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The Rebirth of Hunahpu
Hunahpu sat before me in the mouth of the cave, in the shadows and began to tell me his story, and I wrote it down, and this is the story he told me:
I had always dreamed of being in the mountains of Guatemala. But these dreams were not about sweet fantasy rainforests and colorful quetzal birds flying with feathered tails longer than their bodies. No, no – these were dreams of terror, so horrible that I was unable to tell anyone in my family about them. I finally told a doctor about them only when he saw me shaking uncontrollably during an early morning exam.
I agreed to go to a psychologist in the building and it was after a few years of psychotherapy that he convinced me that the only way to conquer my night-terrors was to actually travel to Central America. My parents were from there, after all –having brought me north when I was an infant. It seemed appropriate to journey back to my homeland and face my fears once and for all.
My mother was against the idea from the start, but advanced me a tidy sum of money as a gift on my 35th birthday. She had inherited all of my father’s wealth when he died and always had a certain malaise about the funds.
So I secured a small house made of thatch and adobe in a canyon, and began to educate myself on the wildlife of Guatemala. There was nothing in the mountains like the horrible creature of my dreams – a fierce monster with black rubbery wings, twice the size of a man, with a beak instead of a mouth, rimmed with teeth like needles. No, I told myself, your imagination has been running away with you.
I had been staying in the mountains near a village called Rabinal for almost two weeks when I found the sun was going down quicker than I had planned. I checked my watch, but it was fast growing dark and I was high on a mountainside. So I decided to take a dirt footpath to the valley, instead of the twisting road taken by the buses. I could hear already the howl of the wild packs of dogs that freely roamed these mountains. This was how I met him – my brother, my own twin brother!
But I am getting ahead of myself. I first saw Xbalanque’s home as a beacon of light. There was no electricity on the mountainside and the candlelight in his windows seemed inviting and warm. As I stepped onto his tiny log porch I noticed a bench beside the door, obviously where small groups of men had once gathered. However, there was now a thick covering of dust and leaves on it.
I drew up my courage and approached, peeking into the open doorway. “Hola!” I called inside, but there was no response. I could see the place was musty and unused. There was a set of dishes with faded paper around the pieces in a large cracked vase. A lamp was overturned, blocking entrance to a hallway. There was plaster falling from the ceiling onto a small cameo cabinet, and dirty rag-rugs were heaped onto furniture that was rotting away. “Hola!” I cried again and this time someone moved, far in the back of the hut, beyond the chalk and the dust.
“Please do not stand on ceremony!” shouted a man’s voice. “Come in! Here, I will clear a way through!” At that, the debris that littered the house began to move until a path was clear and I could see my host. I gasped at first when I saw him. It was as if I was seeing myself, except for two things: the beard he sported and the black birthmarks on his face, which were darker and more prominent than mine.
He looked at me and then at a mirror on his mantle and then back at me. Standing there in his time-worn adobe hut, he smiled a soft, serious smile. “We look alike, don’t we?” he asked, as if he knew a secret.
He took his hand and swiped some dust off the mirror and I looked into it. The resemblance was uncanny. “Yes – it’s amazing,” I whispered, looking back and forth between this stranger and me.
“My name is Xbalanque – in English, the Jaguar Deer,” he introduced himself. “Allow me to guess your name…it is – well in English – Hunter? Am I right?”
“Yes you are! How did you know?”
“I have been waiting for you to come back, brother. Waiting, hoping.” He swooped his hands down his sides in a dramatic gesture. “It is I - Xbalanque – your long lost twin brother.”
It was obviously taking me a moment to absorb the gravity of the situation.
“We were named after the Mayan twins who played games with the gods. Your Mayan name is Hunahpu.”
“Hunahpu?” I repeated, rolling the syllables around in my mouth, as if trying them on for size. “I think I prefer Hunter, because I am more used to it, but thank you for translating my name into Mayan.”
At this moment he threw his arms around me, patting me on the back as reunited relatives are apt to do. It seemed as if I had stumbled into my brother’s life by accident. Or was it by accident? Years later I still can’t help but wonder.
We talked for a while and he insisted I stay with him, at least until daylight. He offered me some toasted corn coffee and began to tell me of how we came to be separated.
“I was told by our grand-mamma that violence erupted in the village over the dam that was being built on the Rio Negro in 1978. Many of the families here had refused to move, in spite of the government’s insistence that we vacate our homes. In the middle of the night, the raiders came; raping and killing anyone they could put their hands on, promising vengeance on us all. Our mother and father were forced to flee the country suddenly, during that long night of violence. I was at grand-mamma’s house in Chihul – and we received a few letters saying they would come back for me.”
“I never heard any of this,” I told him. “I am so sorry, I had no idea.”
“I kept trying to console myself that it could have been either one of us who got left behind…that our parents loved me as well, but it was merely the luck of the draw that separated me from our family. All these objects you see around us are what were left behind by them.” As he stood there in the candlelight, I could tell he meant that he was also one of the objects that had been discarded, left behind to decay and rot in the heat.
“Until meeting you today, I never realized I even had a twin who survived. Our father told us you had died at birth.” I could tell how hard these words hit by the look on the face of my mirror image. “But mamma could never bring herself to talk about you at all, and if pushed she would begin to cry – so I learned not to push. I always dreamed that someday I would find you too, my brother – and here you are!”
“Then let us have some tequila and a good meal!” he laughed suddenly. “You can call me Xhal – the Jaguar!”
He made me a bed on a mat in the corn loft of his house and eventually, after much tequila, I lay down and went to sleep. Then one day became two, and two days became three. On the third day he took me to a stone shed in the back that appeared to be sturdier than the house in front of it. It was built into the mountainside, and we walked down half-a-dozen stone steps to get through the heavy wooden door. “There is something inside I want to show you, brother – a secret thing that you must not ever share with anyone who is not Maya like us.”
“Of course,” I whispered, eager to see what secret thing this might possibly be. Inside the stone building that seemed more like a tomb, he lit a small lamp. In the dim light I could see that the room was small, but large enough to hold perhaps a dozen men, if all of them were standing. He lit some dried sage that was on a flat stone, which gave off an earthy fragrance. He breathed the dark smoke in deeply. There was a heavy, gray wooden trunk that he knelt in front of and opened carefully, the latches squeaking with obvious age. Inside was a single lump of material, a foot across and six inches deep. “We must ask forgiveness from the old ones for disturbing them. We must thank them for allowing us to listen to their words as they come alive again.” He took a minute and offered prayers in a language I had never heard before.
Xbal then gently unwrapped what turned out to be pages of a codex, obviously faded and worn with the passing of many generations. It was at this point that he began to point out highlights from the pages.
"The writers of the Popol Vuh say this to us:
" 'This is the account of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of all the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs.' "
Xbal turned pages over in the codex, finally coming to what he wanted to show me. It was a passage and he briefly told me what the symbols said. “In a time long before us there was a pair of twins, Xbalanque and his brother Hunahpu.” He motioned for me to come closer so he could point out the symbols. “This is where they went into the cave of death to avenge their uncle who was challenged to a game of ball by the gods, because their uncle was too rowdy when he played the game.” He turned the fragile pages. “This is where the hero twins go down into the cave, deep into the underworld. This is you, Hunahpu,” he said pointing to a specific symbol.
“You mean that’s where my birth name comes from,” I clarified with a laugh. “It’s not really me, for I am no hero.”
My brother laughed some, but not as loudly as I laughed. He then continued the reading. “On their way to meet the gods the hero twins became trapped in a great room inside the cave where the ceiling was as tall as the sky. The Camazotz lived there – giant creatures that were once human - things with huge, leathery black wings and teeth as sharp as needles. The hero twins crawled into holes to hide from the Camazotz and Xbalanque - me - had his head chopped off when he stuck his head out to see if it was daylight yet.” My brother looked up from the leather Codex pages lying in his lap and chuckled. “Let’s try to be certain that doesn’t happen with us, brother – because I would like my head to remain attached to my shoulders.”
We both laughed out loud and then he put away the book and the chest. We talked for the rest of the day while drinking tequila and eating paches and chilies rellenos. We began going through the objects left behind by our parents – cleaning them and putting values on them.
But that night, when I was deeply asleep, in the pitch dark of the third night, he awoke me, shaking me. “Brother, it is time for us to leave! They are here! Come, with me! I will show you the way!”
I wondered if what he was simply was just the result of a bad dream because of the liquor, but he was so upset that I put on my clothes and followed him out the back door, expecting to see nothing. Instead, what greeted me was a line of people holding candles forming a line of puddles of light snaking up the mountain.
“Your brother has returned, Xbalanque,” announced a man in his late twenties. He was dressed in a ceremonial costume with a fringed apron that reached below his knees, a copper breastplate tied with leather straps, and moccasins that reached to just above his knees. His body was that of a beautiful young man, with ancient ornaments worn on his arms. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was probably the village shaman – which meant some sort of ritual was probably going to take place. “The brothers are ready for their journey. Soon our village will know great prosperity again.”
At that time I trusted my brother completely, so when I was offered a bitter liquid, I drank it deeply. However, when the liquid was offered to Xbal, he barely drank any of it.
The effects of the potion became apparent immediately, as my mind began to wander and my steps began to weave. It became difficult to walk. “Let me sit for a moment,” I pleaded but they insisted that I be helped up the mountain, passed person to person along the path of illumination, staring into the ash-covered faces of the villagers. Eventually my brother and I finally arrived at an immense black tear in the earth. I couldn’t help but notice that Xbal was not as woozy as I was – having drunk less of the liquid.
Two men then held me up as the procession made its way into the cool, waist-high water that flowed through the cave. Each person in the string of light held their candles aloft and if I hadn’t been so drugged, it might have been beautiful to see the candles reflecting off the surface of the water. Deeper we went through the tunnel until the group came to a set of four carved steps, leading out of the water into a dry branch of the cave. Only six of the group went forward now, coaxing my brother and I along as we disappeared into a damp tunnel with sloping steps every five feet or so.
After the light from the villagers was completely gone and we had walked for perhaps five minutes – it was hard to tell in my state – we stopped suddenly. We stood now at the entry to a pit surrounded by what looked like stone faces, twisted and screaming but were really merely curtains of stalactites and stalagmites formed by constant dripping of mineral water from the cave ceiling.
There were two torches carried by the men and the top of the pit and the curtain of faces could be clearly seen but not the bottom, which is so deep it was a pool of blackness twenty feet across. I was certain this ritual would soon be ending, with some explanation about a kind of hazing to welcome a brother back home.
Instead, my brother began to argue with the Shaman to a point where he seemed to be out of his mind, his shouting echoing off the stone walls that trapped us. I had studied the Mayan language enough to know that a deal had somehow been broken. “Only him, not me!” he kept shouting until two of the men in the group grabbed him and forced him over the low wall. In shock I saw him slide down a muddy slope into the heart of the darkness below us. A man then took a torch and threw it into the pit, barely missing my Xhal. I could see my brother twenty feet below us, writhing in pain, holding his ankle.
“Brother,” he shouted up at us between screams. “Brother Huna! My leg is broken! Help me!”
As if in response, the Shaman and his thugs grabbed me, but seeing the inevitable was about to happen, I broke free and eased myself over the wall, sliding down the slanted wall slowly, until I arrived next to Xbal. They threw down the second torch and I watched their faces, lit only by candles, as I looked over my twin’s injury. It turned out to be only a twisted ankle.
We waited until the faces of the villagers had left before trying to climb up the slick wall – but it wasn’t possible to get out the way we had come in. I took one torch and investigated the pit itself. There were bumps on the floor that were covered in mud, bumps that crunched as I stepped on them. Fifteen feet from where Xbal lay, I found a hole in the wall through which I could see a tunnel.
“Brother, we must go further into the cave. If we stay here we will die like the rest of the souls condemned to this pit.”
“Go on by yourself, Huna. I will only hinder you. Truly, I would have let them sacrifice you alone, given the chance.”
“You are still my brother, my twin, the missing piece of my soul. I will help you walk – just carry your own torch.”
I put my arm around his waist and we walked into the tunnel together. After ten feet it opened into a room and I threw a torch into the darkness. We peeked inside. The ceiling was at least thirty feet above us and it was impossible to see how wide the room was as a wall of black hung just beyond the light of the torch, as though it sucked up the light itself.
There were muddy pits in the floor, some empty holes, some of them filled with objects that glittered under the flickering of the torches.
“It’s gold, brother!” said Xbal. “Gold for us that has washed into the cave over the centuries.”
“More likely it is gold that has been stored by whoever lives here.”
“Take me over to a pile, Huna! It could mean great wealth for my village.”
So we hobbled over to one pile, avoiding several large empty holes, and began to fill our clothes with jewelry and cups. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I left my brother behind and walked through the great room. I noticed that there was a break in the ceiling a hundred feet ahead of us and I marveled at how bright the stars seemed to be as they shone through the hole.
At the top of the cave, near the ceiling, there were ledges with what appeared to be mirrors positioned along them. There were also piles of cloth on these ledges. As I walked further from my brother I noticed piles of animal bones heaped from floor to ceiling. I hurried back to my brother.
“Xbal,” I whispered urgently. “Someone is living down here! Perhaps they are out for the moment and will be back soon. There is a hole in the ceiling where we can escape…”
“My ankle hurts and I cannot climb way up there. Go and find a rope and bring it back to me, then you can pull me out.”
Before I could agree, however, a metal goblet slipped out of Xbal’s hand, falling to the floor with an enormous clanging sound that echoed off the cave walls.
That was when I heard a sound I had heard many times in my nightmares. It was the sound of great leathery wings unfolding, one at a time. There was a high-pitched yawn as whatever sentry had been left behind awoke and this was followed by the whoosh, whoosh of giant wings churning the musty air inside the cave. An immense shadow was now seen rushing towards us, as though it were a demon escaping from the abyss.
We dropped to the floor, each one slithering through the mud, throwing our bodies into the empty holes we had seen earlier. We landed with a splash in our tiny sanctuaries.
The next hour was filled with deafening squeals as the creature screeched at us over and over, as though daring us to come out. I made my body into the smallest ball possible, down in the bottom of the wet slimy pit, certain that sooner or later the winged demon would reach its claws into the hole searching for us.
Then I heard it going from one hole to the next, screeching into each one, but when it came to my tiny trench, my private hell, the creatures screams must have bounced off the muddy ball I had become. Against my will I opened one eye and peeked up at it in the last fading rays of light from the torch. It had rows of needle-teeth and giant ears. But most hideous of all were the all too human eyes that seemed lost and barren, as if it was grieving over some event I knew not what.
Perhaps it was an effect of the liquid I had ingested, but I drifted off to sleep as I tightened myself into a smaller and smaller ball in the muck at the bottom of the hole.
I was awakened later by a desperate whisper. “Brother! Brother! See if the creature is asleep so we can escape.”
I was glad to hear this request since it meant that Xbal had also lived through the night.
I tried to move but my body was bound up by a white substance that had twined itself around me as I slept. “Xbal – some kind of fungus has grown around me and I can’t move! You will need to look out for the both of us.”
The only sound that came back was a whispered sneer. I rolled onto my back and could see half-a-dozen of the great winged creatures hanging overhead, their hideous mouths tucked into the tops of their black leather wings. I could also see their closed eyes as they slept. Perhaps I was able to see them clearly now because of light filtering in through the hole in the ceiling. I slept again, but this time it was a peaceful restful sleep for the first time in years as the smell of the mud and the muck was somehow familiar. The constant babbling of the water flowing through the cave and the dripping of the heavy water onto the cave floor was reassuring, caressing me into peaceful dreams.
I woke up to the sound of Xbalanque’s voice again – but this time he was screaming. I didn’t know if it was daytime or night but finally I could move. When I looked over the edge of my pit, I could see clearly in the dim light of the cave. One of the giant creatures hovered over a pit nearby, his hind claws in a hole on the cave floor, wildly flapping its wings, trying to fly away with whatever had been hiding inside. My brother’s gut-wrenching cries of pain could be heard even over the screeching of the creature, the camazotz. I had to help my twin, no matter what the consequences.
I began to climb out of the muddy pit but I swept up into the air. I thought for a moment I must be dead and my spirit had been released into the heavens. But I could still hear my brother’s cries; I could still smell the musty odor of the rocks beside the water. When the creature turned its terrifying face towards me I knew I was still part of this world. It immediately dropped Xbal, his body landing with a thud in the stream inside the cave. I could see him move so I knew he was still alive.
I looked at the creature, looked into its eyes, but instead of hatred I found an expression of joy. I was overwhelmed with confusion – until I noticed the sound of my wings beating in the air. The camazotz that I feared so much grabbed my hand and took me up and up until I thought we would fly through the ceiling of the cave, but instead we landed on the ledge at the top of the cave. It motioned for me to look into the mirror and when I did I saw my own face in what should have been a hideously deformed body – but somehow my winged body was beautiful, it was perfect. My body was strong, stronger than it had ever been before. My arms were thinner, but still muscular. Even my needle-teeth were not repellant to me, instead they were solid and durable, and I could almost feel the warmth of fresh blood-filled flesh inside my mouth. At that moment I knew I had found my new family, my new tribe, my new life.
I looked at the bottom of the cave at the human who lay there in the stream, somewhere between life and death.
“Eat!” screeched the camazotz behind me, and driven by my new body I flew down to the body of the human dying there. His chest was full of spilled blood and the smell was intoxicating. He opened his eyes in a daze and fell back into unconsciousness. My feet had been transformed into claws and I grabbed my brother by his torso – and lifted him into the air. It should have been hard to fly with the added weight but my new body flew around the top of the great room once and then shot into the stars through the hole in the ceiling of the cave. I could see everything in the darkness of the night; I could hear every animal running along the mountainside. I saw the candles in the Xbal’s windows and I put him down on his porch. I sat there for a moment in the darkness, watching my brother regain consciousness.
“Brother, it is I, Huma – your twin,” I whispered in the darkness when he awoke. “I have been transformed. I have been reborn. The potion I drank so deeply has made me new again.”
“What do you want with me?” he gasped as he became fully aware of what I had become.
“I want you to write my story down and send it to our mother, so she can understand that I am happy now, so that she won’t worry.”
And that is what I did: I, the writer, am Xbalanque – brother to the reborn creature inside the cave. Here is the story that I wrote for him. With the money I received from selling the gold inside my pockets I saw the doctors and my wounds healed. I still show the scars to the villagers sometime as I tell them the story. I sent the letter to our mother in Florida, along with a ticket to come home, to Guatemala to the Land of Eternal Spring. Now we live in together in the village in a fine home.
Sometimes, when the heat is not too bad, I help my mother up the mountainside at night, to the mouth of the cave and Hunahpu will appear there in the shadows of the entrance. He brings us gold – which means nothing to him now except that it is shiny. Our village has had a return to prosperity because of the gold he brings to us. He tells us how happy he is and how he loves to soar among the stars over the mountains, finally we are all home.
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