Excerpt from “The Falling Woman”

In this excerpt from Chapter 1, archeologist Elizabeth Butler meets a ghost from the past by a cenote, a deep pool of water used by the Maya long ago. This piece is told from Elizabeth’s point of view.

I do not live entirely in the present. Sometimes, I think that the ghosts of the past haunt me. Sometimes, I think I haunt them. We come together in the uncertain hours of dawn and dusk, when the world is on edge between day and night.

When I wander through the Berkeley campus at dawn, I smell the thin smoke of cooking fires that flared and died a thousand years ago. A shadow flits across the path before me — no, two shadows — little girls playing a game involving a ball, a hoop, a stick, and much laughter. For a moment, I hear them laughing, shrill as birds, and then the laughter fades.

I have grown used to my ghosts. It’s no worse, I suppose, than other disabilities: some people are nearsighted, some are hard-of-hearing. I see too much, and that distracts me from the business at hand.

Generally, the phantoms ignore me, busy with their own affairs. For these shadows, the times are separate. The Indian village that I see is gone: past tense. The campus through which I walk is now: present tense. For others, there is no overlap between the two. I live on the border and see both sides.

# # #

The water of the cenote was cold and clear. The air beside the pool carried the scent of water lilies and wet mud. I stopped at the edge of the pool, sat down, and leaned back against a squared-off stone that had once been part of a structure.

Here and there, other stone temple blocks showed through the soil. Three thousand years ago, the Maya had built a temple here. One thousand years ago, they had abandoned the temple and retreated into the forest. No archeologist knew why and the ancient Maya weren’t saying. Not yet.

The heavy rains of a thousand springs had eroded the stones; the winds had blown dust over them. Grasses had grown in the dust, covering the rocks and hiding their secrets. Trees had grown on the crest of the mound, and their twisted roots had tumbled and broken the stones. The jungle had reclaimed the land.

I liked this place. By day, I could watch the shadows of women draw water from the pool, slaves and peasants stooping to fill rounded jars with clear water, hoisting the full vessels to their heads, and moving away with the stately grace required to balance the heavy jars. They talked and laughed and joked and I liked to listen.

The wind rippled the water, and the moonlight laid a pale silver ribbon on the shining surface. Bats swooped low to catch insects that hovered just above the pool. I saw a movement on the path that led to the cenote, and I waited. Perhaps a slave sent to fetch water. Perhaps a young woman meeting a lover.

I heard the soft slapping of sandals against rock as a shadow crossed between me and the pool. The figure walked with a slight limp. There was a bulkiness about the head that suggested braided hair, a hint of feminine grace when the figure stooped to touch the water. She turned, as if to continue along the path, then stopped, staring in my direction.

I waited. Crickets trilled all around me. A frog croaked, but no frog answered. For a moment, I thought I had mistaken a woman of my own time for a shadow of the past. I greeted her in Maya, a language I speak tolerably well after ten long years of stammering and mispronunciation. My accent is not good — I struggle with subtleties of tone and miss the point of puns and jokes — but I can usually understand and make myself understood.

The person standing motionless by the edge of the pool did not speak for a moment. Then she said, “I see a living shadow. Why are you here?” By the sound of her voice, I guessed her to be a woman about my age. She spoke Maya with an ancient accent.

Shadows do not speak to me. For a moment, I sat silent. Shadows come and go and I watch them, but they do not speak, they do not watch me.

“Speak to me, shadow,” said the woman. “I have been alone so long. Why are you here?”