We took in the entire Mojave Desert tripping on Purple Dragon, from Mexicalli to Jalisco, tiny bamboo huts and adobe towns. Sun browned, wind blasted, tumbling into a hotel room with private toilets and baths seemed like a journey through time and space. They say, if you take enough Purple Dragon, you’ll see God. The desert had etched a God head into me as burning as the furnaces that forged fine steel. Those dry bones of emaciated life. They ground inside of me, dead cows belly up on the side of the rode where the cars go whizzing by faster than the time it takes to absorb the scenery, old farmers poking mournfully at the lost revenue. I turned the shower on, first warm than cool, than warm again, luxuriating in the choice of temperature.
“Let’s go to Cholula today,” said Cuchillo. That’s what they called him; knife. Sharp like a blade, quick and hard. Some people were afraid of him. He had a reputation for meting out his own justice. It could be wrong to be that way, but I never saw him as anything but just. He was the man. As long as you were right by him, he did you right.
“What’s in Cholula?”
He sat next to me on the bed where I was combing my hair and sweeping it back into a braid. “A pyramid. A very special pyramid. One that hasn’t been completely uncovered. And they won’t completely uncover it. Do you want to know why?” He slapped at the bed joggling it.
I laughed. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why won’t they uncover it?”
“Because there’s a church on the top. In order to uncover the pyramid, they have to remove the church.”
“Don’t the people want to know their history? It must have been very exciting to discover the pyramid.”
“Of course they’d like to know their history. But they can’t uncover the pyramid. They’re Catholic now. You can’t just swim back and forth from one religion to another at your convenience.”
That’s how Cuchillo looked at it. He was practical that way. Me, I was swimming around in just about every religion that looked in my direction. I didn’t know what to believe. Strange disturbances of shadowy figures slipping through ancient routines. Dipping water at the well. Tucking blankets into straw mattresses. Women, sometimes old, sometimes young; they had all once been me. Or perhaps, I was a part of them. We were pieces, rising up through age after age, aligned one in front of the other, little card board cutouts, pages in a book. Here, I combed my hair while Cuchillo wove some flowers together. He placed his awkward arrangement on my head. “You should always wear flowers.”
I humored him for a little while. I wore his flowers while we readied ourselves for the trip to Chulula. It was only a twenty minute ride by bus. We bought some white grapes at the market in case we got hungry. They were beautiful and long as your thumb. I nestled them among the wreath of flowers as we settled in our seats. We dropped some more Purple Dragon along the way.
Pieces of me, walking through jagged lines of vision, sometimes old, sometimes young. The stones talk. They remember how many times you’ve been this way before and how surely your foot will stamp its print over the top of other, far more ancient travels. Indelible, unchangeable print, seeking out its carbon copy. I’ve been here! Long, long ago, another me on another journey, seeking to appease the gods she did not know. My heart beat with excitement. Cuchillo remained a few feet ahead, looking back now and then to see if I was following. He was all that was real and solid. The rest of the world slid between the leaves of changing patterns, strange people doing strange things, speaking in a language I barely understood, yet I knew this path. I knew where I was going.
We arrived at what appeared to be a very large, steep hill, with a guarded tunnel drilled into its base. At the top of the hill was a modest church, but there were no paths or other visible means of access from our direction. Cuchillo paid the guard some money or talked to him, I don’t know. He was one of those who always managed to find terms of agreement; whether it was soliciting shelter in an Indian village or arranging passage through a secured area. He knew how to walk the walk and talk the talk. The guard let us into the tunnel that had been closed off to all but the archeologists.
Square, clumsy scoops of removed earth snaked through the ponderous mountain of mortar and clay. It was dark; darker than night that shows at least a twinkling of stars and thin, sighing shadows. A string of electric bulbs set at intervals splayed out their brave illumination, then faltered at an endless darkness so deep it swallowed all light and movement within its velvet slumber. I gripped my wreath of flowers and grapes as though this small token in my hands was somehow a talisman to protect me from the glowering menace of the underworld. I had an offering for the gods. Surely evil would not harm me.
Half way through the tunnel I saw them, thin ghostly sprites expiring between the massive blocks stacked one on top of the other to form the pyramid. Their spectral arms reached out, their trailing fingers grasping for air, for freedom. The Mayans didn’t often use their pyramids for their dead, but this one was different. This one held the dead, crushed between the layers of quaking earth and exploding mountains. These were the trapped and damned of the cities, the ones who had failed to leave when the call had come to abandon their homes, their titles, their riches and flee into the wilderness.
“What’s the matter, Chiquita? You look scared.”
Cuchillo’s voice was laced with amusement. I wanted out. I wanted to end this journey through the labyrinth of death. I hurried past the grasping phantoms, willing their chilled hands not to touch me, not to send their frozen messages into my heart and brain. I was in the lead, and he danced near my side, chuckling. “You know, they say those wisps you see are nothing more than swamp gas. They aren’t ghosts.”
“They are wrong.” Scientists base their knowledge on the precision of their measurements and tools, on the analysis of liquids, gasses and solids, but these were just the instruments of their perception. They had no ability to measure the fabric of souls, the haunting echoes of memory. I accepted this extended vision, a reality of other beyond the microscopic lens and crowded into the dimensions of earth’s recorded time. This was the valley, the shadow of death, a prison of mortar and concrete. When the earth trembled and the gods spewed forth their wrath, this was no place to be trapped.
It seemed almost impossible to go beyond the struggling wraiths. They called and beckoned, pleading with me to stop and hear their stories. I shut my ears and kept my eyes fixed on a faint glow of light beyond the electric illumination that gradually grew stronger and more pronounced. Sweet, green grass, endless blue sky, birds reeling overhead. As I burst from the tunnel, I took a deep breath. The air itself was wonderfully alive.
The tunnel opened into a court yard, most of it buried under a layer of earth, but the curving mounds betrayed the fabrications of man-made objects; pools, gardens and walkways. In the middle of the expansive layout was a fountain springing from a marble pillar. As though to prove the perception of my expanded vision, much of the earth had been peeled away from this homage to a once bustling city, revealing the stone platform, steps and a portion of the brick path underneath the dirt.
The bricked in area surrounding the platform curved around it like the petals of a flower, the tapered ends shooting off into separate directions, now nothing more than an indenting in the short cropped grass. As I moved closer to the ancient fountain, I began to hear the voices of that busy era; the bustling market place, the scribes and scholars, the matrons and young girls going about their chores. I could almost see them, these pale imprints of the past, unconscious that time had moved ahead and they were nothing more than an echo rippling through the sand. A child’s sandal, petrified by the centuries, lay tossed to one side, along with some shards of pottery. A sandal much the same as the campesinos wore now, the broken pots the same except the color, long ago deepened and corroded, more like brittle brown stone now than clay. Beyond the courtyard, open to a ridge of hills and in the distance, the swooping points of volcanoes, the campesinos continued to toil in the fields, to tend their livestock, to return to small, adobe houses, the same as they did then, unperturbed by electric poles and automobiles.
Somehow, I was a part of this world. All other phases of who I had been, where I’ve gone and what I’ve done, fell away, and I crucially belonged here is this distant dimension. I knew now why I carried so tenderly the wreath and the grapes. They were an offering; a gift for the gods. I climbed the steps to the fountain and tenderly laid my treasure at the lip. I kept my head down, not wishing to see whether or not it would be accepted. As I descended the steps, I looked up at the pyramid we had just traveled through. From this side, all the earth had been removed and the giant blocks stood stacked, one on top of the other, creating a double stair case into the sky. Some over-weight tourists in khaki shorts and wide-rimmed hats had climbed part way up and now sat and dangling their legs over one of the serrated edges while the ones below snapped pictures. They seemed out of place in such a setting, as though they had been transported from an alien planet and could not see the inhabitants, nor could the inhabitants see them.
“Let’s go up and see the church,” suggested Cuchillo. He was already climbing up the path at the side of the pyramid, quick and agile. There was nothing to do but follow him. My feet fell in step where thousands of feet over thousands of centuries had dug out firm dimples and bumps to rest their soles. We easily moved past the exerted tourists, perspiring under the hot Mexican sun, and climbed higher and higher.
Very few people bothered to climb to the top anymore, although the trail was still well worn. Near the top, it was wonderfully quiet. With still several hundred feet let to climb, we rested on the wall for a few minutes. Below us spread the courtyard, and beyond, the hidden confines of the city. My magnified sight sheered into the ground, far below the layers of earth and saw the full structure of the fountains, the squares, the water pools, the tentative remains of houses. My hand traced along some lettering carved into the mortar while it was still wet, and I mused that even then people took the opportunity to immortalize their writing. My concentration became more intense when I realized the lettering was shaped much like the symbols of my own language. They seemed to form an “A” and an “E” and the “M”. While I wondered over this perplexity of similarities spanned over four thousand years and separated by an ocean, I became aware of an approaching cacophony of sound. I couldn’t say just then whether this noise was internal or external. I was seized with a vision, or a hallucination, or the spirits that had lurked at the edges of my peripheral vision all day, emboldened, had suddenly decided to come out of hiding. I perceived that this pyramid was but one of an endless spiral that curved toward the volcanoes and beyond. They lay buried under the sands of time, waiting to fulfill whatever purpose there was for their creation.
The noise of the crowd grew closer. I heard creaking carts, saw them pass behind me. I saw young boys chasing goats and old men stumbling under a load of kindling. I saw strong, sturdy feet and old, shapeless ones. They passed. They passed, the voices droning in the words of another history. Now another crowd approached; one filled with electric gaiety. They were rejoicing! They stepped lightly, heedless of their age, their feet dancing with joy. They were singing! What wonderful future had they been promised? What rapture could be so great? I trembled.
Their excitement was infectious. My heart pounding, I watched as the first participants in this intoxicating parade passed by, starring at the skipping legs, the dancing feet. There in the densest part of the crowd, I saw him, the man whose speculations had led to a legion of followers. I shouldn’t say him. I couldn’t bring myself to look up, but I knew these feet, in dirty sandals, carrying the dust of his travels and I knew this robe, this precious piece of cloth lingering behind him. All I had to do was reach out and touch the hem of this robe and I would know all there was to know, I would be enlightened to the mysteries of the Universe. I would understand. I craved the touch. I believed in it. My hand reached out with desire, and in that moment when it would surely have made contact, the vision disappeared.
I was left with a horrible, empty ache. I had been denied the glory, the ultimate experience. Just that close, as close as the fraction of a second I had hesitated, I had lost my chance. My eyes, which had never dared to elevate themselves, finally looked up. White, fluffy clouds surrounded a big bowl of the sky, a bowl so incredibly blue, its arch seemed to climb higher and higher into the heavens where eternity lurked and minds faltered at its immensity. In all that immensity and timeless yawning, there had been a chance, a microscopic moment to be something … My mind fell away, unable to absorb any more of this ponderous vision. I gazed once more at the pyramids buried into hillsides. I believe I knew why they were there, staggered and girdling the earth as far as the eye could see. They were the cornerstones of civilization, the gauge. When the buildings, the concrete, the masses became too great, too heavy, the earth shifted and sloughed, pulling down all the clatter and hum of invention, trapping the unwary, leaving nothing more than the pyramids, forgotten under the sands of time.
We finished the climb and visited the church, although I remember nothing about it. Was it ornate? Was it plain? Were there icons and stained glass windows? I could tell you nothing of it. My heart ached for something lost, a truth I had wished to make evident. I was extremely quiet on the journey back to our Puebla hotel room, even quieter as we prepared for our next excursion in the morning. We had no more Purple Dragon, nor did I want it. Cuchillo found my silence amusing. “What do you think?” He asked again. “Should they remove the church to finish uncovering the pyramid?”
“No they should not.”
He whistled cheerfully as he combed his hair and shaved. “There is an amazing little story about that church. According to our history books, a little monk came overseas with the first Spanish colonialists. He had heard rumors there was a holy land on the New World. He was determined to find it. He set out from Veracruz on foot, preaching and converting the Native people to Christianity along the way. When he reached the area of Puebla, he climbed the numerous hills and declared them sacred. He ordained that a church should be placed on each one. There were three hundred, sixty-five mounds in all; three hundred, sixty-five churches. The archeologists say each church in sitting on top of a pyramid.”
Co-incidence? There are mysteries that can’t be explained. As we went out the door, he told me, “we’re going to see the avenue of artists today. I think you will enjoy it.”
The avenue of artists occupied one corner of Puebla’s busy central. It consisted of small shops, crammed close together, with metal doors that slid over the entrances at night, and the art work, along with the hopeful artists, displayed close to the door ways for the passers by to gaze at. Much of the artwork had highly religious over-tones, depicting humankind’s struggle with inhuman passions while longing for enlightenment. I stopped before one that reminded me curiously of my vision. “You saw him, didn’t you?” Asked Cuchillo.
“Saw who?” I asked, feigning ignorance. “The monk? No, I didn’t see him.”
My answer didn’t detour him. “The reason the Puebla Indians accepted Christianity so easily was because they claim Jesus had already visited them once before, that he had walked on the pyramids.”
“It’s possible,” I agreed. “If he was able to transcend space and time, why wouldn’t he be able to do that?”
“Well, it’s a little far-fetched, don’t you think?” He was dancing again, his eyes laughing. It was his eyes that had made me impulsively follow him. They carried the wide expanse of the mountains and their booming laughter. Tucked in their merry sparkle marched dark, looming secrets, impossible to unwrap and hold.
“Maybe.” I didn’t know what to think of my psychic vision. Was it the result of picking up a moment in history, or was it the collective influence of belief? My eyes were riveted to one final painting. It showed the pyramids being built, uncovered, than covered again, in an endless spiral; the workers groaning up the steps with their loads of mortar, the stones being pulled into place, the triumph of hierarchy to replaced by the agony of the fall. The heaving earth and the pyramids trapping the souls of people, dragging them under their crumbling cities. Here it was, all that I’d seen, captured in the confines of a painting. Perhaps there was only one real truth in an age of doubts, fears and disbelief. We are only as much as our imaginations will allow us to be. We are only as strong as our incentive. We are only as great as our faith.