Nada sino los montes
y la luz entre brumas;
agua y cielo reposan,
pecho a pecho, infinitos.
– Lago – Octavio Paz
Never drive a car when you're dead.
– Tom Waits
Part 1: April, 1987
The god was a vagabond, a roustabout, a con man on the run. At least it had that reputation.
Briskind first heard about it from a guy named Genaro whose Potrero Heights garage was a halfway house for Mayan artifacts looking to make a fresh start in some currency speculator’s pre-Colombian art collection.
“It’s wild, man,” said Genaro. “You should see. Like a bad Vegas lounge act, Howdy Doody on acid.”
“A wooden dummy, huh? Like one of those Mexican folk saints?”
“Yeah but X-rated. Smokes and drinks. Havana cigars, rum, raw cane alcohol. The Indians sacrifice chickens and goats and shit.” Genaro grinned, showing yellow, uneven teeth. He hunched over a joint with a book of matches, and almost succeeded in lighting a strand of his greasy, graying hair. He knew better than to offer a toke to Briskind. “They tell it their problems, ask for advice. Then they smear themselves with blood, do the hoochie-koochie and trance out flat on their faces. It’s a real scene.”
Briskind stifled a yawn. “Beats writing to Dear Abby. Is it old?”
“What, the dummy? Don’t think so. Strictly post-white man. Not like this baby.” Genaro reached out to pat the sculpture resting on a plastic tarp next to a motorcycle: a man caught in the jaws of a carved stone jaguar, his arms outstretched, his mouth a frozen scream of agony, while another man watched. The sculpture weighed half a ton and was a thousand years old, give or take a century. “So where’s Sigfried and Roy’s new home?”
Briskind shook his head. “No questions.”
Some time during his long, uneasy association with contraband substances and the San Francisco building code, Genaro had installed a plexiglas porthole in the rear of the garage. Briskind wandered over to that porthole now, and peered out. Twilight. The streets that snaked up over the jagged hillsides were empty of traffic, the houses clustering alongside lit from within by the comforting blue flicker of multiple televisions tuned to variations on the same subliminal programming. Civilization’s embers, thought Briskind. Look out for flying insects.
He turned again to Genaro. “So where is this – what’s its name again? Moshyman?”
“Maximon. A town on Lake Atitlán. Off the beaten path as far as the treasures of the lost civilization go. No ruins there. And you won’t find him in any of the tourist guides. You’d have to make a special trip and ask around. But it’s worth it.”
“Oh, there are plenty of ruins there,” said Briskind. “But they’re all the human kind.”
Maximon. The name stuck in Briskind’s head.
The private market for folk art had begun to heat up. Not as lucrative as the museum trade perhaps, but given how rigorous enforcement of the various prohibitions against the import and export of so-called Cultural Property had become, considerably less risky. In a small Coptic village outside Karnak, Briskind had recently run across a crude statuette of Saint Botros. Dubious antiquity, but the villagers attributed all manner of small miracles to it, chief among them the ability to transform sour milk into fresh. A soap manufacturer from New Jersey forked over a sum in the high five figures, and told Briskind if there were more like it, he wanted first refusal. Briskind was shocked. He’d never realized the soap guy had such a hard on for dairy products.
Whatever superpower Maximon was hustling, someone would want to buy.
On his next trip to Guatemala, Briskind chartered a taxi and took off for Lake Atitlán. It was the Sunday before Easter. The streets of Antigua had been teeming with camera-toting vacationers and natives on their way to church, but the tourist village of Panajachel was oddly deserted.
Panajachel was an ugly place, like all towns along that frontier where civilizations recreate themselves. Cinderblock stalls, cheaply made souvenirs, vendors in whose eyes shone a desperate light akin to cannibalism. In a street café along the Calle Santander Briskind struck up a conversation with an American girl who – surprise, surprise – not only knew all about Maximon but was on her way to pay a visit.
“The shrine’s in Santiago,” she told him. “On the other side of the lake.”
“How far is that?”
“Depends. Past San Pablo and San Lucas one way. Past San Felipe del Laguna and San Pedro, the other.”
“So many saints!” he smiled. The girl was a looker.
“The villages pre-date the conquest but they were all renamed in honor of the twelve apostles.”
“To combat the essential godlessness of the Indian natives?”
“Something like that,” said the girl.
Godlessness had persisted nonetheless. It’s chief manifestation was Maximon who was smuggled from house to house, confradia to confradia, by Atitecos who would let their nails be pulled off by pliers rather than surrender a single one of his secrets. Clandestine, certainly – but Maximon was not unsociable, or even ungenerous so long as he got as good as he gave. He liked gifts of cigars best of all, cigars and fiery spirits that burned like the inner depths of the volcanoes ringing the lake. He also liked money. He wasn't particular about denomination. It was the pictures on the notes that he liked best, the stylized Mayan artifacts, the quetzals with their long feathered tails that looked so much like tree snakes when they alight in the upper reaches of the cloud forests. They reminded the Maximon of old times.
Briskind laughed. “You believe in that shit?”
The girl had the kind of golden skin that didn’t blush. Instead she shifted in her chair and stared defiantly at Briskind from behind a wing of honey-colored hair.
“Forget I said that,” Briskind told her. “Listen, I’m an anthropology professor from the University of New Mexico. I’m here to study syncretism, the fusion of Mayan myth with Catholic practice. This Maximon is just what I’m looking for. Mind if I go with you?”
The launcha ride to Santiago took over an hour. In the motionless waters of the lake, the jagged reflections of the volcanoes, purple-peaked and long dormant, were like steps leading down into bottomless gloom. Once they’d debarked, Briskind and the girl lingered by the dock watching the ragged children squatting by the shores of the lake, playing their old games with bits of plastic refuse and bottle caps. At first, the children pretended not to know what the gringos wanted. But presently a dark-eyed boy broke away from the others, held out his dirty palm. The girl handed him what she had in her pockets, a whistle, a few coins, a red rubber band, a leaky pen.
The child’s fist closed around the coins and a second later, the whistle.
“Carlos” he said, pointing to his chest. “I take you to Mam.”
“Mam?” said Briskind.
The girl toyed with a strand of hair. “Mam. St Simon. Judas. Maximon. He goes by many names.”
Clearly, she was regretting her decision to allow Briskind to accompany her. Too late.
The boy led them through a maze of narrow, garbage-strewn cobblestone streets bustling with people talking, smoking, drinking, and otherwise engaged in creating a kitchen midden for future generations of archeologists to deconstruct and debate. Eventually they came to a cement shack perched high on the crest of a hill. When the light was right, the structure would look just like a temple on the summit of a Mayan pyramid.
The atmosphere inside the shack was surprisingly informal. No vaulted ceilings or stained glass light shows but then, Briskind reflected, the Mayans, after all, were no longer proprietors of what you might call a world-class religion. The dirt floor was bare and there was little light. The special effects budget only covered a few strings of flashing Christmas lights in red and green. Rows of candles flickered in a rainbow assortment of colors. The room was crowded with Indians, Ladinos and gringos with Instamatics; the air was thick with smoke from incense and burning herbs.
In the midst of his worshippers, Maximon sat like the facilitator of a twelve-step meeting, entirely accessible, even natty in a European-style dark woolen suit and multiple black fedoras, puffing on a cigar, an assortment of colorful silken scarves around his neck, an ammo belt across his chest. He was wearing a papier-mache mask, a dime store Lothario with a dashing mustache and a disconcerting leer. Genaro was right: Charlie McCarthy on corn tortillas. Not a particularly interesting piece except for the head, which was carved from a wood that, Briskind didn’t recognize, and whose eyes beneath its mask had the peculiar effect of seeming to follow him around the room. That head might be worth something.
The stench was overwhelming. Human sweat, crushed flowers, aguardiente, burning candle-wax, cigar smoke. An Indian stood near the entrance accepting gifts on the god’s behalf. This was the shaman, Briskind supposed. When the Indian’s black eyes met his, he sensed intelligence and charisma. Spirit lawyers, the Mayans called them. The American girl handed the shaman two bottles of the local beer, El Gallo. All around him, people had fallen to their knees and were rocking back and forth, murmuring incantations in Spanish, English and a hissing, clicking language that Briskind didn’t recognize.
“Mayan dialects” said the girl. “K'iche' and Tzutuhil.”
Brother Simon, Brother Simon, you who have suffered so, do not allow your poor servant to feel the same pain. Do not let my child die. I would miss him in the cornfield.
Mam who sees beyond the many to the oneness, make this woman open her legs to me many times each night.
Uncle Judas who knows that promises are worth less than silver, give me the spite I need so that I may grind my neighbor into dust.
Long bus ride tomorrow, dude. Never going to make it if I have to shit every fifteen minutes. Could you clear this thing up?
Suddenly the private prayers broke up off. The room seemed to hold its breath. Briskind looked around.
A woman stood near the door.
By rights Sundays belonged to a different God, the Catholic God of love who lived in the sixteenth century basilica next to the small, ugly Parque Central they’d passed on their walk up the hill. This gringa looked dressed for that God, a black lace dress and a matching pillbox hat with a veil half-covering her eyes. She was beautiful in a monkeyish way, Briskind thought, small, dark-haired with a heart-shaped face and very wide apart eyes.
Briskind looked closer. She was crying.
The American girl stiffened and looked away.
The gringa, too, had brought the Maximon gifts, gifts more extravagant than any it had yet received. Cigars rolled from fragrant Cuban leaf, a gold cigarette box, a dozen cala lilies, a box of panderia sweets.
But the spirit lawyer wouldn’t take them. He only shook his head. "The Maximon will not hear your petition." His English was surprisingly elegant, thought Briskind. No doubt the product of a mission school.
The woman tried to smile. "You're mistaken, Antonio. Try again."
"I can try a thousand times," said the shaman, "and every time the answer will be the same. The Maximon thinks you over-reach yourself.”
“You’re very arrogant,” said the woman. She still worked the smile but in her eyes, tears had given way to anger. “Some day, that will get you into trouble.”
“Some day I’ll die. And so will you. Arrogance is imagining otherwise.”
The woman tried to push her way towards the wooden icon. Two Indian men with bare chests blocked her.
The spirit lawyer’s black eyes twinkled with cheerful malice. “You are powerless here, bruja.”
“You don’t know much about power if you think that,” said the woman. Her high-pitched voice had a childish lilt, but there was a cold efficiency to its inflections. “Let me go to him. I’ll make him speak to me.”
"More threats, bruja?”
“A threat?” The woman laughed. “Oh, no. A promise.”
The shaman shook his head. “Listen to me, woman. The calendar is driven by light and darkness both. Two elements forever in balance, words in the same language. Yet, you seek to separate them, to sway in darkness what you cannot persuade with light. A dangerous business. You have set forces into motion for which you will be sorry.”
The woman gathered her spurned offerings into a leather satchel. “You’re the one who’ll be sorry, Antonio.”
"Once the world was filled with mysteries," the shaman said. "The Maximon is one of the few mysteries that remains, and even he is not a very big mystery compared to those who came before him. Every week you come, and every week his answer is the same. Why do you keep coming? There are easier ways to get power."
The woman looked at him contemptuously. "I’ll keep coming until I get what I want. And I will get it." She turned and pushed her way through the crowd of petitioners.
Jesus, Briskind thought. Could the dialogue get any cornier?
On impulse, he called out to the woman. “Nice hat.”
The woman scanned the crowd till she found his face. “Have we met?”
“No, but we’re just about to,” Briskind grinned. He pulled the honey-haired girl by the arm till the three were standing face to face. “Nice set-up. I’d like to own the Vegas franchise. A Maximon shrine next to every slot machine. Progressive jackpots on demand. Pay no attention to the eye in the sky, folks. But, see, that’s the problem with the eye in the sky – it lacks vision.
“Now, I know a guy in Erie, Pennsylvania, he sees Benjamin Franklin on a hundred dollar bill. He’s got this really first-rate private collection of folk art. But it has some gaps.”
The woman paused for an instant, then flashed him a dazzling smile. “Not interested.”
“No?” said Briskind. “Pity. Maybe you have friends.”
“I thought you were an anthropology professor,” said the American girl.
“Anthropology is a social science with broad applications,” said Briskind.
The dark-haired woman smiled harder. “You look like a man searching for a bad end. A bullet in the head, maybe.”
The American girl touched Briskind’s arm nervously. “Let’s go.”
“Thanks, but I have my golden years all planned out,” said Briskind. “Did you know there’s no state income tax in Nevada? For individuals or corporations. Hey, I’m on your side here. You don’t want to get your gloves dirty? Maybe there’s someone you’d like to introduce me to.”
“Or a machete through the gut,” said the woman dreamily. “Of course, there’s no rule that says you have to die. Maybe you live forever.”
“Let’s not get personal,” said Briskind.
“Fine. You stay. I’ll leave,” said the girl.
“But you didn’t get what you came for yet,” said the woman, laughing.
The shaman’s claw-like hand fell on the girl’s shoulder.
Behind its cardboard mask, the Maximon's eyes seemed to flicker and spark.
Maybe the shaman wasn’t so smart after all because in that moment Briskind read the dark-haired woman’s face very clearly. It wasn’t power that the woman was after. It had never been power that the woman was after.
It had always been love.