December 29, 2010
Maddie woke to the sound of tapping on the window above her bed. The room was still dark. She reached for her watch.
“6:25 a.m.,” she growled, and threw the watch back down on the nightstand. “Hell of a time for a woodpecker to be up.”
Then she realized the tapping was on the glass, not the wooden window frame. She rose up in bed and peered through the window into the pre-dawn gloom. Kin’s face grinned back at her, his finger pointing to the latch on the window. She flipped the latch and slid the window open.
“Kin,” she whispered, “what are you doing here?”
“I come to rescue you,” he said.
“How did you know I needed rescuing?”
“Word gets around.” His grin disappeared. “A girl is sick. We need you.”
Maddie shook her head. “I’m not a doctor, Kin.”
“She does not need a doctor, Phoenix. She needs Ch’ul Ix Kukul.”
Joan stirred and snorted. Maddie glanced over at the dark silhouette and bit her lip.
“OK, I’ll go. Let’s get out of here quick before Dr. Lancaster wakes up. Move back so I can get the screen loose.”
Maddie shifted the screen and pushed it out. Kin caught it.
“Phoenix, put on shoes.”
Maddie smacked her forehead. She was wearing the sweatshorts and t-shirt that served as her pajamas. She snatched up her hiking boots, fumbled in her suitcase for a pair of socks and shoved them out the window at Kin. She threw one leg over the windowsill and bent over nearly double to get through the opening. Her back pressed against the window. It slid up with a squeak. Joan snapped upright in bed.
“Maddie – what the hell?” Joan squinted at her. “All right, I’m going, too.” She slid out of bed and hefted her full satchel. “I was hoping for just such an occasion.”
Maddie shushed her. “Dr. Lancaster, as far as I know, that priest is still sitting outside our door. We’d better be quiet.”
Maddie vacated the windowsill and Joan followed her out. Maddie reached up to close the window but Kin put a hand on her arm.
“It make more noise, Phoenix.”
Maddie put on her socks and boots. She rubbed her bare arms to warm them in the chill pre-dawn air.
“Oh no, Kin, I left my watch inside!”
She turned to climb back in but Kin shook his head. “We must get away fast,” he whispered. “You do not need a watch now. We teach you how time really works.” He grinned.
Joan slipped on her shoes, tied the laces and rummaged in her satchel. She produced a flashlight and clicked it on.
“Come on, Maddie, let’s liberate some Maya women.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Lancaster. I have other work to do.”
“That chauvinist,” she jerked her head toward Kin, “has you confused, Maddie. I could use your help.”
“I’m sorry. I just can’t.”
Joan shrugged, swung the flashlight around and marched off toward Indian Church.
“Kin, what do we do now? Where do we go?”
He motioned for Maddie to follow him. She started to question him and he put a finger to his lips. She trailed behind him through the underbrush behind the lodge. She tripped over a vine and stumbled several steps in the darkness until Kin led her onto the same path the Maya artist had taken several days earlier, when he led Maddie into the ruins and got her lost. She bristled and backed away from Kin.
He turned to the left, opposite from the direction she had gone before, and motioned for her to follow him. She hesitated a moment then plunged ahead.
Maddie trotted to keep up with Kin’s brisk walk. The brightening dawn fought its way through the thick foliage, offering occasional bursts of pale light along the dark path.
“Kin, where are we going?” she huffed.
“To the girl.”
“Yes, but where? Indian Church?”
Kin shook his head. After another five minutes’ walk the path let out into a clearing behind a small building. In the growing light Maddie could make out its rectangular outline and thatch roof.
“Now we are pach kut,” said Kin.
“Pahch koot,” said Maddie. “What’s that?”
“It means outside the fence. Outside the village, into the jungle.”
“But we were just in the jungle!”
Kin led Maddie around to the front of the building and she saw that it stood at the end of a curving row of similar structures. A rooster crowed nearby and Maddie heard people stirring in some of the other buildings.
Kin rubbed his hand on the door and spoke quietly. The door opened in front of them and a Maya woman stepped out. Kin said something to her in his local dialect. She shook her head and pressed her lips together. Her hair was in disarray and her dress was rumpled. Kin patted her arm. He turned to Maddie and tilted his head toward the open door.
“In here, Phoenix.”
Maddie followed him into the dark room. A single candle guttered on a small table beside the bed. In the bed lay a young Maya girl, delirious with fever, her face flushed and her hair damp with sweat.
“Kin,” Maddie whispered, “take her to a doctor. I’ll pay. I have some money.” She patted her pocket.
He shook his head. “Medicine will kill her. This is the old fever, the one from the time at the end of our cities.”
Maddie reached over and touched the girl’s forehead. The soft skin was fiery hot and damp. The girl couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. The memory of corpses piled as high as her head forced its way to the edge of Maddie’s consciousness.
“Kin, this is from bad water. You need to find it and drain it before someone else gets sick.”
“We do it already, Phoenix. But there will be more. It is the time for these things. This is why we need you.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “No more treasure hunt. Time for you to do work.”
Maddie watched the girl’s chest rise and fall with rapid, fevered breath. Maddie shook her head.
“I don’t know what to do. I can’t help her.”
“You remember, Phoenix. You help.”
Maddie rubbed her face, trying to wake up. She pressed her palms against her eyes until she saw stars. The room was dark and offered smells that tickled the back of Maddie’s mind, awakening memories long buried.
She felt the cold claws of hysteria close around her, gripping her lungs, strangling her heart. She tried to run but her legs would not respond. She blinked in the darkness and faces appeared, faces in agony, sweaty, fevered Maya faces. The sting of copal and wood smoke jolted her and the vision shifted, opening onto a vista of hundreds of corpses stacked in the plaza, pyramids of human flesh between the pyramids of stone. Her stomach churned as the rotting stench overtook her in the muggy heat. A woman wailed in the distance and carrion-birds descended on the plaza. Maddie leaped forward to chase the birds away and fell face-down on the rough wooden floor of the small building.
She drew in a ragged breath and stood up, dizzy. She extended her arm to steady herself against the wall. Her breath came fast and rough, as though she had been running at full steam.
Kin looked at her with concern. “You OK, Phoenix?”
“The white water lily cures this,” she said between gulping breaths, “but I don’t have any.”
Kin stepped outside and returned a few minutes later holding a shallow pottery bowl full of water. In it floated a plant with one perfect white bloom, tightly furled. Maddie gasped. She leaned over and tentatively sniffed at the blossom. Her forehead wrinkled as her brows drew together.
“I think it’s the wrong kind, Kin. There’s no fragrance.”
“It smell wonderful last night, Phoenix. Then it was wide open.” He spread his fingers wide in the shape of a broad bowl.
Maddie scowled at the tightly closed tulip-shaped bloom.
“The medicine is in the nectar, Kin. It’s inside the flower.”
“Maybe we can open it up?” He made a prying motion with his hands.
“No!” She recoiled. “It has to open by itself or the medicine is no good.” Her heart beat in her ears and she shook her head to dispel the sound. She took a deep breath. “Kin, blow out the candle.”
He gave her a quizzical look.
“It’s the only light in here,” she said. “The shutters are closed tight over the windows so if we blow out the candle and shut the door it’ll be night in here again.”
She reached over and pulled the door shut. Kin set the bowl on the table and blew out the candle. They waited, still and silent, in the dark. Minutes dragged by. The girl’s rough and rapid breath drew Maddie into a near-hypnotic state. She swayed in the darkness and a sweet taste settled on her tongue. She leaned forward and sniffed.
“Kin! It’s open!” she whispered.
She shoved the door ajar. A pale sunbeam fell across the floor, casting a line of light through the middle of the bowl.
“It’s open!” she said again, cradling the bowl in her hands and inhaling the intoxicating scent. “I need a spoon, quick!”
“I do not have one, Phoenix.”
“Oh geez.” She looked at the girl. “All right, let’s improvise.”
Maddie gently turned the girl’s head to one side and opened her mouth.
“Here, Kin, hold the bowl for me.”
He lifted the bowl and held it next to the girl’s head. Maddie raised the flower above the edge of the bowl. She cradled the girl’s head in one hand and used the other hand to tip the bloom up against her fevered lips. A few precious drops of intensely scented nectar dripped into her mouth. Maddie set the flower back in the bowl. She stroked the girl’s throat to encourage her to swallow.
“Phoenix, how long does it take?” He looked anxiously at the girl who lay still, her face flushed.
“I don’t remember. I just don’t remember.”
Kin stepped outside. Maddie heard him speaking in a Mayan dialect, then the woman’s voice, then Kin again. In a moment he and the woman came in. The woman squatted by the bed and took hold of the girl’s hand. She looked up at Maddie with a pleading smile.
“I gave her the medicine,” Maddie explained, pointing to the plant floating in the bowl. “You have the flower if she needs more.”
“Oh no,” said Kin. “Only a priestess touch the plant.”
“But didn’t you pick it?”
“No, Phoenix. You meet her today, the one who pick it. Come, time to go.”
He patted the woman on the shoulder and turned toward the door. Maddie gave the woman an encouraging smile then forced herself to follow Kin out into the sunlight. They walked slowly along the row of huts.
“She’ll be all right, Kin.”
“I know.” He looked at his feet. “It is hard not to worry.”
“Is that her mother in there with her?”
Kin nodded. “My wife.”
Maddie stopped. “She’s – your daughter?”
* * *
“Come, Phoenix, time returns.”
They followed the curving row of buildings to a larger clearing where Kin stopped. Before them stood a dozen more small buildings arranged in a rough circle around a central open area. In the middle of the central area several small children played around the base of a large ceiba tree.
An elderly Maya man sat on an upturned produce crate. His khaki pants and worn plaid shirt hung loose on his wiry frame. He was bent over, his elbows resting on his knees. One gnarled, brown hand held a stick he was using to roll pebbles around in the sand at his feet. He looked up as Kin and Maddie approached.
“Deyos nol,” said Kin, raising his hand in greeting.
“Day-ohs nohl,” repeated Maddie.
“Deyos means hello,” Kin explained.
The old man grinned. He was missing several teeth and his skin was brown and wrinkled. Maddie couldn’t help thinking that he looked like a shriveled-up jack-o-lantern. Thin strands of silvery grey highlighted his short, straight black hair.
“Deyos,” said the old man. “José Cocom.” He pointed to himself. His black eyes glittered.
“What?” Maddie looked at Kin.
“This is Don José,” Kin explained. “Tell him your name.”
“Maddie,” she said, pointing to herself.
Don José grinned again and pointed a gnarled finger at Maddie. “Ch’ul Ix Kukul.”
Maddie’s face reddened. She shifted from foot to foot. “I’d rather you called me Maddie.”
Don José stared at Maddie.
She shifted from foot to foot and looked at Kin. “What language does Don José speak?”
Kin grinned. “It is OK, Phoenix. He speak a little English, too.”
“Maddie.” She pointed to herself. “Maddie.”
The old man laughed and waved his hand as if to dismiss any problem. “Maddie,” he said.
Maddie looked around for a place to sit, found none, and squatted on her heels next to Don José.
“Can you teach me?” she asked.
He nodded. “Chuchkahawib,” he said, pointing to himself again.
Bewildered, Maddie gazed imploringly at Kin.
Kin squatted next to her. “Chuchkahawib,” he said slowly.
Maddie repeated it with difficulty. “Chooch-kah-hah-weeb.” She looked up at Don José. “Is that you?” He nodded. “What does it mean?” Maddie asked.
“Mother-father,” said the old man, speaking with a heavy accent. His lack of teeth added to Maddie's difficulty understanding him.
The beat of drums roared up in her ears. She shook her head.
“I don’t understand,” she said, though the quiet voice in the back of her mind told her otherwise.
Kin pointed to Don José. “He is mother-father. This means diviner. Daykeeper. His wife is also mother-father. Chuchkahawib should always be husband and wife, just like Xmucane and Xpiyacoc from the beginning of time.”
“Shmoo-kah-nay and Shpee-ya-kohk,” repeated Maddie. “I read about them in the Popol Vuh.”
The old man spoke up. “You read Popol Vuh?”
“Yes,” said Maddie.
“You know lots?”
“I thought I did but now I’m not so sure.”
Don José laughed. “You learn think Indian.”
He took a stick and drew a shape in the dirt. He pointed to it and raised his eyebrows at Maddie.
“It’s a circle,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
He grinned his jack-o-lantern grin and shook his head.
“An oval?” she said, puzzled.
Don José laughed and shook his head again.
Kin looked at her. “You know this one, Ch’ul Ix Kukul,”
Something clicked in her head. “Zero. It’s zero.”
Don José nodded. “Zero egg.” He spread his arms in a wide arc. “Everything born from zero egg. You. Me. Universe. All same.”
Her eyes grew large. “You know about the Big Bang Theory?”
He shook his finger at her. “We look, we see, we know. You know how look. Now learn how see.”
He drew a spiral in the dirt, pointed to it with his stick and raised his eyebrows at her.
“It’s a spiral,” she said, knowing already that her answer was wrong.
“Look and see,” he said.
She turned to Kin and gave him an imploring look but he just shrugged his shoulders. She looked at the spiral again. She walked around it.
“Now it looks like the letter G,” she said.
She looked at Don José and he drew his brows together, puzzled.
“The letter G,” she said again. “Geh,” she said, pronouncing the hard G sound.
He grinned. “Geh,” he said. “Geh is name of zero egg.”
“But that’s a spiral, not zero,” she said, pointing at the shape in the dirt.
“Look,” he said, his stick outlining the shape again. “See,” he said, his stick drawing a spiral up in the sky. “See,” he said, his stick tracing and retracing a line across the center of the sky from one horizon to the other.
She gasped. “The Milky Way,” she whispered. “It’s the Milky Way.”
He nodded his head vigorously. “White-Bone-Snake-Road. We die. We travel down White-Bone-Snake-Road. We born.”
Cold prickles crept slowly up her back.
He drew another shape, a pointed oval like an almond lying on its side. He drew a horizontal line through the center of its length. Then he made three small vertical hash marks in one half of the almond.
Maddie smiled in satisfaction. “That’s the Maya hieroglyph symbol for zero. They say it’s a picture of a shell.”
He pointed at it with his stick. “Geh,” he said. “Word for picture is geh.”
Maddie pointed to the spiral. “But you said that was geh.” She scratched her head. “Or did you say that was geh?” she said, pointing to the circle.
He laughed a gravelly laugh. “All geh.”
“All? That can’t be.”
He pointed to the circle. “Zero. Geh.” He pointed to the spiral. “Geh above head.” He pointed to the almond shape. “Geh above head, geh on side, geh write down on paper.”
She puzzled. “OK, the circle is zero and your word for zero is geh. I get that. The spiral is also geh. It’s the Milky Way. This almond is also geh. I know it’s the written symbol for zero but I don’t see what it has to do with the Milky Way.”
“You look,” he said. “Now see!” He whacked the ground with his stick, sending a spray of dirt flying across the drawings.
She leapt back, startled.
He laughed his gravelly laugh. “Ch’ul Ix Kukul see.”
“Geh on its side,” she muttered. “Geh on its – holy shit!” She clapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry.” She watched Don José for signs of offense but he simply sat, waiting.
She squatted down next to the shapes. She set her palm down in the middle of the circle. “Zero. Egg. Geh.” She set her palm down on the spiral. “Geh. Milky Way. White-Bone Snake Road.” She set her palm down on the almond. “Geh. Milky Way spiral galaxy seen on edge. These marks,” she pointed to the vertical hash marks in half of the almond shape, “show us. ‘You are here.’ Like on a map.” She looked up at him. “You know all this stuff, don’t you? The Maya have always known it, even before there was western science.” She paused, thinking. “But how?”
Don José grinned. He took the stick and erased his drawings. In their place he drew another shape. He pointed to it with the stick and looked at Maddie.
“What is it?” he asked.
Maddie looked at the shape. “I know better than to say it’s a capital T but I don’t know what it is.”
Don José pointed his stick at Kin. “He teach you Pom tree?”
“Yes, he did.”
Don José pointed at the T-shape again. “Te is tree. We born from tree.”
“Teh. Like geh. Yes, Kin told me the Pom tree is the center of the universe. Souls go down the White-Bone-Snake-Road and to the tree.”
Don José held his hand up and drew the T-shape in the air just below his nose. “Divine breath. Te. Divine breath. We born, we breathe, we join world. We die, we no breathe, we...separate from world.”
Maddie pointed to the T on the ground. “That means tree and divine breath?”
Don José nodded.
“I don’t get it,” said Maddie. “What’s the connection?”
“Breath. Air. Wind. Life. Everything born from tree. Everything alive.” He lifted his stick and pointed it at Maddie’s head. “Everything alive in here.”
“In my head? But I’m not dreaming. This is all real. At least, I think it is.” She scratched her head. “Everything’s alive in my head. No, everything’s alive in its head. Do you mean the universe is alive in its head?” Her head began to ache as she struggled to reach something long hidden in the back of her mind.
Don José tapped his stick against the side of Maddie’s head. “Everything think. Everything know. Everything wake up and born from tree.”
Tingles crept across Maddie’s scalp. “Everything that is, is alive. Everything goes to the tree and comes from the tree. Life is the source but the tree is...is...the gathering place? Where God lives?”
Don José puzzled a moment. “Creator is not like other gods. Creator is in everything. Everything is Creator. In your head.” He grunted, frustrated at his inability to communicate.
“So the creator isn’t a god?” offered Maddie helpfully.
Don José shook his head. “Gods come from Creator. People, animals, everything comes from Creator. Made out of Creator.” He paused. “Source.”
Something clicked in Maddie’s brain. “Source. The source is the underlying consciousness of all things.”
“Cosmic consciousness. Everything is alive and has consciousness of some sort.” She pointed to her head. “Everything is alive in here. The universe was created from here.”
Don José nodded his head vigorously and grinned. “Everything in head.”
“So if you know your way around then you can find out anything.”
Don José smiled and the wrinkles shifted and slid around his leathery face.
“But Don José, how do you find your way around? I mean, the universe is a pretty big place.”
“Serpent. Serpent flies.”
“Feathered serpent,” she said, nodding acknowledgment. “Kukulcan.”
He tapped the side of his head with a gnarled finger. “Serpent gets in my head. Flies me. I give offering, serpent gives – gives knowing. Serpent is life. Serpent is everything.”
“Wow.” She looked around, searching for a temple. “But where? You don’t use the temples any more, do you?”
He looked at Kin, who nodded.
“You go big temple,” Don José said severely.
“Yes.” She looked back and forth between the two of them. “Was that OK?”
“No go big temple now. No more games. Time for work.” He rubbed his grisly chin. “Come.” He stood up stiffly and jerked his head in the direction of a small thatch-roofed structure at the far end of the group of buildings. He shambled toward it. She followed him, veering around a hollow section of tree trunk that stood upright on the ground. A number of bees swarmed around it.
He laughed and waved his stick at the bee pot. “No worry. No sting.”
She glanced back at Kin. He stood motionless by the group of drawings in the dirt. She gestured for him to join them but he shook his head and pointed to the ground, the spot where he was standing. Resigned, she turned and followed Don José alone to the door of the thatched hut.
He stopped and turned to her. “No touch,” he said, wagging his finger in her face.
“OK” she said. “I won’t touch anything.”
He nodded, satisfied, and pushed the wooden door open. A puff of acrid smoke billowed out. Maddie coughed and recognized the scent of burning copal resin. Don José walked in and Maddie followed him.
The inside of the building – it was little more than a hut, really – was dark. Wooden shutters were closed tightly over the two small window openings. Maddie squinted in the candle-lit gloom. The single room was about eight by twelve feet, the same size as the room the little girl had been in, the same size as all the buildings Maddie had seen that morning, the same size as the structure the team had excavated. The wooden poles that made up the walls were bare on three sides but the wall on the far end of the room had been plastered.
Don José motioned for Maddie to come in and shut the door. She did so, making the room even darker. He lit several candles along the plastered wall. Maddie gasped.
“It’s the serpent. The one in my dream.” Compelled, she reached her hand up to touch the thatch roof. “My God, I was here.” Her knees gave way and she collapsed, landing hard on the earthen floor. She grabbed the edge of a wooden bench and hung on for dear life. Don José shambled over to her.
“You OK?” He gave her a look of concern mingled with skepticism, as if he thought she wasn’t quite up to the task of being Ch’ul Ix Kukul.
“I’m fine,” she insisted. Her head reeled. The smoke burned her nose and made her eyes tear. Drumming pounded in her ears.
“Serpent calls you. No fight. Let serpent fly you,” Don José insisted.
“You’re kidding.” She gripped the bench even more tightly.
“Let serpent fly you.”
He pulled her hands off the bench and helped her to her feet. He led her toward the plastered wall. As she drew near it she saw again the images that had populated her dream – the blue-and-green serpent with people issuing from its mouth, yellow and red and orange men and women dancing and fighting and living and dying in honor of the gods. She could not take her eyes off the colorful figures.
Don José led her to a mat on the floor right in front of the painted wall. Maddie sat down on it, her eyes level with a wooden bench that ran the length of the wall just below the serpent. The bench was piled with cups and bowls of food and drink, half-empty liquor bottles, lit candles and burned-out candles, flowers, coins and colorful pieces of hand-loomed cloth. She squinted at the tumbled collection but couldn’t make out a jaguar anywhere among the odds and ends.
Maddie grew dizzy and the images on the wall in front of her wavered and moved. She heard Don José’s voice echo as if from a great distance.
“Let serpent fly you, Ch’ul Ix Kukul,” his voice said.
Then another voice echoed through the dizzy, smoky darkness.
“Ch’ul Issssh Kukul,” the new voice said, “Holy Quetsssal Woman.”
She tried to speak but could not feel her mouth to make the words.
“Holy Quetsssal Woman, come sssee.” Stars swirled around her in a dizzying spiral, slowly coalescing into the form of a writhing serpent. “Sssee the sssecretsss you mussst remember.”
She peered into the inky blackness, trying to make out the form of the serpent, but her vision wavered and then she was looking out across a broad vista of verdant terraced fields, lush tropical forests, tidy thatch-roof houses and tall stepped pyramids. The sun and stars rolled across the sky. The seasons turned and she watched years, then centuries pour by.
The deep, lush forests receded. More and more people worked more and more fields. Wars were won and lost over and over again. Unable to stop the progress of the vision, Maddie helplessly watched desperate sacrifices, invasions of foreigners from the north and the west and terrible, terrible disease. The towns grew crowded, then the countryside grew crowded, then the fields were barren, the people dying, the leaders ruined.
Across the eons she heard the collective wail of an entire civilization racked with hunger, disease, misery. She heard their plea, heard it in her heart.
“You cannot save us,” they cried to her, “but you can save the sacred things.”
“Yes,” she called to them, speaking with her heart and not her mouth. “I remember. I remember!”
“Come back,” called a faraway voice. “Come back, Ch’ul Ix Kukul. Come back, Maddie.”
* * *
She opened her eyes and blinked, her vision still blurry. Slowly the images cleared and stilled. She lay, curled up like a baby, on the mat in front of the painted wall. Her face was damp with tears. Don José stooped over her, peering at her in the candlelit gloom.
“Serpent flies you.” It was not a question.
Maddie sat up slowly. She was shaky and did not feel strong enough to stand.
“Yes, Don José,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Serpent flies me.”
He turned and pulled a bottle off the bench. He picked up a chipped coffee mug, sloshed a small amount of liquor into it and shoved it at Maddie. She shook her head.
“I can’t drink that. Not now.”
He pushed the mug at her again.
“You need drink,” he insisted. “Chicha. I make from corn. Good for head when serpent leaves.” He tapped his head with the hand that wasn’t holding the mug.
She took the mug from him. Her hands shook as she brought it up to her mouth. She swallowed all the harsh, sour liquid in one gulp. The chicha burned her throat and roiled in her stomach but it brought her firmly back into this world. She coughed, trying to catch her breath. Don José stooped over her again and peered at her.
“Serpent flies you hard. Time for light.”
He got up stiffly and walked slowly across the room. The wooden door creaked as he pushed it open. Warm sunlight spilled into the dark room. Maddie got up on her hands and knees and crept toward the light. She sat down in the sunbeam, her head pounding.
“Don José,” she said, squinting at him through the smoke that rolled and curled in the sunlight, “do you always feel this bad after the serpent flies you?”
He shook his head. “I get used to it.”
He fumbled in his pants pocket and held out his hand to Maddie. A small, rough amber-colored stone lay on his weathered palm. “Sastun. Good stone help you.”
Maddie took the stone from him. He pointed to the center of his forehead, just above his eyes, then nodded to her. She held the stone up to her forehead and a sudden jolt ran through her. She shuddered and her head stopped pounding.
“It feels like the wind is blowing through my head,” she whispered.
He smiled. “Smoke come out head.” He tapped his forehead. “Serpent make smoke when fly. Smoke stay in, you feel bad.”
Maddie took the stone off her forehead and looked at it. It looked like cloudy yellowish-brown quartz, not at all valuable. She handed it back to him.
“Smoke comes out of my head,” she said with sudden recognition. “Like on the temple carvings, those people with smoke coming out their foreheads. Did they fly with the serpent, too?”
Don José pointed to the plastered wall across the room. Maddie squinted at the colorful figures. One figure right next to the serpent knelt before a bowl from which smoke rose, smoke from the burning of blood-soaked paper as an offering. What Maddie had not noticed before was that a large puff of smoke also billowed out the figure’s forehead.
“But I didn’t make a blood sacrifice,” she said. “How can I have called the serpent if I didn’t offer blood?”
Don José narrowed his eyes at her. “You offer blood. Ten day ago you offer blood.” He held up his gnarled brown hands, fingers spread, to emphasize the number ten.
“But ten days ago we had only just gotten here,” she insisted. “We were setting up the dig site. I didn’t even go to the temple until . . .” She stopped and clapped a hand over the opposite forearm. She lifted her hand and looked at the scar left by the thorns of the acacia tree, the same thorns the Maya priestesses had used as claws to release the blood of the priests and the sacrifice.
Maddie began to giggle, then to laugh, and she could not stop. Don José gazed at her with concern but waited as her laughter built up to near-hysteria, died back down to normal laughter, then slowly transformed to quiet sobs.
He shuffled over to the offering bench and tugged at a piece of handwoven cloth. A bowl toppled over and clattered to the floor as he pulled the multicolored fabric loose. He shuffled back over and handed it to Maddie. She wiped her face and blew her nose, still breathing hard.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I guess I’m no good at this.”
“No sorry,” he said firmly. “No sorry. Everything OK.”
He walked over to the doorway and motioned for her to follow him. She got up unsteadily and staggered through the sunbeam back out into the daylight. The sun had just passed its zenith and Maddie planted her feet firmly on the earth, basking in the warm sunlight.
“Eat,” said Don José with conviction. He headed across the little plaza toward another small rectangular building. “Rosa!” he called out cheerfully as he neared the open doorway. Maddie followed him, paying special attention to the act of walking.
An attractive elderly Maya woman appeared, wiping her hands on her skirt. Her hair was a uniform salt-and-pepper, clasped in a wooden barrette at the nape of her neck. She wore a red short-sleeved dress, gathered at the round neckline and embellished with yellow embroidery at the neck, sleeves and hem.
“Rosa,” said Don José with a grin, gesturing to his wife. “Ch’ul Ix Kukul,” he said, pointing to Maddie and grinning even more.
“Maddie,” said Maddie. “Please call me Maddie.”
“Welcome, Maddie,” said Rosa warmly. “Are you hungry? I have tortilla and peccary.”
“Um, that sounds great,” said Maddie dubiously.
Rosa smiled. “Peccary is wild pig.”
“Oh, well, that’s fine with me,” Maddie replied. “You speak good English, Doña Rosa.” Maddie recalled the polite form of address from her high-school Spanish class.
“Thank you, Maddie. I work as a maid in a hotel in Belize City a while ago. I learn my English there.” Her accent was strong but she spoke with confidence. “I teach Don José, too.” She beamed.
Rosa went into the kitchen-house, a small wooden structure with a thatch roof. It was the same size and shape as the serpent-house Maddie had just come out of. The older woman came back out bearing a tray of homemade corn tortillas and a pan of stewed meat. She set them down on a small handmade table and motioned for Maddie to take a seat in an old ladderback chair. Rosa and Don José sat together on a bench across the table from their guest.
Don José picked up a tortilla and made a motion as if offering a toast to Maddie.
“We eat formal for you.”
He winked at her, folded his tortilla in half and dipped it in the bowl of meat. He took a large bite and chewed slowly with a satisfied look on his face.
“Eat! Eat!” Rosa urged. “He work you too hard. After we eat I show you what I do. Just as important but easier sometime, too.”
Maddie followed their lead and took a tortilla. It was soft and warm, thicker than the ones she had eaten at Mexican restaurants. She folded it and scooped some meat out of the pan.
Rosa had stewed the peccary until the meat fell to bits, much like the shredded barbecue meat Maddie was fond of. But unlike commercial pork, the peccary was greasy and had a faint musky odor. It wasn’t what Maddie was used to but she was famished so she ate well.
Between bites she managed to ask, “Where did you get the meat?”
“My son,” Rosa said proudly. “He hunt. He share his meat with us. Such a good boy.”
Maddie looked around. “Does he live here?”
Don José spread his arms wide. “Family live here. Son. Daughter. Grandson. Granddaughter.” He grinned a proud, jagged grin. “Rosa make tortilla for me.” He beamed.
Rosa blushed and ducked her head. “José grow corn for me,” she said. She looked earnestly at Maddie. “We work for each other. Good husband. Good wife. We live right.”
As they ate, a brown hen and her chicks strutted past, threading their way under the table as they went. Several squealing children ran by, chasing each other. A young woman appeared with a basket of clothes and marched toward the river to do her laundry. A middle-aged man and a boy toted rifles off into the jungle.
Rosa looked at Maddie with concern. “Are you OK now?”
“I’ll be all right. I guess the world looks a little different after you fly with the serpent.”
Rosa’s eyes grew large. She looked over at Don José. “Itzamna? She travel with Itzamna?”
Don José nodded. “She fly.” Rosa gave him a severe look. He waved his hand at her. “I no do it. Itzamna call her.”
Maddie looked back and forth between her two hosts. “Itzamna? That’s the serpent’s name? I thought it was Kukulcan!” she said in alarm.
Rosa patted Maddie’s hand. “Itzamna is the lord of life. He connects all things. Sky belongs to him. He is married to Ix Chel and all the gods are their children.”
Maddie sat back and rested her hands on her knees to steady herself. “The serpent is Itzamna. The jaguar is the sky and belongs to the serpent. The Jaguar of Itzamna.” She blew out a breath. “I’m an idiot.” Rosa gave her a puzzled look. “Doña Rosa, all this time I thought the Golden Jaguar of Itzamna was an object, a statue or something. But it’s much bigger than that. It’s the sky, the whole starry universe the serpent flies through.” Maddie shook her head again, forcing her eyes to focus on her food.
Don José and Rosa looked at each other. Rosa patted her husband on the shoulder and smiled.
The three at the table finished their food in silence. Since there were no napkins Maddie wiped her fingers on her shorts. Finally Rosa shooed José away.
“Go on,” she said, smiling. “I show her now.”
Don José nodded and ambled off toward the serpent-house. Rosa picked up the dishes.
“Can I help you?” Maddie asked.
Rosa smiled. “Come,” she said. “I show you the things I do.”
Maddie followed her into the kitchen. The inside was dim and shady. A gentle breeze blew in through the window openings. There was no glass in the windows, only wooden shutters that were closed tight at night to keep out bugs, snakes and bad winds. The smooth wooden poles that made up the walls of Rosa’s kitchen were unfinished on the inside. Several strings of dried chili peppers hung from the ceiling. Along one wall of the room sat a wooden plank perched on stacks of cinderblocks. The plank held a propane burner, a big plastic basin and several bowls. The propane tank sat on the floor underneath.
Rosa tipped the empty tortilla platter into the plastic basin of soapy water. Maddie washed the platter while Rosa put the lid on the pan of peccary and set it back on the propane burner, now cold, that served as her stove.
Rosa motioned for Maddie to sit on any of the handmade benches and stools that ringed the room. Maddie guessed that the table at which she had eaten lunch usually stood in front of those benches and stools. She chose a seat at the end of a wooden bench. Rosa fumbled in a corner of the kitchen for a few moments then took a seat at the far end of the bench from Maddie, leaving room between them.
Rosa held her fist out to Maddie. She opened her hand to reveal a collection of tiny, roundish objects.
“Dried corn kernels,” said Maddie in recognition. “But what are the little bumpy red things?” Maddie peered at Rosa’s open hand.
“Coral,” Rosa explained. “Beads from coral.” She tossed the corn kernels and coral beads onto the bench between them. “To tell what will happen. I teach you how to use them.”
Maddie looked at the tiny yellow and red objects scattered on the bench. Her vision went alternately fuzzy and clear as patterns appeared in the corn and coral.
Rosa nodded, smiling. “You can see already. Good.”
She gathered up the collection with one smooth action, tucking the corn kernels and coral beads back into a small cloth bag.
“You’ll teach me to read the future in those?” Maddie asked, incredulous.
“Yes, and the past, too. But first you learn many things. You learn the days and the offerings and the saying.”
“Is it a lot?”
“It is a lot but it is not too much to learn. I learn it. José learn it. You can learn it, too.” She smiled at Maddie. “You are smart. You see things. You can learn easy.”
Maddie sighed. “I hope so. This is a lot to handle all at once.” Maddie waved her arms around, indicating not just Rosa’s and José’s teachings but the whole Maya world. “It’s kind of scary.”
“But the gods tell you to do it.”
“I guess so. That’s what Kin says my dreams mean but I don’t really know much about your gods.”
Rosa tapped Maddie’s arm. “The gods are in you, Maddie. They are out there,” she pointed to the sky, “but especially they are in here.” She patted her chest.
“I wish they were easier to hear.”
“Sometime we do not like to listen.” Rosa got up and put the divining bag away in a wooden box. “Come. I show you some other things.”
Maddie followed her out of the kitchen and across the little plaza. Rosa stooped and pointed to the base of the ceiba tree, between its buttress roots.
“Here we make offering.”
Maddie recognized the blackened remains of burnt incense along with scattered bits of cornmeal.
“What are those dark brown shreds?” she asked.
Rosa stood up and headed out into the jungle. Though she was older and somewhat heavyset, she kept up a brisk pace down the narrow jungle path. Maddie trotted to keep up with her. By the time the older woman stopped, Maddie was out of breath. Her shirt was damp with sweat.
Maddie had expected them to come out into a clearing but where Rosa stopped, there was barely enough room for the two of them to stand side by side. Vines tangled under Maddie’s feet and palmetto fronds scratched her legs as she shifted in the tight space. She looked up and realized that Rosa was pointing.
“There,” Rosa said. “We go in.”
Maddie swallowed hard. What she had thought was a shadow turned out to be the entrance to a small cave in the side of a shallow hill.
Rosa stooped to step down through the four-foot-high opening and Maddie did likewise. They took a few steps down the sloping floor then Rosa stopped. Maddie blinked in the darkness, then a flame burst to light. Rosa held up a candle.
Maddie could see a collection of objects on a flat space in the rock – an altar. She stood up straight for a better view and whacked her head on the rock ceiling.
“Careful, Maddie,” said the Maya woman. “This cave is high enough for us but maybe not for you.” Rosa was barely taller than Maddie’s shoulder.
Maddie squinted in the candlelight. The objects piled on the stone looked very much like the collection on the bench in the serpent-house.
Rosa knelt before the altar and spoke in her native tongue. She poured liquor from a bottle into a wooden bowl, scattered a handful of cornmeal around the bowl and bowed several times. Then she swept the dirt off a spot in the stone and picked up something off the altar.
Rosa tossed the handful of corn kernels and coral beads onto the clean spot on the stone. She was silent a few moments, then she gathered the beads and kernels in her hand and deposited them back on the altar. When she turned to Maddie she was smiling.
“Time to go back,” she said.
* * *
Maddie followed Rosa back down the narrow jungle trail to the little plaza with the ceiba tree at its center. Don José was sitting on the crate again. Maddie nodded to him.
“You’re not going to draw me more pictures, are you?”
He grinned and stood up stiffly. Maddie constantly expected to hear his joints creak like an old door hinge.
“No more pictures,” he said. “Come.”
He gestured for the two women to follow him. They walked back over to the serpent-house and went in. Don José turned to Maddie.
“No touch.” He wagged his finger at her. “No touch. I do for you.”
He lit several candles in front of the serpent then said something to Rosa in a mixture of Maya and Spanish. His wife answered him happily, smiling. Don José narrowed his eyes at Maddie, nodded approval and shuffled over to the altar bench. Maddie reached for a bench and sat down, fearful of another visit from the serpent.
Don José stood before the altar and spread his hands out to his sides. He began to chant in a low, gravelly voice. His body swayed from side to side. Maddie did not understand the words to his song but she knew its meaning. He was introducing her to the gods.
He picked up a bottle that contained about an inch of chicha, the homemade corn liquor with which Maddie was already familiar. He drained the bottle, turned and spat out a spray of liquor all over the altar. The candles flamed up briefly as the alcohol caught fire. He raised his hands over his head and began his song again. He stomped around in slow circles, singing.
Maddie watched, waiting for the serpent to slither off the wall and over to her but it never did. After a few minutes Don José grew quiet. He stood before the altar, humming and swaying. Then he ambled over and stood right in front of Maddie. He pointed his finger at her, just a few inches in front of her nose.
“You want learn?”
She swallowed. “Yes.”
“You learn days. Songs. Offerings.”
His face grew serious. “Numbers.”
“Yes, I know numbers.”
He shook his head vigorously and wagged his gnarled finger at her. “Numbers. People. Gods. Same thing.”
“Numbers.” He drew a tally in the air with his fingers. “People.” He thumped himself on the chest. “Gods.” He raised his arms over his head, palms out. “Three face. Same thing.”
“Oh wow,” she whispered.
“Numbers important. Thirteen. Nine. Seven. Four.” He looked hard at her. “Two hundred sixty.”
“Two hundred sixty,” she repeated. “That’s the length of the Venus cycle. Twenty times thirteen.”
“Two hundred sixty days Little Sun.” He pointed to the sky. “Two hundred sixty days corn grow to harvest.” He raised his arms up in imitation of a plant growing. “Two hundred sixty days baby born.” He rounded his arms in front of him, outlining a pregnant woman’s belly.
The hair stood up on the back of Maddie’s neck. She looked up at Don José. He pointed to her.
“Two hundred sixty days learn and practice. Two hundred sixty days work. Then serpent eat you.”
She gasped. “That’s the point, isn’t it? To become one with the serpent.” She peered at the blue-and-green figure on the wall in front of her. It writhed in the flickering candlelight.
Don José tapped the top of Maddie’s head with a gnarled finger. “Two hundred sixty days wake up in your head. Serpent eats you. You eat serpent.”
The stuffy, smoke-filled room closed in on Maddie. The sound of drums pounded in her ears.
Don José pointed to the altar. “You swear to do the work?”
Don José pointed again, shaking his finger toward the center of the altar. “You swear?”
Maddie followed the line of his arm toward a jumbled pile of objects on the altar. The stub of a candle flickered and a toothy grin glowed at Maddie. Her eyes focused and the image resolved. The jumble of objects was a small yellow figurine, draped with an orange cloth, flanked by two oddly-shaped lengths of shiny black obsidian.
“The Golden Jaguar of Itzamna.” Her choked voice was barely a whisper.
Rosa walked over and stood by Maddie. “You must swear before the gods, Maddie. Swear you will do the work and keep the secrets.”
Maddie slid off the bench and onto her knees. She stared at the figurine, its claws spread wide, its mouth open in a sharp-toothed snarl. A predator about to pounce.
The candlelight flickered and a painted image loomed up on the wall, hovering above the small figurine. The yellow jaguar made of paint reared up on its hind legs on the plaster above the altar. Maddie blinked and the spots on the jaguar’s side revealed constellations, galaxies.
“I swear,” she squeaked out. “I swear by all the gods and by the Jaguar of the Day and Night.”
Don José nodded approval. Rosa put her hand on Maddie’s shoulder and helped her back onto the bench. Maddie looked up at them.
“It’s not gold,” she said, perplexed. “It’s yellow but it isn’t gold.”
Don José laughed. “Golden Jaguar of Itzamna more value than gold.”
Maddie looked at him, puzzled. “More valuable than gold? What’s more...oh.” She peered at the little jaguar. It was the size of a kitten, its surface scratched and worn but clean, its features still clear though no longer sharp. “It’s jade, isn’t it?”
“Yellow jade,” said Rosa.
“More valuable than gold,” Maddie muttered. “But this isn’t the only one, is it? There were many of them.”
Don José nodded. “Many jaguar. One jaguar.”
He nodded affirmation. “Many jaguar. One jaguar.” He pointed back toward the center of the plaza. “Many Pom tree. One Pom tree.”
“Each tree is the center of the universe. Each jaguar is the key to the door.” Goosebumps rose on her arms. Abruptly she stood up. “Listen, this is a little freaky. Can we maybe take a break?”
Rosa patted her shoulder. “Listen to your heart. You do what it says. Then you be happy.”
They all went back out into the afternoon sunlight. Maddie leaned against the ceiba tree, clinging to it for support. In a few minutes Kin appeared at the far end of the plaza and came over to them. He nodded to Rosa and Don José, then he gave Maddie a searching look.
She smiled at him. “I’m OK, Kin. It’s just been a long day. Don José and Doña Rosa have taken good care of me.” Maddie’s brow furrowed. “How is your little girl?”
Kin smiled. “Her fever is gone, Phoenix.”
Maddie blew out a breath in relief.
“Phoenix, you stay with us?”
Maddie shrugged her shoulders. “I guess so, Kin. I mean, there’s not much else I can do, is there? I can’t go home, not now, not when there’s so much to do.” She took a deep breath and looked around at the lush jungle that surrounded them. “This place is so familiar, so comfortable. It feels more like home than Florida does,” she admitted.
Rosa patted her on the shoulder. “You stay with us. We take good care of you. You are family.”
Don José ambled over to one of the huts that circled the ceiba tree. Its beams were freshly-hewn, its thatch new and soft. He pushed the wooden door open.
“You stay here,” he said with a grin.
Maddie stared. “You built me a house? But how – how did you know I would come?”
He let out a quiet laugh. Maddie nodded, then her face turned dark.
“I have to go back to the lodge,” she said, “and deal with Tom.”
“Of course,” said Rosa.
Maddie set her jaw. “I’ll be back in the morning for good.”
Don José shut the door to Maddie’s house and nodded. “You talk him from your heart.” He thumped his fist on his chest. “He not hear words but he hear meaning.”
“I sure hope so.”
“You go now. Come back tomorrow.” He waved his hands at Maddie, shooing her away.
Kin gave a slight bow to Rosa, then to Don José he said, “Bye, nol.”
Maddie waved goodbye to them and followed Kin across the plaza.
“Kin, what does that word mean?” she asked as they walked.
“What word, Phoenix?”
“Nol. You said it when we met Don José and again just now as we were leaving. Is it some kind of special title since he’s a daykeeper?”
Kin shook his head, smiling. “Nol means grandfather.”
“So Don José is . . .”
“My grandfather,” he replied.
She walked on, astounded. After a few minutes they reached the edge of Indian Church.
“We can go through town now,” he said. “It is safe.”
“Why wouldn’t it be safe?” She took a step then stopped. “Oh, they would be looking for me. Dr. Davies and…”
Maddie shuddered. “But how do you know it’s OK?”
“My cousin tell me. My family knows what goes on. We make sure you OK.”
He motioned for Maddie to come. She hesitated a moment, blew out a breath and followed him onto the main street in town.
They walked past the church, several small shops and a restaurant. Maddie marveled at all the houses, some of wood and some of concrete block but all the same size and shape, with palm-frond thatch roofs, all just like the ones where Kin lived. Maddie realized that his family’s settlement was on the far side of the village from the lodge. The jungle trail had taken them around the village and directly to Kin’s family.
As they passed through town Kin spoke in greeting to several people. Maddie recognized a few Spanish words from her high school language classes but most of what he said was Mayan. She grew uncomfortable as they walked. Villagers pointed at her and whispered to each other. Small children ran after her but their mothers called them back with sharp words. Tired as she was, she had to trot to keep up with Kin’s pace. When they reached the clearing in front of the lodge Kin stopped.
“I go home now,” he said.
She hesitated. “I know Tom is mad at me but…Kin…there’s that priest. I’m afraid of him. What he might do.” She gave him a pleading look.
“I tell you, Phoenix, no worry about priest.”
“All right,” she said dubiously. “Will you come get me in the morning? I still don’t know my way around.”
“Yes, Phoenix. In the morning.”
She scuffed the toe of her boot in the dirt. “Kin, I’m not a citizen here. My visa expires in a couple days. Then I’ll be in this country illegally.”
Kin patted her on the shoulder. “The Constable is family. I talk to him. He help you.”
“I sure hope he can help. Thanks, Kin.”
He nodded and headed back toward the village again.
Maddie’s stomach growled. She lifted her arm to look at her watch but her wrist was bare. She looked for the sun, which had just slid down behind the tall trees, and couldn’t even guess what time it was.
“OK, Jaguar, give me some courage,” she said.
She took one step toward the lodge and the front door opened. Police Constable Santiago appeared in the doorway. He turned and pulled on something. Joan stomped out onto the porch, handcuffed. Tom followed them out.
Maddie gasped and stepped back toward the trees that ringed the clearing. She did not move fast enough.
“Madeleine Phoenix!” Tom bellowed.
Maddie squared her shoulders and marched across the grass. She stopped at the bottom of the porch steps and looked up at Tom. Her heart pounded in her ears.
“Are you going to have him arrest me, too?”
Tom’s face creased in anger. “God knows, Maddie, if you do anything illegal, I will. As it is, all I can do is order you to get your butt into the lodge for dinner.”
The Constable shoved Joan into his car. Maddie looked and saw that there was another passenger in the back seat. She gasped. Father Angelico. Astounded, she looked over at Constable Santiago.
“Stolen artifacts,” said the Constable. “See you tomorrow.” He winked at her and drove off.
Maddie looked up at Tom. His face was red. Deep lines creased his forehead and the space between his eyebrows.
Maddie shook her head. “I can’t believe you had Dr. Lancaster arrested.”
“It was that or have us all deported. They’ll deliver her to the airport and make sure she’s on the plane with us. I’m damn lucky they’re not fining us or throwing her in jail.” He tugged at his hair. “We’re not welcome back for further fieldwork. Or for any other reason.”
He turned and walked heavily into the lobby, his shoulders bent. Maddie followed him through the doorway and froze. Pete and Ben stood together, spectators at the latest sport. Shonna hovered behind them, trying to be inconspicuous in a red-and-yellow Hawaiian print tunic.
Tom waved his hand at them. “Dinner in ten minutes. I’m tired and pissed off so disperse and behave yourselves.”
Ben gave Maddie a meaningful look. She turned away. He shrugged and walked over to the dining room. Pete followed him.
Tom turned to Maddie. She saw dark circles under his eyes and two days’ growth of graying beard on his face.
“Maddie, are you ready to be reasonable? You’ve put me in a really bad spot here and this is already a trying situation.”
“I never meant to cause you any trouble.”
“You did a damn good job without trying. At least you’re back now so we can get on with our plans.”
She stuck her hands in her pockets. “My plans don’t involve going back to Gainesville.”
“What? See here, young lady, I’ve had enough of your games. You’re going to toe the line and follow my instructions.”
“And if I don’t, what are you going to do, Tom, lock me in my room again? You can’t stop me.”
“Maddie, don’t you care about anyone but yourself? You’ll ruin my career! I could lose my job!”
“I’ve already talked to my parents. I’m of legal age and I’m choosing to take time off from school for other pursuits.” She had rehearsed her speech on the walk back to the lodge. “I don’t owe any money to the university and we’re between semesters. I’ll sign whatever you want so you’ll be off the hook. And maybe I’ll go back later to finish college, but not right now.”
He pressed his lips together. “Your visa expires in less than a week.”
“Let me worry about that.” She looked up at him. “You could stay and learn, too. The Maya like their daykeepers to work as couples.”
Tom’s eyebrows shot up. Before he could speak, Shonna trotted over to them and set her hands on Maddie’s shoulders. Her bangle bracelets clacked in Maddie’s ear.
“Now, Tom,” Shonna scolded, “Maddie is on to something.”
“Stay out of this,” Tom growled.
“I will not.” She set her hands on her hips and faced him squarely. “You’ve never been able to stand anyone disagreeing with you.”
“I’m a scholar and a scientist, Shonna. New ideas must be tested with the proper scientific methods before they can be accepted as truth.”
Maddie backed away as Tom’s voice rose.
Shonna persisted. “And what about Maddie’s personal truth, Tom? Are you going to straightjacket her with your theories and books and refuse to listen to her?”
“Shonna,” he snarled, “don’t go comparing yourself to Maddie. She’s a scientist like me. She’ll be going on to grad school. She’ll have a real career.”
“And I don’t? That’s it, isn’t it, Tom? Anyone who doesn’t toe the line you draw doesn’t count for anything in your world.” She wagged her finger at him. “You couldn’t box me in and you’re not going to do it to Maddie, either.”
“What I do with Maddie is none of your business!”
Just then Pete appeared in the doorway of the dining room. He waved Tom, Shonna and Maddie toward him and made exaggerated motions of forking food into his mouth and chewing.
Shonna shook her head. “They’re serving dinner. Come on.”
Tom and Shonna sat at opposite ends of the table and avoided each other’s eyes during dinner. The rest of the team chatted with forced cheer, reminiscing about the high points of the trip. Toward the end of the meal Tom offered a toast.
“Here’s to the end of a successful expedition and a safe trip home.”
They all raised their glasses. Maddie caught Tom’s eye. He looked away.
When the meal ended, Ben parked himself in the lobby with some magazines and travel brochures. Pete disappeared back toward his room as usual. Shonna failed to corner Tom in the lobby. Disappointed, she swished off to the library, gripping her notepad and a pen.
Maddie escaped to the front porch and leaned over the railing, resting her chin on her hands. The twilight sounds of the jungle welcomed her and the cooling air caressed her skin. The front door creaked open and footsteps sounded behind her.
“May I join you?” Tom’s voice was gentle.
“Sure. Step into my office.”
He moved up to the railing and leaned against it next to her. He cleared his throat.
“So, Maddie, tell me about your day of adventure. We missed you.”
She let out a long sigh. “I had an enlightening day.”
“Where did you go?” He tried, and failed, to make his voice sound casual.
“To Indian Church. Actually, to a little Maya settlement just outside the village. I met their daykeeper and his wife.”
“Really?” He did not attempt to hide his skepticism.
“Yes, really. I guess you think I’m on some kind of wild goose chase.”
“I’m just concerned that someone may be taking advantage of you.”
She shook her head. “I told you, this all started before I even applied to go on this trip. Those Maya called me Ch’ul Ix Kukul in that dream. When I told Kin about the name he freaked out. It took me the longest time to figure out what it means.”
“Ch’ul Ix Kukul,” repeated Tom. “Well, kukul means quetzal.”
“Holy Quetzal Woman. It’s a priestess name.”
He sucked air. “Of course.” His fingers tapped on the railing. “So what did you do with the daykeeper?”
“Not much, really,” she lied. “Worked with some herbs. Watched him and his wife do some rituals. I had a vision in their temple. It was a hut, really, but it was a temple, too.”
“Yes. Damn it, Tom, quit acting like I’m stupid – or crazy. You’ve studied shamanism, haven’t you? It’s for real!”
“Yes, some highly-trained indigenous people do experience shamanic visions. I don’t doubt that.”
“But some naïve kid from Ocala can’t, is that it? Well, I’m going to take their training, Tom. It’s what I’m meant to do.”
“And I can’t talk you out of it?”
She shook her head. “Nope.”
“Maybe you just need the right kind of convincing.”
He cradled her face in his hands and kissed her slowly. She moved up against him and twined her arms around his waist. After several long moments he shifted back and looked her right in the eye.
“Maddie, please don’t go.”
She caught her breath. Her heartbeat drummed in her ears. She felt his muscles beneath her hands, heard his breath coming fast and rough. She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, Tom.”
She pulled her arms away from him and took a step back. He reached for her hands and stepped up closer to her. The porch light flicked on, its reflection glinting in his steely blue eyes. He leaned forward until his forehead touched hers.
“Please don’t go,” he said again. Then, “I love you, Madeleine Phoenix.”
A knife twisted in Maddie’s heart. She reached her arms around his neck and held him tight. Tears streamed down her face. He held her close, smelling her hair, feeling her body against his. After an achingly long moment she pulled away from him.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I made a vow to the Jaguar.” She turned and fled through the lobby and down the corridor to her room.
* * *
December 30, 2010
Tom stood in the doorway, blocking Maddie’s exit from her room. “I sure hope you’re taking that suitcase out to the Jeep.”
Maddie smiled a thin, sad smile. Her voice was quiet, little more than a whisper. “Tom, please don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”
“I have a hard time believing your parents gave you permission to stay.”
“They didn’t. But I’m nineteen and they don’t support me. Financially I’m on my own so they can’t stop me.”
“Has it occurred to you that your parents could sue the university? Maddie, I could lose my job. Don’t you even care?”
“You know better than that.” She fished in her jacket pocket and pulled out two envelopes. “Could you mail these for me when you get back to Gainesville?”
He took the envelopes and read the addresses. “Dean of the College and…your parents?”
She pointed to the envelopes. “In both letters I explain that my parents forced me to go to college. Now I’ve decided it’s not what I want to do, at least not right now, and I feel this is the only way I can get out from under them and their meddling in my life. I’m not legally obligated to them or the university.”
Tom shook his head. “I don’t know if they’ll buy this, Maddie.”
“If they’re concerned about my safety they can call Constable Santiago in Indian Church. I’ll be living just outside the village.”
“What about your visa?”
“I guess I’ll apply to be a resident. The Constable is one of Kin’s relatives. I’m sure he’ll be able to help.”
Tom shook his head. “You think you have this all worked out, don’t you?”
“No, actually, I don’t. I’m trusting my intuition. This feels so right that I just can’t do anything else.”
He threw his hands up in despair. “You’re wrecking my career based on intuition?”
“It’s a strong voice, Tom. And it’s a lot easier to hear when I don’t have people yelling at me.”
He ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t have any legal recourse here, Maddie. Please help me out.”
“That’s what the letters are for. And the Constable will back me up.”
“I guess I don’t have any choice but to do damage control on my end.”
“I’m sorry, Tom. I’m trying to make this easy for you.”
“Easy.” He laughed. “All right, I give up. I don’t know what else I can do.”
Maddie hefted her suitcase.
He put his hand on her arm. “At least let me carry that for you.”
She acquiesced, handing him the heavy bag. He picked it up and looked at her.
“Outside. Kin is coming for me.”
Tom nodded and marched toward the lobby with the suitcase. Maddie followed, watching his shoulder muscles flex through his shirt.
They went out through the front door and down the porch steps. Tom set the suitcase down. He looked down at the ground. He knocked a small rock away with the toe of his boot. When he looked up, his eyes met hers. He reached out and took her hands in his.
He pressed his lips together. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“You’re not losing me, Tom.” She blinked back tears. “There are just more important things right now.”
She pulled away from his grip and scanned the surrounding trees. Kin was standing at the edge of the clearing, silent, waiting. She picked up the suitcase and turned to go. Tom put a hand on her shoulder.
“I can’t just let you walk off into the jungle like that.”
He stared in silence then shook his head. “Winter Solstice 2012?” Steam began to rise from the damp vegetation as the sun crested the treetops. Droplets of sweat beaded on his forehead. “I guess I’ll have to come back here, won’t I?”
She smiled. “I’ll be waiting.” She turned and slipped, almost silently, into the lush green underbrush.