Illustration by Pedro Gomes

This is the story of Princess Ixkik’, who, upon hearing the story of the calabash tree, reached it and wanted to touch it.

She was the daughter of Kuchumakik.

“Will I die if I touch the fruits? Surely they must be delicious.”

She was soon on her way to Pukbal, alone.

“Isn’t it beautiful how the tree is covered with fruit?”

A calavera hiding behind the tree popped up: “These fruits are actually calaveras. Do you want them?”

“Yes, I do,” she replied.

“Let me have your right hand,” the calavera said.

Ixkik’ extended her right hand. At that moment, the calavera spit on it. As she looked at it, the spit vanished.

“It is my saliva. My spit has given you my offspring. Go back up to Earth. You shall not die, trust me,” the calavera said. “The head is beautiful while alive. But after death people become frightened of it. Beauty vanishes and only bones remain. In a similar way, a child is like saliva: the parent’s essence is in it. The face of his parents is in the child’s, although at times one must look hard to find it. Death is final but survival takes place through progeny. That progeny is already in our body, in ourselves.”

The princess returned home pregnant. That is how Junajpu and Ixb’alanke were conceived.

After six months, her condition was seen by her father, called Kuchumakik.

The lords of Xibalba, Jun Kame, and Ququb’ Kame, along with Kuchumakik, gathered together to reflect on the situation.

“My daughter is with child,” her father said. “She has been dishonored.”

“Force her to speak the truth. If she refuses to speak, sacrifice her by tearing her heart from her chest.”

Kuchumakik questioned his daughter: “Whose child are you carrying?”

She answered: “I’m not carrying a child. I have known no man.”

“Take her to be sacrificed,” he told the four owls, who are the most important messengers of Xibalba. “Bring me back her heart in this bowl.”

The four messengers took the bowl. They flew away carrying Princess Ixkik’ in their wings. They also took with them the stone knife for the sacrifice.

Ixkik’ told the owls: “Don’t kill me. It is no dishonor what I carry in my womb. It was conceived as I admired the tree where the head of Jun Junajpu was placed in Pukbal.”

“And what shall we substitute your heart with?” the owls wondered. “We don’t want to die.”

“Do not worry. You no longer will lure people to death, nor will your home be in Xibalba. The cycle of life is inescapable. Death is connected with birth, and vice versa. For maize to grow, a seed must die and be buried in the soil. Take the sap from this chik’te’ tree,” said the young woman.

The red sap emerging from that tree fell into the bowl, oozing into a substitute for the heart of Ixkik’. It soon became resplendent. The K’iche’ use the hearts of large animals—jaguars, pumas, crocodiles—for offerings, throwing them into the fire to burn. If those animals are not available, they make hearts out of incense. The chik’te’ tree was called the Sacrificial Red Tree. She named the coagulation blood. The tree is still called blood croton.

The princess said to the owls: “On Earth, you’ll be precious.”

“We shall rise to serve you,” the messengers replied. “Follow your own road while we bring the sap before the lords.”

When the owls arrived, everyone was waiting for them, Kuchumakik’ most attentively.

“Have your duties been fulfilled?” Jun Kame asked.

“Everything was done according to your commands. The heart is in the bowl.”

“Let us see,” Jun Kame exclaimed. The heart appeared red and full of blood, although it was only sap.

“Make a fire and place it over the embers,” Jun Kame ordered.

The owls immediately tossed the heart into the fire, as is custom among the K’iche’. The odor that emerged was the smell of Xibalba. As the lords cherished the sight, the owls opened their wings and rose from the abyss toward the earth, where they are beloved.

*

Excerpted from Popol Vuh: A Retelling, by Ilan Stavans. © 2020 by Restless Books.

Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin America and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and the publisher of Restless Books. He has translated Lazarillo de Tormes, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Mariano Azuela, and Juan Rulfo into English; Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop into Spanish; Yehuda Halevi and Yehuda Amichai from Hebrew; Isaac Bashevis Singer from Yiddish; and Shakespeare, Cervantes, and The Little Prince into Spanglish. Aside from Popol Vuh: A Retelling, his books include On Borrowed Words, Dictionary Days, Quixote, On Self-Translation, and The Wall. He edited the Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, and Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors; his work, rendered into twenty languages, has been adapted for film, TV, radio, and theater.

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