He realized he was ravenously hungry. Glancing at the woven bags the women had set down, he saw they were filled with ripe mangoes. What was the word for “hungry”? He searched his memory without success, then rubbed his stomach as he pointed to the mangoes. His stomach growled obligingly, causing the women to laugh again. Bacal took a mango from her bag, peeled it and handed it to him.
The pearly gray of the early-morning sky had deepened to blue now and the sun was peeping over the edges of the trees to the east of the Ceremonial Center. Bacal and Tzytzyan picked up their bags and motioned for him to follow them. They walked toward the Great Pyramid. Nic looked around and saw women crossing the Ceremonial Center from all directions, most carrying large woven bags like Bacal and Tzytzyan. Many had babies strapped to their backs, and small naked children toddled next to their mothers or chased each other, darting in and out between the women’s legs. Some of the women held live fowl by the legs, and a few balanced iguanas atop their heads. Nic realized they must be going to market. He was the only man.
News of his presence spread quickly and he was soon surrounded by women. The bolder ones reached out to touch his shirt and his shorts. They stared at his tennis shoes while Nic stared back at them, fascinated. All were dressed alike, though the embroidery on their skirts varied.
As a group, they passed the Great Pyramid and entered the Plaza of a Thousand Columns, toward a wide-open space of packed earth. Here the women began to unload their wares, some directly onto the ground, and some on reed mats which they unfurled. Nic was amazed at the variety of foodstuffs. There were many types of dried and salted fish, piles of leathery-looking eggs which Nic at first took for very old chicken eggs but which on closer inspection proved to be turtle eggs, hollowed-out gourds full of fragrant honey, miniature pyramids of mangoes, many-hued maize, various types of dried beans, live iguanas, fowl, several types of melons, peanuts, jicamas, papayas, plums. As the women arranged their merchandise they laughed and talked with each other in rapid Maya, of which Nic caught only a few words. The children ran and played. Some carried wooden dolls, others small bows and arrows. Most were entirely naked, though Nic noticed that many of the girls had thin cords around their waists, attached to shells in front. These hung down in front like small loincloths. The boys had small white discs tied into their hair at the crown. Nic was ransacking his brain for the words to ask Bacal the reason for these when the conversation around him ceased. Looking up, he saw the women turning away from him and looking at the ground.
Before he could turn around, Nic felt his arm grasped roughly. He was spun around to find himself facing four men who looked at him without smiling. They were dressed like the men he had seen in the holographic image the other night. Two of them had high sloping foreheads and heads which rose to a rounded point, obviously the result of the infant ritual Nic had described to the tourists that day at the Sacred Well which now seemed so long ago. He tried unsuccessfully not to stare. The four men stared back at him, at his short hair and outlandish clothes, his smooth skin unmarked by tattoos and his unadorned earlobes.
One of the men with misshapen skulls appeared to be of higher rank than the other three, to judge from the elaborate embroidery on his mantle and the ends of his loincloth, where small brightly-colored feathers were woven into the designs. He was around thirty-five, with narrow, coal-black eyes, a beak-like nose, and cheekbones so pronounced it seemed they would pierce the smooth brown skin of his face. At a signal from his hand, the man holding Nic’s arm released him. All four folded their arms over their chests and looked at him. The chief asked Nic where he had come from. Nic lifted his hands and shrugged his shoulders. The chief, taller and more muscular than the other three, came closer and examined Nic’s face. Nic looked back at him. The chief frowned, and Nic dropped his eyes, belatedly realizing that it might not be a good idea to look one of superior rank in the eye. All around them the women were going quietly about their business without looking at the men.
“What is your name?” the chief asked him now. Nic answered. Unlike their modern counterparts, the men didn’t laugh. They conferred among themselves while he waited. Then the chief turned back to him.
“What’s your name?” Nic asked. There was a collective gasp, and all, even the women, looked toward the chief to see how he would handle this affront. His face reddened with anger. Nic held his breath. What had he done? The chief seemed ready to strike him, but then his face relaxed into a less threatening expression. He said, “We will teach you our ways.”
After another conference among the men, the chief spoke to Bacal in a low voice, and the four walked on. As soon as they were out of earshot, all the women gathered around Bacal and began to talk excitedly. She smiled, gathered up her mangoes and gave them to Tzytzyan. By this time the market was full of women buying and selling, and all stared at Nic as Bacal led him away from the marketplace.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked her.
“To the fields. I am to take you to my—“ Here Bacal used a word Nic didn’t know, but he guessed she meant her husband. Walking swiftly ahead of him with head down, her glossy black braid hanging down her back, she led him away from the Ceremonial Center and through the jungle along a path Nic was not familiar with. She seemed shy now that they were alone, and made no attempt to converse. Her silence didn’t bother Nic, who gazed around him in fascination, wondering when he would have time to explore his surroundings. The jungle looked much the same, though he glimpsed several wild animals through the dense foliage: quetzales, tropical birds with long, bright blue tailfeathers, flitted from branch to branch, monkeys shrieked and chattered, and he even saw a sloth hanging from a high branch. Nic wanted to laugh with excitement: he didn’t have the faintest idea how he would get back to the present, but for now he was living his dream: to be immersed in history. The only thing that would have made it more perfect would have been to have Itzel with him.
The jungle path ended in a vast cleared area. Nic shaded his eyes against the sudden brightness and saw long fields of plowed earth. Men dressed in simpler versions of the loincloths and mantles the four men had worn moved along the rows, long staffs in their hands.
“What are they doing?” Nic asked Bacal. One good thing about pretending amnesia, he thought- it allowed him to ask as many stupid questions as he wanted.
She smiled at him and said, “They’re planting the corn. It’s almost time for the rains.”
A man had seen them and was walking toward them. Bacal introduced him as her husband and left. Nachancán looked very much like his 21st-century counterparts. Shorter than Nic, compact and muscular, he had a shock of unruly black hair, a high forehead, prominent cheekbones and the trademark aquiline Mayan nose. Heavy black brows overshadowed his black eyes and gave him a threatening expression which his unsmiling perusal of Nic did nothing to dispel. Finally an extra staff was produced and Nachancán showed Nic how to walk slowly down the furrow, making shallow holes with his staff, dropping a few grains of corn into each one and covering them with earth. Though the work was easy, Nic soon felt tired and thirsty. The sun climbed higher in the sky and sweat ran down his face. The other men showed no signs of halting their labors. To distract himself, he thought of Itzel and her parents. They had to have discovered the amulet was missing by now. He could imagine how angry they must be, and how disappointed. Thinking about it now, Nic wished he had told Itzel about his plans. She was probably sad as well as disappointed. The thought that he might never see her again hit him like a punch to the solar plexus.