Enjoy this short work of magical realism (6,800 words). It’s about Salvador, a tour guide in the Yukatan who discovers a primal truth about himself, while his past unravels before his eyes. This personal transformation is intertwined with the beauty and mystery of his favorite cenote.
Salvador the Jaguar
Written by Zane Cassidy
Beneath bark, hide and skin lies the most beautiful commotion in the universe. Between bone and blood cells. Beyond scopic and into microscopic. Here on a silent stage the translucent tendrils of life are dancing. Strands of genetic code continuing a choreographed routine that began in the dark morning of living things.
Over an ordinary lifetime the dance does not change at all. It only begins and then it ends. But the dancers live on, in their own way, and change ever so slightly as they do.
A son is born, another dance begins. Twisted tightly together, the dancers spiral in near infinite sequential support. On this new microscopic stage a subtly different routine finds its feet. Completely unique and like none the universe has ever seen.
The dance has to follow certain steps to change slowly over lifetimes. Can you imagine tearing a strand of DNA in half, so it can be replaced with a new partner mid step? The whole production would fall to pieces and become ooze. Ordinary nature does not allow for it. No, it has to change with generations, centuries, eons. Painstakingly slow, and stoked by the often-maligned furnace of life, fear.
As long as there’s fear, there’s life.
Fear does something unique to life. It makes life less… ordinary. It compels change, if the subject is strong enough to survive it.
The dancers know this primal truth intimately. It might not be why they began but it certainly gives generation after generation a purpose. Like a deep and heavy beating of a drum behind the music, it sets the tempo for the song that moves them.
If you can simultaneously pull far enough away from the ensemble, while also managing to keep an eye on the details, life with all its varying degrees of contrast begins to blur together. Only the dancers themselves become distinguishable:
Repeating instances of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and carbon. On their own, programed to a certain number, but capable of learning to jig as much as twist, jitterbug as much as tango.
As they coalesce in indistinguishable tendrils of translucent colors, free from the scruples of time, you can see them mesh together. Bark becomes hide, and hide becomes skin. All of this occurring at once, to the heart pounding rhythm of a drum in the dark.
The City of Tulum, Mexico.
Salvador was being watched from within his apartment, but he didn’t see the eyes.
Dancing in his kitchenette, he was listening to a love song in his head as sheets of rain made music on his thin roof. Swaying over the counter he twisted cinnamon bark in one hand against a grinder in the other. Some of the chalky crimson powder clung to the creases of his large palms. Most fell into a well-worn travel mug of steaming coffee.
The eyes only stared at him. They watched him that day just as they did the day before, and for the past thirty-five days.
The song in his head carried on to its climax. Swept away in a fantasy all his own, he set down the cinnamon and lifted his hands to sing the final verse out loud.
“And you’ll never forget my eyes,” he bellowed.
They didn’t blink or waiver at this. Only the rain responded, with more rain.
He picked up his coffee, sipped, and stared across the tiny grey room towards a calendar nailed to the wall. He checked the time on his wrist. Back to the jewel today. He smiled. My favorite cenote. There’s nothing more that I want than to swim in your waters.
And then he saw them. Emerald green and aware. Two small eyes hanging from the wall. The eyes of a jaguar staring back at him from the calendar’s photo.
He approached them. They were part of a square image of the Yukatan jungle. April was written at the top in the blue sky, above the trees. At bottom, shadows overtook the frame. There, with its body hiding in a dark pool of water was the creature that has been staring at him for too long.
“Balam,” he whispered over his coffee. The Mayan name for Jaguar. The most sacred of all creatures. A moment of reverence, then he quickly flipped the calendar page to the next month and walked away. Conquering the animal’s powerful stare with a piece of paper.
It’s been May for a week. I’m living in the past again!
He sipped his coffee and let his mind slip back in time to a hot summer day in Mexico City as a boy, where he would sneak off to the public pool near his home. He’d taught himself how to swim there….
And then he grew tense where he stood, and glanced back towards the calendar…. There’d been a bully at the pool. An older boy who thought it was funny to push Salvador’s head underwater. Dunking his head in the deep end as he choked. Chlorine like bleach. He thought he was going to drown. But instead, something unexpected happened. He bit the bully on the shoulder. Hard. Enough to put blood in the water.
Salvador stood there, in the cinnamon rich air, considering this memory. The heavy lines from his nose to the sides of his lips lifted in a prideful smirk. I was like a little jaguar back then. His face brimmed with youthful joy, then abruptly faded again.
That day at the pool didn’t end well for him.
He flinched as his door shook with a ‘knock-knock.’
“Hello?” A woman’s voice shouted through the rain, wood and time. Setting down his coffee, he turned the knob.
A short woman stood on his stoop. In front of her was a girl around seven and just as short–the granddaughter he assumed. They dressed the same, in white vestidos with colorful florals around the bustier. Blue, purple, yellow and pink. Their collars and sleeves ringed with bright red yarn. The grandmother likely made both outfits with the girl’s help. They had luggage.
He stood there looking at them blankly.
The lady spoke first, “Are you Salvador Avalos?”
“Yes, I am.”
A short pause. So fleeting that it shouldn’t have been noticed for being anything other than a short pause. But it put him on edge. There was something familiar about them. He’d never seen them before, of that he was sure, but in that moment he knew that they knew him from before.
She clutched the girl tightly. “This is your daughter, Lanna. We have come here from Mexico City because…” Her voice broke off. She began to cry. “Because Juana is dead.”
A thunderclap echoed behind his eyes. Juana. A name. A face. A pair of eyes that for many years he tried to forget. And this girl, his daughter. It can’t be.
Tugging his large earlobe, “I’m sorry, but, you are mistaken?” His statement turned into a question as he released it through a shaky smile. “Juana and I… We didn’t have any children.”
She pulled through tears and rebutted with Biblical certainty. “Yes, you did. She was pregnant before you left her.”
Her words went up and stayed in the air, so apparently true that they might have become visible. He squinted, let go of his earlobe, and stared down at the girl. She had his sharp chin and wide brow. But he could see Juana in her eyes. They were almond shaped and almost black, like jungle soil. Her small fingers fiddled with a string that fell from her shirt. He shuddered.
The woman continued, “We have been raising her.” She began to cry again. “Juana was my daughter. She was fine just a few months ago and then she became very sick and she passed away. She is gone now. And my husband, her father is gone too. We have very little family left.”
The mud was drowning in rain while her story soaked him to the bone. She carried on about their plight as his mind worked to make sense. His onetime love from another life, dead. He was the father of this beautiful little girl. He knew it was all true. A creeping fear began to claw him.
If they can find me… then so can he.
He looked away, over their heads when an old, but familiar pain returned. It started in his stomach. Like some invisible thread was pulling his belly button into his spine with so much force that his organs might tear through his back.
You’re coming apart.
A shaky exhale through clenched teeth. He could tell they didn’t notice what he just experienced. He had spent much of his life hiding, and continued to do it well.
“I… I’m so sorry. I haven’t spoken to Juana in seven years.” He hesitated then offered, “Please, please, come inside.” He motioned them to sit at his small table. A few moments of silence transpired as they came in with their bags. His stomach was still too tight to be ordinary, but it was better to a lesser extent than moments ago. Nevertheless, he had the distinct mind to flee.
“I have work today. I’m a tour guide,” he said in a deeper, more controlled tone. “You’re welcome to stay here while I’m gone.” He nodded at the old woman and glanced at the girl.
The grandmother thanked him while Lana only looked around and then down at her wet shoes.
Saying goodbye, he stepped out the door and headed off to his favorite cenote, without his coffee and with only half a mind to return.
He slogged to a long white van with a large decal on the side that read: Yukatan Tours.
Driving off, he began his rounds, picking up tourists from their respective hotels. Half of him was able to become the tour guide. The job he’d learned to love over the past seven years. But only half of him could manage this transformation because on this day, his mind was split by time.
From a microphone built into the van’s dash he effortlessly, and without his usual fervor, explained the purpose of the day’s trip to the tourists. A journey to one of the most beautiful cenotes in all the peninsula. A sacred place for the ancient Maya in this region. He spoke on end about the Maya. Their great cultural achievements. Their politics. Religion. And the central topic of the day, the cenote as entrance to the underworld. All of this he did for the majority of the two-hour drive. And he did so with the grace of a dispassionate pop star. He hit all his marks, kept up with the beat, but even though he tried there was no enthusiasm in his performance.
The tourists were amused, however, and one was visibly enthralled: an Australian woman in her early twenties named Amber. She made it a point to be the most curious, and, on several occasions, provided her own bits of Mayan history and anecdotes.
So, there was the Salvador that the tourists could see. But all the while he was also journeying to places in his ancient past. The ruins of his mind, overgrown with the vines of time.
“Which is why you should switch majors.” Juana playfully poked his ribs with her elbow. They lay naked together, side by side on a small bed. It was a hot spring day in Mexico City.
Salvador smoked a cigarette. “I study it because I like it. I’m over doing things for any other reason.” His confidence in this statement was strong. They both smiled. She reached for his cigarette and took a puff. The air was smoky, sticky and sweet.
“Well, when you graduate and can’t find a good job, will you like that?” She said with a mirthful smile. He rolled onto his side and looked at her.
“When I’m graduated, I’ll find a good woman to take care of me, so I can be a poor historian forever.” They kissed.
“A good woman… Right.” She took one more puff and stuffed the cigarette into an ashtray. “It’s Mother’s Day this weekend. Are you going home?
He hesitated. “Yes, I was planning on going home.”
“Oh, OK. What if I came with you?”
A sharpness accompanied his normal, raspy voice. “My mother, she’s still sick. It’s not a good time right now.”
“Is she going to be OK?”
“Yes, yes, she’s fine. She just needs some time.” A definitive no. He didn’t want her to meet his mother. Ever. And he had no plans on seeing his mother on Mother’s Day. But he was also anxious about meeting her mother. Family… wasn’t his thing. He got up and began to dress.
“I forgot I need to meet with Eddy at the library before 5:00.” He said.
“It’s only 3:00,” she cooed from under the sheet. “Stay with me.”
They locked eyes. He couldn’t say ‘no’ to her. In a flash, he pounced on the bed, causing her to shriek with surprise and joy.
Salvador turned off the van’s windshield wipers. An intensely bright, blue sky now hung above the road. Greens of impenetrable jungle blurred by on either side. The tourists and their tour guide were nearly at the cenote.
“Salvador, tell us about the jaguar,” said Amber, in her Australian twang that made even a statement sound like a question.
Without warning, her words grabbed him like an uncomfortably strong embrace. His mouth slacked open. Eyes glazed over. He could see a red-brown tile floor in a vision that became opaque over the road in front of him. A living room. Blood on white grout. Mom. Jorge. He shifted in his seat to try and look past this terror in his mind, fidgeting at the wheel.
The sound of his name in her twang parted the visions. He could see the blue sky again, the road. He could see her looking intently at him in the rear view mirror.
“Yes… You want to know about the Mayan jaguar?”
“Well, I know a little about its importance as a deity. The Night Sun.” Calling it by another name made her quiver with delight. It was obvious that by ‘a little’ she meant ‘a lot.’
“The Night Sun, yes. That was one of its many names. And many forms. They believed that the sun itself would turn into a jaguar at night, where its power would live until day. Of all beings, they chose the jaguar for this highest honor.” He recovered from the crippling vision enough to be present and focus on the lore.
“It demanded their complete respect. For example, if a cenote was found inhabited by a jaguar, the Maya would leave it be and let it claim the lair. They would walk on, maybe for miles or even into hostile territory, to find the next source of fresh water.”
Again, a biting flurry of images appeared on the surface of his eyes. Blood between the tiles. From the floor he looked up to see a shadowy figure hunched over and framed by an open door. It was a blurry silhouetted mass, masked by sunlight on all sides. A man, maybe. It dragged its feet out the door like a wounded animal.
She pressed him further.
“What about its magical powers and the Nagual.”
This got his attention, pulling him back to the present as sweat beaded on his forehead. Half of the other passengers were sleeping in their seats at this point, which was pretty typical given the early morning pick up. The other half weren’t really paying attention anymore, after his lecture. It was just him and her now. He looked at her in the mirror as if it were for the first time.
Her skin was milky white. She had long red, wavy hair. Bright green eyes. Her rare blinks revealed a pattern of amber colored dots on her eyelids. Some kind of tribal makeup. She wasn’t like the rest of the tourists. She wore a dress of sorts. Salvador thought it looked Moroccan, but he couldn’t be sure. She reminded him of the hippies camping in the jungle in Tulum. He responded.
“Because it could hunt at day and night, could swim and climb, could be loud but also be invisible… because of these things they believed that the jaguar existed between worlds.”
The visions returned, and somehow stronger this time. A man’s brown face pressed against the tile floor, clutched by bloody hands. As he continued to witness this struggle, like a violent program he couldn’t switch off, Amber began to flow, telling him what she knew about the jaguar.
She lifted her chin just slightly and spoke with a mystical certainty. Another tourist, waking from a nap, literally raised an eyebrow. Amber’s lust for the past was palpable. For these magical things to be real, a naked desire.
“It’s said that certain people, especially those born on the day of the jaguar, would embody the animal’s traits. They could use them for good or evil. They could become the jaguar and travel between the worlds, which to me, sounds more like what we call dimensions today. Like time travel. They called these people the Nagual.”
He looked back at her. Excitement glittering in her green eyes like precious stones under the sun.
And then she said in a nonchalant tone, holding up her phone, “I’m born on the day of the Jaguar. I have the Mayan calendar app.”
Though bothered by the images flashing over his eyes, he suddenly had trouble holding back a laugh. A grin flattened his lips as he looked at her in the mirror with some version of wonder behind his brow.
This Australian girl believes in Mayan myth and has the app. Either you’re losing it, or the world is losing you.
His smile grew as he said, “Yes. That’s what they believed. And they figured it all out without Steve Jobs’ help.”
She exhaled a “Ha!” through a toothy grin. And in a flash looked both amused and exposed.
His conflict and unease, the visions of blood, they relented to some extent after this and soon went away. The van passed a small blue road sign.
Then with a more serious thought he stiffened in his seat.
When the day is over and I collect my pay, I will not return home.
He was pretty sure there was no other way.
The van pulled into a small dirt parking lot. Everyone got out and followed Salvador onto a narrow jungle path.
After only five minutes of walking they approached something massive and at first unseen. The tourists tried to articulate what they were feeling as they approached it. Salvador remembered his first time to this cenote and even on this visit could still feel the novel sensations that escaped their words. A sense of a great emptiness that seemed to absorb the sounds of the forest as they stepped forward; the birds in the trees, the bugs, and even their own voices seemed to be enveloped, gradually, into a giant echo chamber with soft walls.
As the group got closer, a massive hole in the earth appeared out of nowhere, as if a meteor crashed through the canopy of trees and burrowed deep into the jungle, fifty feet down and 100 feet wide, exposing sheer, limestone walls. But where the core of the meteor would have remained in scorched earth, a clear pool of water was instead.
While circular in shape, the pool had a progression of color and depth. From clear to turquoise, from turquoise to cerulean, from cerulean into a pitch-black deep end. They had reached the cenote.
My jewel. He thought while staring at the cenote. I will call you Juana.
Calling the group’s attention, Salvador rested his arm on an old bucket winch at the edge of the sheer drop. He paused for a moment, then with an absent smile quipped, “Now we can explore the Mayan underworld. Let’s go swim.”
He would always say this to his groups. He thought it built a sense of mystery in their minds. Their eccentric tour guide who was in love with Mayan myth and culture. But this day he couldn’t pretend to believe a word of it.
His mind, while free from brutalizing visions, was still restless. He thought He was coming to find him. He thought of Lana. Seven years here and they found me so easily. I never told a soul. I have to go. Get my pay, and go.
Together with Salvador at the lead, they walked down ancient limestone carved stairs to the surface of the water.
What followed was hours of lounging, jumping, and snorkeling, as well as a lunch provided by the tour.
After lunch Salvador decided to join the group in the water. Swimming in the deep end towards the cenote wall, goggles on, he once again noticed a shaft of flickering light underwater, far away underground and surrounded by darkness. It wasn’t an ordinary occurrence. He had noticed it before on several occasions, during certain times of the year and day. But more often, the light was off. So when he brought a new group to the cenote he would usually check to see if the light was on. It was.
There must be a hole in the jungle floor over there, allowing the light to shoot down into the water, like a sunroof on a hidden cave.
He floated there, intrigued by the potential of this shadowy cavern.
Another, smaller cenote. A jewel within the jewel. Juana’s Secret. Lana.
But to get there, he would have to swim through this underwater cave. An ominous darkness in front of him. There was no place to come up for air, as far as he could tell. Maybe years ago he could have made it. He shivered. The water is getting cold. It’s time to dry off.
“Have you seen Amber?”
At the van Salvador notices that Amber isn’t with the group.
“No, we haven’t.”
“Neither have we.”
“Last I saw her was in the cenote, swimming.”
Back at the cenote it’s quieter. The birds are gone. The beautiful ombre of cerulean was muddled to slate blue by the day’s activities. Clouds have returned to the corners of the sky.
“Amber,” he yelled
“Amber,” yelled another man from the tour. Then a woman. Then another. Everyone began to search for her.
They walked down the steps. They trekked around the top ring of the cenote. Half an hour passed. She wasn’t there and it was getting late in the day. Shit. Where the fuck is she. Fuck.
I have to call the police.
I can’t be here when the police get here.
He called the police on his mobile phone, out by the main road where he could get some service.
“The police are on their way. We were supposed to leave an hour ago, so uh, we can leave now and they will be here soon,” He said, trying to hide his personal urge to flee.
A male tourist spoke, “I don’t think we should leave until they get here.”
“Yeah, we can stay,” said the man’s wife.
“Of course, we will stay,” Salvador said with an uneasy smile.
Finally, a police car arrived and two officers got out. They took statements from all and let them know that a larger search team was on the way. They didn’t seem interested in Salvador at all. As quickly as possible, without drawing suspicion, he got everyone in the van and they headed back to Tulum.
The ride was full of silence. The rain gently weeping on the road.
A police car drove by headed for the cenote, its blue lights blaring.
Salvador turned on the CD player low and a song came on mid track. It was a song about the rain, faces, and feeling strange.
One of his favorites, but he couldn’t help but wonder if the day can get any more strange. Obscurely and with a fatigued mind, he wondered if listening to this album, as he had for so many years, could have contributed to his current state of affairs. A sort of strangeness by ongoing association to strangeness.
I’m losing it AND the world is losing me.
That much seemed clear to him as two more police cars zipped by.
He dropped them off at their hotels and took their money, barely looking at their eyes.
After his last drop off, he sat in the idling van. Not sure of his next move, he remained there for several songs until he decided that he had to return to her, to say goodbye.
When he got there it was dark. Lanna and Grandma were inside and they’d made a small dinner for the three of them. In relative silence, the three of them sat and enjoyed the meal and each other’s company despite the lack of words spoken. Not a single one from young Lanna.
As soon as they were done Salvador insisted, “You have to come with me to the motel. It’s not safe for you to stay here.”
The grandma protested, but he convinced her that they must go. He left the van at his house with the doors unlocked and the keys on the driver seat under an old hat. They took his small sedan instead, a gutted taxicab from the 90s. Now painted a dull primer black. After a short drive to the motel they said goodbyes.
“Stay here for tonight then go back to Mexico City and forget that you met me. Trust me it’s for your own good.” He looked at Lana, “It’s for her good… Goodbye little one.” He stooped down to give her a hug and she returned it with closed eyes.
He handed them all the money earned that day and left them on the side of the road. Driving, he headed away from Tulum to the west, back towards the cenote with plans to cut south.
As he drove in the darkness the painful memories returned. A muffled woman’s voice shouting at him, telling him to stop. And he slipped into another trance, that state of awareness to memory and imagination that only driving alone at night can conjure.
He had known it was a mistake before he arrived at his mother’s house that Mother’s Day some seven years ago. I should have gone with Juana. It was the first time he’d come to visit his mother in three years. He brought red and white carnations. When he got there he saw that the door was ajar, so he stepped in.
He could hear moaning from the other room and proceeded in to find her lying on the floor. The same position that he had seen her in many times before, throughout his life. Her face was red from impact.
“Where is he?” He growled.
“Salvador… I’m OK. I just fell down.”
A drunken shuffle of feet. Jorge, the closest thing Salvador had ever had to a father, stepped into the room. He was a cop and he loved making sure people knew it. He reaffirmed this by brandishing his revolver, before stuffing it in the back of his pants. Salvador stalked in between his mother and the man.
“Hey, Salvador, how are you, boy?” He feigned interest with a toothy grin.
“Leave the house, Jorge.”
“What? Why would I do that?” He took a couple steps towards them.
“Didn’t your mother tell you to leave us alone, eh? You keep coming back here, but she doesn’t want to see you.” His voice picks up, dialing up his machismo, “She is with me!” He continued, “Or did you come back here to get another beating?”
Salvador had taken some hits from him three years before, when he was eighteen. And when he had been much younger, when Jorge found out he’d been sneaking away to the public pool, and biting shoulders. And many other times for lesser reasons. Salvador never fought back. Too afraid of Jorge and of something else, his own rage. He could feel it in that moment, bursting through his veins with an unordinary vitality.
He helped his mother up to her feet, not saying a word, which only frustrated Jorge further.
“Hey, I’m talking to you, asshole.” And almost in slow motion because of his drunken state Jorge took a wild swing that Salvador saw coming.
Dancing to his left, he avoided the heavy right cross. Swaying forward he grabbed Jorge’s face in both hands. He twisted his head to one side with great force and leapt onto him, bringing him to the ground with a thud.
He mounted him and pinned him to the ground. Savagely, he began to press his thumbs into Jorge’s eyes as he slammed his head against the floor.
The man began screaming. “Hoooaaaaaaa! My eyes! Get him off me! Get it off!”
Salvador couldn’t stop.
Then something grabbed him from behind. He reacted and pushed it to the side. It was his mother, and without trying he had flung her across the room.
He stood above Jorge, in shock over what he had just done. Jorge was moaning and bleeding—red rivers filling the white space between the tiles.
He scampered back, towards the door, hunched over and panting. He stood there for a moment in the doorframe, silhouetted in black by the evening sun, as his mother looked up at him from the floor with terror in her face. She could only manage one word:
That was the last day he saw his mother. And he was sure that, whatever state Jorge was in, he would find Salvador. He was too proud to be beaten.
And now, back in his car gliding through the night, he drove away from this memory and his second life in Tulum. From fond recollections of cenotes. His boss at Yukatan Tours. Away from his daughter. The same fear in his heart from that Mother’s Day had found its way into this new life and was dueling with what was left of his hope that things can change. And he felt stupid for thinking he could escape it. Running would never work, but he had no choice. He would always live in fear because of that day.
Because I am a monster.
Suddenly shadows zipped across the road in front of him, frozen for a moment in his headlights. Forest deer. He slammed the brakes to stop. Around six more deer ran across the small two-lane highway. The jungle where they ran from was alive with sounds. He could hear monkeys hollering and branches shaking. They were running from something.
A jaguar. He knew it must be. The night grew quiet. The car idled. Twigs cracked. His ears buzzing, searching for sounds.
A roar sounded from the darkness. A roar that was met by another. Two of them. He could hear their muscular bodies colliding in the dark. A duel for life. They clamored through the bush. Trees shook.
Salvador leaned back in his seat, his hand pressed against his heart as it thumped loudly. The tempo quickening. The turmoil in the jungle rising until only one growling voice was audible in the night. All else became silent. Then suddenly, his fear subsided and he knew what he had to do.
I have to go to Juana.
He reached the cenote about an hour before the sun came up. The officers who were still at the scene looked surprised to see him. They had nothing to go on, nothing to report other than that Amber was still missing. He spoke to them in a calm voice. “She’s in there.” He pointed towards the deep end and to the inner chamber. “And when the sun comes up, I’m going to her.”
And then he sat and waited. The officers, puzzled by his statement and perplexed by their predicament made no remark, and took no action.
After the sun climbed into the sky Salvador plunged into the tranquil waters.
The temperature was perfect at first, but as he swam towards the cave’s entrance he felt a chill coming from it, like a creeping cold breath.
He stopped. His teeth rattled slightly as he floated, staring at the darkness ahead. His shoulders twitched. I can make it.
Pulling his goggles into place, he took a deep breath. Ribs swelling with air, his body buoyed up. He let the breath out in a long, slow hiss.
Another inhale, deeper this time, and he slipped beneath the surface.
Silence rang in his ears as he kicked his legs. Far ahead was the flickering, vertical shaft of light. Juana’s Secret. He kept kicking. He was too far to turn back.
Swimming. Surrounded by the eerie void of soundless blue-black, until it was all blackness, except for the shimmer of light ahead.
Then suddenly, where did it go? The light. His chest was growing tight—swim on he must. No, surface or die. Immediately air became his only thought. He shot up and sacrificed his nose against the wet limestone ceiling of the cave. With his right cheek pressed against the cave’s ceiling he found just enough room for a gasp. Calm, calm! His inhaled, though desperate, was forcibly controlled and silent. Like a thief he stole this breath from life.
Down again he slipped into the water and spun around, eyes widening to search. There, the light! It’s close.
Kicking. It’s getting brighter. Kicking.
And then he saw them materialize from the void, looming in between him and the light. Giant fangs of ancient limestone. Stalactites and stalagmites set in a row to complete a jagged, jaguar maw. The entrance is a mouth. And as he swam through the jaws they bore down on him, swallowing him whole.
From deep in the darkness a drum.
Gasping for air he broke the surface into the inner chamber. On all fours, he crawled onto a small, limestone slab island.
There he panted for some time until he could take in his new surroundings.
The shaft of light was a hole in the ceiling, as he guessed. It illuminated the cave from a collapse in the jungle floor.
The limestone island was the size of a tiny sailboat, surrounded on all sides by water the color of clear cobalt. In the center of the island was a small circular pool, about the size of a manhole. Its surface as flat as a mirror. He stalked forward on hands and knees to gaze into its surface.
He was shocked to see it reflect a clear view of the night’s sky—alight with thousands of burning stars. And the moon! Clear as night, the moon was full and in the sky. But how could it be? He turned his head up at the light coming in overhead. It was observably daytime. He looked down again, to once again view the starry night in the water.
“You have to go in to see,” she said from behind him. Still on all four, he looked back over his shoulder. Amber was dripping wet and grey. Water trickled down her face, from the sides of her mouth and eyes.
With a kick of her foot on his rear end she said emphatically, “Go in!”
Salvador tumbled head first into the moon water.
He fell down into the water, only to find himself swimming up. That is, the surface became the bottom and the bottom, became the surface. Up and up he swam, towards the new surface.
All the while a transformation was continuing. Something that had possessed him at different times in his life was finally winning out. He could feel his bones breaking. None of them were spared. It began with a series of popping sounds that ran in quick succession up and down his spine. His discs tore and reattached. Joints snapped in two, stretched and fixed.
Muscle shifted, grew, and forcefully pulled his skeleton back together. Organs expanded, shrunk, contracted.
His tongue flattened and scaled. His teeth extended to sharp edges and fangs. He could taste his own blood, bile and other savory flavors. He could feel a startling new power.
Fear had completely bled out to rage and rage had bled out to something else. A new sensation that he couldn’t describe with a thought. It flowed through his fur. It slipped into the tip of every whisker and claw. Then it withdrew from his extremities, like molten blood moving back into his chest. The energy of the sun in his heart. He breached the surface with a roar.
Treading water he found himself in the middle of the main cenote: Juana. It was nighttime and the heavens lay bare. A night from 1,000 years ago. The yellow moon light danced off the rosette patterns on his hide, then off the water, and flickers in his newly green eyes.
On the edges of the cenote wall, where the tourists had bathed in the sun, different people bathed in the moonlight. Mayan people.
They saw him and began to murmur.
“Balam,” one said to another.
“Balam,” they all repeated in hushed, revered voices above the pool.
He saw Amber. She was with them on the rocks, lying comfortably on her side, naked, like the rest.
Then he saw Juana floating before him in the water. She glided across the water to him and took his paws in her hands.
“Salvador. Look at you, my love,” she said.
He began to smile, but it turned into a snarl, showing his teeth. The Mayans reacted with a low, catlike hiss. They got up and begin to back out of the cenote. Walking backwards, facing Salvador as they ascended the stairs.
“Are going to take me back?” she asked.
After beginning the smile, it seemed impossible for him to close his unordinarilly large mouth. Water was filling it up as he tried to stay afloat.
He choked out the words, “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I came here for her.”
He was losing his strength and sinking.
“I understand.” Juana bowed her head as two tears ran down her face. “Take care of our daughter.”
His gaping mouth was now completely full of water, so that he could only gargle a response.
Salvador came to with cenote water projecting from his mouth. Lying on his back, with his upper half on the limestone rock island, his legs in the water. Next to him and in a similar position lay the body of Amber.
He put his ear to her nose and a hand to her chest. She was faintly breathing.
Next to her was the small circular pool. Upon further inspection, it was only inches deep. A shallow puddle. It did not contain the moon and the stars. He peered up and could see a blue sky through the hole in the ceiling.
He tried to call for help but did not have the strength, so he sat there in silence for some time. Then he began to yell.
The crew of rescue workers relocated and attached the old bucket winch to half a dozen palm trees and let a line down through the hole in the ceiling. On the line came a harness. He attached it to her body and they pulled her straight up and out, through the sunroof. Then, he came out next.
He drove straight to the hotel, but they weren’t there. He went home, and they weren’t there either. They had left him.
His eyes become water as he looked at the calendar on his wall. The jaguar that he saw that morning was him, covered by himself with nothing more than paper-thin skin. It had always been there watching him from within. He had felt it moving and swaying in him, feeding on his fear, since he could first remember fear.
It overcame him when he attacked Jorge. But it did not, no it could not, fully transform him on its own. Not until he died with the moon water in his lungs. It was at that point, in the darkness where time stood still, that the jaguar was born from him. Fear met head on with something else equally powerful—his love. Hide demanded skin and skin became hide. The Night Sun once again graced the earth. He was transformed under the surface, by water and emotion, so he could cross through worlds. Dying and being reborn, so he could get to say goodbye.
Then, a new thought stirred in him causing the whiskers on his chin to rise.
Maybe, I can go back for her.
He didn’t flinch that time as his door shook with a ‘knock-knock.’