Rainforests into Milpas
Aj Kun Aya crouches in the near silence of dawn and stares towards the east. The bitter smell of smoke and burnt wood lingers on a heavy mist left behind by the last night’s rain. The forest is freshly burned. At his feet moist ash mixes with black dirt. He grasps the heavy stick with the sharp point that is exactly like his father’s. His father and his father’s father and for many generations before them, all the men have used dibble sticks to poke holes in the ground to plant seeds.
Planting today would be so easy if the gods were to appoint today as the proper day to plant. But he and every other man and boy in the village waits. When the morning star, the God Hunahpu himself returns to the morning sky, it will be the sign they are looking for. The sign that it is time to sow the spring crop. The leaf cutter ants are moving their eggs to higher ground, and the falcons laugh all day in the trees. They know the rains are coming. The rains that will nourish the soil and help give the people the food they need to live.
Already the sky in the east grows blue. The screaming monkeys have awoken the birds. Hunahpu, the god of corn has not returned.
The boy rises, kicks a clump of the moist dirt with his toe. His father’s voice pierces the stillness.
“We will wait another day, Kun Awa. It is not yet time. The gods know better than we do the proper moment to plant.”
The pair moves silently toward the ring of unburned forest around the perimeter of the family’s milpa. The rains have not started in earnest. There is still time to plant. The gods will not let the people starve.
Kun Aya, follows his father silently through the trees. The words of the ancient story the priest made the children memorize roll through Kun Aya’s mind. Maize is essential to the life of the gods and the people they created. Hunahpu will return.
Kun Aya smiles as, slowly, syllable by syllable, the story the priest tells f the creation of human beings unfolds in his memory. In his minds eye Kun Aya imagines the skinny high priest, draped only in his loin cloth, sitting on the raised platform in the center room of the temple residence. The priest’s wrinkled face turned toward him. He seemed to speak directly to Kun Aya.
“When the great gods Itzamná, the Bearer and Begetter, and the Plumed Serpent, Kul Kul Kan finished creating the beautiful sky-earth and lake-sea, and had filled the forests and the valleys with animals and birds, and the lakes and the oceans with fish, they stepped back and listened. They waited for the creatures, the plants, the mountains, and the rivers to sing their praises, and give them sustenance. But they heard only silence from the mountains touching the sky, the endless babble of the rivers, the nonsensical chatter of the birds and the howling of the animals. Something bothered the gods, as they looked upon their wondrous creatures and creations. Why did they fail to sing the praises of the gods? Why did they not thank the gods for all that they had done?
They looked at each other and something else occurred to them. Who would harvest the maize? Who would grind the corn to make their tortillas? Who would watch them and worship them as they moved through the sky? Was not this creation they had made grateful?
Disappointed in their creation, the gods counseled one another. With their heads together they whispered and nodded agreement. Itzamna spoke. “We must make people.”
So the gods gathered the sturdy trunks of trees they had so recently created and carved people out of wood. The gods gave their wooden people thick arms and sturdy legs. They gave them strong backs so they could plant. The gave them eyes to watch the stars, the sun, and the moon. And they gave them mouths and voices so they would sing of their creators’ goodness and the beauty of creation.
And the people of wood walked about. They planted maize. They talked, and they sang, and they peopled the earth with their children. Their sons and daughters multiplied and grew numerous all over the land. But soon the gods noticed something that troubled them. Their creations had much to say, but empty heads. They had full bellies, but empty hearts. They forgot their duty to the gods. They sang songs but not of thanksgiving and praise to the gods. They counted days and nights, but not the cycles of the moon and the stars. And worst of all, they failed to feed the gods. The hungry and disappointed gods knew that their first attempt to create people had failed.
Angry, the gods sent a great flood to destroy the people of wood. They set all the creatures of the earth against them. The dogs clawed their skin, and the birds pecked at their eyes. Even their grinding stones, the metates and manos, crushed and splintered their faces. When the water receded, no people of wood remained.
Days passed. The time of harvesting the gods’ maize approached. The gods knew they must hurry. They needed someone to worship them, to sing songs of praise to their names. And they grew hungry.
The gods tried again. They gathered up the rich dark clay that lay in the beds of the rivers and modeled people of clay. They set their creation down on the river bank, but the clay would not hold together. The creatures’ heads sagged. Their flesh crumbled and their limbs fell off. But worst of all, the people made of clay had no voices to praise the gods. Their faces could not move for them to speak and sing. Their tongues were silent. Their eyes could not see the gifts the gods provided for them.
So the people of clay melted back into the river beds.
Once again the gods gathered together. They wrung their hands, and rubbed their chins as the dawn of the appointed day for harvesting approached, and still they had no one to gather the maize. Their bellies grumbled.
Once again, the gods put their heads together. Once again they spoke in quiet voices. What kind of people did they need? What kind of people would stand strong, sing songs of praise to the gods for creation. But more importantly, who would feed them?
Even as the gods whispered to one another, the coyote, the parrot, the fox, and the crow watched in the distant mountains at Paxal as the maize grew taller and plumper, nearing ripeness. The faithful animals gathered a handful of ripe kernels of corn and brought them to the gods. Only then did the gods know what they had to do.
They ground the white kernels and shaped the dough into bones. With yellow corn, they made flesh to cover the bones. They scooped clear cold water into their people’s mouths to make blood. They formed the people out of maize.
The people stood up, strong and tall. They looked around. They marveled at all that the gods had made. They watched the sun move through the sky. They counted the days and the cycles of the moon and the stars. With melodies of praise they thanked the gods for all that they had created. And they harvested the maize.
The gods sat back. Soon they could rest. Soon their bellies would be full.
And the Men of Maize harvested the corn. The women of Maize ground the kernels, and patted the dough into tortillas. The children of maize sang songs of thanks, and watched the sky as the gods came and went, day, after day, year after year, generation after generation.”
A bird tweets above him and Kun Aya stumbls on a root. He had been daydreaming. In front of him Kun Aya’s father pauses. He stoops low and dips his hands into the flowing river and drinks. This is the water that Kun Aya and his father will use to grow their maize. Kun Aya drops to his knees and cups his hands. The water speeds past making his hands dance in the river. He drinks also. Thinking back on the story the priest told he imagines the gods cupping their hands and pouring water down the throats of the first maize people. How sweet that first drink must have tasted.
Kun Aya smiles. How delicious that first maize harvest must have tasted to the hungry gods.