Layla Visits the Shaman Don Cuauhtémoc
By Jeanine Kitchel
Sierra Occidental Madre Mountains
Even Layla had a divination as a child; she was ten at most. She remembered her mother dragging her to a pueblo even poorer than Valle del Gatos where she grew up. It was a long journey as they traveled by bus, seemingly forever. Was it a Nahuatl divination? She couldn’t remember for sure.
The bus dropped them a kilometer from the plaza. As they arrived at the pueblo, her mother stopped a curious-looking old woman, back hunched no doubt from years of labor, who carefully watched them as they walked into el centro, little more than a patch of cleared ground without a single tree, surrounded by a handful of scruffy huts.
“La casa de Don Cuauhtémoc?” her mother asked.
The crone pointed across the square to a stick hut set apart from the others. As they neared it an old man with long white hair wearing a faded wool poncho emerged. He seemed energized by the sight of them; a smile appeared on his well-lined face.
“Por fin,” he said as her mother approached him. “You have brought her at last.”
“Si,” her mother answered, her hand firmly grasping her daughter’s.
Don Cuauhtémoc ushered them into the hut and asked that they be seated. He went out the back opening where a smoky fire smoldered over an outdoor pit, his kitchen, and rummaged around for several minutes while he prepared an aromatic herbal tea that he brought inside. The shaman handed them each a steaming glass.
“Bienvenidos. Té,” he said, pointing at the dark liquid, motioning for them to drink.
To Layla, the contents of the glass—hot to the touch—smelled fragrant and tempting. She blew on it before taking a sip. They exchanged small talk. The girl tuned in and out as she stared at the humble home with dirt floors, twig walls. The man was unbelievably poor. Who was he?
Layla would never forget what happened next. Both adults looked at her and small talk ended. There was a long silence. Don Cuauhtémoc shifted his gaze to her, smiled, walked over and asked her to stand. As she did so he bowed his head and put both hands on top of hers. He let out a long low hum. Her mother sat in the background, observing.
Don Cuauhtémoc left her standing there and moved to one side of the hut where a rectangular table sat. He spread a white cloth over it. From a corner he brought out a vessel that contained copal and lit it. He waited a moment as the fire took hold and smoke appeared. A pungent smell from the musky incense crept into the small hut. Rummaging again in his special corner, he pulled out a bag that contained divining paraphernalia and placed it in the center of the table.
The shaman then sat at the table on a low stool. He planted both feet firmly on the hut’s earthen floor and closed his eyes. With palms facing upwards, one on each knee, he opened his body to the cosmos. Don Cuauhtémoc sat transfixed for several moments. When he opened his eyes, he asked Layla to sit directly across from him on another stool.
He said a prayer in Nahuatl and touched the bag pointing it towards the four directions and four spirits of the earth. He paused and began another prayer, Layla remembered. The words still stuck in her memory.
“Pardon my sin, God; pardon my sin, Earth,” Don Cuauhtémoc said in a low voice, eyes again closed as he held the divining bag and continued. “Allow me to borrow the breath of this day, today, to make this divination.”
He opened his eyes and stared at young Layla for a long time. It seemed as if his mind was made up. His question emerged. “How will this girl’s life unfold?”
“I am now borrowing the breath, the cold, the wind, the cloud, the mist at the rising sun of the east, at the setting sun of the west, four corners of the sky to the south, four corners of the earth to the north. On this holy and sacred day I am taking these seeds and these crystals.”
He then began to call upon volcanoes, lakes, rivers and all the world’s natural resources. His long invocation was spoken at times in a muted tone, sometimes in a robust one.
In closing, he beckoned to white sheet lightning, a bizarre natural phenomenon, and begged a response to his directive.
Having summoned the cosmos and borrowed its breath and lightning, the diviner began to untie his divining bag. An exotic smell escaped as he emptied the blend of crystals and seeds onto the table, mixing them together in a counter clockwise direction with his right hand.
The ceremony fascinated Layla and she nearly reached out to touch the bag’s contents but was stopped by a stern look from Don Cuauhtémoc. He spread the seeds and crystals before her and began to select ten crystals. He slowly rubbed his hands atop them all, and began to pick and choose just three from the ten; one for the center of the table, the other two as its bishops. He held the main crystal up to the light, examining it for any movement before again stating his question, “How will this girl’s life unfold?” addressing the three main crystals. With his left hand, he took the seeds and spread them around the crystals, and at this time he called upon his ancestors, asking them for advice on this simply stated question.
Only twigs crackling in the outdoor fire pit broke the silence.
Don Cuauhtémoc stopped and blew into his right hand and grabbed as many crystals and seeds as he could. He placed the handful aside and pushed the remainder towards the right side of the table, separating seeds and crystals into groups.
“Come, Lord, you are being spoken to,” he announced in a reverential tone. He bowed his head in contemplation for some time, slowly nodding back and forth.
After what seemed like an eternity to small Layla, the shaman opened his eyes. He moved the main crystals closer to the girl now with his left hand and said, “The answer is this: The woman is coming.”
Layla’s mother, silent until this point, let out a sigh, apparently satisfied with the outcome. As for Layla, the endeavor mystified her and she had no idea what it meant. Since her mother looked confident, she felt it was a good omen and the long journey to the dusty pueblo succeeded in offering some form of solace for their lengthy travels.
Note: Jeanine Kitchel’s love of Mexico led her to a fishing village on the Mexican Caribbean coast where she bought land, built a house, and opened a bookstore. A former journalist, she wrote travel articles for newspapers and Mexico websites before branching into fiction.
In her debut novel, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, when Mexico’s most powerful drug lord is recaptured and imprisoned, he transfers control of his drug empire to his reluctant niece, Layla Navarro.
The above essay is a take-away from the original novel, never before published. Kitchel’s first book, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, details how she bought land and became an expat in a foreign land. A confirmed Mayaphile, she wrote her second book, Maya 2012 Revealed: Demystifying the Prophecy, to discuss the Maya calendar phenomenon from a journalistic point of view.
Her website www.jeaninekitchel.com lists her books, available on Amazon.com.