Papá was gone longer than usual to work in el Norte. His letters came farther apart. There were no more calls to the tienda on the corner where the shopkeeper lets neighbors use the telephone. Money came less often. Now there is nothing.
Sometimes people disappear into the north and are never heard from again. No one knows what happens to them. I miss my Papá. When I was a baby Papá and Chiich, my mother’s mother, took care of me. They gave me the love Mamá never could. Even now, when Mamá speaks to me she looks past me or through me, as if I am a ghost to her.
Today, after I return from selling Mamá’s weaving in the plaza in Mérida, Mamá is at her loom as usual. Chiich is preparing our meal in her outdoor kitchen under the palapa roof of palm fronds.
“Ah, Chel, Ba’ax ka wa’alik? Tienes hambre?” Chiich asks about my day, if I am hungry. She speaks Maya mixed with Spanish. Although hundreds of years have passed since the conquistadores came here from Spain, we Yucatec Maya are still proud to speak our language.
My grandmother’s name is Mila. I call her Chiich, Maya for grandmother. She lives in an oval-shaped palapa with walls made of sticks and adobe. Grandfather built the palapa when he and Chiich came to take care of me after I was born. I don’t remember Grandfather Puch. The ancient Maya would say he’s gone to the underworld, called Xibalba, the place of fear. But the Catholic Church teaches us he is in heaven, which sounds like a nicer place.
“Yes, I’m a little hungry,” I say. The smells of bitter orange and achiote from the chicken pibil make my mouth water. But I watch Mamá. Her eyes are far away. I think she doesn’t know I’m here, and I feel the old tightness in my throat. I’m surprised when she removes the strap of the loom from around her back and stands up.
She says, “M’hija, daughter, come inside. I must talk with you.” She rarely speaks to me except to give instructions about selling her weaving.
“Sí, Mamá.” I follow her inside our small house of grey cinder blocks in front of the palapa. She sits on a cushion and motions me to another.
“Daughter, I must tell you something. Always now, when I sit at my loom, I leave this world. I become one of the ancestors, kneeling with my loom in the long-ago Maya city that was in ruins when the Spaniards built Mérida.”
I think Mamá has never said so many words to me at one time in my life. It is this, as much as her strange story, that astonishes me.
She says, “I find myself in that other place more often since the terrible time of your birth. Now, since your father left, I become that woman as soon as I kneel at my loom.”
Mamá’s hands move a little, as if she is weaving. Her eyes don’t see me. I look down at the swept, white earth floor.
“Today, while you were gone, I was kneeling at my loom in the old city. I was thinking of nothing but the pattern, when suddenly the goddess Ixchel rose up before me out of the cloth. She was as beautiful and fierce as the jaguar.”
Ixchel is my name, for this same jaguar goddess of weaving who inspires Mamá’s work. But everyone except Mamá calls me Chel.
Mamá’s eyes open wide. “Imagine how I trembled. I bowed my head before the goddess. In a terrible voice, she said, ‘Woman, I am not pleased. I want better things for your daughter, my namesake. You must send her to her father. This you must do, or I will no longer bless your weaving.’”
In a voice that allows for no argument, a voice perhaps as terrible to me as the voice of the goddess was to her, Mamá says, “So you see, hija, you will have to make the journey to el Norte.”
Now her eyes look straight into mine. She resembles my grandmother: the same short, plump body, the same dark eyes. Her long black braids are wrapped around her head, like Chiich’s gray ones. How can they be so different? My grandmother’s sharp eyes always see me.
I am only eleven. I shiver when I think of leaving home and traveling so far, even though I miss Papá. My legs feel weak and I don’t think I can stand. In our Maya tradition, dreams and visions are taken seriously. The only words I can form are, “Sí, Mamá.”