Editor's Note: For the first time in the history of the San Mateo County Fair, a 300-page anthology has been published that includes more than 100 stories, poems and essays from writers who submitted award-winning work for the fair's literary contest. The idea was the brainchild of Bardi Rosman Koodrin, a San Bruno resident who runs the fair's literary contest, and the anthology, titled "Carry the Light," features work from many Peninsula writers.
In “The Royal Funeral,” 14-year-old Chanlajun Pex must perform the Maya burial ritual for her grandmother.
From p. 105, "The Royal Funeral"
Chanlajun Pex rushed up the steps to tell Chiich all the exciting news from the archaeology conference—her scholarship to the university, new friends and new clothes, shopping and riding a moving staircase—but the small house was empty. Grandma wasn’t here—she must be hiding.
Pex loved to play hide and seek. In the dry cornfield, she saw their wheelbarrow. Running closer, she yelled, “Kaxtik! Found you!”
Behind the wheelbarrow, Chiich lay on the ground. She didn’t move.
Pex knelt down and shook her shoulder. “Grandma, you have to get up.”
Chiich didn’t respond and her head bobbed backwards.
She snuggled her grandmother, put her head against her chest. No—it cannot be!
“Kimen!” Pex screamed. Dead! She rocked back and forth, holding Chiich’s body, sobbing. Blinded by tears, she heard a frightful wailing—the sounds came from her mouth. She gasped for breath, her pain too great to swallow. She lay down next to Chiich, hugging her, warming her.
But Chiich would never be warm again.
When Pex had no more tears, she reached over and closed her dear grandmother’s stony eyes so that crows couldn’t pluck them. She found a rug and rolled her grandmother into it and dragged the bundle to the house, a single room on a raised platform.
If only she had not gone to the conference—stayed here—maybe Chiich wouldn’t have left.
She moved Chiich’s body up one step at a time, pulling and pushing the rolled rug. The dead body, smaller than hers, felt heavy, so heavy that she began to sweat. On the floor of the dark house, she undressed the body by feel and wrapped it in the linen funeral shroud saved for this occasion. Following ancient custom, she put maize gruel and a precious jade bead into her grandmother’s mouth. She had to prepare the rituals of death.
Outside in the moonlight, Pex loaded her clothing and books into the wheelbarrow along with the cooking utensils and tools. Lifting the tortilla griddle brought new tears.
Not fair. She kicked the wheelbarrow, knocking it over and bruising her bare foot. She wanted to strike out, but there was no one to hit. They had lived alone, Chiich afraid all of her life that Spaniards would return to kill Maya royalty, to kill her. Their peasant neighbors on either side had died, leaving empty houses with decayed thatch roofs.
She’d burn the place down, all of it.
She collected last year’s dried cornstalks stored in an empty house to fashion a bed, poured all the fuel oil onto it, and moved Grandma to a flat spot atop the oily pile. Outside, she lit cornstalk bundles one by one in the cooking fire—nine torches—and pitched three torches onto each roof. When the dry and rotted thatch blazed up, she ran into the house and ignited the royal funeral pyre. She stood there until flames licked the linens of the dead and heat blasted her face and smoke burned her throat.
She backed out, sat cross-legged by her fire-circle, smeared her cheeks with ashes, and drew the Maya cross across her forehead. Then she picked up the obsidian bloodletting knife that had been in her family for five hundred years. A Maya priest must perform the sacred ritual for the dead. Following after Chiich, she was a priestess, the funeral her responsibility.
The obsidian blade reflected the flickering firelight. She pulled it across the pad of her thumb and cut herself, the blade so sharp she didn’t feel the wound until she squeezed it to sprinkle drops of royal blood over the fire. She swayed from side to side and hummed prayers to the maize god, prayers to the gods of the underworld, prayers to aid Chiich in her descent into Xibalba, land of the dead.
She burned Chiich’s house down, burned all three houses down, and smelled the stink of burning flesh, a reek like pork that had fallen into the fire, the odor partially masked when she gagged from the heavy sweet fragrance of copal smoke. Corn kernels popped and blew sparks into the dark night sky. The burning house sent its light flickering across her face, her face painted gray with ashes and her long black hair in disarray. She remained cross-legged by her fire-circle, a funeral vigil that must last until only smoking embers remained. Flames licked the night sky, the rabbit in the moon her only company, the bougainvillea a naked skeleton like her life without Chiich.
The next morning, Pex awoke in the dirt next to the dead fire. She stood outside her burned out home, her body stiff and dirty, and swatted mosquitoes buzzing her face. Dead. She felt dead inside. She had a scholarship to go to the university and to have a new life, but she wasn’t old enough.
Naked, she made herself some maize gruel, all she would eat this day of mourning. She took one sip of Chiich’s ceremonial balche, a strong alcoholic drink distilled from honey and tree bark. She coughed and choked, her eyes watering. She downed the rest quickly and heard Chiich say, “You will marry a Maya prince and be the powerful Xmenoob after me.”
A yellow-brown leaf, carried by a slight breeze, swirled into her lap. She picked it up by its long stem, held it against the light, and admired the veins of its intricate structure. She laid it carefully in the palm of her left hand, and while she marveled at its beauty, it fractured into tiny flakes. The bits of leaf floated to the ground along a beam of sunlight, as if her childhood disappeared before her eyes.
Focusing her mind onto her future life, she saw a Maya prince, his face hidden in shadow. However, priestess Pex as Xmenoob, a shaman with special talents and more powerful than a male priest, had no image at all. She must leave this place.
Excerpted from "Carry the Light" with the permission of Sand Hill Review Press, the publisher. The book is available for purchase for $12 on Amazon.com.
Marjorie Bicknell Johnson is a retired high school mathematics teacher who writes fiction for the joy of it. She has written two novels and many short stories, and she is the newsletter editor for California Writers Club, South Bay Branch.