The Stone Horse of Flores

The new issue of Betwixt, out yesterday online and in print, features a new story of mine, “The Stone Horse of Flores”, what I’m calling a post-virtual retelling of a Guatemalan folktale.

Being as how my rendition takes significant liberties and the original is awesome and not likely to be something you’re familiar with, I thought I’d share the story here the way I first heard it. If you have any inclination to read my version, however, might I suggest doing so first so as not to spoil it?


Flores is a little city on an island in Lago Peten Itza, in the southern (Guatemalan) portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was settled in the early 16th century by the Itza Maya, a sect of water priests, after abandoning their former home, Chichen Itza, to the conquering Spanish. This turned out to be quite a prescient strategic move for the Itzaes: the natural protection provided by the lake and the trackless jungles of the surrounding Peten helped keep Flores under independent rule for the next 175 years, far longer than any other Mayan settlement.

Cortés himself actually visited Flores in 1541, but his supply train had been so decimated by disease on the long trek through the jungle that he no longer had the resources to muster an attack. Instead he only rested a few days and moved on. He did, however, leave behind one injured horse, asking the Itzaes to care for it until he returned.

They did the best they could, but having never cared for a horse before, they didn’t know what to feed it or how to treat it, and it died. Luckily, Cortés never came back. Under increasing protest against his tyrannical policies from the colonies he himself had founded, he fled the New World for Spain within the year, never to return.

In 1618, seventy-five years later, two Franciscan friars visited Flores on an evangelical mission. They found its people dedicated to their own religion and made no converts, but discovered a stone statue of a horse in the city square, erected in memory of Cortés’s gift. They claimed the Itzaes had taken to worshipping the statue golden calf style. which maybe wouldn’t be so hard to believe but for the tellers, without whom this story would in all likelihood never have been carried down.

When the Spanish did finally capture Flores in 1697, they razed it to the ground, along with all its oral and written history. The usual story.

Thus far in my travels I’ve spent all of half an hour on a bus idling in a grocery store parking lot on the shore of Lago Peten Itza at four in the morning, gazing at the orange lights of the island flickering reflected in the lake.

In a few weeks I get to go back and, with any luck, spend some quality time there.

Tales from Topographic Oceans

Only tenuously related to the Yes album of the same name, widely considered the most navel-gazingly pretentious prog rock album ever recorded. (No, I will not attempt to relate the Shastric scriptures to Mayan prophecy. Maybe another time.) The Roger Dean cover, however, is awesome:

See the Castillo over there on the horizon above the Nazca monkey?

The other week I was back in Yucatan. It’s been six years. Not much has changed. A lone wind turbine has sprouted over Quintana Roo Highway 308 south of Cancún, and a dozen new all-inclusive resorts have elbowed out another few hundred thousand acres of coastal swamp, though you’d hardly know it from the road except for the twenty-foot white concrete faux-Mayan monoliths marking the entrances surrounded by landscaped agave and coconut palm. The real ruins are all still there, the big ones a little more harried maybe what with the approaching end of the world, the less impressive sharing the sun-baked empty stretches between hotels with more recent ruins, failed tourist traps abandoned a year or a decade ago, their pale dirt parking lots filling with trash like alluvial silt from the underground rivers.

The coastal reef, second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, hasn’t recovered–it’s still all bleached and apocalyptic, like the ash-caked girders of a collapsed skyscraper a hundred miles long, an aqua-tinted desert broken only by occasional tiny, mind-blowingly colorful fish flitting in and out of gray-blue darknesses. If anything, it’s getting worse.

Still, the apocalypse feels just as far away (and just as close) as anywhere else I’ve been. Even Detroit. Even though the entire Yucatan Peninsula is so low-lying and flat it will likely be underwater as soon as Micronesia and Manhattan, and it’ll look even more like the Yes cover than it already does.

By the way, for those of you who haven’t seen it, a recently discovered Mayan mural at the Xultún site in northern Guatemala includes explicit references to dates after December 21, 2012. So the world isn’t ending. Which means we’re going to have to live with what we do to it.

But I’m not here to preach about the end. I’ve done that enough. I’m here to share a bit of the beauty before it’s gone.

These are not the pictures I would have taken of Tulum in 2006. Maybe the difference says something about the person I’ve become in the years between. Because the place hasn’t changed. Salt wind and time have done what they can, at least for now. And all of Antarctica would have to melt before the Gulf will make it up those cliffs. Who knows, maybe that’s part of why they built it here.

One of three offeratory altars on the cliff below the Templo del Viento–not unlike another shrine I found years ago, ten miles to the north. The coastal Maya had a lot to thank the sea god for, not least the reef, which made a natural breakwater for hundreds of miles along the shore, allowing easy trade between cities.

Masked face, Templo de las Pinturas, southwest corner. One of the last Mayan structures built before the conquest and the best preserved at Tulum. This is the building with the seven-fingered red handprints I so lamented not having photographed last time. But you’ve seen those.

I’d love to know who this mask depicts—Itzamna? Don’t have the research at hand, unfortunately.

East face of the Castillo, the large central pyramid, the side that faces the cliffs. The architectural style at Tulum is unique…of course that’s true of every Maya site, and Tulum benefited from trade with both the Mexica (the Aztecs) and the Toltec-influenced Maya of Chíchen Itzá…but the skewed lines of the temples here are different from either. There are no right angles anywhere, hardly even any straight lines. It’s like something out of…Dr. Seuss, crossed with Lovecraft. It’s awesome. The first time I was here I didn’t appreciate it—after the mathematical, acoustical perfection of the Castillo at Chíchen Itzá, it seemed sloppy, a sign of a civilization in decline. This time, after gawking at those beautiful masks for awhile, then at the Templo del Dios Descendente,
I realized it could be something else: a sign of a civilization passing its peak, developing into decadence, developing a higher (wierder) aesthetics. This curve…it echoes the sea, obviously. All of Tulum is about the sea, really: the location atop the cliffs like a lighthouse, the protected beach below, the temples to the morning star. The sea was their livelihood, their garden, their connection to the outside world.

The curve of the Castillo wall distills that to one calligraphic gesture, a sweep of a brush.

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 4: Red Handprints

At the Mayan ruins of Tulum, on the southeastern coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, my camera battery died. Not in the sense that I had failed to charge it, but in the sense that it had outlived its usefulness; having lasted me some 3 years, it had lost the capacity to hold a decent charge. I managed to get one picture out of the sucker before it went dead…which ought to give at least some indication of how amazing a place Tulum is.

This building is called the observatory; you’ll note the three small offeratory shrines at its northwestern corner bear a strong resemblance to the water god shrine I found on the beach about 30 miles to the north.

Tulum was constructed in the middle postclassic period, around 1100 AD. The Mayan cities of the southern Yucatan had collapsed, and the Toltec invasion had radically altered even the most remote remnants of the Maya culture. All the buildings are oddly skewed in their symmetry and proportion, as though they belong in something by Dr. Seuss. The idea one is inclined to infer about its builders is of a ruling elite, no longer driven by the enlightened goals of the high classic, but rather by a desperate desire to maintain the high standard of living to which they had become accustomed, without the advanced knowledge of astronomy and engineering that standard of living had originally required.

Testament to this, perhaps, are the red handprints that adorn Tulum’s best-preserved structure, the Temple of the Frescoes:

(not my photo–I got this from some dude’s Tulum collection on

The red handprints are a recurrent phenomenon in Mayan architecture, to be found in ruins all over Central America. John Lloyd Stephens mentions them several times in Incidents of Travel, noting the shiver of connection they convey, the inevitable parallel drawn between the temple’s ancient builders and the living human being standing before it. I indulged in a sense of temporal vertigo, and with sudden, giddy credulity, allowed myself to suspend disbelief long enough to accept those markings at face value: as physical proofs of a divine intervention in this city’s construction. These were the handprints of a god, taking physical form to bestow his blessing and approval on the faithful. For a minute, standing there in the sun and the seabreeze, surrounded by sweating tourists and indifferent lizards, I bought into the myth wholesale.

Giving up the crutch of the camera had a lot to do with this, I think. As we had passed beneath Tulum’s encircling wall, Erin had offered me a sarcastic consolation. She said something like, “you’ll just have to remember it, instead of taking pictures.” I took that to heart. I flung myself into my senses and didn’t come out. If there was ever a moment when I was in danger of being sucked back nine hundred years, immersing myself in the experience of the Maya culture as it had once been, it was when I stood in front of those red handprints.

Look at the picture again. You’ll note the left hand appears to have seven digits. The guide claimed this was a characteristic of the grandfather god, Itzamna–along with the supernatural height that would have been required to place the prints where they were. But she offered a more mundane explanation. The ruling class among the Maya, like those of feudal Europe, valued bloodlines too highly to allow intermingling with common stock. They also valued, even revered, certain deformities. I’d seen art depicting midgets carried atop people’s shoulders like household gods. Why shouldn’t polydactyls have been equally exalted? Especially, argued the guide, since the mummified corpse of the great king Pacal, the architect and ruler of the Guatemalan city of Palenque, was discovered to have seven fingers?

When I got out of the sun and came back to my senses I looked into this. Actually now that I think about it, I don’t think I can claim to have come to my senses, or else I wouldn’t have looked into it nearly so deeply.

It turns out that according to the most recent reexaminations of the mummified corpse of Pacal, he didn’t actually have seven fingers after all. Put the word “polydactyly” into Google and you get all kinds of freakish pictures, none of which bear any similarity to the remarkably uniform and well-proportioned shape of the seven-fingered hand imprinted on the Temple of the Frescoes. Recently I went to the Body Worlds 2 exhibit at the Museum of Science–which I found, as I expected from the hype, to be on average one part disturbing, one part educational and one part egomaniacal. But they happened to have on display the plasticized corpse of a six-fingered man. (You killed my father. Prepare to die.) I examined the superfluous digit in detail, using my own hands and the others on display as comparison. And keeping in mind the extensive results of the Google search, the conclusion I drew was that even in the most innocuous cases of polydactyly, the extra finger is drastically reduced in size and functionality, even more so than a pinky. It tends to curve inward, huddling against the fifth finger like a scrawny little brother. In the specimen I examined, the sixth finger appeared to possess almost nothing in the way of independent musculature.

What I’m saying is there’s no way a real polydact produced the red handprints.

So maybe what we have is proof that the priest-ruler-architects of Tulum were not believers, but corrupt oligarchs deliberately pulling the strings of their congregation’s faith in order to keep themselves well-supplied with jade and mead and brightly-colored dye and willing volunteers for sacrifice. Certainly the recently laid bare failings of our own dominant religion lend credence to this view. But they also make it seem too easy a conclusion. If Apocalypto accomplished nothing else, it made clear the tendency of popular thought to read our own percieved shortcomings into the past. To turn history into parable.

I’d like to keep an open mind on the whole subject, if I could.

But look, there are only two possibilities. Either somebody faked the sixth and seventh fingers on the hand, perhaps simply by making a half-print followed by a whole one, or Itzamna really did descend from on high to bestow his blessing on his holy chosen. With the practical effect of dooming them to imminent enslavement and collapse. Unless, you know, he liked his worshippers so much that came down to retrieve them, and only left the handprints behind as proof that he’d allowed them to ascend.

Had it not been for the death of my camera battery, I suppose I might have been more inclined to take the rational view.

After floating out into the salty sea and seeing Tulum from the perspective of the Spaniards approaching through the gap in the reef, I walked barefoot through the ruins, over sharp limestone gravel, dodging thorn creepers and thumping big lizards, to the gateway in the ruins’ western wall. As usual, the bus was leaving, and I didn’t want to be on it. Erin left me behind with a frustrated humph, but she was the one who’d made me see the camera’s death as an opportunity. It was only five minutes I spent standing alone, looking back on the ruins, burning their shape into my memory, opening my senses to the salt wind and the heat–but I undertook it as a spiritual experience. An unmediated memory, which for the rest of my life I’ll be able to hold up against fiction and film and blanket advertising and say, “has any of it ever been as good as that?”.

A pelican approached from the direction of the Observatory. It circled the Castillo on motionless wings, perhaps contemplating the wisdom of picking a fight with an iguana. Then it sailed down over the cliffs out of sight. A little pod of tourists shuffled past me through the gate. After another moment I followed. And I felt… I don’t know. Connected.

Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 3: Jungle

Something else just occurred to me that must have contributed to the sense of awe I got out of the natural settings of the Yucatan.

The distinction between ‘old growth’ and ‘new growth’ that exists elsewhere in the Americas–that phenomenon which causes nature lovers of the pacific coast to scorn us easterners and our baby forests where none of the trees are any more than seventy years old–is completely inapplicable in the Yucatan. The soil here is so porous and so thin that the only time you ever see a tree older than fifty or sixty years is when it was cultivated to grow that way.

I had been, until I arrived in the Yucatan, perhaps mildly unclear on the distinction between rainforest and jungle. Rainforests are old-growth. When you come in with the gas-powered buzzsaws and cut down the glorious mahogany to make tables for the wealthy imperialist, that shit doesn’t just grow back. The trees are hundreds of feet high, and the canopy so thick it blocks out most of the light and limits the types and the density of undergrowth capable of surviving beneath it. I’ve hiked in a rainforest before in Hawaii, and while bushwhacking one’s way around might not be the wisest idea, it could certainly be done.

A jungle is nothing but undergrowth. The trees don’t grow taller than 25 feet. I considered a few times, while traveling in Yucatan, the possibility of exploring some of the jungle on my own, the way I would in a woods in New England. Considered it for about twenty seconds, from the safety of a nice, cleared path, before giving the notion up as insane. Foot travel in a trackless jungle is well nigh impossible. Cutting a path through jungle with a machete would be like snipping a path through a cornfield with a pair of swiss-army scissors. Nobody cuts down a jungle, except to make space for farming, or maybe to construct a shamanic temple, or to clear off one that was already there so you can invite white people to it and swindle them. And when you do cut it down, you better not look away for twenty years or it’ll all grow back just the way it was.

The result of all this is that when you are walking around in the jungles of the Yucatan, they look exactly the same as they did a thousand years ago.

Except for, you know, the occasional corrugated metal cerveza shack.