Updated: Sep 8, 2022
We stood at the bend in a path amidst the ruins of ancient temples in the jungle. Before us stood a tree. A tree with an eye—a crying eye—and legs with what appeared to be longish feet protruding from them.
It was quiet. The day was humid, and we had this section of the ruins at Ek Balam almost to ourselves. Tiny, sting-less Mayan bees buzzed among the wild-flowers and exotic birds sang in the high branches of the sour orange and avocado trees. But the tree that stood before us—the great ceiba with its intimidating, spine-filled branches—appeared to be crying.
There is a story I want to tell you . . .
It is a story about a goddess named Xtabay (esh-ta-by). She is a bright green snake who can turn into a beautiful woman and she lives inside the sacred, spine-covered ceiba trees. She is not a nice lady and has a real dislike of men who are drunk. So, when she sees them wandering around alone, she lures them with her beauty, transforming herself into each man’s most preferred idea of loveliness, and she takes them into a ceiba tree, of which she has many all over the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the time, they are never seen again.
There was a man. His name was Sebriano. He was an old man, going blind and missing a foot from an untreated case of diabetes. We found him in the Maya pueblo of Xcalacoop, not far from the ruins of Chichen Izta. We had been looking for his nephew, Gato. But Gato was unavailable and Sebriano agreed to talk to us on his behalf.
You see, Gato had a bit of a problem. He had an experience with the goddess, and it left him reeling, out of his mind, unable to readjust to society, unable to function normally for more than a few hours at a time. He kept seeing her. He saw her in the fields. He saw her in the streets. To him, she was a young girl with long black hair and a brilliant white dress covered in brightly colored hand-embroidered flowers. She called his name. He could not escape her. He could not think of anything but her. His body may have been saved from her sharp home in the ceiba tree, but his mind was lost.
Sebriano pulled up plastic chairs on his front porch and waved us to sit. He was very happy to chat with us and was very fond of his nephew, Gato. He brought tall, colorful plastic glasses of warm water from the kitchen, handed us each a glass, settled himself in one of the plastic chairs, and regaled us with a story that I would not have believed had our host not been such an authentic and kind soul. The emotion that recalling the story brought up in him was sure evidence that the tale effected him greatly.
His story went like this:
Gato was a young man who liked to drink. He worked construction and between jobs he enjoyed his friends and a hearty number of 40 oz cervesas. One day he was out in the milpa (corn field) working, when he saw a beautiful, very traditional, Mayan girl floating just above the ground. Gato was stunned by her beauty and tried to go to her, but as he approached her, she floated away from him. She didn’t speak but looked at him as if beckoning him to follow her. Gato, mesmerized, followed her through the tall stalks of corn and to the edge of the field where an old ceiba tree stretched its spine-covered arms toward the heavens. The girl floated to the base of the great tree and Gato followed her. Then, just as he was reaching out to touch her, the girl disappeared into the tree and Gato fell unconscious.
When he awoke, it was as if from a long drunk. He was lying on a bed of enormous spines and everything was dark around him except for a small bit of light that seemed very far away. In a clouded state, he pulled himself across the bed of spines and toward the light. It took all his effort to keep his eyes open and keep moving forward because drowsiness threatened to drag him into a deep sleep.
After a long struggle, Gato came into the light and found himself lying at the base of the old tree. He got up, brushed himself off, and staggered home where he fell into his bed and slept, in an agitated state, for weeks. His family was unable to rouse him more than to hear a few nonsensical words and have him drift off again. They tended to him, getting him to eat and drink a little when he was able.
Eventually, Gato came out of his stupor. But he was never the same again. He talked of the beautiful woman constantly. He saw her in the streets. He saw her in the milpa. He tried to work, but he was unable to focus his attention long enough to hold a job. To this day, Gato struggles to support himself. Sebriano, our host and Gato's uncle, obviously loves him dearly and said he is a good man. But he also said that the poor boy will probably never fully recover.
So, what about the tree?
What about the tree in the photo that I took on the quiet path in the ruins of the Mayan city of Ek Balam? What is the eye? Why does it appear to be crying?
Who do the legs and feet belong to? Has someone else been trapped in a great ceiba by the goddess Xtabay?