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Xunantunich

by shukyou (主教)

It was just after sunset when they saw the woman walking alongside the road. 

At first, Hilde didn’t think anything of it: This was about a rural as Belize got, after all, the sort of place where those who did own cars often wound up walking anyway for how often they broke down in the humid jungle heat. Even the jeep she was riding in, a tax-deductible gift from its third owner in the United States to her research group,  was on its last legs. She’d driven it down herself from Arizona, her teeth chattering as rickety suspension met rough roads all the way through Mexico. Every time she turned off the engine, she wondered if she might just have concluded its final journey.

Ana, however, changed immediately. Her spine straightened and her dark eyes went wide as her fingers tightened around the worn steering wheel. She began first to ease off the accelerator, then to steer the car over toward the right shoulder. “Someone you know?” asked Hilde. Ana had grown up in the area, after all, so it would make sense that she would know some of the people who still lived there. Besides, the woman looked to be wearing a long white dress, which Hilde couldn’t imagine putting on just to go for a walk. Maybe she’d broken down a ways back and they could give her a lift wherever she was headed. It wasn’t as though Hilde had anywhere pressing to be that evening.

“What’s today?” asked Ana, her voice soft.

“The twenty-first,” Hilde said, double-checking her watch out of habit. The small digits on the otherwise analog face read 12/21. David had given her the watch for their second anniversary. She had almost smashed it out of spite when he’d asked for the divorce, but in the end had refrained. Sometimes a woman needed a good watch.

Ana pressed her lips together, then turned to Hilde, her pretty round face as serious as Hilde had ever seen it. “Be polite as hell and do not ask questions,” she said, and before Hilde could defy that order and ask just what on earth she’d meant by that, the jeep had come to a full stop right beside the woman.

Up close, Hilde could see that the woman was young, perhaps in her early twenties. She looked more than a little like Ana herself, with the broad nose and high cheekbones Hilde had come to associate with those with Mayan ancestry. Even in the fading light of day, Hilde could see that her dark hair had been woven into several tiny braids, then all pulled together in an elaborate high knot at the back of her head. Hilde — whose own blonde hair only ever got more than an inch long when she hadn’t made time for a haircut — could only imagine how long it had taken to get into that style.

“Open the door and hop in the back,” Ana said to Hilde, with a tone that would listen to no argument.

Hilde did just what she had been asked, popping the door handle before contorting herself back between the two front seats. The back seat was far less comfortable than the front, and she had to shove over a few muddy tools to make a place to sit. From Hilde’s experience, people around here didn’t tend to be picky about accommodations — but she did have that pretty white dress on, so maybe Ana was just being thoughtful.

“May I offer you a ride?” Ana asked the woman, indicating the empty seat beside her.

For the first time the woman turned to look at them, as though she’d just noticed they were there. “That would be lovely,” she said, her English heavily accented but clear. “Not many people these days would notice.”

Ana nodded, her face still steady, her expression unreadable. “I notice.”

The answer seemed to please the woman, who nodded and began climbing into the jeep’s front seat. Peeking over from the back, Hilde could see her sandaled foot kick a water bottle Hilde had tossed down there, intending to do some cleanup when she got back to the main house of the complex where she and the other archaeologists stayed. “Sorry, I–” Hilde sighed. “If it’s on the floor and in your way, you can just kick it to the side. It doesn’t matter. If it’s down there, it’s trash anyway.” Why was she babbling? Had the woman made her nervous? No, but she’d clearly made Ana nervous, and in the three months they’d been working together, Hilde had never seen anything make Ana nervous.

Ana’s face tensed at Hilde’s babble, but the woman in white just smiled with honest amusement. “It’s all right,” she said, turning so she could look more fully at Hilde now. “I don’t mind a little clutter.” Now she was in the car, Hilde could see she had large-gauge green discs in her ears and a number of beaded strands of various lengths around her neck. The smallest of her necklaces was not beaded at all, but was a crimson ribbon tied around the center of her throat.

“Where can we take you?” asked Ana, throwing the car back into gear. It lurched to life with all the grace of an angry mule.

The woman seemed to ponder this question, pausing long enough that Hilde began to wonder if she honestly didn’t know. Had she been in an accident? If so, they should be taking her to the nearest clinic, whether she wanted to go or not. In fact, Hilde was about to suggest exactly that, rude or not, when the woman sighed and pointed off into the direction she’d been heading. “You call it the statue now,” she said. “Her statue.”

Despite her short time working in the area, Hilde had put no small effort into learning what bits of the Mayan language she could. She wasn’t fluent by any stretch of the imagination, and really couldn’t have managed any of grammar yet, but she could recognize some nouns, particularly those that described nearby sites. “Xunantunich?” Hilde asked.

The woman’s smile broadened. “That’s the one.”

Ana nodded and turned the key in the ignition.

Hilde sat back, trying not to fidget, then finding herself fidgeting anyway. There was just enough legroom in the back of the jeep for her to cross her ankle over her opposite knee, and so she did, bringing her boot laces close enough that she could tie and untie nervous knots in them.

Why did the woman want to go to Xunantunich? Well, Hilde supposed, why not? It was the only archaeological site in the area worth amateur attention, as it had big structures in wide clearings, the kind of things that made sense to the untrained eye. Most of the place had been dug out in the sixties, giving it decades of history as an accessible tourist destination.

As a ceramicist by training, Hilde was generally more interested in square plots and carefully reinforced pit walls, but she knew those didn’t look nearly as good on Instagram. She had long since resigned herself to being one of the only people in her life who got really, truly excited about potsherds. In the months since she’d arrived in Belize, she’d only been to the actual Xunantunich site a handful of times, even though her dig was technically in the ancient city’s larger settlement zone. If anything, she felt a sliver of pretentious pride about her distance — yawn, the big temple complex, how pedestrian.

But she sounded like David when she had thoughts like that, so she pushed them from her head the only way she knew how: by talking into the silence around her. “Have you ever been there before?” Hilde asked the woman — wincing as soon as he words slipped out of her mouth. Dammit, that was the one thing Ana had told her not to do!

The woman, however, smiled with clear delight at the question. “Once a year or so,” she answered, laughing a little as though Hilde had asked something funny.

“So you know the area,” Hilde said, trying her best to ignore the sharp glances Ana was tossing at her like knives. It couldn’t be any ruder to talk than to not respond at all, Hilde reasoned. Couldn’t it?

“I do!” The woman had a voice that made Hilde think of wind chimes. She kept that smile fixed on her dark, pretty lips, looking not in the least upset at the chance to  have a conversation. “I’ve traveled all around this part of the world, up past the great rivers and down to the burning mountains. But you are new here.” She made the last statement sound welcoming, a greeting instead of an accusation.

“I’m an American,” Hilde said, wondering if that part was so obvious it didn’t merit saying. “From Minnesota. It’s one of the states up in the–“

“Oh, I know,” the woman said, keeping her dark eyes fixed straight ahead. Night crept in around them, coming quick through the tall foliage that covered most of the road. Ana flipped on the headlight, singular, as they made their way through. “Why did you come from the lake waters to here?”

The stock answer was of course that this was where her job and her passion had led her. All of that was true, of course, but true in the same way as saying The Lord of the Rings was about a road trip to see a volcano. “I, um…” Hilde pressed her lips together. She hadn’t even told Ana this part yet. “I got a divorce. This last summer. Or I should say, I got divorced. He divorced me. And since he was the one with tenure, he kept the site.”

It seemed like such a bullshit thing to say; most divorce narratives seemed to involve someone keeping the house, or keeping the pets, or keeping the kids. But they hadn’t had any of those. In the two years of their marriage, there’d only been Inkallaqta. Traveling there with him, all the way to the ancient Incan sites in Bolivia, was the first time Hilde had ever really left the country; sure, she’d crossed the border in to Canada a number of times growing up, but that had always felt mostly the same as the land she’d left. Bolivia was different. She’d had to get a passport and a visa. She’d needed shots. She’d enrolled in intensive Spanish-language classes and started to pick up Quechua on top of that.

On the day she’d left for good, she’d sobbed herself sick on the bus all the way to the airport, not because it was over for her marriage, but because it was over for the person he’d promised her she could become. David had found her in the middle of an M.F.A. for ceramics, a rich white girl from a nice, unremarkable family with no real vision for her future, and had promised her that the field of archaeology needed her, that he needed her. And when the latter need eventually expired, she’d had to fight hard to believe that the former was still true.

“So,” Hilde added after a moment, clearing her throat of the emotion that had welled up in there, “I guess I figured Belize might be a fresh start.”

The woman laughed again, leaning her head back and exposing more of the red ribbon that bound her smooth brown throat. “A fresh start,” she echoed. “From the death of the old comes the birth of the new, yes?

Even in the dimming light, Hilde could see the way Ana’s knuckles tightened around the steering wheel. She hadn’t said anything, but Ana never said much anyway. “That’s the idea,” Hilde agreed, looking out the jeep window as the last bits of sky shone blue through the trees. Shortest day of the year meant the longest night, even though those distinctions were much smaller this close to the equator than they were in Grand Rapids.

When they pulled up at 6:12, beside the sign saying that the ruins closed to the public at 5:00 sharp, there was still an old man standing at the crank that turned the river ferry. Ana rolled down the window and spoke to him in rapid K’iche’, which Hilde understood only well enough to identify with half-certainty that that was indeed the language they were speaking. The woman in the passenger seat sat with her hands folded politely in her lap, looking straight ahead, as though this conversation neither interested nor bothered her. After a moment of what sounded like negotiations, Ana turned back over her shoulder to Hilde. “Do you have a twenty?”

Hilde unzipped a pouch on the side of her boot and pulled out a tight-folded twenty-dollar bill — not Belizean, American, though with the two-to-one currency conversion, Hilde didn’t suppose he’d mind at all. “Here you go,” she said, placing the money into the open palm of Ana’s hand.

This transaction seemed to please their passenger. “Good,” said the woman, giving an approving nod. “You should always pay generously for passage. Never try to get anywhere for free.”

Wasn’t that exactly what the woman was doing riding with them? Hilde wasn’t about to point it out, though. And besides, she hadn’t asked; Ana had offered. Maybe that made the difference.

Satisfied with the payment, the ferry operator let Ana roll the jeep onto the floating platform. The river that the ferry crossed wasn’t wide — a hundred feet or so, Ana guessed — but it was an effective barrier for anyone who didn’t have a boat or feel like getting wet. They sat in the car while the old man turned the hand crank, rolling them slowly forward along the guide cables. Hilde had only ever crossed here in the daylight before, where she could lean over the edge and watch the fish dart in the green water beneath the ferry. Now there was so little light left, she could see nothing but blackness beyond the platform’s edge. They might as well have been crossing the night sky itself.

On the other side, the old man secured the ferry against the bank, then gave the side of the jeep a few slaps. With no further conversation, Ana drove off down the packed-dirt access road. Hilde bit her lips together and hoped that Ana had arranged something earlier about their return journey, or they might be stuck on the wrong side until morning.

…What were they even doing on this side of the river anyway? When the woman had asked for a ride to Xunantunich, Hilde had expected it would be enough to get her near the ruins, maybe just to San Jose Succotz, the town on the other side of the river. When they’d arrived at the river ferry, it had seemed only natural to cross it, as she had every time she’d come to the ferry before. But to Hilde, those things had somehow existed in her mind as discrete elements. She had somehow not managed to make the connection between the two until they were on the other side of the river, and it was far too late by then to ask all the questions that probably should have been asked several steps back.

Ana, however, seemed as cool and unreadable as she ever did as she navigated the mile-long path to the main temple complex. Hilde kept watch ahead for oncoming headlights, sure they were going to be stopped at any moment by site security. Instead, she saw no one else. When the jeep’s headlight beam illuminated the side of the peach-painted visitor center, there were no lights burning there to greet them

The driveable road ended there, so Ana put the jeep into park and sat silently for a moment, her hands resting atop the steering wheel. Hilde all but held her breath as Ana turned off the engine, which shuddered to a halt — as always, perhaps for the last time. “This is as far as a car can go,” Ana told the woman.

“Then we will walk,” the woman said, opening the passenger side door. She glanced toward Hilde, then looked with greater weight to Ana. “Come along.”

Ana said something then to the woman, something in K’iche’, and though Hilde could not understand the words, she couldn’t have missed Ana’s tone if she’d tried. It was the same tone her parents had used when she’d told them she was moving to South America with her twelve-years-older fiance, that thin-lipped are you sure this is the best idea?

But the woman just smiled. “It’s always this way,” she said, and it was only as she was climbing out of the car after her that Hilde began to suspect the woman hadn’t said it in English. Hilde had just understood it in English. How had that worked?

Once they were out, the woman started down the path, not even glancing back to see if they were with her. Hilde supposed they could have left then, just jumped in the jeep and taken right back down the road. Hell, they didn’t even need the jeep; the path back to the river was less than a mile and mostly straight, and they could just have come back for the vehicle in the morning. She looked to Ana, who sighed. “You had to talk to her,” Ana said softly as she began to follow the woman.

“I was–” Hilde scrambled to close the few steps of distance between them. “I was being friendly!”

“I know,” Ana said. She didn’t even sound displeased — though had Hilde ever heard her sound displeased? She was a bit of a stone herself, as hard to read as the stelae in the museums. Siempre ha sido así, said the others who worked the site, especially the ones who’d grown up with her. She’s always been like that.

Truth be told, that was why Hilde preferred to work with Ana when she could. David’s near-weaponized charisma had caught her attention at first, but it had quickly become exhausting, taking all the oxygen in the room until there was none left for anyone else, not even his wife. Ana was not obtrusive. She did not always have ten comments ready for any situation. If she didn’t want to be somewhere, she would leave the room. Hilde, who had spent so much of her life smiling through obligations, dreamed of that kind of self-possession.

Hilde stuffed her hands into the pockets of her cargo shorts. “So, um,” she said, keeping her voice low enough that the woman couldn’t hear, “do you know her or something?”

Ana snorted in a way that was almost a laugh. “Or something.” Darkness had well and truly fallen around them by now, but the moon had begun to peek over the tops of the trees, shining just enough light into the clearing that the woman’s white dress practically glowed.

“Are, um…” Hilde glanced around, as though expecting security to hop out with machetes at any moment. “Are we going to get in trouble for being here after hours?”

“You’re the American archaeologist,” Ana said with a smirk. “I’ll say you made me do it.”

“Hey!” Hilde gasped, but the smile that widened on Ana’s lips kept her from taking the threat seriously. She gave Ana’s shoulder a light swat anyway, though she was smiling herself by then. “Was that a joke?”

“I was born without a sense of humor,” Ana said, nevertheless unable to keep her amusement from showing on her face. “Or didn’t you hear from everyone else?”

Hilde shrugged. “I hear a lot of things that aren’t true.”

“About me?”

“About everything,” Hilde said, gesturing expansively. “That’s kind of one of the side effects of archaeology, I think. We all get professionally good at making up stories about the things we encounter. Like, oh, these platforms must have been used for ritual performances, or, this mural must depict the coronation of a king, or things like that. And so you declare, I don’t know, this kind of pot is used for some specialized thing, and you think that makes you Sherlock Holmes about everything. Until somebody else comes along and says, no, that kind of pot is used for a completely different specialized thing, and your story isn’t true any more, if it ever was in the first place, and–” Hilde bit her lips together, then sheepishly ran her fingers back through her short hair, made spiky with sweat. December tended to be milder than the other months, or so Hilde had been told, but that evening’s heat was particularly oppressive. She had the unpleasant thought that it was not unlike being inside of someone’s mouth.n

At the base of the steps of El Castillo, the main temple, the woman paused for only a moment to hike up the long hem of her dress. Her feet were bare, something Hilde hadn’t noticed before, and around her ankles were carved bangles. It was hard to tell in the low light, but they had a shine to them Hilde associated with polished stone, maybe even jade. Hilde’s own feet, cushioned as they were in her boots, sweated in sympathy at the idea of going barefoot around here. Apparently satisfied that she now wouldn’t trip, the woman began to ascend the steps.

The times Hilde had been here before, the place had been packed with tourists ascending and descending the structure. She supposed that was part of what made it such a popular destination: that everything had been reinforced and secured enough that the average visitor, without any special permission, could climb all the way to the top. Hilde looked to Ana. “Should we, um, follow her? To make sure–” To make sure what? That she didn’t hurt herself? That she didn’t deface anything? Hilde shifted her weight on her feet as she looked back to the woman and her slow, steady ascent.

Ana looked honestly torn. “Let’s just stay here unless she asks,” she said at last, taking a seat right there in the short-mown grass at the base of the temple.

Seeing nothing to do but follow Ana’s lead on that one, Hilde sat down right next to her. She’d meant to keep a reasonable distance, but the place she’d chosen to put her bottom had proven to be on an unexpected incline, depositing her so that her hips were touching Ana’s. When Ana didn’t pull away from the contact, Hilde didn’t either. “So who is she?” asked Hilde.

Without turning her head, Ana asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Now that was a curious question. “No,” Hilde said.

“Do you believe in gods?”

Her parents had been vehemently opposed to any sort of religious influence on their children’s lives, and David had considered his atheism part of the proof of his superior intelligence, meaning that Hilde had never given the affirmative much consideration. “No.”

“Then she’s just a person,” Ana said with a shrug.

Hilde supposed that was answer enough — after all, people did weird things for their own reasons all the time. The mention of ghosts sparked a memory in Hilde’s mind, though, taking her back to something she’d read in one of the guide pamphlets. That was the reason for the site’s name, wasn’t it? Xunantunich referred to a woman’s statue, but wasn’t that statue-woman also supposed to be a ghost? Maybe this was some sort of ritual that Hilde had never heard about, where people dressed up and re-enacted local legends. Was Hilde supposed to be taking pictures of this? A lady cosplaying as a ghost would be great on Instagram.

Hilde had left her phone back in her cabin at the archaeologists’ camp, though, so that was out of the question. “Is there, um…” Hilde sighed. “Is there a question I could ask about this that would get me a non-cryptic answer?”

Ana shook her head, but she was smiling now, actually smiling. “Have you ever believed in anything?” she asked, watching the woman, who remained a bright spot against the dark stone background of the temple. “Something bigger than you. Something you knew you couldn’t prove.”

“I don’t know,” Hilde said, unable to come up with an answer that sounded better than the wishy-washy truth. “My parents didn’t even do Santa Claus.”

“Do you believe in the moon?” asked Ana.

“The…?” Hilde looked up to where the moon shone above them. “You mean that moon?”

Ana nodded. “What if I told you the moon is a woman’s head?”

Hilde pressed her lips together, trying to think through the correct response. “I would say … no, the moon is a big chunk of rock orbiting us in space.”

“And you’d be right,” Ana said, nodding again. “But you wouldn’t be entirely right.”

“What’s she here doing?” asked Hilde, pointing to the woman, who was now making her way over to the side staircase that would lead her up to the taller temple platforms.

“Killing the night,” Ana said, as though that were an answer that made sense. “Bringing back the sun.”

“So…” Hilde scrunched her mouth up to one side. “Pretty standard solstice myth, right? Fuck, she’s–” Hilde jerked her head back to the temple in front of them just as the woman passed largely out of sight. “She’s not going to hurt herself, is she? We’ve got to stop her if she is.”

“She’s fine.” Ana placed a hand on Hilde’s knee, a touch that was strangely welcome even in the cloying heat of the early evening. “She has to do this every year.”

“Oh.” The answer was not exactly comforting, but at least it reassured Hilde that this wasn’t going to end in permanent bloodshed. She was already going to have a hard enough time explaining their being here at all under the best of circumstances, much less if a dead body was involved. “You know,” Hilde said after a moment, “I wouldn’t have had you pegged as someone who believes– I mean,” she corrected quickly, fearing that she had overstepped into offense, “you just seem more rational than this … folklore.”

Ana looked at her, her pupils so wide in the darkness that Hilde could not even see where they ended and her brown irises began. This was the most Hilde had ever heard her speak at one time, and she found herself enraptured by it. “Your parents didn’t tell you about Santa, huh?” she asked, her hand still steady against Hilde’s knee. “Did they still give you presents on Christmas morning?”

“Well, yeah,” Hilde said with a shrug. “They just told us it was from them.”

“And without the idea of Santa, whether they believed in it or not, would they still have given you presents every year on December 25th?”

Hilde frowned. “I mean, I … I guess not?”

“There you have it.” Ana patted her thigh. “Santa exists.”

“That’s–” Hilde sputtered. “No, I mean, that’s not the same as–“

Ana gave a soft laugh. “How is it not?”

“Well, it’s–” For a moment, the proposition seemed so absurd that Hilde couldn’t even argue against it. “For one thing, there’s no actual big man in a red suit hopping down chimneys and dropping off elf-made presents. I mean, there is literally no physical manifestation. People give presents in cultures where there’s no Santa. People give presents on days that aren’t Christmas. It’s just an idea.”

“An idea that deforms reality,” Ana said, turning her gaze back to the temple. “And if that’s not a god, what is?”

Before Hilde could think of a response, Ana lifted her hand and pointed. Hilde looked to where Ana indicated, squinting into the darkness. There was the woman, near to the top, moving in a way that was hard to quantify at this distance. “Is she … is she waving us over?” she asked.

“Looks like it.” Ana stood and brushed the grass off the bottom of her shorts, then held out her hand to help Hilde up. “Come on.”

The climb to the top of the temple was not a long one, or at least it hadn’t been the other times Hilde had done it. She couldn’t remember how many feet tall it was, precisely, but knew it had to be somewhere around 100, maybe 150. It was enough elevation to get a nice view, but it wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things. Even with jungle humidity saturating her lungs, slowing her down as she practically waded through the wet air, she knew it hadn’t taken more than a few minutes to get from the base of the stepped structure to the top.

Thus, Hilde began to get concerned when she had to stop and catch her breath. “Wait,” she said to Ana, bending over and bracing her hands against her knees. Hilde had a bandana tied around her neck, which she used to mop some of the sweat from her brow. When she looked back down toward the ground, it seemed far enough away that they should be nearly at the top. But when she looked upward, all she could see was how many steps they still had to climb. “Why is it so far?” she panted.

Ana looked just as winded as Hilde was, but not nearly as confused by their predicament. “Because we’re climbing to the moon,” Ana said.

“No, we’re–” Hilde put her hands on top of her head, trying to open her lungs like all her gym teachers had always told her to do. “We’re climbing El Castillo.”

“No,” Ana said. “We’re climbing the idea of El Castillo.” And with that, she turned and began the climb again, leaving Hilde with no choice but to follow.

Maybe she was dreaming. Maybe she’d been drugged. Maybe the ferry had sunk midway across the river and her brain was firing rapidly as water replaced oxygen in her lungs. Maybe she was on the plane leaving Bolivia, closing her eyes and wondering what else could possibly exist  in the world for her to be. Maybe she was back in her college studio, having fallen into a meditative trance with the wet clay spinning through the pressure of her hands, adapting into wondrous shapes. Maybe she was dead. Maybe she had never been born. This felt like an undergraduate philosophy exercise: How can you prove you exist? How can you prove that anything does?

The stairs were steep enough here that they both had to use their hands along with their feet to keep climbing. The stone felt pleasantly cold to the touch, a contrast to the sweltering day. More than once Hilde put her cheek against it for a moment, letting it cool her feverish skin. This had to be a dream. Or a practical joke. Or some kind of story that she’d fallen into believing, one as ridiculous as the tale of Santa Claus. Hadn’t Freud written something about this? At any moment she would wake up and it wouldn’t matter at all.

Then her hands gripped something that wasn’t a step — it was too polished, too flat; it did not have the telltale time-worn spots where countless feet had worn down even the hardest stone. She looked up and realized that she was at the top.

She’d expected some kind of wind at this altitude, but everything was instead deathly still. Her shirt was so now so soaked with sweat that it was nearly see-through in most places. Hilde pulled herself to her feet, even though all her limbs felt lead-heavy. 

Leaning against one of the stone pillars, Ana looked as ragged as Hilde felt. At this altitude, she was no longer the guarded, unreadable woman that everyone in the camp gently teased for her stoicism; Hilde could see her true face now, and it was exposed in a way that made Hilde think of hermit crabs come out of their shells, darting from one safe place to another. For the first time, Hilde understood that she was afraid. Of what, Hilde couldn’t tell — or maybe it didn’t matter. She wasn’t afraid of their surroundings; she was afraid, at least a little bit, all the time. She had cloaked that fear behind the armor of her self, but that armor had been left behind somewhere on the steps of El Castillo. Pardon, the steps of the idea of El Castillo. Hilde still wasn’t sure how she felt about that distinction.

“Did you know we’d end up here?” asked Hilde, stepping close enough to put her hand on Ana’s shoulder.

Ana shook her head. “I was sort of hoping we wouldn’t.”

“Oh.” Hilde looked down at her feet. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s–” Ana reached up and put her hand over Hilde’s. Where Hilde was spindly and pale, Ana was sturdy and dark, with strong hands and knobby knuckles. Hilde had thought of her as pretty from the moment they’d met, but in a way she never would have mentioned. There were people in the world who seemed like they’d be happiest never having their physical appearance remarked upon, and Ana seemed well and truly among their number. “Maybe it’s good that it happened this way.”

“Come on.” The woman clapped her hands in encouragement, the way Hilde had seen schoolteachers rouse classes of second-graders to action. “Are you ready to go?”

Go where? seemed like it shouldn’t even be on Hilde’s list of possible questions to ask in this situation, and besides, at this rate, she hardly figured the answer would do her any good. No, this seemed like the kind of situation where she might only get one question before proceeding — and she had to make it count. “Wait,” Hilde said, frowning as she thought back through the fog of the evening, “what’s the payment?”

“Payment?” Ana echoed.

“Yeah, she–” Hilde nodded as she gestured to the white-clad woman before them. “She said earlier. Don’t go anywhere for free. That’s what you said, right?”

A smile curled the woman’s mouth into an expression Hilde could only identify as pride. “I did,” she said, folding her arms across her chest, beneath the waterfall of beads around her neck. “What will you pay?”

Hilde looked at Ana, who shrugged. “Got a twenty in your other boot?” asked Ana.

“Sorry.” Hilde shook her head.

“Then we’ll have to be brave,” said Ana as she cupped Hilde’s cheek in the palm of her hand and drew her into a kiss.

Hilde’s knees very nearly gave way, and they were only stopped by the way Ana’s strong arms held her up. Hilde had made out with other girls at parties a couple times, back in college, but she’d never actually kissed a woman before and meant it. Ana’s mouth was steady and sweet, though, with no hint of hesitation. This was not a reluctant offering; this was something Ana gave gladly and freely, in the true hope that Hilde would answer in kind.

Hilde did, draping her arms around Ana’s shoulders. Ana was several inches shorter than Hilde, which felt to Hilde strange and right at the same time. She pressed her body against Ana’s, feeling the contrasts between them. Ana’s breasts were round and heavy; Hilde’s were so small that she didn’t even bother to wear a bra when she was out in the field. She could feel the way her damp shirt clung to the suddenly hard peaks of her nipples. Ana palmed Hilde’s breast through her shirt, tweaking her nipple between two of Ana’s fingers in a way that made Hilde moan. 

Distantly, she wondered if she should be embarrassed by those sorts of reactions, but the truth was that she liked it too much to care about decorum. She was more focused on how good it felt to be touched. It had been so long, after all, and her more recent memories of contact like this had soured in light of what had become of the relationship. She was sick of feeling that way, of having all the good things in her life burdened by the dead weight of her past. She was tired of pretending she was fine. She was tired of pretending, period.

At Ana’s encouragement, Hilde leaned back against the stone pillar behind her as Ana kissed down her jaw to her neck. Hilde closed her eyes as she let Ana peel her shirt off her, leaving her bare from the waist up. She wasn’t quite sure where to put her own hands, so she grabbed at Ana’s shirt, making sure that she knew her touch was welcome. More than welcome, in fact — Hilde wanted this, exactly this.

Ana let her fingertips trail down the median of Hilde’s belly, making Hilde squirm and laugh. How long had it been since she’d had both those things together, nudity and laughter? What was the last time someone else’s hands on her body had brought her joy? She could feel that eager throbbing between her legs, the desire for touch and attention. “You good?” asked Ana, her voice a rough whisper against Hilde’s throat.

“Oh, yeah,” Hilde nodded with eager enthusiasm. “Yeah, I’m … I’m good.” She exhaled, feeling how her breath rustled the thick hairs atop Ana’s head. “Are you, you know, good?”

“Yeah,” Ana said as she began to unfasten the button of Hilde’s shorts with only one hand. “I’m very good.”

“Should I–” Hilde gestured in the general direction of be doing something like this for you? Not that she had any particular experience in what to do with a woman’s body, of course, but she had always been a fast study.

Ana shook her head as she hooked her thumbs in the waistbands of both Hilde’s shorts and her underwear. “Now I want to … but later?”

“Later,” Hilde agreed. Later was good. Later meant more, more beyond just this moment.

With that, Ana pulled down Hilde’s shorts and underwear together, guiding her to step out of one leg, then leaving the garments pooled around her other ankle. Hilde was worried that might look a bit awkward until she saw Ana kneeling in front of her, and then she found it hard to concentrate on anything else. Ana pressed the heel of her hand against Hilde’s pussy, then began to stroke her lower lips open. Almost immediately, Hilde could feel how Ana’s hand was soaked from Hilde’s own juices. “Oh fuck,” Hilde murmured as Ana’s thick fingers began to push deeper into the damp folds between her legs.

Ana leaned forward and pressed a kiss against Hilde’s bare thighs. Hilde had a flash of horrible awareness — she hadn’t bothered shaving above her knees for months now, meaning that the entire area around there was certainly what David would have called ‘a disaster’. Ana, however, did not appear to mind in the slightest. She kissed her way up to Ana’s hip, nuzzling the unruly patch of Hilde’s blonde public hair with her nose. When that tickled Hilde to laughter for a second time, Ana looked up at her and smiled. There, that was another emotion she’d been hiding behind her stoic facade. Hilde couldn’t believe how lucky she was to see behind it.

When Ana’s fingers began to press inside her, Hilde moaned again. Ana’s fingers were rough and thick, and she seemed to know just where to put them to send shivers throughout Hilde’s whole body. Ana coaxed Hilde’s legs further apart, wide enough to get her face between them — which, to Hilde’s considerable surprise, she did. Ana’s tongue flicked hard against Hilde’s clit, making Hilde cry out wordlessly. She grabbed for Ana’s hair with both of her hands, getting entire fistfuls of her loose, thick waves.

Ana closed her teeth gently around the bud of Hilde’s clit, getting the sensitive flesh in place where she could rub her tongue back and forth, working Hilde into a quivering mess. At the same time, Ana’s fingers moved deeper into Hilde’s cunt. It was a good, steady sensation — not the way friction sometimes became more distracting than satisfying. Every time Hilde made a sound, Ana responded to accommodate it, either by doubling down on a good sensation or by correcting a less pleasant one. Hilde didn’t know if she’d ever, in all her life, had this much attention paid only to her during sex. Her job at the moment was to enjoy herself, and to let Ana enjoy being the cause of her enjoyment. That, at least, Hilde could do.

Hilde felt someone take one of her hands and ease it gently from Ana’s hair, and for a moment she thought it was Ana, easing her away from tugging at a tender spot. But when she looked, she saw her hand was held by the woman in white. With a wicked smirk, the woman took Hilde’s fingertips and took them between her lips, suckling at their tips the same way Ana was tonguing at her clit. 

The sensation was electric and strange and undeniably sexy, and it brought on Hilde’s orgasm so fast, she didn’t even realize what her body was doing until she was already crying out. Her body shuddered and clamped around Ana’s hand inside of her. She was making noise, she was certain, but she couldn’t have sworn to what end, or if the noises had even been language.

With a smile of intense satisfaction, the woman brought Hilde’s hand to her throat. Hilde’s fingers brushed against something silky — the tail ends of the red ribbon the woman had wrapped around her throat. It felt cool to the touch, and it took Hilde a moment to realize that it was wet. Horrified, she tried to yank her hand away, only to find that the ribbon had become tangled around her fingers. When Hilde pulled back, the motion undid the knot that held the ribbon in place, and the woman’s head fell to the ground.

Hilde didn’t even have enough air in her lungs to scream. She tapped Ana’s shoulder frantically, but when Ana drew her mouth away and rocked her back on her heels, she appeared unconcerned with either the body standing by them or the disembodied head on the ground beside her. After a moment, Ana reached for the woman’s head, taking hold of her elaborate braids. She stood, carrying it with the same hand that Hilde had recently had inside her, to Hilde’s somewhat horror. “What are you…” Hilde began, then stopped, not even knowing where she was headed with that line of questioning.

“Once a year,” Ana said, looking up into the starless sky, “the entire world descends into chaos. Night swallows the day. Kill the night, and it gives the day back.”

Hilde realized that she was having trouble seeing details now. Everything had grown so much darker. What had happened? Her eyes scanned the sky for the moon and found nothing. It was still too dark; the moon couldn’t have set already. Where had it gone?

She looked down at Ana’s hand. 

Oh.

“Hold me,” Ana said, reaching for Hilde with her free hand. “I need an anchor.”

After all she’d seen, after what Ana had done for her, how could Hilde refuse? She took Ana’s hand with both of hers, twining their fingers together and grasping at her wrist. Naked except for her boots, she braced her feet and nodded to Ana.

Ana first seemed to hunker down, to the point where Hilde thought maybe she was getting ready to pray. But instead of folding her hands in front of her, Ana held her arm out to one side, still gripping the severed head. She looked up and took several deep breaths, then looked to Hilde. “Tell me I can do this,” she said softly.

“You can do this,” Hilde promised. So what if she didn’t know what ‘this’ necessarily was? At this point, she didn’t believe Ana was incapable of anything.

With a steady nod, Ana shut her eyes and shrugged her shoulder a few times. She crouched down, then practically sprung up, tugging against the steady weight of Hilde’s grip. At the apex of her jump, she released the head, letting it spin out from her grip. At first, Hilde thought she was throwing it away, into the darkness — a disposal Hilde would surely have endorsed.

The head did not fall beyond the bounds of the temple, though. It rose instead, past the point it became clear that gravity had no hold on it. As it continued its ascent, it began to glow, bathing the world again in pale light.

“What did I tell you?” Ana whispered in Hilde’s ear, and Hilde squeezed her hand.

~*~

Daylight was a rude awakening.

“Fuck,” Hilde murmured, bringing her hand to her face and accidentally smacking herself in the process. Her mouth tasted like … well, she didn’t want to think too hard about what it tasted like, or she was afraid that what had gone down might come up. She stretched out her hand to one side, where it hit a bottle of Belikin (‘The Beer of Belize,’ it touted itself) that rolled into another, and then into a third. Damn, how many of those had they had?

She sat up, immediately wishing she hadn’t. Her shirt was on, but it was had been pushed up well above her nipples; she yanked it back down to her waist. Her shorts were in a pile near her hips, but she had both her underwear and her boots still on. That at least was something.

She heard a groan behind her and turned — not too quickly — to see Ana in a similar state, if a bit more dressed about it. Ana opened her eyes, then shut them tight again immediately after. “Ugh, my head,” she moaned.

“Mine too,” Hilde sighed in sad agreement. “I think I’ve got some aspirin back in the jeep.”

“That involves moving,” Ana pointed out. She muttered something in K’iche’ that Hilde could only assume was profanity, given the tone with which the words left her lips. “What time is it?”

“6:18,” Hilde said, glancing at her watch. As she did, she became aware that ever since leaving Bolivia, despite the watch’s usefulness, she’d felt a twinge of anxiety every time she looked at its face. She hadn’t noticed it until now, because now she wasn’t feeling it anymore.

“Perfect.” Ana flopped back down against the grass. “We can be dead for at least two more hours before the tourists show up.”

Hilde looked back up at El Castillo. In the daylight, it wasn’t even that tall. “Just to be clear,” she asked, looking at its stone features, “was getting drunk and hooking up the metaphor for bring the cosmos back from being swallowed up by chaos, or was bringing the cosmos back from chaos the metaphor for getting drunk and hooking up?”

“I don’t metaphor before my coffee,” Ana said, kicking at Hilde’s hip with her foot. Despite her bleary, hung-over look, though, she was wore a quiet smile that told Hilde whatever had happened last night, Ana was okay with it. Maybe more than okay, even. Maybe downright great.

“Great.” Hilde pulled herself to her feet, feeling like an olive trying to balance on two toothpicks. She made it, though, and after a moment, she even felt confident that she could keep standing upright. “So, um … what happens now?”

“Now?” Ana looked up at her with a kind expression. “It’s a brand new everything. What do you want to do now?”

“I–” Even when faced with the whole range of possibilities their new existence afforded them, Hilde had one particular desire push its way to the forefront. “I want to go into the bushes and pee a lot,” she said. Ana gave this plan a weary thumbs-up, which made Hilde laugh. “And then … I want to see about getting some coffee. With you.”

“Yeah,” said Ana, propping herself up on her elbows. “I’d like that.”

Snatching up her shorts, Hilde hurried off to the tallest foliage she could find, just beyond the edge of the well-maintained clearing. Practicalities first, and then everything else could follow, going forward after the end of the world. Coffee first, and maybe Hilde could push her luck that evening and get dinner together too, beneath the watchful gaze of a truly new moon.

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4 thoughts on “Xunantunich

  1. eeeee it’s PERFECT. So sweet and charming and healing for a story where somebody throws a severed head off the top of a ruin. Not to mention that it made me smile so much remembering where and when we were first brainstorming about it. A different world, but still the same one, appropriately enough.

    NO METAPHORS, JUST RIGHT or possibly also OOPS! ALL METAPHORS

    I love it

  2. Oh, lovely! I love that it’s metaphors all the way down, and the moon is lovely beyond belief, and the two of them are so good.

  3. So I didn’t know that the ribbon-fastened severed head showed up in any South American traditions, but given how many severed heads are flitting about Maya, Aztec, etc. culture I really shouldn’t be surprised. Hopefully Hilde will be able to get all the way out of the rut David left her in (with Ana’s help or otherwise) since it sounds like she has a unique passion for the scraps of yesterday. Archaeology NEEDS more art nerds. Even overly chatty art nerds who are prone to inviting all manner of horror movie shenanigans upon themselves by ignoring The Rules. At least that worked out for the best?

    For being an important solstice ritual this was also some extremely happy sex, to which I say: yes, lovely, always good to see more of that!

  4. This was great, and I really enjoyed it, but I don’t have enough brain left today to leave a more eloquent comment, sorry!

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