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from the June 2006 issue

The Water Cathedral

On sunny mornings the walls are white wine, the columns are ginger ale, the towers are immense bottles of beer, the high steeples drip amber. Down in the naves you feel the freshness of orange-water and the main altar is a wave of bee honey, and the saints in the chapels have the coolness of that tea they give to the sick.

But in the afternoons, in the twilight hour, the walls turn into thick blood, the colonnade moves on legs of red wine, the towers are that false liquid of red-hot iron, there is melted gold in the altar pieces, and it's as if the saints are made of burning water.

And on full moon nights, the cathedral pudding is pale and alive like a great glass of mineral water. And the steeples stream up in little spouts of melted wax. And there's milk in the altars. And the pilasters are the bars of mercury in a colossal thermometer. And the saints are something like camphor-alcohol . . .

But all this is a poor attempt to describe the Water Cathedral that lies at the bottom of the Arco River, right in the Amate Pool. This is nothing but a remedy, washed out by years and lack of imagination, for the Water Cathedral that Sebastián, the blond boy in town, told us about when we were small.

Sebastián, who we nicknamed The Moor because he looked like the masks from the Dance of the Moors that the Indians put on during the Feast of the Assumption, was, as you might expect, the only blond child for a hundred kilometers around; among the gaggle of village children he gleamed like a gold coin; people never tired of touching his saffron locks, of praising his pink cheeks that were covered with an aura of ripe peach down, of looking and looking at his big eyes, the clear blue of far mountains or the pools in the Arco River at the height of summer.

"He is the sun's child," was always the response of Teresa, the mother, to the curious people who'd been in good supply since Sebastián's birth.

"Sun's child? How so?" insisted the more impertinent ones.

"A sun's child. Don't you know that when a woman is sick and with child, sometimes it's not a man's child; it's the moon's child, the stars', the rivers', the mountains'? So Sebastián was the sun's child, though he doesn't know anything about it, of course."

As soon as Juan Antonio, Sebastián's skinny father, whose only singularity was that he ate like ten men at once, was asked for information about why his son was "canche" or "canis" or "a sun's child", when he and Teresa were neither whiter nor blacker than the rest of the village population, solemnly moved his messy head to confess, "I don't know, I don't know."

But then he would regain his natural ease and add, "My mother-in-law says it's because I stuffed myself with oranges from Rabinal and in one sitting I ate eighteen ears of yellow corn and three plates of breaded steaks and two plates of turkey with yellow sauce-can you believe it? But my mama, on the other hand, blames it on the huge honey-candy Teresa ate, that Mingo brought her from the Caquil sugarcane mill!"

He let out a guffaw, fat and fresh like a ripe anona, and added, "You don't have to believe it or disbelieve it . . . But if you hear it from Uncle Maco, you have no choice!"

"What does Uncle Maco say?" the listener would gain interest. The word of Uncle Maco, the town healer, was taken as wisdom.

"He says," -and Juan Antonio opened his mouth to let out the robust anona laughs, "he says that what happened was Teresa and I laid down together during the day, out in the fields, when it was really sunny, and a yellow cow caught a glimpse of us."

When the rainy season ended, the boys would meet up on the edge of the old cemetery, from whose hill we could see the course of the river flowing two hundred meters below the town. We tried to determine if its waters were clean or not. During the rainy season, it was useless to even think about bathing because the water level could rise suddenly, and more importantly, the water became the bloody color of annatto, due to, we all knew, the Arriquín River, which flows down through the red soils of Chiché and Chinique.

Sebastián always opened his mouth: "The Arriquín is red because it has the blood of Christ in it."

Fito, the town rich man's son, tried to wreck the fantasy. "Liar! I know where the Arriquín comes from."

"Where? Where?" and we all looked admiringly at Fito, the only one who had seen what lay beyond the mere trickles of our town.

"From far, far away! Way beyond Chinique or Chiché, by Santo Tomás or by Lemoa. That is to say, twenty leagues or more."

"Twenty leagues? How far is twenty leagues?"

"Oof! A lot. Like going ten times from here to Zacualpa. Like going to Pachilip a hundred times. Like going to the Amate Pool a thousand, thousand times. Like going from your house to school a million times . . . "

"No way in hell! Not even if it was on the other side of the world . . . "

"You've never been on a horse for a straight week. See that white mountain, the last one, towards the bridge?"

Fifteen sets of eyes darted, like clay shot blown out of a blowgun, in the direction Fito's index finger pointed. There, so far off it was almost made of crystal, the fabled mountain rose up, the last one the eyes of the townspeople could make out, the one that, without a doubt, formed the edge of the world.

"I've been to that hill," Fito boasted. "And from that pine tree you can sort of see at the peak, the feathery one, split in two . . . "

Sebastián wouldn't give in: "But the Arriquín is red because it has the blood of Christ in it."

"The Moor's a liar," we protested. "And how do you know if you've never been there? What Fito . . . "

"The priest told Mama, and my grandmother says so too. My Papa says that he read it in a book that Uncle Maco has. When it rains, the sky is crying over the death of Jesus Christ. And when it rains up on that mountain, since it's where El Señor is crucified, his blood is carried off in the Arriquín."

"So where is he crucified, then, El Señor?" we began to get interested.

"On the peak of the mountain. Can't you see that this pine tree, as Fito calls it, isn't a pine tree but the cross where El Señor is? And the proof that the Arriquín has the blood of Christ in it is that in the lowlands the corn grows good, and the red beans, and the white sugar cane, and even the grass isn't grass but the Indians' chamajil, which has also got the blood of Christ in it. I'd like to know if the river in Zacualpa, even though it's bigger than the Arriquín, grows bean patches or cornfields or sugarcane. So there!" And Sebastián planted himself in front of everyone, daring us.

"But they do grow good tobacco there," intervened Tomás patriotically. Tomás was the son of a Zacualpan mother and stood up in the name of the population.

"Now you see, now you see," corroborated Sebastián. "Only tobacco grows along that river. And tobacco is the devil's, not God's. You can't deny that tobacco is nothing but a vice."

When we could see from the lookout that the blood of Christ had stopped flowing in the river, we ran down the hill to bathe. The first swim of the year was always a jubilee. Instead of subjecting ourselves to a whole morning or afternoon in the gloomy classroom to hear the boring monologues of the teacher Don Roque, we dove down in the river water, in the sun that flowed along the river, in the water with sun that was the river. It was magnificent to hurl ourselves completely naked into the clear, cool water, breaking the crystal with our bodies and sending it flying all the way to the rocks on the bank, smashing it with every stroke, with every shout, with every explosion of laughter.

The Amate Pool got its name, as you might guess, from a stand of dwarfed and solid amate trees that were clustered along both edges. The thick branches, pitched over the water like swimmers, made it darker, a deep blue that belonged more in lakes or oceans than in a river. The thick roots thrust down hard into the cracks between the rocks, where clean threads of water got out and then flowed, miniature imitations of the river, like so many Arco-River-children, towards the Grand Arco River, between the white sand and the black gravel. When the water rose high enough, we entertained ourselves with a childish hydrographical system originating in the amate roots, making the rites change their course using our fingers or with help from stone artists that formed little lakes, deltas, junctions, many islands; we built dikes only to break them again, creating a flood, an entire inundation . . .

I will never forget how Sebastián was dressed one morning, the first time he told us about the Water Cathedral. The whole gang was under the leafiest amate, each one of us sitting on the rock where he had left his clothes. I can see the blue shirt, which matched his eyes; a shirt pleated in the front, with pretty shell buttons. I can see his pitiful woven sombrero, with little tears in the brim, a hole in the top, and dirty stains all over. I can see his denim pants, also blue, with white patches on the knees, the color worn out. I can see his cheeks, whose fuzz was dampened gold by the sun, his little teeth eaten up with cavities, his bare fallen angel feet.

"They say that down below," and he pointed at the river, "there's a cathedral madeawater."

We all felt a strange touch, an inexplicable dread. Sebastián often made us feel it in the middle of one of his narrations, and more than anything it came from the tone that marked his voice, a tone of confidence, revelation of a dangerous secret.

"A cathedral madeawater!" (And Fito, in the midst of the chorus, charged the phrase with the most surprise).

"Yeah, madeawater. It's all the way at the bottom, in the bluest part, on that side, around where those three amate reflections are. "

"But how's it madeawater?" we wanted to know.

"It's just made of pure water: the walls aren't rock, they're madeawater; the naves madeawater, the altars madeawater, the windows madeawater, the glass madeawater, the floor madeawater, the saints madeawater; it's all madeawater, even the air inside."

"You liar, Sebastián," protested Lucas, the youngest. "How could it hold itself up, being all madeawater?"

"I've heard," said Tomás, "that in the Enchanted Pool in the river at Zacualpa, there's a sunken palace where dwarves live and some horses the size of the devil's horsies and dogs madeawater . . . "

"Dogs madeawater!" the chorus attacked him.

"But not dogs made out of water," declared Tomás. "It's just what they call these dogs that live underwater, they're real dogs . . . "

Sebastián regained his confidential tone and told us the big secret, almost in a whisper.

"I've seen it!"

"You've seen it!" and a bunch of hearts began to tremble in one tremor of fear.

"It has five doors, each one as wide as the church and taller; it has a hundred bells in a hundred towers, wide from top to bottom, pointed like sparrow beaks; it has five naves . . . "

"What are naves? Are they boats?" interrupted the littlest one.

"Stupid Pinineyo! the naves are the high part of the church," Fito explained completely.

"The roof?"

"Stupid, stupid! What you see up above when you're inside the church."

"You have to enter little by little," the storyteller continued confiding, "you sink down without making a sound, feet first, until you're sitting. I could see the bells ringing."

"And did you hear them?"

"Stupid, stupid!" Fito protested again. "How could he hear underwater?"

"No, I didn't hear them, but I saw the sound. Down there you don't hear the sound of the bells, you see it; they're little bombs that come out of the bells, one after the other, like a bunch of puppies, like when you make soap bubbles. Tilin, tilin, tilin, tilin. All the drowned souls came out for the Good Friday holy burial parade."

"All the drowned souls!" Fito was doubtful. "And how could the drowned souls all be down there, if they all get pulled out of the river and buried in the cemetery?"

"The drowned souls," Sebastián replied, "come back body and spirit to the pool where they drowned. No matter how deep we bury them, they come back to the river, they get out of the grave. Those who die in the water, not because of evil luck but because they want the river, want to live here. In all of the rivers there are people, there are houses, there are cities of drowned souls."

"So how do they breathe?"

"But don't you get it? It's the drowned souls who live under the water. And anyway, without having drowned you can live underwater; it just hurts your ears."

Although our first impulse was to get naked and dive in to look for the cathedral, an unconfessed dread held us back on that occasion and for many days after. At first we managed to avoid coming to the river, but the desire to flee school was too strong. Nonetheless, we preferred not to bathe, but to gather new details from our easy informant. In this way we learned that the cathedral was not always visible and was not always the same; the latter fact I managed to demonstrate in my pale opening version. As for not being visible every day or every moment, Sebastián said that sometimes it shifted downriver, towards the villages and outer towns. Flocks of herons and swallows would fly over the river when the cathedral began to move, masses of white clouds, and then the Amate Pool would turn green. Hadn't we noticed these changes in the color of the Amate Pool's water? And sometimes it shifted upriver. All along the middle of the river, it would make a band of fine foam, like snake spit; then the flocks of pigeons and herons would fly against the current, just like the cottony clouds. The sign that the cathedral had gone back up towards the Arriquín was that the Amate Pool became clear, so clear that you could see the bottom . . .

When one Palm Sunday night Juan Antonio and Teresa went side by side through town, stopping to inquire at the house of each boy in the gang if Sebastián had hung around, and there was no news to be found anywhere, all of the townspeople crowded around and blamed the Maxeño Indians who had flooded in from their far off ranches to sell xecas for the beginning of Holy Week. Some Maxeño, it was certain, had kidnapped Sebastián, the blond boy in town, that strange Viking seed fallen in the heart of the dark mountains, to use in place of bees' honey in the confection of the dark bread called xeca, which they bake along with their round cakes. The news spread that the Maxeños liked to steal fair children and boil them alive in vats of water until their bodies turned to sulfur-colored honey.

Despite all of these speculations, Anselmo found the body of Sebastián at the bottom of the pool, caught in the great amate roots on Holy Thursday morning. Anselmo was the municipal police officer.

"I's alone," he would tell anyone who wanted to listen, "in the Amate Pool; dove down to the bottom and the first time I thought it was a big white fish; then I got scared it might be true you turn into a fish if you swim during Holy Week; but since the priest said the other day that that's a lie, I dove in again, and then I saw Sebastián, standing up, the roots hugging him, with his eyes wide open and his belly like a balloon."

The best swimmers around jumped in, with orders from the authorities to bring the body afloat. All of them came up half-asphyxiated, saying it was useless to try, because in the first place it was difficult to even touch the bottom, secondly they ran the risk of getting tangled in the roots and the corridors of stone down there, and lastly Sebastian's body appeared to be planted, impossible to pull out.

When at last they extracted him, skin whiter than ever, hair an even more authentic liquid gold, big eyes like two miniature copies of the Amate Pool, and they put him in a pine coffin the same color as his body, with everything, including the wet clothes he had worn on top, and he was carried off on the shoulders of the school children to be buried, right behind the municipal band that was playing a rather happy march, and all of it was followed by the hoarse moan of Juan Antonio, and the coffin was left beneath more than three meters of earth, I knew, as I continue to know, that time and effort had been squandered uselessly on all of this, since without a doubt that very afternoon, as soon as the last member of the procession left the family tombs, Sebastián had to return to the river bed, body and spirit.

I don't know if the village boys now fill our places, abandoning the classroom to run and swim in the river, keeping the memory of Sebastián. I do know, I am sure of it, that they continue believing in the existence of the fantastic Water Cathedral at the bottom of the Amate Well and that, hidden from aged people who have forgotten the legend, they go in groups in the mornings, in the afternoons, on full-moon nights to contemplate, with every dangerous dive, the formidable submerged building, but really made of the river water, but really made of itself.

Nor can I presume that the boldest ones have stayed underwater long enough to see the procession of drowned souls making their way to the holy burial. If my now-grown voice can reach the ears of this new gaggle of children, I want to warn them that Sebastián is a white figure, the color of uncooked French bread with long curls made of corn silk, who always walks in the front of the procession.

To be safe, take a Holy Week water rattle, one that looks like pine, and make it spin, deafly. From the drowned rattle come sounds of frightened fish, schools of bubbles like tadpoles, black comets from the luminous firmament of fluvial waters.

Read more from the June 2006 issue
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