Adjusting his mantle, the priest seated himself on the central bench. He motioned for the first child, a chubby toddler with a bowl-shaped mop of hair and eyes like black almonds, to come forward. The child’s father led him by the hand to the priest’s knee, where the holy man placed his hand on the shiny black hair and intoned a prayer, unintelligible to Nic. Then he took a small handful of the ground substance and placed it in the child’s hand, directing him to throw it into the brazier. As the child did so, a puff of smoke released a strong smell of incense and the child looked up at the priest and laughed. Nic saw a smile cross the priest’s face as he looked down at the little boy. So, the High Priest was human too.
This procedure was repeated with all the children, after which they went with their parents to stand in the audience. The priest went into the house, and the chacs removed the benches and the cords. One of them gave a vase to another man who had come forward from the crowd, and spoke to him in a low voice. The man took the vase and walked away from the gathering.
“What’s in the vase and where is that man going?” Nic asked Bacal. She smiled and said the vase contained wine.
“It is very important for him not to taste the wine or look behind him when he returns,” she said.
“It contains the evil spirit. He is taking it far away from the village.”
Two of the chacs were now sweeping up the leaves which had been scattered on the patio.
“Is it over?” Nic asked.
“No, the High Priest has purified the house. Now the baptism will begin.”
She turned away and began talking to a woman next to her. Nic surveyed the crowd behind him. Most people had relaxed with the disappearance of the priest and were now talking and laughing. Some of the older children to be baptized were playing tag, while the younger ones clung to their mothers’ skirts and the smallest of all suckled at their mothers’ breasts.
Nic caught sight of Ixchel talking to a couple of girls. Her long black hair was pulled back and held in place with a tortoise-shell comb, and she wore a simple white shift, decorated with white feathers. Watching her, Nic felt a stab of loneliness.
One of the other girls saw him looking at Ixchel and nudged her. Nic dropped his eyes, but not soon enough—Ixchel looked over her shoulder at him and blushed a deep red. Obviously he had given her and her friends the wrong impression. Nic scanned the crowd, but didn’t see Ixchel’s father, so he mustered his courage and walked over to the girls. They looked at him with a flurry of nervous giggles. He turned to Ixchel.
“Hi.” She blushed again. “I wanted to ask you yesterday about how you will be honored at the full moon. Did the High Priest choose you?” The other girls watched Ixchel.
“Yes,” she said, with pride. “Of all the girls my age, he chose to honor me and my family.”
“They must be very proud of you.” The girl nodded. Now her friends looked at Nic. “What will happen on the day of the full moon?”
“There will be a ceremony and the whole village will be watching me. The High Priest will bless me and my soul will fly to a special place in heaven.”
Nic saw fear in her eyes. He asked himself why he was tormenting her, but pressed on. “Are you afraid?”
Ixchel hesitated. Her friends watched her. She looked confused. “The High Priest told me I will not suffer.”
Nic asked, “Did he give you something to keep you from suffering?”
The buzz of conversation around them suddenly ceased and Ixchel turned away. He looked over the heads of the crowd, which was not difficult since almost all the Mayas were at least two inches shorter than he was, and saw that the High Priest had reappeared and the children had been led again into the open space, which was now scattered with fresh leaves. There they formed two lines, boys in one and girls in the other. The High Priest had changed and was now dressed in a resplendent tunic which reached to the middle of his thighs and was thickly embroidered with bright red feathers. Like a red Big Bird, thought Nic. Here and there feathers of other hues provided contrast to the red, and long, multi-colored plumes hung from the hem. On his head was a tall miter worked with the same red feathers and in his hand he carried a carved and decorated stick with a spray of what looked like rattlesnake tails attached to one end. He stood silent in the middle of the cleared space as the chacs went from child to child, unfolding and placing white cloths on their heads and hanging others, hammock-like, from their shoulders. Nic stood on tiptoe and saw the mini-hammocks contained vividly-colored feathers and a few grains of what looked like coffee.
At a signal from the priest, the children and the audience sat down. He walked down the two rows of children, stopping to say a lengthy prayer and wave his scepter over each one. Nic glanced at Ixchel. She watched, absorbed, following every movement the priest made. The audience was silent—even the babies had stopped crying—and Nic wondered what would happen to someone who dared to disobey the absolute authority of the High Priest.
A man from the audience made his way forward to the High Priest, who handed him a small bone. He went to the first child and waved the bone toward his forehead, stopping just short of hitting him. Nic noticed the boy did not flinch. This movement was repeated nine times with all the children. The man then dipped the bone into a gourd of clear liquid he carried in his other hand and returned to the first child, whom he anointed with the liquid on his forehead, his face, between his fingers and on his feet. This was carried out in silence with great solemnity. Nic touched Ixchel on the shoulder.
“What is that water?”
“It is virgin water,” she answered in a low voice. “From the jungle.”
“From a cenote?”
Ixchel looked exasperated. “No, from the rocks and trees. Where the rain god puts it.” She turned back to the ceremony.
So, Nic thought, the ancient Mayas also used water to baptize- before having been exposed to Christianity. That was interesting. He turned his attention to the ceremony again, where the priest was now making his way down the rows of children, removing the white cloths from their heads and shoulders and handing them to a chac who followed him. Then, with a stone knife, he cut away the white discs the boys wore tied into their hair.
The other chacs came out of the house, each carrying a bouquet of flowers and a lit pipe. Each child was given the bouquet to smell and the pipe to smoke. Nic wondered briefly if the Mayas ever got lung cancer.
Now the atmosphere changed. The crowd began to stir, and the children’s mothers went to their newly-baptized little ones, offering them food which they ate eagerly. Nic noticed a man at the edge of the cleared space drinking something from a beautifully carved vessel, while others stood around him.
“What’s that?” he asked Ixchel.
“It’s wine—a gift from the children to the gods.”
People were starting to drift away. The mothers of the baptized girls now cut the cords around their waists, as the priest had cut the cords attaching the white discs to the boys’ heads.
Nic turned to Ixchel to ask the reason for this, but she was no longer at his side. Instead, he saw Bacal coming toward him. He asked,
“Is it over now?”
She nodded and motioned for him to follow her. They joined the crowd, all of whom were in high spirits, laughing and talking. As they walked, Nic asked Bacal,
“Why did they cut the white cords from the girls’ waists?”
The look she gave him showed Nic what his future role in the community would be: village idiot. That’s okay, he told himself, that way I can find out more without people getting suspicious.