El Castillo, the magnificent pyramid in the middle of Chichén Itzá’s ruins, loomed before Javier as he walked out on the field surrounding it.  He wore a backpack over his damp shirt, a camera bag around his waist.  The patches of clouds that had provided cover from the blazing sun had drifted on, making the sweltering heat of the Yucatan more unbearable in their absence. 

Javier stood amongst a throng of tourists clad in bikinis, tank tops, and baggy shortsThey wore designer sunglasses over their bright red faces, their arms and chests burnt from the sun.  Most of them wore sandals that still carried flecks of sand from the beaches they had just traveled from.  He was dressed similarly—shoes instead of flip-flops—but he was the only one who stood by himself.  They grinned as they wandered around, filling the air with chortles and a succession of beeps and clicks from their digital cameras.  Javier felt so alone among them, especially when he saw couples posing together with El Castillo in the background.

The pyramid was just as large and imposing as he and Patricia had imagined it.  When he stared at the throne room at its top, a cool zephyr blowing over the field, he decided she would have loved it.  He could imagine her standing beside his lean frame, gawking at it without saying a word, her silence a form of reverence.  My ancestors built this, she might have thought.  He could imagine her circling the pyramid, squinting at it, searching for the best angle before taking out her camera to snap a picture.  His sorrow momentarily lifted as he imagined her—as if she was still alive.  Then he wondered what Chichén Itzá must have been like during construction of the pyramid.  The Mayans had no wheel and the material used to build the colossal structure came from limestone pits hundreds of meters away, past the jungle thicket that enveloped the ruins.  He imagined the sweat that must have poured like tiny rivers over this ground.  The lives and vitality lost—all expended to create this one object.

Brushing sweat from his eyebrows, Javier walked toward the pyramid.  A few tourists milled around its base since climbing it was no longer permitted.  Javier marched on with his head bent, sweat running down his forehead and drenching his back.  He was determined to get as close to it as he could.  He had come far to be here.

When he approached the foot of the pyramid, Javier heard some approaching footsteps.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a man wearing a worn T-shirt, pants, and a baseball cap. 

“Amigo.  Amigo.  Friend.  Do you like?  Fifty pesos,” the man said, holding a wooden replica of El Castillo in his hands.  Javier frowned and waved the man off without looking at him.

He unzipped the bag around his waist and took out his camera.  It was Patricia’s camera—a Canon SLR film camera she had owned before they met, nine years earlier.  The day before his flight to the Yucatan, he almost decided to bring his digital camera because he was afraid he would become sad whenever he’d look at her camera and remember she was gone.  You have to start over—start a new life without her, he told himself in what used to be their bedroom.  When he awoke the next morning, he packed her camera.  In a way, she would be with him when he would peer through the camera she had looked through for so many years.  Her eyes could live through his on this trip to the Yucatan, one they had planned to take.

Javier lifted his head to look up at El Castillo.  The sun shined intensely above its zenith.  He squinted and lowered his gaze to the plateaus that divided the pyramid.  He raised her camera and looked through the viewfinder only to realize that he had no interest in taking any pictures of it.  It meant nothing without her, without her to share it with.

* * * * * * *

Seven months before, during a heavy downpour, Javier drove his car up to their driveway.  He left it there since Patricia always parked hers in their garage.  One of Patricia’s college friends, Mira, was in town, which assuredly meant that she was going to cook up something good for their guest.  Her exquisite chicken curry to show off her ethnic cooking skills, he wondered, or would it be the creamy peanut butter chicken that his mother had taught them to make.  He licked his lips from anticipation as he stuffed his CDs in his business bag.  Once he zipped it shut, he flung the car door open and stepped out into the rain, holding the bag above his head.  Cold droplets of rain fell over his collar sending a chill down his neck and bringing a radiant smile over his youthful face as he bounded into their house, his red tie flapping by his ear.

When he stepped into their home, he was surprised to find that Patricia was not there.  He called out to her as he walked to their bedroom, but heard no response.  Her shoes were not left by their bedside as they usually were after a tiresome day with her kindergarten class.  Javier checked his cell phone for any missed calls but there were none.  Confounded, he walked to the garage.  Her car was not there.  Nor any wet tire tracks.  She must have gone to the market for some last second groceries, he thought. 

He meandered back into the kitchen and pulled out his cell phone again as he considered calling her.  He put it away and walked back to his bedroom.  His phone rang in the hallway where a portrait of them—smiling in front of a waterfall, a bright purple flower pinned over Patricia’s ear—hung, facing the front door.  It was an unidentified caller.


“Is this Mr. Javier—Velasco?” the man said, mispronouncing Javier’s last name.

Javier tensed up, his back tightening.  The man’s tone sounded grave.

“It is.”

“Mr. Velasco.  I’m calling from the emergency room at Washington Hospital.  I’m afraid to inform you that your wife, Patricia Velasco-Arroyo, has been in a vehicular accident.”

“Oh my god, is she all right?  What happened?” Javier blurted, stepping into their living room.

“They can share those details with you at the hospital.”

“Is she all right?  Can you just tell me that?”

The man paused.

“Sir, you need to come to the ER.”

Javier shut his phone, held it limply by his side.  He looked around the living room, the house they had put together. 

“Oh my god, this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening,” Javier mumbled to himself before he fell onto his knees sobbing.  He let the phone slip from his grasp as he put his hands on the hardwood floor, which they had varnished two months before.  His arms and body trembled as he continued to mumble the same words between sobs, his forehead pressed against the floor.  He curled on the ground and cried and cried until a pool of tears and drivel formed around his mouth. 

* * * * * * *

Javier’s eyes moved from side to side, up and down, staring at El Castillo—the Temple of Kukulcán, the plumed serpent.  It was a day before the autumnal equinox.  He had planned his trip to visit Chichén Itzá at this time.  That’s how he and Patricia would have planned it.  The Mayans had constructed the pyramid to reflect, in its total amount of steps, the 365 days of their solar calendar: 91 total steps, times four staircases, plus the top platform counting as an additional step.  They built it to cast a serpent-like shadow along one of the staircases to coincide with the exact date of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.  Javier was trying to make out this serpentine shadow through the blinding sunlight. 

When he walked away, Javier remembered the first time he had seen Patricia’s photographs of Mayan ruins.  It was the first domino of events that had brought him here.  He was at her apartment, back when they were dating, long before they married.  Her bedroom lamp filled the room with soft golden light.  Cal Tjader’s warm vibraphones and a jazzy beat played from her boombox.  They were sitting on her bed, their backs against the wall, while she showed him her photo albums.  There were pictures of lush beaches in Costa Rica, shots of Harlem at night, photos of her family from Guatemala, and stunning black and white pictures of the ruins in Tikal.  His eyes bloomed with awe as he studied the compositions, the beauty of the ruins. 

“These are amazing,” he remembered whispering to her before he looked into her eyes, the ones that had captured those images.  Her hand rested on his leg as she flipped a page. 

“This is one of the small ball courts in Tikal.  They think it was mostly used for practice, or by children and women.  Can you imagine playing there, with that beautiful temple in the background?” Patricia said, the temple looming over the narrow ball court like a skyscraper.

“I’m sure I would’ve sweated my butt off in that heat!”

Patricia gave a laugh as she turned the page. 

“We should take a trip to the Yucatan someday.  To see all the Mayan ruins there,” Javier said with a slight grin.  Inside, he felt nervous that she might brush off this suggestion—too strong of a commitment for their blossoming relationship.  But to his delight, she smiled, then leaned over to kiss him.  She stared back at him, her brown pupils radiant.  He could still remember how her eyes seemed to twinkle in that moment—how happy she was. 

For Javier, that night was a definitive moment in their relationship.  They had been dating

for less than a year, but that evening was the first time he dared to tell her that he dreamt of a future with her.  From then on, he would daydream, from time to time, of taking this trip with her.

Years passed.  They married, took other trips together but vowed to visit the ruins of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Palenque someday.  They were content to let this trip pass, not feeling the need to make it happen.  It was only a matter of time before it would transpire because they believed they would be together until they died.

A few months after Patricia died, Javier attended a performance by the indigenous dance group she was once a part of.  He stood to the side of the school gymnasium, watching her former group dance around their pot-bellied elder as he banged on the huehuetl—an upright tubular drum—with two sticks.  Patricia was fiercely proud of her Mayan-Aztec roots.  She dressed in her ancestor’s traditional regalia for those dances: sandals, ayoyotes (ankle shakers), a skirt, a huipil (a colorful blouse), and a feathered headdress.  He often drove her to the school where they practiced so he could watch them dance.  Javier would become filled with pride when he watched her hop and twirl and chant with her group.  A smile would come over him as the gymnasium echoed with their chanting, resounding drumbeats, and rattling ayoyotes that Cortés was unable to silence.

As he watched her Aztec dance group, Javier became obsessed with the trip to Mexico they never made.  That is when his mind became resolute on making the trip alone.  It was then that he became certain that there was something—an epiphany, a moment of transcendence, of peace, or resolution—that awaited him at the ruins of Chichén Itzá.          

* * * * * * *

Javier walked away from the pyramid, passing a sunburnt couple.  A camera dangled from the woman’s willowy, pink neck as she strode in front of her partner.  The man trudged behind, reading his guidebook, explaining to her how the pyramid was built to reflect the Mayan calendar.  A wave of emptiness seized Javier as he saw himself in this man’s position.  He imagined Patricia, camera in hand, crouching beside the pyramid to snap a picture of the gigantic serpent head at the bottom of the staircase. 

He continued on to the dusty path that led to el cenote sagrado—the huge sinkhole where the Mayans tossed sacrificial offerings to their gods.  His pace was steady as he tried to hold his head high beneath the sun that beat down on him.  Along the path were rows of indigenous vendors, gathered beneath rows of ceiba and palm trees.  They placed wooden statues of Mayan soldiers, engravings of serpents, and plates with festive village scenes on top of colorful blankets.  Others sold earrings, jade necklaces, or rings that glimmered in the sunlight.  When he came near them, their conversations meshed into an indistinguishable, droning murmur.  He averted his eyes from the vendors, their faces darkened from the sun.  He prayed that none of them would approach him.  He wished no one was around.  This walk to the sacred cenote—every single step—was supposed to have been taken with Patricia.  Having to talk to anyone about anything would have been too overwhelming for him at that moment.  The only thing he could think was don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.

* * * * * * *

Right after the accident, Javier considered every factor that could have contributed to it.  It was his vain and worthless attempt to see if it could have been avoided, had one miniscule variable changed.  The key fact was that it had rained that day.  Patricia’s car had hydroplaned on the slick concrete when she was driving on a curving road—one she drove every day to work.  She lost control of the car and slammed it right into a light pole—all of its force concentrated on its front.  Her neck, the one he had showered with kisses, the one that had a ticklish spot at its base that he loved to kiss while they lay together in bed, snapped.

The police report estimated that she was traveling 38 miles per hour, a mere three miles over the speed limit.  Mira’s arrival and their dinner plans had not rushed her, he deduced.  According to

eyewitnesses, no one had cut her off or done anything to force her to jerk the steering wheel. 

A few days after the accident, Javier drove to the spot where she was last alive.  He parked his car to the side of the road.  The gray sky above felt like it was meant to oppress him.  His heart began to beat faster as he waited at the sidewalk for all the cars to pass.  Once it was clear, he scurried onto the street to the spot where her car had spun out of control.  He inspected the ground for any oil, any slick substance, anything that could begin to explain how and why this had happened.  His eyes frantically combed over the concrete for anything out of the ordinary, but he found nothing.  Then an oncoming diesel startled him with a piercing honk.  It took Javier a second before he decided to step out of its way.  The truck honked again, this time longer, with blaring emotion.  As he walked back to his car, the trucker leaning out the window shouting, “What are you fuckin’ doin’?  Sleepwalking!”  Javier realized he could care less if the truck had run him over. 

The tires on Patricia’s car were practically brand new, which he verified with an invoice she had kept.  The brakes were good too, and she had been driving that Toyota Camry for years without incident.  Javier simply could not understand why this had happened—why it seemed as if, no matter what, it was her time.  Their end.

At night he would often shut his eyes and turn from side to side, his sleep fleeting, evasive.  He had thought about the accident so much that he had arrived to the point where he wished it was because of someone’s undeniable negligence.  He wished it could have been some drunk driver who hit her car, causing it to spin out of control and crumple into the pole.  He wished it was a defective front strut that the manufacturer knew could give out at any moment.  He wanted it to be something as simple as that so he could have something to direct all his anger and anguish toward.  But it wasn’t, and he was left in the deafening silence of their house with one question and no answer.  

* * * * * * *

After he calmed himself by sitting on a rock and drinking some water, Javier rose and wiped off the dust from his shorts.  He swung his backpack onto his damp shirt and felt a rush of coldness run down his back.  He stared ahead at the droves of tourists walking down the long path to the cenote.  The sun was merciless, his mouth parched, head light from fatigue. 

Javier kept to the middle to pass the tourists who slowed down to glance at the novelties the vendors sold.  The path was not smooth or even, teeming with dips and jutting rocks.  The sunlight on the dusty trail reflected back as blinding white.  Javier trudged along for what seemed a minute eternity until he reached el cenote.

Before him, like a crescent moon, was a crowd of people gathered around its perimeter.  The huge sinkhole was wider than a hockey rink.  Javier took out his bottle of water and swallowed the last gulp as he made his way to its edge.  The cenote was not so deep—about a three-story fall if one were to fall in the pool.  Its water was a dense, mysterious green.  He stared and stared, searching for any movement, any sign of life, bubbling beneath the surface.  After he saw none, he turned his attention to the sinkhole’s craggily limestone walls.  They were steep and high when Javier imagined it from the vantage of a person wading in its water.  With no mounting gear, he could not imagine how someone could climb out of the murky pool. 

When Javier walked away, he heard a man shouting, “hey, hey” at someone by the cenote.  “You.  Don’t throw anything, please,” the middle-aged man said in a thick Spanish accent to a young man who had apparently thrown a rock into the water.  Javier watched as the young man spoke to his friend in order to avoid the man’s stare. 

Javier turned to look at the water’s surface.  He could see the ripples from the splash the rock had made as they parted out toward the limestone walls in perfect circles—the perfect emblems of eternity.  The sight was mesmerizing, especially when he thought of the gold necklaces, jade idols, animals, and people the Mayans had thrown into the pool as sacrifices for their rain god, centuries before.  They believed cenotes were portals to the afterworld.  Javier became further entranced when he stared into the green, opaque water and swore he saw some bubbles surface.

He glanced over at the gift shop nearby.  A few tourists milled about a revolving stand that held postcards just to be underneath the shop’s cooling fans.  Others stood nearby, waiting for the bathroom.  Javier waited his turn, urinating in the cramped room before stepping over to the sink.  He took off the gold ring from the pinky finger on his right hand and placed it to the side.  Patricia had given it to him many years before on a trip they took to Spain.  His wedding ring was still on his left hand since he never removed it after her death.  The mere thought of losing it would twist a knot in his stomach.  He sighed as he splashed some tepid water over his sweaty, salty face.

Once he stepped out of the shop, Javier realized he had left his ring in the bathroom.  He could feel something physically missing from his hand.  He scurried back to the bathroom, knocked on the door, and heard no response.

Javier gasped when he opened the door to find an enormous, majestic Indian headdress sitting on top of the toilet.  The headdress was facing him.  It was brilliantly decorated with long, striped pointy feathers in shades of red, yellow, green and turquoise.  Each feather was three-feet long—about half the size of his body.  They looked especially large in the small bathroom.  Javier stepped closer, his mouth agape.  At the base of the headdress was a large, beautiful necklace made of smooth jade.  The pieces were finely carved and resembled the fangs of a jaguar.  On the floor beside the toilet was the rest of the formal regalia: sandals, ayoyotes, gold arm bands, and a decorated taparrabo—a loincloth to wrap around his waist. 

Javier lifted an ankle shaker and shook it.  It rattled loudly, echoing off the bathroom walls.  He shook it again, this time longer as he tried to make sense of it all.  He had no idea how all this attire had suddenly manifested.  He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and massaged his eyelids before he exhaled.  When he opened them again, the headdress and regalia was still there.  He was not hallucinating. 

When Javier ran a finger along a quetzal feather, he understood what he must do. 

He put the headdress on.  It fit snugly, the tops of the feathers bending along the ceiling.  He sat on the toilet to remove his shoes, socks, and shorts, tossing them in a corner with his backpack.  Javier slipped his feet into the sandals and tied their ropes around them, just like Patricia had many times before.  Then he stood and wrapped the belt tight around his waist before he pulled the bracelets and shakers over his wrists and ankles.  He grabbed his ring by the sink and slid it over the untanned line on his pinky finger.  He lifted his foot and gave a few kicks to hear the ayoyotes rattle.  Javier hung his head, took a profound breath, and felt a weight within him finally, finally lift.

The people gathered at the cenote that afternoon will likely never forget that day.  Somewhere in their respective memories, like a dormant seed ready to flourish, is the sound of those rattling ayoyotes—that flurry of footsteps.  For some, any sound that resembles that rattle can conjure the vision of a man running toward the cenote before flying off its edge, his arms outstretched, feathers from his headdress fluttering in the air as his body, a blur of golden brown, dived headfirst into the murky pool.  A hush came over the crowd as they scampered to the mouth of the cenote to peer down into its water.  His splash created perfect circular ripples, one after another, spreading out to the limestone walls before dissipating.  The crowd stood and waited, whispering to each other.  Did you see him?  Who was that?  Are you sure it was a man?  Its probably one of the locals, pulling some stunt to get money from us.  He’ll come back up in a minute, after he’s given us all a scare.

Feathers from his headdress floated on the cenote’s green water, but nothing ever surfaced.

Bio:  Juan Alvarado Valdivia

Juan Alvarado Valdivia is a Peruvian-American writer born in Guadalajara, Mexico and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He received his MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California.  His fiction and nonfiction have been published in BorderSenses Literary Magazine and Label Me Latina/o.  A new story is forthcoming in Black Heart Magazine.  Ramblings and excerpts from his memoir can be read on his blog:  He lives in Oakland.  

El Cenote

MAY 2013

Alvarado Valdivia         Arias        Cerda        Chatelain        Desimone        Ferro    gomez        Hernandez Diaz        Huizar        Ibarra        Martinez Serrano        Molina        Muñoz        Najarro        Olivarez        Ponce-Melendez        Ramirez        Reyna        Rosales        Salazar        Villagarcia        Zablah