Life blood, p.20
I awoke as a sliver of sun flashed through the stone doorway of theroom and forest birds erupted around me in celebration. As I pulledmyself up and moved over to the opening, a quick tropical glare burnedinto my face. My God, the dawn was electric; it was the purest blue I'dever seen, a swath of artist's cobalt. An azure radiance from the skyglistened off the rain forest leaves around me. Had I dreamed thestormy, haunted world of the night before?
When I looked down, everywhere below me was a bank of dense, pastelmist. Was the plaza really there or had I imagined it? I felt like thetop of the pyramid was floating on a cloud.
"Babylon." That was what Sarah had called this place. Ancient andmysterious. I took a breath of the morning air and wondered what woulddraw her back here. Was _Baalum _the ultimate escape from her otherlife? Even so . . . why would she want to return after somebody hadtried to murder her? What was waiting down there in the fog?
Turning back, I noticed that the room's inside walls were embossed withrows and rows of classic Mayan glyphs, like little cartoon faces, allmolded in newly set plaster. To my groggy sight they seemed playful,harmless little caricatures, though next to them were raisedbas-reliefs of warriors in battle dress. It was both sublimely austereand eerie, even creepy.
I knelt down and rolled my sleeping bag, trying to clear my head. ThenI stuffed my still-moist clothes into my backpack and thought about theriver, the Rio Tigre, down somewhere at the back of the pyramid. And Ifelt my pulse rate edging up. The first thing I wanted to do was see itin the light of day. It had been Sarah's way out, the only thing I knewfor sure she'd touched.
Get going and do it.
I headed through the rear door and down the back steps. When I reachedthe ground, the dense forest closed in around me, but I was certain theriver lay dead ahead, through the tangle of trees. As I moved down apath that grew ever steeper, the canopy up above thickened, archingover me till it blotted out the pure blue of the sky. And the air wasfilled with nature sounds--birdcalls, trills, songs, and clacks, allmingled with the hum and buzz of insects. Then suddenly, from somewhereup in the canopy, a pack of screeching spider monkeys began flingingrotten mangos down in my direction. I also thought I heard theasthmatic, territorial roar of a giant howler monkey, the lord of theupper jungle. And what about snakes? I kept an eye on the vines andtendrils alongside the path, expecting any moment to stumble across adeadly fer-de-lance, a little red-and-black operator whose poison headsstraight for your nervous system.
On the other hand, the birds, the forest birds, were everywhere,scarlet macaws and keel-billed toucans and darting flocks of Amazonparrots, brilliant and iridescent, their sweeping tails a psychedelicrainbow of green, yellow, red. Then the next thing I knew, the path Iwas on abruptly opened onto a mossy expanse of pea-soup green, surelythe Rio Tigre, and . . .
My God, those dark-brown bumps scattered everywhere . . . they're theeyes and snouts of . . . yes, crocodiles, lurking there in wait, hopingI'm dumb enough to wade in. Forget what Alan Dupre said. This isdefinitely not "Disneyland."
Then I glanced upstream and caught sight of a string of mahogany dugoutcanoes tied along the shore. They were huge, about fifteen feet longand three feet wide, and clearly designed to be crocodile-resistant.They . . .
Wait a minute. Lou said Sarah was found in a dugout canoe that haddrifted all the way down the Rio Tigre to where it joins theUsumacinta. One more clue she might have been here. Maybe I was closingin. _Yes!_
I glared back at the crocodiles' unblinking reptile eyes and tried toget my mind around the fact Sarah could have stood right where I wasstanding, or been set adrift from here in a coma, to float downstream.Seeing that vision, I felt unbidden tears trailing down my cheeks. Andthe questions I had kept piling up. Was this the location of AlexGoddard's "miracle" clinic? Why was _Baalum _such a high-securitysecret? What was the connection between this place and Sarah's ravagedmind and body? I wanted to know all of it, and by God I would.
This was the farthest I'd ever been from "civilization," though I wastrying not to let that fact sink in too deeply. The water was green andfull of small aquatic creations, but I managed to find a reasonablyunmossy spot and--still keeping an eye on the leeringcrocodiles--splashed my face. It felt good, even if it was filthy. . . .
Okay, I'd seen enough of the river. I raised up and stretched. Time togo.
My hopes at war with my nerves, I turned my back on the scummy, fetidRio Tigre and headed back up the jungle trail toward the plaza.
When I got there, I was struck all over again by the vision of thepyramid. Something like it might have been here originally, but in anycase it had been completely redone, with newly cut yellowish stones andwhite lime plaster, an exotic castle nestled in the green lap of therain forest, rising above the square like a haunting presence. It musthave been well over a hundred feet high, a stone wedding cake with adozen steep tiers between the ground and the platform at the top, whichalso was square and roughly fifteen feet on the side.
Standing there gazing at it, I think I'd never felt more disoriented.Sarah, Sarah, how could we both end up here, at the last outpost of theknown world? But seeing is believing. I took a deep breath, then turneddown the pathway toward the thatch-roofed huts.
Through the mist it was gradually becoming clear that _Baalum_ actuallywas a village, and a sizable one. The walkway led past a string ofclearings, each with clusters of one-room huts built in the ancient,classical style, with walls of mud over rows of vertical saplings,their roofs and porches peaked with yellow-green thatch weathering tobrowns and grays. The structures, outlined starkly against the toweringgreen arbor of the forest above, were grouped around paved patios. Itall was neat and meticulous, like a jungle Brigadoon. Although theeffects of the storm were everywhere--blown thatch and bamboo--I stillfelt as if I'd fallen into a time warp where clocks had gone backward.What . . . ?
Then I began to catch the outlines of people, as though they hadmaterialized out of the pale fog. All pure Maya, short and brown, shinyblack hair, they appeared to be just going about their daily lives. Iwas approaching a workshop area where, under a wide thatch shade, menwith chipped-flint adzes were carving bowls, plows, various implementsfrom mahogany and other rain forest woods. Next to them, potters werefashioning brown clay jugs. They all were wearing white loincloths anda large square cotton cloth knotted around their shoulders, their hairtied back in dense ponytails. It must have been how the Maya looked athousand years ago.
Their earnestness reminded me of the villagers I once filmed in theYucatan for the Discovery Channel--with one big difference: There I wasthe big-shot gringo; here I felt like a powerless time traveler. Thesense of being lost in another age was as compelling as the "colonial"mock-up at Williamsburg, but this was real and it was decidedly spooky.
Finally one of the men looked up and noticed me. Our eyes locked for aninstant--it seemed like forever--and then he reached over and, in a waythat seemed breathless, shook the man next to him, gesturing toward me.Together they gazed back as though viewing a phantom, their brown facesintent, and then they turned and called out to the others, alertingthem.
What are they going to do with me? I wondered with a sudden chill. Astranger here in their hideaway midst. Would they just turn on me?
Find some women. Get off the street.
I turned and headed as fast as I could down the cobblestone centralpath, till I saw a cluster of females on a whitewashed stone porch,long hair falling over their shoulders as they bent to their tasksbeneath the thatch overhangs. Some were stirring rugged clay pots ofcorn soaking in lime; others were grinding the softened maize totortilla thinness on wide granite platters. Behind them was anothergroup that appeared to be part of a sewing commune, young wives busy attheir back-strap looms, layering thread after thread of dyed cotton.None of them was wearing a _huipil_--the traditional multicoloredblouse I'd remembered from the waitresses in the restaurant. Instead,they all had on a kind of handloom-woven white shift I'd never seenbefore.
Talk to them. Let them know you're no threat to anybody.
As I moved down the hard clay pathway toward them, two looked up andtook notice. Their first reaction seemed to be alarm, as they tensedand stared. But then I tried a smile and it seemed to work. Their looksturned to puzzlement, then embarrassed grins, as though they wanted tobe friendly but weren't sure how to acknowledge my presence.
When I reached the porch, several reached out to touch me. One olderwoman, short and wizened and extremely brown, even tried to stroke myhair.
What was going on? I was taken aback, but I also was determined to getthrough to them. Why not just ask them point-blank if Sarah's here? Isthere any chance they understand Spanish?
"_Buenos dias_." I smiled and nodded. "_Dispenseme. Quiero descubrir .. . esta una gringa de los Estados Unidos aqui? _"
They all returned uncomprehending looks, then glanced quickly at eachother in confusion. Or at least that was how I read their faces.
"Sarah," I said, pronouncing the name slowly. "Sarah Crenshaw."
"Sara," one voiced, then others. They backed away and immediately begana heated dispute, which eventually involved all the women. Well, onething was for sure: They damned well knew who I was asking about. Butwhy were they so upset? Next, several of them grew testy, pointing atme as they continued to argue.
Finally the two I'd first approached turned and began urging me toleave, gesturing at me with their hands as though sweeping me out ofthe compound. Yes, there was no mistaking. I was being dismissed. And Idetected an odd nervousness as they glanced around, seemingly worriedsomebody might catch me there with them. I got the feeling they'dfinally decided they didn't want me anywhere near them, since they keptpointing down the thoroughfare in the direction of the pyramid.
I've blown it, I thought. They must have figured out I'm here to gether and decided they no longer want to have anything to do with me.What did that mean?
And now what do I do? As I retreated back out to the main walkway, Ifelt a growing sense of defeat. Then, looking down it, I realized I'dliterally been going in a circle. It was actually a large oval thatcurved back to the main square and the pyramid, where I'd started from.
God, what a nightmare. I obviously had to rethink my game plan, find away to communicate. And on top of that, I was dying of thirst.
I fished out the almost-empty plastic container from my backpack, thenwalked across the square and settled myself on the first step leadingup the steep front. As I drew on the bottle, my mind still swirling, Ihappened to notice an upright stone slab off to the side, like a tall,thin tombstone, with a bas-relief of a Maya warrior on it, next to somekind of two-headed serpent god--probably Kukulkan, one of the few Mayadeities I knew. And then, down the side, were rows of lines and dots. Istudied them a minute before realizing it was the classical Mayannumber system, telling precisely when things happened to the rulershown there: born on such and such a date, assumed the kingship, wongreat battles, etc., all carefully dated as career high-points. I knewthat dots represented single years, horizontal lines the number five.The Maya loved numbers and numerology, so . . .
That was when I glanced up to see a group of women approaching slowlyacross the square, with a bunch of the men watching from the forestarbors beyond, and they were huddled around something they werecarrying. Whatever it was, they seemed to be delivering it to me. ThenI realized they were the same ones who'd just kicked me out of theircompound. What next? Are they coming to drive me from the plaza too?Should I try and forcibly search all the huts?
But then they set down their load--it turned out to be a crudebamboo-and-thatch palanquin--and stepped aside as they beckoned meforward.
For a moment I just stared, disbelieving. I felt like I was seeingsomeone I didn't want to recognize, perhaps because that someone lookedso much like me.
"Morgy, they told me a new one was here, and I hoped it was you." Sarahwas swinging her skinny legs off the side, her voice bright. Her facewas drawn, but her hair was neat and her eyes were radiant. "Isn't_Baalum_ the most wonderful place you've ever seen?"
She was wearing a white shift that reminded me of the blue hospitalsmock she'd had on the last time I saw her, except here it seemed morelike something that had a special significance, like the robes of anacolyte. Her shoes were soft brown slippers that looked brand-new, andaround her waist was a braided leather band. As I stared at her, Iwondered if she was really as transformed as she looked. She wasundeniably stronger than two days ago, in spite of what that bastardAlex Goddard and his Guatemalan Army cronies had done to her to get herhere. But still, she had to be half dead. Thank God Lou couldn't seeher now.
"Sar, oh, Sar." I rushed over and threw my arms around her. She'd beenfreshly bathed and perfumed--a fragrance like chocolate--but she feltlike a bag of bones. "Are you okay?"
"I was afraid _Baalum_ was all just a dream." She hugged me back, thenstarted rising to her feet. God, could she walk? "But now I remembereverything."
"Sar, I've come to take you home." I grasped her hand, warm and soft,to help her stand--though it wasn't necessary. "You're not safe--"
"No, it's wonderful now" Then she turned and said something to one ofthe women. It took me a moment to realize she was speaking theirlanguage; I guessed it was Kekchi Maya.
I was stunned. How did she learn it? Finally she looked back at me andswitched to English again. "I didn't understand before. I was . . .sick so much."
"Sar, come on." I slipped my arm around her. "We're going to get youout of here."
I'd never felt so helpless. Alan Dupre had said there was a road, butit was controlled by the Army. Right now, I didn't even know where itwas. Maybe I could find a phone, or radio. Call the embassy. There mustbe something. Alex Goddard has to be here somewhere, but he's not goingto stop me. I'll strangle him if he tries.
I hugged her again, the feel of her skin-and-bones frame making my soulache. But most hurtful of all, I wasn't sure she would want to leave.
"Sar, can you understand me?" I tried to catch her deep blue eyes. "I'mtaking you home. Your father's very worried about you."
Mention of Lou seemed to finally get through to her. She turned andexamined me with a quizzical look, and then her eyes hardened.
"Morgy, he was never there for me." Her voice was filled withcertainty, and pain. "But when I went to see Dr. Goddard he let me comehere for the ceremony. It's so spiritual. After--"
"Sar, come on." What did she mean by "ceremony"? Whatever it was, I hadto get her out of this place. Immediately. "We've--"
"Are you here for the ceremony?" Her face flooded with renewed joy."It's two days from now. Maybe he'll let you--"
"She should be resting." It was a harsh voice, directly behind us.
I recoiled, then whirled around. Three men were standing there, two ofthem young privates in uniforms of the Guatemalan Army and carryingAK-47 assault rifles, the ones with the long, ominous curved clip Stevecalled _cuerno de cabrio_, the "horn of the goat."
The third was in a black sweatshirt and black jeans, his longsalt-and-pepper hair tied back in a ponytail.
"They should have known better than to bring her out here," AlexGoddard said. "Not in her condition."
The bastard. It was all coming together in my mind. He'd tried to killher once before, and now he was going to finish the job. But he'd haveto kill me first.
"I'm here to take her home." I marched up to him. "You're not about toget away with kidnapping. I'm going to get the embassy to--"
"She's here for important medical reasons." He met my eyes. "I hopeyou'll allow me the opportunity to help her."
"What do you mean, 'help'?"
"I'll explain if you'll give me a chance." He revolved and deliveredsome brusque orders in Kekchi Maya to the women, who noddedapologetically and began helping Sarah back onto the palanquin. Afterhe admonished her in the same language, he then said something in quickSpanish to the two young Army privates, who gave him a firm salute,turned, and walked over to pick the palanq
"No, damn it, _alto_!" I strode over, shoved the soldiers aside, andtook her hand. "Sar, honey, don't you understand what's going on?Something terrible happened to you when you were here before. I'm soworried--"
"But he says I need to stay, Morgy." She drew back. "It's best. He'shelping me."
As I watched the two privates carry her away, down the cobblestonepathway, AK-47's swung over their shoulders, I felt my helplessnessbecome complete. The Army here was under his control, just likeeverything else.
How was I going to tell Lou about this, that Sarah had beenbrainwashed? Whatever Alex Goddard had done to her had turned her intosome kind of "Moonie," ready to denounce her own father. So now did Ihave two battles to wage: one with Alex Goddard and one with her?
Then he walked over to me.
"I'm not going to ask how you got here, though I assume it wasn'teasy." He smiled, like a kindly priest, and put his hand on myshoulder. "But however you did it, I'm glad you decided to come. It'simportant for you to be here. She needs you now."
Life Blood by Thomas Hoover / Horror have rating 2.7 out of 5 / Based on16 votes