Nic’s hopes of finding out more about the amulet were disappointed when Nachancán unfurled his bedroll right after dinner. He watched as his uncommunicative host lay down next to the fire, covering himself with a light blanket. Then he picked up the two bowls and spoons and took them to the kitchen where Bacal was eating her own bowl of beans. She looked surprised as he entered the kitchen. Nic sighed. It was hard learning how to behave in new cultures.
Feeling suddenly weary, he went back into the other room and sat down. Thoughts about Itzel he had been avoiding hit him like a flash flood. Again he wondered what she was thinking and feeling. She must be angry, and disappointed. He shook his head. He was here now, and there was nothing to do but go forward and try to make the most of it.
Though it was still early, Nachancán was fast asleep next to the dying fire. Nic stood and stretched, then tiptoed to the kitchen and peeked in. Bacal was asleep also, lying on a mat wrapped in a blanket. The plucked turkey had been cleaned as well and the carcass was hanging from a hook on the wall. Nic opened the front door and slipped outside.
The night was clear and warm. Moonlight spilled across the ground and tipped the leaves of the trees surrounding the clearing with silver. Nic pulled the wooden door to behind him and walked to the edge of the jungle. He hesitated, wondering what wild animals were on the prowl, then found a path into the trees. It was so dark inside the jungle he had to feel his way, and it was with a feeling of intense relief that he finally emerged into the Ceremonial Center. There he was transfixed again by the sight of the perfect structures he had known only as ruins. He gazed at them in the bright moonlight, trying to impress each one on his memory, wishing he had brought a camera, in case he ever got back.
With luck he would have other nights to explore the Ceremonial Center, but tonight he had a specific destination. Looking around him, Nic crossed quickly to the Great Pyramid, then walked around it, looking for the door in the base. He might find an amulet in the secret room.
After a few minutes, he realized he had reached his starting point. He circled the pyramid again, more slowly this time, scrutinizing the base. There was no door. The secret room must have been built at a later time. There seemed to be nothing more for him to do there, so with a last, lingering look at the magnificent structures bathed in silvery moonlight, he took the path back through the jungle.
Nic felt his shoulder being shaken, wrenching him from a dream in which he was wandering the aisles of a supermarket wondering what to buy for dinner. He rolled over and peered up through darkness to see Nachancán standing over him.
“We must go to the fields.”
Nic was going to ask what time it was, then realized the answer would probably be something like “time to go to work.” He dragged himself to his feet, his body protesting. How much later than Nachancán and Bacal had he gone to sleep last night?
He followed Nachancán into the kitchen, lit only by the glow of a small fire. Bacal, fully dressed, her glossy black hair combed back in a long braid, smiled at him. He sat down next to Nachancán and waited to be served breakfast. Bacal heated up what looked like thick tortillas on a large flat clay comal over the fire, ladled salsa onto them and rolled them up. She also served them each a hollow gourd full of a thicker version of the atole they had drunk in the fields the day before. While they ate and drank, she ripped strips of turkey off the carcass she had apparently roasted that morning, enfolded them in more tortillas, and wrapped them in an embroidered cloth. Nic’s mouth watered at the savory smells.
When they had finished eating, Bacal refilled their gourds with atole and added water. Then she wrapped them in a cloth as well. Nachancán and Nic stood and Bacal handed them the gourds and the bundle of food.
“Could I have some water?” Nic asked, feeling he couldn’t face another day in the fields with only atole to quench his thirst. Nachancán looked at him with a frown, but Bacal went through a door in the kitchen to a small lean-to attached to the back of the house where Nic could see a cistern. She dipped another hollow gourd into it and brought it back to him. He drank deeply, then handed it back to her. She refilled it and gave it to him again. Nachancán shook his head and said something Nic didn’t catch. He guessed, though, that his host wanted to get going.
“Can I take this with me?” he asked, raising the gourd with the water in it. Bacal nodded, her brown cheeks dimpling, then picked up a broom made of twigs tied together and started to sweep the kitchen. Nic noticed she had already sprinkled water on the dirt so as not to raise dust.
They stepped outside into darkness. Nic noticed the stars were still out. What time was it? He felt lost without a watch. He patted the pockets of his cargo shorts and felt something hard. Falling behind Nachancán on the path through the jungle, he unbuttoned the pocket and slipped his hand in. It was his mini iPod. Nic almost laughed out loud. What would Nachancán, or for that matter, the High Priest, think of an iPod? He sneaked a look at the backlit LCD display. 5:30 AM. Did people go to work at this hour every day? He felt even more tired.
When they arrived at the fields, the sky was lightening. After they left their lunch at the edge of the field, Nachancán handed him a stick and directed him to continue sowing corn. The work was easier today, maybe because he had water. At mid-morning they halted and drank some of their atole, then continued to work. The sun crept higher in the sky and Nic began to feel his lack of sleep. He labored on until Nachancán signalled that it was time to break for lunch.
As Nic followed his host toward the edge of the field, several women and girls emerged from the jungle, carrying food wrapped in embroidered towels. Nic squinted at them through the midday haze and one caught his eye. Itzel! His stomach lurched. It couldn’t be and yet it was. Heart pounding, he quickened his footsteps, passing Nachancán as they stepped over the furrows. When he reached the edge of the field, he saw the girl was much younger than Itzel- she couldn’t be more than twelve. He was unprepared for his acute disappointment.
He looked at her again, awed by her resemblance to Itzel. She gave him a timid smile as she passed him. He raised his hand.
She looked confused. Nic was trying to figure out how to say something else when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turned and found himself looking into the black eyes of one of his fellow sowers, a man about ten years older than himself.
“Why do you speak to my daughter?” the man demanded. He was taller and heavier than Nachancán and had a scar under one eye.
Nic was tongue-tied. Nachancán stood next to the man, his arms folded across his chest, his expression inscrutable.
“She looks like a girl I know,” he managed, wondering what he had gotten himself into. Nachancán and the man looked at each other, then at him. Nic plunged on. “What is her name?”
The man’s expression softened and he answered, “Ixchel. What do you want with her? She cannot marry.” The girl shot a quick look in Nic’s direction from under her lowered lids. By this time the others had gathered round, the men as well as the women and girls who had brought their lunches.
“I just wanted to talk to her.”
Nachancán and the other man conferred in low voices. Then Ixchel’s father nodded at Nic.
“You talk to her, here.” With his finger he indicated a ten-foot radius around where he was standing.