Mama Pop wasn’t that impressed by the boy: a dreamy beach bum, was her take. But the girl? Que horror! The slut skirt, those Nazi boots, the stubborn look… one of those little renegades who wanted to throw over centuries of tribe for the latest gringo fad or perversion, is what it all looked like. She let Puch deal with it, pretending not to listen from the porch while using an old corncob to scrub the kernels off maize for tortillas.

Puch couldn’t figure it out either: these two just show up and seem to expect the Pops to put them up, take them in to what they were doing. He stood talking to this Ganzo under the workers’ palapa while his little ponkita girlfriend wandered around the edge of the sinkhole, peering down at The Works.

“So Curtsy told you to come see me. Did she say why?”

“No. She said she didn’t know why, but it seemed like the right thing.”

Puch eyed Ganzo closely, his scan mixed with a little male territoriality. “So how long have you known Curtsy?”

“Only weeks. Since she came to live at my house.”

Great. Well…

“She said we should talk to your mother.”

“She said what?” Puch was flabbergasted and didn’t mind it showing. “My mother never liked her, said I was crazy to be involved with her, and since she left me, she really doesn’t like her.”

“It’s what she said.”

Puch looked around, then motioned him over to the lip of the pit. Ganzo stood on the drop and solemnly surveyed the construction site below, which had become a ball court almost indistinguishable from the ancient ones at the ruin sites. He pointed to the growing pile of stone at the far end, where it rose to the level ground in tapering tiers and said, “It’s a pyramid that leads up to the head of a queen. A god, you know?”

Puch stared at him, then back at the stone breaks. He could almost see it himself. “What makes you say that?”

“I just see it,” Puch said. “I look at things and see the shape wanting to come out.”

Well, that sounded possibly useful. “So you make things? Masonry? What?”

To answer, Ganzo pulled a rolled towel out of the blanket purse he had slung over his shoulder. He held his forearm parallel to the ground and let the towel unroll over it, the way he always displayed his wares. Puch stared at dangling necklaces and bracelets, earrings clipped on to the towel: treasures crafted from the leavings of the sea. He bent to examine them more closely, touched one that really caught his eye; a classically stylized bee Ganzo had scraped out of a pork bone using broken files and old drill bits.

“They’re beautiful,” he said. “This one looks like it should be in a gallery.”

“I made it for Xchab,” Ganzo said. “I’m saving it to give to her when…”

Puch looked up at him but that was apparently all he had to say. Suddenly he was aware of his mother standing right behind him. She also reached to touch the little bee, made of bone scorched golden brown with a hot machete blade. She also looked up at Ganzo, and said, “What’s her name?”

“Xchab Cab.”

“We keep bees,” mayancalendargirls.comshe told Ganzo and Puch knew it was somehow part of her questionnaire for these two.

And the Pops did have beehives. For generations they had husbanded the rare, stingless Yucatan bees as the Maya always had, harvested the treasured black honey.

Puch nodded and motioned towards the back of the property, where the hives were set among the blossoms of the jungle. But his gesture stopped in mid-air as he stared at Xchab, now standing directly above the tapering ridge where Ganzo had seen a headdressed goddess head, looking down at their constructions and moving in a slow, silent dance.

And behind her, like a moving black shroud, a living version of the mantle of the Virgin, was a swarm of bees. She moved like a swimmer in thick syrup, her movements stately and composed for such a young girl. And each time she swung an arm out from her side, it was the lead edge of glistening black wing. When she clapped her hands over her head, two columns of bees clashed behind her, splashing upwards into the sun. She twisted and trotted and windmilled her arms, all shadowed by that teeming cloud of wings.

Mama Puch watched her for over a minute, then turned to Puch, not looking at Ganzo. “Find the boy a place in the shed with your workers and ball-players,” she said, turning away towards the house. Over her shoulder she added, “The girl can have Yoli’s old room.”

Puch looked at Ganzo, regarding him blankly, and grinned. He stuck out his hand and Ganzo grasped it. “So we stay here?”

“No doubt of it, amigo. Dinner is in an hour.”

“Then I have another message for you.” He rolled the towel carefully, stuck it back in his shoulder bag, pulled out a piece of creamy stationery with the Blancaneaux logo across the top, and handed it to Puch.

I thought you’d find it in you to take care of this pair. You’re a sweetheart.
Kurtz
P.S. I don’t think I’m done with you yet. So watch your ass.

Puch read it twice then looked at Ganzo, keeping his face impasive. Ganzo said, “She said only give you the letter if you invited us.”

Puch shook his head with a smile that wasn’t really amused, but not quite sad. “She doesn’t really know me. Yet.”

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Paco had thought summers were brutal back in Sinaloa. Ha. It got damn hot and soppy in Mazatlan and Culiacán, but nothing like over here on the Caribe. It was like being in a hot towel all day and most of the night. Shower off, the water’s lukewarm and you’re sweaty before you can dry off. He was getting really, really tired of always having his balls dripping with salt itch.

But sweltering here in Quintana Roo had two big advantages. He had a job. Which was not something to be lightly sought over on the Pacífico coast. Seasonal, undepaid, silly… but it was a job and occasionally attracted a few groupies.

And he could devote himself to The Game.

It’s funny but he had always thought of it as “The Game” even though everybody knew it was called ulama. But over here everybody just called it “the prehistoric ball game” or “the Mayan ballgame.” And even funnier, he hadn’t met a Mayan yet who actually played The Game. Or even knew how it was played. But that was the great part, really. In fact it was downright chidisimo because that meant when Xcaret–which he thought of as the Mayan-Gringo Disneylandia–wanted to stage games on their authentic phony ball court they had to import players from Sinaloa. So here he was. Digging it.

Another funny thing, Puch knew more about the history of the game than he did, and he was a star player in the top league in Sinaloa. They’d played at the carnival in Mazatlan, the second biggest in the world, for the Governor, for the U.S. and Canadian Ambassadors. And took home beer money. Or less. Here he was making a living and scoring with chicks from like Norway and Japan and Alaska and shit.

Puch said ulama de cadera, the style they played, was a direct descendant of the oldest ball game in history. How’s that for chingón? Centuries before anybody played baseball or futbol or basquet or, whatever, golf. And think about it, where else were they going to get a rubber ball? The only rubber in the world was here in the Yucatan. And playing The Game wasn’t just something to do on Sundays, have a few beers and go humiliate those nacos from the Guasave team: it had been like, a religion. Kings and warriors and priests. Sacrificing the losers. Or was it the winners? Anyway, it was a big deal.

And look where he was playing now. Well, during high season, anyway. A brand new court made to look like old stone, colored lights on the game, cute Mayan “cheerleaders” (actually those porristas were about as Mayan as he was… mostly kids who wanted to get on with foclorico troupes up in Guadalajara or the D.F.). Stars, they were. Fireworks and big applause and flashes going off. Get nice tips for posing with people. Sometimes some really nice tips from gringas and europeas. And everybody here was a major stud from back in old “Chinaloa”, too.

They hand-picked the best for this–after all, they paid the best. Xcaret didn’t assign teams, let them clump up on their own. So it was pretty much the top players from the Coast against the cream of the hillbillies. Mani had said it, and it was true: Xcaret was the SuperBowl of ulama. Right here in Mayalandia, where it all started, then died out.

Puch told him that wasn’t uncommon for this area. He said horses got started there, then went to Spain or somewhere and died out here. But the Spaniards brought them back. It was how things worked over here, is the way it looked. Like the Judios going back to Israel or something. And now Puch was building his own ballcourt, is how it looked.

It started out when Puch, who they knew because he led snorkle tours at Xel Ha and Xcaret and was a very solid guy, muy gente and buena onda, had invited a bunch of players over to this Crocun place to eat and suck up a few sixes of Superior. Tasted like dishwater compared to Sinaloa’s own Pacífico, but it was the local fave, La Rubia de Categoria. And they all came back. You would too, if you tasted Señora Pop’s chow. Riquisimo!

And they’d started playing down in this big pit behind the restaurant. It used to be a stone quarry, but had been scraped out and there was this pond at one end where some crocodiles and iguanas hung out, but the rest was this almost perfect box where they could run around, practice passing the ball from hip to hip, take shots at a basketball hoop Puch had mounted sideways on the wall of the quarry, instead of the traditional stone ring.

They taught Puch the game, and he wasn’t bad at it, either. And he taught them a lot more. He’d been off to la uni but mostly he just ran around learning stuff about his people and his country here. And they’d all tidied up the quarry a little. Puch conned some guy with AguaCan to bring a little mini-dozer in, but they did a lot of sort of moving rocks around, pounding the floor of the quarry flatter with big mauls. The way they’d cut the stone out, there were already tiers, and sometimes their wives and girlfriends and an occasional stray tourist chick would sit up there under this palapa Puch had set up, watch them play and toss them cold chevesnow and then.

There was something different about playing here. Not like Xcaret, which was more a spectacle than a sport, like those cape and mask bruisers in the Lucha Libre. And different from back home, where it was this community thing. Here is was straight-out deportiva, man on man, teamwork against teamwork. They loved playing down here and came over every Sunday, and a lot of times during the week, maybe just to help groom the court. It was actually starting to look like the real thing. And hey, wasn’t it the real thing? Weren’t they indigenous Mexicans, weren’t they true players?

Lately it had been more fun because a bunch of the dancers and musicians had started showing up as well. Not in the whole feathers and animal head drag like at Xcaret, just jeans and skirts and sometimes swimsuits. Nobody swam in the croc pond, though. Nice bunch of kids, mostly from like conservatories in Merida and Mexico, girls studying dance and playing Xcaret for the money, like us. Not a real Mayan in the crowd.

They’d been doing a little grooming of their own recently, making a sort of platform above the goal end of the ball court, trying out routines up there, dancing around a fire at night while the musicos jammed and we sat around and watched and clapped.

The weird thing was, you couldn’t have paid him to do stonework in this heat. Be a damn albañil getting the minimo for sweating like a negro. But they were doing it for fun. It just sort of felt like something they should do. And if they needed to get rid of a rock, there was always a place for it. And if we needed rocks, they could just pull them out of the slope of the hill. Puch sort of set aside areas to take rock and fill out of, one on each side of a sort of outcropping above the end of the cancha and dance platform. One day Mani was standing there bumping a ball up and down off his hip pads, but he pointed up the court, and said, “This place is starting to look like Palenque or something.”

And it did, like they were carving a Mayan site out of live rock. Paco mentioned this to Puch and he just smiled. Told him, “Stick around.”

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Just because Yanche floated adrift in the ebbing surf of time didn’t mean that all moments were equal. For one thing, her consciousness was definitely attracted and bound to the Yucatan, and seemed mostly to involve the experiences of young women. Like a person awakening in a dark space, she could sense greater dimensions around her, but didn’t feel any urge to explore the darkness in search of walls and limits. It wasn’t that she couldn’t exist in earlier time, or in the old age of the lives she browsed through as idly as a jellyfish pulsing along on the tide; it was that her attention was elsewhere. Or elsewhen.

One limit that she was well aware of was the end of time itself. She knew where it was and what was happening there, but felt no attraction to the final taper, no impulse to savor the ultimatum.

There were even certain ephemeral moments that drew in her attention the way a lantern draws a moth across wide, dark fields: little nexi of consciousness that held her gaze and riveted her perception even amid the raucous sweep of jungly centuries.

One moment she constantly returned to (as if she ever really left) was simple, even humble, but evidently exercised some powerful esthetic for her. So much of her attention hovered just above a mosquito coil burning on a battered wooden table. It filled her “eyes”; she couldn’t look away as the glowing end of the black spiral moved steadily inward, a ruddy ember circling patiently inward, consuming it’s fuel in a measured march towards the center.

There was something about the hot red point eating its way along its pre-destined helix, turning the toxic incense into smoke and dropping a fine line of ash on the table below it, forming an after-image, a chalk shadow commemorating it’s cyclical passage to the center, where it would expire from lack of fuel and further destination.

Why that particular burning coil held her gaze, rather than the thousands of them all over the peninsula, had a lot to do with one of the few males that focused and enabled her attention: Puch Pop. She was grown very fond of Puch, as anybody would understand if they shared her timeless point of view.

One thing to admire: he used his real Mayan name. Unlike his brother, Juanito, who relished his Spanish name and would just as soon have forget that he had an Indian name at all–like so many Mayans with a shot at assimilation. Not that much of a shot in Mexico, where the world indio is a racial slur meaning “stupid” and “inferior”, where the spectrum of skin color blended up from dark to white by the blur of mestizaje amounted to a de facto caste system. But not all indios lived like ghosts in the jungle or wore huipiles to work cleaning hotel rooms or labored as construction peons for minimum wage. And the ones who did were called by Jorge or Maria, not Itzel or Kisin or Yum.

Even the once-great Mayan surnames were disappearing, thrust away into dark attics, buried under tiers of stone. Cham, Pook, Chal, Itza, Mams, Miss, Ek, Pop: these had been great names, royal names. Many were the names of glyphs carved into stone steles and calendars and temple walls. Now they were an embarrassment to those who tried to morph into a new mutt tribe of Gomez and Martinez and Sanchez. Or translated Ek into Estrella and moved on into bureaus or auto ownership. Was the next step moving to Florida and glossing Estrella into Star? Was that how stars were born?

And it got weirder than that. The Pop kids (the boys anyway) had gone to school at upper-middle class liceos and colegios: the result of parental scrimping and part-time jobs in Cancun, a tradition among Mexicans who pay for private rather than government medical care if they can possibly afford it, and sacrifice to give their kids a shot at being citizens of a real world rather than the illiterate burros the public school system coughed up. Where they ran into monied white kids who thought it was a hoot to troop off the Mayan settlements along strand north of town, slumming and eating salbutes and panuches they found tastier and more risqué than the normal fair in town. The more money and social pretense, the more likely for the offspring to be lolling under a palapa munching green tamales and tasty Kash Keken or Poc Chuc at “Mayami Beach”, the Harlem of their class.

Juanito would go along, unaware of or perhaps nervous about the irony of it, but Puch had only gone once. He’d ordered a beer from the Mayan girl, in her own language, and fallen into a short conversation with her about what school these people went to. He turned back to his friends and caught their stares. His race was not a secret, written all over his wide face and stocky build. But he had pulled it out and brandished it. They reacted as if twenties socialites in emeralds and pearls might have if one of their party at the Cotton Club had suddenly wiped off his grease paint to reveal himself as a Negro. It was at that point when he ended his social contacts with his schoolmates with the sole exception of faking their butts off on the soccer field.

There had been another episode he remembered and shelved next to the day he stopped “passing”, also sitting next to a pretty school girl–who wasn’t exactly blonde, but definitely not an indita–and ordering beer. Their middle-aged busboy’s heavy nose, squat hunched shoulders and blocky legs announced him as almost grotesquely Mayan. He came to their table looking down at an order pad and when he turned his eyes up to them expectantly, they were a deep, shocking violet. The girl showed nothing, but grabbed Puch’s thigh under the table and squeezed it in delight. Communicating a little delight to him, as well. When the lavender-eyed mozo left she turned to shaking with laughter. “Did you see that? Oh my god, que bárbaro!

Her friend, lighter-skinned with aspirations to being a preppy fresa twit and in total disapproval of her amiga running around with bush trash like Puch, snickered knowingly. “He saved up all his tip centavos then blew them on those contacts. Pathetic.”

“But why?” Puch’s date asked, genuinely bewildered. She didn’t look at Puch though. Neither one of them did. The last thing they wanted was any insight into the “Mayan don’t-wanna-be” syndrome. “Who’s he trying to kid?”

“Probably himself. Or just doesn’t get it.”

“Or maybe he knows what the deal is,” Puch said as he stood up, laid a hundred peso bill on the table, and picked up his book bag. “And just likes looking that way.”

It was the last time he dated a Mexican girl. He’d couldn’t articulate why, but he’d had it with the race-conscious Mexicanas and didn’t find the uneducated Mayan girls all that interesting. Fortunately, Cancun was a magnet for foreigners and he lived in a tourist attraction.

When Yanche’s viewpoint widened up and away from the eternal smoking spiral of the mosquito coil to include Puch’s hundred pesos on the table beside it, she saw the incident as though through a gold filter, the soft light of gas flame lanterns in the little “Mayami Bich” taco bar that did business without electrical or water hookups. It was one of many moments in the Pop boy’s life that she particularly cherished. Floating loose and rudderless in the whorling eddies of time, Yanche had come to see him always in a sort of golden light, the ecstatic coloration of what he would eventually realize he had become. And her overly-distributed consciousness would pulse with ineffable love for the stout, handsome kid. If you were looking for a savior of your race, you couldn’t do much better than Puch Pop.

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Things had been going so well until Luis told the local INAH guys why they were there. Then the whole bonhomie and “enchanted to meet the esteemed Doctora Chiang” thing had frosted over and crashed. Luis shriveled as he discussed her quest with them, gesturing around the little Cobá museum. He glanced at her twice and all the come-on had evaporated. She knew the signs of a bureaucrat getting more bad news while hastily clabbering up a salvage plan.

It was so painful to watch Luis’ deflation that she slipped outside. She got a chilled Coke from a machine, and just held it to her temples while watching a sodden group of camera-draped Japanese, obviously completing a tour that involved scaling these daunting stairs. Of more interest was the guide, a very well set-up, athletic-looking guy about her age, probably Mayan himself. She watched him move, loose and unbothered by the sopping heat, his manner obviously ingratiating the tourists. Not too shabby, she was thinking when he waved good bye, pocketed his tips, and walked straight toward her.

His sudden turn and approach had taken her slightly aback, more so because she’d been fairly seriously checking out his shoulders and chiseled calves. He seemed to have homed in on her, striding across the parking lot with no hint of misdirection. Then she realized she was standing between a working man and the Coke machine. She moved aside as he glided up to it, grabbed a can from the slot, then pressed it to his temple like she was. And smiled. Hubba, hubba, some kinda smile, there, was MeiMei’s overall impression of Puch Pop.

The guide nodded a permiso? and moved by her, popping open the can as he entered the INAH office.

She drank half of her own Coke before he came back out and stood looking at her, a man obviously deciding whether or not to speak his mind. MeiMei was always in favor of men speaking their minds and tried to appear receptive and generally Yin. He walked by within a foot of her, using nothing but a glance into her face and subtle shift of his shoulders to suggest that she walk with him as he headed towards a thatch shelter obviously placed for the comfort of tour bus drivers. Boy, this guy knows how to guide, she thought as she followed him.

In the shade of the palapa he turned to face her, shot a glance back at the office to let her in on the idea that he probably shouldn’t be doing this, and spoke in a calm, soothing baritone. “You’re interested in the jade, aren’t you? Not its value; what it says?”

“Yes!” MeiMei blurted without attempt to disguise her excitement. “You know something about it?”

He tossed another signal glance, at the INAH seal on the door of Luis’ VW. “I can tell you,” he said, “But only if it’s private words. Just you.”

“I understand. And yes, this is for me, not the history institute.”

Luis stepped out of the office, flanked by two of the local functionaries and visibly unhappy to see MeiMei over there under a leafy bower with a handsome young stud. But trapped into what the two guys in white guayaberas were saying to him so insistently. MeiMei turned her full attention to Puch, great-looking Native whose name had yet to be dropped. And heard him say, “You want to know about the Oracle? The Talking Skull?”

Hey, wait a minute, did we flash over into Indiana Jones that fast? Archaeologists have to be careful of that, you know. “Excuse me? Talking skull?”

“Ah, then you haven’t seen it.”

“No, and that’s why I’m here. And it’s pretty mysterious that there’s no pictures of the back side, don’t you think?”

“It’s a skull. Not like these here, more the old Palenque style.”

“Okay. Like the Temple of Inscriptions? So it’s giving some news? ‘Talking’?”

“Yes, exactly. A big block of symbols small and close together.”

“Yes, jade because it holds more detail… wait, so you know what it says?”

He nodded but paused slightly, which she read as embarrassment. “I speak Mayan, but I can’t read that old writing.” He smiled again. “Only foreigners can read my own language. And slick chilangos from the Institute.

MeiMei always had an odd feeling around actual Mayans. Not awe, exactly, but a hushed respect like you feel in museums: they are artifacts, vestiges, remains of the day. It’s like meeting a Carthaginian or Cro-Magnon in the flesh.

The guide-muffin seemed to anticipate her thought. “We’re still here. Nobody ever managed to get rid of us. And we do have a legend about that jade skull. It’s like the calendar… you know, the Sun Stone, the Tzolkin?”

“It’s my specialty, actually.”

He nodded solemnly. “That’s wonderful. Anyway, it orders our days. It’s why there is order, how our lives move through time, you understand? But outside that circle of order there is chaos, like a jungle or wilderness where things came from, and go back to when they’re no longer in time. I hope I’m making sense. And the skull on the jade is telling about that disorder, about the life outside of time. Telling the living about the world of the dead, of the unborn.”

MeiMei almost whispered. “Do you know where it is?”

He lowered his voice as well, leaned in close to her. “I am trusting you now. Please don’t mention what I’m telling you to anybody else. Especially not that guy you came here with.”

“I promise.”

“It’s in private hands now.”

Puch saw the dark squall that blew across the face of the pretty Chinita and knew why. He was surprised at the hardness that set up in her serene face and mild voice, saying, “Oh, man! Same story everywhere. Grabbed off…”

She spun around and looked at the unlikely little local museum with narrowed eyes. “Probably why it was brought here? Easy place to lose something, am I right?”

She must have transferred some of her anger when she turned to him because he made placating gestures. “Not me. I grew up around these ruins. If I wanted to steal artifacts…” He surprised her with a sharp, clear laugh. “Actually, I have stolen them.”

She didn’t even manage to shift gears to deal with that confession before he went on. “We used to pick up things from the old buildings, then sell it out at the highway.”

Raggedly little Mayan kids flogging broken carvings and potshards to tourists, she thought. Well, it was their stuff, wasn’t it? “I wasn’t thinking of you. But maybe you know who has it?”

“Of course not.” But he was speaking from a too-straight face, so she waited. “It would be crazy to know that, you understand? Dangerous. What if was some rich, powerful Chilango collector, kind of guy who runs Mexico, does whatever he wants?”

She thought it over a moment, watching Luis run through the elaborate leave-taking process. Better cut to the chase here. “That would be a bummer. Some guy up in Mexico City, you’re saying.”

“Probably not. His headquarters has been Cancun almost since they built the place. And the word is that he bought a big yacht and is outfitting it like a palace, plans to live on it, traveling around the world.”

“And where is it now?”

“The lagoon on Isla Mujeres. Last week they installed a helicopter platform on it. I know some guys who worked on it.”

“Ohmigod… so he’s leaving the country?”

“Impossible to know. This guy is… well, he’s not really a person like you or me. More like a government.”

“He works for the government?”

“The government works for him.”

“Oh, shit.”

“This is Mexico, chinita.”

Luis was heading towards them now. She spoke quickly. “Would this non-person who didn’t do what we weren’t talking about have a name?”

“Julio Cesar Ronchel del Cumbre.”

“Thank you…?”

“My name is Puch.”

“I’m May. Thanks so much. Listen…” She could sense Luis approaching and blurted without really believing she was doing it, “How can I get to Isla Mujeres? Right now?”

He shook his head mockingly, but she could see fun and admiration in his look. “From Tulum. Local buses pass on the highway.”

She was already moving past him, towards the road. And people say I’ve never impulsive, she thought. She turned her head without stopping as he called to her. She saw Luis standing and staring, the Mayan guy effortlessly catching up.

“Look, if you’re going to Isla Mujeres,” he said quickly, “There’s this girl there. She works at that “swim with dolphins” place. Blonde. Her name is Curtsy.”

“And if I see her?”

“Well, I guess…” it was cute seeing a guy as self-possessed as him flustered and unsure of himself. “Could you tell her…?”

“That you think about her a lot?”

“Yes! Thank you.”

“Oh, no,” she said firmly as she quickened her pace along the access road, her shirt already plastered to her skin. “Thank you.”

“If you plan on trying to take on Ronchel, you don’t want to thank me. You should stay away from him. He can like turn everything against you: police, government, heaven, earth, hell. You know?”

“Only in a really vague way. But I have to see that skull. It’s like the summit of my work, my life.”

“That’s exactly what it is.”

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