Ah Hun Pakal stares out the great eastern doorway of the priests’ residence. The sky above the main temple is still black, but just along the horizon a deep purple begins to tease his eyes into believing the sun will soon rise. He has been awake all night, making sure that young students keep the ritual fires burning in the temple. Staring out at the spreading blue light he smiles at the memory of his own first days at the temple – seven long ago.
Ah Pacal hears a shuffling behind him. A small novice stumbles up the steps cradling fresh wood in his arms for the sacred fire. He moves silently toward the stairs that lead to the shelter at the very height of the temple. Pacal smiles. Pride and compassion swell in his throat.
“Boy,” Pacal calls. The child stops instantly, but does not turn around. His shoulders shake.
“Are you the only novice who has risen to feed the fire this hour? Where are the others?”
“They are coming. I am only the first, sir.” Pakal jolts at the word “Sir.” It is a sign of respect, but he does not feel old enough to be addressed so. He has seen barely 14 turns of the great calendar stone.
“How old are you?” Pacal asks. “You are barely able to stand under that load of wood.”
“Though I have seen only seven turns of the calendar stone, sir, I am strong. I will not drop any wood before it reaches the temple roof.” The novice’s voice shakes, too.
“You are surely strong enough. I’m sure the gods are pleased to see how eagerly you serve them.”
The boy bows and hurries toward the long flight of stairs to the temple roof comb. The priest there will help him feed the fire. Pacal smiles.
If Pacal’s calculations are correct, Hunahpu will soon return from the underworld. When Hunahpu’s star, the planet Venus rises before Xbalanque’s sun, then the new planting season can begin. Pacal’s stomach swirls with excitement. For the first time since he arrived at the temple as a seven-year-old and began his study of the calendar, the High Priest asked him to calculate the exact date of Hunahpu’s return to the morning sky.
This nightly wait for Xbalanque’s rising commemorates his first journey through Xbalaba, when he and his twin brother Hunahpu were summoned by a the Lords of Death to play a game of Pok-a-tok.
The noisy twin brothers lived with their grandmother, Itzamna, the creator goddess, because their father had disappeared into the underworld and never returned. The boys played endless games of Pok-a-tok, when they weren’t hunting birds with their blow guns. These rowdy twin made so much noise and boasted so loudly of their skills as ball players that the gods of the Underworld grew annoyed.
“Who are these boys who boast of their skills? We are the champions.” One Death said to his brother Seven Death.
“They must be taught a lesson,” Seven Death replied.
“We will challenge them to a game, here in the underworld,” One Death decided.
So the Gods of the underworld, One and Seven Death, Scab Scraper, Blood Sucker, Pus Demon, Jaundice Demon, Bone Stripper, Skull Stealer, Bloody Tooth, Bloody Claw, and the others summoned the Twins to their home in Xbalba.
“We’ll show them who the better ball players are,” Bloody Tooth said to Bone Stripper.
“They cannot beat us,” Pus Demon laughed.
They gods sent their summons with a tiny louse and while their messenger made his way to visit the Twins, the gods of the underworld prepared to destroy Xbalanque and Hunahpu.
But the message almost got lost. When the louse reached the road that lead to where the Twins lived he met a toad. The toad, seeing that the creature was carrying a very important message to Hunahpu and Xbalanque, offered to carry him. The louse accepted the toads offer and was quickly swallowed up by the toad.
Now the toad went on his way and met a snake. The snake, always a creature eager to be of assistance, asked the toad if he needed help. Before the toad could answer, the snake quickly gobbled him up as well, and slithered on his way.
As the snake was sunning himself on a nearby rock a laughing falcon spotted him and quickly devoured the juicy snake.
Now the laughing falcon flew high and far and perched on a tree just above the Twins. When the Twins saw the bird, they quickly took out their blow guns and shot the bird. Gods themselves, the Twins knew how to talk to the creatures their grandparents created and when the bird revealed that he carried a message for the Twins, they healed his wound and demanded the message be delivered immediately. One by one each creature vomited the contents of his stomach so that the louse could deliver his summons.
“In seven days you must meet on the Ball Court of the Xbalba,” the louse said. “The Gods of the Underworld challenge you to a contest.”
“They think they can beat you,” Laughing Falcon cried.
Hunahpu and Xbalanque knew that long ago these same gods had challenged their father and his twin brother to a game of Pok-a-tok. Their father and uncle had never been seen again.
“Here, Brother, is our chance to avenge our father’s death. And prove once and for all that we are the greatest ball players,” Hunahpu declared.
So they collected their equipment, a rubber ball made of heavy dark rubber, yokes to wear around their waists, and breast plates to protect their chests. When all was ready they headed to Xbalba. At the intersection of the four great roads of creation, the Black Road, the White Road, the Red Road, and the Green Road they found the center of the World. There they descended into Xbalba.
They crossed canyons, and climbed down cliffs. They crossed a river flowing with pus, and another red with blood. But Hunahpu and Xbalanque would not turn back. They would prove that they were the best ball players around.
So they made their blow guns into rafts and floated across the rivers of pus, and of blood until they reached the entrance to Xbalba itself.
The Underworld gods were surprised to see them arrive so soon and still in one piece. They had no intention of letting the Twins show off their skills as ball players. They had thought that the road to Xbalba alone would kill the boys. Always scheming, the Xbalbans invited the Twins to rest on a nearby bench. But Xbalanque and Hunaphu knew better than to trust the Xbalbans. Wary and smart they looked more closely. The bench the underworld gods had offered them was really a comal, their hot cooking stone.
“Thank you for your kindness,”Xbalanque said. “But we need no rest. We are eager to play because we promised our Grandmother that we would be home in time to help her plant her garden.”
“Let’s play,” Hunaphu shouted and he tossed the ball into the air.
“We’ll use our ball,” Scab Scraper said, and he tossed a ball at the Twins. The ball bounced hard off the dirt and hit Xbalanque’s yoke. Immediately daggers sprang out and slashed at Xbalanque’s face and throat.
Now Xbalanque was no fool. He had a few tricks of his own.
Speaking to the daggers he said, “Do not slash at us. My brother and I are gods of the other world. We have a new job for you there. In our world you will have a new purpose. Instead of causing pain and death, you will forever be useful, by carving the flesh of animals and fish, and cutting skins into clothing. There you will help the gods.”
Thankful to the Twins for freedom from Xbalba, the daggers calmed themselves and lay at their feet.
The Xbalbans, seeing their ball bounce away harmlessly, agreed to play with the Twins ball. The twins won the game, but the Xbalabans would not so concede defeat.
“Stay with us tonight.” Bloody Tooth smiled at the boys.
“We will play again tomorrow,” said Bloody Claw.
“We will give you a place to sleep,”offered the Demon of Pus.
“Cigars to smoke to keep away the mosquitos,” Demon of Jaundice offered.
“And a light to chase away the darkness,” Skull Stealer said.
So Xbalanque took the cigars and the torch, and hung their hammocks in the trees of Xbalba.
As they settled to sleep, One Death warned. “You must smoke the cigars, and use the torch as a sign of how you enjoy our hospitality.
“If you do not you will insult us.” Seven Death said.
“We never allow those who insult us to leave our underworld realm,” Jaundice Demon said.
Xbalanque and Hunahpu nodded. They had no intention of insulting the gods of Xbalba.
Before they could go to sleep another pair of Xbalbans visited them.
“You must return the cigars and torches intact tomorrow morning, Boys, or you will never leave Xbalaba.”
Xbalanque and Hunaphu understood. The Xbalbans intended to trick the Twins so they could not beat them again.
Xbalanque and Hunahpu would need their wits and their power if they were going to defeat the evil lords of the Underworld. They did not worry. They knew what to do.
Xbalanque coaxed Macaw to give them the bright red feathers of his tail. He tucked the feathers into the end of the torch.
Hunahpu spoke to the fireflies. “Sit on the ends of our cigars,” he said.
And so when the Xbalbans spied on the boys in the middle of the night, they saw only bright red at the end of the torch, and glowing light on the tips of the cigars.
“We surely have defeated them now,” Skull Stealer said. His laugh echoed throughout the underworld realm.
So when the morning came to Xbalba, and the twins presented the torch and cigars intact to the Xbalbans, the Underworld gods were shocked.
“They tricked us,” Blood Tooth said.
“Never again,” Bloody Claw replied.
That day the Twins played the Lords of Xbalba in a second game of Pok-a-tok. This time the Lords of Xbalba played well and won the game.
But now the Xbalbans saw their chance to defeat the Twins and keep them in their underworld realm forever.
“We will play again tomorrow,” One Death said. “Then all the world will know who the greatest Ball Players really are.”
Always up to a challenge, the Twins replied, “As you wish.” But they knew that they would have to be very careful or else they would never get to play another game, or return to their grandmother, Itzamna.
That night, the Xbalbans sent the Twins to sleep in the House of Bats. All night long the bats swooped and dove at the Twins who slept inside their blow guns. Screeching and fluttering nearby, the bats beared their sharp teeth. Hunahpu and Xbalanque knew the bats would attack if they emerged from their blowguns.
Finally as dawn approached, Hunahpu peeked out to see if the morning had come. Immediately the bats attacked. In one quick movement, they chopped off his head.
Xbalanque became angry. But he had a plan to fool the Xbalbans once and for all. He called to all the animals to bring him their morning meals. One by one the animals brought seeds, and nectar and leaves from their breakfast. Finally Coati came pushing his favorite round squash with his nose. Xbalanque knew just what to do.
Using the Coati’s squash, he fashioned a new head for Hunahpu. He gave it seed eyes and a leaf mouth, and when the Xbalbans awoke, they looked about them expecting the Twins to both be dead. On the ball court lay Hunahpu’s head. Where was Xbalanque’s?
“They are dead.” Blood Gatherer said.
“We have won,” Skull Scrper laughed. When Xbalanque heard their celebrations he stepped out onto the court, followed by Hunahpu with his new head. The gods stared.
Determined now to make humiliate the Twins, Bone Scraper scooped up Hunahpu’s head.
“We will play with this very unusual ball we found,” he said, and he tossed Hunahpu’s head toward the Twins.
Xbalanque and Hunahpu, with his squash head, played with all their skill and in one great dive Xbalanque sent the Ball-head sailing through the ring on the ball court’s wall, winning the game. The Twins’ friend rabbit quickly picked up Hunahpu’s head and returned it to Hunahpu. He placed it back on his shoulders and looked around.
Whole again, Hunahpu and Xbalanque celebrated their victory.
But the Xbalbans were not yet done with their dirty tricks. The sore losers seized the Twins and cast them into a great pit of fire. In amazement the Xbalbans watches as the boys climbed back out, unburnt.
“Show us how you did that.” One Death demanded.
“Do it to us,” begged the Jaundice Demon.
“Resurrect us.” they all cried together.
At that the lords of Xbalba leapt into a fire, and when the Xbalbans were all consumed by the flames, Xbalanque and Hunahpu sat back and laughed. They had no intention of resurrecting the Lords of the Underworld. The Twins had defeated the cheating gods of Xbalba fair and square. They were the champions.
Triumphant they searched the Underworld for their father. They found him, transformed by the Xbalbans into a strange plant. His arms and legs were strong and long, and his head appeared oddly shaped. The Twins uprooted the plant and escaped with their father from Xbalba.
Pakal smiles as he watches Xbalanque’s sun rise over the temple crown. Sometimes Hunaphu’s journey through the underworld takes longer than his brother’s. Maybe the memory of losing his head slowes him down. Soon, though. Hunahpu will return soon. Of that Pakal is certain.