Tongue in Cheek

How are you faring, and are you sharing the things you like to do?
Are you getting to the living the things you think are true?
Like to know what’s on your mind, like to understand your kind
Only a little lonely and a little afraid of you
— Tongue in Cheek, Anne Briggs

She’d never seen anyone like her before, her dark skin and hair underscored by her white blouse with brightly colored embroidery. She wore a bright wrap on her head that was like big blue ribbon. Her eyes were big with shimmering brown pupils in whites that matched her blouse. Her skirt hung almost to the floor and she wore sandals. Her face was gentile and though she seemed vulnerable and alone, there was what seemed like a slight smile on her face. She appeared in the library, ushered by a teacher to an empty table.

The girl sat down four tables away. The teacher walked back over to another teacher and she could hear them talking.

“She’s from Guatemala,” she said. “A Chorti, I think they said or something. Some kind of Indian. Poor thing. A refugee. Barely speaks English. I’m not sure why she’s here. We’re going to have to figure out something for her.”

“I don’t understand how they expect these kids to learn if they can barely speak the language,” the other teacher said. “We’re not anthropologists here. It’s hard enough with all the Mexicans.”

When she heard the word anthropologist she thought of her mother. Then she thought maybe she’d ask her mother about where the girl might be from. She’d know. She knew everything. The girl looked up and made eye contact. They held it for a moment and the dark girl with the bright eyes smiled. It felt weird. She suddenly felt warm and she looked down and picked up her books. She had to get to class.

She remembered what her dad told her about trouble. It finally found her, she thought. She wouldn’t ask her mom. She’d find out for herself. As the teacher droned on in her last class she kept thinking about the girl. And as school ended, she saw her in the hallway trying to get out the door, buffeted about by all the white kids swarming in the hallways wearing jeans and t-shirts. She slipped away, out the door looking lost and alone.

“Hi, mom, I’m going to the downtown library on the bus,” she said into the phone in the school’s office. Her mom started asking questions but she said, “OK, on the office phone, gotta go, bye,” and hung up. She made her way to the bus stop on Lomas. For once, she was grateful she didn’t have a cell phone so her mom wouldn’t be harassing her about what she was up to.

On the way, she opened her notebook and wrote down everything she knew about the girl, Guatemala, Indian, Chorti, refugee, and Maria. She noticed in the hallway that someone had made a name tag for her and put it on her blouse. Maria. She wrote it down once, then again, and then again. Maria.

When she got to the library she hit the stacks, pulling down everything she could find. She piled them around her and dug in. There were books about the ancient Maya and she began to understand the connection between the Chorti people and the ancient Mayans. What fascinated her first was their written language, the inscriptions so abundant all over the big stone temples and plazas. The book that drew her in the deepest was a story about how the writing was deciphered.

A bishop named de Landa had tried to stamp out the written language, burning all the ancient Mayan books he could find. The books held the Mayan’s science, literature, and their history. Some escaped and landed in a library in Germany. She poured over pictures of the Dresden Codex.

The Dresden Codex

A guy named Rafinesque had figured out the Mayan number system from the Dresden Codex. She took her notebook and wrote out the numbers in a table.

A Base 20 Number System

One thing the Franciscan de Landa did was have a scribe write down what he thought was the Mayan alphabet. Even from what she’d learned about New Mexico history so far in school, she’d developed a bitterness toward the Franciscans who trampled the pueblo Indians. Here they were again, burning books. But she learned his transcription would be key to cracking the code of the Mayan writing.

Landa Saved the Sounds

She started writing the history in her notebook.

“De Landa was an ass. What a bastard. But he managed to save some of the sounds that connect to part of the writing. When people tried to use these symbols like an alphabet, it made no sense. But this Russian guy called Yuri Knorozov started to make sense of how the language may have sounded. He said that the Mayan writing was logosyllabic, meaning it had a phonetic part (sounds) and symbols for words.”

She kept writing her notes, this time about the Russian woman that figured out the symbols were a language with meaning and stories.

“It was a woman named Tatiana Proskouriakoff that discovered that the writing told a story, that the big stelae were arranged in a way that meant they were about people’s lives, especially important people like kings and priests. This helped other people put together the other Russian guy’s sounds and the writing and they could start to decipher it all.”

She felt a sense of pride. She was enjoying herself. She was beating her parents at their own stupid, smarty pants game. This was her trouble. She thought about Maria and how she probably came from these Mayans. She looked at the pictures of people depicted in the cold, grey, stone statues and imagined them with skin the color of Maria’s. It made her angry what de Landa did. She wondered if Maria knew all this and if she was angry too. Then she paused and thought about her smiling at her. For some reason, she felt embarrassed and warm, so she stopped thinking about the smile.

She wanted to try the writing herself. She started with the word jaguar, balam in Mayan. There were five ways, she learned, to write it. First, as just a symbol, then with a symbol part and then a sound, and a little bit of each until the word would be written just using the syllables. Each word was read like a clock face, starting at the left then to the top, then down the other side.

A First Try

“Not bad,” she said to herself.

It was dark outside. She still had some time to find out more about the Mayans now, in her time. Why was Maria a refugee? She found a book by a woman named Rigoberta Menchu. She learned how their families land was taken by Spanish speaking people, how her father was given papers to sign which couldn’t read because he’d never learned. Then one passage struck her and reminded her of de Landa.

“They threw out our cooking utensils, our earthenware cooking pots. We don’t use those sort of…special utensils, we have our own earthenware pots. They hurled them into the

air, and, oh God! they hit the ground and broke into pieces. All our plates, cups, pots. They threw them out and they all broke. That was the vengeance of the landowner on the peasants because we wouldn’t give up our land.”

She could feel herself catching fire again with anger about what she was learning. The whole thing was unfair. As she kept reading, she kept finding more things she wanted to ask Maria. Was that her real name? Or did she have a Mayan name? Was it wrong to dig into all this? Would Maria think it was weird if she knew? She’d heard the name a million times, but now it was like a song in a musical. She even said her name out loud without meaning to, Maria.

She gathered up the books she wanted to check out and put them in a pile she could carry. It was late. There was one more small volume she hadn’t gotten to; it was brochure about pilgrimage to the Santuario in Chimayo. What was it doing in her pile? She searched through it looking for something relevant. Then she found it,

“Our Lord of Esquípulas, the Christo Negro (Black Christ), is associated with healing dirt in another small village at the foot of highlands. For four centuries, people have gone on pilgrimage to Esquípulas and eaten tierro del Santo (holy dirt) for its curative powers.

Yet that Mayan site is in south-eastern Guatemala, 2,000 miles from Chimayó.”

She stopped, startled. She read the words again. Then the next paragraph.

“The story is that the Mayans, having witnessed the destruction wrought by white Christians, were deeply distrustful of a white Christ. So, a new Christ was carved from balsam and orange wood in native skin tones. Over time, this cross blackened from the smoke of prayer candles, resulting in El Christo Negro.”

She was tired. She’d been at the library for hours. She felt like maybe she was seeing things. There was a Santuario with holy dirt in Guatamala like the one in Chimayo? She read on.

“The crucifix in El Santuario de Chimayó is clearly inspired by the Mayan Jesus, nailed to a

green and budding cross – a Tree of Life. But how did Our Lord find his way from Esquípulas to Chimayó?”

“Excuse me, honey,” a librarian whispered. “We’re closing. You need to get going if you’re going to check anything out.”

She gathered up her books and papers and found her way to the front desk.

She dozed off on the bus on the way home and had a dream.

She was in the jungle standing in the plaza of a Mayan city, but all the writing on the walls wasn’t gray like in the pictures. Each little glyph was multicolored and lit from behind. The whole plaza was like a rainbow. The glyphs looked like buttons. She pushed on one, and there was the sound of stone sliding on stone. She turned around and there was a chapel, illuminated from above, with a black Christ on a large cross. Below it, sitting in a chair was Maria and at her feet was a jaguar, curled up asleep.

“Hey,” the bus driver said. “Isn’t this your stop?”

“Oh god,” she said startled, “Yes, thanks for remembering.” She scrambled off the bus and walked across Lomas to Muriel. She knew she’d be in trouble. But she was excited to get in it when she got home.

When she walked in, she let the screen door slam.

“Dammit, honey,” her mother said from the couch. “You keep slamming that fucking door. And where have you been? Do you know what time it is?”

“I was at the library,” she said.

“Right,” her mother said taking off her glasses. “And you couldn’t call your mother who’s wondering how many pieces you’re being chopped into.”

“That’s funny,” she said. “Chopped up and deep fried, eaten by a cannibal tribe living in the arroyos by the mall.”

“It’s not funny,” she said. “Not at all. What were you doing?”

“Studying about the Mayans,” she said. “I’m tired, and I want to finish the dream I was having on the bus. Goodnight.”

She walked to her room and slammed the door. Her mother got up off the couch and followed.

“Honey,” she said outside the door. “What about the Mayans?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” a muffled voice answered. “Goodnight!” she said in a sing song voice.

Her mother walked into the kitchen, mumbling to herself.

“The Mayans? Is that a kind of marijuana or something? The Mayans?”