They were halfway back to the Avenue of the Dead when she suddenly put her arm out to stop him…”
by j.b. hogan
It was Mike Werth’s second trip to Teotihuacan so he acted as Jackie’s guide for the day. They left their language school group from Cuernavaca as soon as they got off the excursion bus and had made a quick stop at the visitor’s center. From there they walked into the wide Avenue of the Dead. Looking down the Avenue they saw on the right the massive Pyramid of the Sun and then further on, at the far, north end of the archaeological zone, the Pyramid of the Moon.
Saving the two great pyramids for later exploration, they crossed the Avenue of the Dead and climbed over a set of steps that led to a wide field called the Ciudadela. On their left, as they walked eastwardly, was a series of low, symmetrically placed stone pyramid platforms. Beyond the platforms, on their right as they walked, were the newer and older temples of Queztalcoatl. Barely ten yards beyond the steps into the Ciudadela, the first of the never ending stream of souvenir and trinket vendors approached them.
“Obsidiana, cuartzo,” a short, stocky vendor described the black rock and clear glass objects he held up for their appraisal. “Barato, cheap. Good deal.”
“No, gracias, no,” Werth said firmly.
He put his arm lightly on Jackie’s waist to guide her further to the right toward the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. As they walked, vendors drifting by, he watched her drink in the physical environment of the Ciudadela.
All the while, he kept up a running monologue, a mixture of personal and picture book information while she smiled happily, maybe hearing him, maybe too interested in the reality of the ruins to concentrate on a verbal summary of their history.
“This part of the Temple of Quezatlcoatl,” he pointed at the large pyramid at the back, right center of the Ciudadela, “was built on top of an older one. They discovered the original when they were restoring this outer pyramid. You can see the first one around the other side, behind here.”
She put her arm through his. He took a deep breath and led them past the first pyramid, which they decided not to climb so they could go straight on to the old one.
“Oh, my gosh,” she said as soon as the sculpture and architecture of the interior temple could be seen from the walkway that ran between the backside of the newer pyramid and the front of the old. “This is amazing.”
She hurried on ahead, stopping directly in front of the partially restored steps that had led in the vastly distant past to the top of the old pyramid where strange rituals had been performed. Rituals only incompletely remembered through archaeological and historical speculation and in the blood running in the veins of Mexico’s remaining indigenous population.
“What are these heads?” She indicated an alternating pattern of sculpted figures running horizontally with each level of steps and vertically at the sides of the steps themselves.
“The ones with the circle eyes,” he recited, “are Tlaloc, the water or rain god. The snake heads are Quetzalcoatl. He’s the number one god. The plumed serpent. La serpienta enplumada.”
“La serpienta enplumada,” she repeated. “What a beautiful name.”
“You should hear a native say it,” he told her. “I can’t do it justice. It’s a very beautiful name.”
They admired the old temple for several minutes more, she moving back and forth on the walkway to view different angles of the ancient ruin. He watched her with his own admiration.
She wore dark brown shorts that came almost to her knees, yet showed her well-exercised, shapely and nearly as dark legs. She worked hard to keep herself looking young and it worked. Above the brown shorts she wore a white cotton, short-sleeved peasant blouse with a red and green butterfly embroidered above her right breast. Her medium-length, wavy brown hair hung to her shoulders and she wore dark sunglasses that hid her intelligent eyes.
“You wanna go on to the Pyramid of the Sun?” he asked when she seemed to have absorbed all that the temple had to offer.
She followed him down the walkway and then up and out onto the other side of the Ciudadela with its row of pyramid platforms facing the similar row directly across the large open field beyond the temple. They were halfway back to the Avenue of the Dead when she suddenly put her arm out to stop him.
“What?” He looked around the area.
“Can’t you hear it?”
He listened intently, for what he didn’t know. He heard the cries of vendors, the conversations of tourists, the wind moving through the grass.
“There,” she said, “hear the wind?”
“It’s there. I feel it. I feel them. I see their history, the sacrifices, the priests, the people.”
He concentrated to see and hear what she did.
“On the winds of time.” She closed her eyes. “They’re still alive. Their spirits are still here.”
He tried to feel the truth of her insight. He imagined the Ciudadela at its peak, its pyramids brightly painted, its spaces filled with flamboyantly dressed warriors, statesmen, priests, kings.
“What a terrible, beautiful place this has been.”
She took his hand unbidden. They stood still for a few moments, eyes closed, listening to the wind, listening to the past. Finally, the sharp cry of a nearby vendor broke the spell. They opened their eyes and looked at each other.
“Thank you for taking me here.” She smiled at him, squeezed his hand.
At the Pyramid of the Sun they stopped for several minutes awed by its massiveness and height. He slowly scanned it from base to top.
“I already climbed it before,” he said in a tone so clearly indicating his lack of desire to accomplish the feat again that she broke up laughing.
“Well, I’m sure not going to,” she said.
“Going up’s okay, sort of. It’s the coming down that’s weird. Those steps look really narrow from up there when you’re going back down.”
“Too high up for me,” she admitted. “Good exercise, but heights bother me.”
“Let’s go on to the Pyramid of the Moon,” she suggested, letting him off the hook he had been trying to impale himself on.
She laughed and took his arm.
“This is a little more like it,” he said when they had reached the symmetrical plaza fronting the Pyramid of the Moon.
“What went on in this area?”
“Supposedly,” he swept his left arm around to encompass the series of low side by side and facing platform-like pyramids in the plaza, “this was like a military and maybe religious parade ground, if you will. You can imagine the chiefs and priests of all the local tribes up on these flat-surfaced pyramids with all their warriors in formation at the bases.”
“It must have been spectacular.”
“And really colorful, too, if the historians are right,” he added. “It would have really been something to see. As long as you weren’t being sacrificed, that is.”
“Yeah, as long as.”
“Well, I’m going to go up the Moon, ‘cause I didn’t do it the last time,” he announced. “Will you hold my backpack?”
“Sure.” She took the pack from him. “Go ahead. I’ll watch you.”
She stayed in the center of the plaza and watched him traverse the Pyramid of the Moon. At the first level of the pyramid he stopped, looked for her and finding her, waved. She waved back.
From the second level of the pyramid he again waved. She indicated for him to come down. He signaled okay and after catching his breath began a careful descent.
“Coming down those steps,” he said, back down on the plaza, “is even worse than the Pyramid of the Sun. It looks like you’re going straight down and the steps are really tall.”
“Let’s get something to eat and drink.” She again took his arm. “And I want to shop a little before we have to take the bus back.”
“All right, sounds good to me. How about a picture first?”
“Okay.” She handed him her camera. “You take me and then I’ll take you.”
After, they had sodas and sandwiches at a little tienda at the head of a series of souvenir shops just outside the archaeological zone. They then spent a good hour or more going from shop to shop, her pricing, selecting, rejecting, sometimes buying up and down the souvenir row, him standing to one side, watching, laughing, admiring, frequently groaning as she purchased this or that mass produced “artifact.”
At the end of the day, they rejoined the school excursion and climbed on board the big comfortable bus for the ride back to Cuernavaca. They sat together near the front, holding hands the entire way home, she resting her head on his shoulder. A couple of times the bus driver checked them out in the rear view mirror and when Werth saw it he smiled and gave the driver the high sign. The driver smiled back knowingly and nodded.
When they got back to Cuernavaca it was nearly dark and the students climbed off the bus slowly, stiffly, quietly happy from their day at the great ruins. Werth walked with Jackie past the downtown cathedral where the bus had dropped them and down to the zocalo, the pretty, park-like town square. They had a slow beer together at their favorite outdoor restaurant and then caught a taxi that first dropped her off at the house where she was staying.
“You’re a wonderful guide,” she told him as she got out of the taxi. He slid over to her side to say goodbye.
“See you in the morning?”
“In the morning.”
She leaned back into the cab to kiss him on the cheek. He tried to kiss her on the lips but she turned so that he could only kiss her cheek as well. He sighed and she moved back to close the door.
The taxi driver looked back at him for instructions. He indicated for the driver to go on and gave directions to where he was staying with another family associated with the school. By the time they had turned around down the street, she had disappeared into the house. Werth stared at the house until the cab reached the corner, turned left, and sped on in the direction of his own neighborhood.
On the following Friday, their classes ended at the language institute. She went back to the States to continue preparing for law school. Knowing he would never see her again, Werth took a flight to the Yucatan where he drank too much, got badly sunburned, and spent solitary evenings writing poems to her which no one ever saw.
(illustration via British Library )