LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE WOMAN WHO LED US INTO THE MOUTH OF THE JAGUAR
BY EMER MARTIN
You had so little—one change of clothes, and one souvenir that filled your bag: a giant, black, hairy skirt that you had bought from an indigenous woman in Chiapas. That night, we snuck you into our hotel room and you slept with our kids in their bed. Early the next morning, my husband and I left them sleeping with you in the hotel room and snuck off to see the pyramids before the heat of the day, before the tourists swarmed. Having escaped, we lounged on the rocks as entitled as iguanas. My husband and I joked that we had just met you and left you in the room with our kids, our passports and our money. But we weren’t afraid.
We met halfway up those 1500-year-old ruins. I had my kids in tow—a four-year-old and a six-year-old—and I wanted them to see the splendor of Ek Balam, a pyramid that, until recently, had been shrouded in the jungle. In the sixteenth century, the Mayans had covered the temple with jungle and stones to hide it from the Europeans. The pyramid is unique because there is a temple half way up, carved like a giant jaguar’s mouth. Now, climbing up the stairs in the fierce heat, I froze. Dizzy and nauseous, my heart racing. I’d never been afraid of heights. But now I imagined myself tumbling to my death, knocking my kids over with me, as if we were in a nursery rhyme.
I heard your voice before I saw you. You didn’t ask me if I was OK. You just began a conversation, as if we had been talking for a long time. You took my daughter’s hand, and you told me the entrance to Ek Balam’s temple —the mouth of the jaguar—halfway up the pyramid on a platform, was just a few steps away. I had stopped breathing as I edged sideways on the step, until I reached the platform. I lurched away from the edge. Sweat stung my eyes. I blinked it away and saw you were beautiful and young and leading my two small daughters through the jaguar’s mouth. I followed you inside and gasped at walls inscribed with stories and snake gods etched with traces of paint from 1500 years ago. Details from the Mayan mind. We wandered together through different chambers and pointed to the ancient paintings as if we were old friends.
You peeled an orange, which we all shared. The juice opened my throat. You stuck the peel into your mouth and made silly faces to amuse my daughters. I thought I would never leave this place, because all I could see was the sheer drop down into the jungle. Before long, we climbed out of the jaguar’s mouth, feeling as if it had spat us out. You and the kids hopped onto the pyramid steps and scrambled up higher. Relieved, I began to descend. You waved from far up, tiny figures in the baking sun.
Later, on the ground, I introduced you to my husband and you introduced us to your Israeli traveling companion. We were all squashed between two car seats as we drove the rocky road back to Valladolid. That night, we drank margaritas in a courtyard while parrots squawked above us. Afterwards, we wandered through the old colonial streets and I told you the convoluted history I had learned: empires, art, human sacrifices, conquests, disease, slavery, old gods devoured by new gods, cathedrals built with stones from the pyramids, the monk who collected every Mayan book and burned them publicly. I loved Mexico where, like in my native Ireland, the past and present coexist in a spiral; nothing is ever over and no one is ever really gone.
You told me that you were an artist from Moscow. You were broke and couch surfing around the world, using a website that connected you with free places to stay. People would give you shelter and you would give them company and stories, and maybe do some chores; most of all, the hosts wanted your adventurous spirit to sweep through their lives.
The next day, we decided to drive the Pucc route, a circular journey through the Yucatan province dotted with lesser known pyramids and cenotes for swimming. We drove through jungles and scraggly towns where only Mayan was spoken, buying peanut packets in small villages with no restaurants, squashing bugs as big as birds. Small, indigenous people sat in the squares with their blankets and embroidered blouses. They lived in villages with huts made from the jungle, just as they had before the Europeans showed up. There were a few plastic red chairs by the door, and a plastic cooler, the only traces of conquest.
We swapped travelers’ tales. I told you of Isla de las Muñecas in Mexico City, an island haunted by the ghost of a drowned girl. A hermit had lived on the island and had displayed hundreds of dolls to appease her spirit. Visitors would bring new dolls for the young ghost and tie them to the trees. You decided that you would go there next. One night in Mérida, as we were walking home through the baroque colonial streets, you found a doll in the trash with a golden dress. We rescued her, combed her long yellow hair, and you kept her. Our whole family loved having you travel with us. The temporary nature of it all made small talk unnecessary. We felt intimate and immediately trusting. I had traveled alone through the Yucatan when I was your age and you reminded me of the freedom I once felt.
You wanted to find the cenotes that could only be reached by horse. We inquired around town and drove for hours, following crumpled, hand-drawn maps, until we arrived at the first one. It was a small hole in the ground with a ladder peeping up. We gave the local kids at the top some coins and they lazily nodded for us to descend. You and my husband went first, disappearing into the earth. It was too dangerous for the girls, so I waited with them, sitting on a rock and chatting. Occasionally, my eldest would peer down the hole and report that she couldn’t see you. What if you never came back? I wondered. What then?
Finally, you peeped up, full of wonder. You showed me a photo of this underworld: an immense cathedral like cavern with cool water and shafts of light streaming in through a hole in the roof. Tree roots hanging down like grasping fingers. Dark green water. A world under the world formed by the great meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs when it hit Earth. A cataclysm that hit so close that it fissured the limestone into innumerable interconnected underground rivers. I was envious of the missed adventure.
We came upon some skinny horses pulling carriages down iron tracks. We convinced a man to take us by horse to the next cenote. The emaciated creature galloped under a whip and the small carriage pulled us along the tracks. When we came to the second cenote, I convinced the girls to go with me under the ground. Green bees swarmed us. We descended the precarious, rickety ladders and the underworld instantly calmed us. The clear, cold water. The shafts of light like diagonal pillars piercing the water. The slimy cave walls. We swam together in this lovely gloom. The more cenotes we found the more unique they were, like planets. A constellation of underground caves. Finally, the guide told us that the light was fading and we had to leave. Hungry mosquitos were taking over the jungle. We rattled down the tracks, watching the horse foaming and straining through the dense trees. I caught your eyes and sighed in sadness. I knew I might never see you again.
We had tickets to Cuba the following morning, so that night we drove back to Mérida. As we stood in the town’s ornate colonial square you showed the kids how to create happiness. You said to clap in front of themselves and then clap behind themselves. We all tried it. Midnight in Mérida clapping and laughing under the lamplight. This would be the end.
Weeks later, you posted photos on Facebook of Isla de Las Muñecas. You had tied our beautiful, golden-clad doll to a tree to appease the ghost child. You returned to your home in Russia and then went to Indonesia to study shadow puppets. For over a decade, I’ve followed your story on Facebook. I struggled to raise the kids, do the school run, earn a living, all while keeping my own creativity alive, and yet that kept getting sidelined. You kept moving, dancing, creating, dreaming throughout the world. Performing in temples, climbing volcanoes, dancing with a wolf somewhere in a forest, light and free.
We returned many times to Ek Balam. Tourists can no longer walk through the jaguar’s mouth to its inner painted chambers; there is a fence around the platform at the side of the pyramid. But Ek Balam is now my favorite place, if only because I meet your ghost on the steps half way up each time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emer Martin is a Dubliner who has lived in Paris, London, the Middle East and in the United States. Her first novel, based on her travels, was Breakfast in Babylon, which won Book of the Year at the Listowel Writers' Week. After the publication of her second novel, More Bread Or I'll Appear, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She later produced Irvine Welsh's directorial debut NUTS in 2007. Her third novel, Baby Zero, was released internationally through the publishing co-operative Rawmeash, which she helped found. Her new novel, The Cruelty Men, is shortlisted for the 2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. She now lives between the depths of Silicon Valley, CA and the jungles of Co. Meath, Ireland. You can find her on: twitter and instagram.
Header photograph by amazingtemples.com; Author photo by Suzana Tulac