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Tomas and the Jaguar

A Short Story by Marshall Riggan

Tomas Bacal watched his family sleeping. From overhead, in the thatch roof, came the whispery scratching of lizards. Somewhere beyond the dead city, a troupe of howler monkeys shattered the stillness. A pale drift of moonlight touched the face of his wife, Maria, still so lovely in his eyes, and once again he felt a tug of guilt and sorrow that he had provided so little for her happiness. The three children slept all tangled together in their hammock, and Maria’s grandmother, the shaman Dona Solidad, slept near them. Here was his family. And he wondered what would become of them. Would the children continue to grow up ignorant of the world, destined to a life empty of wonder and delight, a life lived in the forest like animals? And Maria, would she grow old like her grandmother, a frail wasted vessel filled only with madness and regret. For a long while he watched his family sleeping and then, careful not to wake Maria, he crept from the hammock they shared and moved out into the night.

The moon painted silver highlights upon the Temple of the Skulls, but all else was darkness and solitude. He walked the stone pathways his Mayan ancesters had walked, seeking wisdom from the old ones who had carved an advanced civilization from the primal jungle. He listened for their ghosts. But all he heard was the whisper of wind in the sacred Ceiba trees and the monkeys growling in the ruins.

In the morning, Tomas walked the short distance to the tourist center at the Xtzmul ruins where he had served as manager-custodian for more than a decade. Xtzmul was one of the lesser-known and most remote ancient Mayan sites in Yucatan. It had been partially excavated in the 1970s and had since been largely forgotten. The tourist center, itself, was little more than a palm-thatched palapa. Here Tomas presided over a ticket counter, the public restroom, and a small shop selling imitation Mayan artifacts, the embroidery work of his wife, and the medicines and potions prepared by her grandmother, the shaman. Tomas had hoped for much better. Through his uncle’s connections he had obtained a position with Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology and after a period of training, he was assigned to manage one of Yucatan’s archaeological Zones. He had dreamed of Chichen Itza or Uxmal or one of the famous UNESCO World Heritage sites, not this small scattering of ruins in the middle of nowhere. Yet he had viewed it as an opportunity. He would work hard and in time he would surely advance to more important positions within the Institute. But years went by and little by little his dream of advancement died.

There were days, even weeks, when no tourists came to the ruins at all, but still, he received a stipend from the State, an income barely sufficient to keep his family alive. When no tourists came, he kept busy maintaining the trails that wandered through the ruins. Sometimes he would go up into the old ceremonial center, study the carvings and the murals that had not been reclaimed by the jungle, and he would marvel at what life must have been like in the time of the Mayan Kings. Now the Kings and the glory and the old gods were gone and his family alone remained in the ruined city. Often he would find himself sliding into depression, a growing, gnawing awareness that life was nothing more than futility and despair.

Tomas was surprised when the Cuban had shown up several times in a single week. Most tourists never returned, were lured by the appeal of visiting more famous Mayan sites. But the Cuban said Xtzmul fascinated him far more than Chichen Itza or Uxmal where hoards of tourists had taken the magic away. “Here,” the Cuban said, “you can set your imagination free. You can feel what the place must have been like in ancient times.” He was good company and Tomas came to enjoy his visits. The man was tall for a Cuban, and his skin was light, the color of old ivory. His black eyes were deep set beneath a prominent brow, eyebrows like a dark hedge above his eyes. He dressed in the manner of a camposino, yet his manner was refined and the watch he wore was gold. They talked of the ruins and of the mysteries and majesty of the ancient Mayan culture. Sometimes they shared a tea made with honey and the little mushrooms that grew in the forest after a rain and they were swept away into an illusury world somewhere between Earth and Heaven. Only during these stolen hours was Tomas free of the despair that filled his days.

When Tomas told the visitor about his sorrows and his dead-end career with the Institute, the Cuban was sympathetic.

“You are still a young man,” he said. “An opportunity will come your way.”

“I can’t imagine how an opportunity could even find me out here in the jungle.”

“Well. Perhaps one did find you,” the Cuban said.

“What do you mean?” Tomas asked.

The Cuban moved to his truck and returned with a rifle. It was an old American-made 22-caliber Henry rifle.

“Are you going hunting?” Tomas asked.

“Not with this rifle. I want you to have it.”
Thomas was shocked and embarrassed. “I can’t take your rifle.”

“Of course you can. You can hunt deer for your table, grey fox and ocelot for their skins. Ocelot skins are very valuable. You can sell them here in the tourist center next to your wife’s embroidery. Or I will buy them from you. I’ll pay 3,000 pesos for an ocelot pelt. I’ll even pay 1000 pesos for a howler monkey skin.” He handed Tomas the rifle. Here, see how it feels.”

“It’s beautiful,” Tomas said. The stock was varnished and smooth. It felt good in his hands. “But it is too great a gift. How can I repay you?”

“Perhaps in trade you could find me some of those wonderful mushrooms. I can sell them in Cancun and Tulum to tourists.”

“I could. They are plentiful and easy to find. But that is not a fair trade for a fine rifle.”

“Then there is one thing more you could do.”


It was then the Cuban offered Tomas 20,000 pesos to help him kill a jaguar.

“I don’t think so.” Tomas said, hoping not to offend. “This is not possible.”

“Think again, Tomas. What I offer you is a great deal of money. Think what that money could mean to your family.”

Tomas felt indebted to the Cuban, but he had nothing of value to offer in return for the rifle. He noted the disappointment in the Cuban’s eyes. “Will you come to our home?” Tomas asked. “At least I can treat you to Mayan hospitality.”

The Cuban was their first visitor other than those who came from all over Yucatan for Dona Solidad’s traditional healing ceremonies and for the herbal salves she prepared from medicinal plants, maize and wild honey. Usually she met with her followers at the Jaguar Temple in the ceremonial grounds within the ruins. As Tomas and their visitor, entered the house, Tomas was embarrassed at their rough and primitive lifestyle. The house contained only one room and a kitchen. All the family slept in hammocks in the main room. The roof was made of bundles of palm fronds. There was no glass in the windows, merely shutters to help keep out the rain. Most of the living space was beneath a palapa at the back of the house overlooking Maria’s vegetable garden and small orchard. Beyond was the enclosure where the children tended their pigs, goats and chickens. He was also uncertain what the Cuban would think of Dona Solidad. She was eccentric at best, and seemed to be living in a different universe altogether, often breaking into chants and prayer in what she called her constant effort to reconnect with the Mayan soul.

But the Cuban seemed delighted with what he called the rare and elegant simplicity of the household. He was especially complimentary of the orchard and the rich aromas of Maria’s flowering trees and he admired the traditional huipil Maria had embroidered herself and wore with grace. With the garment’s many colors, the Cuban said she looked like an exotic flower. Tomas could tell that Maria was pleased. The Cuban could not have been a more appreciative, interesting and interested guest. Only Dona Solidad seemed to be immune to his charms. The old woman regarded him with suspicion, perhaps even a touch of malice. Although Tomas was embarrassed that she would look upon their guest with such obvious disfavor, the Cuban didn’t seem to notice.

After a meal of chicken tamales, beans and fruit, the children climbed into their hammock and the others took small gourd cups of honey wine out beneath the palapa. For a while they were silent, enjoying the wine, listening to the distant growling of the monkeys somewhere within the dead city. After a time, the Cuban turned to Maria and asked where the children went to school.

“There is no school near. I am their teacher.”

“The nearest school is in a village many miles away,” Tomas added. “Too far to walk and we have no car.” Tomas glanced into the darkness where the bones of their old Ford truck lay moldering beneath a Copal tree.

“You have no neighbors?”

Tomas shook his head.

“Only the jaguars,” the Cuban said, glancing at Dona Solidad. “Do the jaguars come here?”

“They are here now,” she said, her voice merely a whisper, like wind in the corn. “As always they are watching over us. They are our spirit companions, our protectors.”

“Have you seen them?” the Cuban asked.

“Of course,” Don Solidad replied, as if disgusted that he would ask such a foolish question.

“Is it true you speak with the jaguars?”

“Not with words. But with thoughts, a language old as Earth.”

“They are quite beautiful,” Maria said. “I don’t know about spirit companions. But I have seen one of the big cats in the flesh. Although jaguars are night creatures, one reveals himself to us in daylight. When I go to the cenote for water, I have seen him watching. He is sleek and graceful, black and bright gold as if fashioned of sunlight and darkness.”

“And so you would kill these beautiful animals,” Dona Solidad hissed, “the very force that protects us from death and darkness!” She was standing now, bent as an old root, her long white hair falling nearly to her waist. “There was a time when the people mated with the jaguars. We are half jaguar, Tomas. And you would kill us? All for greed, for trinkets, for foolish things that have no meaning.” Then the old woman turned and walked out into the night.

In the morning, when Tomas returned to the tourist center the Cuban was waiting. “Did you tell Dona Solidad about my offer to kill the jaguar?” the Cuban asked.

“I told no one. In my mind it is not settled.”

“How could she have known?”

“She is a shaman. She is in league with the world of the spirits. She knows things that are hidden from others.” Tomas unlocked the door to the restroom, then said, “You are early today.”

“I was anxious to hear your decision.”

“I am not anxious to make it.”

“I could make you rich.” The Cuban’s voice was low and smooth, a sound like deep water over stone. “First this jaguar, then more. A new dress for your pretty wife, a car to take your children to school in the village. Perhaps you could move from this dismal place to a beach condo near Campeche. What do you have to lose?”

“I could lose my freedom. Jaguars are protected here. This is a refuge. To kill them is a federal crime. Poachers are hunted down by government patrols. I could go to prison. What would become of my family then?”

“What will become of them now? A life like they have.”

Tomas knew the Cuban was right. “But still,” he insisted, “it’s wrong to kill a jaguar. The jaguar has always given us power over our enemies, protected us from dark forces.”

The Cuban seemed amused. “You are a modern man, Tomas. And you talk of dark forces?”

“Modern or ancient, it is wrong to kill a jaguar.”

“How do you explain the paintings of warrior kings wearing jaguar pelts, their royal thrones covered with their skins? To get those pelts, jaguars had to die. If it was not wrong to kill a jaguar then, why is it wrong now?”

“I can only say how I feel.”

“But you would like to have the money.”

“Of course, but not at the expense of my soul.”

“There you go, Tomas, talk of souls and dark forces. The jaguar is not some divine creation of the gods. It is merely a wild animal. Perhaps more beautiful than most, but only an animal.”

“Why me? There are better hunters.”

“Your family knows more about jaguars than anyone. You have lived among them for years. Dona Solidad speaks with them. You know their ways, where they range, and the signs they leave in passing.”

Tomas sighed, looked down at his hands and then reached under the board counter for his cash box. It contained a few coins, a few bills, a roll of tickets and paper receipts. So little money. As he arranged the coins and bills according to denomination, he asked the Cuban to tell him again what he must do to earn the 20,000 pesos.

“Very little, Tomas. For this first jaguar, it will be just you and me. I will bring my rifle. It is much more powerful than yours. All you do is show me where to find the jaguar and make sure we avoid the government patrols.”

“Then once we kill this jaguar, what then?”

“With your permission, I will bring other hunters.”

“Who are these hunters?”

“Rich Americans, Europeans. I bring the rifles over from Cuba. They pay $10,000 US for a three-day hunt. That’s how I can be so generous with you. And you will also receive a percentage of what the hunters pay. It will all be so easy.”

“How much do you know about jaguars?”

“I leave that up to you.”

“I will tell you there is nothing easy about killing a jaguar. First you have to find them and they do not want to be found. In the forest, in the tall grass, among the ruins, they are invisible, like ghosts. And once found they are very fierce and powerful. That’s why in the Mayan language they are called ‘Ones Who Kill With One Blow.’”

“If they’re so terrible, aren’t you afraid for your wife and children? It seems to me you’d want to eliminate the danger.”

“The jaguars have left us alone. Even the burro and the goats are safe. I don’t know why. It is a mystery. My wife believes they do not harm us out of respect for Dona Solidad.“

After a moment, the Cuban asked, “So, Tomas, what is your decision?”

Tomas looked up toward the Temple of the Skulls and said, “May the gods forgive me, I will take you to this first jaguar. But more hunters, more jaguars, that is something I cannot promise.”

The Cuban smiled, touched Tomas on the shoulder. Then he reached into his backpack and removed the largest roll of pesos that Tomas had ever seen. “There will be more, “the Cuban said. “There will be much more.”

Tomas took the money and placed it in his cash box.

A few days later, Tomas found Maria among her fruit trees. She had carefully nurtured the small orchard of mango, passion fruit, lime and banana trees for many years. And now, many were in bloom or coming to fruit, filling the garden with butterflies and a symphony of aromas. As he approached, Maria looked up and smiled. “So you would have a condo on the beach?”

“You talked to the Cuban?”

“He came to see me. Told me of the great opportunity I had to become rich.”

“Did Dona Solidad hear?”

“She was furious. She called him the devil, Ahpuch, right to his face.”

“What did you say to the Cuban about the opportunity?”

“I told him I was already rich. I have beautiful children and the love of a good husband. What need did I have of a new dress?”

“But school for the children. I know you teach them what you can. But they are isolated here in the middle of nowhere. They have no friends, no sense of what the world is like.”

“There is that, my husband. I would love for them to go to a real school. But at what cost?” She handed Thomas a mango. “Anyway, who can be poor when they can pick breakfast from a tree. Come, Tomas, the children are out helping my grandmother collect herbs, lets take a gourd of honey wine and go to the cenote where it’s cool.”

They moved into the forest, through mammoth arches of Laurel and groves of Wild Tamarind and Gumbo Limbo. The midday heat was oppressive, and they were eager to reach the cenote with its waterfall and cooling mists. The Xtzmul Cenote was a huge circular natural depression in the forest floor, cut from the native stone, filled with crystal clear water fed by underground rivers. It had been the source of water for the ancient city. They came upon it suddenly and as they reached the rim they could feel the change in temperature. A narrow pathway through tangled vines of Bougainvillea lined the rim and then reached a stairway cut in the stone centuries before. Down one wall a silver waterfall leaped from a series of pools into the cenote below.

When they reached the bottom, they sat on a ledge, their feet trailing into the cold water. Mist from the waterfall filled the air. They sipped the wine and Tomas pealed a mango. Maria laid back, eyes closed, and soon the mist had soaked through her thin cotton huipil and the contours of her breasts were revealed. How young she looks, he thought, and he remembered the dreams they shared at the School of Anthropology, in Mexico City, when it seemed their future was alive with possibility. He remembered their passion, their commitment to preserve their cultural history. He thought of their field work at the city’s Temple of the Wind, where he studied the management of archaeological sites and where it became apparent he and Maria were more than friends and classmates. He remembered the first time they made love. It was in his small apartment at the historic center. The thought of her coming to him, so lovely, so innocent, filled him now with both desire and sorrow. Soon after they were married, the first child came and she was forced to give up her studies. But she had found joy in his appointment to the Sites Operation Department and had comforted him when he had been assigned a position so far below his expectations. How patient and supportive she had been, how accepting of their lonely, impoverished life. In time they found themselves trapped by their poverty and their seclusion. Soon they lost contact with friends, their truck died, and rare trips to the nearest village were a half day away by bicycle. How low they had fallen, how far from their dreams. He looked at her now and saw the girl she had been was still there in the mist. He touched her breast and she covered his hand with hers. After a while, she lifted his hand to her lips.

“You don’t have to do this thing, dear Tomas. You know it is wrong.”

Tomas said nothing.

“The jaguars were here before our people came.”

“I have taken his money.”

“You can give it back. Dona Solidad says that if a man kills a jaguar it will cause a crack in the universe. It will call down terrible things on our family.”

“With all due respect, Maria, I must say that Dona Solidad is a crazy old woman. I respect her as a healer and as your grandmother. But she has lived too long among the temple ruins, feeling the influence of the ancient sorcerers. And I don’t believe she can talk with jaguars.”

Tomas could tell Maria was offended.

“Dona Solidad may be crazy, but I love her. So if you get the money and we buy a condo, will she go with us? Can you see her on the beach at Campeche, sipping tequila beneath an umbrella?”

In spite of himself, Tomas had to smile at the image.

“I don’t want you to do this,” Maria said. “But if you do, I will not promise that something might not change between us.”

Tomas and the Cuban walked out into the dead city. The moon was full, lighting their way through the ruins and reflecting off the polished steel of the Cuban’s rifle. They passed great mounds of rubble hiding ancient palaces and temples, passed by the partially reconstructed Hall of the Warriors and Temple of the Skulls. Tomas was glad to be out in the forest, away from his wife’s angry eyes. Well, he thought, she will come around, when she thinks about a new life in the city, no longer being the only inhabitants of a dead one, an opportunity to live in a proper community with a proper school for the children. It will just take some time to come to her senses.

“What will you do with the money, Tomas?”

“I will go back to the city, buy a small tienda, maybe sell books and handicrafts for the tourists. I will take Maria to the mall in Merida, dine in a restaurant by the sea in Campeche. We will live among people, not shadows.”

Soon they reached the cenote. Tomas warned the Cuban not to get too close to the edge. The sides were vertical stone walls and it was a long way to the water, maybe two hundred feet. “This is where Maria comes for our water.”

“Where she sees the jaguar?”

“Yes, along the far rim. He watches from the branches of the Tamarind trees.”

“And you have seen him?”

“Yes. Many times.”

“And he is watching now?”

“Yes. He is always watching.”

Suddenly Tomas felt very ashamed. He knew what he was doing was wrong. But is it not possible, he thought again, that doing wrong can sometimes be the right thing to do?”

And so they waited, watching the rim of the cenote and the ruins for movement, listening to the wind rattle the palmettos and to the eerie growling of the howler monkeys.

Then Tomas felt a change in the weight of the air, a powerful presence that filled him with both terror and a profound despair. The Cuban must have felt it, too. And as he turned and raised his rifle, the great cat was upon him. He fired and then both predator and prey went spilling over the edge down, down into the cenote.

They found the Cuban at noon on the following day. Several uniformed officers of the Policia Federal and a team of divers gathered around the body. The man had obviously drowned but he had also suffered severe lacerations on his head and body. The officers motioned for Tomas to come see if he could identify the body. It was difficult because his head had almost been torn away.

“He is a tourist who came to explore the ruins,” Tomas said. “A Cuban, I believe.”

Just then the divers called that they had found another body. They dragged it ashore. Tomas went to look. It was Dona Solidad. She had been shot.

Tomas looked high above the rim of the cenote where he coud see the jaguar, a creation of sunlight and darkness, watching from the branches of a Tamerind tree.

If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you will enjoy my new novel, “The Lost Caravan.” It’s available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble and on my website, Marshall. Riggan Storyteller.