Bacal met them at the door, all smiles when Nachancán gave her the deer’s liver and stomach. Nic’s heart sank at the thought of what his next few meals might include. Nachancán motioned for him to follow him to the back of the hut. Standing by the cistern, his host stripped off his loincloth without ceremony and began to pour gourd-fulls of water over himself, scrubbing his body vigorously with a loofah. Nic looked around self-consciously—the area was deserted—then took off his own clothes, filthy and caked with mud, and abandoned himself to the pleasure of cool water running over his skin. When he was clean, he looked for his clothes, but found that Bacal had picked them up and was standing behind him, holding out a long strip of cloth embroidered on both ends with turquoise quetzales and yellow and white frangipani flowers. Blushing to the roots of his hair, he tried to cover his nakedness, but neither of his hosts seemed bothered, so he took the cloth and clumsily wrapped it around himself. His embarrassment increased with each unsuccessful attempt. Nachancán laughed, took the loincloth and expertly wrapped it around Nic’s waist, leaving the two ends hanging down, one in front and one in back.
Bacal was holding Nic’s filthy cargo shorts up, feeling the weave of the cotton and fingering the brass rivets and snaps admiringly. When she saw the zipper, her eyes widened.
“Look!” she said to Nachancán, who was putting on his own loincloth. He took the shorts and pulled the tab of the zipper up and down, looked at his wife in amazement and then at Nic.
“What is this?” he asked.
Nic said, “It’s to make them easier to put on and take off.” In a moment of inspiration, he asked Nachancán, “Do you want to try them on?”
Nachancán’s face lost its usual remote expression and registered the eagerness of a ten-year-old on Christmas morning. He took off his loincloth and pulled on the dirty shorts while Bacal watched, his face breaking into a smile as he zipped and unzipped the fly. Nic took the T-shirt from Bacal and handed it to Nachancán.
“Here, you can have them. We’ll trade.” He pointed to the loincloth he now wore. Nachancán nodded, smiling. I’ve made an ally, Nic thought with satisfaction.
Nachancán was exploring the pockets of the shorts. Too late, Nic remembered his mini i-Pod in the side pocket. Nachancán pulled it out and he and his wife examined the white plastic case, touching and smelling it before turning to Nic with perplexed expressions. Nic took it, put one of the ear pieces against Nachancán’s ear and the other against Bacal’s, and dialed up a Mayan folk song.
The effect was comical. Nachancán jumped back as if stung, tripping over a clay pot behind him and falling hard on the packed earth. Bacal gasped, dropped the earpiece and stared at Nic, her eyes wide. Nachancán stood up and brushed himself off, but kept his distance from Nic and his eyes on the ground.
“Are you a high priest?” he asked.
“I’m not a priest.”
“Where did you get this magic box?”
“I don’t remember,” Nic couldn’t recall if he had bought it at Target or Best Buy.
Nachancán looked at him closely. “What is it for?”
“It’s to listen to music,” Nic began, then stopped at the incomprehension on their faces. The concept of listening to music for personal pleasure might be harder for them to grasp than the nuts and bolts of electronics. He held the iPod out to Nachancán.
Without touching it, his host regarded the device.
“We will take this magic to the High Priest for use in the ceremonies.”
Nic assented. He didn’t think he could refuse, and maybe it would gain him some points with the high priest.
“Tomorrow, at the baptism.”
The next morning Bacal woke Nic later than the previous day. She and Nachancán were already dressed, he in a more ornately embroidered loincloth than before, with a large mantle thrown over his shoulders, and his wife in a beautifully worked tunic which reached to her knees. Both wore buckskin sandals. Nic rolled up his bedroll and put it in the corner next to the others, then adjusted his own loincloth. Bacal, who had left the room, returned with a pair of sandals and an embroidered mantle for him. Nic put them on, thinking it was a good thing he and Nachancán were the same size. He accepted a gourd of atole from Bacal and drank it quickly when he saw that both his hosts had already breakfasted.
They left the house. The sun had cleared the horizon and Nic calculated it must be at least eight o’clock. He felt rested and alert as he walked behind Nachancán and Bacal, who were laughing and talking in low voices.
Other families joined them as they made their way through the group of huts. All seemed to be in a festive mood and called out to each other as they walked. Children shouted and darted among the adults. After a few minutes, they reached a house where all halted, talking among themselves. Nic edged his way to the front of the group. He saw a large cleared area which had been swept and scattered with sweet-smelling leaves. After a while, a man came from behind the house, shepherding four boys ranging in age from three or four to ten or so onto the cleared patio and stood them in a line. From the other direction, four girls of approximately the same ages were led onto the patio. All the boys had small white discs tied into their hair at the crown, while the girls wore thin cords fastened low around their waists with shells which hung from them and covered their pubic area. Nic was fascinated. He had read about baptism among the early Mayas and now he was witnessing it.
The children remained in two lines in the center of the cleared area, as four older men with gray braids wrapped around their heads emerged from the house, each carrying a rough-hewn wooden bench which they placed in the four corners of the patio. One took a long cord and strung it from bench to bench, enclosing the area.
“Who are those men?” Nic asked Bacal, who had come to stand beside him.
“They are the chacs. They assist the high priest in the purification.”
Two of the men now sat down on their benches, while the other two went into the house. One emerged a moment later with a fifth bench, which he placed in the middle of the patio. The fourth man brought a brazier and placed it next to the bench. He returned to the house and came out again with a clay dish containing a ground substance. Nic caught a whiff of incense as the man walked by him. He placed the dish at one end of the bench and squatted next to the brazier, fanning the coals it contained with a paddle of woven straw. When the fire flared up, both men took their seats on the benches in the corners.
Six couples came forward from the crowd and stepped over the cords the chacs had strung between the wooden benches. They stood by the children and Nic realized they must be their parents by the way the smaller ones began to cry and lifted up their arms to their mothers, who shushed them.
The crowd fell silent. Into the stillness stepped a man with a hawklike countenance whom Nic recognized as the High Priest from when he had arrived. Determined not to make the same mistake he had the first day, Nic glanced around the crowd. The men were all looking respectfully at the priest, while the women kept their eyes down.
Assuming what he hoped was a deferential expression, Nic studied the High Priest. He appeared to be about thirty-five years old. His elongated forehead sloped sharply back, ending in a patch of black hair cut short at the top. Like the other men, the rest of his hair was in a long braid which he wore wound around his head. He wore several sets of earrings made from gold, bone and feathers. His cheeks and most of his upper body were tattooed like Nachancán’s and today, in honor of the occasion, Nic supposed, dyed a deep red. His clothing consisted of an elaborately embroidered mantle and loincloth, with tiny, brightly-colored feathers woven into the design.
The priest raised his arm and looked around the crowd. For a brief moment his gaze rested on Nic, who lowered his eyes. Even seen through twenty-first century secular eyes, the priest commanded respect, with his haughty, impenetrable gaze and regal carriage. The Mayans seemed to revere him as a god.