Folktale translated from Q'anjob'al Maya
language of Guatemala by Fernando Peñalosa.
It all began when the gods inscribed their
great signs on the stelae of time. It was on the day Thirteen Ajaw.
Jolomk'u, according to the stories of the grandparents, was the name
of a village situated on a tall ridge among a multitude of hills and
mountains. It was a colorful village, woven with the work of men and
women, with their lives, illusions and failures. Cold air rode freely
among the savage hills, coming face to face with the people of Jolomk'u.
In the shadow of the wings of Ajaw, the
manifestation of the great God, night fell. Soon the dark contours
of the high mountains appeared like giants in the night. It was
a night of a thousand centuries of history. It didn't seem to
be the same wind, the same night, the same contours. It seemed
that Ajaw was aging among the pines and that his hands had lost
the ability to sculpt life on indecipherable stelae. The moon,
like a great eye in the night, came sailing over dark waves of
sleepy clouds. It shone its great gaze at Jolomk'u. It tried to
pull aside the storm clouds to cast its light on the sleeping
landscape. The silhouetted mountain slopes were sprinkled with
gamboling lambs. The night closed the sheepfold and then opened
the door to stars flying toward the great heights like thousands
In the shifting lights of the evening, the
men of Jolomk'u found themselves alone. One by one they lit pitch
pine slivers in the huts, until the village was full of the spattering
of smoking firebrands that made the crickets cry. A chorus of
dogs barked, intoning their protests against the unannounced strange
rustling noises of the nawales, the local evil spirits, terrifying
the living, coming out to prowl over their realm. Along the roads
some girls out late with their clay water pots ran furtively toward
the spring for a fleeting encounter with their boyfriends hiding
in the thickets. A brook ran down quietly through the village,
spraying watercress, nightshade and water, mint and water into
the open mouths of the amorous girls' water pots. There, right
by the bend of the brook, before it hastened over the precipice
and ran through a small plain on the highest part of Jolomk'u,
Mekel had built his little wattle-and-daub house with a straw
roof and oak posts, from which hung armadillo shells.
In the stillness of that night, Mekel's wife, Lotaxh, struggled with
birth pangs. She was alone in the house, in a cold sweat, the drops of
pain like an approaching rainstorm. When Mekel arrived and put down his
load of firewood, he found his wife gripping one of the posts. He didn't
know if he felt happiness, pity or sorrow coursing through his veins.
What he was sure of was that his son would arrive this night, clinging
to the fingers of Ajaw.
"Go call Ewul. It's time," said
Lotaxh. Mekel put on his light sandals with their soles made of
tire treads, took his machete and set off with his capixay jacket
on his shoulder toward the nearby village where Ewul lived. He
ran like a deer, jumping over the underbrush, taking shortcuts,
racing over the paths, climbing the slopes until he arrived at
the waterfall, beyond the great rocks, almost to the edge of the
pine groves where the virgin forest began.
"Hello there," cried out Mekel
in front of the little straw-covered house. A dog barked lazily,
accustomed to the midwife's numerous daily visitors. "Yes" answered
a woman's voice from inside the hut.
"It's me, doña Ewul. I came
to get you because my wife's labor pains started around midday," he
"All right, just a moment. You should
have told me sooner. Malku," called the woman, "Get
me artemisia and pericón herbs, chicken fat and the bottle
of liquor. Hurry, because we may get there too late."
Mekel wiped his sweaty forehead
and neck with the sleeve of his capixay. Meanwhile
in Jolomk'u, Lotaxh, a young woman accustomed to
pain and work, with strong arms like a grinding stone,
grasped one of the pine stakes attached to one corner
of the pole bed. Her survival instincts had led her
to prepare an adequate place for her child to be
born in case she did not have the midwife's help.
She had stretched a straw mat over the earth and
some old clothes on the mat, forming a nest. On one
side the fire was like an eye slowly shutting an
ashen lid. Some chickens complained under the pole
bed because Lotaxh's moans kept them awake. In the
lulls between waves of pain, she pondered, "My
God, I hope that the fox's howl I heard this morning
isn't a bad omen." Unraveling like a skein of
thread in her mind were the advice and instructions
of the women she had spoken with regarding childbirth.
Outside the hut the cold was intense, but
Lotaxh was still sweating, sinking her fingernails into the trunk
and tearing off the bark. Three hours had passed and the laboring
woman's strength was waning, just like the dying flames. A candle
hanging from the sooty walls flickered, begging for more fuel,
before it was swallowed up by the invading darkness.
It seemed that everything was coming to
an end. Her pale face was like a tender avocado leaf, her breath
sometimes quickening and sometimes imperceptible. Her eyes saw
everything spinning around: the candle dying, the hearth spinning,
the barks always more distant. She was about to lose consciousness,
curled up on her straw mat on the hard soil of black clay, when
Mekel came in all out of breath and sweaty. The steam rose from
his body through the holes in his shirt like the vapors of the
sweat bath. A little while later, Ewul arrived accompanied by
a boy about ten years old, her helper in the preparation of medicines
"Leave me alone with her," she
said to Mekel.
The boy began to make a fire in a smaller
hut outside. He made some beverages from the herbs that he carried
in his bag, first using the chicken fat along with the bottle
Mekel put on his capixay to calm his nerves,
which he found difficult to control. He blew on the fire with
all his might to get some light. He didn't want to think in the
dark, because specters with unpleasant faces appeared out of the
darkness. He spoke to the boy in order to feel less alone, but
he did not answer. He hunkered down to listen to the night tiptoeing
like the brook that ran beside his house.
A long time went by. The moon had changed
position. The morning frost had fallen. A cry shattered the great
silence, crashing against Mekel's pricked-up ears. It shattered
the chicken's sleep under the pole beds, reverberated in the alert
ears of the nodding dogs, shook the thousand-year-old mountains,
and ran through the nerve centers of all of Jolomk'u.
A boy had been born.
Ewul was a woman about fifty years old,
hair still black, few signs of the passage of time on her face,
large flat feet with calluses caused by so much squatting on the
straw mats, firm hands used to holding the naked first-fruit of
the women of that region. She took the infant in her hands, cut
the umbilical cord, cleaned it as a matter of professional routine
and wrapped the child in diapers made of Mekel's old pants and
Lotaxh's güipiles. Then she wrapped the child in an old wool
capixay whose stiff hairs made the child cry when he felt them
against his delicate skin. He was a Maya, so he needed to become
accustomed to discomfort right from the start. The midwife continued
her work. She formed the head, giving it a round shape like a
lump of clay. She went over the curve of the nose, the fingers,
the arms, the legs and the placement of the fontanel. Then she
put a round red cap on him and drawing him close to her, she blew
mouth to mouth, three breaths that came from the roots of Ewul's
lungs, of all of the Mayas of all ages, drawn from the root of
time like a symbol of the life and the inheritance of the ancestors.
The child cried apprehensively, his body shaking in the cold-filled
night. The cry reverberated across the valleys, and through the
canyon gorges. It went snaking among the huts, and withdrew into
distant time, searching out its origins in his first ancestor's
initial cry of pain.
Ewul went out to spread the word that everything
had gone well. She asked for censing: coals and incense to send
smoke throughout the house. She smoked a corn-husk cigarette to
soothe her throat after work well done. She spoke hardly at all.
That same night on the headboard of the mother and her son were
hung the tools appropriate for a successful adult life: machete,
ax, hoe, carrying strap, rope. Everything that a man needed in
Jolomk'u. Lotaxh feel into a deep sleep. It was dawn and the others
had settled down to sleep where they could, warming the stretch
of cold earth under their ribs with the weight of their tiredness,
like a daily rehearsal for death and intimate union with the earth.
The bubbling of a clay pot on the hearthstones was the only thing
that could be heard when dawn came to the house. Almost everyone
slept. Mekel was the only one still working. The gnarled feet
of a dark-fleshed rooster poked out of the pot, which kept boiling
on the hearthstones.
Next to the fire he warmed his thoughts
like swaddling clothes to wrap his firstborn. With the first rays
of dawn some women arrived with small gifts of food. Those that
came empty-handed, because they found nothing to bring from their
empty bowls, washed clothes, went to the spring for water, swept
the house, washed dishes, cooked food. The men brought firewood.
Some brought a few pounds of corn or beans as a gesture of support.
A large firecracker had announced the birth,
spread by word of mouth way beyond the edges of the village. Family
members and neighbors arrived in haste, shaking the sleep off
their feet. The grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles,
godparents and friends all arrived. There was a party at Mekel's.
As the symbolic source of life and breath of many children of
that region, the midwife drew on her authority to announce in
official tones before all those present the news that hung like
a question mark over the people.
"We give thanks to God Our Father because
he has blessed this family with the birth of a male son without
complications," she said.
Smiles blossomed on those faces, teeth showing
like white corn, breaking out in the laughter of the collective
The eldest man of the family, relieved of
the numbness of the cramps in his joints, wearing a red kerchief
on his head, and holding a cane made from a twisted root, got
up to approach the hearth. He dug a hole under the ashes and without
saying a word, wrapped up something in kanac leaves, tied it up
with a bit of corn husk and then covered it by tossing the ashes
over it. It was the newborn's umbilical cord. Thirteen Ajaw had
left his realm. Now it was One Imox, the sacred day for improving
family life, neighborly relations and work. It is also a good
day to pray to God for health, life and work. That day there was
a family council to plan the celebration of the first festival
in honor of the newborn: ox q'in, which should take place the
third day after birth. It involved the selection of the child's
godparents and the selection of the logically predetermined name,
that of the paternal grandfather, as the parents well knew. Another
matter that would have to be taken care of was registering the
birth at the town hall.
This folktale reprinted from
Tales and Legends of the Q'anjob'al Maya, published
by Yax Te' Press, copyright 1995. This 178 page book
is illustrated and may be ordered from Yax Te' Foundation,
3520 Coolheights Drive, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275,
U. S. A. for $10.95 postpaid if you mention the FolkArt.com™.
(Foreign postage add $2.00).
Yax Te' Foundation
c/o Fernando Peñalosa
3520 Coolheights Drive
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275-6231
U. S. A.
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