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from the October 2005 issue

Juan and Xtabay

Note: This piece was originally written in Yucatecan Maya. The author, Miguel May, is a personal friend. He lives in Mérida, Yucatán. His family still lives in a small town not far from the city. Although they speak Yucatecan Maya eloquently--along with such people as Eleuterio Póot Yah who was the major informant for the late Munro Edmunson--they like to travel. They are highly sophisticated people who love their own language and culture. When Miguel May visited with us in San Francisco, we had been to the usual tourist places, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Top of the Mark and so on, when Miguel said there was one thing he had to do before he went on to a meeting in Bethel, Alaska: he had to bring a San Francisco Giants baseball cap back for one of their most loyal fans, his father.

This is the tale of what happened to a person who used to get drunk very often and who did not believe in the existence of ghosts, nor in the Xtabay, which is said to appear to nocturnal drunkards.

One day, Juan came out of his house to get together and drink with some friends; the party went so well that night fell. Since they had spent all their money, they went to their houses to rest.

Juan hardly remembered how he got to his house, but when he got there he did not go to sleep immediately. Upon seeing him, his wife asked him if he wanted something to eat.

"Man, aren't you hungry? Perhaps you spent the entire day drinking? Look at what time you finally came home."

"Don't start nagging me, because I am hungry. I just came back. I am going to pee," And he staggered off to the patio.

He was leaning on the trunk of an oak tree when he heard someone speaking to him.

"Let's eat. Hold on, so you don't fall down."

"Yes....what did you make to eat?"

"Only pork and beans."


"What? If you don't give me money...."

Juan did not think that the person who was speaking to him was not his wife, the only thing he knew was that someone would give him something eat. When he realized what was happening, he was going down the path with that woman. He was still drunk and he did not feel the thorns that scratched his as he was crossing over the forest; his clothes were torn completely; and of his xanab kéwel (or traditional sandals) only the left one remained. When he looked up, he saw that it was his wife who was accompanying him. That reminded him that he was going to eat, and he asked his wife:

"Didn't you tell me that you were going to eat? Where is it?"

"Wait until we get there."

Soon they arrived at a house and pushed open the door; a light blinded him and he quickly covered his face.

"Come in," said the woman.

"Why is there so much light? Is it already morning?"

"It isn't dawn yet, but soon," she answered.

She went into the house, and he felt himself staggering; he had not yet sobered up. He looked inside and saw people with horrible, disfigured faces; the atmosphere was hot; there was a smell of burnt meat and he felt that he, too, was burning; he tried to get out, but the woman held on to his arm and said to him:

"Where are you going? Aren't you yearning to drink more?"

"Leave me alone! You are not my wife, and this is not my house," shouted Juan, when he began to return to his senses.

He flew into a rage and he staggered, trying to get away from that place as the door was closing; he rushed, and with great difficulty managed to get out. Outside, he felt menaced, as the woman got ahead of him. Then he thought, This must be the Xtabay that people talk about.

He look his left sandal and started to hit her, but she disappeared. Now he was left surrounded by thorns; he wanted to move, but they were scratching his body; there was no way he could go anywhere, and he began to shout.

"Hey! Help me! I can't get out of here!"

A little while after he began shouting, a man with long gray hair and a long white beard, dressed in a white tunic appeared, and asked him:

"My good man, what are you doing on the forest at this hour?"

"I, sir, no... but where did you come from? I have been looking for a way out of here for a long time and I haven't been able to do it, and there you are now before me."

"You have not told me how you got here."

"Truthfully, sir, although it shames me to say, I had gone out drinking with my friends, and I went too far. I barely remember that I was urinating on the trunk of a tree in the patio of my house when I heard a woman talking to me about eating, but it did not occur to me that she was not my wife: she brought me here to this place where there were many men with wrinkled faces, very horrible; with great difficulty I managed to escape; that woman wanted to grab me again, but I hit her with my left sandal. She disappeared, and then you arrived."

"Man, what happened to you is really very ugly. The woman who brought you is Xtabay. Her work is to take everyone who is drunk and who is on the street. This time she wanted to take you to hell, where all the demons live. Actually, they say it is a very hot place, as you noted. If you had been tricked, you would never have gotten out."

"And how did she bring me here?"

"How? She assumes the form of an evil wind that takes one to a seldom traveled place, where there are few dwellings. And this is why no one sees that someone has been taken; and you do not even realize it, because you are still very drunk; this is why you don't fee the pain when the thorns stick to your body. You feel it when you sober up. The one thing I was to tell you is that I am the Master of the Forest. I am in charge of everything that happens here; take my cane so that you can push the thorns aside. When you point to the place where you want to pass, a path will open."

"How can I repay this great favor you are doing for me?" asked Juan, satisfied that it would help him get away.

"You don't have to pay me anything, the only thing you have to do is take care of yourself," said the man, and he disappeared.

Juan saw that he did have the cane in his hand; he pointed to where he wanted to go and the thorns parted, and he went through. When he arrived at the main path, he said, "My God! Where am I going now? Help me."

He looked to see where the paths led, and he scratched his head, because he did not know what to do. He would start to go on one side then stop himself; he wanted to go to the opposite side and again he stopped himself. Finally, he just stopped on the road. Then he heard a wagon coming.

" Jáulej, jáulej! Giddyup, animals!"

He was cheered by that. Little by little, he heard the sound of the wagon come closer, and when it was upon him, he asked:

"Please, wait!"

"Xooj, xooj! Whoa," said the man. And then he asked Juan what he was doing there. "What are you doing naked in the forest?

At that moment, he realized that he was walking around naked, and he was very embarrassed.

"The truth is that I had a few drinks and the Xtabay brought me here."

"Where is your village?"

"My village is Kimbilé."

"Take these old clothes and cover yourself so that you can go before dawn. Take the road that goes west. In that way you will come out directly behind the stone wall of don Elut's land; once you are there, you will be able to get to your house."

He took the clothing and covered himself; then he thanked the man who had helped him. It was getting light when he jumped over the stone wall of his house, and went across the patio. Inside the house, he was heard to shout:

"Old lady, open the door!"

The woman asked, "Who are you? What do you want?"

It had not yet become light. The woman did not think it was her husband speaking.

"It's me, Juan," he answered. "Take the bolt off the door so that I can come in."

The woman recognized the voice of her husband and she opened the door. She saw him pale and without clothing.

"Where did you get wiped out, man? I thought you had gone to have another drink. That's why I sent someone to look for you, but you didn't show up anywhere. Come in," and she helped him in.

"Ay, my wife, the Xtabay kidnapped me while I was urinating. At that moment I thought it was you, which is why I went with her. When I started to sober up and I realized where I was, I escaped. A man helped me to get out of the forest and another one who was on his way to look for charcoal lent me his old clothes, and that was how I came back."

""Go, have another drink now."

"I am not going even if they pay me. Today, you hear a man who will never take another drink, I learned from my experience."

"God willing, it's true," said his wife, and she started taking care of his wounds.

When I passed by, she was still taking the thorns out of Juan's body.

Originally published in Diez Relatos Mayas, Letras Maya Contemporáneas, Tercera Series, Volúmen 10, 1998.

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