(A Mayan Tale)
From her hiding place just inside the cave entrance, Itzel had a clear view of the narrow beach. She could hear the ocean echo through the limestone tunnels below her, as wave after wave attacked the hollow cliff. A few small shrubs, stunted by the sea wind, had grasped a foothold and clung to the rock wall. They hung over the cave entrance and made Itzel invisible to anyone looking up from below. Because she did not want to be seen, she was also wrapped in a dark indigo cloak that covered her white huipil.
She had found the cloak rolled into a ball and stuffed into a small opening under the altar in her father’s temple. The cloak had once belonged to her mother, who died of a mysterious illness during the last tun. Itzel had been ill too, but when the red marks disappeared from her skin, she recovered. Her mother, and many others, never did. Had her mother left the cloak for her to find? Now it enabled Itzel to hide in the darkness and avoid the wrath of her father who disapproved of her presence in the temple.
Itzel knew that her mother had been aware of her willful daughter’s curiosity. She had warned Itzel repeatedly not to hide in the temple when her father, the high priest of Tulum, performed his ceremonial rituals, especially the sacrifices. Her father’s clan had been high priests as long as anyone could remember, and their story was told on the stone stela at the entrance to the largest temple of this, the only walled city of the dwindling Mayan empire. With its back to the sea and facing Tulum’s central plaza, her father’s temple towered over all other buildings.
For many centuries, longer than Itzel, who had lived less than one katun, could imagine, the men of her family had been community leaders, responsible for all ceremony. But there had not been a human sacrifice recently, to Itzel’s disappointment. No wars had been fought in her short lifetime, so no prisoners had shed blood to honour their captors’ victory. However, there had recently been a time of great drought, so animals were sacrificed to Chac, the rain god. Itzel had hidden in a dark corner of the temple, out of sight of the men who would have been enraged to see a female in that hallowed space, and secretly observed the ritual sacrifice. She watched as a wild boar was lifted, grunting and squealing, to the altar. She listened as her father intoned the sacred words. When, without warning, the glittering obsidian blade descended, and the squealing rose to a crescendo, she held her breath. In the subsequent silence, she slid unnoticed through a small opening in the rear wall. It had been exciting, she decided, but a human sacrifice would have been better.
Now she was hiding and watching her father again, not from the recesses of the temple, but from her secret cave. Her father stood on the beach below, surrounded by the men of Tulum. All were in ceremonial robes and feathered headdresses. Her father’s headdress was the longest, and flowed like a rainbow down his back. Like Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, Itzel thought as she watched from above. May he have the cunning of the serpent today, she prayed, but feared for him and for all the men. She was afraid that a calamity was to befall.
That morning, Chichen men had come from the west and stood in the central plaza, before the temple. The citizens of Tulum, Itzel among them, gathered around the visitors to listen to their tales of strange, pale creatures that had arisen from the sea.
“Canoes such as we have never seen before, sailing on the wind, barely touching the water! A leader with golden hair!” they heard.
Itzel had watched her father greet the visitors, excitement in his face and his voice. “Did they speak to you? What was said?”
“They speak in a tongue we do not recognize,” the visitors replied. “But do you not think it is the prophecy come to life? The serpent god made the promise many katuns ago – that he would come back to us – from the eastern sea!”
“Yes, yes,” agreed Itzel’s father, his eyes shining. “It is possible that Kukulcan has returned. Where are these beings now?”
“Some remained in the west. They brought many curious items from their canoe – cloth and many-coloured stones and strange drink. They wanted to trade and without words made it clear to us that they desired our jade and gold decorations – even those from around our necks! Many of our people traded with the strangers. Our priest sent us to bring the news to you and ask you to join him in making the visitors welcome. He is sure they will come here to Tulum. It is, after all, the largest trading center on our coast. Their strange canoe is so vast that they must be carrying many things to trade. While our people were trading, some of the visitors returned to the white canoe. It moved like the wind! We could see no oars,” the Chichen leader said, waving his arms wildly.
“It disappeared?” Itzel’s father asked.
“Yes, into the sea. It is bound to come here, so the visitors may greet the high priest of Tulum.” The men bowed to Itzel’s father.
“We shall watch the shore. Many canoes come here every day to trade. We shall watch for one that is different from the rest. It is bigger, you say?”
“Yes, much bigger, and curiously white. You will be amazed.”
Itzel’s father raised his arms and called out, “Men of Tulum, let us gather at the shore and welcome the strangers. Don your best robes. We should do no less if it truly is Kukulcan.”
Itzel looked on as the men scattered. She, too, returned home. In her sleeping area, out of sight of her father, she donned her best huipil, the last one her mother had made for her. She fingered the indigo threads woven into the neckline, and thought longingly of her mother. If only she were here now, to share her wisdom. Itzel wiped tears from her long lashes, then reached under her sleeping platform and drew out two armbands – one gold, one jade. These, too, had belonged to her mother. She would carry her mother’s wisdom with her, she thought, as she pushed them gently up her arms, one on each side. She joined the crowd of women and children milling in the plaza.
Soon the men emerged from their homes, bedecked in their most colourful robes and headdresses, adorned with jade beads and quetzal feathers. Some had painted traditional markings on their faces with red clay. The men walked to the center of the plaza and waited quietly, respectfully, as Itzel’s father climbed the steps. He stood facing the altar for a moment, then turned to those assembled below, and spoke. Itzel, at the edge of the watching crowd, wasn’t able to hear his words, but she was surprised that he did not even sacrifice an animal. Shouldn’t the gods be consulted before such a momentous event? Alarmed, she watched as the men trudged single file down the steep path to the beach. She picked several lilies from her mother’s garden and followed. The sun was bright, yet she shivered.
Itzel did not go all the way to the beach. Halfway there, she turned to the cliff that bordered the beach to the north. She climbed swiftly to the secret cave. As she crawled into the shadowy interior of the cave, she could see the line of men approaching the beach. None looked up and she knew her presence had gone unnoticed.
At the rear of the cave, the ceiling rose sharply and Itzel stood up. She walked forward slowly, carefully, until she came to the break in the floor. This was her secret place. A pool of water lay below, dark and deep. Here, far inside the cave, the sea was only a faint echo. Dim light shone from an opening in the cliff far above. Once, Itzel had been here as night fell. She had watched, fascinated, as the moon appeared through the clef above. Ix Chel, the moon goddess for whom she was named, had smiled down at her and then led her home in the darkness. This had been a sign to Itzel – she knew that Ix Chel would be her special guardian. Now Itzel needed her help.
She feared for her father. Something was not right. He did not see danger, but Itzel felt it. She would ask the moon goddess for guidance. She dropped two lilies into the pool of water. They landed gently, barely disturbing the water’s surface. Then, as if pulled by an unseen hand, they began to sink. As she held her breath, the lilies disappeared. A puff of wind wafted through the cave and lifted several strands of Itzel’s long hair and then, just as quickly, the air was still again. Itzel stepped back from the edge of the pool, her hand pressed against her mouth. Ix Chel’s message was clear. Danger!
She turned back to the mouth of the cave, pressing her body against the stone wall behind the concealing shrubs. She looked out. What she saw stole her breath. The white canoe had appeared, far out on the horizon. It shone in the sun. The Chichen visitors had spoken the truth. She could see no oars, and the canoe seemed to float with the wind. It was coming towards the shore, looming larger as it neared.
Itzel looked down and saw her father and the men of Tulum standing expectantly on the sand, gazing out to sea. She saw their excitement, their arms waving as they spoke, but she was unable to hear them. She wanted to shout to her father: No, Father, no! But she knew it would be pointless. Just as she could not hear them, they would be unable to hear her over the roar of the ocean. As she watched, her fear grew, and her hopelessness. Evil was coming, and only she knew. As Itzel watched the white canoe approach, the waves below her thundered with ever-growing fury.
 huipil – a cotton shift worn by Maya women
 tun – approximately 1 year (360 days)
 stela – a carved stone column whose hieroglyphics tell a story (i.e. the life of a great leader)
 katun – approximately 20 tun (20 years)