Light in Darkness

Saqil pa Q’equ’mal: Light in Darkness:
Poetry of the Mayan Underworld

writing as Mari Christie

Updating every Wednesday

About This Book


(Epic Poetry, available in print.)

The Mayan myths of the Popol Vuh are at once sensual and ruthless, none more so than the trials of Xibalba. In the oral and written traditions of this indigenous people, the road to the ancient underworld is well-marked, its fearsome tests legend. In a series of thirteen poems, a modern woman takes this time-honored journey through good and evil and what lies between, finding strength and refuge, union and reunion, and new purpose in primeval pleasures.

© 2014 Mari Christie


Table of Contents

About this Book

The Steps Into Xibalba

I. Ch’awib’al: The Language
II. Chajalab’: The Guardians
III. Ab’aj: The Stones
IV. Jun Kame, Wuqub’ Kame: One Death, Seven Death
V. Nim Ja’: The River
VI. Tinimit: The Town
VII. Ri Popob’al: The Council Place
VIII. Q’equ’ma Ja: Darkness House
IX. Xuxulim Ja: Shivering House
X. B’alami Ja: Jaguar House
XI. Sotz’i Ja: Bat House
XII. Chaim Ja: Blade House
XIII. Paqalik: The Ascent
Author’s Notes

(Translations of Mayan words are linked as footnotes below.)

Before the Lords of Xibalba, Ixquic is entangled by K'awiil's serpent leg.

I. Ch’awib’al: The Language

Early evening, slow embers trickle
down the back of her shirt.
The calluses in her shoes are tired,
and her shoulders drag.

A banyan tree ahead,
third eye
carved deep into the bark,
palms bearing down
the weight of new rain.

She makes camp beneath
the sheltered branches, tucked
into the twisted, reaching roots.

She cooks dried turkey, peccary,
beans, chayote,[1] and corn,
water from her wineskin.
Achiote[2] and yucca venom,
kik’,[3] a river of blood.

Three stones cradle
a clay pot in the burning
coals of the setting sun.

She takes the jícara[4] from her pack,
a wooden spoon, an obsidian knife,
cuts papaya from the nearest tree
to sweeten her throat.

Hot rum and balche[5]
toast her passage
toward perilous refuge.

She burns cacao in the fire
for the restless deities
rustling in the trees.

She eats, and rereads the letters
tied with leather laces,
tracing old-fashioned ink,
the scratch of his feather quill.

She finds her heart’s compass
in the dead-language dictionary
she has penned herself.

The map he sent is
tattered, corners torn,
dirt splotches almost
obscuring her trail.

South. East. West.
He is the North Star watching
the center of the Crossroads.

Spider monkeys roost
overhead, golden emerald
quetzals chirrup above the jackal’s howl,
and a jaguarundi comes to growl
and purr near the fire.

A grey pit viper curls
around the camp.
Furred spiders inch
toward her open hand.

Simaj Ch’umil[6] smiles
from the near dark.

As a skull owl dives
for the mouth of a vesper rat,
the frogs in the trees
spit up their poison
for the tip of her blade.

Her blond hair is tangling
in the sweat on her forehead.
She wipes it away with her sleeve,
pale skin burned dark as dirt.

A basilisk leads to a
gentle stream. She cleans the bowl,
the spoon, the knife, disrobes
but for the ancient coin she wears
on a cord around her throat.

She rests her heat-damp
body in a waterfall,
scented with the shadows
of hanging orchids.

Snakes rest their heads
on her shoulders,
hissing secrets
she will need
soon enough.

Silkmoths whisper
across her cheeks
as they weave her k’ul,[7]
her blouse, her skirt.

Scarab beetles
decorate her sash,
offer themselves as
charms around her wrist,
bead her throat,
crown her hair.

Bats rustle in the hollows
waiting to pour forth
into the darkness.
She consumes
their rumbling power,

guardians leading to
Xibalba,[8] to the Lord
who has promised allegiance,
the council, the teachers
who have been calling.

She seeks the Yax Te’,[9]
rooted to the underworld.

Seekers of refuge
must find the cave mouth,
the trap door to
fervid sorrow, seduction,

Before sleep, she steeps tea:
bark of the spiny world tree,
teonanácatl,[10] seeds of bindweed.

She waits.

Her blood dissolves.
Kajb’alachil[11] heats
her face. Her aching
soul wakes and is hungry.

Lusting blood, slippery union,
screaming euphoria
of waiting unfulfilled.

A taste
of what will come.

In the distance, caves
form fire, a sulphur
sunset; the mountain

blazes and flows
like her center,
a pool of longing.

The darkness is broken.
The path unlocked.
She is at peace
waiting in the vision.

In the morning,
she will walk again.
Found objects, footsteps,
broken undergrowth
will lead the way.


I. Footnotes

[1] A squash, eaten cooked or raw. (Sp.)
[2] A spice (Sp.)
[3] Blood
[4] A bowl made from a calabash gourd. (Sp.)
[5] A fermented drink made from tree bark and honey
[6] Scorpion Star
[7] [Robe or] tunic
[8] The Mayan Underworld
[9] The ceiba, the “world tree” in Mayan mythology, which connects Xibalba to the earthly realm and the skies.
[10] Hallucinogenic mushroom (Sp.)
[11] Divination (by stars)



II. Chajalab’: The Guardians

Searching out the hidden
ancients, the well of
the malcontent, seekers
from all sides are silent,
walking heavy along
the whispering path.

They stumble to the cave mouth.
Dozens have walked as far as she;
farther, as they had no map.

They do not see
the web they walk through,
do not see the darkness
for the rising sun.
Do not see her.

Each must step through
molten longing, burning
wind, thundering drums.

La’j tun[12] an offering
the overlords exact
a thousand times.

The disciples dance
as they pass
through the caverns.

Once freed of the
subterrane, they cross
turbulent rivers of
unwholesome corruption,
greedy for the careless or unwise.

Every soul
will not survive
the plunging wallow.

They cross against
scorpion water. Ja’ Simaj,[13]
vicious nettles of bone and
armored flesh, will kill
half the seekers outright.

With his coin around her neck,
she trails through the cool water
as the stinging tails caress her.

The small creatures have been
pressed to this service,
crawling themselves sick,
healed by her passing.

At Blood River, the penitents
call for water, for breath
to buoy their soggy steps.

They are sucked
to the false bottom
by their stone shoes.
Kik’i A’[14] will take half again.

She passes through the
mucky ground, the quicksand
nature of the heart. She cleans
viscera from her fellows’ eyes,
takes life from the
death’s-head river.

Puj A’[15] brings virulent
fever dreams, pustules and bile
and the night-sweat fear
of lost seekers before them.

There are voices here,
of long-dead trickster spirits
who will carry away half again.

Half again.
Half again.

There is no end
to this road.

They have left their homes,
their touchstones, their
tender loves, to reach
Kajib’ xalkat b’e.[16]
The Crossroads.

Kaqa b’e.[17]
is blood rain.

Qana b’e.[18]
is iced bone.

Saqi b’e.[19]
is jaundiced eyes.

Q’eqa b’e.[20]
is a charred heart.

The Black Road
is empty. Sooty
lightning in her blood,
the heat that pools
in the palms of her hands.

She steps forward
into rich, soft dirt.
Flames have blackened
the trees; animals are
hidden and howling.


Tangled growling
sings a dim breeze
in a black stream
guttering nearby.


The darkness laughs
behind her, the moon
eclipsed by the sounds
she is breathing.

Nima tz’ikin.[23]
Ch’uti tz’ikin.[24]

Macaws shriek
raking talons. Animals
clatter, they chatter, they roar.
They attack her fear
and wear it away.

Gravely, her journey
grows silent. She waits
for the voices
he’s told her will come.

They call her name,
tell secrets and lies.
They reach like great sadness
into the core of her.

But with his warning,
they blow hollow in the
empty night, fleeting notes
in the treble wind.

A half-burned, broken bough
stays her steps. It chars her
hands as she takes it up,
a walking staff. Weary,
she leans against it.

There is no end
to this road.

The thunder
in the distance cackles,
tililik[25] shrieks a warning
to come.

The danger is thick
and unafraid, rushing her
blood. Her breathing
quickens; her eyes
light the path.


She steps out of the wood.
Few have made it
as started so far away, and still
they do not see her.

Seven from the Red Road
leak cuts and spatters,
ghosts of the living
trailing behind them,
dripping with fear sweat and
rivers of dirges.

Three from the Yellow Road
show deep sores and boils,
sharp heated tongues,
sweat cold as a nightmare-
soaked pillow.

Only two remain
from the White Road, souls
now twisted bodies and sharp
bone fragments, torn, healed,
forged with malice.

She tries to close
the shattered skin,
set the broken, tired spirits—
her hand a cauter, a splint,
a blood tonic.

She would cool
the restless fevers, clear
the hot throats
of their screaming.

She would relieve,
reshape, reanimate
these twisted spirits,

but these souls cannot bear
the weight of healing, so she rests
her hands and her heart, leaves
the travelers their illusions.

Kaqa b’e,[26]
Qana b’e.[27]
Saqi b’e,[28]
Q’eqa b’e,[29]

The roads are heavy stones
carried into service, into suffering
as fodder, provisions
for sale, for rent, for feeding
the Princes of Xibalba.

They will not
find release.

There is no end
to this road.

She takes her place
in the queue,
pious worshipers waiting
along a tall fence of
copal wood and cedar.

She hears screaming
sunshine baking
the council chairs, flesh
popping on a spit, fresh
breeze and the edge of
laughter, dancing,
hands clapping,
the turtle-shell drum.

Sitting at an armored gate,
the guard, a heavy old man,
blankly fills the space
between gods
and god-fearing.

As cowards turn back,
snap and whistle,
he sends peace running
like a dog.

She will not turn back; here,
there is no living backward.

He scrapes his blade
against the grain
of splintering wood culled
from the dying end
of the nearest fence post.

Drawing near, she sees
he is fashioning a simple flute.
He blows a few fragile notes.
Fingers moving stiffly, he smiles.

He sees her watching,
crushes the instrument
under his muddy boot,
cuts another spiny branch.

He marks her passing, then turns
to a man just inside the gate;
cloaked and waiting.

“My Lord,
this one’s yours.”

The man’s hands turn
and reach for her, radiate
waves of the black ink
from his letters.

They glow hot with the ash
she has gathered in her hands.

He unwinds the loose scarf
covering his face and is
as she remembers him—

the scrawl of tenderness
spoken in limber tongues,
the deep brush of shadows,
dry laughter. Burning eyes.

She touches
pools of him. He stains
her fingertips.

Utz mi xatulik,[30] Anaya.
It is so good
that you have come.”

II. Footnotes

[12] A small drum used in dances
[13] River Scorpion
[14] Blood River
[15] Pus River
[16] The Crossroads
[17] The Red Road
[18] The Yellow Road
[19] The White Road
[20] The Black Road
[21] Jaguar
[22] Coyote
[23] Great birds
[24] Small birds
[25] The sound of thunder
[26] The Red Road
[27] The Yellow Road
[28] The White Road
[29] The Black Road
[30] [It is] good you have arrived.



III. Ab’aj: The Stones

The bustling is furious, the noise
of the market shaking.
The sound of seekers
being stripped of illusion.

Limestone houses, stucco walls,
thatch on sturdy adobe,
open iron latches, masks and
godheads hanging from doors.

“There are no locks,”
Anaya observes.

His glance is amused.
“Those who keep property
do not abide trespass.”

They pass storekeepers opening
windows, turning up lamps, raw ore
clinking in a cash box,
the stuttered start of a brawl
between flame and hearth.

Someone is cooking corn cakes,
and a young woman is harvesting
honey from a hollow tree, sharing
the gold in the bowl
with the gentle bees.

There are lengths of fabric
blowing across the mouth
of the fruit seller’s stand
to keep away the flies.

Lord Valsayev leads her
to another gate, unmanned
but locked against them.

He pulls the lock into
smoke, silent
as the gate closes.

Before them,
dozens of silent
moaning sorrows
waiting, as she had,
for entrance.

The last one turns
toward the guard and gate,
leaving space for the next.

He sees her searching the faces.
“By now, they feed Xibalba.”

He pulls her magnetic
in his wake, captures her
long devotion.

“It is not wise to wander.”

She is within him.
No escape.
No need for escape.

His still eyes extract
the things she has never said,
the graphic screeds

from her notebook—
the answers
to his parchment ink.

She has pored
over the work.

She carries
the lexicon and
letters unsent.

She stops once she has gone
too far and asks,
“How did you find me?”

“You know pain.”

“How do you—”

He smiles gently.
“Because I know it, too.”

As they walk,
she gives up answers
to his questions.

Where she’s traveled.
What she eats. How she sleeps
in her dreams. Whom she will miss
now that she has gone away.

He answers in riddles,
“Head in the sky,
eyes on the ground,
heart open to the path.

You have done as I asked.
You are blank enough,
and that is not taken lightly.

But there are tests yet,
and provisions to acquire,
and a lifetime of magic
you must unlearn.”

She follows him
into the hills, a quarry
a short walk away:

onyx, obsidian-black
pearls, brakes of
burned lava coals, broken
jet bracken and cane.

“The gathering is yours,”
he says, sitting back
against a grey granite slab.

“The weight of stones
in your shoes
may stay the Princes.
They will have sacrifice.”

He closes his eyes.
“Harvest your surrender well.
You will carry it miles.”

She approaches the cliff,
footholds crumbling,
pebbles falling
into emptiness—
just out of reach.

She weighs in her hand
a rock hammer
from her pack.
His closed eyes are a bright slash,
sand above his mouth and chin.

“You will not loosen it by force.
These are not pebbles to be
kicked to the side of the road.”

She kneels, then crawls
to the steep fall,
slides her hand
across the opaque glass.

It is translucent,
sharp as the wind
on the Black Road.

Ab’aj pa Q’eqa b’e.[31]
Sharp as the stones.

It cuts and seeps
into her hand, seeking
the spaces void within,
then stanches the veins.

She carries numb scars
away with her, trophies,
heavy in her hands,
in her pack, her pockets,
her shoes.

Before he notices
she studies him:
dark skin, quiet countenance,
sharp shoulders under his cloak.

He has pushed back the hood
and his black hair is tied
at the nape of his neck,

strong hands serene
across his chest.

He opens his deep-river eyes,
gathers himself to leave,
hands her the charred walking staff.

“A lesson.”

His voice falls silent.

They walk past houses and fields
on large plots of land.
Her watch has stopped, but
she looks at it anyway.

“A lesson in silence?”


She is puzzled, and he is quiet,
footsteps crisp in the sand.
Kakikuch ki tzij, ki na’oj.[32]
He touches her shoulder.

She takes a step between faith
and doubt, spins wires
of intuition and the mutable
stones she carries.

She tastes the silky scent
of his voice in the back of her ear.

Are you listening yet?
He is almost amused.

Is that you?
Can you hear me?

I have always heard you.
Now hear me, for the life
you seek may depend on
nothing more
than the breath of me.

They pass back through the gate,
silently speak a long walk
around the council ground.

He digs into her his growls,
his laugh, his wit and sorrows.
The words fall tentacled,
like rain, soaking her—

his striking soliloquy
a symphony
of never-mistake-him.
She knows now his hand,
his heart. He is silent
until she knows

Until she knows
but him.

Three times they walk
around the copal fence,
gates shut against
the rough path into hiding.

Guard doffs his hat, swallows
each time the song he is whistling.
He watches after them,
shaving layers from the su’[33]

he is carving, a flute
from the rib of a coward,
brought from the forest
by his foraging dog.

They pass the charnel house—
church and chapel—children
playing in the dirt,
small stones in their shoes.

“We have a room for you.
There is an inn nearby.”

Thanks are simple.
“My Lord” stumbles
on her tongue, and
she giggles.

He laughs. “Val. I am Val.
‘My Lord’ to those
with humbler purpose.”

“Do I have a purpose?”

“There is time enough.
You have gauntlets to run yet.”

He drops a coin on the bar
to pay for the room. It clatters
against the hard wood, skates
into the innkeeper’s pocket.

Val orders food: sweet maize
baked on stones, clean bone stew,
cassava,[34] avocado, papaya, kako.[35]

No meat. No blood.
She had expected to
taste blood tonight.

“Soon enough,
a glut of animal fear.
There is no need
for more tonight.”

Hushed minutes later,
Val takes confession
from her lips,

the back of her neck,
the curve of her throat,
piercing her.

The tip of her knife
rests in an instant
against his chest.

“I am not here
for the taking,
my Lord.”

He steps back and smiles,
slides his thumb across
the ribbon blade, drawing up
blood. He marks her with it,

a fingertip down her cheek,
licks the drippings
from his palm.

He takes his leave with a gentle
whisper of a kiss
in her ear, in her throat.

Until tomorrow then.

He goes.
Her hands shake.

The innkeeper brings
tzam re siwan[36]to clear
her slaking throat, to calm
the harrowing fullness.

Under her feet,
the stairs creak. The sconces
are stained and dim.

The door locks
with a message:
a skeleton key.

The candle on the table
opens the darkness. A faded
red rug, a chair, a doorway
to the next room, a bath and bed,
worn brown counterpane.

Seductive screaming
filters through the
slanted sunlight.

She sets her bag on the
smooth wood chest,
unpacks what she has carried
into the empty drawers.

Food wrapped in squash leaves,
from the last earthly village
she had passed: hard bread, fruit,
soft cheese, and spices.

A bowl and spoon, a wooden fork,
the hapless hammer, woolen socks.
Two pair of trousers, two shirts,
a tent and blankets, money
that can no longer be spent.

A metal pot, a sparking flint,
the pierced gold coin
she’d been gifted

to temper the torture
of the wanderers
along the fence.

One knife for sustenance,
one for safety,
one for sacred service.

She thumbs through
what she knows and
what she thinks she knows,

pulls white light around her
like a shield—

to keep safe
the treasure, the stones
in her shoes.

III. Footnotes

[31] The stones on the Black Road
[32] They gather their words, their thoughts.
[33] An ancient flute, often made of bone
[34] An edible starchy tuberous root.
[35] Chocolate
[36] A homemade liquor



IV. Jun Kame, Wuqub’ Kame: One Death, Seven Death

One Death and Seven Death—
the Princes—eyes stalking
the council place, are waiting,
tabled and banqueting,
for diversion.

Lords and Ladies await
their pleasure, these
two who have been
the dark heart of Xibalba
for so long.

The Princes exact
their capricious due
from the fates of the seekers
and the destinies of
those who are found.

Malevolence from One.
Benevolence from his brother.

There is nothing
they cannot do
but for each other.

“Val is not light-minded,”
Seven says to One, chewing kako [37]
and smacking his lips.
“Not prone to impulse.”

“Every man
is prone to impulse,”
his brother returns,
swallowing a laugh.
“He is besotted
as a boy for a girl.”

“The girl has a name—Anaya.”

One leers, “That sounds pretty.”

“So they say.” Seven reaches
for a chunk of honeyed meat.

“They say her heart is dark enough—
perhaps even for Val.”

“No heart was ever that dark.”

“She befriended the nighthawks
and the great cats. The spiders
draw her hair into their webs.

Her name is whistling
through the trees.
She’s made it this far.”

“He’s just sent her
a charm or a map.”

His fork glistens with fat
and sends sparks across his plate.

“He writes her long letters nights.
The fool.”

“He’s lonely, brother,
and she will be, too,
soon enough.”

One spreads jellied fruit
on a heel of bread.

“I don’t begrudge him
a drowning man’s daydream,
but to keep as a pet,
not train above her station.

She will not become
a master of anything.
Val is ever given to hyperbole.”

They have given him three days,
as they owed him a favor, and surely
he could not teach her
enough courage in so little time.

She would not shrink,
Val had said,
but they are experts
in forced cringing.

They have a hefty wager:
Seven for. One against.
Val betting everything.

One Death calls for his smoking pipe,
then a footrest and a girl to dance.

“She’s come by the Black Road,
so she may chance the houses—
like anyone—and like the fools
before her, she will pass
into her failed hopes.”

He gestures to the veiled,
flame-haired beauty
preparing her lithesome,
lonesome melody.

Seven clears his throat
and his brow tightens.
“If the girl fails, Valsayev
knows the consequence.”

“She’s only a girl.
I will arrange for her
to dance for him
before it’s through.”

Both Deaths eye the woman
revolving in time
to the singing soch [38] and drums.

“And the ten thousand years
before the darkness whispers
back to him again?”

“Will pass like nothing, brother—
like breeze.”

IV. Footnotes

[37] Chocolate
[38] A gourd rattle



V. Nim Ja’: The River

The morning is early grey,
sun hidden in this
place of looming.
The mists heat her blood.

Breakfast is brought,
bean stew with squash
and peppers, reheated
from last night’s supper,
still filling and wakeful.

Her bath is made ready
by the innkeeper’s daughter,
whose eyes are dropped and
hands are nearly shaking.

She is sturdy, and her bow lips
are a nervous smile.
Her voice skitters across
her name: Ysalane.

Her apron is clean, splashed
with water, hands are rough.
Dark skin soft as rich clay dirt,
hair a camp of bats sleeping,
liable to spring at a shifting wind.

She is young enough
to be of interest, old enough
to be of consequence.

Her eyes are tunnels
of hard winning, and
she keeps them turned away
until she leaves.

Over Anaya’s shoulder,
their eyes catch like timber
before Ysalane looks away again.

Anaya cleans the roads
from her hair, the rivers from her
stained, dusty skin.

She takes the weight
of the stones
from her pockets
and her pack,
cleans them,
grains of polished sand
under each nail.

She finds her clothes
clean, boots tidy, and
new-summer garments.

A man’s pants,
bright as a parrot
seeking a mate.

A woman’s blouse,
modest and sweet—
most unlike her—
so she chooses her own.

A plaited belt hiding
a sheath for a knife.

Her tired boots
have aching weight
woven into the laces.

But no matter.
One will carry
a second blade.

A gentle knock. She opens
the creaking door.

Her teacher, raw
heart in his eyes,
reaches from under
his cloak, slides
his thumbprint along her
wrist as they leave.

“There’s no need for a key;
you are mine now.”

He adds, sardonic,

His voice is handsome,
his hand warm and
loosely fitted into hers.

“Another lesson,
my exquisite apprentice.
You must,” he warns,
“pull yourself away
from this white light
this protection
you seem to think you have.

It does not serve.
It is only secondhand.”

They approach the sound
of aching water acres
deep, tossing ghosts of
stones along its bed.

He leads her down the bank,
rushing river at her toes.
He touches her face
and for a moment,
she can see behind his eyes.

He turns back toward the water
and looks to the other side.
He rocks on his heels,
then turns, tugs at
her caution, her lifeline.

She pulls it close,
and he whispers low
against the hairs
on the back of her neck,

“Let go. Fear just fetters you.”

She has torn through time before,
felt the edges of unknowing;
she knows the boundary
of her ether and its fall.

She sets limitless the crashing
seascape, douses the horizon.
Casting herself into
his shimmering wake, she is lost
like phosphorous galaxies.

She has never
so sacred.

He cradles her as emptiness
is filled with new light,
like harbors filled
with tides. Cold, sweet

potential breathes her in.
She feels nothing

but the weight of fresh
scattered dust, longing
for extraordinary illumination.

“White light is only white
because you name it so,”
he whispers.

“This light,” he draws the river
through her hair, “can be any

taste, color, sound.
It is paint. Canvas.
Art. Artist.

He cups his hand in the
water, letting soft mist
drip down his arm.

K’aslem,[39] winaqirem.[40]
Manipulation of molecules.
U k’utunisaxik.”[41]

He pulls a wave from
sea to seeing,
a silk scarf from a well,

the confessions
of a parched heart,
coiled like cold-
sweated sheets.

He strips her of the glowing rags
and feeds them to the river.

She is naked
and endless,
stunned when
he pulls his hand away

to find the ground beneath her
and her clothing undisturbed.

She is seeing him the first time
in this light, the black noon sun
aureole behind his head,

behind his woven grey pants
and soft hair shirt.
His boots are skin-tight,
mane loose.

She had not noticed
his eyes toying
like a cat with prey.

She had not noticed
the curve of tooth and talon,
the twitch of night noises.

He steps to the sharp bank,
crouches down, fills a flask
with mist and brilliance,

washes his face,
dries against his sleeve,
snaps his fingertips
clean of the mercurial.

They eat their lunch of bread
and soft cheese, pineapple
and granadia,[42] pumpkin
pepian[43] with sesame,
drink the sweet,
cold vapor of the river.

They finish, and he takes her
to a grotto near a warm spring,
deep-fed by cunab’al atz’am[44]
and the rushing current.

He slides his hand under
the collar of her shirt,
unties the thong at her throat
nicking the vein in the hollow
with his tender touch.

Kiaqiq’ jab[45] winds stir
the steam dripping
between her breasts.

He slices her anthame
through her blouse.
Dusty motes scatter like
spawning seeds, solid
as dandelion wishes.

He stops short her breath,
traces the knife
against the tips
of her breasts,
scratching, threatening
to cut through her restraint.

She pushes against the point,
sucks cries from her
like a vampire bat.

His tongue finds the
trickle of blood; he rubs
his face in it, drinks
the salt smell into his skin.

He marks her with his teeth,
opens small wounds
with a soft growl.

His arrowhead fingertips
will never lose the scent of her.
He follows the blood trail.
Kacha u kik’el.[46]

She struggles,
but only to feel his will
against hers.

He slides one hand along her waist,
underneath her belt, cutting the tie.

The pants fall and he drops
to his knees, slides his tongue
down her body like a blade.

She is bone,
sharp and tensile,
brittle, enduring.

He is breath,
loose and infinite,
unguarded, elemental.

They are corporeal.
Blood. Water. Air.
Endlessly instant.
Eternally now.

Long minutes later,
they step down
the stone crevasse,
a whirlpool of steam
and sustenance.

Katz’onon u q’u’xik.[47]
His clothes drift away
in the spring of hot tears,
like merman scales, like
snake-eye moccasin beads.

She reaches for his trailing hand;
he hangs back watching
her writhe against his eyes.

Water ripples
with the heaving of her need,
and he walks slowly into it.
He slides along her hip;
his thigh and sessile hand
pin her surrender—
petrified, calcified iron.

He hobbles her
with good and evil,
light and darkness;
never one
without the other.

Soft rope, twisted
gentle moans bite
her tongue, licking
across her memory,
chafing her wrists
and her temper.

She bites, and he laughs,
traces his name
on the curve of her hip.
The torture
is fine and bell-like.

She is the paper
of his letters, the ink,
and the hollow
of his pen. She is
the word for
there is no word.

The stirring is earlier
than time, larger
than sound, ageless
as ingots, opening
a singing horizon.

Afterward, she stretches like a cat
against his purring throat.
Curled into their loose limbs
after an age of silence, she asks,
“Is there more to do today?”

He stares into what passes for heavens
in hell, calculating shades of grey
and when it might rain.

He leans up,
runs his finger along her jaw.
She sees his eyes laugh,
but not his heart.

— Is this not enough?

V. Footnotes

[39] Life
[40] Creation
[41] It is being manifested
[42] Passion fruit (Sp.)
[43] A Guatemalan chicken dish (Sp.)
[44] Native salt used in remedies and healing
[45] Hurricane
[46] His blood speaks (receiving a supernatural message)
[47] He disrobes



VI. Tinimit: The Town

The next-morning sun
slants through the window
as they rush through
the meat pies and fruit
that are breakfast.

Val takes food from
the innkeeper’s daughter
and carries it under his cloak,
handing her a gold coin
and touching her cheek
to see her blush.

Chuckling, he crowds Anaya
out the door into the bustling
quiet of early morning.

He points out shops
as they pass.

Aj k’uwal,[48] the worker
in precious metals and stones is
inlaying silver to gold.

There is a man
braiding harness,

and a tired woman
plucking feathers
from a no’s.[49]

They stop at the butcher.
The man sets down
his bone saw, rinses blood
from his hands, entrails
from beneath his nails.

He and Val watch Anaya
run her hand down the
hanging meat

that walked
so long
to get here.

She shakes a carcass sharply
in her fist. It swings like a lost sigh,
blank eyes crying.

“I can show you the technique—”
the man starts. Val shakes his head.

Her wrist is practiced
with the boning knife;
she ribbons and filets
a creature drained
only of blood.

Like ripping flesh from a fish
for a fire, she tears sinew
for laces, leather thongs.
She hangs even strips to dry
in the muted sun for winter,

buys cured salt muscle:
sustenance to grind
between her teeth.
The butcher wraps it with her
purchase of fresh cuttings.

They leave and pass a boy
keeping goats for milk
and company, for feasts
and offerings.

A mother dries the tears
of a crying child.

An old man whittles
toys for the children
who pass their days
in the dust and dirt.

In silence, they make their way
toward the chandler, cauldron of
tallow rendered from clean,
crawling bones, wicks
braided hair and death rattle.

The shopkeeper plaits
fine golden strands
to be cut,
then doused,
then flamed.

He sets aside his labor
to skim imperfections
from the simmering wax,
running hot-blood red.

A grimy girl pours molten jade
into two-ended pillar molds
to be carved at the whim
of the shopkeeper.

Anaya tries her hand
dipping blue tapers—fear
over regret
over lamentation.

When shivers and sobs
ripple the surface,
she lowers the rack
to melt away
and start again.

She takes a dozen candles
for remembrance.

Four doors down,
past the woodworker,
the weavers,
the woman who
makes plates and bowls,

Val stops short
against a spark in his eye.

He is watching
bees crawl from the depths
of two hollowed trees, buzzing
nectar from their wings.

A tall woman gathers them
to her. They rumble honey of
thistles and ceiba flowers
into a two-hand span gourd.
She caresses the chitin setals,
laying the soft fur low.

The woman stops and turns
as they approach.

She ducks her head
under a tapestry
tracing the story of
explorers come to suck
sticky sorcery
from the dust at her feet.

Val bows his head to her.

An inscrutable smile.

The woman slithers
dark glances and his lips
turn up, the tiny lines
at the corners of his eyes.
His breath quickens.

Anaya sees that but for her,
he might fall at the Lady’s feet.

The woman turns away from him.
“And Anaya has finally come.”

She takes Anaya’s
hand for a moment,
weighs it, her thumb
against the palm.

“Perhaps, Valsayev, she will cure
your dark restlessness.”
He laughs, but in vain.

They enter the shop—
tented branches
under busy, empty trees.

Preserved fruits
of conquest and labor
line up on sturdy shelves,

fermenting agave in qeb’al,[51]
wine jelly, and nettled sweets
for the children playing.

An iron pot bubbles
slow steam. The alembic
in the corner drips
into a narrow flacon.

An old woman watches,
half-hidden behind a curtain.

Val murmurs, “Qati’t,”[52]
and bends his head.

Pine resin burns
in the incensario[53] as offering.

The Lady pours them
a cup of cirrus clouds, tasting
of sea foam and cane syrup,
wa’l[54] and cyclical rain.
They share the drink with her.

It chills and warms—
a fever of grief,
the cold wind
of early springtime.

They are three
among hundreds:
nature’s grist—
a supple union
of whispering wings,
stinging tenderness.

Languid, in a torpor,
they learn each other.
No touch but minds
and the skin of hearts,

only fingertips
to palms
to gentle laughing.

There is peace
in endless movement,
the hum of creation, joining
in common purpose.

The grandmother
grinds cardamom
into a fine powder.

When the spice
begins to burn
on glowing coals,
the reverie wanes.

Slowly, the Lady gathers
a basket of jars and clay phials,
and gives it to Val to carry.

Like so much, it is hidden
beneath his night-sky cloak.

Before the next stop,
he shows Anaya the cistern
where young men are waiting
to help young women home
with their water.

A midday meal, they drink
blood-red ale tasting
of iron and memory,
eat their fill of sweet bread,
heart and tongue, dripping secrets
from a spit into the fire.

“Why am I here?” she asks.

“It is never our place to tell souls
why they’ve come.”

“I suppose because
I am a sinner.”

He laughs,
“There are no sinners here,
only supplicants and fools.”

He raises his glass.
“And those
to whom they answer.”

When she tries to ask again,
he only says: “It takes courage—
more than courage—
to become the pain.”
As he settles the bill,
she hesitates to ask,
“Is it worse for the fools?”

“Of fools, there is
never a shortage.”
He holds the door open.
“I, myself,
do not suffer them.”

Val walks her past a circle
of old women grinding corn,
metates[55] telling stories
to children waiting
to carry fresh meal
back to their mothers.

They pass a green-eyed woman
tending vegetables, two girls singing.

As they draw nearer the river,
she sees the tanner stretching skins
by black water, staking them

in the sand, scraping against
quicklime with a dull, black
blade, rubbing with rough cloth
and soft rendered tallow.

The man takes her hand,
shows her how
nerve ends can bloom
like tiny white flowers.

He tells her, “Animals
have just enough brain
to tan their own hides.”

She touches the skin,
and the flesh that once owned it
trembles a few feet away.

She takes a new hide, wets and
stretches it from end to end,
side to side, scrapes follicles
from gooseflesh,
from tortured longing.

At the supplicant’s moaning,
her mouth turns up into a smile.

She brands a cured skin
with the heated point of her knife;
Val pays to have it made into a coat.

She takes away boots,
sheaths at the heels,
small pockets for carrying
stones or shot.

Steps away, their last stop
the forge, bellows blowing,
soul on the anvil,
smithy breaking bone.

Black hearts are shaped here,
twisting white-hot muscle,
tools hard with flame.

Some become hinges
on creaking gates or

a chain to hang
a cook pot above a fire.

Some skeleton keys
luring guests to false safety,

or knives, finely honed
on a sparking wheel, forged
from purest fear
and basest instinct.

She tests the blades
against her thumb,
chooses the sharpest
and sheaths its
new-minted terror
at her hip.

As they leave, she strokes
and gentles its shaking.

Women are washing clothes
on stones by the river.
Their chattering turns
to the squawk of jungle birds
at the sight of Anaya with Val.

Her eye is caught
by the old woman
from the sweet shop.
Val leaves off
his hold on her hand.

“She is Rati’t Saq.[56]
Don’t keep her waiting.”

He pulls a pipe from his pocket
and sets off across the square
to a group of men
betting on haxbil-bul,[57]
trading penny-ante revelry.

The old woman takes her
to a stone bench and drops
like bundled blankets
to a seat. She reaches
into a hidden pocket,

takes a pinch of leaves
between her fingers,
tosses into the fire the dust
of anise teardrops, smoke
of sweet grass and cedar.

Rati’t Saq[58] takes a cup
warming on a stone near the fire,
adds leaves, dried berries,
hot water.

“What is it?” Anaya sips,
and the woman watches.

It cleanses her
of the river, pools
of thought, of
color, sound, and

She finds her voice
in the echoing void
and the throng
inside the silence.

The tea leaves
hollow defeats, leaves
tender the meat of her heart,
charred and raw with clarity.

The grandson
is sometimes foolish.
Do not give up the light
that sustains you.

Only give up
the habit of it.

When next she looks up,
the old woman is gone,
the cup, the fire.

On the bench a bag of spice:
spiny bark, sharp
berry beads,
soft moss, crumbling
fronds imbued with

white light of the type
that has so lately
been stripped away.

It can be hidden in her sleeve.

She looks down the road
for her companion—her master,
if she is to be his apprentice.

Val is gambling
with a ragged boy
no more than twelve,
whom she has seen
every day in the street.

They are both laughing,
until Val takes the boy’s coin.
Val pulls the childish sulk
up by the arm, like an older
brother—a father.

“If you are old enough
to play for money,
you are old enough to lose.”

When he sees her watching
tenderhearted, Val shakes his head
and slips the boy the winnings.
He looks at her when he says,
“Next time I keep it.”

He turns to the fruit seller,
pays the bill for the children
hovering nearby. In the swarm,
he gathers his things.

As the children scatter,
the boy, grinning like a
jackal pup, hands her a collar
inscribed Kaqulja.[59]

“Who is Kaqulja?”

“He knows you, Lady.”

The boy runs after his friends.
She watches after him.
“It’s so sad.
They’re just children.”

His smile is perplexed
and perplexing.

“Some journey
to their purpose here.
Some are born to it.”

They walk in the chilling breeze,
watching the moon
fall against the horizon.

He says quietly,
“I was born to it.”

His tender goodbye
is an aching wind sighing.

Alone in her room,
she licks the day’s glut
of fear from her fingers,
shakes the pointless
pleading from her hair.

She weaves the black
light from the window
into silken night-
clothes sliding
against her breasts
like spider silk,
like midnight rain.

She runs her hands
along her body, fevered
skin on edge, breath
fast and deep and hard.

Heart races, blood runs
in the street outside,
twisted roads anchoring
these blind spirits.

She wonders if she is
supplicant or fool,
then laughs.

She lights a candle,
sets aside her heavy boots,
sends the package from the butcher
to be stewed for her supper,
and sets to sharpening her knives.

VI. Footnotes

[48] The jeweler
[49] Semi-domesticated turkey, native to Guatemala
[50] Lady Honeybee
[51] A jug with handles
[52] [Our] grandmother
[53] Incense burner (Sp.)
[54] Fruit juice
[55] A stone mortar used for grinding grain and seeds. (Sp.)
[56] Grandmother Light
[57] A game of chance, resembling a dice game
[58] Grandmother Light
[59] Thunderbolt



VII. Ri Popob’al: The Council Place

Nightbreak the next morning,
she wakes to his hand
through her hair.

He tempers the chill
in the room when he says,
“It is time: kattaqentaj.”[60]

She hesitates a moment,
then asks,
“What makes a fool?
Courage alone?”

“Perhaps.” He sits up to explain,

“Supplicants come,
unwary but willing enough—

They sustain our
service to damnation,
reciprocity as promise.

The fools, though,
take the Black Road,
to petition a life here,

to try their nerve against
the hammering of their hearts,
the knocking of their knees.

Courage is always
their downfall—
the only safety.
Mark this: It is the only safety.

Those trapped in their fears,
lost in any moment
of the trials to come—

the poor fools
never expect
the penitent’s path.

They are unprepared, unwilling,
and the breaking is difficult.”


Val answers slowly,
“Supplicants mourn
the loss of illusion;
fools rage against it.”

She begins to pack a bag
and says, “The key, then,
is to neither mourn nor rage.”

She reaches for the journal
she’s carried with her.

Val says gently,
“Anything from beyond
will weigh too heavily. Only take
what you have gathered.”

Indeed, the book
is a heavy debt
to the miserable
seekers of Xibalba.

She packs jerky and vegetables,
tanajim[61]—an ever-warm soup—
lej,[62] honey, candles, the collar,
the pouch from the Grandmother.

The jacket had been
delivered in the night
with matched leather pants
and gloves. She ties
her boots with sinew.

She chooses the burden
of two outworldly weapons,
her anthame and the
puntilla that could cut out
the heart of a raging boar.

A counterbalance to
this mundane weight, her gift
from the blacksmith: the shivering
silver knife at her hip, inches
from the comfort of her hand.

It gathers itself, false courage
of the supplicant’s journey.

Whetstone in pocket,
the coin her teacher gave her,
the map from the letters,
her heart’s compass.

Cool water
from the hot spring
in a trembling wineskin,
pebbles in pockets,
stones in shoes.

As she leaves,
the innkeeper’s daughter
gives her a bundle wrapped
in warm wool: a jar of passion
fruit with white cinnamon,
a folded page or two,

and a rosary of skulls:
the bones and teeth of bats.

A witchy whisper
reminds them
they are sisters.

A tip of Ysalane’s finger
from Anaya’s elbow down
to her wrist.


The village is scarce
and quiet. No sound
beyond the gate or guard
whistling in the morning wind.

Val walks her around the fence,
cannot seem to turn
toward the eastern gate.

The stone
in her boot

Finally, they stop at a road
they have passed three times.
He touches her face.
The Princes will sense the pain
of a bruised foot, the frustration
of your questions unanswered.

Hold fast to what fear is within you
or they will soon know
how you press at your bruises
and pull at the pain
like a silk sheet. How you
rub yourself on it.”

He smiles poisoned honey.

“With One and Seven Death,
that might go well
or poorly for you.”

Her face flushes, and she avoids
his narrowed eyes.

“Keep that shame close.
Wrap up in it.”

He backs away,
and the windows
to his eyes close.

“You will go on alone now.”


He turns away, his shoulder cold.

Her jacket is tonnage,
boulders in the seams.
Her back aches.

She has never been
so alone.

She trudges to the sound of
a buzzing crowd, escaping
from the open center
of the showground.

She passes through a hidden gate
into the gathered company
of the ancient tombs.

Jun Kame chi Wuqub’ Kame[63]
are on golden thrones,
jeweled anguish in the smelting.

Lords and Ladies are seated
below the Princes,
council of the village
below the Lords and Ladies.

She steps to the center,
below them all.

The voices of the Princes
boom through the guttering breeze.

“She is pretty,” One leers
across the assemblage.
“My men were right.”

His voice is pickled nightshade.
“Can you dance, girl?”

“I am not here to dance.”

“You are careless of your safety,”
One says. “You will break nicely.”

“I am not here for safety,”

“You are here at the pleasure
of the Princes,” Seven laughs
over his brother’s curse:

“I tio’jil chikach’ik.”[64]

She can feel discontent
battling dark peril,
can feel them weighing
the stone bruises in her shoes.

She is grateful
for the tightly wound shame
and pulls it closer.

Seven observes,
“You are carrying light weight
in your trinkets from the village.”

“I am.” She presses the stones
ever deeper under her nails.

One snarls, “You will need
every one of them, girl.”

“My name is Anaya.”

K’ajb’al kab’ixik.”[66]

Seven continues, as though
his brother hadn’t spoken,

“You have earned the right
to the gate, girl, but not yet
a key. A test, but not yet
a Lord of Xibalba.

If you return here
five days hence,
we will entertain
your lover’s request.

But first you will spend
what courage
you have gathered,
battling five houses:

ageless darkness,
shivering winds,
hungry jaguars and bats,
iron blades .”

Seven sees
Val has told her
the stories.

“There are no homes
for faint hearts here.
You must claim ground
to build upon, or yours
is a fool’s journey.

When you return here
for judgment—”

One splits a forked smile.
If she returns—”

Seven raps his staff
against his brother’s chair.

“When you return, we will discuss
the taming of your Lord of Xibalba.

One laughs,
“Val will not be tamed
by a foolish girl.”

She smiles,
“Val will not be tamed
by anyone.”

She inclines her head,
“Princes,” then turns
to the arms of her destiny.

The ballcourt is quiet.
Gossip rumbles.

When Lord Valsayev appears
behind the Princes’ thrones,
it erupts.

“She’s gone,” One barks.
“You can’t save her.”

Seven observes,
“She may yet save herself,
my friend.”

“She needs no rescue,” Val says.
“In five days, she will return
to the land you will owe me,
and the teaching she calls for,
as you’ve agreed.”

Seven nods.
“When she returns—
when my brother loses
his land and his money—

she may stay
at your pleasure,
though she will be solitary
as any in these walls.”

One raises the stakes.
“When she is trapped
in the houses, Valsayev—
when she is lost to you—
I will keep my money, my land,
and your paramour.

The girl will dance
for me before she’s done.
She will dance until
she is immaterial.”

Seven stays him.
“We all know our forfeit
on this wager.

My brother will hold his word
if the road leads her back here.
Val will hold to his if it does not.
All here have heard it said.”

“Ta chuxoq.”[67]

Val turns on his heel
and disappears.

Thunder threatens.

VII. Footnotes

[60] You are summoned
[61] soup of chilacoyote squash
[62] Tortillas
[63] One Death and Seven Death
[64] Your flesh will be chewed.
[65] We shall grind you like maize.
[66] Sacrifice you are named.
[67] Then be it so.



VIII. Q’equ’ma Ja: Darkness House

Another hike, another road.
Another Q’eqa b’e.[68]

Dark soil muddies
her shoes. The anthame
at her ankle drags,

so she leaves it, an altar,
by the side of the road. Angry
burning coals combust
beneath her leather soles.

She must make a path
through the thicket—
too few footholds,

too many treacherous points
to turn an ankle, fall
against the unforgiving, scrape
against dying thorns.

Carefully, she steps
through the wrong-footed
underbrush, her center low,
head a slow pivot.

At a fork in old footsteps,
she takes the shadowed path,
Yax Te’[69] cradling its passing.

A bit of sun breaks
through the canopy,
reminds her
what she will miss
in supplication.

There is no end.
There is no end.

There is a turn ahead
from dark to darker.

She moves forward.


By nightfall, she has walked
the warrior’s road: the beginning,
an ending, an old life passing.

A small clearing. The dusk is hot
and the trees are dripping
with winter rain,

last sun filtering through mists
that might bring a chill
by morning.

Five cottages,
each one room wide.

Q’equ’ma Ja[70] slate,
granite-grey, no cracks
between the blocks, no mortar
but the bleeding of angels.

Xuxulim Ja[71]shimmers
gold and bronze in the light,
frost like sugared violets
motionless against the wind.

B’alami Ja[72] staked wood
tied with sisal rope and
braided brindling,
roof of branches and bloody
bones a path to the door.

Sotz’i Ja[73] balanced lava
stone, tiny caves
light with the weight of
feathers and fur, cold
emptiness of blind eyes.

Chaim Ja[74]adobe-bright
wildflowers growing from
trimmed thatch, sparks
of a whetstone singing.

She is alone
but for the sound
of Val’s silence.
Her hand moves
unbidden to rub his coin
between her fingers, then

into her pocket to worry
the bone beads
from Ysalane.

The leftmost door stands open.
She lifts the burden of her pack
and the food that will
carry her through the night.

As she walks through the door,
she feels him brush against her.

Darkness is heavy.
learn the weight of it.

Ma xa’on chitz’ininik.[75]

She straightens her stance.
No shadows. No moonlight.
No door behind her.

No end
to the quiet.

She tugs matches from her coat,
each spark is consumed
by pitch and brimstone.

The darkness bears down,
attaches itself to the stones
in her pockets. It drags at her.

Her eyelids fall.
Her stomach tightens.
She can feel it pulling her
six-stone weight
into its burden.

Widened eyes are swallowed.
A whimper of fear
another in the unknown.
She cannot even tell if it was hers.

But she will not be stopped
two steps past her start.

Slow, in a trickle, she crawls,
sightless, stumbling, to a chair.
Centurion strength
pulls her upright.

Once seated,
the weight recedes
until staying,
not stealing,
her breath.

She finds the edges of a table
and sets down her pack.
Insidious, darkness slips
beneath her skin.

It will take its time,
she knows—unsettle,
unnerve, and unhinge
before undoing.

Her breath comes faster,
the weight in her chest
smoldering slowly.

The din of heavy silence
settles in like a patched coat.

She pushes back with the white light
to which she is ever-connected.
It is swallowed faster than the flame.

Garden-variety illumination
will not save her. She sends up
a desperate message:

Val, it will devour me.

Before he can reply,
she is deafened by chattering
monkeys and birds, xuruxuj,[76]
k’arak’oj,[77] just outside the door.

She is startled
by the throng and
her body begins again
its slow entombing.

She is listing against the sound,
against owls howling
and skittering ch’o,[78]
rustling kumatz,[79] spiders
spinning venom cocoons.

She falls into the shadow
of shadows, closing her eyes
behind the cacophony.

You carry the
Lord of Darkness

You carry darkness
unseen in the shadows.

The room goes silent.

The darkness
that she carries
stirs itself.

She slowly takes off
each ten-ton boot,
pours the precious stones
onto the table. They crash
against the wood,
shaking the silence.

She empties her pockets
but for a hand-span rock
kept hidden, large enough
to kill a hungry rat.

She scrapes together
a blind pile, still
and unseen until
she takes them in her hand,

pulling endless smoldering
eyes from the stones.
She searches her pack
for the candles,
feeling the warm wax
molded to her fingers,
leaving the scent
of itself in her palms.

As she lights the wick
with a flame called forth
from a pebble between
her fingertips,

she hears a sputter, a pop,
and a long, empty howling
from some distance—
a lifetime—away.

Cast into service, the spark
of a fool’s eye pushes gallantly
against the looming;
the room and her lungs
are opened almost to the walls.

She makes tea
from the bag of light
from the ancient mother
and sips it quietly
until she is warm.

She touches
the graveled shards, reaches
for the receding glow.

The light opens
wider in her palm.

As she closes her hand,
illumination retreats
with the last of her fear.

She pockets the stones,
blows out the candle
and opens to the tuning

of instruments: the whine
of a breaking rack, the screech
of a thumbscrew, the rhythm
of a thunderous beating.

Her senses are snared
into an orchestra
of immutable sensation.

Her body is hollow as a drum,
filled with the solemnity
of this contract, this choosing.

The unplanned music
of the quiet wood across the road
is nourishing and sacred: the
animals, insects, rocks-
breaking stillness.

Moonset saqirik,[81] dark light
through the windows.
The door stands
open as her eyes.

An unexpected tapping reveals
a basket of food: fresh milk,
fruit, bread, and cheese.

A ravenous rat
sidles over to learn
what she will have for
morning supper.

She shares a feast with him,
Both grateful for the company.

When they are finished, remains
feed the nest of viper rats
and the deafening
animals across the road.

She pulls out the su’[82]
she was gifted by the gatekeeper
and teases a tune
as the sun rises in the window.

VIII. Footnotes

[68] The Black Road
[69] The ceiba, the “world tree” in Mayan mythology, which connects Xibalba to the earthly realm and the skies.
[70] Darkness House
[71] Shivering House
[72] Jaguar House
[73] Bat House
[74] Blade House
[75] Not merely will it be silent
[76] Howling
[77] Clattering
[78] Rats
[79] Serpents
[80] Protective spirit
[81] At dawn
[82] An ancient flute, often made of bone



IX. Xuxulim Ja: Shivering House

With her unproven weapon,
she scrapes frost from the window,
channeling heat from her hands
through the cold,
green copper of the wall.

The foolish blade freezes,
fear dripping from the point.
She warms it
from her center, slides it back
in the sheath at her hip.

It is not seasoned enough
to be valiant, but there is time.
The knife at her wrist
has no fears to ease.

But the lifeless puntilla cracks,
hot glass in cool water,
clatters to its burial.
She drops the weight
of the scabbard beside it.

She pulls gloves from her satchel
and a thick alpaca scarf,
turns up the collar of her tailored coat
and opens the latch.

The air is blue and lifeless.
Ancient winters
suck breath from her lungs.

Her lashes freeze,
weep ice crystals
to her fingertips.

The arctic wind blows,
builds drifts in the corners.
The hoarfrost was once the breath
of other courageous fools.

The jacket covers her
from ear to hip, taking
the lonely cold into itself.
She murmurs her thanks
and draws it closer.

She takes off one glove,
touches the metal chair.
Her thumbprint holds fast
until she rips it away,
the small bleeding
scabbed with ice.

Her lips are set like stone,
nerve ends numb
with screaming.

Her eardrums stretch
like the warp and weft
of icicles crying. She is still
as the first snow angel
of the season.

Her eyes would close,
but the lids are nearly solid.
Her fingertips, her toes burn.
More crystalline
every moment.

The animals across the road
set up their howling.

If you hold yourself apart,
the cold will batter against you.

She moves like an ice floe,
slush-like and sluggish,
finds the water
from the spring, steaming
ice pooling in her hands.

She drinks deep
and washes her face with it,
lets it coat her eyes,
her stomach, her lungs,

She is liquid as
diamonds, transparent
cracks and fluidity.

She slowly strips of armor:
scarf and gloves,
jacket and heavy boots,
travelled shirt and dusty pants.

She peels away
a layer of underclothes
from neck to ankle.
Every atom of her shivers
awake, vibration rising until

she blows ruthless
as a blizzard wind. Until

she hangs silent
as icicle shards. Until

she is frost
on a late-blooming crop.

She is glacial:
the ancestor of cold.

When the chill fails to still her,
she turns the tide, slowly
tempering the room like aching
hands around a warming cup.

Temper climbs,
lava heating
bubbling bonfires
of the pagan Summerland.

The round mud oven
outside the baker’s shop.

Warm skin rising
from a hot spring.

Flames licking
the inner thighs of a witch.

Steam rises in Xuxulim Ja.[83]

She holds the room in
her intemperate hand, adjusting
like a torch: clumsy and ruthless.

She calls thunder
and pounding rain,
baking sun, snowflakes
like powdered glass.

When the weapons of
the gods are exhausted,
the room is soft sunlight
on the back of her neck,

a cool breeze
braided in her hair.

The room is calcite
streaks of oxide
white with gypsum.

It might have been centuries
since the last thaw.

A table, bronze gritty,
scarred, and disused, chairs
worn smooth from freezing fast
the many fools before her.

Rusty jade runnels of dirt
show signs of penitents’
dents in the frost,

the scraping of fingernails
trying to claw their way out.

An iron box in the corner
proves to contain
a pound of raw heart meat

and a meal
warm as the hands
of the innkeeper’s daughter.

She reaches outside
for her pack, for a bowl,
a fork and spoon,
a cup for tea.

She builds a smokeless
fire, hangs the iron pot to heat,
and opens the as yet unread
pages from Ysalane.

The missive tells her
what is waiting
and the tale of a woman
who was blind
but for echoes in the darkness,

who flew aimless
airstreams in the near dark,
seeking a roost against
dying light.

Her story takes flight
in Anaya—nests in her.

She spoons hot stew
into the jicara.[84] A white fox
peeks out of her den
under the cracks in the floor,

herds her roguish kits
into the warm room,
limp lemming in her teeth.

They settle into the warm
moonlight of Anaya’s meal.

Finished, the foxes sleep
by the cool fire.

Anaya finds a broom
and a brush in a corner,
calls rainwater and
cunab’al atz’am.[85]

grinds a paste from
the dust of lightning and
the pebbles in her shoes.

Into the night, she brings
the copper walls, the floors,
the stained fittings to a soft shine,

a clean dwelling for the ice
shards and crystals who lie in wait
for the next fool to try his courage.

Hailstones and sleeting winds
will come alive again
at the turn of her hand.

As she wakes the house
in the morning,
the foxes slink
back under the floor,
into the twisting tunnels
they follow to their den.

IX. Footnotes

[83] Shivering House
[84] A bowl made from a calabash gourd.
[85] Native salt, used in remedies and healing

Section X will be posted in one week.



X. B’alami Ja: Jaguar House

There are cats at the gate,
xpe kotz’ b’alam,[86]
xpe tukum b’alam.[87]

stalking their territory.

fangs twice as wide
as her jugular.

“It is unwise to bare claws
against a superior warrior.”

She sits cross-legged
on the path. The two cats
pace ever closer, eyeing
her routes of escape.

She stays still;
they come forward.
She holds out
her empty hands.

The jaguarundi’s muzzle nestles
in her hand, under her arm,
against the sole of her boot.

Its teeth graze her cheek,
exhaling against her
helpless spine,
mouthing the tense hair
on the back of her neck.

The smaller cat finds
the package from the butcher,
looks up a moment,
eyes tharn as prey,

never expecting as
penitent’s offering a heart still
raw enough to bleed.

The cat falls on the still flesh
waiting. She feeds, leaving
the live prey for her mate.

The second cat eyes
Anaya as his teeth gnash
through the jerky from her pack,

dried flesh, parched
bleeding muscle. His head is
tossing, tail twitching
a warning:

he could chew
her skull as easily.

When he is finished,
he pads to the gate,
light-footed on the path
of pliable bone. He looks back

to see that Anaya
follows. The other cat
crowds behind her,
filling the width of the door.

The house is too small
for the comfort of a woman,
nor the e tz’apim b’alam[89]

the dozen
stir-crazy, half-hungry,
caged, pacing felines.

A ceiling of trees
houses only the few
now peering from
the sweeping branches.

All ears twitch and eyes glow.
The room smells of gore
and feedings weeks old,
the fur and dust of centuries.

The cats slide like snakes
into frenzy, wasps and hornets
out of hibernation.

They circle her, they crouch
in the corners and twist
to pounce, to sting.

She steadies the shaking
knife in her hand.
It is larger than their fangs,
but is only one.

Anaya and her weapon
both know they cannot win.

The cat next to her growls,
rises on hindquarters,
slashes claws against her hand,
raising blood and knocking
away the blade.

His teeth gleam like
ancient gold, his eyes
mirrors to show her
the shape of her panic.

She veers away,
holds up her arms
to ward off the tearing.

His eye teeth drag against
the weave of her pants,
tugging at the leather thong
dangling from her pocket.

She reaches to stop him
and incisors scrape against
her wrist. The horde turns.

The Grandmother’s pouch
falls to the floor,
scattering light and flowers
before imprisoned predators.

She watches as they
rub soft petals between
their paws, their lips.

Ravenous to revelrous,
killers to kittens,
romping, rolling, laughing
pinprick claws.

The jaguarundi rubs his head
against the earthy scent
in her hand; he nuzzles
his soft nose against her hip.
She crouches down
and strokes his stiff hair,
purrs into his
marauding spirit.

She sees he is the cat
who made camp with her
before she passed
through the cave mouth.

You are Kaqulja.[90]


I have a gift for you.

She tries to fit the collar
but he chews it to pieces.
He will take up the affront
with the mischievous boy, but first
makes known to her

that he has
torn out throats
for less presumption.

Another cat toys with
the beads on Anaya’s belt.
She plays at a tussle
with one, then all:

distractions and feints,
nips and scratches, sandpaper
tongues, long whiskers.

She finds a brush half-hidden
under a clean-picked skull,
and as each cat settles, she brushes

mats and tangles, dirt and decay,
from their coats. There is a knock,
and thirteen pair of ears
turn wide eyes at the intrusion.

She opens the door, Kaqulja
in front of her heels.

The butcher’s boy
has brought two baskets,
his cap in hand.

He sets one before Kaqulja.
The cat rubs his head
against the boy’s shoulder.

The second basket
he hands to Anaya.

“For the Lady,”
he grins and winks,
“from Ysalane.”

He dips a clumsy bow
and slips away.

The cats and Anaya share a meal
of fresh bloody meat,
spiced by the women of Xibalba.

In the lassitude
of warm food, hot moon
laughing play,

Kaqulja rakes his claws
across her shoulder,
marking her. She rubs
the blood into her skin,
and he licks it from her neck.

He curls around her,
and the others follow,
a clowder of cavernous purring,
soft fur, the twitching of
forest-running dreams.

She smiles when she hears the voice.

How are the b’alam?[91]

Val, I have a familiar.

You’ll have to get your cat a bell,
he chuckles.

Kaqulja growls.

Before she can reply,
Val is gone, and the cats are vying
for her attention.

X. Footnotes

[86] Crouching jaguars
[87] Striking jaguars
[88] They are baring their teeth.
[89] Captive jaguars
[90] Thunderbolt
[91] Jaguars



XI. Sotz’i Ja: Bat House

The house is crumbling;
unseeing eyes in
cracks mark her
progress to the door.

She stops and waits
for armored defense.
These winged mysteries

of sound and speed, of light,
make centipede knees of her skin
falling and shaken

before she even knows
the touch of their tiny
talons and teeth.

The knife at her hip
grows his first daring;
he had been lost in Bat House,
and would have his revenge.

She stays him,
as she hopes
to appease
sightless wings
incensed by incursion.

Ysalane’s hand is steady
in the chain of bones
between her fingers.

Anaya almost expects
her voice instead of Val’s
until she hears it,
gentle and shy,

One cannot travel freely
among blind enemies, Lady.

You will blind yourself trying.

Anaya unpeels bananas,
skins mangos, unwraps the mojara[92]
she’s brought from the river,
throws them inside
as she opens the door.

Beetles scurry into the dim light
to sacrifice themselves
to her purpose.

The action is instant,
small fury.

Her hair is on end and frightened.
Her eyes close and her ears
catch sharp dissonance—

until it is quiet
but for scuffling for food.

The first to feed
take rations
in their claws

to the eyeholes and jawbone
of a tapir skull, deathbed
for the old, cradle
for the young and wingless.

Those fast enough
tear into the soft, sweet
flesh, pulping and spitting
until they are fat.

The followers
tear claws into their fellows,
adding blood to honey-
sweet juice and the thick coat of
guano on the floor.

Dry skeletons of
tiny rodents and frogs
litter the floor, snapping
under her steps.

The fools’ bones are larger
and harder to crush.

She sees in small seconds
the niches are crawling,
peering from dim corners.
Dark cries near silent,

ketz’itz’otik,[93] ketz’itilajik,[94]

She catches
echoes like a wave
in the river, the scuttle of
prey crawling to its curse
from the dirt outside.

Inverted nightmares
hang dreaming
from the banyan beams.

Some prepare
for one-night mates
or chatter pidgin
from future centuries, stories
of hunting and the crows
that are their sisters.

Some retreat into hoarded insects
or groom her fear sweat
from the hairs on their chests.

Some lucky few suck sweet juice
from the tips of their wings
and needle-sharp fangs.

There are always young
learning to fly.

They are each alone
in the low shaking of the hive.

She bends her ear
to their humming
and opens two clay pots
sealed with wax,
from Xkab’.[96]

Honey and pickled starfruit,
the tastes of her spirit.

She coats her face
and her eyes, fruit
down her arms, across
her breasts, honey sticky sweet
between her thighs.
She weaves it through her hair.

The moy ch’o[97] fly and crawl
from all directions. The elders wing
lazily to her body, seeing
the pots from which
there is always enough.

She endures their claws
in her hair, their stiff
wingtips dragging slowly
down her arms like
an ink quill, feather
light, vaguely scratching.

Her stomach churns,
Her eyes shiver.
She swallows
terror, choking.

The membranous wind
called up by their wings
smells of hawks and falcons
and narrow escapes.

Hollow, ghost-faced
vesper bats sing dirges
and long-dead forgiveness.

False vampires prey,
trickster spirits, shape-shifting
like clouded memory.

They have flown,
these mismatched souls,
from the ends of the earth,
airfoil singing, to roost
in this darkest of darkness.

They carry the winds of oceans,
of tundra and warm forests
bleeding with hot rain.

They are spectral, the devil’s
providers, foraging by night,
rummaging for sweet nectar, salt
tears, open wounds.

Sacrificial knives that will
tear themselves to pieces
for a taste of silence.

She is silent.

They collect
layer by liminal layer
on her skin, licking clean
her jaw line, her hair,
the backs of her knees,

driving away
her tenuous connection
to gravity.

A mass of breathing intention,
none heavier
than twenty-one grams.

For the few who need blood,
she bares her neck,
and teaspoon by teaspoon,
they try to suck her dry.

Her knife would stanch the
bleeders, the parasites feeding.
He sharpens the edge he became
when he lost his last drop to them.

He steels his backbone
and is itching for a fight.

She once again stays him.
“There will be many blind enemies
before you and I part.”

When the creatures are replete,
her skin rubbed clean by their
bristle-brush tongues,
they settle, hanging

from her eyelids, her hair,
the tender flesh of her wrists.
They roost in her,
she becomes the hive:

half-sister to every witch
and every fangless
wild thing fighting
against tangled hope.

They settle into their tasks
within her. She is cave to them,
a nesting place, a place to bury

their young. She hangs
on the shaking, breathing,
restless drone until the morning,

when they will sleep
and she will eat
the food she hopes
is waiting at the door.

XI. Footnotes

[92] Tilapia native to Guatemala (Sp.).
[93] They squeak
[94] They shriek
[95] They fly
[96] Lady Honeybee
[97] Blind mice



XII. Chaim Ja: Blade House

The shards of the door
cut her finger: a kiss
of anticipation.

I am almost afraid.

You? You are afraid of Chaim Ja[98]?

She feels his laughter
in her gut, then nothing.

She unsheathes the knife so
lately a friend and shoulders
the door open, slicing the
leathered flesh of her coat.

The air is thick
with honing oil.
Sharp planes,
dull shine.

She sets her pack on a shattered-
glass table, wanders the room,
meticulously testing the ways
in which blood can be drawn.

Razors flashing, scraping,
one against another,
round and round, blades buzzing,
grinding a screeching melody.

Sabers win a duel
with silence, dying
to eviscerate the unwary.

Kik’,[99]kik’, kik’.
Each scratch, each drop
of blood on her skin
arouses the ends
of her conscience,
the spoils of war.

She supposes
she should be afraid.

Fresh cuts are inured against
her newly ancient scars.
She binds old wounds with
spider silk and close memory.

Every blade knows its role
in the tests of the Princes.
They are battle-tested,

As she assesses the final trial,
she finds dull edges, undetected
but for expert eye, illuminating

a seat, a foothold,
a place to rest her hand
against the shifting rows
of scissoring razors.

She pulls the whetstone
from her pocket. The pouch,
nearly empty of herbs,
still filled with light,

falls to the floor, splits
against the fractured floor.
She kneels to gather
the fallen treasure.

Jagged stone should slice
her knee, ice through snow,
but the pain is absorbed
into the nerve ends
of the leather pants.

She nicks the heel of her hand
on broken slate; welling
blood mixes with the
leaves fallen in her palm.

She daubs it on the stone
from Rati’t Saq,[100]grinding oil
into porous stone
for seconds, minutes,
hours on end.

The scent of warmed spice
permeates the air of her.

She reaches for Val,
but there is nothing. Then,

I am a hindrance to you here.
Do your work; I am waiting.

There is nothing to hear
but the calling of chaq’ab’ chikop,[101]
the animals and birds of the night.


She takes up the whetstone,
warm in the palm of her hand,
Slowly sharpening
a cloudy shine.

Mixing diamond-hard dust
into the hollow of her hand,
she hones the sanity
of the next seeker
who will spend the night.

The paste in her hand stills
the twisting, turning blades, stills
the crash of scraping metal.

Once quiet, she cleans
bone-broken blades
of grit and the petrified blood-
stains of fools

strong enough
to come this far
but no farther.

The terror is lonelier here—
last test the raw panic of those
who have never known fear—
so deep it lives in the walls,
in the stone roots.

It cements hard adobe,
seeps from the door frame,
burnishes the iron
will of the consciousness
that lives here.

She grinds away
the scars of herself,
leaving quiet layers
of love and unholy sacrifice.

With each scrape
of stone against graceful alloy,
she cleans impurities
from her eyes, her ears,
her tongue.

She is stone.
She is blade.
She is dust
flying from the union.

She tests the edge
against her thumb, feels
the sensuous shudder
of the newly clean blade.

She strokes with a fingertip,
drawing blood, feeding
a sad goodbye. She sets it into
natural motion and moves
on to the next.

The sun rises as she finishes.
She has not eaten
or slept
or hungered.

She sits and settles
into this house she knows
she will often visit.

She calls darkness
and weathered storms,
hears the howling
of b’alam,[105]the flight
of blind nightmares.

The scratch of blood
reaches for her fingertips.

There is a scuffle at the door:
a small boy trying to evade
a stalking cat. She steps outside.

“I’ve come to take you to Val,
Nima Chichu’.”[106]

Kaqulja slinks to her ankles,
turning about her knees
in discontent. She absently
strokes his head and says,

“You shouldn’t be playing near here.
It’s dangerous.”

The boy cocks his head.
“I belong to the dangers, Lady.
Like you.”

“What is your name?”

“Akul, Lady.”

“Not Lady, only Anaya.”

“Val said you will be staying.”

“He would know better than I.”

She gathers her pack,
leaves blood sacrifice,
loq’alaj ch’ab’al[107]
upon the threshold.

Remaining food
one last offering for the
Chajal re K’eche’laj,[108]
the creatures in the wood
across the road.

XII. Footnotes

[98] Blade House
[99] Blood
[100] Grandmother Light
[101] Nocturnal animals
[102] They squawk
[103] They chatter
[104] They roar
[105] Jaguars
[106] [Great] Lady
[107] Sacred speech
[108] Guardians of the Forest

Section XIII—the final section of the book—will be posted in one week.



XIII. Paqalik: The Ascent

Akul leads her back
to the silent gate
then runs ahead.

No life, no death
swallows the piercing light.
There are no seekers
ringing the walls. She can see

all the way to the cliffs,
listens for roq’ob’ala’,[109] watches
the bats settle in for daylight
slumber in the trees.

Akul returns, tugging at her,
so she follows,
tired mind sore,
heart joy-tempered.

Val is waiting at the inn
with food and wine, and Ysalane,
who brushes him away—
not without a measure of fear.

“My Lord, she has been gone
for days. Let me give her
a bath and fresh clothes.

The boy is lurking
for your attention, and
your meal will wait an hour.”

Val paces and scowls,
but finally nods.

The girl bustles Anaya
into a bath, sets out
a silver-shot k’ul,[110]
soft shoes, delicate cloak
of moonrise and spider silk,
k’uwal[111] of amber, fire
opal, and jade.

Ysalane dries Anaya
with rough cloth
and breathes a kiss
on the back of her neck.

When Anaya turns,
the girl’s eyes are cast
into the dust in the corner.

Ysalane folds away the towel
and passes Anaya a wrap.
“There is food, Lady.”

Leading the girl into the next room,
she says, “To you, I am only Anaya.”

Ysalane takes up a boar bristle
brush, strokes drops of water
down the back of Anaya’s neck,
catching them with her fingertips.

The girl is anxious. “Lord Val is waiting.
We try his patience every minute.”

“Lord Val will need to learn
to be more patient.”

Anaya runs her fingertips across
the back of Ysalane’s hand,
and it trembles.

“And you will need to learn
to be less afraid.”

The girl looks away. “Yes, Lady.
Anaya.” She blushes. “But
it is unwise to be fearless here.”

Anaya smiles.
“It is never unwise
to be fearless.”

Her nails dig into Ysalane’s palm,
and the girl whimpers.

“The mistake is to never surrender it.”

She turns, and their eyes touch
like clasped hands, like their palms
would dance, until they are dancing.

There is soft comfort
in the kiss and the gentle caress.

The bed is at their knees.
Anaya lowers Ysalane,
cradles her head, her heat

and loveliness, takes one
tremulous hand and slides
her tongue around the fingers,
into the fine fork between.

The girl shivers and
Anaya breathes
the scent of her waiting.

There is an anchor here
in the almost-fear,

the sacrificial offering.
There is a rake to it

across her back,
a scraping through her hair.

Anaya steals
an answering moan.
Her tongue tip
drags it down
her lover’s stomach,
her hipbone, her thigh.

There is grace in the taking:
a swallowing of silence,
a conquering of angels.
There is singing and sanctity.

When they are finished,
the moments are solemn.

They dress, slow ties and
soft linens brushing
against fevered aftertaste.

Gentle kisses
at the closing
of each seam,
the neck,
the wrist.

Ysalane kneels to slip on
her Lady’s shoes; to kiss
the hem of Anaya’s skirt.

Anaya pulls her upright,
strokes her hair.

“I would have you
on your feet, not your knees,
jeb’el moy ch’o.”[112]

She takes her hand
to lead Ysalane
down the stairs.

In a small room, the boy is waiting
with Val, telling the story
of a jackal and a disappearing rabbit.

“The nature of rabbits, Akul,
is to appear and disappear.
They are like women that way.”

When she appears,
the boy stops short and Val
rises to his feet.


“My Lord.”

The boy and the innkeeper’s daughter
catch each other’s eyes.
She guides him toward the kitchen,
both looking backward as they leave.

Val closes the door.

You have come back
to me, Anaya.

Her hand trembles.

I have, my—

She looks away and catches
a moan in her throat.


He closes three canyon steps
between them and drags his will
close to hers, surrounds them,

the room, the village,
in soft rain from the river,
supple sunlight of reunion.

The wall is hard behind her back,
hands trapped above her head,
body shaping itself to his.

“There’s food,” she says weakly.

“There is,” he replies,
feeding from, assuaging her,
licking sticky-sweet
anticipation from her lips.

He feeds her chocolate
and cherries and they drink
xtab’entún,[113] bindweed wine.
She fills his glass.

“You have won my bet,”
he smiles. “One Death
has given over the land.
And a bad loser
sweetens the winning.”

As she raises her glass
to the defeat
of a common enemy,

he continues, “Seven has sent
half his winnings in gold and silver
and his welcome.

He thinks himself witty:
he’s sent a girl to dance for you.”
Val laughs, and she smiles
at the offering.

When his hand slides
down her arm, she asks, “Am I fit
for a Lord of Xibalba?”

One corner of his lips turns up,
and his eyes dance.

“You will need to learn
not to listen to One Death
barking at your heels.

You are lover to the river,
to the stones,
mother of light and
sister of magic.
Balance to the darkness,
and friend to it.

You are fit, my Xtaj,[114]
for only one
Lord of Xibalba.”

She blushes
at the heat in her face.
Her eyes slide away
and she smiles.

He stands to flank her
and continues,
“The council
will meet tomorrow
in formal welcome.

The village has begun
harvesting stone from
the vein along the cliffs,
hauled water from the
current, held the center.

The building is yours,
the mortar your making,
but you have the will
of a thousand hands.”

She looks toward the door.
His eyes catch hers.

“It seems that she has
made herself yours.”

“It seems.”

She inclines her head
and waits for judgment.

“There is room for Ysalane.”

His eyes are hard as
anchors. A frisson of fear
down her spine intrigues.

she will not
keep me waiting

She nods at his shoes.
He runs his hand
down the curve of her neck.

His eyes soften,
and he lifts her chin.

“I tend to lack patience,
though not for lack of trying.”

He sits down
and takes up
his glass.

“The boy will be in your service.
I would have him learn
blades from the hands
of a warrior spirit.

He will grow to be a master,
but is young yet,
and needs gentling.”

He pauses.

“He was born of a fool
lost in Blade House.”

His eyes are jagged edges.

“As was I.”

Val holds out a stone knife,
black and weightless
as a mother’s lost love.

“Please see that he gets it.”
She hides it in her sleeve.

His voice drops and
his eyes grow silent.

“The road here is a solitary
start, the lonesome
warrior’s path.

For even as you know
a family, a familiar, a village
in service to your purpose—

even as you know me—
you will know loneliness
and surrender to

the honor of destruction,
the duty of creation.
Your own supplication—
of which you are master.”

“I am in service to you,
my Lord, and to Xibalba.
I am not ill prepared
for supplication.”

She takes her foolish knife in hand,
slices a guava, leaving the taste
of waning fear in the tender flesh.

She sucks it from her fingers,
runs her tongue along the blade,
licks the disappearing taste of
iron against her lip.

Val takes her wrist and licks
the sweet juice
dripping down her arm.

Her palms fall open.
In the minutes, hours, torturous
moments of waiting,

restlessness is silenced,
courage is conquered.

She surrenders fearlessness
and offers her throat.

He tears into her
the sounds of animal
hordes, the taste of salt
wind, sweet scent
of low marshland.

He pulls her into
the steps of the xajoj,[115]
the dance to release supplicants
from the Lords of Xibalba.

She calls him Matzanel.[116]

She has come so far
by the cave mouth.
There is no end to this road.
There is no end.

She calls him Q’o’l.[117]

He whispers in her ear
an ancient forgiveness,
and her healing is older
than the homes of atoms.

As she kisses his fingertips,
she calls him Ajaw.[118]

She asks shyly,
“Am I still yours only

He runs his hand
down her head
to her shoulder,
cradles her face
in his hands.

“For lifetimes,
you have been
the core of me. “

She is the stone center,
the infinite metaphor.
She has no intent
he cannot touch.

He calls her Saqil pa Q’equ’mal.[119]

Soul-deep shackles
are forged, marked with blood
memory. She is chained to him,
carries his scent. Her lips are bruised.

He calls her Ab’anel.[120]

The words are dusty ink
soaking into the sand of her.
She drinks in the indelible stain,
takes his mark upon her skin.

He calls her Wochoch.[121]
He calls her K’aslem.[122]

Amaq’el,[123] my Anaya.

As he claims her,
he calls her Xsaq.[124]


As the moon rises,
and the horizon dims,
she waits by the window,
watching. She drinks her tea.

Her chair is stone,
daubed with crushed
irises of long-blind fools,
the cup baked blood-
red clay.

The chill might be deafening
or blinding, but for the lightning
in the storm she is calling.

She smiles at Kaqulja’s paw
batting at the hard wind
rising in the distance.

People are stirring,
earning their keep—
dinner hour
in the bar downstairs.
It will be busy
when the rain comes.

Val mumbles in his sleep.
She goes to the fire
to stir the coals.

A broken key
is on the table,
with a note
from the innkeeper.

The room
is hers
to keep.

XIII. Footnotes

[109] The sound of flowing water.
[110] Robe [or tunic]
[111] Jewelry
[112] Beautiful blind mouse (literal trans. for bat)
[113] A fermented drink made from morning-glory honey.
[114] Lady Lust
[115] Dance
[116] Protector
[117] Sustainer
[118] Lord
[119] Light in Darkness
[120] Giver of Breath
[121] [My] Home
[122] Life
[123] Always
[124] Lady Light


Thanks for reading! For more about the poem and its creation, make sure you check out the Author’s Notes below.

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Author’s Notes

Between the evocative ideas and poetry of the Popol Vuh—the mythological history of the K’iche’ Maya—and the modern convenience of an online K’iche’ dictionary, this series of poems was born. Like many myths of Hell or its equivalent, the Ancient Mayan stories of Xibalba have a sensuality and ruthlessness that lend themselves to poetry, to artistic exploration of the furthest boundaries of our darkest selves. Added to this, the transliterated Mayan language itself looks like poetry, even to a writer with little talent for foreign language.

The Popol Vuh described the road to Xibalba: crossing  Blood River, River Scorpion, and Pus River to reach the Crossroads and choose the Red, White, Yellow, or Black Road. Upon entry into Xibalba, the traveler is subject to the whims of One Death and Seven Death, the vicious Princes of Xibalba, and must surrender to a series of tests, including surviving one night in each of five houses designed to defeat the unwary—Darkness House, Shivering House, Jaguar House, Bat House, and Blade House. I have taken considerable artistic license with traditional stories, including a cast of characters who never existed in the myths, some not Mesoamerican. I also take responsibility for placing a village where once there was a great city and for extensive creative anachronism.

I have been told that transliteration is part art and part science (as, I believe, is poetry). It seems logical this would be even more the case when the original Mayan text is hieroglyphic, and there are 29 separate languages in the family. For the purposes of this book, I have used K’iche’ as transliterated by Dr. Allen Christenson at Brigham Young University and have been honored to work with him to ensure the accuracy of my Mayan word choice. I have also used minimal Spanish consistent with modern usage, reviewed by Ramon Villarreal Garza.

The most important (perhaps obvious) language distinction is that the grammar of hieroglyphs is not parallel to English usage. The translation provided may be adjusted slightly accordingly, such as the syntactic movement of a word, the addition of an article, or a change in verb tense, but I have been as true to the actual wording as possible. Any errors are entirely my own.

Transliteration sourced from:

Christenson, Allen J. K’iche’ – English Dictionary and Guide to Pronunciation of the K’iche’-Maya Alphabet. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, 2003. Web. Accessed 14 Dec. 2011.

Christenson, Allen J. (trans.) Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya. Mesoweb Publications, n.d. Web. Accessed 10 Sept. 2011