Derek wakes from a sluggish sleep and winces, his grey eyes hiding behind narrowing eyelids as the afternoon sunlight pierces the tall windows of the tour bus, aggravating his hangover. The previous evening was filled with laughter and tequila, and on the periphery of his recollection it seems karaoke tucked into the night as well. He hums tunelessly and percusses his thigh. Meredith elbows him in the ribs, not unkindly, gesticulating her displeasure for his restiveness with a single finger placed over her pursed, slim lips. Standing in the front of the bus is the stocky tour guide with copper colored skin called Manuel. He greeted all the gringo travelers as they boarded the bus, a jaundice yellow tin can on wheels. Manuel’s brow is furrowed and it shelves several beads of sweat each glistening and tumbling in its turn, like shooting stars, as he amuses his guests with a brief history of the Mayans. He speaks a muddled, strenuous sort of Spanglish. Derek considers it put on, just another service Manuel offers. The mere appeasement of Western white presuppositions.
Meredith is rapt with attention, clutching a copy of Frommer’s entitled Explore Chichen Itza!, her blue eyes wide and her fingers twirling tangles of her nut-brown hair. She is rather beautiful. The image delights Derek, and he reclines in his seat and lets the lilt of Manuel’s voice nurse his queasy stomach. “It isn’t practiced so much anymore, but the Mayan gods are still remembered by true Mayans. They speak the dead language; they tell the old stories; they honor the aged memories,” Manuel says, and the bus trundles deeper into Yucatan.
Once within the confines of the ruins, Manuel provides a trifling tour equal to the trifling charge his company collected from each of the day-travelers. Upon completion, he points to a kiosk flanked by a lavatory. “Be back here just after sunset. You have the rest of the afternoon to do as you like. But remember, the last amigo back buys everyone cerveza,” Manuel says with a smile. The crowd disperses.
Meredith insists upon retracing the steps of the tour. “It’s the only way to make certain we’ll appreciate the experience,” she says. Derek consents because he loves her, but mostly because he enjoys the urgency with which she walks, and the subsequent sway of her hips, whenever she feels she is sharing in something authentic or crucial, a discordant fusion of jogging and strolling.
It is not the arithmetical precision with which the step pyramid El Castillo was hewn and assembled to align symmetrically with the constellations and calendar that causes Derek to marvel, nor is it the opulent emerald depths of the Well of Sacrifice, decorated with sunlight cascading and glinting over the face of the water, fairy-like and ethereal, shrouded by the dense jungle. Instead, it is the enormity of the mass of the people selling trinkets that renders Derek in awe. Local peddlers nestle against the stone temples and swarm the pebbled pathways, like bees to the hive, their ornaments and wares heaped upon tables, overlapping and teeming. They entreat each foreign visitor or white face to buy tacky t-shirts, bright blankets, stone daggers, whichever souvenir of shoddy sentimentality can be hawked with the least personal investment. “Time is money,” says Derek. Meredith ignores this.
One vendor, a grimy woman with a beaky face, thrusts a jade necklace towards Derek. He shakes his head in refusal. The grimy woman takes the rejection as an imprecation, her face transmuting into gloom. Derek rifles through his pockets and shovels the contents into the woman’s wrinkled hands, a few paper pesos. Meredith strokes Derek’s shoulder affectionately in approval, like a master pets a dog for proper behavior. Derek blushes.
The booth attendant adjacent the grimy woman steps into Derek’s vision. He is dark, his lank long hair is darker, and his lop-sided leer is darker still. “My friend,” he says, “have a look at my things.” His tabletop is adorned with figurines, both porcelain and wood-carved. They are obscene distortions of old Mayans, naked men with engorged genitalia and women with swollen breasts. The lop-sided leering man has the figurines arranged in compromising positions, mimicking coital scenes and lascivious acts. “All merchandise, four for 24 pesos,” he says. It is Meredith who blushes now and grabs Derek’s hand, using her other to wag a reproving finger at the leering vendor. Such is the sprawl of the ruins, a rabble of merchants congregating amongst the remnants of bygone glory.
“Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, and through them presses a wild motley throng.” The words flood Derek’s mind, and he says them aloud. He does not remember where they came from.
“What?” asks Meredith.
“Nothing,” Derek replies, “its nothing, Mere. They just seems really desecrated. These temples, this place. Just the entire setup. Doesn’t it?”
“Not really. It’s just people, doing the best they know,” she replies. Derek shrugs, not entirely convinced. But Meredith is beautiful and he loves her.
The sun wanes in the west, washing the worn and dusty paths etched about the monuments with a weak light. Derek and Meredith make for the rendezvous point beside the kiosk. Walking past El Castillo, Derek imagines hearing drums from the temple atop the step pyramid, deep and clangorous, like a peal of thunder rolling out from the belly of the earth. It is not until Derek turns to Meredith that he realizes the drums are not imagined. Her eyes are fixed upon the high temple, as are everyone’s, inside which there emanates an orange glow, fiery and flickering. A single voice, musical and malevolent, carries high on the air, permeating the grounds, its melody imploring in a foreign twittering tongue.
A new clamor hangs thick in the air, far less eerie than the harsh voice, a crunch of rocks underfoot or the crackling of dry leaves; somewhat similar to the first sound but much more tangible, as though the two melded into one another, like a hideous noise from a nightmare that, upon waking, proves to be a washing machine or an alarm clock.
Comprehension dawns for Derek. He is able to place the new noise. The marching of a regiment, he thinks. Meredith turns his head with her hand and his eyes validate the fears of his ears. Upon the west hill, out of the Temple of the Warriors, marches a troop of soldiers unlike any Derek has seen. These men are true Mayans. Not paunchy or portly, but solid men, barrel-chested men, forged of toil and suffering and pain, old and forgotten strengths. They wear vivid blue war paint atop their cinnamon skin, only a cut of cloth around their groins otherwise.
The warriors are sprinting and shrieking through the ruins, like feral dogs nipping at the heels of a cornered fawn. The scene is ghastly. Their serrated swords, ancient tools crafted of obsidian so pure and perfect they sparkle and shine purple, kiss and slash and kiss again. Flesh, bone, and baubles: maimed, purged of all impurity. The rush of the raid dissipates and the warriors are lost from sight, if they ever existed at all. The firelight and the din in the high temple is no more. Night has fallen amid the tumult.
Meredith is dead, but so are many others. The lop-sided leering man, for instance. Derek feels a tug at the hem of his sleeve and turns to find the grimy woman, still as beaky as before. She takes his hand, palm up, and returns the pesos he gave her. He watches as she walks away, becoming a silhouette against the twinkling purple sky.
“Is it well to leave the gates unguarded? On thy breast fold Sorrow’s children, soothe the hurts of fate,” Derek says into the darkness. He pockets the paper pesos, and makes for the kiosk, wondering if he will have to buy beer for Manuel or anyone at all.