In amber: A tale of Mexican discovery (original short story)

articles Culture & Arts

Elizabeth (Beth) Kelly

An original short story set in Mexico

It was the scorpion in the amber that fascinated Linda most, at first. A four-inch, brownish nodule of Mexican amber from the great limestone flats in Chiapas, it lay on a bed of still bright marigold flowers on the living room altar. It was a color match but a jolt down deep, a primordial fright, to see the insect encased there. Linda fingered the amber necklace around her own neck, a sunny Baltic amber in perfectly graded beads. Juana’s taste ran to the baroque, Frida Kahlo scarves, the native rebozo, and long skirt perfectly arranged. Giant silver pins held it all in place. Her black river of hair was twisted and braided, a restless snake in her hands. The whole effect, Medusa-like, seduced Linda from the minute they had met in the Zocalo, the historic downtown Mexico City square. Now a sudden chill shook her. Juana turned 90 degrees evenly away from the window she had just closed. ” Chipi-chipi,” she pronounced with a smile and a tug at the rebozo thrown over her shoulders.

Outside, the light rain, “chipi-chipi”, embossed the gray city turning monuments to watermarks, stiff and formal. In the room Linda’s gray-blue eyes followed Juana as she lit the yellow candles surrounding her home altar. The points of light lit up a tin filigree framed mirror, returning a full reflection of the altar. Quickly crossing herself, Juana retired to a straight-backed chair leaving Linda to take in the main figures on the rest of the altar. She recognized all of the Santos: San Pedro with his key, San Miguel with his sword and the child-sized Niño de Atoche equipped with herbs for doctoring to his native children. This was how she and Juana had met, both of them behind the National Cathedral shopping in the tiny, numerous herb and miracles shops (the most blessed spot to procure cures in all of Mexico City). Neither of the women was frivolous in her quest, both held ceremonially beribboned San Pedro cactus stems in their arms as they stood side by side at the counter to pay.

The rest of Juana’s altar shelved flowers, seedpods, a lusty pink conch shell and some dusty red fabric embroidered with white patterns. Linda picked out a repeated near fleur-de-lis design mingled with a hopscotch box pattern in white stitching and felt relieved. It was a Legba sign, the African crossroad guardian, so clearly marked. It might as well have spoken. ‘I know right from wrong’, so simple! Juana had respect for the male/female archetypes, good/bad, and the basics of white magic glowing in the candlelight. “A friend, perhaps a teacher,” Linda whispered.

“Just a friend, Linda, but already we have talked about things some people take years to open. It is wonderful to find a friend.” Juana rose and stepped into the pool the tapers lit on the floor. Linda’s scent reached her again, a sage smell from the desert she guessed. Very clean, very holy. She would ask her about it later. Their shoulders touched but did not distract either from her private thoughts. Juana stepped back remembering her thirst. She went into the kitchen and pumped a glass of purified water into a blue glass tumbler, then another and returned with them. Linda accepted gratefully as the smog and altitude were always a trial on these trips to the Mexican capital, but here is where all things Mexican ended up, piled in stores, open markets, homes. Even government business funneled through the city. She needed to be here to talk to custom brokers or she would risk difficulties and expensive duties at the airport. Her purchases, her finds she would say, were never easy to explain othe rwise.

“Tell me about the amber, Juana.”

Juana smiled at the tall, crop-haired brunette northerner. “It is rare! Insects commonly stick inside the sap but not so large or so fierce as the scorpion. You know amber, I see. You have a lovely piece around your neck. Did you know that it is not a true fossil? The living cells are not replaced by mineral as in wood or shell fossil. Instead, the resin becomes linked and the original chemicals of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are retained. Interesting, no? For this reason, I think it a little magical, maybe some cures reside inside as some cures are locked in the brains of the old people.” She shifted her skirts with the practiced flourish of the Ballet Folklorico as she sat on the wooden chair. “I am not so old but my family has always had a curandera, a herbal healer. When my own Mother died too young to tell me much about the curing, my studies brought me here to this city. It has been the heart and soul of Mexico for centuries. And yourself, what led you to such a store behind a church where the old pyramids once ruled?”

Linda smiled at her hostess, replying in all seriousness, “I am like the Spaniards looking for gold, but now it is cures I seek. It is funny that you should mention chemistry, which is my work at a drug company, but now it is physics that compels me. Shall I tell you of how my whole way of thinking has changed? How quantum physics has closed the gaps between religion, social action, everything I hold as truth?”

“No, not now, Linda linda. Let’s go out into the streets and walk a while. My husband is due home soon and I will need to prepare him a meal. He works very hard every day; he needs much time to change his smallest habit. A gringa here would be a great change.”

Linda did understand. She had once had just such a husband. The rain had stopped, at any rate, and a walk would be lovely on a Saturday afternoon. She had a sudden urge to see the Alameda Park where so many memories clung to the French fountains and statues, the lovers lying on the grass. With her packages under her arm she followed Juana out the door, waiting as she placed the padlock. They walked down the dark passage where other doors stood open, around a patio festooned with drying laundry, then finally out a tiny door to the street. The door was soldered in place on the huge iron security gate of the old hotel Juana called home. The street was bustling with business traffic and street vendors, plus the weekend shoppers rushing to buses before more rain came. The two women turned down Cinco de Mayo hurrying past the Bellas Artes museum to the Park.

Once in, safe from drizzle under the block square canvas of trees that attracted the city dwellers to lounge and breath fresh air away from the smog of the cars; they walked the circuit of paths past statuary and stone benches in silence. Linda stopped and bought them both a cheap torta, a ham sandwich. They sat on the Madero Avenue side of the park by the giant Juarez statue to eat. Across the street, construction of single story shops filled the hole where the lovely Del Prado Hotel had stood (near sixty years) until the last devastating earthquake. The destruction was slowly being covered over by the new in the endless Mexican story, epics in straw, mud and blood.

“Shall I tell you a story?” Juana asked covering her hair coil with the heavy rebozo. She was intent, staring as a child would, fixedly and expressionless, soaking in Linda’s features. It didn’t bother Linda a bit. Among the other statues, Juana was a seamless part. So much so, that when she turned away and spoke, that was the bigger surprise, as if the Juarez monument had decided to confide in a gringa.

“My religion, the Santeria in which the Saints, being more accessible than a single God, are consulted, has one extra commandment. In order to follow it you must know very well your own place in the world. The commandment is this, “Do not ask for more than I can give you.” This commandment comes from an older, simpler world but anyone can follow it. You must study this then tell me if your physics has anything like it while I tell you a story.” Linda nodded her agreement so that the story could go on.

Juana began. “A hunter went out for a deer into the hills by the volcano. His people, a small group passing through the valley only, had been on foot and without meat for two full moons. He prayed and cleaned himself in steam the night before. His women stayed away and prayed also. But that morning, he found nothing and went home to rest. The next morning, he went before dawn and hid high in a tree near a little creek running into the giant lake down below. It was still dark so that he disturbed an owl, which flew into the next tree over and began to speak, hooting as any owl does. The man decided that this was a chance to get some help on his hunt. Normally, he would not speak back to an owl out of respect for a truly great hunter, but the man was desperate for meat.”

“Brother Owl,” he began quietly, “A little rabbit told me when I came by here yesterday that I would find a deer who wanted to feed us on our journey here, at this spot. The foolish little rabbit may be wrong for he also said that the great hunter, Owl, would not be here for his eyes were growing old and he no longer could see a small deer from so high in the trees.” The owl hooted again, shaking his great wings so that the leaves rustled dangerously. He turned his golden eyes on the little man in the tree.

“That must be the foolish rabbit that I had for dinner just now. The deer you seek is not coming here, either. The rabbit is now wrong twice, just climb down and walk up the stream to the boulders and you will find the deer and know who still has fine vision.” The hunter thanked the owl and climbed down from the tree to hurry to the boulders before dawn came. Sure enough, he was able to put an arrow in the heart of a deer. He thanked the spirit of the deer and carried the meat home.” Linda nodded her understanding of the cleverness of the hunter as Juana continued.

“This is a case of not asking for more than can be given. The hunter tricked the owl into helping him when he sorely needed the help. The hunters have always understood from watching nature that it is not enough to merely call a thing and it comes to you. The good, the wise person that is, must manipulate nature to survive. A bad person is merely a foolish one, unable to get things to work, as they properly should for his needs. Still, the good hunter remained humble and thanked the gods for his kill. This humility allows him to remain human, to stalk through life quiet and unseen lest the gods be jealous and send bad luck or death. That is how humility became a virtue desirable for an honorable life. Do you see how a humble person can make great things happen while never being honored or blamed?”

Again, Linda nodded, but the story was done as Juana signified by pulling her silky shawl down onto her shoulders. The park’s crowd of dark strangers continued by in a heavy flow as Linda mulled over the tale, a parable really. She stared at the Juarez statue but the great Zapotec Indian President was unable to help her.

The portion of Juana’s fable about man manipulating nature has an equal in quantum physics in that the observer affects the outcome of the experiment, Linda recalled. The humble person should also be the observer in any experiment or proof of scientific theory. She told Juana this.

Juana was content with the answer; it gave her a new way to think, all that she had asked. Her man was home by now and hungry. They parted at the entrance to the subway in the corner of the park. Linda walked down the broad stairs into the maw of the finest subway system in the Americas, a tunnel into the heart of the mother but a technical marvel, too. One train had just departed the station, another would be right along. Linda boarded when it ran up, the doors sliding open for a fast run to the Balderas station. She walked through the clean station’s various switchbacks to board another train in the direction of the University and got off a half an hour later in Coyoacan. Evening diners and strollers were clogging the streets but the air was warmer and cleaner than in El Centro. She went to her hotel to deposit her purchases and clean up but napped instead.

She dreamed of a loose dirt type of pyramid with a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome built on top standing in the jungle. In the archaeological cut, there is a pull-down attic type door. An elaborate old toy train set is up there that only Linda could operate. Trying to pass this arcane knowledge on to a young man of her tribe, she finds him wild and inattentive from running with the dogs. This upsets her and she takes him into the jungle for a view of the awesome age of the pyramids that he must preserve. Instead they run into a huge meeting place of macaws. They are all over the trees like scarlet and turquoise decorations. It is a social occasion apparently for they swoop down in a flurry of reds and blues to walk on the ground, talons clicking, eating from a buffet of packaged snacks and nuts from cans. They are oblivious to Linda and the boy, their racket deafening. The boy and Linda walk away. She leaves him behind with friends. He seems more attuned and stays to listen to his elders talk.

Returning to the parrots, she finds other women there, including Juana. The party is over but some sluggish or dying birds are left on the ground or clinging to tree trunks. The women are harvesting them. But one, a lone cockatoo, looks too healthy to her so she tries to get it to fly. The harvesters help but it still can’t fly away, and it dies. They find heavy junk food shaped like little birds in its craw. They are hard as wood so she saves them for beads. At the buffet line there are more shapes found in the other dead birds. These are silver, nicely worked. The women split these up and Linda receives several earrings and a small plaque. The best earrings are tiny full-round teapots, the others more Egyptian.

Linda awoke puzzled. I do have some knowledge to share. Perhaps that’s all it means. She fell back to a dreamless sleep until Sunday’s light traffic through Coyoacan awoke her around seven in the morning. The dream stayed vivid as she showered and dressed for her final day in Mexico City. From her handbag she selected a pair of earrings to bring to her new friend, Juana. They had been a gift from a doctor, a fellow employee, last Christmas. The universal symbol for healing, a caducei was portrayed. Juana will like this, she thought. It will hold her shawl in place. Smiling she put the small silver twigs with their Mercury wings and double snakes winding upward into her change purse. Moving a subway chit into her skirt pocket, she locked the door and hurried toward the station. It was always best to beat the rush hour. She could have breakfast near the Zocalo.

Juana was home after Linda breakfasted in Tacuba Café. A little girl answered the street door, peering big-eyed at Linda until her mother shooed her off to get Juana. Nothing had changed in Juana’s room; candles still lit and clutter all about. Linda sat in a small wooden chair, bright red, and told the dream as she fumbled in her purse for the little earrings. “Your share,” she said as Juana accepted the shiny bits.

A spark flared in Juana’s eyes. Her expression of calm, her solidness in the wood and cane backed chair never altered. But in her mind there was fear and then relief. “You can help,” she stated simply and surely. Linda had no idea what she meant and no chance to ask as Juana closed her eyes and spoke in a clear chant.

No, it is not true that the world is dead.
That is not what has happened
And that
Is not the way it is going to happen.
This
Is the way
It really is.
We have lived through thirteen heavens,
Thirteen cycles of fifty-two year epics. For the first heaven
We were
Pure and simple.
We knew nothing
And
We doubted nothing.
The gifts
Of our Mother Earth
Belonged to all who lived.
The gifts
Were ours
For the taking.
But,
We
Made them complex.
We
Put a value of exchange
To them
And
Each heaven thereafter
Became more restrictive.
We
Became more involved
With
Our own creations
Rather than with

Our Mother Earth
And
Her gifts.
She has not changed,
She
Is the same beautiful sphere
That
She was in the beginning.
Her gifts
Still spring from her flesh,
She
Still gives all to her children.
We
Have changed.
Perhaps not all of us have changed,
Perhaps not all of us have forgotten.

(Tony Shearer “Lord of the Dawn Quetzatcoatl” Naturegraph Publishers, Inc. 1971)

An ecstasy passed across Juana’s face before she spoke as herself again, “It is true! The Eagle with a snake in its mouth on a nopal cactus is the symbol of Mexico, the Aztec Mexico of tyranny and sorrow. Even older is the world tree. The twin hero, Quetzalcoatl, is a true story in all of Middle America. Quetzalcoatl, the bird snake and man of wisdom and peace shows his face to me.” Oh, Juana was elated and Linda could see she would have to stretch far to understand. She moved her chair nearer to her friend to listen. But Juana was up, rustling in a tall wooden cabinet. On one side were her clothes, on the other side, when she slid the panels over, were bags and bags of herbs.

“Juana”, Linda called softly, “what are we doing here? The earrings are also Mercury. Did you know that?”

Juana stood but continued sorting the bundles using her long skirt to hold a few back. “Of course, I have heard the stories. The Iliad is a true history. But not so ancient as some preserved here in Mexico. Here, here is what I have for you.” She stepped in front of Linda and placed a large bundle of leaves, tied with plastic bags to secure the stems. It was, actually, quite a heap. “Take this with you. I give it to you freely that you may dream again.”

Linda stood and embraced Juana. “Thank you, but you must tell me what you have given me.” They both laughed.

“Yes, well! First I will tell you something. Do you know why the Earth eats people?” Juana began as she reclaimed her spot in the cane seat nearest the living room altar. A yellow candle burned low there. “It is because of farming, people die and return into the earth to repay her for the cruel wounds inflicted by planting the crops. It was not always so. Adam and Eve died; they were the first of that era. In the before times of the hunters, it was different. For this reason, the wild herbs are healers. They spring from the earth as a gift, no one needs to plant them.”

“Good and bad, pure and impure, all the great opposites are but views of the one thing. The thing is too big to see in it’s entirety; God is death and life, black and white. You already know this from your physics, I believe,” Juana reminded her.

Linda quickly agreed, “Of course. The atomic world holds the same mysteries. The closer one focuses human intelligence on the small atom, the more it becomes a mass of contradiction and mystery with sparks pairing strangely, brightly. The need for symmetry remains.”

Juana nodded. “I thought this was so. You need special instruments to see into your tiny world, the information is not freely given. When you look at this new herb, look for a thing it freely gives you. That should help you. The herb is called Hojas de Pastor. She looked fondly at the heap of brush around Linda’s chair. “It is from Oaxaca, once quite far from here.” A frown wrinkled Juana’s raven brow for a moment. She looked up at Linda whose fair face reflected back another frown. Having nothing more to add, Juana sighed and brushed pieces of leaf from her skirt. She blew out the little yellow candle and drew her shawl over her shoulders. “I must go to church now and give thanks. Would you care to come along, Linda?”

Linda declined the Sunday offer but did walk Juana to the sunken entrance of the San Francisco Church before hailing a taxi to carry herself and her bundle back to her hotel. Juana turned back from the carved doorway where the combined saints of Catholicism and Santeria reigned. She did not wave but sent a silent prayer that Linda would succeed. When the taxi pulled from the curb, the Mexican woman joined the group passing inside. A ]blind man begging on the stone step twisted his head and whined as Juana stepped down. At the font of holy water, she dotted her forehead, breast and neck in an intricate pattern of crosses before sinking into a pew. Voices soared around her and the cool stones echoed to the Spanish priest’s supplication. She, at least, was home.

Linda wished to be home. So many questions for her to consider! Why this plant, who this god? Her taxi driver, being a native of the city, found nothing curious about a young American woman with a pile of brush in his cab. He merely felt a dramatic sadness for a woman alone, such a waste! Yet, in these modern times, no attempt to remedy the sorrow was possible. His good deed would be misunderstood, his taxi permit endangered. Whipping through traffic, he felt some return of his male powers as his tiny Volkswagen challenged a mighty bus from the ADO bus lines.

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