An ancient Mayan ritual speaks to a modern marriage

The chicken bus rocks to the right as we swoop through a curve fighting the pull of Lake Atitlan. Below. Way below. My hip weighs against a Mayan woman. She looks up. Beautiful black eyes. Like Sandra’s asking approval for her web design. Back in Chicago. So far away. So close. All the time.

The bus, swinging through the bottom of the S curve, tilts me against my wife. She smiles, inviting me to enjoy the adventure, the trek to a cueva sagrada—a Mayan ritual site, a sacred cave. But Sandra keeps popping up, spamming a week of woven colors, insistent vendors and growling tuc-tucs. Sandra. Allesandra—my stowaway.

Our guide and Spanish teacher, Melecio, taps the driver on the shoulder and we lurch to a stop on the shoulder—a patch of gravel six feet from a sheer drop, like a Norwegian fjord, down to the lake. Since our outing is meant to be an extension of our morning classes, Melecio chatters in Spanish while our toes stub the insides of our hiking boots on the sharp descent into the hamlet of San Jorge.

Halfway down, an imp springs from behind a pile of rubble. The boy looks Indian, short, not much taller than an average three-year old but to judge from his patter with Melecio must be at least six or seven. Our guide jokes that the boy, scurrying back, forth and around us, is his apprentice.

Jesus, that’s the scamp’s name, becomes a dangerous distraction, like a dog underfoot, as we inch down the rugged path across the face of the 45° slope. He scoots in front of my wife, jostling her, before turning to offer his tiny paw as if he could offer any support should she stumble. Ten minutes of hop, slide, grab and lunge along a trail littered with road signs of sacrificial chicken feathers brings us to a black gaping mouth of a cave. The ceiling, the walls, the floor are layered with the soot of generations of smoky sacrifices to the many gods, the dioses, of generation upon generation of highland Guatemalans. The floor of the cave has half a dozen randomly scattered concrete pads. On top of each, a blanket of long green pine needles surrounds either a smoldering heap of a chicken carcass or a mound of grain or flower petals. Candles stand vigil next to carefully placed red apples—sacrifices, imprecations to the gods to ward off sickness and pain, to ensure good crops, healthy animals, many children.

I bump my head against the low-slung ceiling. A touch to reset the hat turns my fingertips an oily black. As I try to decide if I want to ruin a fresh laundered handkerchief to clean them, I sense someone staring at me. I glance back to see Jesus at eye level, standing on a rock. Mocking my distress over soiled fingers, he jabs the ceiling, then draws a black stripe straight down his forehead, between his eyes, to the tip of his nose. He grins, then takes a bite from an apple he apparently liberated from a sacrificial altar.

For some reason I suddenly want to apologize to the gods for this blasphemy. He’s only a kid. Probably stunted from malnutrition. Hungry. He needs the food more than you do. And help me to be wholehearted. Help me forget Sandra. Focus on my wife alone.

Where did that come from? I wonder as I stagger away from the fetid smoke-filled air to the cave mouth and fresh breezes. I’m not religious, not even superstitious. No church. No religion. What was that all about?

I take my wife’s hand to help her scale a rocky patch. We breach a rise to find Jesus kicking a half-inflated soccer ball with two other kids in a space the size of a bathroom that falls off hundreds of feet on both sides. As we near, he beckons, like a wood sprite, to follow him past a row of head-high boulders. When we catch up to him, he grins—strange contrast to his war-painted face—and points to a hollow below.

A man faces a small smoldering fire, chanting, sprinkling water around the ashes, the tarry smoke painting a fresh coat on the blackened boulder behind it. Another man stands with his palms touching in the universal gesture for prayer. This is a purchased supplication or oracion, our guide explains. The client talked to the shaman some time ago. He told him his troubles, problems, concerns and wishes. The shaman wrote them down on scraps of paper. They drove three hours to reach this sacred site where the priest places the bits of paper in a small clay pot in the middle of the smoking fire. After circling and chanting several more times, the shaman retrieves a red packet trailing a white string. Melecio makes eye contact with us and places his hands over his ears. The shaman lights the string. The pot explodes with a stunning BANG! A cloud of confetti flutters to the ground.

Something lets go inside me.

I take my wife’s hand and walk back up the path. At the clearing on the top of the outcrop, we see Jesus. He stands on a rock flying a handmade kite in the updraft from the lake so far below. We both pause to watch the kite dip and dance at the end of its invisible tether.

3 thoughts on “Wholehearted Prayer

  1. Joe incredible detail. I could feel the swaying of the bus, the smell of the burnt offerings, even the feel of the soot I could taste the apple with Jesus. Well done. Some sculpture artist did a bronze of a person bound to a post by the thinnist of chords this came to mind as you described the kite thethered by an invisible string. IS it true we are bound to the past future, our so solid convictions, our relationships by only thin ligatures. If so, what beautiful sense of hope for change or what state of relativity we abide in blessings and curses both.


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