Novena for Ix Chel.Posted: December 12, 2012
Yesterday I got a text from Gonz: “Want to go to a Maya ceremony tonight?” And there’s really only one right answer to that.
We picked up his friend Israel, who’s Yucatec Maya, and went to meet his wife Veronica, who’s Mopan Maya. We drove way up into the hills on unmarked roads, where there was no electricity, just black jungle and stars overhead. When we got to the gathering, we sat with a group of women in jewel-tone dresses who were sitting around a fire, making sweet yellow corn tortillas, pocked with a special kind of flower bud to make starburst shapes in the dough. They shared some with us, so hot we had to perch them on our knees. They tasted like cookies. Gonz got me a cup of hot cacao, which was just the raw extract with a little bit of pepper.
One of the women was named Akhushtal (pseudonym). Immediately she announced to me that she was from the south, San Antonio in Toledo, and that she had eleven children, all of them still living. Later, when we were in the shrine and eating pork stew with more fresh tortillas (the soft white kind), I asked her to tell me her children’s names, and she did, and that she’d delivered all of them at home with her husband, and that this was the first time she’d ever left Toledo, at age 48, and that she also had two grandchildren to take care of, and she needed this, she needed to get away to dance and sing and receive a blessing from the shaman, and sometimes her husband beat her, and at that point tears started running down her face and she kept having to wipe them away, but she prayed, and was thankful, and her back hurt. She goes to bed at 10pm each night and wakes up every morning at 2am. She said again: I needed this.
Later Akhushtal and the other women filed onto the dancing ground, wearing beautiful bright skirts in yellow, orange, red, gold, and purple. They each wore their hair in a braid with a ribbon daisy fastened at the nape. The musicians played a violin, a mandolin, and a harp that looked like it was made out of a bedpost. Another musician beat his fist on the body of the harp to keep time. Akhushtal drank astonishing amounts of rum, and became more and more rowdy, and vulgar, and bold. She asked me to dance with her. At first I resisted because I was afraid I’d “ruin” their dance as a gringa, but she insisted, so I kicked off my flip-flops and danced with them on the packed dirt, lifting my skirt, trying to mimic their gentle swaying half-turns.
As midnight neared, we entered the shrine again. Children had broken pimenta leaves and spread them all over the packed dirt floor. The goddess looked to me like Our Lady of Guadalupe, but is regarded by the Maya as Ix Chel, the goddess of midwifery, medicine, and healing. Akhushtal prayed on her knees and cried. I wanted to put my hand on her shoulder but didn’t know whether that gesture of comfort would be received as such, so I refrained.
As for me, I cried for any and every moment I’d ever spent of my life not wanting to live.