“You don’t have to do this,” Sydney Ramaker pleaded in Spanish with a fluency born of fear and three years spent in the Yucatan. Her wrists ached; they’d been tied behind her with electrical cords. But of far more immediate concern was the rifle butt poised just behind her kidneys. The slippery, leaf-strewn limestone underfoot. And the gaping chasm just ahead of her, where the rock gave way to empty air, revealing dark cenote waters sparkling like a mirror wherever the sun managed to penetrate the gloom cast by ferns and steep stone walls.
An emphatic nudge from the rifle, and Sydney darted a glance over her shoulder, trying to make her captors meet her eyes. To acknowledge her on the level of their common humanity.
But their faces were shuttered and blank. Behind the two men, she could see Dr. Gosselin, her Ph.D. supervisor, and Ramon Umaq Tapia. Ramon was native to the area, a Quecha-speaking descendant of the Maya. He’d started working with the archaeologists ten years ago. Now, his dark eyes had nearly swollen shut from the beating the other men had given him. Dr. Gosselin, older and frailer, slumped against a tree trunk, nearly as battered as Ramon. But the pain in his eyes as he met Sydney’s gaze had little to do with the physical.
The feeling of unreality that pervaded her began to lift like a cloud. Distant fear turned to stark terror. Oh my god, this is it. This is the moment where I die. This is when I stop being. Sydney gabbled in Spanish, “Look, we’re archaeologists. Ramon told us about a new site. Said it hadn’t been looted yet. We didn’t know—” The words cut off as the rifle hit met her spine, hard.
For an instant, she teetered at the cenote’s rim, all the words she could have said caught behind her teeth. We didn’t know that a cartel had been using the area for producing and storing drugs. Drugs used to trade for weapon or lives. We shouldn’t be killed—I shouldn’t die because Ramon took us into cartel territory without paying someone off—
And then the thoughts died. Words were useless now. And how ironic that was, since she’d come here out of a love of words, a love of the ancient writing that defied modern understanding. The words that had been holy and worshipped almost as much as the gods themselves had been, long ago. Magic. Mysterious. Symbols imbued with power.
One of the men spoke now: “You were told to bring someone valuable, Ramon. Someone worth a ransom. Maybe if the woman dies, you’ll get the message, Or next time, it will be you, understand?”
Her breath caught in her throat. He betrayed us . . . .
“Please, they are valuable. The doctor is very important to his university—”
A snort. “Perhaps. But the woman is worthless. I think we will make sure that you and the doctor both know that we are serious. So that when we ask his university for money, his voice shakes convincingly on the video, eh?”
A laugh from her other captor. “They say the Maya used to bring people here to sacrifice them. Now we do the same!”
A final shove. Her feet slipped. And then she fell through the air, a scream tearing from her throat, raw and painful. Scattered impressions, last thoughts of a doomed mind—
So beautiful the water, like a mirror of obsidian—
—waterfalls of stone, a tunnel into the womb of the earth—
—the cenote was birth-water, a place between worlds, between life and death, where they came to speak with the gods—
—Diego de Landa wrote of how they flung women over the edge, and if they survived and called up for aid, they had surely had passed into the realm of the dead, and learned secrets there, become the messengers of the gods—
—did he get the message? I am the message—
—oh god, this is going to hurt, I can’t make it a clean dive, I’m going to hit—
Then nothing but pain as she hit the water with so much force that its surface might as well have been stone, the frozen volcanic tears that it so resembled from afar. Her head snapped back and she felt her ribs crack, her spine light up with fire. And then everything went black.
When Sydney opened her dazed eyes, pressure squeezed her like a giant hand. Fear flooded her as cold water slid into her nose and mouth, slipping down her throat insidiously. Her ears rang from lack of oxygen, and choking, she tried to kick for the surface, in spite of the pain of her broken body.
Except there was no surface. White light drifted around her in shafts through the black water, but there was no up. There was no down. I am in the mirror. I am in a well of obsidian, and I am dying . . . .
The ringing in her ears became voices. Hypoxia. I’m dying . . . .
The broken body floated in the dark waters, like a fly trapped in amber, until the way opened. Flashes of a life lived in distant lands. —seeing the words of the Maya for the first time, in a copy of the Dresden Codex on a library table. All the leering, alien, terrifying faces. But there were words hidden behind them, and she was fascinated—
The voices became louder, clearer. She opened her eyes, finding herself floating in darkness, but surrounded by people. Her dirty jeans and torn cotton shirt seemed out of place indeed among these others and their colorful skirts and their masks of jade and beaten gold, decorated with quetzal feathers. When she dared to raise her head, they struck her, forcing her to her knees in the mud and among the stones, while her hair floated around her face like seaweed. “Who do you think you are?” someone demanded harshly. Antique Quecha. Intonations and inflections different from the modern variant of the language spoken in villages throughout Central America. “Do you dare think yourself the equal of those who came here before you to serve the gods?”
“Who are you?” another voice demanded.
—flash of fluid pouring into her lungs. It seemed unfair that something so cold could feel so hot, like molten lead. Panic—
Reaching for the only truth she knew, trying to couch it in ancient Quecha. “I’m . . . a student—” English wasn’t a help. Modern Quecha wasn’t much, either. “Yacha-ko’h. Yacha-che’h.” Yacha-ko’h, the modern word for student, translated to “one who knows for him or herself,” where yacha-che’h meant “one who makes another know,” or teacher. Neither word seemed to register, but a third formed in her mouth, and understood as soon as she spoke them: “Acolyte.”
—dealing with first-year students. No respect for her in the classroom, protesting every grade. “There’s no difference between you and me, besides four years in age.” “Four years and a degree, you entitled idiot,” she’d wanted to say, but Dr. Gosselin told her that female professors didn’t get respect from students until they had gray hair and wrinkles. It was just the way things were—
Buzz of confusion. “They’re sending priestesses as sacrifices now?”
“Not a kura . . . not a priest.” Her words sounded thin, and their voices, loud and rich, just swept on, leaving her just as unheard as always.
“Things must be dire indeed.”
“There was one king, who did not receive any message from the gods, and so came for their wisdom himself. Suffered himself to die and be reborn. Hunac Ceel.”
The voices stirred vague recollections. Hunac Ceel had been in de Landa’s accounts of the natives of the Yucatan. Just memories. Reconstructed by a dying mind—
“The goddess! The goddess comes! She who is Red comes!” Excitement now, among the shades of the ancient dead, whose jade masks and vivid quetzal feathers now faded into shadow, leaving them outlines in the water, in the obsidian—
And then she was there, old and terrible. A jaguar’s eyes set in a grandmother’s face, a jaguar’s fangs in a wizened old mouth, a jaguar’s furry ears poking through white hair. Her body, bare but for a loosely wrapped skirt of bright fabric, was slick with blood, in spite of the dark waters around them—white and red and black—and she lifted the woman’s face in clawed fingers, forcing the dying eyes to meet her own. Do you know me, child?
—in the jungles, working alongside people from completely different cultures, the men ignoring her until she invoked Gosselin’s authority . . . but when she saw them in the villages? How they scurried when their grandmothers ordered them to do something. Not their wives, not their sisters, not even their mothers . . . those women could all safely be ignored from inside a buoyant sphere of machismo. But their grandmothers had power. If I were sixty and had silver hair, and my life was over, then people would hear my words. Something to look forward to—
“Ixchel, Chak Chel.” she croaked, knowing the name suddenly. “The Red Goddess. The Red Rainbow, when the moon is dark. The White Goddess, the maiden, when the moon is new. Our Grandmother.” She who brings humans into the world through the rigors of childbirth. She who leaps into battle and tears the flesh of men with her teeth. She who sends all back into the earth. Beginning and end.
Then I am not forgotten. The jaguar teeth bared. Why have you been sacrificed? What answer do your people seek? When the rains will come? How to defeat their enemies?
She couldn’t speak. Awareness of the water in her throat and lungs, no longer as hot as molten lead. Cold. Chill. I’m dying.
No. You are dead. The goddess stared at her as the woman’s identity fragmented. How interesting. You seek knowledge. But these others, the ones who killed you . . . they are servants of one who would be a king. And they seek power. They used your life to send a message.
—Like a piece of paper in a bottle, thrown into the sea. I am the message for the folks back home, the people they think are so wealthy, who send their children to universities—
That was their mistake. They meant to send a message to other humans. But you are not theirs anymore. You are mine. My words in your mouth. My thoughts in your head. My essence in your body. You were given to me. You are mine.
The clawed hand on her face dug in now, cruelly tight. The woman tried to resist as the goddess came into her. Possessed her. But how could she fight as her mind fragmented and dissolved under the weight of thousands of years of consciousness and power, leaving nothing but a tiny voice crying out under the surface of the goddesses’ will?
And even that voice, protesting feebly, saw something in all that power that was to be desired. Never to be ignored. Never to be disrespected. Never to have someone look right through you, with that dismissive contempt, because she’s a young woman, what does she know about anything . . . how dare she get up in front of a class and teach? . . . she’s no different than I am . . . what does she know about jeeps, about the jungle, about our culture, about our heritage, how dare she be interested in our ancestors, she’s not one of us . . . and always the answer she’d wanted to scream, no, I’m no better than you, but I’ve put the work in, and why doesn’t that merit respect?
Amused scorn from the goddess. Because humanity fears knowledge. It always has. Knowledge is power. And seeing power and knowledge in the hands of one they don’t think deserves it? They seek to take it away, by any means they can. And you let them. Be not concerned. Having let power slip from my grasp as I dozed, unfed by sacrifices, I do not plan to make the same mistake.
The woman’s soul surrendered. Accepted the goddess’ judgment. Though her altars will run red with blood, does it matter? The jungles have fresher graves than those of the ancient Maya, and the earth’s stained with modern blood anyway. Why not let go? She’s theirs, and they’re hers, and maybe if I’m hers . . . .maybe I can share in her exultation as she bathes in blood and is renewed. And then a more insidious whisper added, And they all deserve her, don’t they? The whole world does. No one gives a better spanking than Grandma, after all . . . .
Chorus of voices, and Sydney could hear her own voice among the ghosts’ now, Black and red and white, she comes, she comes! The death of the maiden is the birth of the crone, she comes!
From beneath the surface of the black water, the obsidian well, something arose. Hands breached the surface, slick with red blood that didn’t wash away. Eyes that had not seen daylight, lungs that had not tasted air in a thousand years, feasted on the mortal realm’s sights and scents.
And then She Who is Red stepped onto the surface of the water, which under her feet seemed as solid and slick as polished obsidian. With a hiss, she crouched and leaped for the rim of the cenote, so high above. Clawed hands caught the limestone, and dug into it like the bark of a tree. A light scrabble, and then she was up and over, looming behind the two gunmen, who still menaced their remaining captives.
Red hands descended, gripping the shoulders of the gunmen. Blood stained their shirts where she touched, and both men swung around, raising their rifles reflexively—and met the harridan gaze of the oldest of grandmothers. Her wizened breasts hung free, covered in gore, and her white locks tumbled around her face. But instead of a richly-dyed cotton skirt, trimmed with skulls, torn and bloody jeans rode low on her lean hips. Her wrinkled lips pulled back from her fangs, and Ixchel snarled, You are warriors. Able ones. But you have served a bad king. Now, you will serve me. You will carry my message in your minds and in your flesh. You will carry my words to every soul that you meet.
Under the surface of the goddess’ mind, a dying voice whispered, They killed me! Please, let there be some justice—
There will be. But it will be my justice. Not yours. The goddess flicked her hands and the two men dropped to their knees, eyes showing white around the rims. Their rifles slid to the ground, and Ramon, his eyes still swollen mostly shut, tried to reach for one of the guns.
Ixchel stepped on his hand, her heavy foot shattering the bones. Ramon screamed, trying to drag his hand away, but he couldn’t. You betrayed those whom you once served, to serve new masters. You led those who trusted you into the territory of your new masters. The Red One paused. The scholars I will spare. For their love of old words is worthy, and their love of knowledge pleases me. But for this traitor? Nothing but death.
The last remnants of Sydney watched as the two gunmen, Ixchel’s new priests, arched Ramon over a fallen log, and dug out his heart, weeping and trying to make the sign of the cross even as they sawed at his flesh with inexpert hands. He screamed like a hog, until he suddenly went silent, his body still twitching. Dr. Gosselin covered his face and wept, unashamed, and the tiny fragments of humanity drifting through the goddess’ consciousness ached to comfort him.
But the old scholar, while virtuous and wise, wasn’t relevant to the need to reach out to her people once more. To make the rains come. To build them back into the mighty empire that they had once been. And . . . yes. To teach them not to fear wisdom and knowledge. The goddess paused. It was a new thought tracing through her mind, and she knew its source. She struggled with it; fear was what had always bound her people together, unified them, made them the machine that had cut down the jungles, reshaped the lands, and conquered adjacent kingdoms, welding them into an empire. And yet . . . the voice inside her still whispered. Showed the goddess the stars above, the splitting of the atom. Respect doesn’t have to come from fear . . . .
But fear remains a good start. I will have their love and their awe, in time. So Ixchel took the still-beating heart in her hand and smiled. Then threw the raw lump of flesh into the inky waters of the cenote. It is time to awaken the others.
Beneath the surface of the goddess’ mind, Sydney Ramaker’s awareness dissolved, no longer struggling. Content to be an eternal whisper in the mind of the Jaguar-Queen, the oldest of grandmothers, She Who is Red.
This story originally appeared in Hydrophobia (charity anthology for Hurricane Harvey).
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