This is not really about our backyard, except that that’s where I was when the memory washed over me, early one morning, about 4 a.m. or thereabouts, as I shivered and stared up at the sky, hoping to see the show from the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. Upstairs was a warm bed, with a warm (and smart) Nadia in it.
“Let me know if there’s something to see,” she mumbled when I got up, her nose poking out of the blankets.
There were lots of stars this night, for a city sky, at least. I stood out there awhile, listening to the nocturnal city growl, the murmur from I-70 a couple of miles north, the slight rustle of leaves in our pin oak. A couple of upstairs lights were on in a nearby house—insomnia? Or another watcher? Nearby security lights were on, guarding back doors. There is a peace to early, early morning that is hard to describe. It sort of feels like the whole world is yours, like you’ve got it all to yourself.
I watched for falling stars—the Quadrantids are known for fireballs, flaming meteors leaving trails across the sky. Nothing fell, but I watched anyway.
At one point, I looked straight up and saw a rapidly moving light, pulsing regularly, moving west to east. Very fast. It didn’t look like a commercial airliner, but it wasn’t really odd. Military aircraft, maybe. But it triggered something deep in my memory.
We were far out beyond where the casual traveler usually goes, deep into southern Mexico. Chiapas, way out in the isolated highlands south of Altamirano, a little-known town on the edge of the past. Summer, 1977.
We three gringos, Pam, the Dutchman we knew as Kris, and I sat around a small fire in the mountain hamlet of El Triunfo. We had come to this small village the hard way, walking with heavy packs over miles and more miles of mountain paths from Altamirano.
The village headman, Presidente Antonio, was a young man, handsome, with friendly, penetrating eyes. He made us welcome, put us up in the local schoolhouse, a wattle-and-daub thatched building with tables big enough for our sleeping bags. Food was provided for the exotic visitors, tortillas and beans and coffee. It was good, and we were grateful.
That night around the fire there were a few curious hangers-on willing to sacrifice sleep to be around visitors who almost never came here. Blancos, gringos, were pretty much unknown in these parts, and we were a powerful draw. We murmured and chatted into the night, watching the stars as they went from faint to fierce as the sun went down and night advanced.
I think that one who has never seen a true night sky has never fully lived. Up there in the mountains of southern Chiapas, many miles from the nearest road or town with electricity, we could see stars. The firmament glowed with them. The sky was radiant. They almost reached down to grab at us.
Conversation murmured around the little fire. I missed most of it, my Spanish being somewhere south of bad, but Kris was fluent. He was there to visit his wife’s people—the Tzeltal Maya—and here they were. Like most people, I had read about the mysterious disappearance of the Maya in ancient times, but it was no mystery to me on this night. They were here, with us, sitting around this fire. chatting softly in the night air. I don’t know where their empire went, but the Maya remain. Their ancient language murmured in the darkness when they spoke amongst themselves, but when they spoke to us, they politely switched to a simple Spanish.
It is hard not to watch that kind of luminous sky, and watch I did. The glow was captivating and suddenly among it I saw a small point of light moving in a straight line. It didn’t blink or diverge from its path, but it moved steadily on, from one horizon to the other. A satellite. I pointed at it, and said something like, “Mira. Esta estrella is una maquina.” Look, this star is a machine.
I’m not really sure, all these many years later, but I suppose I was bragging about our technology. I did not get the reaction I expected.
“Si, yo se.”, said Presidente Antonio, translated by Kris. “Los hombres de arroz vienen de estas maquinas”. Yes, I know. The Men of Rice come from these machines. He said it like he would say that the sun comes up in the morning. Matter of fact. He wasn’t even very interested. The talk moved on.
The fire and conversation died down after a while. The villagers had to get up early to reach their distant fields and do their work. This life was not an easy one.
I don’t recall, these many years later why we didn’t question Antonio further about these strange men who come from the machines in the sky. Kris was dozing and we were all tired from miles of hard walking. It just didn’t seem to dawn on me that we may have heard something profound. For 35 years it has remained to me as a mystery from a mysterious people, and I have never been able to find out more. There are persistent legends about celestial visitors to the Maya in ancient times (and here and here) influencing their advanced culture and helping devise their uncannily precise calendar, but as a tedious realist and a former student of a prominent Mayan archaeologist, the late Dr. Robert Rands, I put no stock in them. But I would like to know….
A week or so later, we literally stumbled out of that valley, thoroughly exhausted after a forced march of what we later estimated to be 45 miles in one day. Eventually we found our way back to our ‘normal’ lives in El Norte. My immediate legacy of that time was a fierce case of dysentery. The longer one is a puzzle that still nags at my mind. The nonchalance of a Tzeltal Maya Indian confronted with a miracle of modern technology, as if he knew about it before we did, still tugs at my imagination.
I don’t know what happened to Presidente Antonio over the decades, but I fervently hope it was good. He had very kind eyes, seeming older than his young face. I hope he still does.
The cold brought me back. Twenty minutes or so into my backyard search for fireballs, I gave in to the shivering and decided to go back to bed. My search was in vain. The neighbors’ security lights glowed on. Distant traffic rumbled.
Turned out I was a day late for the meteor shower anyway. I had the date wrong. No fireballs for me. No Rice Men. Not this night.
But, damn….I still wonder. I think I will always wonder. About lights in the sky. About ancient peoples and what they may know.
I left our backyard for the warmth inside.
Note: This area was home to part of the Zapatista rebellion of the 1990’s. I have often wondered about how many of the children we met among the Tzeltal and Tojolobal Maya fought in this rebellion and how many lived or died.