For half the day we’d been crammed one on top of the other in a hopelessly crowded bus headed for the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula. A small boy slept in the seat next to me, his head on my shoulder. His stiff black hair shaded his eyes, and I fought the impulse to smooth it back. His white, homespun, clothing was spotless as was he. His mother teetered beside him trying to quiet a baby while straddling a box that held a scrabbling chicken. She was also immaculate in traditional Yucatec Mayan clothing: white blouse heavily embroidered at the neckline over a white skirt. Her hair was pulled back into a chignon which gave her a noble appearance. A young girl cradling a tiny gray rabbit stood behind the woman. When I smiled at her she buried her face in the rabbit’s soft pelt. Walls of dense, rank, vegetation loomed on either side of the highway intermittently broken by hacked-out gashes for cornfields and villages that allowed the sun to knife through my window. Smoldering acres of charred scrub cleared for farming confirmed that life here was a constant struggle of keeping nature at bay. Beneath the calm demeanors on the faces I saw was the determination of people living on the edge of civilization, one step removed from natural catastrophe.
We stopped at ten towns with unpronounceable names in English like Ozcutzcab where throngs disembarked, their seats immediately taken by another crowd waiting outside. As we headed deeper into the Mayan homeland, Spanish gave way to a glottallized, soft and clicking speech. The aquiline noses, sharp jaws and full lips of the people I saw matched the profiles I’d seen chiseled onto the limestone edifices at the Mayan temples and ruins of Chichén Itzá and Palenque. Here was human proof of an ancient civilization.
But the living present seemed unrelated to the past. In place of scenes inscribed on temple walls of axe-wielding warriors in acts of decapitating and sacrificing their prisoners, I saw farmers harvesting corn with hand-woven baskets. Instead of the scene at Yaxchilán of the woman kneeling before a ferocious-looking man while pulling a cord of thorns through her tongue, I saw a father gently taking a toddler from his wife’s arms.
I wondered how the ancient culture had lapsed. What cruel hand had lifted from this jungle-home to cause such a change in character? History spoke of everything, then nothing. Suddenly the Classic Maya had seemed to stop in their tracks and abandon their cities and cultural centers, vanishing into the jungle. Can traits be extinguished and replaced by seemingly opposite behaviors without any trace of a bridge or transformation?
At Chichén Itzá, our young Mayan guide had spoken reverently of the past achievements, proudly explaining the great calendar the priests had invented, more accurate than the Roman. When questioned about the human sacrifices he said, “The gods demanded it and the priests obeyed. The Spanish and their Christian priests tormented my people as brutally, turning them into slaves for the mines and slaughtering those who refused to convert.”
In each village plaza we now passed on the bus, I continued my quest for the mysterious genetic link. I tried mentally to superimpose a man standing by his cornfield over the grotesque image carved on an altar at an Uxmal temple of a priest in the process of disemboweling a spread-eagled victim with an obsidian knife. I tried to imagine the woman on the bus with her baby wrapped in a rebozo, long braid wrapped around her head, as the same sharp-lined woman painted on a fresco at Tulum– a female figure in elaborate headdress, willingly placing her infant on the sacrificial altar. According to the guide, the more precious the sacrifice, the more rain might fall.
As the afternoon progressed the atmosphere darkened with the vanishing light. The men who boarded the bus seemed to be in a stupor. They staggered down the aisle slamming into the passengers who could not move out of the way. I wished the boy was still beside me, but he and his mother had gotten off at the last village. When a man flopped into the now empty seat I had to brace him with my hands so he wouldn’t fall against me. The woman seated behind me, who spoke Spanish, said the men were drunk on pox, the local cane brew. “It’s just for Sunday,” she said apologetically. “A religious thing.”
On the outskirts of Becal I saw two men lying prostrate by thatch-roofed houses while others stumbled among the cornfields. The bus slowed as we approached a cluster of white-clad men standing in the road. They were restraining an emaciated, floppy-eared, dog. I thought the men were trying to move it out of harm’s way. But when the bus driver honked, the men dispersed and flung the dog in front of the tires.
From my window, I saw a flash of crimson spray hit my side of the bus, and then the upturned, laughing faces of the men. They were amused, I assumed, by our horrified expressions. I gasped and thought I heard a collective response from the other passengers, but when I looked around no other eyes met mine. The woman behind me just shrugged and shook her head. What I’d heard must have been the sigh of hydraulics as the driver braked before he realized it was too late. The bus became silent. The drunks slept and the other passengers withdrew into themselves. By the time we reached Mérida almost everyone had left. The rest disembarked from the bus and dissolved into the darkness.
Was the callous slaughter of the dog an ancient, bastardized rite, or was it a drunken, impulsive entertainment on a Sunday afternoon? When I asked this of Eufemia, my hostess at my inn, she scowled and shook her head. “No, Maya would do that. The dog must have run in front of the bus.”
“But why were the men laughing?” I said. “Even if it was an accident?”
Eufemia chose her words carefully, as if trying to explain a difficult concept to a child. Her eyes held the wisdom born from a thousand years of subjugation. “They were laughing out of relief that it was a dog getting killed and not a child.”
Jill Stegman is a retired teacher from the central coast of California who has a fascination with Mexico and the cultural dynamics of the border region. Her novel, The Time of Leaving, presents themes and characters evolving from the U.S. Mexico border. Jill has an M.F.A. from Pacific University. She’s published short stories and essays in various literary journals such as Isotope, Eclectica and South Dakota Review. More can be found about her and her current project at www.jillstegman.com