavender jade painted the rocks which stood watch over the dead. The serenity she remembered was gone. Blood red was the only color she saw.
She stood at the place Ahk had shown her years before: an enormous outcropping of blue rock—their precious jade—marked the entrance to the mine. In profile, it looked like a jaguar’s head. The Jaguar God: her people worshipped this deity above all others. He escorted the sun through the underworld each night. He was responsible for each new day. He was her namesake.
She stood beneath it, faced west, and paced off a straight line to the Sacred World Tree: a towering Ceiba that guarded the site. She used her hands and a wedge of obsidian to dig a hole at the base of the tree. As she placed the precious bundle in the hole, she hesitated and peeled back some of the leaves. Her tears fell on their holiest relic.
Carved from pure blue jade, Uay—half man, half jaguar—was the oldest god of their ancients. It was a talisman—a guide. Passed from generation to generation since the beginning of time, the chosen shaman, the chuchqajaw, needed Uay to transform into spirit. Only then, could he talk with the Gods and learn the future. Only then, could the prophecies be recorded. Now, it was up to Balam to keep it safe until the time came for it to re-emerge. She rested her fingertips on the distinct cleft in its skull and said a prayer for Ahk.
In the twilight, she buried the treasure in the red earth. She had been careful to point its almond-shaped blue eyes at the mine entrance. Gazing up at the treetops, she wondered how long Uay would wait until he was found. She listened for the howler monkeys’ evening serenade.
Tonight, the howlers were silent.
She had completed her first task. She had no idea how to begin the second.
Exhausted, she curled up, her back flush against the gentle concave bend of the tree trunk, and sobbed until sleep replaced her sorrow.
Two days passed before Balam returned to her village. She was careful to take a meandering path away from the secret grave. Those who survived had collected the dead. Burial ceremonies were performed; offerings made. No one spoke of the massacre. They simply packed everything and abandoned the village, moving deeper into the cloud forest. Balam did not go. She could not leave her beloved jungle; she had a duty to her people.
Although she had protested, she knew, deep down, that she had indeed been prepared for this. Memories from so many seemingly unrelated experiences came to mind. How she had pestered her older brother until he allowed her to watch the artists work the stones. How she had spent countless hours practicing on discarded nuggets until she learned to carve the jade. How fascinated she had been when she heard tales of other women who were shaman.
Most importantly, she finally understood the meaning of one of her deepest secrets. For as long as she could remember, the jaguar-spirit had come to her. He had appeared in her dreams as a protector and guide. Even now, she could see his face in her mind’s eye. Yes, she was prepared and, like it or not, she had been chosen. She had to finish.
As the final remnants of her world walked away, she turned back to the jungle. She would pray for her people, the world, and the future. No one needed to pray for her. She belonged to the Jaguar God.
Belize, Central America, Winter 2013
Meg Denton was numb from the three-hour ride behind the Belizean Army escort. The 1960s era Jeep had no shocks and the road to Caracol felt like a washboard. Largely unexcavated, the Maya city was to be her home for the next three months. Once the Maya left their cities, the jungle buried the remnants under a green blanket, leaving the ruins webbed with the thick roots of centuries of Ceiba trees and Strangler vines. She was here to help dig it out.
The rutted dirt road changed to smooth asphalt and the sudden absence of vibration startled Meg out of her daydreams. The sign for Caracol Archeological Park was straight ahead. Grateful for the end of this ride, she stretched her legs. A long caravan followed the Army vehicles and lined up in the tourist parking lot. The overhyped Maya apocalypse had not happened, plunging thousands of stunned true believers back into reality when they awoke, along with the rest of the world, on December 22, 2012.
Several signs dotted the lot, all saying the same thing but in different languages: ‘All entries to Caracol must be under Army escort. All tourists must be out no later than 4PM—no exceptions’.
The jungle became a different place at night.
Meg looked toward the plantation style Archaeology Residence and saw her mentor and dearest friend, Professor Hugo Calderón, standing on the wide porch with three men. He was deep in conversation with the oldest of the three. The two men stood close to each other, the older man punctuating his sentences with his hands. She opened her mouth to shout a greeting, but her gut told her not to interrupt.
She lifted her duffle bag and backpack, shunning any offers of help, and headed to the porch.
The walk to the residence was short. She just made it before the lowering clouds let loose a downpour, drowning out the men’s voices. As she approached, Hugo turned. When he saw her, his face relaxed. In two strides, he enfolded her in a fatherly bear hug, swallowing her petite frame.
“Hija! Meg, you look beautiful, and after three hours in a jeep! Welcome to Caracol!” He held her at arm’s length for a few seconds before hugging her again. “Everything’s ready for you. Hungry? What am I thinking? Of course you are hungry.”
“Hugo, I’m so glad to see you! You are such a liar, I look like hell, and yeah, I’m starving.” All three of the visitors were watching her. “Ah… I’m afraid I’ve interrupted you. I can find my room. Meet you later?”
“No, no Hija. These gentlemen have been waiting to meet you.”
There was an edge in his voice.
They were a formidable trio. The younger two were obviously brothers. The older man had the same good looks, but his presence was even more powerful. He must be the father—the patriarch. All three were handsome: dark hair and tanned skin, the great-great-grandsons of the Spanish conquerors. In Central America, men with their looks were as ubiquitous as tall blondes in L.A. They exuded an air of entitlement, almost like royalty, but couldn’t be more charming.
As Hugo turned back to them, the eldest took her grubby hand and kissed it lightly. “Dr. Denton, allow me. I am Don Julio Portillo. Welcome to Caracol. We have been looking forward to meeting you.” Don Julio’s voice was like cognac, smooth and throaty.
Although her new Ph.D. placed her in academia, Meg was much more at home in the casual world of a field tech. She was prepared for a polite, professional greeting, but his gallantry disarmed her, especially given the tension she sensed in Hugo. She felt the familiar flush as large, red blotches formed randomly on her chest. Mortified, she wished she could transform from the dirty, rumpled, cargo-pant clad shovel bum into the sultry, exquisite, clean woman his manners called for.
“Mucho gusto, Don Julio.” She tried to be discreet as she wiped the sweat dripping from her chin.
Don Julio brushed his hand against his trousers and continued with the introductions. “May I present my sons? My eldest, Javier Portillo…”
Javier wheeled around, cell phone to his ear, and held up one finger.
“My apologies, Javier is attending to some critical family business, otherwise we could interrupt.”
Meg turned to the other son. He was the tallest and most compelling. He stared at her with obsidian eyes. His full beard was impeccably trimmed. His hair was the same; gel kept each gleaming strand in place. Although not bulky, he had broad shoulders and rock hard forearms. Really nice arms.
Just as his father had done, he bent low over her hand while Don Julio did the introductions. “Dr. Denton, please meet my second son, a complete scoundrel, Tomás Portillo.” He looked at his son, and in that instant, Meg knew that although he was not firstborn, he was the favored child of the heart.
“Papá, please. Dr. Denton, my father loves to tell people how bad I am, but it’s a lie. I’m thrilled to meet you.”
“Oh, it’s a pleasure. Umm, thank you. Everyone calls me Meg.”
“I’ve been so anxious to talk with you about your paper. Another codex? I thought most scholars believe we’ve located all of them?”
Although the conversation had shifted to firm academic ground, he continued to hold her hand. His gaze did not waver.
“Are you an archaeologist?” She pulled her hand away, sensing the slightest resistance before he released her.
“Tomás, leave the lady alone. I’m sure she’s tired and wants a hot shower. You do have hot water here, Hugo, verdad? We have plenty of time to talk over dinner.”
Meg desperately needed a shower. She was pouring sweat and had nothing but her hands to wipe away the increasing number of salty rivulets making their way down her body. Thankfully, Don Julio took command and ordered everyone to their places. She bent to get her luggage. At the same instant, Tomás grabbed for the duffle, and a minor tug of war ensued.
“Thanks, but I always carry my own stuff.” She gave a decisive jerk on the handle.
“Tomás, she’s stubborn about that. I learned years ago not to try. American feminism, you know.” Hugo winked at her.
Tomás’s eyes widened. She thought he was about to laugh, but instead, he tipped his head and let go.
“Meg, let’s get you to your room. Julio, you know where the bar is. I’ll be down in a minute.”
Meg shouldered the duffle and backpack, and followed Hugo inside, aware of Tomás’s following gaze.
As they reached her second floor room, Hugo changed. Deep lines replaced the affable mask. “Hugo, are you okay? I saw you arguing with Don Julio.”
“I’ve found something.”
They found things everyday in their job, but something in his voice made her step back.
Hugo glanced around, and then drew closer. “I can’t say more. We have to make it through dinner. When they leave—”
“What? Whoa, wait a minute! Hugo, you can’t just drop that on me and leave. They can wait. You’ve got to tell me more.”
“Meg, please. We can’t talk while they’re here. I would have waited until later, but after my conversation with Don Julio…if Tomás asks any more questions…just try to avoid them. Don’t get into any theories. You’ll figure it out. Now, hija, get cleaned up and come down when you’re ready.”
She shifted from one foot to the other and searched Hugo’s face. She’d never seen this look before. Meg let out a loud sigh and nodded. As he left the room, he turned and gave her his customary wink, the façade back in place.
A long shower washed away the fatigue of the bone-jarring trip. She stood with her head bent under the coarse spray until the supply of hot water was exhausted. Wrapped in a huge Egyptian cotton towel, she stared into the mirror.
She remembered Hugo’s apprehension: What could make him drop a bombshell like that and then leave? What about the Portillos? Were they friends or not? Then there was the chemistry with Tomás Portillo—the wrong type of chemistry. She was a scientist. She wasn’t a good liar. Her brain was accustomed to measured reactions and controlled emotions, but not this time. The proof was in her unexpected response to Tomás. Somehow, she had to rein in her curiosity and get through the next couple of hours.
Meg selected a bright floral sundress made of rayon that clung to the right spots, yet still allowed the breeze to reach her skin. She was a bit embarrassed at the care she was taking while dressing, but tonight, she wanted to feel like a girl. Free of dust, her chestnut hair reflected the afternoon light. She had managed to apply the mascara on her lashes, not her eyelids, which created a perfect frame around turquoise eyes.
Her empty stomach churned. It was making so much noise she was sure it could be heard from across the room. True to form, no matter the circumstance, Meg wanted food. She swiped some gloss on her lips and turned, prepared to face the charming Portillo men.
When she descended the polished mahogany steps, she heard men’s laughter erupting from the bar. She followed the sounds and joined the party. Javier was not among the guests. Presumably, he’d been called away on business.