Nic sat down a few feet from the two men. Nachancán brought him a few rolled-up tortillas stuffed with turkey and his gourd of atole, then retreated to where Ixchel’s father was sitting. Nic looked up at Ixchel and patted the ground next to him. She blushed and looked at her father, who nodded, indicating she should sit. Trying to put her at ease, Nic offered her a taco, but she looked even more flustered and shook her head. She sat down, keeping her distance from him.
“Hi,” Nic said. She didn’t reply. “I know a girl who looks like you.” He smiled and she acknowledged him with a shy smile of her own.
Now what do I say, thought Nic. Aloud, he said, “Why can’t you marry?”
She blushed redder than before, looked down and whispered something. He leaned closer, under the watchful eye of her father.
“I will not marry because I will be honored at the full moon,” she said.
“That’s wonderful! How—” he began, then realized what she meant. The words died in his throat and he looked at her in horror. Ixchel lifted her eyes to meet his and her lower lip trembled. She looked so much like a young Itzel that his eyes filled with tears.
“I won’t let that happen to you,” he blurted out before he could stop himself.
She looked at him, confused. “It is a great honor,” she repeated.
Ixchel’s father came over to them and said, “It is enough.” The other women and girls had gathered up their gourds and clay pots and were standing at the edge of the jungle. Without another word, Ixchel stood and went to join them. They disappeared into the greenery. Nic got to his feet as well and said to Nachancán,
“Are we going to continue sowing?”
His host smiled, revealing pointed teeth studded with jade.
“No, now we hunt.”
Nic could sense the men’s excitement as they gathered round. Some carried short lances tipped with sharpened flint arrows, while others had quivers of arrows slung across their backs and bows which they now strung. Nachancán handed Nic a blowpipe with a long dart inside it. As Nic took it gingerly the men closest to him laughed. Great, he thought. Now they’ll think I’m a wimp as well as crazy. He had always been opposed to hunting and cruelty to animals, and he steeled himself for what the next few hours would bring. He reminded himself that this was not hunting for sport, that wild animals formed a staple part of the Mayans’ diet. Even so, the excited anticipation he saw in the faces of the men around him made him queasy.
They entered the jungle. In silence, the men fanned out. Nic stayed close behind Nachancán. Despite his tension, he soon became absorbed in the colors and textures that surrounded him. The jungle was teeming with life. Snakes as green as emeralds wreathed around branches while columns of large black ants marched up tree trunks and jewel-like frogs peered out from the crooks of trees. The air was heavy with the scent of flowering trees, and multi-hued birds of all sizes flitted through the low green canopy. Nic glimpsed a wild turkey in one tree, and two quetzales in another, their long blue tail-feathers hanging down. The men apparently had bigger game in mind, though, because they ignored the birds and advanced silently through the trees, ducking their heads to avoid low-hanging vines. Nic tried to be as quiet as they were, but the twigs breaking under his feet earned him looks of exasperation from the men closest to him.
Suddenly, at a signal imperceptible to Nic, Nachancán stiffened. With the same stealth that had impressed Nic the day before, he reached over his shoulder and drew an arrow from his quiver. Through the trees Nic could see the other men crouched in similar positions, readying their weapons. He peered through the jungle twilight, but couldn’t tell what they were watching. There was a moment of absolute silence, even the birds and insects stilled, then a blur of brown through the green of the trees. Arrows flashed through the air and the deer fell. Yelling in triumph, the Mayans ran forward. Nic lagged behind, using the back of his hand to wipe the tears from his eyes. That’s all I need, he thought, for these macho men to see me crying like a girl.
By the time he reached the deer, the men had used the sharp flint knives strapped to their waists to slit it open and cut off its head. As Nic watched, they hung the deer’s head, stomach and liver from the branch of the nearest tree, then sat in a circle around the carcass and began to sing a prayer. Nic sat too, but couldn’t follow the words. His mind felt slow and clumsy, unable to process the sensory overload, the smells, the blood and the chanting. He tried to summon up a memory from his own life, something comforting and familiar to balance the foreignness of this culture, but the knowledge that he might never be able to return to that life blotted out all other thought.
The other men paid no attention to him as they continued with their prayers. Flies gathered on the hanging entrails and the disemboweled deer. Nic felt sick, but tried to clear his head and focus. He had to find the amulet before the next full moon, if he was to have any chance of going home.
His thoughts returned to Itzel, as always, and then to the girl he had just met, Ixchel. The two had to be related—the resemblance was too strong. Was it a coincidence that she was to be sacrificed at the full moon? He remembered the day José had come to him in despair and told him his theory about Itzel’s hereditary illness. A female ancestor was supposed to be sacrificed, and that sacrifice was never carried out, so the gods were angry. . . he refused to believe it. It was one thing to believe in magic and psychic connections and another to believe that a group of wrathful gods was bent on wreaking vengeance on one family down through time. He shook his head. There had to be another explanation.
He must find a way to talk further to Ixchel. Maybe she would know something about the amulet. Maybe she even had it, if she was to be. . . sacrificed. Even the word made him flinch. He had to save her somehow—he couldn’t allow an innocent young girl to go to her death, cultural differences or no cultural differences.
The chanting continued. Some of the men stood up and begun to dance around the bloody carcass. No one took any notice of Nic, seated quietly beside Nachancán. Maybe he could slip away and look for Ixchel? He decided against it. Better not to draw attention to himself.
Another thought occurred to him. If Itzel and Malinali still had the amulet, wouldn’t that mean that the sacrifice hadn’t taken place? Nic had to admit that part of José’s theory made sense, even if he didn’t believe the angry gods explanation. If Ixchel was Itzel’s ancestor, he wouldn’t have to do anything to keep her from being sacrificed—something else would happen to thwart it. On the other hand, maybe Ixchel had nothing to do with Malinali’s family. He felt paralyzed with indecision.
The men had finished their prayers and were getting ready to leave. Nachancán took the entrails from the tree while others knelt and with their flint knives carved up the carcass into large chunks which they put into mesh bags. Nic stood around feeling uncomfortable. Finally they all set out for home.