Art & Local Culture / Princess of Yucatan: Secrets in Stone, Part I

Princess of Yucatan: Secrets in Stone, Part I

Princess of Yucatan: Secrets in Stone, Part I

31 January 2016 Art & Local Culture 0

Nakah paid dearly for her adventure of childish lagging along the streets of great Chichen Itza -- paid with a seared memory of the altar of sacrifice that haunted her dreams with nightmares; paid with aching black and blue back from the beating Xoclut the slave driver gave her for losing both her bundle and herself in the city streets.

But there were other memories, too, bright ones that she kept to herself and enjoyed, and that helped her live through the monotonous existence of the slave camp. Thhis village of the bond-people lay beyond the protection of the city walls. Its sprawling ugliness stretched in irregular masses along the edge of the jungle. It was here, in one of the crouching, straw-roofed hovels that Nakah lived, with her grandfather, Copan the blind giant. Though by blood a princess, Nakah, by occupation was a farm labourer. Her hard little hands knew well the feel of spindle and spade.

Some of the conquered Mayas were sent in bands to the forest as woodcutters, and as gatherers of chicle and the precious incense gums. Others toiled at temple building adn the making of roads. Still others labored at the great limekilns, fashioned of green logs, where lime for building purposes was burned out in immense quantities.

By far the greater part of the bond people, though, were kept at tilling the soil and raising vast food crops -- some of the produce for use at Chichen Itza, other portions to be sent by human pack bearers to the homeland of the conquerors, the Vale of Anahuac. Crop raising in the tropics was a continuous battle. Against the ever-encroaching jungle, these slave farmers wielded stone axe and firebrand to free the land of quick-growing vine tangles and thickets.

Next, over the cleared ground moved long lines of laborers armed with xchuoles or planting sticks. Step by step, the farmers moved forward, each one thrusting down his sharp-pointed woodenstaff to make the hole in the ground, dropping in the seed of corn or of black beans, covering the seed with a shuffling movement of bare foot, then moving forward another step. When sprouts were up, must come the weeding by hand. In the dry season water must be hauled to save the crops -- a steady trudge of feet stirring up the dust as men, women and half-naked children labored back and forth beneath heavy water jars.

For the bond-folk it was burn in the field under fire of sun by day, and shiver in the chill nights in the huts. Out of the roof thatches of these jungle huts, in the time of no rain, fell the scorpion, the hairy black spider, the stinging red mite. In the time of rains, these sodden huts were full of cook smoke and the sound of the grind of corn, mash the beans, slice the pumpkin, spin the fiber of the cotton tree. Then it was fall on a straw pallet for rest at night, wake to a dawn of more labor.

A sodden, animal-like life! Some few though were strong enough to struggle to preserve the arts and poetry of the tribe. Such ones were Nahau and Calcingo, bronze-limbed stalwarts, who, when the moon shone white and the Aztec overseers slept, would shake off their own weariness and step the Hul-che, that strange ancient rhythm known as the Dance of the Dart-Throwers. First, Nahau would spring to the center of the ring of the watchers, stand there, stamping, shuffling, brandishing a sheaf of reed lances in his right hand. Then, from the other side of the ring, there would move to meet him, Calcingo, who danced squatting on his heels. He leaped from foot to foot in the most agile manner, thrusting forth one foot, then the other before him. From his side of the ring, as he himself danced, Nahau hurled reed lances at his partner, who deftly parried them all with a short wooden sword, never for a moment losing his balance or his step. Faster, faster they whirled in this old, old dance of battle and triumph, faster and yet faster to the muffled staccato beat of wooden drums.

As for the young Nakah in the ring of watchers, she felt her blood stirred and thrilled by the dance of her tribe folk. But what stirred her even more were the epic songs of her race's one-time glory that old Copan sometimes softly chanted to help her endure her hard lot, to help her stand firm in the midst of trial and trouble. A favorite was the Song of Loltun, the chanted story of the Great Cave of the Stone Flowers, which tradition told had once sheltered a whole tribe of Mayas in the ancient days. Most soul stirring of all though was the throbbing beat of the "Conesh! Conesh! Palesh-shay!" Come on, all ye warriors! Come on to the fray!

But old blind Copan was determined that his granddaughter should know more than the songs of her people. On top of a day's labor in the fields, Nakah must do some stint of study -- be it drawing the glyphs and ciphers and signs of the days and the months and the years; or drawing the strange pictures and symbols that stood for whole words and sometimes whole ideas in the Mayan written language that already was so nearly forgotten by this work-weary bond-people.

Because old Copan was a master hand at pounding up roots and bark into soothing salves that eased shoulder galls and strained muscles, and thus enables slave bodies to do more work, he now and again could have young Nakah relieved of field labor and set to the woods to gather more herbs for his medicine making.

So, in the evening sun of a day some weeks after her burden-bearing journey into the city of Chichen Itza, Nakah moved slowly along a narrow path that wound through this Yucatan forest of zapote and yaxche, or silk-cotton trees and trailing wild fig. Now and again she stooped to dig up certain low-growing plants that thrived in the shade of the deep woods, and whose roots could be pounded into a soothing lotion for bodies irritated by the pica-pica or bite-bite vine -- a vine with very bad habits. At a certain season of the year, hundreds of tiny pointed bristles woudl be loosed into the skin of anyone unwary enough to brush against the pica-pica's big velvety looking seed pods.

Other medicinal roots and plants were garnered into Nakah's deep wickerwork basket, and herbs for the stew pot, and strips of bark from the balche tree to be used in brewing a refreshing drink.

Plant gathering was but a small part in this day's work, however. Nakah's real reason for being here was to await the return of the Mayan woodcutters and chicle gatherers. This was not the first time the girl had been sent to the jungle trail secretly to communicate with those tribesmen whose labors took them out into the vine-snared wilderness that had grown up over the desolation of the "Old Empire" where whole cities were buried beneath the tropical growth. Some pact lay between these men and poor, old, blind, royal Copan. They were forever sending to his hand things they found out there in the wilderness. But as Nakah trod softly through the jungle, her young thoughts were far from empires, old or new. Her mind had turned back to things she had glimpsed that day in Chichen Itza -- merchants' wares of tasseled sandals, jade earrings, necklaces of wrought gold. She was dreamily wondering how it would feel to wear soft garments and jewels -- and ah, yes, to have her neck and arms painted with patterns of colored perfumes, rare and sweet, such as had decked that Aztec lady of the palanquin.

Sudden-caught sound of the faraway tramp of many feet thrust daydreaming out of mind and brought Nakah back to the business at hand. Quickly dropping her basket beside the path, she pressed back into the underbrush and gave the low plaintive hoot of the jungle owl. In the distance, a similar quavering call answered her.

Presently, down the trail came a long line of half-clad Mayan chicle gatherers. Beside them marched some heavily armed Aztec soldiers. On and on marched the jungle laborers, till more than a score of their number had passed Nakah's simple signal -- the overturned basket. Then, somewhere up front, a Mayan, seemingly by accident, tripped on a root and fell sprawling. Others stumbled across him. As the guards ran forward, a roar of shouts and blows ensued. Under cover of this disturbance, Nakah parted the brush of her hiding place for an instant. Quickly, a Maya snatched a deerskin bag from beneath his ragged tunic, dropped it to the ground at Nakah's feet. "For Copan our King" whispered the slave and passed on.

Silently, the girl watched the unkempt procession depart. Then, with a sigh, she picked up the leather bag and dropped it into the basket, retrieving her scattered herbs and roots and packed them in on to of the leather. She knew without looking what the bag's contents were, merely more of the broken fragments of stone tablets bearing inscriptions in the old, now-forgotten Mayan priestly script. So useless they were, and a burden to carry. But because her grandfather set such store by them, she would take them home. She sighed again as the stone fragments rattled together when she lifted her load. These things were going to mean much extra work for her. Her blind grandfather, after their day's hard toil was done, would pore over these stone-engraved hieroglyphics, reading them with his finger-tips, searching always for some lost Mayan record that never could be found. And with just such a queer assortment of textbooks as these broken inscriptions of a lost written language, the old man was forever teaching his granddaughter to read and write. A stretch of smooth sand before the hut door served as a tablet. Here, with a stick for a stylus, Nakah thought she must have copied enough of the ancient glyphs to encircle the whole great temple of Huitzilopochtli.

Such a hopeless task. Nakah often felt rather bitterly that instead of conning a lost language, she might much more profitably have put in her spare moments at an extra bit of weaving or rope-twisting to earn a few coins of shell money to spend on bangles and pretties. Thus did the other slave girls.

Often, too, she hated the rough coarse masculine tunic that her grandsire would have her wear. He was forever telling her, though, to be patient, that it was all part of the great plan, the plan that would some day bring freedom to the conquered people of the Itzan tribe. But the bondage seemed to stretch onward into eternity. And anyway -- even if he were royal, the last of the Itzan princes -- what could one blind old man do? How could reading forgotten inscriptions save a people? The girl looked upon Copan's plan as an hallucination whose only good point was that it cheered his last days. But because Nakah loved her grandfather, she tried to carry out his wishes.

And now, her heart weighted down with all its woes of bondage, the slave girl turned and made her slow way along the trail towards home. The calls of the woods creatures about her seemed to reflect her sadness -- tremulous cries of the little cave raccoons, the moaning wail of the kambul bird. Out of her own heart she made up a refrain well suited to the mood of nature and herself.

But as she neared camp her song was brought to a startled close by a naked little brown child darting out of the bushes and tugging violently at her tunic.


Editor's Note: This is the third in a series that is a serialized reprinting of a novel that we found on eBay: Princess of Yucatan by Alice Alison Lide, published in 1939 by Longman's, Green and Company out of New York and Toronto. The book was obviously researched heavily, as there are numerous (and interesting) references to Mayan lifestyles, locations and spirituality. Original drawings are included, which are attributed to Carlos Sanchez M. You can start at the beginning here.


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