A Mexican Fairy Tale

Leonora Carrington (1912 – 2011) was a British-born Mexican surrealist painter. She also wrote several novels and short stories. Her work was influenced by Max Ernst, who she met in 1937 and began living with him in Paris. Ernst was arrested soon after the Nazi occupation of France as his art was deemed “degenerate”. Carrington fled to Spain and then later to Mexico where she resumed her work as a surrealist painter and writer. In 1963, she created a mural called El Mundo Magico de los Mayas, which, like much of her art, was influenced by local folk stories. It resides today at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. Carrington passed away in 2011 at a hospital in Mexico City.

The Editors

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Once there lived a boy in a place called San Juan. His name was Juan, his job was looking after pigs.

Juan never went to school, none of his family had ever been to school because where they lived there was no school.

One day when Juan took the pigs out to eat some garbage he heard somebody crying. The pigs started to behave in a funny way, because the voice was coming out of a ruin. The pigs tried to see inside the ruin but weren’t tall enough. Juan sat down to think. He thought: This voice makes me feel sad inside my stomach, it feels as if there was an iguana caught inside jumping around trying to escape. I know that this feeling is really the little voice crying in the ruin, I am afraid, the pigs are afraid. However I want to know, so I shall go to the village and see if Don Pedro will lend me his ladder so I can climb over the wall and see who is making such a sad sound.

Off he went to see Don Pedro. He said: “Will you please lend me your ladder?”

Don Pedro said: “No. What for?”

Juan said to himself: I had better invent something, because if I tell him about the voice he might hurt it.

So out loud he said: “Well a long way off behind the Pyramid of the Moon there is a tall fruit tree where there are a lot of big yellow mangoes growing. These mangoes are so fat that they look like gas balloons. The juice they drip is like honey but they grow so high up on the tree that it would impossible to pick them without a tall ladder.”

Don Pedro kept looking at Juan and Juan knew he was greedy and lazy so he just stood and looked at his feet. At last Don Pedro said: “All right, you may borrow the ladder but you must bring me twelve of the fattest mangoes to sell in the market. If you do not return by the evening with the mangoes and the ladder I will thrash you so hard you will swell up as big as the mangoes and you will be black and blue. So take the ladder and come back quickly.”

Don Pedro went back into his house to have lunch and he thought: Mangoes growing up here in the mountains seems very peculiar.

So he sat down and screamed at his wife: “Bring me little meats and tortillas. All women are fools.”

Don Pedro’s family were afraid of him. Don Pedro was terrified of his boss, somebody called Licenciado Gomez, who wore neckties and dark glasses and lived in the town and owned a black motorcar.

***

During this time Juan was pulling and dragging the long ladder. It was hard work. When Juan arrived at the ruin he fainted with fatigue.

All was quiet, except for the faint grunting of the pigs and the dry sound of a lizard running past.

The sun was beginning to sink when Juan woke up suddenly shouting: “Ai.” Something was looking down at him, something green, blue, and rusty, glittering like a big myrtle sucker. This bird carried a small bowl of water. Her voice was thin, sweet, and strange. She said: “I am the little granddaughter of the Great God Mother who lives in the Pyramid of Venus and I bring you a bowl of life water because you carried the ladder so far to see me when you heard me inside your stomach. This is the right place to listen, in the Stomach.”

However Juan was terrified so kept on shrieking: “Ai. Ai. Ai. Ai. Mamá.”

The bird threw the water in Juan’s face. A few drops went inside his mouth. He got up feeling better and stood looking at the bird with joy and delight. He was afraid no longer.

All the while her wings moved like an electric fan, so fast that Juan could see through them. She was a bird, a girl, a wind.

The pigs had all fainted by now with utmost fright.

Juan said: “These pigs do nothing but eat and sleep and make more pigs. Then we kill them and make them into little meats which we eat inside tortillas. Sometimes we get very sick from them, especially if they have been dead for a long time.”

“You do not understand pigs,” said the bird, whirling. “Pigs have an angel.” Whereupon she whistled like an express train and a small cactus plant rose out of the earth and slid into the bowl which the bird had left at her feet.

She said: “Piu, Piu, Little Servant, cut yourself into bits and feed yourself to the pigs so they become inspired with Pig Angel.”

The cactus called Piu cut himself into little round bits with a knife so sharp and fast that it was impossible to behold.

The morsels of Piu leapt into the mouths of the unconscious pigs, whereupon the pigs disintegrated into little meats roasting in their own heat.

The smell of delicious roasting pork brought drops of saliva into Juan’s mouth. Laughing like a drainpipe the bird took out a telescope and a pair of pincers, picked up the morsels of pig meat, and set them in her small bowl. “Angels must be devoured,” she said, turning from green to blue. Lowering her voice to the dark caves under the earth she called: “Black Mole, Black Mole, Come out and Make the Sauce because Juan is going to eat the Angel, he is hungry and has not eaten since daybreak.”

The new moon appeared.

With a heaving and steaming of the earth, Black Mole poked his starred snout out of the ground; then came flat hands and fur, sleek and clean out of so much earth.

“I am blind,” he said, “but I wear a star from the firmament on my nose.”

Now the bird whirled so fast she turned into a rainbow and Juan saw her pour herself into the Pyramid of the Moon in a curve of all colours. He didn’t care because the smell of roasting pigs made food his only desire.

Mole took out all sorts of chiles from the pouch he wore. He took two big stones and ground up the chiles and seeds into pulp, then spat on them and poured them into the bowl with the cooking pig meat.

“I am blind,” said Mole, “but I can lead you through the labyrinth.”

The red ants then came out of the ground carrying grains of corn. Every ant wore a bracelet of green jade on each of her slim legs. A great heap of corn was soon ground up. Mole made tortillas with his flat hands.

All was ready for the feast. Even Saint John’s Day had never seen anything so rich.

“Now eat,” said Mole.

Juan dipped his tortilla into the bowl and ate until he was gorged with food. “I never had so much to eat, never,” he kept saying. His stomach looked like a swollen melon.

All the while Mole stood by saying nothing, but taking stock of all that happened with his nose.

When Juan had finished the last scrap of the fifth pig Mole began to laugh. Juan was so full of food he could not move. He could only stare at Mole and wonder what was so funny.

Mole wore a scabbard under his fur. Quickly he drew out a sharp sword and, swish and shriek, cut up Juan into small pieces just like Piu had sliced himself up to feed the pigs.

The head and hands and feet and guts of young Juan jumped about shrieking. Mole took Juan’s head tenderly in his big hands and said: “Do not be afraid, Juan, this is only a first death, and you will be alive again soon.”

Whereupon he stuck the head on the thorn of a maguey and dived into the hard ground as if it were water.

All was quiet now. The thin new moon was high above the pyramids.

 

MARÍA

The well was far off. María returned to the hut with a bucket of water. The water kept sloshing over the side of the bucket. Don Pedro, María’s father, was shouting: “I shall beat that hairless puppy Juanito. He stole my ladder. I know mangoes don’t grow around here. I shall thrash him till he begs for mercy. I shall thrash you all. Why isn’t my dinner ready?

Don Pedro yelled again: “She has not come back with the water? I shall beat her. I shall twist her neck like a chicken. You are a no-good woman, your children are no good. I am master here. I command. I shall kill that thief.

María was afraid. She had stopped to listen behind a large maguey. Don Pedro was drunk. She thought: He’s beating my mother. A thin yellow cat dashed past in terror. The cat is also afraid, if I go back he will beat me, perhaps he will kill me like a chicken.

Quietly María set down the pail of water and walked north towards the Pyramid of the Moon.

It was night. María was afraid, but she was more afraid of her father, Don Pedro. María tried to remember a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe, but every time she began Ave María, something laughed.

A puff of dust arose on the path a few metres ahead. Out of the dust walked a small dog. It was hairless, with a speck-led grey skin like a hen.

The dog walked up to her and they looked at each other. There was something distinctive and dignified about the animal. María understood that the dog was an ally. She thought: This dog is an ancient.

The dog turned north, and María followed. They walked and sometimes ran till they came to the ruin and María was face to face with Juan’s decapitated head.

María’s heart leapt. Grief struck her and she shed a tear which was hard as a stone and fell heavily to the earth. She picked up the tear and placed it in the mouth of Juan’s head.

“Speak,” said María, who was now old and full of wisdom. He spoke, saying: “My body is strewn around like a broken necklace. Pick it up and sew it together again. My head is lonely without my hands and my feet. All these are lonely without the rest of my poor body, chopped up like meat stew.”

María picked a thorn off the top of a maguey, made thread out of the sinews of the leaf, and told the maguey: “Pardon me for taking your needle, pardon me for threading the needle with your body, pardon me for love, pardon me for I am what I am, and I do not know what this means.”

All this time Juan’s head was weeping and wailing and complaining: “Ai, Ai, Ai. My poor self, poor me, my poor body. Hurry up, María, and sew me together. Hurry, for if the sun rises and Earth turns away from the firmament I shall never be whole again. Hurry, María, hurry. Ai, Ai, Ai.”

María was busy now and the dog kept fetching pieces of the body and she sewed them together with neat stitches. Now she sewed on the head, and the only thing lacking was the heart. María had made a little door in Juan’s breast to put it inside.

“Dog, Dog, where is Juan’s heart?” The heart was on top of the wall of the ruin. Juan and María set up Don Pedro’s ladder and Juan started to climb, but María said: “Stop, Juan. You cannot reach your own heart, you must let me climb up and get it. Stop.”

But Juan refused to listen and kept on climbing. Just as he was reaching out to get hold of his heart, which was still beating, a black vulture swooped out of the air, snatched the heart in its claws, and flew off towards the Pyramid of the Moon. Juan gave a shriek and fell off the ladder; however María had sewn his body together so well that he was not really hurt.

But Juan had lost his heart.

“My heart. There it was, beating alone on the wall, red and slippery. My beautiful heart. Ah me, ah me,” he cried. “That wicked black bird has ruined me, I am lost.”

“Hush now,” said María. “If you make so much noise the Nagual may hear us, with his straw wings and crystal horns. Hush, be quiet, Juan.”

The hairless dog barked twice and started to walk into a cave that had opened up like a mouth. “The Earth is alive,” said María, “we must feed ourselves to the Earth to find your heart. Come, follow the Esquinclé.”

They looked into the deep mouth of the Earth and were afraid. “We will use the ladder to climb down,” said María. Far below they could hear the dog barking.

As they started to climb down the ladder into the dark earth the first pale light of dawn arose behind the Pyramid of the Sun. The dog barked. María climbed slowly down the ladder and Juan followed. Above them Earth closed her mouth with a smile. The smile is still there, a long crack in the hard clay.

Down below was a passage shaped like a long hollow man. Juan and María walked inside this body holding hands. They knew now that they could not return and must keep on walking. Juan was knocking on the door in his chest crying, “Oh my poor lost heart, oh my stolen heart.”

His wailing ran ahead of them and disappeared. It was a message. After a while a great roar came rumbling back. They stood together, shaking. A flight of stairs with narrow slippery steps led downwards. Below they could see the Red Jaguar that lives under the pyramids. The Big Cat was frightful to behold, but there was no return. They descended the stairs trembling. The Jaguar smelled of rage. He had eaten many hearts, but this was long ago and now he wanted blood.

As they got closer, the Jaguar sharpened his claws on the rock, ready to devour the meat of two tender children.

María felt sad to die so far under the earth. She wept one more tear, which fell into Juan’s open hand. It was hard and sharp. He threw it straight at the eye of the beast and it bounced off. The Jaguar was made of stone.

They walked straight up and touched it, stroking the hard red body and obsidian eyes. They laughed and sat on its back, the stone Jaguar never moved. They played until a voice called: ”María. Juan. Juan. Mari.”

A flight of hummingbirds passed, rushing towards the voice.

“The Ancestor is calling us,“ said María, listening. “We must go back to Her.”

They crawled under the belly of the stone Jaguar. Mole was standing there, tall and black, holding a silver sword in one of his big hands. In the other hand he held a rope. He bound the two children tightly together and pulled them into the presence of the Great Bird. Bird, Snake, Goddess, there She sat, all the colours of the rainbow and full of little windows with faces looking out singing the sounds of every thing alive and dead, all this like a swarming of bees, a million movements in one still body.

María and Juan stared at each other till Mole cut the rope that bound them together. They lay on the floor looking up at the Evening Star, shining through a shaft in the roof.

Mole was piling branches of scented wood on a brazier. When this was ready, the Bird Snake Mother shot a tongue of fire out of her mouth and the wood burst into flame. “María,” called a million voices, “jump into the fire and take Juan by the hand, he must burn with you so you both shall be one whole person. This is love.”

They jumped into the fire and ascended in smoke through the shaft in the roof to join the Evening Star. Juan-Mari, they were one whole being. They will return again to Earth, one Being called Quetzalcoatl.

Juan-Mari keep returning, so this story has no end.