History and reincarnation   [locations: Peru, Guatemala]


Inca of the Maya


The closing time of the park was ten minutes away.  But there were no gates.  Erik was tired, since we had walked feverishly around Tikal the entire day; he went back to our cabin just outside the park entrance.  I decided to press on to Temple VI.

Earlier in the day I had overheard someone say that once it gets dark in the jungle, you can’t see your hand in front of your face.  The sun would set in ten minutes, but I figured it would be half an hour after that before darkness set in.  I knew the temple was an outlier, some distance from both the entrance and the main cluster of buildings we’d been exploring all day.  I decided to walk as fast as I could for ten minutes, then no matter where I was, I’d turn around and walk back. Back to my husband and the small hub of tourists at the park lodgings.  We had all been imported into the heart of the ancient Mayan territory on planes and buses, into the lowland northeast corner of Guatemala, imported into a dense, lush dream of the past; we’d been left to wander and conjure the royal city, to pit ourselves against the force of forgetful obscurity.

The path I walked was hard stone, often smooth and slippery in places.  It was wide, but hemmed in on each side with dense growth of trees and vines and scrub.  Earlier in the day, we’d tried to walk through some of the jungle, off the path, just a short distance to a tree we’d been looking for geocaching.  We’d been strangled with leaves and tendrils and spider webs, and we coughed our way back out.  Snakes, my sister-in-law tells me, slither through these trees in the Petén Basin of Guatemala, silently stalking prey, stalking even people.

After ten minutes I was nowhere.  I had no orientation.  I had no knowledge of how far it was yet to the temple, or even of how far I’d come.  I’d seen no signs of any sort, and no other people.  I couldn’t turn around yet, not when I knew nothing.  I stepped up my pace to a shin-splintering half-jog.  I didn’t know where the Maya were in this little hide-and-seek we were playing.  Structure after structure we’d stepped into, but no one was there.  A handful of tourists, occasionally.  But where were the Maya?  Where was the epiphany of their existence, the view of their rituals, the kiss of their kings?  I had to press on.

After five more minutes I came across a sign pointing down a side path to Temple VI.  Here’s where the inscriptions were supposed to be, missing from most of the rest of Tikal.  Writing and symbols on the central panel of its roof comb.  The intricate, bulbous hieroglyphs with their curved lines, full of circles and ovals and dots, that I’d only so far seen printed in books.  The recorded dates on the panel are reported to extend over a period of 1,900 years, back to times that must have been to them mythological in nature, like Noah and the flood, and continuing to its construction date in the 700s AD.

Darkness in 25 minutes, with a 15 minute journey back.  I couldn’t help it, I had to go on.  I ran down the path.  “Where are you?”  I asked out loud to myself.  “Where are you?”  I asked louder into the jungle.  It was silent all around me.  Oddly, there were no birds calling, as they had been incessantly all day.  There was no unnerving distant roar from the howler monkeys.  There was no breeze through leaves, no rustling in the jungle floor of coatimundis pushing dead leaves with their long snouts.  There was only my breathing and my footfalls.  Then I stopped my feet and stared forlornly at my watch.  Twenty minutes until dark, until the man said I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face; I had no flashlight or torch, or biochemical luminescence like creatures of the dark ocean, or like the lightning bugs flashing all around me.  Twenty minutes to retrace my steps at the same fevered pace I’d come in on.

“One more minute,” I pleaded to the sun to slow down and the temple to speed up, to move closer.  I was tired, defeated, and for one more minute I stepped sluggishly forward.  Very, very dimly ahead, I could make out a wall of grayish stone.

So it did exist, Temple VI.  Barely, only barely, just at the edge, just a gray wall.  I couldn’t see the writing, the pictures, I couldn’t see the shape of the building or any features, the size, the height.  Just a spot of gray.  But I knew, I knew I had to turn around.  “Let’s not be stupid,” I said to myself as my feet tried to move forward.  “Please, let’s not be stupid.

”Fireflies were flittering all around me, their lights shining brighter by the minute as the darkness increased in contrast.  For a second, it was magical.  It was delightful.  I turned around and headed back down the path.  I walked as fast as I could.  Sweat was running down my temples, my neck, my sides and my arms, my back was wet beneath my daypack.  I swiped at my face with my wet hands.  Bugs were landing on my legs and arms and sticking there in the dampness.

I feared I had taken a wrong turn off the forkless path because I hadn’t made it back to the main trail yet, to the sign that had pointed me down this side path.  I felt panic rising.  I’ve taken a wrong turn. Though that was ridiculous; there were no turns to take.  I began running.  Soon after that I came to the intersection and turned left, back down the main path.  Relieved that I now knew where I was, I slowed down to a very fast walk.

But the light was dimming measurably by the minute, even by the second.  The jungle was clamping down.  Now when I passed beneath a thick arch of trees, I couldn't see the smooth, stone path, I could only feel its hardness beneath my feet.  I still had a long way to go to the safety of my cabin and my husband waiting inside.  I could hardly make out the rotating stems of my watch face in its betrayal of me.  I starting running.  My legs stretched out in front of me, my pack bounced up and down wildly on my back.  I began pacing my breath.  I starting singing a Bruce Springsteen song in my head because that’s the only way I know how to judge time without a watch.  I know how long it takes to sing Born to Run and Badlands and Johnny 99.

I ran through the jungle, trying to outrun the darkness.

*****


The Inca kings in Cuzco, Peru, ate fresh fish, over 300 miles inland from the sea.  The fish were caught off the Peruvian coast and handed over immediately to the runners, or chasquis.  A relay of chasquis, who lived in huts about four miles apart from each other along the Royal Road, ran for two days straight to lay it at the table of the king, 11,000 feet above sea level.

When the Spanish marched in from the coast to conquer them, the Inca, who were more curious than afraid, didn’t understand that the Spanish would keep coming at them relentlessly, that they were there for a final, total and ruthless victory.  The Incan army was formidable in numbers and ferocity.  They could have inflicted much more damage on the Spaniards than they did, could have conceivably wiped out the Europeans completely when they first started down the Royal Road, but the natives fabulously underestimated the Spaniards, not only in their numbers which lay across the ocean on a continent the Inca didn’t know existed, but with regard to their lack of principles, their treachery, their horses and steel weapons which were veritable tanks against the Inca  foot-soldiers armed typically with a wooden club and stone slingshot.  It seems the soldiers were not appropriately alarmed, didn’t realize they should be.

Francisco Pizarro marched to the heart of Peru in 1532 and seized control of the Inca throne by betraying his grant of safe passage and capturing the ruler Atahuallpa.  The Spaniards blasted cannons at the Inca and charged through their terrified ranks with cavalry, slaughtering every Inca in the king’s entourage except the king himself.  The weapons of the European military so frightened the Incas, they climbed on top of one another in fear – to such an extent that they formed mounds and suffocated one another.  With uncompromising swiftness, the Spanish clamped down, and it was inexorable, the coming of darkness.

The Inca ran.  They ran into the Andes.  They ran into the low jungles and high cloud forest, they ran to the hilltops, to the valleys.  They ran, literally, down the stone paths they had built and then leapt from them across rivers and into the trees, running headlong into the deep.

The Inca themselves were a relatively small group of people centered around Cuzco.  Their empire was inhabited primarily by tribes which they had conquered and subverted or pushed into treaties.  They did not treat their conquered citizens very well, and the Spanish were seen by many as saviors—hatred for the Inca ran far deeper than for the unknown Spanish.  So when Manco Inca led the last of his soldiers from Cuzco into the hills of the Vilcabamba, through Ollantaytambo, he was betrayed by his own empire and the fleeing Inca were hunted down by their own subjects who had allied with the Spanish.

The Inca ran.  They ran faster and further.  They ran until they morphed into animals.  They hid in the steep mountains and forests and became nocturnal, coming out at night in the bitter cold to bathe in the stars which haven’t changed, which tell them the same stories they always have, and show them the universe is eternal.

*

Centuries later in this eternal universe, Erik and I, before going to bed one night, pushed open a courtyard gate to make our final visit to the outhouse, which clung to the island hillside above Lake Titicaca.  Like the rest of Peru, the steep terrain had been terraced centuries ago to support the thousands of varieties of potatoes and other subsistence crops.  We left the single candle that lit our room burning, while we held hands walking through the silent courtyard.  Our breath was thick on the cold air; we had four layers of clothing on, while our hosts wore knee-high skirts and open-toed sandals.  We looked up and fell beneath the weight of sky.  Our knees buckled and we sat on the terrace wall, astounded and speechless.  We were drowning in stars.

The night sky in the 14,000-foot high altitudes of the Andes and Lake Titicaca is resplendent.  It is so dense with stars that the mythical figures outlined above are not drawn from the points of light, as in our Orion and Big Dipper, etc., but rather from the patches of empty space between the pools of stars, the “dark clouds” of the Milky Way, conspicuous vacancies.  The animals of night are composed of absence.  Llama, fox, snake, toad.

The Inca looked to the night sky and saw these black animals, which had no need for all the gold and riches the Spanish stole from the empire.  Only food, meat.  So the Inca ran up into the dark clouds, and as creatures of absence they infiltrated into new territories and spread out like a net over space and time, some of them stalking the future like pumas, waiting to pounce, to jump up from their cover and use their claws and teeth, to feast.Our hosts on the island disappeared at night, after earlier they had played music for us with flute and drum, and held our hands and danced with us; after having led us to the top of Amantani to the crumbled altars for Pacha Mama and Pacha Tata—Mother Earth and Father Cosmos—to watch the sun set into the waters of Titicaca, the waters from whose shores the Inca believed the world was created in the hands of Viracocha.

Erik and I walked to the outhouse strangely alone.  When we looked up into the thick jungle of stars, it dawned on us why our hosts had seemed so pale, why they squinted in the sunlight.  And we feared them in their nocturnal hunting grounds, waiting for us in ambush.  Like a Dr. Jekyll who knows the danger of his Mr. Hyde, we were given a padlock for our door that afternoon in the daylight.  “Use this at night,” Santiago told us, as if they might break in and steal our materials and supplies to build their fabled lost cities.  (Ettigar had, in fact, asked us for the batteries from our flashlights.)

In the morning, when Santiago heard me coughing, he pasted Eucalyptus leaves onto my temples.  He put the tips of the leaves in his mouth, chewed them briefly into a coarse paste and then pressed them to the sides of my head.  His hands smelled of emptiness, of dirt that has no mass.

*****


I ran past the park map, just before the tiny hut where the man collects the entrance fee.  The structures so far uncovered inside the six-square miles of the ancient city of Tikal are represented and labeled beneath glass.  It was too dark now to make them out, and I was dizzy from the space of history—the strangled path from the grayish spot of 700 AD to the abstraction of oversized pins stuck in a labeled corkboard 1,300 years later.

Now on the main promenade into the park, I remembered there was a shortcut to my cabin.  With just a few minutes before there was no natural light left, I squinted along the side of the road until I made out the narrow trail that cut through the grass into the trees.  At last an electric light bulb reached out to me and I sighed away the grip of darkness.  I had imagined my husband to be frantically worried about me, but I found him asleep on the bed.  I rested and showered, and we had dinner beside a swimming pool with a Canadian couple we’d befriended on a guided tour of the park we’d taken in the morning.  I was dinner myself for the mosquitoes.

The hotel shuts off the electricity during the night, and sells candles in the gift shop (which we didn’t buy).  I was startled awake in the very middle of the pitch black night by a loud thwink on our thin metal roof, as though something had fallen from a tree onto it.  Then another even louder thud, followed immediately by a cracking thunk on the wooden shutters of our window.  Something was throwing things at us.

Before I had time to think who or what might be the perpetrator, I was engulfed in some alien wind of sound, something beyond ferocious, the devil’s breath blowing out the souls of his domain.  I was paralyzed by the loudness, by the unearthliness; by the voice of some powerful, cold arctic wind filled with a very, very distant chorus of screams, the sound of some unimaginable monster roaring at me, roaring outside the shutters trying to get inside. I felt distinctly like prey.  I huddled in my bed, and a barrage of croaking and snorting, warbled barking and snarling hit the window shutters along with the sticks and fruits being thrown, along with the sinister breath.

Howler monkeys wander through the forests of the Petén Basin, high up in the trees. Males in a group perform long calls, amplified by a hyoid bone that acts as a resonator. Calls can travel up to eight miles.  The strength of this call was focused right at my cabin.  I remembered earlier in the day our guide saying it was mating season for the howlers, and they were particularly active and aggressive now.  Even knowing what it was making this deafening, frightening sound, my heart was still trapped, beating furiously inside my paralyzed body.

I recalled, in my paralysis, how we had noticed the previous morning that the back corners of all the temples and structures we’d been in smelled of urine.  We asked the guide why that was.

“People piss in there,” he told us.  “They sneak into the park at night, think they’ll have some spiritual experience sleeping in the temples, think they’re big men sleeping out in the jungle.  The howler monkeys come through and they’re too scared to go outside to piss.”

*****

Indications are that Tikal, once a sprawling suburban home to as many as 100,000 Maya, dissolved gradually, that the Maya rather quietly disappeared, slinking off into the jungle to hide from famine or civil war, that they collapsed under their own weight.  By the time the Spanish arrived in the Petén in 1523, Tikal was long abandoned and the Maya were a scattered and tattered handful, many of the traditions of the Classic period already lost.

The Spanish Conquest of their territory was a long and involved process taking well over 100 years to complete.  The lords of Tikal were long dead, and the Maya had no single leader such as the Inca of Peru.  Instead they lived in numerous independent states, some of which fiercely resisted foreign domination. Also, the land had no gold or silver except for small amounts acquired by trade, so many early Spanish conquistadors were attracted instead to central Mexico or Peru, which seemed to offer quicker, easier and more fabulous riches.

Few historical events have been as dramatic or cruel as the conquest of Peru.  In less than a decade, the splendid Andean world was firmly in the grip of the Spaniards, its glories stripped and its people virtually enslaved.  Motivated by intense greed and unfettered from the restraints of compassion, the Spaniards were repeatedly able to trick their way into the confidence of the Inca rulers and nobility, only to betray them.  Again and again, the Incas forgave the ruthlessness of their foes and fell more tragic victims each time.

Like the Maya, they were also degenerated by civil war by the time the Spanish arrived in their territory, however they were still cohesive enough to stage a drama.  And the Inca who fought the last battle for their capital of Cuzco, at the fortress Saqsayhuaman above the city, battled aggressively in the thousands.  When the magnitude and certainty of their defeat became apparent, they threw themselves off the high stone walls of the fortress in droves.  But there were so many who did this that the ground began to pile up with dead soldiers, and some of those who jumped last did not, in fact, die, because their fall was cushioned by the other dead bodies.  So they got up screaming and howling, and ran in all directions.

The remnants of the Inca regrouped, and for about 35 years after the fall of Cuzco, they survived deep in the Vilcabamba Valley behind an almost impenetrable series of narrow gorges.  Under Manco Inca, the leader of the last battle at Cuzco and brother of Atahuallpa, they mounted occasional attacks on their conquerors, and constantly retreated and returned to their exiled city of Vitcos.  But Manco was murdered by Spaniards whom he had welcomed as exiles, having killed their own countrymen in Cuzco. He was stabbed while he sat playing a game with them.

No matter how far the Inca ran, the Spanish followed and hunted them down.  When the Inca’s last hold-out in the Vilcabamba was finally invaded and captured by the Spanish, the Inca ran and scattered to the four corners.  The last ruler, Tupac Amaru, was pursued even as he ran into the thick of the Amazon jungle with his nine-months pregnant wife.  He helped his wife along as best he could as they scampered into the jungle.  The Spaniards pursued for days until they finally spotted a small campfire in the rainforest and pounced on the Inca ruler, capturing him and bringing him back to Cuzco with a golden chain around his neck, where he was executed.

Those who escaped had to keep running forever.  They could never stop or they would be killed.  They ran into the sky, into the holes in the Milky Way, and there some of them thought maybe they could run all the way back to the edge of the universe, back to the dawn, to the creator Viracocha.  They took off upstream, fighting the current.  They stretched out their legs, gathering centuries beneath their strides, and ran as best they could upriver until they were exhausted.  At last, unwillingly, they had to lie down.  And where they stopped to rest, they fell out of the sky.  They fell back into the current and were swept off their feet and carried down through the ravines.

*

Popular conception now of the Maya is of fierce and bloodthirsty people, obsessed with sacrifice and ritual, with spilling blood for the gods and handing out terror to enemy tribes.  The truth is, this was only a part of their lives and only one of their obsessions. They were advanced thinkers, the only New World civilization to conceptualize and use zero as a place holder.  They were phenomenally advanced and obsessive astronomers as well, with keen insights into solar, lunar and galactic cycles, having built viewing platforms to rise up above the jungle treetops, knowing a whole world existed above their canopy, somewhat like knowing the ocean exists below us.  They could bathe in the Milky Way, in that starry sea where the animals of absence swim.

And the animals of black, with their black coats in the black night, fell out of the sky and filtered down through the trees.  They came down crying in anger and fear, they howled in desperate breaths:  “Run!”  “Fight!”  “Hide!”  Sacrifice each other if you must, before it’s too late. They breathed from their lungs into the lungs of the sleeping Maya.  Breathed the taste of blood, still staining their tongues where they had coughed it up or where they had swallowed that of their comrades who were piled all around them.  The Maya woke in fear of the taste, in fear of the howling breath, ready to fight back.  They woke with their muscles taut, their spear points sharpened.

The Maya became known for the scale of their human sacrifices.  In addition to offering prisoners of war and sacrificial children, a Maya king used an obsidian knife or a stingray spine to cut his own penis, allowing the blood to fall onto paper held in a bowl.  A king’s wife took part in this ritual by pulling a thorn-studded rope through her tongue. The blood-stained paper was burned, the rising smoke directly communicating with the Sky World, so the nocturnal beasts still running above in the sky would be able to smell the blood, and they would know not to stop there, to keep going and not rest.  “You are not at the edge!” the fallen yelled up.

And being trapped upriver in the Yucatán Peninsula and the Petén Basin, unable to reach a shore in the sky, these fallen tried to lure the inhabitants away, tried to split them into tiny parcels so they would have no gravitational pull, so the great ships with men and metal and horses would pass by and be tugged by some stronger gravity into a different realm.  The great cities of the Maya disbanded; they walked away from the great buildings and spread out in small groups.

At first the tactic seemed to work astonishingly well.  The first Europeans to land near the Maya, in 1511, were completely unintentional visitors, having washed ashore from a shipwreck on a nearby reef.  A group of men made it to shore in a small boat only to be killed or die of disease.  Two of them, however, survived the wreck.  Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero were both captured and enslaved by the Maya.  Guerrero, while enslaved at first, later "converted" to a Mayan.  He married a local noble daughter and had three children, reuniting in his offspring the Old and New worlds.  Aguilar, however, was captive for seven years, and then he was purchased back by the Spaniard, Hernán Cortés.  Aguilar learned the local language in his time as a slave and when he was bought back by Cortés he became an interpreter on behalf of Cortés' mission of destruction.   Guerrero, on the other hand, is given credit for mounting an underground resistance against his former countrymen, setting ambushes and heading attack parties to kill those threatening his adopted homeland.  But the tiny seed of the man Aguilar grew into something terrible and inexorable.

*****

 

We got up in the pre-dawn to shower, and entered the park before 6 a.m. to watch the sun rise over Temple I in Tikal’s Gran Plaza.  Erik and I were alone on the path.  When we reached the Gran Plaza, the centerpiece and main stage of Tikal, its pyramids were crowned in mist.  We would see no sunrise in the fog, only a gradual lightening of the gray air.  The plaza consists of two temple-topped pyramids nearly 180 feet high on opposite sides of a large courtyard, flanked by the North Acropolis of lesser pyramids and by the Central Acropolis palace complex of flat-roofed rectangular buildings.  All of the stone is grayish-whitish, and tarnished with black.  Away in the distance beyond Temple II, Temple IV, nearly 230 feet tall, and Temple V thrust up out of the mesh of jungle to swipe at the sky.

Erik and I were the only two people in all of the Gran Plaza.  Alone in the mist. A multitude of birds were singing, the montezuma oropendola heard above all.  While some flew around, most were hidden from our sight in the surrounding jungle, so it seemed it was just the air itself that was so melodious, orchestral.  And despite the thick, tacky light, the sounds of the birds were so bright and crisp, the air felt like thin glass, absolutely clear.  These misty Maya, they’re terrorized at night by the likes of howler monkeys, and cradled at dawn by the sweetness of birds.

I sat by myself on the steps of the royal residence, looking out over the plaza, the tops of the temples swaddled in the fog, only just visible in outline.  The oropendolas flew in and out of their hanging nests that drooped down from the branches of the tall trees on the edge of the courtyard.  All was green and gray, muted, and one tree of pink blooms.  A hundred birds called out from the ceiba trees behind me, skirting the plaza.

All throughout the six square miles of jungle that have reclaimed the ancient city of Tikal, there are large mounds that are obviously man-made structures, but are completely buried in flora, being slowly consumed and digested.  I sat at the Gran Plaza in a zone of reconstruction, where park employees have to regularly “shave” the structures clean of plant growth.  Yet, as I sat alone, I felt as though I had stumbled upon this all on my own, that it just existed just like this, that only ghosts were its caretakers, and here is where the past came to rest, to lie down gently like silt.  As though right where I sat was the vortex of all tranquility, that this was a singularity and the growing absence of the mystical in this world charted its event horizon, that the mysterious and mythic, secret and sacred were all sucked in here, and this place was pregnant with presences, with the magical, the indelible feeling that there is more, a depth for which there are no measuring instruments.

Ancient hieroglyphs usually refer to the city as Yax Mutal, meaning "Green Bundle."  After the city was deserted around 900AD, it became known as Tikal.  The word “Tikal” is interpreted in some Mayan dialects as meaning Place of Voices or Place of Tongues.  Is it the voices of myriad birds to which they refer?  Of terrifying voices in the night?  Or the human voices of the past, the voices of kings who built pyramids and prayed to the gods on behalf of their people, the voices of the sacrificed?  The voices of absence?  Of some void of prophecy, of warning, or sadness and retreat?  Who speaks in this jungle of strangling vines and feasting trees, of fearful night and delightful dawn, where the marks of men reach to us from the past with fingers of stone?

And who has listened?

*****


Erik and I walked through the streets of Cuzco, coming up along the side of Koricancha, the former Sun Temple of the Inca, whose walls were once completely covered in gold leaf so that it radiated as an earth-bound sun.  The Catholic cathedral erected by the pilgrims of Spain tried to erase it, to rewrite it, but the foundations of the Inca temple were indestructible.  Earthquakes tumbled the Spanish bricks and left the impeccable masonry of the Inca, its stones fitted together so precisely that there was no mortar needed, no room, in fact, for even a sheet of paper between the stones.  Throughout the city, from the cobblestone streets rise the foundations of the Inca empire.  A unique feature of their masonry is that not all stones were cut into uniform size or shape, as is the case with most imposing stone structures.  When they were cut uniformly, they fit together so tightly that if you run your hand along the wall, the surface is virtually smooth.  However, many structures, Saqsayhuaman being perhaps the most spectacular example, are built with stones consisting of as many as 12 angles along their perimeter, and yet even the most wildly irregular stones are impeccably sealed with surrounding stones along each angle.  Some of the irregular rocks included in the masonry at Saqsayhuaman are 20 or more feet in height.

The city of Cuzco is said to have been originally laid out in the shape of a puma, with the fortress Saqsayhuaman representing the head of the nocturnal predator, its terraces of stone like rows of barred teeth.  We sat there in the afternoon for the final stage of Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun.  This revival of Incan tradition began early in the morning at Koricancha and moved to the main city square in Cuzco, and then up the hillside to Saqsayhuaman, where upon a stage in the field below the walls, an actor portraying an Inca king pretends to sacrifice a llama and asks the sun for its blessings in the coming year.  We couldn’t understand any of the ceremony because it was all spoken in the Quechua language, the lingua franca of the vast territory ruled by the Inca.  That didn’t make it any less spectacular.  The terraces of the fortress were lined with flag bearers running along them, the open field was filled with musicians, offering bearers, soldiers, dancers, all dressed in colorful estimations of classic Incan attire.  Small fires burned all around the field, the king stood tall in the middle of the stage with a plumed headdress.  The surrounding hillside was covered in a carpet of people partaking as the audience.  The sky was gray and overcast.  When the pretend king held up the fake llama heart to the sun and asked it for good fortune, just at that moment, the clouds parted from in front of the sun so it shone a clear ray directly on the ancient battlefield.  The thousands of Quechuans gathered as spectators all drew in their breath and gasped.  A minute later, after the clouds resumed their cover, our guide turned to us to translate the king’s words and explain the good omen that had just happened.

Good omen? I thought. I began to eye this crowd of people around me suspiciously, these people who took the name of their conquerors and never gave it back.  They’ve gone through all this trouble to bring back the Inca ceremony, to call back the empire and declare their citizenship.  They’re tired of their own submission, wondering if it’s destiny that betrays them or if they might yet have another chance.  When the clouds parted, were they thinking of the future or the past?  Of rectification or rebirth?

Good omen. How could they believe any sign from the sun?   The sun knows the true Inca were lost long ago, knows they’ve been folded into the ghostly silence of abandoned buildings scattered throughout South and Central America, that they’re lost in the stars and trapped in history, trapped in futility, that they’ve already died twice.

Do these remnants of the past think the sun will keep its implied word to them?  That after centuries of betrayal, now it would finally dry up all the blood that was pooled there on the field?  That now in 2002 it would come back to its people and give them substance?  That it would provide habitat again for the animals of absence, a place for them in their own time in their own puma city where they could reclaim good fortune?  So the descendants of the empire could throw away their begging cups and shoe-shine kits and rebuild the storehouses of food that had kept their ancestors’ bellies so full?  That they could stretch their legs out along the royal roads and run toward their cities instead of away from them?

A burst of smiling whispers and mutters rippled through the crowd.  Maybe they thought the animals of night had finally reached the dawn, had somehow managed to keep running all the way back to Viracocha to tell him to start the world over again.  One more time. One more chance to stay ahead of the darkness, to stay on the patch of the earth they loved, to stay down below, far below the stars that outline the vastness of an incomprehensible universe.

*


Published in The Florida Review