A Quest for the Sacred Maya Book
Story and photos by Mary Jo McConahay

Shunning the famous Sunday market favored by pickpockets in Guatemala's famed pre-Columbian trading city, a writer joins a search for a locked-up and hidden replica of "the Maya 'Bible.'"

Guatemala travel

The Sunday market in Chichicastenango was all I remembered—titillating, with colors discordant and cacophonous sound, sometimes frightening. In one stall, surrounded by wooden masks of ferocious animals found nowhere in nature, I felt anxious. My fellow travelers were gleefully bargaining in broken Spanish with the Indian vendor, oblivious to the risk I knew was out there.

Guatemala man

In all the years I had traveled in Guatemala I had never been robbed, except once, years before in this crowded market, by someone who pressed against me and miraculously unzipped my belly-bag to remove passport and cash, neatly leaving behind notebook and pen. My daughter was only five at the time, and I had been so focused on gripping the child's shoulders in the maelstrom I hadn't felt a thing. Taking advantage of a worried mother! I never forgave the place.

Now I was returning on the last day of a writing workshop that included the market stop. I taught the seminar but had not made the travel schedule. I warned the others, all adult women, to carry no purses or packs, and to stuff their money in their bras, big bills in one side, small in the other. More I could not do. I left the others and aimed for the only open space I could see, a colonnaded porch.

Hero Twins and the Lords of Death

"Museo," promised a handwritten sign. Inside, pots, obsidian shards, an ancient spindle, the scent of walls not quite dry after the rainy season. And in a glass case, a book with a red cover now paled to the color of rosewater. "The Manuscript of Chichicastenango (Popol Buj) , 1927 version."

Page from the Popol Vuh

How could I have forgotten? The Popol Vuh, the great Maya origin book, sometimes called the Maya "Bible," had been written down for the first time in Chichicastenango, probably in the sixteenth century. I had seen its tales among stone ruins a thousand years old, its Hero Twins depicted as the sun and the moon, or hunters in plumes, or ball players pitted against the Lords of Death. Chichi, as locals call it, was more than its mad market, I thought, more than a disagreeable incident in my own past. If only I could experience the mystery of this place again.

"That is not the book," said a woman's voice. Lithe and pretty, my student Audrey—I'll call her that not because she looked like Audrey Hepburn but because she moved like the slim, ageless actress—was wrinkling her brow in dismay. "The version I'm looking for is supposed to be somewhere in town." I knew little of Audrey except that she wrote well and volunteered at a Chicago museum that sponsored exhibits with the famous Newberry Library. The year before, she told me, librarians had presented a faithful replica of the original Popol Vuh manuscript, now held at the Newberry, to visiting elders from Chichi, expecting that the treasure would be shared with the local community.

"Where is it?" she asked. "Are the ones who carried it back keeping it to themselves?"

A quest! This was what I needed to shake the gloom. Outside in the market again a sense of purpose led us through the multitude. I still felt buffeted, but now more like a ship in rough seas slicing toward a destination. Into the yard of the white stucco church.


Extracting Clues

"It's not here," said a man in the parish office. He directed us toward a room across the garden.

"But it's not open," I said. I had seen the padlock when we passed.

"Right," he said. "It's not open."

"So that's where the book is?"

"Not now. It was for a while, the original. They found it in the altar where a padre hid it. Two hundred years ago." Pulling teeth, I imagined, was easier. "Try the municipalidad," he said.

Entering the nearby Indian municipal office, whose elders represented the Maya community, was like crossing into a world where straightforward questions were out of line. An ordinary calendar hung alongside a Maya calendar, its outside round made of glyphs to represent the year's twenty months, an inside circle turning within the first, carrying the bars and dots that numbered a Maya month's thirteen days. Thirteen, the Maya power number. Flowers in milk cans sat on a shelf, candles flickered before a black Christ.

Buenos días, we greeted elders sitting on a pew-like bench.

The principal, the indigenous mayor, was the only one who could tell us where the replica was, said a man who stood up from the bench. But we were out of luck. He had just left. The principal would return immediately, the man assured us, but something in his voice resonated less with absolute truth than an attempt at kindness to strangers, the manner of someone raised to believe it was rude to disappoint.

"We'll come back," said Audrey.

As we moved to leave, the elder asked shyly, "Where are you from?"

I took a chance. "Chee-ka-gó." Audrey was from Chicago; I was not, but I had been born there and reckoned the answer was technically honest.

"I know Chee-ka-gó," he said. He had been among thirteen representatives of the municipalidad who carried back the replica. His first time in an airplane. Joy crossed his face when he spoke of seeing the original sacred book in Chicago.

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