Photograph by Christine Engelhardt
My first arrow slices the air in silent uphill flight to pierce my target’s throat, and I nock another shaft. Wet gurgling sounds fill the space between us. His upraised hands flutter like a naavi’ at his wound, but my tip paste works fast. He staggers, turns, falls before he spies his killer. I walk toward him, ready to loose if he twitches. When I am close enough, I can see he won’t move again.
A bird thrashes in the net above my head. This one’s a male, its frantic calls lost in the sound of my own coughing. I shoulder the bow and pull my knife, then step onto the body to reach the net. Greedy bastards. We could not stop the soldiers when they burned our villages, butchered our animals, stole our land, enslaved or killed our people. Now thieves come for our beautiful quetzals or their feathers. Enough. This I can fight.
How many birds have I saved now? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred? Movement in the trees draws my eye and I look up.
Quetzals. Males perch among the leaves and branches, glistening crests and wings and backs as green as the forest canopy, luminous blood-red bellies, white flash under iridescent tails that hang longer than their bodies, jewel-black eyes shining in the mist. A few gathered like this the last time, too, but now more than a dozen sit watching their brother. Watching me. How long has it been since I saw this many in one place?
I look down on the stranger who has come to take our treasure, and I spit on his head. Thieves such as he deserve what I give them.
One slice, two, three, and I rip the net open. The minute I step back, the bird escapes and is gone, its fellows following. I watch them disappear into the cloud-wreathed canopy.
Now to the mess at hand.
The body isn’t a problem. Animals and insects will feast for weeks on its leavings. It’s the synthetic mesh I worry about.
Again I step onto the poacher and reach up. A few hard yanks bring it down. I can’t leave it to ensnare or choke other wildlife, but in a frame it could serve another purpose. The lake isn’t far, and my girls prize delicacies like fish. I stuff it into my pocket. Lupe used to tease me about wearing pants like a man. Now she wears them too, unless we are going to the market. She could use a new pair, but the poacher’s are too worn to save. His boots, too. The rest might prove useful, if I can get the blood out.
I tug free my shaft and strip off the man’s shirt and coat. His pockets hold treasures. When I set out for home, I am rich with wok’ox, tobacco, medicine and money. I nibble the wok’ox to stop the shake in my legs. The girls can use the medicine. I’ll trade the tobacco for supplies. The money will be enough for more ixi’m, for us and for the chickens. Maybe it’ll also buy a few traps. My snares are still empty where I set them days ago, and gods know I’ve shot precious little game of late. My cough makes stealth nearly impossible. I’m amazed I kept it quiet enough to kill this poacher. The last one heard me and ran away before I got close enough to shoot.
By the end of my hike, my tzute bulges with herbs, fruits and nuts. The morning mist has risen to the canopy when I step into the clearing. Lupe is hanging out the wash. She turns at the sound of my approach and hides her disappointment at my empty hands. No meat again today.
“Where is Rosa?” I ask.
Lupe points. “Tending the garden.”
I start toward the house, calling. “Rosa!” A spasm of coughing cuts me short and I stop, bent, one hand to my mouth. The old fear seizes me, that the soldiers will hear, even though I know they won’t. Not now.
When the fit passes, I pull away bloody fingers.
Lupe is there, lifting the burden off my shoulders. “It’s worse, then.”
I stare at the red blotches. This is nothing, I tell myself. My girls and I live warm and dry, with fresh water and food in our bellies. I remember when it was not so. I shake my head, drop my hand to my side. “Tell Rosa to pull some greens and beets.”
She nods. I go to the well, wash my hands and face before Rosa can see. A warbling call threads its way through our glade. I look up to see a single quetzal, its head tilted to peer down at me. Tew chek, tew chek, it says.
“Kam nab’an tzitza’?” I whisper. “Go home.” It watches me a moment more, chittering on its bough, then flies back into the shadowed forest.
The itch starts at my shoulder blades before nightfall, while Lupe and I feed the chickens. I toss a cup of feed on the ground and rub against the post. Rosa ducks under the coop door, her basket laden.
“I see.” I strain to keep the relief off my face. For today, at least, my daughters can eat something more than chaya or fruit or beans. “Take them inside. Don’t forget to wash your hands.”
Lupe throws a handful of feed at the muttering hens and sneaks a look in my direction. “Mamá, this is the last of the ixi’m. We should save the rest to make more maseca. ”
Out already? The girls are growing so fast! We must plant more rows next season, speckled ears in different colors. I scratch against the fencepost again. “No. Give it to them. We’ll go to the market tomorrow.”
She peers at me. “What will you trade this time? We have no more pelts.”
“My purple scarf. Or my silver pulsera.”
Her mouth forms an “O” beneath her wide brown eyes. “No, Mamá! Not the bracelet!”
I shrug. “It’s just an object, Lupe. We’ll buy another.”
Her lip quivers, but she doesn’t argue. Her father gave me that bangle. It’s the one thing I managed to keep all through the war. Lupe’s dreamed for years of wearing it at her wedding. I don’t tell her I sold it weeks ago to buy more lime to soften the ixi’m for cooking. Maybe now, with the poacher’s money, I can buy it back.
She flings the last of the kernels onto the dirt and turns toward the house.
“Stoke the fire,” I call after her. The cough isn’t so bad this time.
My big girl. A head shorter than me and such a beauty! Already the men seek her favor, like her father sought mine. I close my eyes and rub the post. If he were here, we wouldn’t be hungry, but the soldiers gave him no choice. I still see his face in the back of the truck, moving farther and farther away until he was gone. Lupe was young, seven summers. Rosa was a bump in my belly when we fled Chajul in the middle of the night. He’d be proud of them now. If he’d lived.
I watch the chickens scratch and peck. The luxury of them surprises me even now, a year after they entered our lives. I like the thought of them so close at hand, a ready meal to starve our hunger. Both my girls know what it is to fear a telltale fire or smoke, to eat cold herbs or grass and feel their bellies gnaw their backbones. I will spare them that again, if I can. “Eat,” I whisper at the hens. “Grow fat.” If I can’t bring home an o’t oska’m or a micoleón, or even a pizote soon, one of these birds will see the inside of my skillet.
The mists creep lower. I lock the pen against hungry predators and go inside for the night. I slip off my shoes and hang up my jacket. It is a good house, so much better than an open sky above our heads with no fire to keep away the cold and damp. I patched the walls last week with thick mud and the fresh pine straw feels good on my feet as I pad into the warmth. Eggs sizzle on the semich. Steam from a pan set low in the coals smells of beans. Washed greens sit in bowls at our table.
“Dinner’s almost ready, Mamá.”
I fetch the last of the berries from my morning’s hike. There should be enough for two. The girls can have them. I’m not hungry.
Through our meal, the girls talk of this and that. I hear, but am distracted. I’ve taught them much, but Lupe must learn more. I should tell her before…
Well. Before. Only the gods know whether a poacher will take me first, or the cough will. When Rosa is wrapped in her blankets, I pull Lupe back to sit by the fire. My throat tightens and I hesitate, but she needs to know. What will my daughter think of me?
“I killed a man today.”
Her eyes go wide, and I want to touch her face, quiet her fears, lie to her, tell her b’a’n kuxhe’, the bad men won’t come back. I hold my tongue, keep my hand where it is. I have protected her too much from the world. She must see its truth.
“He was poaching quetzals. He wasn’t the first.”
“Ah,” she breathes, her features twisted. “Did the bird survive?”
I scratch my shoulder. “Only because I intervened.”
“Why would someone—”
“Who knows?” I say. “Perhaps they make feathered cloaks like our ancestors, or cage the bird until it dies of longing. They want money, and rich people pay well for trophies.”
She frowns, trying to understand. The fire crackles, a beacon of warmth in the dampness. I cough and stretch my toes closer.
“Is that why we don’t see quetzals so often anymore? People are stealing them?”
“Yes. If we don’t step in, the bastards will take until none are left.” I let the quiet hold for a few moments, let her absorb this news. “You know how to use the blowgun and the bow. How to make the darts and arrows and paste.”
Her eyes fill her face. She nods.
“We can’t let them steal all our birds.” She doesn’t answer, but I know she hears me. “I won’t need to sell my scarf. This elq’om had pockets filled with money. It won’t last forever, but it’ll help.”
I watch her face flicker with shadows. What is she thinking? I don’t pry, and she doesn’t offer. Is she afraid, like me? Poachers. Bloody cough. War. Starvation. Fears enough for us both, I think. I jerk my head toward the room she shares with her sister. “Sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day.”
She kisses my cheek and disappears beyond the curtain. I bank the embers. On my way to bed, I scratch against the doorframe.
I wake the girls before sunrise. It’s a long trek through the forest to the market. Lupe gets Rosa ready while I make the pozol. We drink, then walk, take shortcuts through the trenches left by the soldiers. Lupe warbles in song, mimicking the quetzals she loves so much. She has done this all her life hoping one of the birds will respond, though they never do. Rosa tries to sing along. She will learn one day.
I make the girls point out edible plants and fruits and insects. They take to the test like it is a game and find xokom, tal ch’evex, zompop. I cheer their successes and try to ignore the itch that, in less than a day, has spread down my back with maddening intensity.
In the market, I give Rosa some coins and remind her to use them wisely and to stay close. Lupe tells me every time we come here that it is safe now, the soldiers are long gone, we won’t have to run again. I am not so trusting and scan the men around us. Lupe stays with me, mouth closed, eyes open while I buy new arrowheads, two metal traps, a bag of lime, three bags of ixi’m and a silver pulsera. The smile on her face when I hand her the bangle is worth more than all the rest. It isn’t the same as having my old one. It’s better.
We splurge on hot uk’a’ with milk, a rare treat. After, we fill our packs and trundle home. Lupe prepares fresh bean wraps and wok’ox while Rosa feeds the chickens and I put away our purchases. When we’ve eaten, I take the girls up the mountain into the forest where mists hang tangled in the ferns on every tree. We practice walking on quiet feet, spotting game trails, setting up new snares. If they are busy, they won’t notice my cough. Won’t see me wipe blood from my lips.
We move further in to set the new traps. I grab a fallen branch to scratch my back.
“What is it, Mamá?” Lupe, ever the observant one.
“You were scratching yesterday, too. Let me see.”
I wave her off. “Later.”
By the time the sun is getting low, we are back home. Rosa goes to check the coop for eggs. Lupe follows me inside.
“Let me see that itch.”
I protest. She insists. I heave a breath to shout at my eldest and the coughing fit seizes me, buckles me. This time, Rosa comes running before I can wipe away the blood. She starts to cry.
“Shush, xvaak,” I tell her, my own heart leaping. “Did you find eggs?”
“No, Mamá,” she says with trembling lips.
“Lupe, show your sister how to make the che. We need more tortillas.”
“Don’t.” I point at the door and she goes, nudging Rosa before her. When the curtain is closed, I dig through my drawer and pull out a small mirror, big enough to see my face but not my back. I lift my shirt and reach over my shoulders to feel raised skin where something has dug its way in. I reach up from below, but feel nothing. Only the itch. I rub my bare back against the wall.
Something is attached there. Insects? Bot fly maggots? Ugh. I feel my lip curl. I’ve found those on my body before. The girls’ too. To dig even one out of the skin is bloody, sickening. These cover my back. My stomach churns. I want them out, but it’s too dark now. Lupe will have to tend them in the morning. I put my horror behind me and go to the kitchen to push food around on my plate. Lupe and Rosa watch me in the quiet, but I say nothing. My girls need a strong mamá, a fearless one.
I awaken before dawn, afire with tingling. I roll out of bed, rubbing my body through my clothing. I will go mad with the itch! I lift one hand to scratch and my sleeve falls past my fingers, as floppy as Lupe’s nightdress on Rosa’s small form. I pull the gown over my head and stare at the bumps covering my chest, my breasts, my arms. My breath catches in my throat.
Is this a sickness? Are my girls at risk?
I snatch my clothes off their pegs, shove my legs into the pants, my arms into the shirt. These things I wore yesterday now hang on my frame. I have not skipped enough meals to explain this. My heart is a chee bounding across a clearing. I lurch past the curtain.
“Lupe!” I call and stop, coughing.
She comes, breathless. “Mamá?”
“I have a rash.” My voice trembles.
“What?” Her face pales in the early morning twilight. She is almost as tall as me.
“I have to get away from the house,” I say, as if she did not speak.
“Mamá,” Lupe whispers, holding out a hand, “let me see.”
“No!” I jerk back out of her reach. “It might be contagious. You and Rosa can’t go back to the market until we know for sure.”
She stands silent, and I hurry to the door. My hands shake. I cannot button my coat. Shoes fight my feet. I stumble outside and careen across the yard. At the tree line, Lupe’s call stops me.
“Where will you go?”
I stop. My breath wheezes past my lips, but no cough takes me. “Remember where we set the last trap?”
“If I am not back by dawn tomorrow, look for me there.” I call back as I dive into the forest, “Bring the blowgun. Come alone.”
Quivering legs propel me through deep shadow, the dance in my chest sped up. B’alam and puma and other meat-eaters roam here. Their eyes love the dark more than mine and I brought no weapon. In this murk, I can’t even find a big stick.
The light grows. Mist rises, and I find the trap we set only yesterday. It seems weeks ago! I put my back to a bole, try not to scratch my chest, and squat down to wait. Silence returns. The forest comes to life. The smell of damp soil and wet foliage comfort me. My ears listen for sounds of any threat. A wild pig shuffles through the leaf litter. Away in the distance, monkeys hoot and howl. Nearer, a beetle bumbles across my shoe.
The itch intrudes, this time down the back of my legs. I rub it away, feel the odd stippling of my skin through the fabric of my pants. My ears ring like the bell in the old village church before the soldiers burned it and its inhabitants to the ground. I do not recognize the symptoms of this malady. Did something bite me? Images of dread infection plague my thoughts. You can’t take me yet, I tell the gods. My girls need me. They know too little. I should have taught Lupe sooner. I always had plenty of time.
The gods answer with a whisper in the canopy and I look up.
My chest constricts and I heave a gasp. Branches above me shimmer with quetzals. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of black eyes peer down at me. I have never seen so many! I watch the distance between us widen through air as hot and thick as soup. My vision clouds, blurs. Time twists around me in minutes-like-hours-like-seconds.
I curl closer to the ground, feel so small in this shroud of sweltering cloth. I swim out of my clothes, my unclad skin ruffling in the sticky breeze. Huddled in misery, I close my eyes and drift. Feverish dreams lift me into the mist. I feel the wind rushing past my body.
A sound nearby rouses me to find a tinamou creeping closer. Other animals follow. I blink, look again. They appear strange, alien, as if I am seeing them for the first time. They peer at me the same way. A lizard scuttles across my bare feet and I snatch it up without thinking, crunch its head in my mouth, swallow its bits whole. I blink at my surroundings. Every sound, every small flick of leaf draws my attention. My head spins. The itch streams down my arms and across my chest and belly, around my legs. The chee dances in my chest again. I shrink back into the ferns, away from my fear. The world grows larger around me, its dangers legion.
The sun is going. My eyes turn back to the canopy where the quetzals have multiplied, their feathers twinkling like stars overhead. Oh, to be among them, looking down, down on the treacherous ground! I am too vulnerable here. Instinct pushes me through the moss to climb a small tree. Nestled near its trunk, hidden behind the leaves, visions return of the canopy beneath me, the blue sky above. Mountains rise on every side. My eyes move in constant watch for hunters above or below.
Mist drapes the forest when I open my eyes. I shake off the dew and drink from a leaf. I stretch, fall to the ground, search under the ferns, peck at the moist moss, uncover a beetle. I snap it up, look for more.
Noise from the canopy and the forest floor fills my ears and I listen between bites. Someone is there. A familiar voice calls out. I duck beneath the leaves and wait, still as death.
Feet fall lightly near. My chest pounds. The footsteps halt at the discarded clothing beneath my tree. A strange, strangled sound from the intruder tugs at my heart. She cries out, the same sounds over and over, but she does not go away. Her pain pierces my breast, and I poke through the leaves, my green head glinting in patchy sunlight. My black eyes look up.
In the canopy, every branch hangs heavy with waiting quetzals. Between us, a human stands frozen, her gaze locked on my own. Heart thumping, I flap my wings.
Not yet. Not yet.
She looks from the clothing to the grey feathers on my breast, my red belly, my green back. She eases nearer, singing.
I know that melody. Her voice warbles like mine. My throat tightens and I join in, our song echoing among the trees.
Her hand reaches out, touches my back, scoops me up gently, gently. I sit in her hand, close to her wet face, my feathers aquiver. She offers a grub. Fat. Squirming. I watch it. Watch her. She swings it closer, and I take it. Swallow, and it is gone. I look for more, but she touches my head with her own, holds me there a long time. Then she lowers her hands and throws me into the air.
I spread my wings and fly.