Sleep overtook me like a sorcerers spell. Images began to fly past my minds eye like an incredible collage of hundreds of thousands of video snippets each running at a fantastic speed, and each a replay of an entire lifetime. I knew at that moment that I could recount, in precisely accurate detail, each of those memories.
Then as quickly as it began, the cascade of images ceased and I saw a handsome young man, dressed in only a loin cloth, motioning for me to follow him into the jungle. As I approached him I noticed that he held the fruit of a miniature avocado in his hand.
This is the favorite of the quetzal, My Lord. Im certain that if we climb up a little further into the cloud forest we might be able to capture a bird and pluck its tail feathers, he exclaimed.
I was Hanab Pacal, the proud young ruler of Jaguar-Sun, enroute to the home of my chosen bride. I knew that I didnt have to warn my servant, Kan, that the penalty for killing a flying serpent was death. As young boys we had learned the trick of luring these magnificent birds into a trap, plucking their prized tail coverts and releasing the sacred bird unharmed. It was the beginning of nesting season and Kan and I knew that most male quetzals would soon loose their coveted, blue-green iridescent coverts in the process of their nesting duties, anyway. Their plumes would regrow before the next mating season, in time for their undulating dance of seduction, so it was safe to assume that the gods would not take offense if we helped ourselves to their splendid plumage before it was damaged.
I followed Kan into the brush, envisioning a handful of quetzal plumes to accent my marital headpiece. We left the merchant, Bol, to set up camp alone and hurried deep into the cloud forest.
Kan paused to point out the dangerous leaves of the weeping tree which could burn your flesh with only a careless touch. Although I was the Holy Bacab of Jaguar Sun, I was dressed, like my servant, in only a loin cloth. It would have been much too dangerous to travel in an attire that would identify my royal status. A captive of divine blood was a cherished prize for any warrior. And while it wasnt considered honorable to take a captive outside of battle, Bol had warned that, with planting season approaching, the honor of securing a Holy Bacab to sacrifice for the fertility rituals could outweigh the disgrace of how I was acquired. At Bols suggestion, I dressed for our journey as a young man in service to a merchant.
While I carefully avoided the weeping tree, Kan plucked another type of leaf and rolled and split it, then held the opening to his mouth and blew to produce the sharp tak-teek call of the quetzal. Suddenly, in the distance we heard a hoarse reply, wac-wac-wac-.
Kan raced exuberantly off towards the sound while I tried to keep up with him. Again he paused and blew his shrill summons through his leaf. For a moment there was nothing. Then directly overhead we saw the flash of the sacred red belly. Kan quickly pulled out his knife and slashed a nearby sapodilla tree. Almost immediately it began to bleed its latex blood. Breaking a number of small sticks from the brush around him, he turned their ends into the sticky ooze and set them into the ground in a cluster with only the distance of a mans fist between them. I watched with amused anticipation as he paused to call the male again. Tak-teek, tak-teek, reverberated through his leaf whistle.
Wac-wac-wac-wac-wac, the male called back enthusiastically. Now we could see him clearly through an opening in the jungle canopy; his red belly swooping up and down, his magnificent tail swirling behind. I could feel his energy and zest for life even before I could see his extraordinary beauty. While I admired the revered creature, Kan was busy placing the hard, pale-green fruits of the miniature avocado on the ground between the gooey posts.
Now he pulled me back into the trees and repeated his call to the bird. This time the male flew in close to us, seeking the mysterious female he heard beckoning him. As he swooped down to the ground he caught sight of the fruit Kan had carefully positioned, but then he swooped up again above the canopy. I knew that usually a quetzal would grab his food on the fly, rather than perching to feed, and we waited silently for his return. Sure enough, we saw his brilliant red belly descending again towards us. Wac-wac-wac-wac-wac, he screeched as he headed for the trap. The startled creature wailed as he realized his predicament, entangled between the posts.
We had to move quickly before the bird injured himself or damaged his precious coverts in his panicky efforts to free himself. Kan raced up to our captive and snatched him gingerly from the sticky snare. He deftly yanked the four shimmering feathers from his rump and released the frenzied bird.
I watched as the poor creature struggled to a sapodilla branch and perched to pluck the remnants of resin from his feathers. He would be forced to spend the remainder of the season without his magnificent plumage, while I would sport those plumes with pride for many seasons to come. You would have lost them soon anyway, I called up to the smitten bird. I wondered if he would ever fly again with such unchecked exuberance, or rush to the call of a female quite so enthusiastically again.
My sympathy for the quetzal was quickly replaced with my exuberance for our prize. Kan had managed to extricate the bird before any of the latex had touched the coverts and they shimmered now with magical perfection in his hand. The light from Kin, now low in the sky, caught the feathers, changing their color from blue to green to golden as Kan moved them through the air, recapturing the movements of their former owner.
We raced back to our camp, hooting loudly in triumph. When he saw us, Bol shook his head with the feigned disapproval of a parent, but then he saw the feathers we held aloof and his expression immediately changed to pleasure.
Perfect, perfect! he exclaimed. Well put them in the proposal bouquet. Great Jaguar will know you are truly a great ruler with such a treasure to offer! he exclaimed. I fell easily to the mat Bol had set near the fire and held the feathers aloof so that the firelight made them glimmer. I hadnt considered relinquishing my prize to entice my bride, but then, if we failed to win her, there wouldnt be a need for a wedding headdress after all.
Tell me again about this girl chosen for me, Bol. Is she as beautiful as these feathers?
Beauty is not the measure by which she was chosen, My Lord, although beauty is hers, replied Bol in his typically evasive style.
Come merchant, Im not an old woman in the marketplace buying shells from you! Answer me directly or Ill have you tortured! I cried out in jest.
Bol shook his head seriously. Take care with your words, My Lord. There are those who will scurry to enact every bidding you utter, unable to distinguish sarcasm from a command. He looked about us as if, even in this isolated spot, one of my over-zealous subjects was waiting to inflict some horrendous act of abuse on him.
I knew he was right in his admonition. My mother had warned me of the responsibilities of power, and the repercussions of carelessness, many times before. But my adventure with Kan in the forest, dressed so humbly, had left me feeling more like an ordinary young man, than a responsible leader. For a moment Id disregarded the hundreds of guidelines and rituals that regulated every moment of my life, but I would take care not to let it happen again. I was the Holy Bacab of Jaguar Sun, the son of the divine Lady Resplendent Egret. The survival of my ancestors, my lineage and all the people of Place of Jaguar-Sun depended on my careful adherence to the codes and requirements of the gods. Bols words sobered me quickly. Good merchant, tell me of this woman that has been selected for the Holy Bacab. If not for her beauty, what qualities did my mother direct you to search for?
As hed already done many times during our journey, Bol began to reiterate the extraordinary lineage of my bride-to-be. Her father is a wise man from the place in the West where the first true people were created. His name is Great Jaguar, and he serves as chief advisor to the Holy Bacab of Tikal. The girls mother, according to Bol, was Ixtab, the Moon goddess, a fact that he confirmed when he saw her. Her skin is the color of the moon, and so is her hair. Her eyes are like the pools here in Place of Blue Waters, Bol whispered in reverent awe.
I tried to imagine such a woman and secretly feared her. I knew that I too was of divine lineage, my mother had taught me the names of the long list of my ancestors who were descended from the Three-Born-Together gods. But my chosen bride was actually the daughter of the Moon! Such a union would dispel any doubts about my appointment as Holy Bacab. But, I worried, what if she was more powerful than me? I dared not reveal my fears about the woman, even to Kan and Bol. After all, I was the Holy Bacab.