The Cenote and the Harp
I thought of the things that were important. Then I asked myself if those things would be important later, wondering all the while about what it would be like to become a thing. Then the captain’s voice came over the intercom, and he gave a rundown on all the important things about the flight, chief among them being the ETA and the weather at our destination. Not long thereafter, the plane barreled down the runway and hurtled into the sky. Looking out over the murky horizon of Atlanta on this slightly overcast day, I watched as a row of buildings slowly disappeared behind a puffy cloud. Then, as the plane steepened its climb into the sky, I loosened my seat belt and got into a deep discussion with a fellow passenger named Gene. The conversation soon veered into one of my favorite topics --- the ancient Mayans. Most likely, this happened naturally because we were both headed for Mexico City, and Gene, an obviously inquisitive fellow, asked me what I planned on doing there. I let him know that I would be visiting the archeological zones to the south. Pausing for a second, I sipped from the dregs of my black take-out coffee and wondered aloud about the in-flight movie they would soon be showing, saying that I’d seen this action-packed thriller before, and it really and truly wasn’t very good, and wouldn’t it be great if the airline had a Mayan movie because that would have been so appropriate, but I quickly added that there were hardly any Hollywood movies about the Mayans and why was that so?
The plane had just made a final left turn away from the last of the urban skyline, and both of us gazed at the delicately rippling crescents of ocean currents that loomed seven thousand feet below. Gene scratched his chin, and he formulated an answer, saying, “Even though that civilization seemed to have lots of high drama, which is usually great for Hollywood, theirs was a reality so alien to our own that people in our time and place would never be able to relate to it. I mean, it’s really hard to have a common denominator with some high priest who’s intent on cutting out your heart, so the sun will still hang in the sky a bit longer.”
“Yeah, I suppose that would be a bit of a stretch. As a moviegoer, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, and it might as well be on the subject of heart-cutting,” I replied.
Shifting to a more academic tone, Gene continued, “The Mayan civilization was indeed over-the-top innovative, but how can the average Joe or Jane take seriously a people who were fully aware of the wheel, but never put it to any practical use? Rather, they chose to make it into toys for their children.”
“Hey, don’t knock toys for children. Maybe they were onto something Hollywood is unaware of.”
“Even so, it’s pretty weird. Don’t ya think?”
“Perhaps, but then again …” I deliberately let my voice trail off because I was losing interest as Gene suddenly was talking about his insurance business back home in Boston. That had the effect of concluding our chat. After a few hours went by, we touched down at Benito Juarez Internacional and went our separate ways.
Gene’s last words to me were that I really needed to check out the cenotes in the Yucatan.
“What is a cenote?” I asked.
“It’s a sinkhole in the earth. Sometimes they’re huge and other times quite small. But they usually are filled up with water from all the underground rivers that are lurking beneath the limestone terrain of the Yucatan. The Mayans believed them to be sacred, and they threw lots of offerings into them, including sacrificial victims.”
“Wow, really? You definitely got me interested.”
“There are so many of them. In some places, they pock the landscape. Someday when I retire, I want to take color pictures of them and make a coffee table book out of ‘em. What do ya think? It’s a great idea, right?”
“Absolutely. Do that when you can. Oh well, on your advice, I guess I’ll have to give ’em a go.”
Saying goodbye, I picked up my luggage and made my way through customs. Having passed the test, I made my way across the bustling arrivals and departures gates and proceeded towards the taxi stands. I was quickly besieged by an army of street urchins asking for money.
I was especially impressed by their come-ons: “Senor, my hobby is collecting foreign currency.”
For a second, I wanted to say that was my hobby too, but I decided not to engage in another conversation. This airport hassle was something I had anticipated. Nevertheless, I wound up being more than a bit unnerved by the whole incident. Push would come to shove and shove would come to push. It cannot be helped. Despite my distracted train of thought, I understood that this was my first inkling I was entering another zone, but I reminded myself that it was probably the purpose for going to visit archaeological zones --- I needed to go to a place on the remote reaches of the map, and these strange and unsettling experiences would be part of the psychic toll. In a deep, affected voice, I absent-mindedly muttered to an urchin, “Pay the psychic toll.”
“No senor, you pay the psychic toll.”
The wiseacre kid was so fast on the repartee. He had to be.
The next few days were semi-bizarre. I managed to cope with the effects of culture shock as I observed a street performer passing a thin metal wire through his left bicep. The gathering crowd really got their rocks off on that one. They egged him on, and their applause went on and on. I watched wide-eyed and wonderstruck while the young man kept passing the strand of metal into one side of his arm and out the other. His muscle practically amounted to a major metallic thoroughfare. It twitched and pulsated. In no time at all, he was coming out and encoring for yet another bow as his appreciative public showered him with pesos. It was certainly an interesting way to make a living. Somehow, I sensed that the people here had a deep fascination for blood --- that and death. Indeed, my host, a wealthy businessman from Bosques de las Lomas, explained that “Sangre” and “de la Muerte” were often taglines on movie marquees, especially those with subtitles. All I could say was thank God I didn’t have such deep and lurid preoccupations. Right.
I stayed at my host’s house for a week, going to the usual tourist traps such as Sanborns and the Zocalo as well as a great church where peasants on pilgrimage prostrated themselves and crawled across the gigantic plaza to get to the front door. That was pretty impressive. My hat is always off to a true spiritual experience. And that’s no joke. Seriously. I want to believe. But please show me the way. That’s what I always say. Shortly after witnessing this solemn epiphany, I explained to my host that I would be traveling by myself to the Yucatan with a possible side trip over the mountains to visit Oaxaca. He stressed that it was of utmost importance that I see the ruins of these great civilizations. “Think of it as part of your training for life,” he was quick to add. “The gods of these places still exist. Why not so long ago when the city fathers moved the old statue of Tlaloc to the front of Museum of Anthropology, our city was treated to a three day thunderstorm.”
“I guess the rain god is not to be fucked with.”
“Damned right. And it serves you right to suffer baby if you do.”
“I promise to treat them with respect. I’ll even tell the agency that I’ll be on my best behavior.”
Accordingly, the very next day, at a small travel agency just off La Reforma, I booked a bus trip to Merida. The long ride was arduous and eventful. In hindsight, certain events immediately come to mind. The first of these occurred on a Saturday night when the driver made a rest stop in a small village. I was amazed that the entire town appeared to be in the ecstatic throes of some sort of communal mescal experience. In halting Spanish, I spoke with the vender who had come onto the bus to sell his product.
I asked about mescal, thinking this was the true article, but he replied, “No, no senor, no es no mescal. Es pulque. Es muy fuerte.”
Pondering the prospect of partaking of pulque, I figured what the hell. Now was as good a time as any to try this out. No doubt my former host would have said that it should be part of my training for life. The people in the village were clearly drunk on the stuff, but they didn’t look as though they were any worse for wear. In a flash, I fancied myself as some sort of Roman emperor and those villagers greeting everyone outside the bus were my tasters. I paid the man and sipped gingerly from the clay cup. Time went by. Minutes ticked into an hour. At length, the vendor got off the bus, and the driver decided to hit the road. I took note of my five senses --- nothing untoward had appeared to be adversely affecting them. In fact, nothing at all had happened. I took stock of the product --- it tasted sort of like bad vodka. Clearly, the villagers were saving the best stuff for themselves. What hogs. How unsporting of them. They thought I wouldn’t know the difference, and they were right. So much for the spiritual experience that I had hoped to gain. I thought about the peasants in the plaza back in México City, wondering if this had happened to them too.
When the bus driver finally pulled into Merida, I dropped off my two bags in my room at the Hotel Flamingo. After a quick bite to eat, I eased myself into the hotel pool and floated on the surface with my head looking upward at the glass overlay of the hacienda style ceiling.
At that moment, the clerk who had signed me in at the front desk appeared by the poolside. “No senor, it is not exactly a cenote. For that, you have to go to the ruins five miles outside of the city. Perhaps then, you will be able to plunge into the real deal. I can arrange it tomorrow if you like.”
“Yes, of course I want to go. Get me an order form now. Sign me up as soon as possible.”
And it came to pass that I wound up taking a bus ride to the archaeological zone, but due to some sort of misunderstanding about my ticket, I got dropped off in the middle of nowhere at the side of a dirt road that was off from the main highway. The driver told me that it was a short walk to the main ruins. Well, it wasn’t a short walk by any means. In fact, it seemed like about two miles. But it was no big deal. I had my trusty parasol to ward of the relentless sun which beat down like a hammer. I walked down the road that went like a straight line through the heart of the jungle. Every now and then the tangle of trees and vines receded a bit to reveal a bunch of small mini- cenotes peppering the periphery of the dirt highway. The guidebook said that the cenotes were some sort of go-between areas or portals to the underworld. If that was true, then the great abundance of them was a clear indication that the vapors of the underworld were wafting up to this reality every fifty or sixty feet. Clearly, gaining a spiritual experience would be as easy as falling off a log. Under these happy circumstances, what need was there for bad vodka when all I had to do to get into the swing of all things spiritual was to simply walk around and inhale the landscape? Somehow I figured it might not be that easy.
But on the subject of more immediate and temporal matters --- despite the shade provided by my trusty umbrella, I quickly worked up a deep thirst. Craving a good quaff, I was happy when the Temple of the Dolls first came into view. Fortunately, there was a vending machine nearby the old temple with lots of Mexican soft drinks. I put my coins in and chugged down two bottles of Jarritos Manzana in very short order.
Having conquered my thirst, I turned my attention to the ancient building in front of me --- the Temple of the Dolls was the landmark that the guidebook said was a must-see, and I was thankful to see it. I went to the information center and was surprised that I was the only customer. In halting Spanish, I asked where the rest of the tourists were, and the caretaker replied that they were at another part of the ruins celebrating a local fiesta and that they would be coming by later after the festivities were over. But no matter --- he would let me in for half price, and since this was such a hot day, he indicated that I should feel free to plunge into the large cenote that was in front of the Temple of the Dolls.
“Senor, I will have you know that this is the deepest known cenote in the entire Mayan civilization --- one hundred forty-four feet at the deepest discernible point, but it probably goes on much longer than that, through meandering tunnels in the innards of the earth. Who knows what lurks at the bottom of this thing? Only the gods of the ancient civilization are privy to that information. Some of the local people here make extravagant claims --- they say this pool is haunted. Perhaps you should find out for yourself. Senor, you have my permission to take the plunge.” He stepped aside and gave a deep bow with an elaborate flourish of his hands. “But first, Senor, you might wish to buy a lock and key, so you can store your clothes in one of our fine lockers.”
Taking him up on his generous offer, I did exactly that. Having secured my belongings and my trusty parasol, I went to the cenote and waded in, staring intensely at the riot of lily pads and lotus flowers that adorned the center. I could see there was a wide ledge I could walk out on, but this ended after several yards, and there was a drop-off which was much deeper. That was where I wanted to go. Savoring the coolness and the minnows gently nipping at my feet, I walked out further and was about to reach that special spot when a small Mayan woman approached the edge of the water. She was dressed in a three piece white linen dress with flamboyant floral designs at the hem and sleeves, and she sported a wide-brimmed hat to protect herself from the relentless sun. Her face revealed a serene dignity, and I noticed that she carried a small type of folk harp which she placed on the ground in front of her. Without saying a word, she smiled at me and began to play the harp. I instantly found myself giddy with excitement and anticipation and was deeply thankful that the harp’s gentle jangle was providing me with a shimmering accompaniment to this impromptu swim. I smiled back and waded further out to search for the edge of the submerged ledge. Finding it, I poked my head underwater. Swimming downwards for about ten feet, I looked back to the surface --- the blazing sun was vaguer now, a splotchy patina of shininess, the waters of the cenote seemingly holding the persistent glare at bay. Off to the side and near to the rim, I could see the distorted outline of the Mayan harp lady through the translucent water. nd it happened that I had met one of the cenote’s longtime inhabitants. He proceeded to tell me his story.
Hello dear friend. Let me tell you how I got here. I was playing the Mayan ballgame. My opponent and I were absolutely exhausted because we had been going at it for days on end, and the ball had yet to go through the stone ring on the feathered serpent’s nose. The head priest interrupted the proceedings to announce that he was invoking a bit of special magic which could ensure that a goal would soon be scored. I muttered loudly --- I’d believe it when I saw it. From the start, I knew I was a foe of the multitude because I had no appreciation for the game. The game, just by itself, was boring --- a sleepy drug for the eyes. The only thing that sustained my interest was the fact that it would conclude with a fatality. Indeed, a motley row of skulls adorned the periphery. That gruesome display kept us all on our toes. Despite the ever present ominous reminder, at this point, I was so tired I didn’t care if I lived or died. I just wanted to get this over with because the prolonged ritual was driving me crazy. I hoped that if I couldn’t locate sanity in this world, perhaps I would fare better in another.
I asked the head priest, “Why can’t you widen the hole in the ring? Why can’t you shorten the field of play? Why can’t you allow the players to use their hands?”
The priest answered that hands are what make us human, and the reason for the game was to make us less human. From the top tier of the ball court, he bellowed, “How else can you become gods and goddesses?”
“I’d be more than happy to forego deification for being a human,” I replied.
And I thought but did not say that if I were in charge, there would be none of that grandiose god stuff because I wished to settle for humbler ambitions. I looked up at the multitude of people who were screaming for blood. Oh, how I wanted to be a foe of the multitude because I imagined a game where people could come from behind. But their firm belief was that the whole point of sports was utter humiliation. And death should be the ultimate humiliation. The high priest never seemed to get bored with saying that. However, after he said it this time, the ball seemed to pick up more speed, and the pads on our hips took on a life of their own, so that the rubber pellet whizzed closer and closer to the ring. With a sudden knee action, my opponent bounced the ball upwards toward the slanting wall, and I watched helplessly as the ball careened through the goal. This provoked a deafening roar from the crowd. A wave of dread passed over me as I fully comprehended my immediate fate. Indeed, I could see the executioners running forward with their obsidian daggers to lead me to my doom. A voice inside me kept repeating, “Never forget that you are a foe of the multitude. That is what you are and what you will always be.” I was convinced this was my own special magic, one they could never take away from me, one that would carry me through thick and thin.
Quite unexpectedly, the head priest intervened. “Would you like to have an alternative?”
“Yes, of course. You twisted my arm and talked me into it. I would love to have a different ending.”
“That can be arranged.”
“What will it be?”
“How would you like to become a thing?”
“No thank you. I’m afraid it doesn’t appeal to me.”
“Think about being a thing. It might not be so bad. True, the world would move much more slowly, but it would still move. All I’m asking you to do is to entertain alternative possibilities. Of course, you could still have the first possibility.” He let out a long sigh, and his face changed to a carefree demeanor. I knew he was playing with my emotions, but being a foe of the multitude, I could play right back. A loud laughter was ringing in my ears as the priest said, “And oh yes, you only have a few seconds to decide.” I could tell that he found this to be immensely enjoyable.
But I spoke up for myself because I had to: “In that case, I will opt for being a thing. The more I ponder it, the better it looks. In fact, I would love to. But isn’t a thing what a corpse is? And wasn’t that what I was about to become?"
“On this particular religious matter, corpses don’t count for much --- they are on the outside looking in.”
“If you say so. But do I get to choose what thing I want to become?”
“Yes, that can be arranged as well.”
At that moment, my mind raced, trying to gain a toehold in the new reality I knew I was certain to be entering. I had to outsmart the devil priest and become a true foe of the multitude. I had to think of something that wouldn’t immediately occur to him. The seconds went by, and my mind continued to race.
Then all at once, everything became clear, and I knew I had discovered an answer. I thought about a new kind of music that was causing quite a stir in the countryside. Many of the old priests were talking about it, and they perceived it as a huge threat. The whole point of these new sounds was to make people happy and to cause ecstasy and jubilation. Powerful people had said that was not the true purpose of music. On the contrary, they indicated that the noble goal of music --- in fact the only goal of music --- was to help men win in battle. But apparently, a new thing called a harp was the instrument of choice for these newfound sounds. This was the new upstart instrument. The old priests had said that these harps must be sought out and destroyed before they did lasting and permanent damage to society. If they didn’t do this, then there would be no more victory in battle, and the kingdom would flounder in defeat and humiliation. My mind was now careening at great speed, and given my new strange circumstances, I suddenly had an urgent wish to become part of this new music. If they did these things, I wanted to become a part of it. I kept saying to myself, “Foe of the multitude; foe of the multitude.” This repetition became my special incantation.
Now I looked at the head priest and said, “Alright, if I am to be a thing, I wish to become a musical instrument.”
This was the moment when I managed to have my way with the priest and to trick him --- I only said I wanted to become a musical instrument, purposely neglecting to say which kind. I understood that he had powerful magic, but I also knew there was a limit to this power.
The priest looked at me and tried to see into my soul, only I wouldn’t let him do that. After he thought he had known me through and through, he said, “Your choice is rather odd. Most people in the past have opted instead to become weapons or bright and shiny jewels. However, even though it is an unusual choice, I will nonetheless honor it.”
At this point, the priest came closer to me and from his cloak, he produced a powdery substance, which he proceeded to sift into a jade goblet. “Here, this is a special elixir. I hope that you will enjoy it.”
I drained the goblet in one gulp, all the while concentrating very hard on the greater goal of becoming a harp. Falling asleep very fast, I stumbled into a new existence filled with an ephemeral cascade of bulging palpitations. Sounds were so ethereal that a winding curve of a sparkling lotus voluptuary lucidity sidled up and bled into a sprinkling drunkenness. The lash of a malignant consecration flashed an arboreal opalescence, subsequently crashing into my addled consciousness. Yes, yes --- that was all well and good. But I supposed there was so much more to the very complicated matter. And of course there was.
And soon I became a thing, and a very musical thing at that, a true and lasting of the multitude. I was manufactured at a shop near to the main temple. I saw the other harps and instruments being worked on by a master craftswoman. She informed me that I would be the best harp she had ever made, and didn’t I feel proud about that? When she had completed me, I was sent to a nearby temple. And it came to pass that one day a beautiful harpist came to the building beside the temple where I was housed. She looked around the inventory and tested one instrument after another. When she came to me, she understood that this was love at first sight, and she immediately sat down to play me. I looked at my musician, giving her a protracted stare. Yes, she would do nicely. I reassured myself that there were far worse things that a thing could be. Being under her mastery might have its advantages. As the fingers of the woman skillfully went through their paces on my shimmering strings, I considered my newly minted status of being a harp. Then her hands played me more rapidly, and I discovered the velocity of music. Contrary to what the head priest had said, the world seemed to move faster. One of the newfound powers of becoming a thing was that I could readily see into the minds of people in a way that the priest had failed to do with me. Ha! The priest had only been the start. I reveled in how much fun it was to be a foe of the multitude and guessed that it was small compensation for not being able to move or breathe. After I thought about this for a while, I concluded it was a fair trade. I also laughed to myself about how I had tricked him by not becoming the kind of instrument he wanted me to become. Foe of the multitude; foe of the multitude --- the chorus in my soul continued. As far as my soul was concerned, it could go on into perpetuity.
The woman talked to me as if I were a real person. She told me that she and her fellow women musicians were part of a new subversive movement. She explained that, for a long time, she and her sisterhood had listened reluctantly to the official music that was practiced by the state. The men believed that the sole purpose of music was not to have fun or to dance. Instead, the function of music was to annoy one’s enemies, so that they would become distracted and vulnerable in battle. Many was the time, she said, when she had been brought to the rear of a belligerent deadly clash. From a safe distance, her elders had said to her that it was most important to catch opponents unware, and subsequently, their ears would lead them into strange and hellish territory, thereby making them ripe for defeat. She told me she had witnessed this practice repeatedly, and many of the women in her tribe had seen similar situations. Great battles had been fought which were solely decided by the uncanny power of annoyance and distraction. Frequently, before an actual weapon had been raised in wrath, there would be a precursor to the conflict in which the very air of the jungle itself was awash in buzzing, whiny, hissing, and droning sounds. Even the birds and the animals had fallen out of the trees in reaction to such distasteful, loathsome vibrations. The women, and a few of the men, had found these clashes to be entirely repugnant, and they indicated that there had to be a better way. But they were not powerful. That was their problem.
Subsequently, someone in the group had raised the question of whether that was the only reason for music. Then another woman had said that she wanted to create a different kind of music because the constant warfare was draining the emotions and resources of the people. One member of the group said that if they were going to have new music with an entirely different function, then they would need to construct new instruments. And one thing led to another and soon, instead of making music with bells, ratchets, whistles, and rattling burping trumpets, they discovered the joys of strings. They quickly learned that the beauty of strings was that the player could actually make the clusters of notes jangle. This became an important feature of their new music, and before long, in their secret places beneath the jungle canopy, they were jangling notes and the birds would try to answer back. And before long, the best of the women harpists discovered that certain combinations of sounds led to certain results, and then they even discerned that some tunes seemed to match up and enhance specific times of the day or night. And these rules became more specific and more refined, and the beauty of their songs reached still greater heights. She told me that if a musician knew the rules, it was as though she could walk through a giant labyrinth with an infinite number of rooms, and she could move about from room to room, and each chamber would hold some fabulous previously unforeseen gift of magic. And the variety of these gifts was astounding to player and listener alike, and the women then knew that it was a larder they could raid as they pleased, and wouldn’t that be an antidote to all the violence and unpleasantness that surrounded them? The woman who played me told me this history because she knew it would help her in her quest to change the purpose of music, but this knowledge would also help me to understand her, and this would ultimately make me a better musical instrument. Together we would become a team.
However, I soon learned that there were other benefits for me, the harp in question. Perhaps my favorite benefit was that I could be snug to a woman’s body, and she would be none the wiser. Many was the time when I reveled in this overwhelming intimacy, and the woman was completely oblivious to my closeness. That was the advantage of being a foe of the multitude --- ultimately, I could help out her new and dissenting multitude, and the fact that she would never understand enough to return the favor was part of the heady allure. How fabulous was that? This violation was mutually advantageous. Transgression had become transcendental. I was her dead and dull helper --- she was my live and lively muse. What a happy situation. From the perspective of my powerful omnipotent strings, I goaded her onward, so she discovered new and fresher panoramas of sound. Jangling became her sacrosanct value. I became her instrument of unfettered pleasure.
But there was soon trouble on the horizon. Happiness could not last. After a while, I enjoyed the woman who was playing me so much that I really found myself in desperate straits --- I wished that I could talk to her, but being a thing, this was not a possibility. My spirit became deeply forlorn because I was missing the human capacity to converse. I hoped and prayed I could come back as a real man, so the stories that were trapped and rapidly accumulating in my soul wouldn’t completely take over that very same soul. However, the only way this gift of speech might happen would be if she hit the right combination of notes. That was a code which would be hard to break. But one day it actually came to pass when she accidently unlocked this mysterious cypher. I couldn’t believe my incredible luck --- I had discovered a voice with which to talk to her.
Mustering my courage, until I found the right words, I proclaimed in a deep and sonorous tone quite different from my jangling strings: “Dear Lady, I am your harp, and I wish to speak to you.”
Frankly, I was more than a bit surprised at her coldly dismissive attitude about the entire situation. “My dear boy,” she said. “Shut up! Keep your ridiculous words to yourself. I have no use for them. You actually thought I did not know about your little bit of peeking at me? My, my, I thought you would never break down and confess by showing me a sign about your chronic watching. And I wanted this sign to be my way, natural and devoid of any troublesome words. Me and the girls laughed ourselves silly and took bets about when you would give up your clever ruse. I said sooner; they said later. I lost and paid up. Still, it was fun for you. More importantly, it was fun for me! It was a bet I was only too happy to lose. And now I suppose you’re going to tell me that you’d like to become a real man just because you now have the capacity to talk to me. Ha! Well, I really don’t think so. That, my sweet and ethereal friend, is a bridge too far. Just remember --- I prefer you as a thing, and if I have any say in the matter, I guarantee you’ll remain that way!”
Despite her startling revelation, I figured I might eventually convince her of the beauty of a talking harp, but she said she liked the idea of “playing a man.” She found this to be a lot more fun, which caused jealousy from her husband when he learned of our “affair.” She told me, the talking harp, that her husband the king had always thought he was supreme. Until now, hardly a day went by when he failed to remind her of this. He gloated over the fact that he fought with reality all the time, and he always managed to win. He surmised this was a function of being a king, part of his divine right. But he had never encountered anyone or anything like me. All of his kingly posturing amounted to nothing.
Frantically, he pulled her aside and demanded, “How can you be in love with a thing?”
She laughed at him in a demonic way and continued playing me. My shimmering strings strutted a preening dance, which only served to increase his helpless rage.
Lashing out at him, she said, “My music or yours --- what’s it going to be? It’s down to you and me! The entire Mayan civilization is hanging in the balance.”
The king had no rejoinder. He struggled to find the words and couldn’t come up with them. After she finished her song, she got down on her knees and gave him a sarcastic bow accompanied by a haughty grin. He said she made him feel almost as humiliated as the people he was trying to subdue in battle. Soon, there were lots of loud and angry fights. And quite predictably, these conflicts reminded me of the horrible noises that the military men used in their epic clashes in order to prevail, conquer, and subjugate. At last, the king couldn’t bear this situation anymore, so he grabbed me, the talking harp, and threw me into the cenote. Immediately, a tangle of white lotuses sprang up on the spot where I had entered the water. Of course, the wife dove in after me.
And that is how I came to rest at the bottom of this body of water. And that is how I came to haunt it. And that is how I came to be important. But the music lingering inside me needed someplace to go.
The plane landed in Atlanta in the early afternoon. Important things beckoned. I was one of them. I quickly retrieved my luggage and brand new custom-made harp from the baggage claim carousel and lined up to go through the inspections. Knowing full well that this could take a while, I leaned against the upright handle of my largest suitcase and bided my time by reading a thick book with dog-eared pages. When it finally came time for me to step up to the customs agent’s desk, I unzipped my luggage, and the man and his colleague riffled through my belongings. I watched as they pawed their way through my dirty laundry, checking for false bottoms and contraband while they talked to each other in an officious jargon that only they could understand. I adopted an air of blith unconcern, yawning deeply and stretching my arms now and then to emphasize my nonchalance. After the bags, they came to the instrument case that contained my harp, and I dutifully opened it up.
“Wow that is one super fine harp you have there,” the first agent said.
“Yeah, I had it made special at a luthier’s shop in Merida.”
“Are you a musician?”
“Yes, of course.”
I flashed an agitated smile and replied, “Are you serious? What d’ya mean, prove it?” Although a bit miffed by his question, I made a concerted effort to keep my voice at a very low volume, so that I could never be accused of acting badly. In an attempt to stifle this perceived insult, I continued: “What’s the matter? What do I have to prove?”
“I mean exactly what I said. Prove to me that you’re a musician.”
His colleague quickly chimed in, to give further explanation: “Look Mister. We have this deal here, which is that big ticket items like expensive musical instruments get special scrutiny. You have to look at it from our point of view. How do we know that you aren’t going to resell this here beauty of a harp to make a huge profit --- a profit that would bypass the required duty that you have to pay for bringin’ these things in? Also, how do I know that this here harp isn’t some rarified antique that you stole from a museum down there? You see, we have to protect the Mexican interests too. Understand?”
“Gee sir, to tell the truth that never actually entered my mind. Honest to God it didn’t.”
The agent grinned, but something about his face told me that he was on my side. “Of course, if you really are a musician and not some young fella who’s simply out to make a fast and easy buck, then you could prove that you’re a musician.”
The agent went over to the case and carefully took out the harp. He handed it to me and said, “You can prove it by playing something for me and my friends. Make it something special because it gets boring in here having to go through bags all day, and my partner and I could sure as hell use some good music to help us pass the time.” They both sat down in plastic chairs and scanned me with eager and evaluating eyes. I immediately thought of the Mayan whom I met in the cenote and wondered what he and the lady harp player would have done in a situation like this. But before I could tune up to play anything, there was a mild ruckus at the next customs station. A young man was explaining something to another agent: “Sir, what I’m trying to tell you is that this rubber pad is a practice pad for drummers. You see, we use it to practice in hotel rooms, so it won’t cause a big noise, and we also put them on snare drums in order to deaden the sound. It’s all designed for the benefit of people who aren’t drummers. We have no wish to annoy or distract them. Don’t you get it?”
The new agent pushed back his cap and fiddled with the visor, before saying, “I don’t know Jeb. It sounds kinda weird to me. What do ya think?”
The probable drummer protested: “It’s so that they can sleep. I tell ya, there’s nothing secretive or unlawful about it.”
“OK, calm down, Mister Drummer Boy,” replied the agent. “Hold your damned horses. This ain’t no tussle like General Sherman and General Hood at the battle of Atlanta. I promise I won’t revisit that one because just the thought of it kinda hurts my ears. Look, I’ve got an idea. If this rubber pad of yours is exactly what you say it is, then show me. Better yet, let’s have you and my harp playin’ buddy over here play together. That way, we kill two birds with one stone.” I looked at the incredulous drummer and told him I was a player of the Mayan folk harp.
He told me he was a rock drummer of the smash-and-bash school of percussion. Since we had been corralled into this dicey situation, I let him know what time signature I would be playing in, and together we dove right on into a folk song the lady at the cenote had taught me. Again, I pondered how she and her ghostly spirit harp would have handled this, but we quickly got down to business --- I was pleasantly surprised. The rocker didn’t miss a beat, and we pulled it off rather well. No one was distracted; no one was annoyed, and at the end of the song, the agents even clapped a little bit. They did this lightly, in a genteel fashion, as though they were visitors to some sort of high echelon salon. They let us know that we had passed the audition. After an appropriate and nervous interval, the first agent scratched his head and readjusted his cap. Then, most likely thinking about all the things that were important, he and the boys let us into the country.
I am a longtime rock and jazz musician currently working on my second novel entitled The Intricacies of Dog Shows. My fiction is largely drawn from my experiences as an archaeologist, world traveler, and tango dancer as well as from my childhood. I also would like to credit my friend and colleague Jessica Guerra for her wonderful illustrations of my work.
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