Stephen Henighan crossing Lake Nicaragua on a ferry.
In this excerpt from Stephen Henighan’s new novel The Path of the Jaguar, just released from Thistledown Press, the protagonist, Amparo Ajuix, an ambitious young Cakchiquel-Maya woman in rural late 1990s Guatemala, has just been mugged and robbed of the savings of the cooperative she belongs to. At the time of the mugging, she is almost nine months pregnant and her husband suspects that the child is not his.
Mist condensed around her head. She felt the child’s twisting far down in her entrails as though it were marooned in a place beyond her reach. The Maker, the Modeller, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, wrought the world out of mist. Her mind strayed through the spaces beyond that haze when the mountains rose out of the water and the first people were fashioned out of corn and took the name B’alam. Her child was slipping away from her. Before she could reach through that space to pull the child back into the light which, inhabited by the first mother and the first father, would yield life, her strength abandoned her. As she floated on the waves that must recede before people of corn could take to the earth, a sharp smell penetrated her nostrils. Pom. Someone was burning incense. She heard voices: Eusebio’s words derogatory, Mama’s tones implacable in resistance. Amparo tried to reach out to them. She slipped away into the silence of the mist. She saw the people of mud who had preceded those of corn, deity’s failed experiment in human life. The mud people’s noses and eyebrows crumbled. People of wood, the heart of the sky’s second failed experiment, who could not speak or worship their makers, stared without seeing her. As the people of wood drowned in the great flood, she slid farther down into darkness.The tendrils of incense prickling her nostrils were the lone thread leading back to the world. She saw four roads of different colours crossing. Cold fear that she was already a corpse and this was Xibalbá, and the four crossing roads were the gate to the underworld. A chanting tapped through the walled-up silence. Nothing moved. She was blind, the cold rivetting her to the meeting point of the four coloured roads. The first four men, Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Jaguar Not Right Now and Dark Jaguar, fathers of all subsequent lineages, hung before her eyes, then faded away. The tapping mingled with the tang of incense. The two sensations blended until they were a single interwoven fabric like the rope of terror that runs up a woman’s spine when she fears for her child — yes, she had a child, and another one inside her — and in that instant her body swathed her in its aching weight and she was back in her room listening to the sound of the curandera chanting. The child turned in her belly, moving her body with its body, two bodies moving as one, as she and her husband had moved as one to make the child. The curandera must be Doña María’s sister Eduviges, a woman simpler yet wiser than her sibling.
“Raja q’o’,” she said. “She’s here.”
Eduviges stepped back from the side of the bed. Mama began to sing the song she sang when they were ill as children. She had sung these words over the beds of the children who had died in infancy, and over those who had returned from illness. Her voice was harsh but strong:
Kapae roma utz qaw’a
(Stop here today
Sit down today
Stop here for our food is good
Sit down today)
Amparo, feeling the bulk of her hair beneath her on the pillow, whispered: “It’s all right. I’m here.”
“You’ve been away for two days.”
At Mama’s words, she remembered the man with the gun, the other thief’s dragging gait. She lifted her hand, felt the bruise on her temple and began to cry.
“Stop crying,” Mama said. “No one was hurt.”
She passed from sleep to waking without lapsing into the mist. Every time she woke she felt sad. Eusebio entered the room and held her hand. Esperanza visited her and said: “In the next meeting we’ll start saving again. I’ve spoken to the señora gringa and she says we cannot allow misfortunes to discourage us. The only solution is to start again.”
The señora gringa had spoken to Esperanza, not to her. Her powers were ebbing. She had lost everyone’s respect. Her child would be the offspring of rumour.
The day after emerging from the mist she sobbed until dusk. Esperanza came in for an hour but had to leave to look after her children. Eusebio and Mama poked their heads in the door. Mama told her that Sandra was staying with her.
That evening her contractions began. Eduviges returned, not as healer but as midwife.
Her son was born at the stroke of midnight, his body lodged across the line between one day and the next so that they were never certain which date to count as his birthday. From the moment she held him in her arms she could feel his timidity. He was afraid of life. Spirits had infected him with poisons in the womb. Her first thought was that his sickliness would make people think he was Ezequial’s son. His nose and brows looked about to crumble like those of the people of mud. She held him against her breast, blinded by her need to protect him. When Mama and Eduviges told her that Eusebio wanted to see the child, she whispered, “No . . . ” But they had already left the bedroom. Eusebio came in the door. He was unshaven. She wondered if he was sleeping on the couch. He lifted the infant off her breasts, which had been untouched by his hands in months. She gasped. Eusebio raised the boy to head height and stared into his face. She could hear the child breathing in throaty gasps.
Eusebio started to cry.
“Don’t hurt him!” she said. “Give him back to me!”
Eusebio was sobbing more loudly than a child. “He looks just like my grandfather!”
“He doesn’t look like anyone yet,” she said, finding the strength to sit up. She tried to pull the child away. “He looks like the people of mud. By tomorrow,” she said, feeling herself growing calmer, “he will look like the people of wood. Later he will look like a human being made from corn. Then we can have him christened.”
Eusebio gave the child back to her. He kissed her cheeks and her lips and her neck and her breasts. “I’m sorry, Amparo. Will you forgive me? I’m so sorry. I’m worthless, I don’t deserve you. I promise I’ll never treat you badly again. Amparo, please forgive me, can you ever forgive me–?”
The words poured out of him as though they would never stop. She let him go on long after she had decided to accept his apology. His conversion was a miracle, and she knew that miracles must be savoured. At last, she lifted her hand to his cheek.
That night they slept together in the bed with the child between them. She woke in the morning to a loud knocking on the front door. When she reached the main room, the child slung across her shoulder, Esperanza was coming in the door. Though exhausted from hours of feeding the child at short intervals, Amparo felt a great calmness ease through her at the boy’s weight on her shoulder and the memory of her husband’s sleeping body.
“Amparo,” Esperanza said, “I’m going to have to bring Sandra back here— ”
“Already? Can’t you . . . ?”
“It’s Yoli. She’s run away with a gringo— ”
“Run away? To Antigua?”
“She’s going to be travelling with him as his girlfriend! Amparo, nothing like this has ever happened . . . I’ve neverseen Papa and Mama so ashamed. Mama says she can never go to the market again. She’s too humiliated to go to Mass.”
“She has to go to Mass,” Amparo said, struggling to absorb the news. “Maybe we can get her back before anything happens. We can go to Antigua— ”
“You don’t understand, Amparo. She’s in the capital, at the airport. She’s going back to his country with him.”
“She’s leaving Guatemala?” Amparo wrestled with her inert brain. “Leaving Guatemala?” They were speaking Spanish, but she said the word “Guatemala” in Cakchiquel: Ixim Ulew, Land of Corn. The idea of a girl travelling with a man she was not married to was horrible—but to leave Guatemala was beyond imagination. “What will it be like for her, Esperanza?”
Esperanza shook her head. Amparo felt the baby on her shoulder begin to cry. Trembling, she asked herself again what the world was like.
Stephen Henighan is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently the novels The Path of the Jaguar (Thistledown, 2016) and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives (Linda Leith Publishing, 2017). He has translated novels by the Angolan writer Ondjaki from Portuguese and Mihail Sebastian from Romanian. He teaches Latin American literature at the University of Guelph.