“Tell me, wanderer. How long have you been lost in the maze of life?” The woman of Black Sun -La Dama del Sol Oscuro- asks me over a boiling pot of atole, dropping flakes of cinnamon into the mix as she stirs. She hands me a cup and a roll of seashell sweetbread to dip it in.
“I’m not sure… a long time,” I say. “A Coyote tricked me inside the maze. I’m trying to get back to Tucson now. February 26, 2019, if I can manage it. Dama, do you happen to know the way?”
“Gods can be many things… but they are seldom kind,” she says with a knowing nod at my mention of the Coyote. She sits across from me at the fire and begins to draw a line in the blood-red clay we sit on. She seems to have no intention of answering my question. I understand that I’m going to have to earn an answer from her. Information is power, and power has its price. “Drink your atole,” is all she says after a long while, and I do as I’m told.
“What shape did the maze take for you?” She asks. “I’ve spent so long no mas que aqui, en este lugarcito, that I’ve forgotten what the other parts are like, closer to the center. El Obispo and his pet Mammon prowl these parts, devouring wanderers and taking their tongues.” When she mentions the bishop, her burnt-wood irises shoot up at mine to see if they shrink in fear the way they should. They do. She smiles and looks down again at her drawing. She knows that I’ve seen him.
“If I tell you what I’ve seen in the maze will you show me how to get out of it?” I say, but my question makes her frown.
“I save you from the bottom of that arroyo, nurse you to health, give atole con pan — all of this for free by the way! — and the minute I ask you for a little story you are ready to make bargains.” She doesn’t yell. She doesn’t look up from her drawing. She says it softly, to make it sting more. I apologize profusely to her, and I realize there is no way out of this. I let another sip of the warm corn nectar roll down my throat. Then I take a breath, as I prepare to tell the tale and prove my thanks.
The maze twists your mind as it twists itself. It’s as fickle as a tabby cat that wants your admiration…until the moment that it doesn’t. It will transform you and trick you. It will seduce you and spurn you in turn. In many ways, the maze is like a lover and the ocean: never the same thing twice.
Sometimes, you walk through endless stone corridors that lead to new corridors that lead to newer corridors still. Then, out of nowhere, the maze has become a grand adobe house, with windows that look inside instead of out. You turn another corner, suddenly you’re in a library, lost in a pile of books and before you know it, the maze has become a garden, and you can feel it breathing. It can be an airport, a museum, a temple, or the long hallways in a Chinese restaurant on the way to the water closet. For me, it was all of these things, and then: desert. And it stayed desert for a long time.
I wandered in the red clay land of stones and saguaros for æons. My lover no longer wanted to spurn me but had forgotten me altogether. I wish I’d known how lucky I was while the maze was changing for me, displaying its wonders. It’s been years since it spit me out here in the sand, and it hasn’t come back for me since.
My beard grew long and my face turned to leather. I was an old man. I spent the better part of a month being hunted by a chindesaurus. My days were spent running for my life, probably farther and farther from the path home. There was little rest in the nighttime, the scorpions and the spiders would find where I slept. The buzzards followed me in constant anticipation.
Yet, not once in my journey did I consider dropping to my knees and asking the Coyote for help. For me, it was better to die than to face him again, and that hasn’t changed since, Dama. I think I hate him. I think I really do.
Soon, all meaning began to slip. I began to lose myself to the desert. I was slowly melting away, unraveling with every infrequent gust of the small Sonora wind. It blew through the arroyos singing the song of la Llorona. These were the better days of my journey. Before the Big Green Eyes came back.
This is what it feels like when the Big Green Eyes are staring you down:
The back of your skull begins to scream. But it's quiet, like a small leak in a tire going 190 down the freeway. No way to know that everything is soon going to burst. And your body isn’t yours when the eyes have their eyes on you. You feel it moving, slowly dragging along the desert floor, but you aren’t going anywhere no matter how long you walk. You hear a whisper that reminds you of everything wrong with you. That no sane person would ever touch you, and that you deserve to be alone.
But the tire never bursts as it speeds down the highway. The pressure builds, the steaming and the screaming builds too, and your body sinks more and more into the sand, but it never stops.
One day I found a clearing. A few clay bricks marked the perimeter of what was once a vast city. In its center, a statue, and the base of the statue read:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!
I was grateful to the king for the shadow he provided. He was much nicer to lean on than a cactus. A raven perched on the king's shoulder, not sure if I were going to sleep or die. He wanted to be first in line for my softer parts before the sun spoiled them. As my eyes struggled to stay open, I saw the clouds of heat lightning coming over the mountain. Before I fell asleep the raven opened its mouth and it whispered to me. “Todo Polvo…” it said. “All dust…”
There’s a polaroid that sits framed in my mother's laundry room above the sewing machine. In the picture, I’m at the after-party for my Nana’s funeral. My brother is there too. I’m four, he’s three, and we’re carrying a toy guitar and trumpet respectively. We’re pretending to play along with the mariachi band my family has hired as they belt out “Sabor a Mi,” my Nana’s favorite bolero.
“Aye,” my Nina Susie says, snapping the photo as we grin toward the lens, not fully aware that our Nana is never coming back. Susie shakes the polaroid and dries her tears at the same time. While my brother and I climbed underneath metal folding chairs at the cemetery I remember hearing her wailing, and not wanting to understand the pain I heard. Her sibling, my grandmother, was gone. All of my Ninas harmonized in their lamentation that their prodigal sister had outrun them once again to a place she couldn’t come back from.
“When you and your brother are older, you’re going to become mariachis and play for me,” she said. “And you will make such beautiful music.”My brother did grow up to learn the trumpet and I learned the guitar. We never became mariachis though, like Nina prophecies.
This is when I see him again, the man with empty eyes. I dreamt of him once before, back in Tucson. Before I entered the maze. In that dream, he tried to cut my tongue out. But in this one, he’s standing there, just behind my Nina Susie, grinning. He’s inserted himself into this bittersweet memory of mine, and no one else can see him. His teeth are yellow, his eyes glowing white. It’s clear that he wants something from me, but he’s in no rush to take it. He’d rather play with me a bit first and watch me squirm.
I want to yell at him to stop staring and to just spit it out already, but no words fall out of my mouth, only sand. Before I know it, I’m being buried by the sand, and as I scream out for help from my Ninas or my brother or the Mariachis even, no sound comes out, only dirt. I had no words at my disposal, the only tool I could have used to save me.
“And that was when you rescued me, Dama, from drowning in the desert. I woke up to the splash of cold water you threw on my face, my mouth full of mud. I must have rolled in my sleep from the statue to the bottom of an arroyo, and I would have been carried away in a flash flood if you hadn’t saved me.” I catch a small smile on her face. She seems satisfied with my tale.
“You must be careful where you go in your dreams. They are a labyrinth in themselves. Are you sure you didn’t see Mammon, El Obispo’s pet?” She says, making horns with her small wrinkled fingers and falling her nostrils.
“No dama,” I say. “I would have remembered something like that.”
“He’s out there,” she says with a tired chuckle. “Which is why I stay in here, far away from the major passages of this maze.”
“Please Dama, I need to find my way home. How do I get back to Tucson?”
“You need a guide. Ask Coyote. Sing his song and he will come.”
“How do I do it without the Coyote?”
“Aye, terco! Nobody knows the maze as well Coyote, — except I’itoi, but he built it, and anyway you can’t meet him. Hmm, if you are set on avoiding him, then you must go to Presencia- the town outside of time. Head east for three days and you’re sure to find it, just make sure you don’t wander to the center.”
“What happens at the center? What happens if you meet I’itoi?”
“Then it’s the end of your line in the sand mi’ijo.” La Dama smiles and shows what she’s been drawing. It’s a long spiraling line in the dirt that stops abruptly at the center. “Death waits for everyone at the center of life. We all orbit it. But if you ever find yourself in I’itoi’s cave then don’t run mi’ijo. There’s no point. I’itoi is going to kill you.”
END OF CHAPTER 17
CHAPTER 18 IS COMING SOON
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