“Can’t you just stop smoking!” I asked from the pits of reason. Men can be pre-disposed to certain cancers and fates, but they’re pre-disposed even more if they succumb to it! – I thought to myself almost angrily, as if I were arguing with my own father.
“It’s too late now, kid.” He laughed an arrogant laugh. As if his life was his to squander. If he wants to kill himself – hell, he has no right. Selfish son-of-a-bitch did he ever stop to think what his death would do Angelica and Liliana!
There’s something to pray for, I thought. For my father to see sense, to see reason, to stop smoking, drinking, and for my mother to stop being so fatalistic about it and maybe, just maybe, he would live to see seventy and break his family’s record!
History is a cycle – what a convenient excuse! How fatalistic, self-serving… lazy. All of a sudden, the clouds that had been gathering since morning clashed and collided above our heads and broke into a furious rain. We panicked, looked this way and that, the road turning avalanche all of a sudden and visibility poor. Angelica said suddenly, “let’s go to the hacienda!” We followed her, running, each of us holding some bags, under our arms, trying to keep the food dry, and within a few minutes we were in the long driveway of a red-brick hacienda with white stairs and windows and a well-kept front garden.
We ran inside and, finally sheltered, began to dry ourselves off, laughing, looking at each other as if we had just been recovered from sea. “Chaac is in a bad mood today.” Angelica smiled sombrely as she wringed out her beautiful, spoilt dress.
“Who’s Chaac?” I asked smiling, shaking my head like a dog.
“He’s the spirit that makes rain.” Liliana replied.
“The farmers will be pleased.” Jose said gruffly, though not without reverence.
“Indeed. This is a blessing.”
How noble, I thought, to be so gracious; how singular is their community, as if the whole of the Yucatan is reliant upon the spirits, and the people who prayed to them. I may not be a superstitious man but what’s the harm of spirituality if it reinforces communal bonds, and makes one think outside himself? I started to think, however, that religion for them was so harmonious because it was natural. They are worshipping the gods and spirits that were conceived in these climes, these landscapes, fused with Jesus and the Trinity, yes, but only superficially. The gods and their ancestors were just another feature of the landscape, of Home.
“What’s going on here?” A man in a shirt and trousers came shouting from behind the reception desk of the hacienda. “Are you guests?” He was thirty-something, slender, vain and clearly a manager, for what it’s worth.
“No sir,” Angelica said smiling casually. “We just came in to take shelter from the rain.”
“If you want to shelter here, madame, please, you’ll have to reserve a room.”
“But we don’t want a room,” Liliana said with a venomous frown.
“Then you’ll have to wait outside. We can’t have people loitering in the lobby, drenched like that.”
“Loitering, my friend, we’re not fucking prostitutes!” Liliana growled, her face full of disbelief. But the manager remained stoic and heartless, like a matador confronted with a stubborn bull.
“Please, leave the premises.”
“My friend,” Jose interjected, somewhere between aggression and sarcasm. “It’s still raining like it’s the End Days! As soon as it stops, we’ll leave.”
“You will leave now, sir, or I’ll call security.”
“Call your fucking security.” Liliana screamed in the empty lobby, her voice echoing like the dripping of water in a hollow cave.
“Enough Liliana, we’ll go.” Angelica said stoically, resigned. Liliana began protesting but Jose and Angelica began walking out.
We were back out in the rain, “might as well keep going”, Angelica sighed resignedly. The downpour soon weakened into a drizzle but we were all still wet, cold even in the growing sunlight, and we all walked silently, egos bruised and smitten by disbelief. I had never been this close to injustice before, never smelt its scent like dry mud, felt its biting cold teeth dig into my skin.
As we left the hacienda we went off-road and followed a narrow, obscure path into the foliage, emerging into the bright darkness of Mexico’s inner density. They were all silent, still, Liliana was raging quietly, Jose was drowning in indifference, and Angelica; that proud Mayan woman looked like she had the seven daggers of the Virgin in her chest. They all walked individually, distinct legions, alone in their weighty solitude; they reminded me of us, my family, the way we went our separate ways, in grief and happiness, coming together only out of politeness. One can’t help the way one’s made.
“Alfredo, look.” Angelica called me over and pointed to a specific, miniscule point near the sun, the clouds having cleared. “You see that faint star there?”
“I see it.”
“That’s Venus, the Morning Star. Venus is very important, you see, and when it is a morning star, like now, the lords of Venus are seated in their thrones. Watching over us and guiding the souls of the dead into the afterlife.”
I couldn’t help notice the enviable sadness in her voice as she spoke. I said nothing but looked at her cheeks as she spoke, my eyes wandering, questioning.
“Our lives here are much like Venus’.” She sighed with a delicate smile like that of a frog.
“Its movement is fixed, eternal, unchangeable, has been for millions of years and will continue to be. And we, we are no different.” Now she seemed to be building up some sort of steam. “We will always be unwelcome in haciendas, always thrown out into the rain, the cold, no sympathy ever coming our way.” She stopped herself when she felt a traitorous tear form like a stalactite in her right eye.
“Don’t pay so much attention to bastards like that manager. He’s just a poor kid that found himself in an important position and now likes nothing better than swatting flies. Believe me, I know the type.” I said, thinking of myself.
“But if it’s not him it’s someone else, Alfredo. And I suppose it doesn’t matter. We all have our roles to fill. But I just wish it was different!” She said suddenly defiant, as if wanting to bite down on fate, fate, fate and destiny! To rebel! Though, Mexico has seen its fair share of revolutions and they turned out to be nothing but snakes biting their own tail.
And Angelica was doubly fatalistic because she was Maya. For many centuries after the Conquest the Maya were denied their rights as a group, denied equal wages, working conditions and recognition. They suffered during the civil war of Guatemala further south from here and in some segments of society are still looked down upon as second or third-class Mexicans. Angelica’s lust for simplicity and compliance is deep-rooted in her people’s tragic history.
She bowed her head now, her eyes almost closed, her full chin sagging like aged breasts; she looked like a dog just recovered from the rubble of an earthquake. She sighed then, as if a butterfly of hope suddenly metamorphosed in her deep chest: “that’s why I’m going to the cenote this year, to pray that Liliana gets into university and maybe she can be the one that breaks this cycle.”
How ironic! “What about your son?”
“My son is a barman in Merida too blinded by the nightlife to ever make something of himself! If he’s happy, that’s alright. But I would love nothing more for Liliana to break ranks, you know, move up, become a professor or a noted historian.” She spoke now like a gleeful little girl talking about boyfriends and their cars! Her bright white teeth shone from under her dark, sad lips, and her eyes smiled and stretched.
I smiled, shaking my head, having so much to say but preferring to say nothing. I merely put my arm around her handsome shoulders and reassured her: “she’ll make it, she’s bloody smart!” Angelica smiled, blushing, and her cheeks were the brightest thing in the whole landscape!
After about an hour walking down that path, through the jungle, listening to all sorts of ghostly birds in the foliage, we came back onto the main road. “We’re almost there,” Angelica said cheerfully, full of metallic defiance. I looked back on the jungle from which we had emerged, like the first men of clay, jungles inhabited by plumed serpents, rain gods and the spirits of stubborn ancestors, and I remembered a poem of Octavio Paz:
No one behind, no one ahead.
The path the ancients cleared has closed.
And the other path, everyone’s path,
easy and wide, goes nowhere.
I am alone and find my way.
“Shh, listen,” Angelica said suddenly, a few minutes later. “Do you hear that?” She asked me.
“Are those, frogs?”
“Yes! That means we are near. Here, the only place you find frogs are near cenotes.”
“Everything changes around a cenote.” Liliana said with a subtle, contented smile. I was feeling excited, nervous, tension and anticipation clap clapped inside me like when Liliana clapped her tortillas.
With every step we took and every tree we overtook I asked myself: is it here? Is it here? Are we there? I thought to myself, then, have you decided what the hell you’re going to pray for? And before I could answer, Angelica took hold of my arm, holding it for support, as we began to descend a steep, muddy path, that snaked around the land like a spiral staircase, round and round into some unknown belly, and at the end we walked down another shady, arboreal path, until finally, there it was:
The most beautiful thing I am ever going to see as long as I live.
The croaking of the frogs grew into a dazzling orchestra as walked past strange, unheard-of trees, and watched as dragonflies danced their other-worldly ballet above the water. We stood at the edge of the cenote. The water, its surface dark and murky, but its soul bright and translucent, ahead of us, inviting like the body of a naked woman lying in wait for you.
It wasn’t a large pool and the water was all covered over by a limestone ceiling that grew quills, ancient, ivory-white stalactites themselves eager to reach the healing water, but pathetically never making it. Much of the water was covered in the leaves of water plants that floated ever so delicately on the wings of the breeze that clandestinely snuck into this world away from all worlds. Everything was dark and yet intimately bright. You could see green fish swimming in and out of the obstacle course created by the stems of the water plants, an aqueous skyscraper city all of nature’s making.
Next to our feet the virginal water of Maya blue reflected itself onto the ceiling, its reflections like diamonds, glittering on that dark surface, as if the water here were its own kingdom that made a vassal of everything else. Water: that most vital ingredient for all life. We are all vassals of its kingdom. Everything living must be wet and wet be the hearts of all things!
Added to the buzzing of frogs the stalactites added their own notes to the symphony; the drip drip drip of water into the pool was like a flute, whistling, soft, echoing inside your ears as if the water was dripping right behind your eyes. What must it be like underwater?
I awoke myself from my trance and looked at the others. They had been coming here their whole lives and they still looked as mesmerised as me. They wore the sombre, respectful countenance of someone who has walked into church.
But who needs churches when you have such wonders!
I hated, all of a sudden, more than before, all that fake pomp, the incense, the gold, the organs and the pulpit: all the waste, the embarrassment, all-too-human of riches, as if god was a Mafioso who blinded his subjects with wealth. Why does spirituality need wealth when it can have beauty? Natural beauty.
It was inside that cenote, in the subterranean heart of the Yucatan, that I burned all my bridges to the faith of my family.
“Now, family, we pray.” Angelica led the prayer like a warm-hearted priestess. They all crossed themselves and closed their eyes.
The silence was pure poetry. I didn’t cross myself but I closed my eyes and also spoke to Don Diego, Liliana’s grandfather, Angelica’s father. Hypnotised as I was then, I knew what to pray for.
After about an hour’s profound silence there, Angelica and Jose crossed themselves, revived, and began walking away, back to the path.
“Do you mind if I stayed here? I would love to swim in this water.” I begged, getting off my knees.
“Of course, Alfredo. But we have to go back.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry.”
“Do you know the way back?” Jose asked, his voice suddenly allayed, calmed. I hope your prayers come true, my friend. Yours more than anyone’s.
“I think so.” I smiled.
“That’s alright mama, I’ll stay with him. I want to swim too.” Liliana said somewhat groggy, as if she had just woken up from a long sleep.
“Very well, see you back at the house!” Angelica said smiling, walking out.
“Hasta luego.” Jose said as he patted me on the shoulder, that act of manly kindness defeating the foreboding hellishness of that paradise.
They left, and it was just me and Liliana now. I walked towards the wooden railing and the steps that took you down into the cenote. I took off my shoes, sat down and dipped my feet in the icy water. It bit me as if warning me away, but looking at its transparent luminosity, hell, nothing would keep me away.
“Alfredo,” Liliana called from the top of the railing. “Did you bring any swimming clothes?”
“Neither did I.”
She smiled and began to strip until she was naked down to the waist. She walked past me, her dark body firm and immaculate, the water creating diamonds on her taut belly and on her almost black nipples. She smiled down at me then dived in like a mermaid going back into the water. When she emerged through the aquatic foliage, her hair like sludge over her eyes she took an icy breath and called out: “come on pussy, join in!”
“Don’t talk like that in front of your grandfather.” I smiled.
She laughed, “it’s alright, he knows what goes on here!” She winked an aquatic wink.
Immersed by a torrent of happiness I began to strip down and I dived head-first into the gelatinous water, eyes wide open, looking at the shallow bottom, like a lunar landscape, truly like swimming in another world, tiny fish, silver and green, hovered around me, indifferent to me, this their home for thousands of years, fish that remember the Mayans and their sacrifices. And then I saw Liliana’s body gaping before me, as ancient and natural here as the fish and the frogs, and I emerged right in front of her, our lips entwining, wet, like all life, our bodies embracing, the mouth of the cave seeming to go dark, the trees outside disappearing, entombing us – and no thought ever made me happier.
This is the kind of happiness I prayed for my family to know.