Encounter at Dzibilchaltún
Translated by: Cecilia Chapa
Artwork by Angel Oswaldo Serrano Borja
On September 21, I got up before four. I had to be at the Seven Dolls Temple to witness the sun emerging through the central window. I could not miss such a phenomenon which has gone on inexorably for centuries and will continue to repeat itself before the eyes of tourists, scholars, and merchants to the amazement of all those who never cease to admire the Mayans’ extraordinary abilities in celestial calculation.
As soon as I arrived at the archaeological site of Dzibilchaltún just north of Mérida, I felt a little muddle-headed and drowsy from waking up so abruptly. I was surprised not to find the place brimming with tourists or scholars of the aforementioned astronomical phenomenon. Had I got the date wrong? No, I had it right. My Palm Pilot had reminded me of it with its obsessive ring: date in Dzibilchaltún: solar equinox.
Entering the archaeological site, I hurriedly checked the map to get my bearings. To the north, by the principle sak bé, lies the Temple of the Dolls. Can’t miss it. Nevertheless, I lost my bearings. I did not find the sak bé, or Mayan road; instead, I noticed a series of huts -palapas- as they call them here. The locals who were starting their daily chores looked at me strangely. I tried to ask something, but they didn't understand. Without a word they returned to their work and I continued on my way. The sun was already a thin line on the horizon, but I no longer cared about watching the solar phenomenon. All I wanted now was to find my way home.
I moved south and discovered the central square. In the twilight I recognized the chapel in the middle of the esplanade. I have always been amazed by the details on its façade: the arch of a Catholic church built on a Mayan platform. As I drew closer, it became evident that something was wrong, very wrong, because the temple stood there in all its majesty, without any signs of ruin or wear and tear. In front I could see another palapa construction which at times served as the main body of the chapel.
“Who art thou?” asked a voice.
Through the shadows cast by the guano that covered the shed I could make out a monk, that is to say, what appeared to be a Franciscan friar looming in the morning fog, dressed in a greyish cassock with a hood that hid his head and part of his face. Fear paralyzed me.
“I came to watch the solar phenomenon …”
The friar or being from another world came closer and looked me over from head to toe. His strangeness was obvious. I thought of all the times I have felt like a strange creature, for not being from here or there, neither a tourist nor a native of the Yucatán.
“What phenomenon dost thou refer to?” he cried out angrily.
That’s when I saw other monks dressed in the same clothes and various people with Mayan features, who were watching me with suspicion and awe. I looked at them in horror and they returned my gaze with a sudden, violent action.
The friar, who seemed to be the chief, gave orders for my capture.
I tried to escape, but they seized me and overpowered me in a matter of seconds. I don't know what happened next. I felt myself being transported along paths and through dawns. I managed to make out some rings encrusted in the top of a wall - the ball game. Edifices from the pre-classical and classical periods stood there, majestic. Some were still whole, oblivious to the passing of time. Even the stelas showed almost perfect inscriptions on the smooth rock. What a treasure it would be for an archaeologist to find the sharp outlines of the glyphs and petroglyphs in their original essence! Suddenly, I was no longer afraid and I focused on the details this spectacle offered my eyes. Even in the darkness, it was possible to admire all the cultural richness thanks to the glow of my captors' torches. I noticed the cornices of the platforms where the impressive god Chaac stood, erect, at every corner of the squares. The fangs of Kukulkan, the snake, stuck out from every frieze and I could clearly see the way the amphibians' bodies were entwined forming Xs over the rectangular platform. We went by the Cenote, or ceremonial well called Xlacah, where I spotted water lilies floating on its crystal clear surface. Their name in Maya has a melodic ring: Nic Te Ha or something like that. Soon, the lilies vanished and my fear of heights assailed me as the abyss opened up before my eyes. I was no longer at the Xlacah Cenote, but at the edge of the deep and fearsome Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itzá. Besieged by memories of legends about nubile maidens offered to the underworld gods, I was afraid they would throw me into its depth. Luckily, I was neither nubile nor a maiden. My executioners held back when a shadow resembling a serpent emerged. Was it Tsukán, keeper of the Cenote, rejecting their gift?
We resumed our journey among pyramids and buildings, fabulous with their bas-relief walls of jaguars and skulls crowned by eagles and plumed serpents. I tried to examine my captors, but the friars were gone. Now I was being hauled along by mysterious beings clad in rudimentary cotton costumes. They spoke an unfamiliar language riddled with xchs and chss. I watched as they prepared a ritual by placing balms over a fire while chanting and dancing. A priest or a monarch, wearing a penacho on his head, issued orders left and right from a bench of stone. They placed me in front of Chac mol, my favourite Mayan effigy. This time, I was not excited at the sight of its open hands laid over a flat chest, forming an altar, awaiting an offering. The head turned towards me revealed a mocking face with an insinuation of a smile.
Suddenly, I became aware of where I was: right in front of the Seven Dolls Temple. As I set my eyes on it, I was blinded by the radiance of a mighty Sun appearing inside the frame of stone, filling it entirely. Everything else dissolved in the darkness. I closed my eyes, lost in the unconscious knowledge of being a bearer of a millenary secret.
The ritual continued and I became aware of an increasing murmur of chants and prayers in articulated monosyllables: Xcs, Gis, Pucs, Kah, Gee, Huís, Uhh, Woau. I opened my eyes and found myself amid the gibberish of perplexed American and European tourists murmuring interjections in their guttural languages. Oh, Woo, Gee!!! With their cameras ready and outfitted with prodigious lenses they were trying to capture the instant in which the god Kiin flaunted his supreme might.
My captors had disappeared. I stood, astonished, before the Temple of the Sun. I watched the star rise in the sky until it got lost in its entourage of clouds. Then I joined the crowd of onlookers who were watching the equinox phenomenon on that morning of September 21.
A Colombian journalist and writer, Elvira Sánchez-Blake is Associate Professor of Latin American literature and culture at Michigan State University. She is the author of Patria se escribe con sangre (Anthropos, 2000), testimonials from women in the Colombian conflict. Also, she is the co-author of the anthology Voces Hispanas Siglo XXI: Entrevistas con autores en DVD (Yale University Press, 2005) and of the critical edition El universo literario de Laura Restrepo (Taurus, 2007). As a creative writer, Elvira Sánchez-Blake has published poems in Nuevas voces de fin de siglo (Epsilon Eds, 1999), and in Vuelos de Libertad (Beaumont, 2009). A selection of short stories, including Encuentro en Dzibichaltún appeared in Reflejos (Beaumont, 2006) and in Más allá de las fronteras (Nuevo Espacio, 2004). Her novel Espiral de silencios (Spiral of Silences) was published in 2009 by Beaumont.
Cecilia Chapa was born in Monterrey, México. Translation has been a natural everyday activity all of her life because she was raised in a Spanish-English environment. Soon after moving to the US, 13 years ago, the need for translators and interpreters triggered her urge to learn how to better carry a message from one language into another. She is a Translation Studies graduate student who wants to pursue a career in literary translation.