Today Amazing Stories continues its excerpt program with the introduction of Hunter Liguores’ Travels of Danger in the Yucatan.
Hunter Liguore, a multi-Pushcart Prize nominee, earned a MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, New Plains Review, The Irish Pages (Belfast), Empirical Magazine, DESCANT (Canada), The Writer’s Chronicle, The MacGuffin, Rio Grande Review, Barely South Review, Mason Road, Spark: A Creative Anthology (Canada), Strange Horizons, Amazing Stories, and more. Her short story, “The Writer Who Slept for One-Hundred Years,” has been shortlisted for the New Voices section of The Master’s Review. She is the editor-in-chief of the print journal, American Athenaeum. She revels in old legends and heroes. www.skytalewriter.com
In the spirit of John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, or Conan Doyle’s Lost World, Hunter Liguore’s novella, Travels of Danger in the Yucatan: A Mayan Time Travel Odyssey takes the reader into the mystical lair of King Crow, where Dr. Theodore Wainwright, a Mayan scholar, undertakes an expedition to uncover its secrets, despite the lair’s reported hauntings and mysterious nature. Wainwright enters the lair knowing no one has ever made it out alive… What really did happen to the Mayans? And what secret really lies behind the mystery of the lair of King Crow?
From the diary of Dr. Theodore Wainwright, British scholar of Mayan Civilizations.
As a small boy, I was first introduced to the Mayan civilization in Mexico and Central America when I read the adventures of John Rockwell, the Scottish explorer, who first set foot in the Yucatan in the 1840s. His journals, Travels of Danger in the Yucatan, gave me my first glimpse of this little known culture of ancient people who had disappeared mysteriously from their fields and cities. Of course, it wasn’t until much later, when the lost pages of his journal were discovered, that I learned of the existence of the lair of King Crow.
Having a rational mind, one spent unraveling the complexities of Mayan rituals for the past thirty years, I’ve often tried to picture King Crow’s lair from Rockwell’s careful depiction: the sculpted entrance in a cave near the village of Meridia; the walls that glistened with sparkling dust, gems, and fossilized crustaceans; the cryptic hieroglyphs etched across the stone like a legion of beetles, the message still unknown; the bronze passages of pictographs depicting the secret customs of the Crow people; even the carved ceiling said to contain the missing links to the Mayan calendar that abruptly ends on the winter solstice in 2012. If only someone was brave enough to venture into the deep recesses of the cave to unlock the code.
The lair of King Crow was the twentieth site on Rockwell’s long journey, conducted with other scientists and explorers during the 1840s. Rockwell called the lair the Forty-Fifth Step. There are varying opinions as to his precise meaning. Some experts, including myself, attribute the forty-fifth step to be some type of finale or final point in the esoteric initiate ceremony to the Crow Goddess, the Mayan deity of prosperity. The ceremony, held on the winter solstice, allowed initiates to dance through the labyrinth’s forty-four different trials, or steps. If they reached the forty-fifth, successfully, there was one final test to pass, which was done by jumping off the top step into a great Unknown.
Glyphs surrounding the entrance of the lair suggest that the ritual was designed for those dedicated to the Crow Goddess, for which King Crow was said to be a direct descendant. Hallucinogens were most likely in use and would have allowed the initiate to experience a sacred vision during the jumping off finale, whereby the initiates would feel as though they were flying. Once in flight, they would become one with the crow, and hope to commune directly with the Crow Goddess, to bring back to the tribe valuable information pertaining to daily or personal life. The king’s shaman, dressed in a full bridal of black crow feathers, would provide further interpretation of the visions.
Of course, the fact that Rockwell never returned home from the lair on his second expedition started the superstitions that it was haunted. Later, when the lost pages turned up along side a human skeleton, during the construction of a soccer field built near the sacred site the rumors began to resurface. The human skeleton undoubtedly was thought to be Rockwell, though the carbon dating would suggest the bones were much older than Rockwell’s would have been at the time of his disappearance. Further, the last line of the newly discovered pages warns travelers to “beware the path of C—.” Most scholars assume the last word to be crow, and that in some way, Rockwell was warning others of his time to keep out of the lair. Locals who live near the cave take it as an omen, bearing witness to strange lights and sounds that come out of the cave at night, and keep away. If truth be told, while some scientists have ventured in, and some locals undoubtedly, no one has ever made it to the fabled forty-fifth step and lived to tell about it.
A skeleton, a missing explorer, an ancient calendar, a portend of danger, and strange occurrences. It’s one of the world’s greatest unexplained mysteries. Beware what, Rockwell? What were you trying to tell us?
Sitting in my home in Manchester, England, I have on my desk a map of the Yucatan, sketches from Rockwell’s journal of the area, undecipherable hieroglyphs from the entranceway and two inner chambers, the farthest anyone from this century has managed to venture without some unpredictable accident befalling them. I have the missing pages, underlined, and nearly memorized, and a compass given to me by my father when I was eighteen and boarding a plane that would take me to Africa, and then to a ship that would then take me to Antarctica, my first adventure, before spending the duration of my days in academia. Off to the right, beside a dry glass of sherry are my retirement papers and a passenger ticket to Mexico dated for tomorrow. It’s been my lifelong dream to enter the cave, to walk where Rockwell stepped, to uncover his lost secrets. I know there is a possibility I may never return, and for the reasons mentioned above, I have put my affairs in order, and finalized my last will and testament.
The weather was mild and damp for a January morning in the Atlantic, the year 2012. The freighter, The Phoenix, was on a steady course southwest. I sat starboard on a wet, wooden bench, noting how the thrill of adventure had kept my seasickness at bay. I was just shy of my fifty-fifth birthday, and felt as if I hadn’t truly lived my heart’s desire since I was a young-minded teenager set on seeing the world. I forsook adventure, a family, travel, all for engaging the minds of the young in a classroom, to publishing papers and books on the ancient world, and while I occasioned a trip here and there, for research, academia had always been attached to my waist like a rescue rope allowing me to return to safety. But this time was different. I had no net, no back door with which to return to my former life. I was essentially on my own.
Some will say I made the trip harder for myself. I could have easily taken a commercial plane to the Yucatan, or even a family cruise ship, popular upon the waters these days, and then taken a tourist bus, or hired a guide to drive me to the lair. I decided, when upon the idea came to me to finally explore the lair, that I would only undergo it, if I could do so in the same manner as Rockwell. These times provide the highest in technology and could make all of my transportation quicker and easier, but I declined this option, and chose the harder, more burdensome route. The freighter’s path was the closest I could find to Rockwell’s water excursion, and when I arrived in the Yucatan, I had arranged for a dozen locals to escort and transport supplies, partially by truck, partially by horse, and through the more treacherous areas, on foot.
The second week into my journey, I found myself in an unfortunate position. Just outside of the Sayil ruins approximately 100 kilometers from the lair, nine of the ten locals abandoned me completely, taking the vehicle with them. Camped in the underbrush, far away from tourist roads and attractions, I was surrounded by equipment and supplies and only one loyal fellow, who I’ve since taken to calling Cook, for his skill with a pot and pan. I awoke to an empty camp, a small fire with a pot of coffee brewing, and no way to carry my food or archeological supplies to King Crow’s lair.
Cook went to the nearest village center to see if he could hire any hands willing to go to the cave. Having only read about the lair’s superstitions from books, and in making my own learned assumptions, I was very surprised to witness first hand the fear and terror evoked by the very name of King Crow, whenever we spoke with locals.
After several hours, Cook returned with a young boy, no more than ten, too young, I thought to be knowledgeable about the superstitions associated with the lair. But Cook told me that the boy believed his grandmother’s stories – that his mother went missing near the lair. Cook believed she ran off with another man, but the boy insisted it wasn’t true. Ferdinand was strong for his age and could manage two good-sized packs on his shoulders. It was then that I decided to compromise in order to continue.
It was mid-afternoon, when we began our hike south in the direction of the lair. No sooner did we traverse the tough vines and prickly grasses on foot, when two jeeps filled with locals cut off our path. A woman, with red hair and wearing khaki attire, jumped out of the first vehicle, shouting to her workers in their native language to see to our belongings. She approached me in a confident, friendly manner. “Dr. Theodore Wainwright?” Her accent was distinctly American. She must’ve been in her early thirties, and seemed attentive. We shook hands and she introduced herself as Dr. Amelia Donovan, an anthropologist working for the Archaeologist Association for Mayan Studies in Cambridge Massachusetts, a place I had lectured, and of which I was quite fond.
My luggage was packed up into her jeeps. Amelia explained to me that she’d been excavating a Mayan water-well at Chichén Itzá when rumors circulated of an Englishman venturing to the ruins of King Crow’s lair. With further prodding from the locals, she learned my whereabouts, presuming that I would have trouble making it the entire way. She was only surprised that the natives hadn’t dumped me sooner.
I kindly accepted her offer to escort me over the final leg of the journey. She talked with enthusiasm for my work, having heard me lecture in Cambridge. Her excitement softened my sour mood, and soon, she had me talking about my expedition. I nearly lost track of my surroundings when the soccer stadium, the one I’ve seen hundreds of times in photos, came into view through the green landscape. I instructed the driver to pull to the opposite side, away from the road, near, what I recognized as, the entrance to the cave.
I was eager to get out of the jeep and onto the soft grasses, knowing Rockwell had been here some 170 years ago. The air was clean and filled with the scent of dirt and rain. Amelia’s workers were quick to unpack my belongings. However, I witnessed a glint of fear in their eyes, though she was diligent to remind them that superstitions couldn’t hurt them. They laughed, and made light of what they’d been taught since childhood, asserting their manhood, not wanting to feel like little boys, even though none would turn their backs on the cave opening a short distance away.
A fire was started, and Cook worked on making soup. I invited Amelia to stay, but she admitted to promising her crew that she wouldn’t remain longer than forty-five minutes. “They believe,” she spoke, quietly, “that King Crow’s curse will haunt them if they stay any longer, and since I need them in their best form to continue my work, I shall respect their wishes.” Before she departed, she gave me a token of good luck, a hand-made bracelet of threads woven into a pattern of three white flowers. “A charm,” she said, “to ward off evil near the lair.” Smiling, I accepted the gift, which nearly matched the one she wore on her own wrist. We bid each other luck and goodbye. Amelia said she’d check back on me in a few days.
I left Cook and Ferdinand with the chore of setting up camp, and conducted a survey of the outside perimeter. Drawn to soccer stadium by the impressive coliseum outside, I noticed the worn, weathered look of the place, the overgrown green grass in the center, and a flock of birds making homes in the rusted bleachers. How long had the arena gone unused? Later over dinner, Cook told me a frightening tale of the only soccer game ever played at the stadium, one that ended in havoc, leaving several players from both teams injured, and many of the spectators dead. From that point on, no team was willing to play in such a cursed place, but rather accepted a forfeit instead.
At night, through the canvas tent I saw purple and green-whitish light radiate from the cave’s entrance. Soon strange voices and screams pervaded the area, causing Ferdinand to shake and cry.
By morning he had disappeared, and I didn’t know if he had left of his own accord, or was taken by some wild denizen, or worse—stolen by the demons lurking around the lair. Not being prone to fanciful thoughts, I demanded the record show the boy left merely in fear, as the others had. Though some sickened feeling at the core of me believed otherwise, but I won’t put words to paper to give my irrational thoughts any merit or credence.
I spent the first few days taking notes on the lair’s entranceway, filling in bits of detail that I hadn’t gleaned from Rockwell’s notes, or any other scientist since his time. By the fourth and fifth day, I managed to traverse the long tunnel behind the ornate-paneled opening, making it to the edge of what is known in Rockwellian terms as the first-step. The room was rectangular and covered with hieroglyphs. On the floor was painted something I had never seen, a feathered serpent, one that was more crow than snake. The ceiling portrayed an elaborate calendar, one with four separate, but interwoven wheels that none of the previous explorers had any luck interpreting. At the far end of the chamber, there was another doorway. The stone walls held magnificent murals painted in turquoise, burnt orange, and black. I started to take photographs that would allow me to translate some of the images at a later time, when a young child’s voice called out for help from deep in the second chamber.
Instinct propelled me over the marked threshold of the first-step, into the second, a place from which no one had ever returned unscathed. I was filled with anguish that the boy, Ferdinand, might be hurt or unable to move, it being nearly a week since his disappearance and me feeling chiefly responsible for his well-being, I tore forward without reserve.
I carried only a light rucksack, a torch, and my camera, wishing I had a gun or other weapon with me for protection. As I turned the corner into the second chamber, I was unprepared for what I saw. Rockwell’s missing pages had never related such a sight. Upon the wall facing me was a painting of a towering crow’s head. Its eyes were red rubies, untouched by thieves, and through them glowed an ominous red light, enough to illuminate the entire cave. On an altar below the picture was a circle of human skulls, each painted black. The open beak of the crow’s mouth was the thing that scared me. It protruded from the rock wall and was large enough for a man to pass through, looking as if it would break through the stone any moment and be fast upon me, seizing my whole form in its grand bill. When the child’s voice cried out again, I thought at first it was the bird squawking. I shivered and shook off the bone-chilling feeling, forcing myself to remain calm.
I surveyed the chamber. At first glance, there was not a second doorway. Then I felt a breeze coming from the direction of the crow’s mouth. I stepped forward into the dark beak, realizing the illusion—first a flat wall, then a tunnel—at the end of it, and saw the child. “Dr. Wainwright,” Ferdinand called from a distance. “Help, me please.”
I stepped closer, crushing old bones to dust under my foot. Cobwebs and vines blocked my vision, as I knelt to see better, calling to him. “Here, boy, come this way.” My other foot had nearly crossed over the entry when the feeling of the walls slipped away and the space closed in on me. Then the ground shook. The stone ceiling began to fall in pieces. I dropped to my knees for cover, glancing back to the boy, but he was gone. The torch dropped out of my hand, as I tried to go back, when something grabbed me by the shoulder.
There was a small hole to my left, and in it the face of an old, decrepit man. His hair and beard were long and white. I tried to pull away, but his hand, coming through the rock itself, clasped my wrist. He was mumbling something, over and over, louder, and louder.
“The ceiling’s falling in, man. Let me go,” I yelled.
“Beware the king c… Beware!” he said, his eyes bulging.
As I pulled away from him to run, part of the wall came loose in my hand. The rubble toppled in around me. I retreated across the chamber, until a stone slab caught my left leg, trapping me.
As the dust cleared, I lay on my back glancing up into the crow’s mouth. The red ruby eyes glowed no longer, resembling faded red paint instead. Even the tunnel ceased to be real. I cast a stone toward the mouth, only to hear it bounce off a hard surface, and disappear into the pile behind me. I glanced at my watch, but it had stopped working. The time upon the face was 8:11 a.m.; the precise time I had entered the lair. I tried to move the slab, but couldn’t, its weight was too great. I yelled for Cook, but I was too far inside. After a while, the quiet and exasperation led me deep into sleep, where I dreamed of a black crow sewing feathers to my skin.
I awoke to the sounds of hammer and chisel on stone. Behind me, I could see the entrance to the second chamber had collapsed. Nonetheless, someone was digging me out. I sighed with relief when I saw the faces of Cook and Amelia along with two natives, peering down at me. Within the hour, they had managed to pull me free and take me back to camp. After my leg wounds were dressed, my pipe lit, and a bottle of brandy opened, we celebrated being the first people ever to return from the second-step alive.
I recounted my adventure to Amelia and Cook over dinner. Amelia, having spent longer than forty-five minutes inside the cave, had been left by her superstitious workers, even the last two natives that had assisted in my rescue were gone, preferring instead to take their luck on foot in the growing darkness.
When I had reached the part of the story about the old man in the rock, besides feeling like I was sharing a story from a book of fables, I remembered the thing I had pulled free from him. In my pocket I found an old threaded band. Upon closer examination, I could make out three faded flowers, perhaps white or cream color. I showed it to Amelia, who pointedly remarked that it was similar to the one she had given me earlier.
“I thought they were handcrafted, you know, each a one of a kind,” I said, asking to see hers to make a comparison. Her bracelet bore only two white flowers, and both had yellow at the center. I tried to make nothing of it, accepting Amelia’s assertions that a homeless chap must’ve stumbled into the place and taken up residence. I didn’t tell her about the ruby eyes or the strange tunnel that disappeared, not needing to sound any more absurd than I already had.
I suggested we return to the lair the next day and make an attempt to find the boy, who was still missing. Amelia agreed, especially since she was stranded along with us, having left her cell phone in the jeep. Mine, along with the computer and other electronic devises had all acted haywire and were useless. Even my father’s compass shot to north regardless of my location, indicating a heavy magnetic force, presumably permeating from the interior of the cave.
In the morning, Amelia and I packed up food and other supplies. I loaded my pistol and kept it holstered to my leg. Amelia said I looked a little like an English John Wayne, with my Panama hat, leather vest, and holster. Before we left, I told her upfront that she didn’t need to come with me, and that it would be best for her to go with Cook to find transportation back to her work site. Something in my manner, I believe, challenged her. She wasn’t one to allow superstitions to keep her from a day’s work, she said. I think in the end it was curiosity.
“Besides,” she said, “we made it out alive. The stories have no merit now.”
I nodded, smiling. Though, I wasn’t so sure. I told Cook to go for help if we didn’t return in three days.
He smiled, clutching a rifle. “Don’t worry, Dr. W, if anything happens to you, I’ll bring the cavalry, so to speak.”
Cook’s words were comforting, though I doubted anyone would follow him inside the lair, especially after we ’d gone missing.
The lair invited us inward. We passed easily from the first chamber to the second. I noticed immediately that the entire crow painting and altar were gone, completely missing. In its place was the Second-Step that Rockwell had described, complete with the inner fountain at the center, where initiates were thought to fill a cup and drink. It was symbolically meant to cure their thirst forever. The hieroglyphs adorning the turquoise well spelled out a saying. In English the equivalent meant something like, “May you never thirst.” But where did the room I saw go to?
The well was dry upon entering the room, but after we were there for sometime, analyzing the text on the walls, we both stopped, hearing the trickling of water. Amelia checked it. She stuck her fingers into the cool trough, touching it to her lips. “It’s clean, no odor,” she said, and dipped a bandana into the water to wipe her face, before tying it around her neck.
When our inquiry turned up no answers, we continued on with caution into the Third-Step. The excitement of venturing along Rockwell’s legendary path no longer held the sparkle it had when I arrived. Instead, I was filled with anxiety, confounded with the nagging feeling that all was not as it appeared. Though I didn’t let on to her, I was happy Amelia was accompanying me into the cold chambers, each one filled with miraculous light, so much so, that we didn’t need the aide of our torches. Where the light came from we couldn’t say exactly. Sometimes it appeared to be emanating from the myriad of gems, and sometimes it seemed like the sun’s rays were leaking in behind the cracks of the ceiling. Either way, the light gave me false comfort.
The corridors winded and turned. Some paths went uphill, like a steep ramp; others went down hill, by stairs. Sometimes it felt like we were walking diagonally, then we would circle back around. When we had been proceeding for what felt like an hour, we decided to sit and rest. Up until this point, we found no clues to the boy’s disappearance. Further, the rooms and corridors differed from Rockwell’s pages, so much so, that I began to voice my concern that we weren’t even in the lair, but in some other ancient site. Amelia was less of a skeptic, presuming that Rockwell may not have had time to detail the entire labyrinth, but only a sampling. I reluctantly agreed, asserting there was a chance we hadn’t found all of the missing pages.
After we rested our feet, we started off down a golden corridor, one that matched Rockwell’s description of the Valley of the Gold Dolls. He described the hall as a medieval type carnival where the faces of the dolls changed as he viewed them. Years ago, when I had read this, I assumed it was only figurative, but now being in the lair, seeing first hand the otherworldly faces coming to life, I now believed he wasn’t fabricating, but merely stated the truth as it appeared to him. Up ahead, I could see several carved stele and doll-like statues, along with a giant gold wheel, inlaid with emeralds and diamonds that sparkled.
The wheel mounted on the wall ahead of us was at least ten feet high. “It’s the Mayan Wheel of Fortune,” I said, not sure if Amelia was familiar with the object used in Mayan religious ceremonies. She was, and began to pick out the caricatures at various points on the wheel. “This point would bestow upon the initiate a full year’s crop.” She pointed to a small glyph. “And this one, many servants to share the harvest’s burden.”
Amelia gripped the wheel with both hands. With little effort, she gave the wheel a spin. As it slowly turned, a bright light exploded into the room. A stone door opened behind her, and the room started to spin with the motion of the wheel. The room tilted. I grabbed hold of a stele as Amelia grabbed my ankle. The left side of the room, became the ceiling, and the walls in the room shrunk, gravity weighed us both down, as if we were on a carnival ride, trying to move against the force of motion. We dangled in mid-air, like on strings, and as the room metamorphosed, I called to her, “Hold on!” I tried to reach her hand. But the room rumbled, and rocks started to rain down on us. Amelia’s grip slipped. She screamed as her body disappeared into the dark hole beneath us. I continued to dangle like a marionette, as the room kept turning and spinning. Closing my eyes, I hoped it would stop. But it spun and spun, wildly. Dizzy, my consciousness slipped into darkness.
TO CONTINUE THE ADVENTURE
Travels of Danger in the Yucatan: A Mayan Time Travel Odyssey (Ebook)