They marched him up the steep stone stairs of the pyramid. He could barely lift his knees high enough to move from one stair to the next. They had drugged him. Mescaline, peyote or some similar psychedelic substance. All around him rang out the wild sounds of drums, conches, horns, flutes. At the top plumed warriors danced in a circle around him carrying strange fanlike implements in front of a terrifying stone idol, the god of war and sun. Four priests naked except for their leather loincloths and hideous masks splayed him atop a flat stone circular altar and held tightly onto his legs and arms. A fifth priest dressed in a long black robe with spiked black hair, eyes glaring wide, plunged a razor sharp obsidian knife into his stomach just below the ribs, pushed upward, twisted twice and pulled out his still-beating heart. His last memory was of a white light followed by total darkness.
Paul Lobos awoke drenched in sweat shaking in his hammock. It was a few minutes before he put it all together. The dream. Inspired by his trip that morning to Xihuacan. The archaeological site at La Soledad de Maciel or La Chole as he first knew it. Ten years ago. When Manuel told him: “You can feel the energy coming out of the ground man, it’s spiritual. You gotta go there.” That was before the excavations. The ruins were nothing then. Just peculiar humps rising up out of the jungle surrounded by fields of corn, beans, vegetables and tobacco plants from which the local farmers eked out hard perilous lives.
The archaeologists are now in charge. One of the pyramids has been restored together with a ball field where ancient indigenous people competed in games with each other. Some think the games were a substitute for war. Others believe the games were a symbolic enactment of the tension between the lords of the dark underworld and the god of the sun. A guide showed Paul where evidence of human sacrifices had been found.
“It was the loser then who was sacrificed?” asked Paul.
“No. The winner!” the guide exclaimed exuberantly. “To have your chest split open by the obsidian knife was an honor.”
We are not all that different, Paul thought as he looked at the altar where hearts were torn out of human chests and held up to the sun.Was not Christ sacrificed and is he not ritually eaten by his followers? Was not Abraham willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, or Jephthah his virgin daughter? Agamemnon and Iphigeneia?
Paul is at Bungalow del Sol, Patsy’s inexpensive shack tacked to the side of a hill above La Ropa beach. It’s across the street from Patsy’s house, Casa del Sol, where she also rents rooms but at a higher price. The bungalow has cockroaches that come out at night. They scurry into the dark crevices when Paul turns on the light in the bathroom. Geckos scamper up and down and around the corners of the walls. There is an outside shower on the deck. There once was a view of the ocean but it is blocked now by a tasteless hotel that’s always empty. Absentee owners. Drug money.
Patsy’s husband lives in L.A. She spends most of her time in Zihuatanejo where she runs CoCos, a popular restaurant in town. She’s a cultured woman with expensive tastes. Her dyed black hair perfectly styled, her manicured nails precise, adorned by the best gold and silver in Mexico. Paul asked her why they didn’t fix up the Bungalow. She told him they couldn’t get clear title to the property. It was just as well for him. They’d have to raise the rent if they put more money into it and Paul would have to find another place that fit his budget.
Out in the jungle chachalacas, birds the size of small turkeys, fly through the trees in the mornings. They make a raucous racket with their clucks and cackles and squeals and squawks. Paul read about these birds. In the distant past they were killed and ritually offered to the gods perhaps in place of human offerings. Today the Mexicans fatten turkeys and other fowl in the weeks before their Independencia and for Christmas. Paul has seen women dressed in traditional garb walking away from the marketplace holding half a dozen turkeys upside down by their feet.
Paul showers then walks down the hill to Los Arbolitos. It’s the most popular locals place along La Ropa Beach. The rich tourists stay at The Mediterranean, a fancy resort with a swim up bar and all the accoutrements. For the high roller who just wants sun and sand and booze and no real Mexican culture there’s Xtapa, a couple of miles north. It’s an entire community that caters just to them. The wealthy Rios family owns Los Arbolitos and several houses that they rent along La Ropa Beach. Their eldest son, Alejandro, runs the restaurant. He’s gay. He was forced into an arranged marriage by his parents who hoped to fool the neighbors but it’s the worst kept secret in the neighborhood. Alejandro ignores the poor girl. Paul sees her sitting at the bar when he walks in. She’s bored and lonely, fiddling with her eh mey peh trehs(MP3). She adjusts the earphones.
“Hola Marta,” says Paul as he sits beside her and orders a beer. Three girls at the waters edge stroll along the beach. Lesbians. He recognizes them from Patsy’s house where they swim naked in the pool. Great bodies. What a waste he thinks to himself.
“Hola Paul,” says Marta without looking up.
Hector, a drinking buddy Paul met in town, told Paul that Zihuatanejo means “the place of women.” Whether goddesses or old hags no one knows. In one version the first Spanish ships to arrive in the bay were greeted by old, ugly women, while the men hid in the jungle to avoid a fight. Another story is from the time when pirates used Zihuatanejo Bay to wait for and surprise the Spanish galleons. These pirates spoke of a tribe of beautiful but fierce warrior women who ruled the area. Hector’s long white hair, thick eyelashes and a bushy beard sway and vibrate when he speaks of this. While there may be some truth at the core in these stories, Hector embellishes them to get free beers out of the tourists. Whatever the truth, some connection with women makes sense to Paul given the number of lesbians he’s seen. Patsy is bisexual. Her husband is never around. They say he’s old and rich, a sugar daddy Patsy befriended to take care of her. He leaves her to her private whims. Paul has seen the women come and go, some well aged and elegant like Patsy putting on their airs and others like feral cats young, lost, searching for a sequel to the Age of Aquarius. Carla, whose shop Paul is going to visit later, runs around with Patsy and her crowd. Unlike them she was never tamed, doesn’t have a sugar daddy or a trust fund. She’s a tough bird who works for a living is old and worn but in some ways she’s the leader of the pack.
Alejandro’s wife is small and fragile with kinky black hair, probably no older than eighteen, submissive and clearly afraid of Alejandro’s family to whom her parents sold her for a few extra pesos. Paul watches Marta move to the music and wonders what she thinks of Patsy’s crowd. Alejandro is forty and already starting to pudge out although he tries hard to stay in shape.
To goad his parents Alejandro periodically arranges to be kidnapped. He splits the ransom with the kidnappers. Kidnapping is common in the area. His family has little choice but to let him get away with it. A matter of honor. They always pay. “Such machismo,” they say of their son. “He is in constant danger but he’s fearless! Thank God we managed to get him back.” No one is fooled of course but the myth allows them to save face. One time however the kidnapping was real. Alejandro lost a couple of fingers before his parents paid up.
An adolescent girl taunts a red and green parrot tethered to a tree by a rusty chain. She stands in the sand just out of its range with a wild look in her eyes. Her parents sit at a white plastic table and work on large plates of beans and rice and Mexican eggs. Across the way Paul sees a familiar American couple, elderly and wrinkled from too much sun. They seek refuge under a coconut tree and revel in bawdy jokes they tell to the tourists who order buckets of beer and bake on white plastic chaise lounges.
Paul looks up just in time to see the three girls vanish at the far end of the beach. “If only,” he thinks. “If only what? I’ve never had luck with women. Probably for the best.”
On the south side of Los Arbolitos there is a narrow river that empties out into the sea. It’s the tail end of an estuary that recedes back into the mangroves and jungle. Caimans inhabit the estuary and sometimes swim down the river to feed on fish, even an occasional human who gets careless. A wooden walkway extends from the beach all the way to the highway along the estuary. Paul often uses the walkway to walk home at night. The luciérnagas (fireflies) dance between the trees and sometimes the moon reflects off the scaly dark back of a caiman gliding slowly through the water.
Something draws Paul back to Zihuatanejo every year. He’s not sure what it is. He has friends here but not close friends. The Mexicans say the ocean has no memory. That’s a line from some movie, the name he can’t remember. The characters end up on La Ropa beach. He wouldn’t mind ending up there himself. How and when, those are questions he has yet to answer.
He has a few more beers and spots an old man he’s seen before. The man leans against a coconut tree, asleep with his head facing toward Paul, an empty plate balanced on his stomach. Chacmool, thinks Paul, the slain warrior with his offering to the gods. A chill runs down his back as he relives his morning dream. God how he hates the stink of religion. To kill and eat another human being just so the sun will rise, just so the rain will come. It takes some of the sparkle off the ocean here to know that such horrible things happened just a few miles away.
Alejandro is tall and handsome but he has an arrogant face. It’s something you notice right away. The bosses son. A mama’s boy. Alejandro is a cigar aficionado. Inside Los Arbolitos he built a walk-in humidor, his pride and joy. There’s something about cigar smoking and those who engage in it that disgusts Paul.
Paul finishes his last beer and walks behind Los Arbolitos to the gravel road that leads to the two-lane highway where he catches the local bus into El Centro (downtown). Zihuatanejo, once a fisherman’s village, has grown into a sprawling town stretching back up the hill from La Playa Principal, the main beach and port.
At one end of the beach is the pier where the Cruise ship passengers disembark next to a navel station. To the south of the navel station the local fisherman push their small boats up onto the sand and sell their daily catch along Paseo del Pescador (The Fisherman’s Walk). The restauranteurs and the owners of the tiendas de comida (food stores) and even housewives are very careful to choose the best of the fresh fish: bonito (small tunas), huachinango (red snapper), dorado (mahi-mahi) or maybe the puffer fish that can be poisonous if not prepared properly. Tourist restaurants line the other side of the walkway. Next comes is the town square and a basketball court. There are posters everywhere advertising Jesus Christ Superstar, the play to be performed tonight on the basketball court.
Patsy’s friend Carla owns a folk art shop in town. That’s where Paul heads after he gets off the bus. Carla has a peculiar laugh that sounds like the baaaaabaaaaa of a sheep. She’s old, tall and lanky with white hair. Her skin is coarse and wrinkled from years of exposure to the sun. While many are put off by Carla’s churlish demeanor, Paul gets on well with her. He’s comfortable with older women. He grew up surrounded by them. The feeling seems to go both ways. He inspires trust. Carla’s shop is filled with eclectic curiosities like intricate carvings from deer antlers, black onyx jars decorated in indigenous motifs, hourglasses, scads of flotsam and jetsam typical of a sea coast village that’s been around awhile. There are life size metal soldiers that her young Hispanic business partner Manuel crafts out of tin. And, there is a necklace Paul covets. The pendent has been carved to represent a Mayan or Tarascan king. Mayan letters are carved on the backside. Manuel told Paul the words refer to Two Blue Bird. Paul has not been able to verify who this is or what it might mean but he likes the necklace. There is a Mayan fable about the Toh bird. It’s turquoise and brown and lives in cenotes (sinkholes) and is thought to be harbinger of water always scarce in Mexico. Duality underlies Mexican mythology, two halves of a pairing that are independent yet connected to one another. Male and female, day and night, the Hero Twins in the Popul Vul, good and bad, wealthy and poor. The cenotes where the Toh bird lives are a symbol in the Maya culture that represent life and death. They were a water source for the ancient Mayan cities and represented the gateway to the world of the dead. Even today the birds are considered sacred.
Carla knows the cheap places where the food is good that the tourists never find. After he buys the necklace she takes him to lunch. Some years ago Carla told Paul about a vacation rental, very fancy, in Troncones run by Carla’s friend from Chicago. There was an art show going on at the time. Paul went to the show. He met a dynamic black woman, Deneva, an excellent chef, who walked with him on a pristine and secluded beach and discussed her plans for the future of Atlantis, the name she had chosen for her dream getaway. Paul asks Carla if the place is still there.
“It’s gone to Xibalba, baaaaabaaaaa, the Mayan hell,” laughs Carla. “That’s Mexico. The Federales charged into Atlantis in the middle of the night and forced Deneva to leave. Her husband was held in the local jail for three days. Claims were made about discrepancies in the title to the property. Deneva and her husband drove to Morelia to sort things out only to find that the judge had been bribed. There was nothing to be done.”
“They lost all?” asked Paul incredulously.
“Everything. Beautiful Atlantis sunk back into the sand much like the mythical Atlantis, the infinity pools empty and strewn with garbage. The locals who claimed to own the property didn’t have a clue how to run it and didn’t care. They just didn’t like outsiders running the place.
Life in Mexico is complicated. Salvador Dali once said he couldn’t stand to be in a country that was more surrealist than his paintings. Paul knew that feeling but it was these very incongruities that drew him back to Mexico, the abject poverty amidst great wealth, the stark landscape that framed great beauty, color and life, the peculiar Mexican notion of circular time, and even the lawlessness. Peace in the midst of danger, danger in the midst of peace. Paul found some comfort in the thought that someday he might become utterly lost and forgotten in Mexico. Anonymity had strong appeal to him.
He had read the books about human sacrifice, not only the plundering of human hearts but the ritual drowning of women and children in the cenotes. Before they were hurled into the cenotes the victims were painted in the Mayan blue of the Toh birds. He had always associated such horrors with the Aztecs and Mayans but he knew now that even here just outside Zihuatanejo such sacrifices had occurred thousands of years ago. In the new museum at Xihuacan there is the bust of a woman, perfectly preserved, wide-eyed, open-mouthed in an expression of astonishment. It was exactly how he felt when he heard these stories. He bought Two Blue Bird to protect himself from the dark side. Silly, but as the Mexicans say, “Quien sabe?”
Violence is embedded in human nature. The philosopher who said life is hard and brutish and short was right. Paul asked Carla what happened to Omar and Isabel, the young couple Patsy hired to take care of the grounds around where he’s staying. “They came from a village in the jungle close to Xihuacan,” she told him. Paul had befriended them on a previous trip to Zihuatanejo but a new couple was working this year. Paul missed that sweet young couple even though they spent most of their time stoned on grass and screwing in their little hovel that Patsy built for them. “The Helps Castle” she called it.
“A sad story,” said Carla. “Omar’s stepfather was jealous of the money Omar earned. There was an argument and the stepfather nearly killed Omar with an axe blow to his head. Omar never recovered. He became ill and eventually came down with pneumonia. Patsy offered to take Omar to the hospital,” Carla said with an unusual sadness in her fierce blue eyes, “and to pay for treatment but the family refused. The stepfather insisted on the village witch doctor whose magic was worthless.” Carla looked away, her eyes in a blank stare. It was her attempt to express the emotion she was not good at expressing. “Omar died. Isabel was pregnant. Patsy never saw her again. I still worry about her” said Carla, “but what can you do? It’s the way of these people. They drive me to madness. I hope this new crew will doesn’t end up at the same dead end. They come from the same village.”
Paul’s natural default was the rational yet his soul or whatever it was that animated him gravitated toward not faith, not religion but some surreal quality unique to Mexico like the surprise art foists onto the unprepared mind.
Paul said goodbye to Carla and headed down to Joey’s, a locals hangout beach restaurant along Paseo del Pescador. He wanted to drink a few beers, watch the crowd and wait for the rock opera to begin. He thought about his morning at the ruins, what Jesus would have thought and what the priests on the altar would have thought of Jesus. The guide at Xihuacan explained that the name meant the place of the people of the turquoise, a metaphor for the place of the people who control time.He thought about whether that had anything to do with the necklace he bought, Two Blue Bird. Time was calculated by the astronomers, the priests who laid out the lines of the ceremonial cities. Time has many meanings in Mexico not the least of which is the time according to Paul’s waiter who takes forever to arrive then says after taking his order: “I’ll be back in a Mexican minute.”
Joey’s is one of half a dozen related businesses that take up a small block along Paseo del Pescador adjacent to the basketball court. Prime real estate left by the original owner to her six children who run their individual businesses-a Oaxacan tapete (carpet) shop, a upscale alebrije (carved wooden animal) store, two folk art shops, Joey’s restaurant and a coffee expresso bar, all very successful. The place was robbed once at gunpoint and the robbers managed to get away in their car and escape into the hills. The oldest brother, owner of the tapete shop had a beautiful young wife. She was born on Christmas Day. Turns out she was a free spirit who left as soon as she had the chance. She just disappeared. It was a big scandal in town. The goddess turned into a witch. Duality again. Paul saw her once after she disappeared. It was a strange encounter. She appeared suddenly out of nowhere and sat down next to him at Los Arbolitos. She told him her sad story and then she closed her eyes and smiled. And then she was gone but that smile still haunts him. People say her husband had her killed. Paul doesn’t believe it but no one has seen her since.
The fishermen who arrived earlier today are clearing up their gear and stowing their boats while a new group of fisherman are firing up their motors. They will fish all night and return to sell their catch in the morning.
As the day draws to a close young lovers find their secret spots along the beach where they can hold hands and kiss. Plump mothers and wizened grandmothers sit on benches and watch with eagle eyes. A few beggars shuffle along hoping for a good night. Perhaps the religious opera about to start will open the pockets of the crowd. A man walks by selling Oaxacan cheese stored in a deep bucket of water. He tears off a piece and spins it into a perfect sphere for a customer. Some children pelt a giant iguana that thought it had found refuge in the brush under a grove of coconut trees.
The actors are rehearsing the opera on the basketball court.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you’re what they say you are?
In the distant Sierra Madre to the east armed bandits terrorize those unlucky or unwise enough to drive after the sun goes down.
Paul suddenly has a vision of the priest that ripped out the hearts of victims. He wore an unwashed black robe and his body was painted with a mixture of rubber tree sap, spiders and scorpions. The black hair and the nails of the sacrificial priest were never washed or cut. His hair hung down to his ankles and his nails were long, curved and claw like.
The city of Xihuacan was destroyed by a tsunami in the year 1350 AD but it’s ceremonial importance remained and various indigenous peoples came every year to pray for rain, fertility and bountiful crops. And every year there were more sacrifices.
Paul’s lunch with Carla was not very satisfying. He left most of it on the plate. Too many beers on an empty stomach and the heat of the late afternoon left him soaked in his own sweat. Lightheaded, he knew he should eat something before leaving for his bungalow. He ordered one of Joey’s signature pizzas, the Italian Stallion.
His friend Reuben was on the walkway. Paul waved him over.
“Hola Reuben, que tal?”
“I’m good thanks to God, my friend. Are you in town for the celebration of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe?”
“Ah, that’s why all these people are milling around. No, I’m afraid not. Do you really believe in that story of Juan Diego?”
“One need not believe to show respect, amigo.”
Paul knew enough not to belabor his philosophical views. There is no end, no peace with these true believers. Round and round the mulberry bush.
“You’re right Reuben and I mean no disrespect. Here comes my pizza. Joey really piles on the meat. Sit down and share it with me. How’s Yvonne?”
“She’s good but I like these little opportunities to get away on my own. Her lists of things to do are endless,” says Reuben with a smile. “Women, how do you say it, you cannot live with them but you cannot live without them. But I guess youcan. When you getting married? Yvonne’s got lots of friends I could introduce you to.”
Paul didn’t answer. He felt weak in the knees. Reuben could see things were not quite right but he didn’t say anything. Paul was a very private person.
When Reuben was building his place, Paul would sometimes ride the bus with the workers who sat in their seats holding their machetes. He used to joke with Reuben that he feared for his life, feared he was going to be a human sacrifice to insure the success of Reuben’s rentals. Before Zihuatanejo Reuben was a mango farmer. He sold his farm and built some palapas to rent to the tourists. They were too expensive for Paul but he and Reuben had become good friends anyway.
After the pizza Paul still felt odd. He couldn’t seem to get enough air into his lungs. His arms felt heavy and he had a headache.
“I’m going back to the bungalow,” he said to Reuben. “I’ll catch you later.
“Are you okay, my friend? You’re white as a ghost.”
‘Fine. I think I ate too much of that salty meat on Joey’s pizza. My heart is pounding. I just need a little rest.”
‘I’ll go back with you. I forgot to bring my camera for the parade. There are always good opportunities for pictures.”
“Thanks,” said Paul. He would normally have preferred to walk alone but he was thankful for Reuben’s company today.
They took the bus to La Ropa. Paul was feeling a bit better. ‘Let’s have one more beer at Los Arbolitos. Get your camera and I’ll meet you there. Afterword we can take the wooden walkway through the mangrove. I like that walk.”
“You sure you feel up to it my friend?” asked Reuben with a concerned look on his face.
“Sure,” answered Paul. “I’m good.”
“When are you gonna move here for good, my friend? I know you’ve been thinking about it. I’ll help you find a good place and get set up. Yvonne’s mother is a realtor and Yvonne’s gonna to get her license. They will treat you right.”
“I’m sure they will,” said Paul, “but I’m not ready yet. I can’t really afford it.”
“I know you’re a bean counter as they say in Los Estados Unidos but you oughta try it? I’ll bet you can find a way to support yourself and have a happy life too.”
“Maybe,” said Paul, “but not tonight. We better get going or you’re going to miss that parade. Let’s walk through the mangrove then you can catch the bus back.”
As they entered the mangrove Paul suddenly felt much worse. He had a terrific pain in his chest and he couldn’t breathe. Just before he fell he looked at Reuben but what he saw was not Reuben. He was horrified to see an Aztec priest lift up an obsidian knife and make ready to plunge it into his chest. Then everything went black.
Paul woke up in a white room surrounded by monitors. A woman was sitting at the end of his hospital bed. She was quite beautiful. He had a strong feeling that he’d seen this woman before but he was too confused to remember where.
“Welcome back,” the woman says.
“Where am I?” asks Paul as he sits up and looks around.
“You’re in the hospital.”
“You had a heart attack and passed out. But you’re OK now. You aren’t ready yet.”
“Ready for what?”
“The Great Beyond,” says the woman. Paul looks at her closely. He has definitely seen her before.
“The Great Beyond, the place all souls go when their material selves fall apart.”
“You mean … Heaven? Or Hell?”
“There is no Heaven or Hell. Those are temporal concepts. The Great Beyond is eternal. We all go there eventually but you aren’t ready yet.
“What do you mean I’m not ready?”
“Unfinished business. Use your imagination. It’s easy if you try.”
Paul hears someone come into his room. He looks toward the door and sees a doctor. When he looks back to the foot of his bed, the woman is gone.
“Hello Paul. Welcome back. How do you feel?”
“Okay. Good actually. I had a heart attack?”
“Just a mini. A non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction actually.”
“So, not too bad?”
“Oh, just a little scare. A warning you might call it. I just got the test results and everything’s A-OK. You’re free To go.”
“To go where?”
“Go where you wanna go. You can’t stay here. We need the room. Your friend Reuben is waiting outside. He brought you in just in time. The caiman didn’t eat you and we got to your heart fast enough to prevent serious damage.”
“The alligator in the estuary. I’ve heard he’s been a more aggressive lately. We’ve had a few people come with bad bites.”
“Wow! Okay. Well, thanks … I guess.”
“Just one thing Paul. You might not be so lucky next time. Take this as a warning. Maybe quit smoking, cut back on the drinking, and chill out, you know, take some time to smell the roses. And, no more Italian Stallions.”
“What roses,” Paul asks but the doctor is already out the door.
Paul gets dressed and finds Reuben waiting outside.
“Hola Paul, I’m very happy you’re looking well, thanks be to God.”
“You saved my life,” says Paul. “I guess I was pretty lucky.”
“Where you wanna go,?” asks Reuben.
“I made up my mind,” says Paul. “I’m moving to Zihuatanejo.”
“That’s good, my friend. About time. How do you feel?”
“I’m so happy I could die,” says Paul with a broad grin. Reuben shakes his head. Paul sees the woman that was in his room hurrying down the stairs. This time he remembers her name, Natalia. It means Christmas. She was born on Christmas Day.
“Hang on Reuben, I’ll be back in a Mexican minute.” Paul chases after the woman. “Wait Natalia. Wait!”
When the doctor exited Paul’s room he stopped to speak with Reuben.
“I’m sorry sir. We did everything we could.”