by Kelly Cherry
The name of the place is Dzibilchaltun, or, translated from the Mayan, “the place where there is writing.” Sometimes the translation is extended to “the place where there is writing on flat rocks.” The rocks, or stelae, are gone. Perhaps they are in a museum, with the other Mayan hieroglyphics, or buried still in this vast archaeological zone that remains mostly unexplored. I didn’t look for them the way a historian might have; I am not a historian. What I cared about was the eeriness of the place, and its implicative name, as layered with meaning as Troy with time.
I had been in Merida, the capital of Yucatan and thirteen miles south of Dzibilchaltun, only a day and a half. I’d suffered a head wound just before leaving the States, and although the wound was slight, the bandage plastered to the back of my head was impressive. Because I keeled over every time I tried to stand up, and because the bandage so loudly said why, the flight attendants had bundled me in blankets—in August—and wheelchaired me through the Atlanta and Merida airports.
But now I felt better, and I’d taken the bandage off, found the foreign exchange bank, and hopped a second-class bus to Dzibilchaltun. Dzibilchaltun is not a site most tourists visit; it tends to be overwhelmed by the more fully excavated and therefore more immediately exotic ruins at, for example, Uxmal, Kabah, Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum. It was my good luck, as it turned out, to have undergone my mild physical shock. I was obliged to begin by staying close to home base. And so I went to a place many miss—the place where there is writing.
Home base was a posada, an inn, in Merida. It was near the busy zocalo, or town square, a pretty square with stone love seats for courting couples, and box yews surrounding benches where old men and women, their courtship days behind them, sat and talked while their grandchildren played. The bus station was on the other side of the zocalo.
As the bus pulled out of the city, past double-parked cars, the marketplace, furniture stores, and computer centers, we moved back in time. It happened with a startling swiftness. Mayan cottages, one-room mortared stone dwellings with flat, thatched roofs, lined the highway. Men worked on the highway, cutting back the jungle that would overtake it in three months if they didn’t—if they simply, one day, fed up and worn out, called it quits, stuck their machetes and picks back in their trucks, and went home to lie down in their hammocks. They don’t go home; they hack away at that jungle every day. The kids mill around houses, at the edge of the highway, and shout, “Un peso, un peso”; they’ll pose for a picture. They learn early to squeeze what spare change they can out of sentimental tourists.
I was the only tourist on this particular bus, though. There were few other passengers of any stripe. We were not traveling anybody’s usual route at the usual time of day, although at other times there are Mexicans and Indians coming into Merida or going home from work. It was noon. Some grownups lolled around the roadside houses with the kids. To the unwitting tourist, they might look as if they were too lazy to work, but they’d been up working in the fields since 4 or 5 a.m. They’d already put in a full day of backbreaking labor. They would take their siesta, these who’d found a few free moments in a seemingly endless workday, and then put in more hours, crafting gewgaws for the tourist market, weaving hammocks—anything to earn a living, to get by.
There are often nine to fifteen children in these Indian families. They speak Mayan among themselves, but we have forgotten how to write it. The kids play in the dirt, surrounded by the chickens that run loose in the yards. An occasional horse stands stolidly nearby, flicking its tail at flies. Underwear drips from clotheslines, or dries flat, spread out on low bushes.
The breeze the bus’s motion made blew in through the open window, welcome on my face. We passed pepper trees, banana trees, hibiscus, a gap-toothed stone fence filled in with a tire and some string, fences made of piled stone, unmortared, with vines growing in and out of the spaces between the stones, and a chapel with a faded mint-green front, three open arches at the top through which blue sky was framed, with a small cross atop each of two of the arches and the third cross missing. I wondered what had happened to the third cross.
The fields along this route, as in much of Yucatan, were planted in henequen—what we call sisal. The henequen plant has wide, tough, rigid leaves; its fibers are strong. I have a sisal rug in my living room in Wisconsin; I bought it because it was cheaper than a “real” rug. Now, when I walk across that rug, I know who paid for it.
Platoons of field workers passed us, going the opposite way, toward Merida; they leant against the sides of the open backs of their trucks; they were going home, to the look-alike subdivisions on the city’s outskirts. The sun was hot; it was, as I say, August. “The wrong time of year to visit Yucatan.” I went when I could.
The driver let me off in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, pointing at a dirt road. I followed his finger; the bus left. I was alone. The absence of anyone made me feel as though someone must be there somewhere, lurking behind the squat trees. But if I turned back, I’d have to wait five hours for the bus to make its return journey. The heat stung; mosquitoes were biting. I tilted my straw hat to keep my face in the shade, rubbed suntan oil over my bare arms. After a while, people appeared in the road ahead of me. A Mexican family. A Latino couple, lovers. They had come in cars.
There’s an admission stand with a ticket to buy, the omnipresent and necessary soft drinks in a lift-top cooler, and, as you might guess, more children eager to have their pictures taken—for un peso. A small girl volunteered to serve as a guide to the one-room museum. Since I knew no Spanish, and she knew no English, and the museum’s careful explanations of the exhibition bore no subtitles, I hadn’t, for the most part, any idea what I was viewing. But my guide chattered away as if none of this mattered. Maybe it didn’t; I knew from my travel book that the seven figurines at which I stared had been taken from the temple I was going to see, and that they were singular in type. None like them has ever been found elsewhere in that part of the world. Each of these figurines is hideously deformed. Historians conjecture that they were used in medical rites, to cure like conditions. They gave me the willies. And, as I say, I’m no historian, so I posed my little guide in another part of the museum, snapped her picture, and reached into my pocket for change. She didn’t know that what I was really buying was her smile, a wonderful, shy smile that had to sit on itself not to become a grin. She danced around me, my very own Munchkin, as I set off down the road once more.
Now there were plenty of people, natives, but they were headed for the swimming pool. The pool, of course, is a cenote, a well, thought to be the deepest in Yucatan. There are bones at the bottom, some of them elongated, pointed skulls that were shaped by boards pressed in a certain configuration on the malleable heads of newborn, upper-class infants. This is one of the wells that the Mayans used for human sacrifice. Yucatan officialdom likes to blame the practice of human sacrifice on the Toltecs, a much-later, conquering civilization; the Mayans, they emphasize, were a cultured people, advanced in astronomy and agriculture, living by a complex calendar, rich in art, honoring mind and body, sport and scholarship. This is true, as the most casual tourist can see. The vaguest acquaintance with the mathematics of the Mayan calendar and its adhibitions in politics, art and science, and religion will bowl anyone over. Nevertheless, not all ancient Mayans shared in the benefits of their culture; the societal structure plainly was stratified and elitist. As for human sacrifice, the offering of live bodies, said to have been drugged beforehand, to the rain god Chac, there is evidence enough that the Mayans practiced it long before the Toltec invasion. Evidence is here, in the cenote at Dzibilchaltun. The site at Dzibilchaltun goes back at least to 600 b.c., when it may have been an outpost or advance settlement of the Mayans then primarily located on the other side of Mexico, along the Pacific, and by still-conservative estimate, it has been dated to 1000 b.c.; many researchers date its beginning hundreds of years earlier. At any rate, it is believed to be the oldest continuously occupied Mayan city-state. It may have flourished before Homer lived; it may be that Troy had nothing on Dzibilchaltun.
Still, these facts—if, given our incomplete state of knowledge, they can be called facts—can be easily looked up or pieced together by anyone who is interested in them; I’ve nothing new to bring to them, and so, though I am someone who is interested, I set them aside to continue my walk.
From the pool came sounds of splashing—and, yes, transistor radios and portable television sets. I crawled around the Spanish chapel, built in 1590 to “Christianize” the heathen spirit that may have lingered in the surrounding area, hiding behind rocks, swimming far below the surface of the cenote.
There were rocks everywhere, strewn haphazardly as if they’d been a manuscript some author, in a fit of pique, had torn lengthwise and crosswise and tossed to the wind. I followed the turn in the path that led to the Mayan arch. The arch marks the start of the sacbe, the ceremonial way to another city-state. I was headed for the one standing Mayan structure here, among an untellable number that once existed; it has been partially reconstructed. It is the Temple of the Seven Dolls.
The Latin lovers walked in front of me; I could see people at the temple, but they were walking away from it, back toward the direction I had come from. A storm was kicking up. Only the lovers and I were walking toward the temple. The path we walked is sometimes called the Road of the Gods. The blue sky had darkened; rain clouds were gathering in the distance, like tribes coming together. Nearer to hand, a great loneliness seemed to sweep over the fallen stones.
Octavio Paz, in an essay titled “The Seed” in Alternating Current, tries to describe “[a] time before the idea of antiquity: the real original time.” Finding he can reach for it only metaphorically, he calls it “the original metaphor,” and writes that
it is the imminence of the unknown—not as a presence but as an expectation and a threat, as an emptiness. It is the breaking through of the now into the here, the present in all its instantaneous actuality and all its dizzying, hostile potentiality. What is this moment concealing?
I sensed that presence. I knew the moment was concealing something—but what?
Paz, trapped into describing “the original metaphor” metaphorically, tries again: He calls it “the seed,” the future contained—or concealed—in the present. He says that
the calendar clears a path through the dense thickets of time, makes its immense expanse navigable. . . [N]ow falls into before and after. This fissure in time announces the advent of the kingdom of man.
I have long held that the Fall was a fall into Time, and that there is no time without language. The Fall was a fall into Language. In the beginning was the Word, but we learned to say “I,” and that prideful self-assertion was the original sin. It was also the beginning of language. It is not consciousness but self-consciousness, which allows us to see ourselves as subjects, and to see ourselves as objects of our subjective seeing, and so on as in an endless series of mirrors, that separates us from God. That separates us, period. The ability to refer to ourselves grants us history and hope, the foreknowledge of our death and legacy, the knowledge, to put it in other words, of good and evil. For with the reflexive recognition of ourselves as subjects that are their own objects comes the inescapable awareness of cause and consequence. Without language there would be no morality, only perfection; with language comes knowledge. It is a small matter, at this point, whether that knowledge is perceived, construed, imagined, provable or unprovable. It is a very large matter that our capacity to know that we know is a function of language. The original sin was the original metaphor. The original metaphor was the original sin. It goes without saying that this is a guilt of which no writer, especially, would wish to be absolved. The writer prays, Save me, O Lord, but not yet; I have books to write first.
I may not be a historian, but I am, I confess, a writer, and I’ll go anywhere where there is writing. I climbed the steps to the top of the temple. It was open on all four sides; the lovers sat on the steps on the opposite side.
The sky had become completely overcast. Rain clouds had dropped closer to the ground. The wind that had come up as I walked was now gusting; it wore an expression of ferocity; it tunneled through the doorways and windows of the temple as if through a wind tunnel; it blew my hair in my face and made a sound like someone blowing through a hollow reed, a mournful sound with an undernote of the kind of despair that leads to a desire for revenge. The lovers had brought their lunch to make a picnic; I opened the plastic bag of trail mix I’d been given by a new acquaintance at the posada.
The sky was black now. I could see rain in the distance, across miles of scrub brush. Thunder pitched toward the temple as if it were being thrown at me. The wind was so strong I had to put the trail mix away before it got blown away. The lovers had packed up their picnic, raised an umbrella, and run off down the dirt road. I was alone in the Mayan ruin.
There was a famous, but unfortunately forgetful, archaeologist who was killed by lightning when he took shelter at the top of another Mayan structure during another storm. He should have known better. I had no reason to know any better. I didn’t know these heights draw lighting or that I might well be killed. I stood fascinated in the ruins, letting the wind snarl my hair, watching the lightning tear at the sky, and watching the rain fall first here, then there. I was alone in the Mayan ruin with the rain god Chac.
Rain spattered the rocks; the rocks turned dark with the wet. It was as if Chac were writing on them. We were alone there, Chac and I, and I felt that if I only knew how to read Mayan, I could read rain on rock. What is this moment revealing?
I sighed, knowing that I did not know.
Suddenly the rain ceased. The wind fled the temple. I scanned the site. The clouds had crossed overhead and disappeared into the horizon. The sun reclaimed its territory, and the green leaves sizzled, the land hardened, the sun erased the rocks. There were no tablets or glyphs now—only disconnected stones, each as blank as a blank page.
I collected my gear and set off the way I’d come. The Road of the Gods seemed long, empty and long. By the time I reached the little museum, I had to stop to apply more suntan lotion. My guide had gone. By the time I reached the bus stop, I was ready to guzzle about two dozen soft drinks.
I was early. I found a boulder to sit on until the bus came. The ruins were not visible from here. I saw a rooster strutting alongside a rusted fence, as if he were doing guard duty; a pair of male and female turkeys were saying something in turkey language to each other, which, could they possess self-consciousness, possibly had been “I love you” or “Scram “; a hen with five tiny chicks in assorted colors pecked at the ground near a road sign.
Several bikers rode by; they carried firewood tied in bunches on the backs of their bicycles, and hunting rifles over their shoulders. A group of men hanging out beside a beat-up truck smiled in my direction; when they drove off, they waved, and honked the horn.
A few Indians stood on the opposite side of the highway, near the dirt road that led to the ruins. They never looked at me, nor smiled nor waved. They seem to have a trick of turning off the mind in such situations to make time vanish. It looks like mindlessness, but it is not. They turn off the conceptualizing part of the brain, but they remain perceptually awake—they have to, in a land and a country full of threat. It may be a knack for being sensorially aware without having to talk to themselves about what it is they are aware of that accounts for the Indians’ frequent long silences; if you do not talk to yourself, you have less need to tell anyone else what you feel or think; you feel and think without naming yourself as feeler and thinker. It follows, then, that they may be closer to God, any god, but I can’t say. If they aren’t, they haven’t told me. If they are, can they say?
Or maybe I was merely suffering from cultural shock, as real but transitory as the physical shock that had started my journey.
But suppose silence does bring us closer to God? I mean the inner silence of a language that does not refer to the self, that does not divorce the “I” from the “Thou” or even the “me.” Would that be union, or would it signify the loss of the possibility of love? Is love predicated on divorce?
These are fundamental questions, and we are doomed to ask them. Yet it may be that the very asking of the questions precludes an answer. We cannot ask them without creating ourselves in our own image; we must use a reflexive language. Will our words make right turn after right turn forever, as if we were following correctly a map that can lead us nowhere? Is this an epistemological cul-de-sac?
We cannot know. It may be that it cannot pay off—it may be that the exercise is a futile one—but what we do know is that our disgraced and human condition means that from here on out we have no choice but the making of many books, books without end. This conclusion, though surprising, is logically unavoidable. If there are answers to be learned, they can be learned only in places where there is writing.
The Place Where There Is Writing appeared originally in the Texas Review in 1985, and was written following a visit to Yucatan in 1981 or 82.
Kelly Cherry has published twenty one books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, nine chapbooks, and translations of two classical plays. Her most recent titles are Vectors: J Robert Oppenheimer: The Yeas before the Bomb (Parallel Press, 2012) and The Life and Death of Poetry: Poems (LSU, 2013). She was the first recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize given by the Fellowship of Southern Writers for a body of work. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bradley Major Achievement (Lifetime) Award, a USIS Speaker Award (The Philippines), a Distinguished Alumnus Award, three Wisconsin Arts Board fellowships, the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for Distinguished Book of Stories in 1999 (2000), and selection as a Wisconsin Notable Author. In 2010, she was a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Currently Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband live in Virginia.
Painting: Enrique Pérez – detail from HERENCIA