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from the October 2005 issue

My Encounter with Xtabay

Note: This piece was originally written in Yucatecan Maya. It comes from a very small publication in a part of the Yucatán peninsula still very close to the area dominated by groups that remain organized in the fashion of the ancient Maya, when the peninsula was divided into areas controlled by the Xiu and Itzá, the latter influenced by the Toltec culture. The group that lives in the less accessible areas of Quintana Roo still uses the military designations: captains, etc. For a description of the personal force of the shamanistic culture see The Life and Times of Mexico, Chapter 5, "The Shaman's Apprentice."

When we were very young we into the dense jungle of Quintana Roo, we went because we wanted to earn some money and put together a little capital to take back home. A teacher chooses the community where he will work; when I did, I took a firm decision to go in to the jungle to work and not to come out until I saved some money.

On the weekends, Saturday and Sunday, when I did not have to teach I went out with a friend to hunt.

In those days it was all high, dense jungle, the people had many curious beliefs, especially about the spirits of the forest, the aluxes1, the yuntziles 2, and Xtabay3 among others. Well, when they (my students) saw me leave to go hunting, they always said to me: "Take care, teacher, do not walk around alone, because the spirits could grab you." I did not pay attention because I considered their fears the result of ignorance.

One day, in the company of another teacher who had come to visit me, I went early to hunt chachalacas4. Fearlessly, we went into the jungle; listening intently and looking anxiously we searched for our prey among the high branches. Step by step we advanced until the thirst of midday made us stop to take a breather and drink a sip of water.

We sat under a tree in a small clearing and discussed our bad luck, for we had found nothing to hunt.

We were doing that when a little murmur, like a song, threw us into silence. We tried to get to the bottom of it, listening intently, giving it our full attention. And again we clearly heard laughter and feminine voices, and very cautiously, almost on tiptoes, we walked several meters, then stopped, heard the laughter again and went on. Going along that way we covered almost 20 meters.

We came to an enormous Ceiba tree; thick vines climbed the trunk and were lost among the highest branches. The huge, dense foliage of the nearby trees did not allow us to see clearly, but guiding ourselves by the laughter we went around the thick trunk and with evident fear and great nervousness. My friend grabbed my shirt and nearly tore it off with a violent yank, signaling me to look up. When I did, what I saw out of the corner of my eye caused me such surprise I nearly fell down. Up there sitting and rocking among the thick vines combing their long black hair were two mestiza sisters. Open-mouthed and stupefied we stood there as if we were frozen. The lovely, happy girls sang an unknown song. It appeared that they had not seen us.

I wanted to speak, but I shut my mouth in fear when I saw what should have been the feet of one girl. They were the feet of a cock. The other one had the feet of a deer. By signals I indicated to my friend what I had seen and when he looked up his face was contorted into a grimace of fear. Furtively, we went back a bit and doing a half turn we ran back to town in a hurry.

Although frightened and without saying a single word, my friend picked up his things. He said goodbye in a hurry to go back to his own community. My pleadings that he spend the night were useless.

Many years have passed since then; my friend never again came to visit me. When we met by accident, we spoke of other things and avoided mention of what we had seen, perhaps because it is said that when something like that happens you should not talk about it.

After this conversation, although with many questions on his mind, my friend Wencho said good-bye and I was left with the disagreeable feeling of the heavy weight of complicity. It was a terrible secret.

Told by Prof. Wenceslao Yeh to Prof. Marcos Xiu Cachón


1. Small, sometimes helpful, sometimes mischievous creatures

2. Guardians of the forest

3. A moon goddess (x is the feminine prefix in Maya), said to cause people to commit suicide by strangulation

4. A long-tailed brown bird with a wingspan of two feet or more in the adult

Originally published in Nicté Tán, "Palabra en Flor," Gaceta de Arte, Cultura e Historia Regional al Servicio de Comunidad. Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Región Maya de México. Año 2, Número 14, Abril de 2002.

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