Brenda Cooper

Mayan Wayfinding

This story first appeared Mallorn, the Journal of the Tolkien Society, edited by Henry Gee, 2008

Cauac sat silently at his teacher’s feet while Ndan gazed at him. When the older man eventually spoke, his voice was calm and soft, yet it seemed to fill all the stone space the two men sat in. “You are trying to decide your Way. Your Way is your life, your path. It decides you.”
The power of Ndan’s voice made Cauac feel small, but he stiffened his spine, unwilling to give in. “I will return to the jungle today and wait again.”
“And wait for jaguar to ignore you another day?”
He swallowed. “If I must.”
He had dreamed the Jaguar would choose him, that he would feel the cat walking in his body, that it would join him on days of high ceremony and climb the pyramid steps back home in Chitzen Itza and marry him to his people. He had even saved for and purchased a jaguar pelt for his costume, for the Dance of the Wayob. It was a fine thing with golden brown hair surrounding the dark eyes of knowledge that peppered its coat, the mouth open in a scream of power. But since his training began here, the jungle had offered him nothing. Not jaguar, not peccary, not even the howler monkey.
Ndan met his gaze. “If you want to return home with nothing, stay on the path you walk now. But of you want to find your Way, look in another direction.”
Why couldn’t Ndan just tell him what to do directly? The only other way was the water, and there was no sea around Chitzen Itza. It could not be his Way.
As if he could read his student’s mind, Ndan said, “Your certainty is a barrier for you.”
Morning came. Cauac had come down to the white-sand beach below the sacred city. He turned for a look behind him. The bright blue and red pyramids of Zama seemed to loom along the low hills, to ring him with expectation. Swallowing, he turned back to the sea, muttering, “Why do you call me?”
The sea simply washed his feet over and over, sighing softly in the morning sunlight. It went forever, far and far, too big a thing to possibly rest in, too big to be welcoming.
And now, for the first time ever, he had put his foot in it. Both of them. He stood on the edge of something so big he could not see it all. The brightness of the sun-sprites on the tiny waves made him squint.
He took another step.
He quivered.
Fear, or anger?
Two more steps, three, and the water washed his knees. He swallowed and grit his teeth, and breathed out like his teacher had told him, from deep inside the womb of his belly.
The sea seemed indifferent to him.
He stood there, praying and breathing, water washing up and down his chest now, making him light, as if he were a feather on wind instead of a tall man in the sea.
A head popped up in front of him.
Golden and orange like a daytime coal from the hearthfire laying upon the water. And a great stone behind it, and then, shocked, he reached a hand out. A turtle. He had seen them on stone stelae, but never alive. A great one, the pattern of its shell familiar, like the jaguar’s, golden-brown rings around spots. A bit of him opened then, and out flew disappointment – the turtle conveyed the gods, rather than being a god itself. But behind the disappointment was wonder. Such a being! It’s jaws could enclose his hand, sever it, yet it swam in place in front of him, sometimes doing a small circle and returning, always visible.
It wanted him to follow it.
A step would be acceptance. His Way. Different than his hopes. But he had always known it was his duty to follow his Way.
Another breath. Another step.
The sand fell away from under him and water filled his mouth and he spluttered and flailed.
His toes found nothing.
His heart beat, fast, and faster.
Water closed over his head.
There, under his right hand, something bumping him. He pushed on it, rising up, the hump of the shell against his belly, his chest, his heart beating against the great shell of the great turtle.
His hand closed around the top of the shell, just behind the great beast’s head.
It jerked forward, the motion scaring him, making him clutch the shell with his other hand, too.
The turtle rose from the sea, giving Cauac access to precious, golden air, letting him gasp and fill his lungs. Then it bobbed once, and Cauac took a breath. Water washed his face as they began to move. He closed his eyes and somewhere inside him he simply knew to hold on. He knew more, as well: the beast was older, older than Zama, older than Chitzen. Old enough to have carried the gods to the Ball Court where the hero twins played for the soul of the world.
The great shell under his belly was ridged enough to poke into his breast. Perhaps if he could split the shell open (as if he would dare, as if he could bear to), he would find the gods were carrying him out to sea.