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The Priestess on the Mountain

La sacerdotisa de la montaña
by Pergentino José
Translated from Spanish by
Thomas Bunstead
Issue 31 Online Exclusive

La niña encuentra un pedazo de hilo y comienza a hacer nudos, se sienta en el piso a observar la lumbre. Busca con la mirada a su madre, Yezari, que se esconde en una de las habitaciones. Con el nacimiento de su hija una leve porción de sus poderes de adivinación dejó de pertenecerle. A Yezari su padre le dijo que a esas habitaciones, en las noches más oscuras, llega una señora joven que abre todas las puertas para contemplar la oscuridad que las sacude por dentro. Yezari tiene miedo de recorrer los pasillos en las noches de luna llena. Le teme a la luz más tenue, y tampoco quiere ver a su hija.

La niña sigue haciendo nudos. Tiene el mismo cabello ondulado que su madre. Hace unas noches, cerca de donde la gente recoge leña en el bosque, Yezari vio a su hija. Quedó aterrada. Tanto parecido era exagerado, fuera de todo límite, y no había forma de remediarlo. Ese acto de mirar tan sólo unos instantes a la niña, que estaba sentada cerca del fuego, le recordó el parto. Durante meses evitó pensar en ello. La niña nació y con su llegada se esfumó el privilegio de Yezari de vivir cerca de la ciénaga sagrada donde permanecen las sacerdotisas de la ciudad. Ahora ya no puede caminar descalza por la habitación principal para sentir las vibraciones de las deidades; otra sacerdotisa es la encargada de encender el fuego cada tarde mientras oscurece en el aposento donde Yezari solía dirigir rezos que se extendían hasta la medianoche. Uno de los sacerdotes le sugirió irse de la ciudad. Ahora ella vive en una de las habitaciones cerca de la montaña, puede caminar en el bosque y trata de entender lo que ha pasado con su devoción.

Recuerda otra vez el momento del parto. Las luces del hospital la deslumbraban, sentía que un dolor se movía allí en su vientre, como si la hirieran desde dentro con un pedazo de vidrio. Sus gritos la hacían flotar en algo viscoso de lo que no podía liberarse.

Después de que la fuerza de su voz disminuyera, cuando ya no pudo más, Yezari sintió que llegaba a la entrada de un túnel que por momentos se iluminaba para luego oscurecerse, como si su instalación eléctrica sufriera un desperfecto. Adelante había un camino; dudó en entrar o no. Decidió aventurarse por el túnel. Aparecieron destellos de luz que lo alumbraban todo, luego llegó la oscuridad. Sabía que debía seguir caminando. Se acostumbró a los intervalos de luz y oscuridad, al silencio y la paz que reinaban en ese lugar. De pronto escuchó el llanto de un recién nacido. Era terrible. No podía soportarlo. La luz desapareció del todo, el mundo quedó anegado en la oscuridad. La voz del médico la trajo de nuevo a su cuerpo.

“Señora, mire, es su hija. ¡Qué hermosa es!”

The girl sits gazing into the fire. Her hand falls on a piece of thread, she takes it up and begins making knots in it. She looks around for Yezari, her mother, who has taken herself off to one of the other rooms. After the birth, Yezari found her powers of divination gone. Yezari’s father told her about a young woman visiting these rooms once, on the darkest of nights; she came in and opened all the doors, so as to look upon the inner darkness that had shaken them all so badly. Yezari is afraid to walk the hallways during the full moon. Even the faintest of light scares her, and she does not want to see her daughter.

The girl goes on tying the little knots. Her hair is wavy like her mother’s. A few nights ago, near the place in the forest where people gather firewood, Yezari saw her daughter, and felt terrified. They were so alike, excessively, almost exaggeratedly so; and there was no remedy for it now. Seeing the girl for but a moment—she was sitting by a fire then too—brought the birth flooding back, after all these months of avoiding the thought. The girl had been born and Yezari’s gift—the ability to live in proximity to the sacred swamp, where the priestesses reside—departed. No longer can she walk barefoot through the main hall and feel the vibrations; a different priestess has now been charged with lighting the fire in the evening, while, in Yezari’s lodgings, it grows dark—where once she would intone prayers deep into the night. One of the priests suggested she leave the city. Now she lives in one of the mountainside dormitories, and the forest is there for her to go walking in as she tries to understand what has become of the connection she no longer feels, except as an absence.

The moment of the birth comes back to her again. The dazzling hospital lights, the pain in her belly like someone stabbing her with shards of glass. Her cries carried her up, she had the sensation of floating in a viscous substance, a substance she was also trapped inside.

After the cries diminished and she felt she could bear the pain no more, Yezari came to a tunnel entrance. It flickered light and then dark ahead of her, as if the electrics were faulty. She hesitated but finally decided to go on. Flickers of brilliant light, before darkness descended once more. She knew she had to keep going and grew accustomed to the intermittent darkness and the silence and the prevailing sense of peace. Suddenly she heard a child cry. A terrible sound, unbearable. The light went out, the whole world lay in darkness. The doctor’s voice brought her back into her body.

“It’s a girl! Look, a beautiful baby girl!”

Yezari went to caress the newborn, whose crying continued, but found her hands covered in blood. Six months passed, more. The priests said she should go to the mountain and try to find herself once more, see if her powers might return.

The girl was already walking when Yezari saw her for the second time. The feeling of having been stripped of something was confirmed when she saw her daughter’s face, the way she walked, the color of her hair. She had not seen the girl grow, had not nursed her, had not been there for her first words. And there she was, sitting on a park bench with Yezari’s father. Harmless, like all children at that age. It was early, the girl was wearing a cotton dress. Her father had pushed Yezari to meet the girl—she was her daughter, after all.

Yezari gave her daughter a gentle hug, and then she and the father talked for a little while, about nothing in particular, as the girl looked on in silence. Yezari said she had to be back at the mountain before midday and said goodbye, kissing her daughter on the forehead.

Yezari had no idea her father would then bring the girl to the mountainside. This former seer, incapable of understanding her own life. All signs were impenetrable to her; the way the leaves moved, birdsong: none of it said anything to her about the shape of things to come. Her life resembled a gray and misty day, and she longed for the sun to break through. But then, to add to the endless murk, rains moved in.

The closer her daughter came, the more she withdrew. Hoping to recover her gifts, she began throwing the corn grains before the oracle, but they did not move and she discerned nothing in them.

The night she saw the girl sitting before the fire knotting the thread, a restless wind was blowing outside, and it weighed upon them like some kind of heavy presentiment. Yezari shut herself in her room, covered the ground in blankets, and sat down to pray. She asked the god of water and the spirits of her ancestors to take her daughter away, that she go and be with her father again—anywhere, as long as it was far away. She did not want to see her ever again. She became increasingly lost in her prayers, and the smell of the copal resin incense sent her into a dream:

She was walking in a forest. Fear gradually filled her, and when she looked down she found she had assumed the shape of a mountain lion.

Yezari tried to stop herself from changing, she dug her feet into the leafy ground, but as she did so claws appeared and she felt hair, a thick pelt, sprouting from her back. She hurried on and, coming to a strawberry tree, decided to climb it. She cried out for help, certain that somebody, in some far-off place, was observing her transformation. The more she tried to scream, the more the screams turned to a feline mewing and yowling: nkui nkuau, nkui nkuau. She felt giddy and before she knew it had let go of the branch, was falling—she fell a short way, struck the next branch down, and dug her claws in to save herself. The feline noises she produced, her entreaties, eventually provoked the rest of the forest animals to join in. And so she knew that there was no way of fleeing from her daughter.

When the priests found out that Yezari had turned into a mountain lion, they made an offering to the swamp gods Mbdan and Mbsiand, mixing turkey blood, white flowers, and the copal resin incense. The night in question was associated with the mushroom deity, and two of the priests took a mortar and pestle out to the swamp and ground up some of the hallucinogenic fungi. They needed to find out if the girl had truly inherited her mother’s gifts of foresight. The priests lit a bushel and sprinkled copal onto it, intoning their prayers to the swamp deities:

“Let the words be born in the heart of Yezari’s girl,” they said.

They seated the girl on the grass mat and gave her a few drops of the mushroom mixture on a banana leaf. Warmth coursed through her. The priests stood in silence, waiting for her to begin speaking. Presently she saw a veiled woman appear and place an ant in her hand, saying:

“This red ant has cut a path to the center of the earth.”

The mushrooms began to take hold, and the girl began describing the red ant and the way it frees the spirits of any person buried underground. The woman took off the dark veil and said:

“I know you are looking for your mother, her spirit has become a mountain lion and she is lost in the forest; this is what the ant has told me. This vision does not belong to you, nor does it belong to me.” She sat down next the girl on the mat. “Do you know what ferns are?”

The girl nodded.

“Where I come from, we hide our secrets in the roots of ferns. They are the only plants that grow while it is dark.”

The woman got up, covered her face once more, and walked away. The girl watched the red ant moving around on her palm. When the woman was almost out of sight, she tried to get up from the mat, but something heavy held her there.

“I don’t want to see Mama anymore,” she said, more to herself than to the woman.

The woman could no longer hear her. She waded on through the stream that led away from the swamp. The priests heard the girl say once more:

“I don’t want to see Mama anymore.”

Then the girl fell into a deep sleep.

 

 

The girl saw her mother, ill and alone, waiting for someone to arrive at her mountainside residence. She was more beautiful than the girl remembered. Her hair hung loose and there was a brightness in her eyes – the illness had not dimmed them. She was drinking a thick liquid of some kind, it had marked the corners of her mouth. She was shivering all over, as though death’s cold shadow had begun to move in. She looked downcast, everything about her cried out for help, but her daughter merely said:

“When you die I will throw your body in the arroyo.”

Next the girl dreamed of walking beside a stream full of beetles. This was where she would throw her mother’s body, she thought. She tried to trap a beetle as it flew up into the air, but then the creature turned into a bird.

One of the priests gave an order for the girl to be taken to the temple. She, deep in her mushroom trance, was saying:

“I walk in the forest, I catch butterflies, they become yellow butterflies in my hands. Kee do’, these butterflies are called—the voice is telling me. There is a large boulder in my path, squirrels are jumping about in the treetops. Mother, I bring you these words.”

The priests encouraged the girl to continue, while dropping banana leaves on the fire to keep the evil night spirits at bay. The girl was still speaking:

“A man, coming out of the misty forest. He knows his destination, you can see it in his eyes. The crows calling out, the cold ground—none of that puts him off. He carries a machete made of stone, he is using it to clear a path. He is a warrior. He hurries forward, swinging on the jungle vines to help him go quickly. Now it seems like he’s flying through the trees…and now he’s walking again. His feet kick pebbles aside, they roll away down the slopes.”

When Yezari returned to her room on the mountain, she found another Yezari lying in her bed. Yezari did not know where she had been, only that she could hardly lift her arms and legs; she tried, unsuccessfully, to lift up the other Yezari, who, deep asleep, was talking:

“When you die I will throw your body in the arroyo.”

Yezari’s body was covered in scratches. The blanket slipped off the sleeping Yezari, uncovering one of her feet—Yezari saw that they both had the same birthmark. She lay down next to the intruder and tried to go to sleep, all the while thinking about the dream of herself as a mountain lion.

 

 

A warrior is making his way out of the misty regions. He has been training and meditating for many days. A thick layer of cloud covers his village and the day is dim; the yellow flowers are the only thing that seem to retain any light. This is the perfect climate for the mushrooms, and the villagers ingest them regularly. The warrior, out in the middle of his secluded area, hears the voice of the mushrooms: it calls him by his name, Lox, and says:

“You must protect Yezari. Her spirit has turned into a mountain lion. If her daughter receives the gifts of foresight she will have the ability to come to our region of mist and look into the darkness. She will do great damage to the men of our village. She is a child, there is not enough light in her heart for her to understand the peace that reigns among us.”

The mushroom deity gives Lox the ability, once he enters the forest, to understand Yezari’s feline sounds: nkui nkuau, nkui nkuau. He also hears what the daughter says to her mother:

“You abandoned me. I was a young plant, I needed to grow if I was to become a powerful tree. You went away from me, you left me when I was still a defenseless young shoot, you left me with no shade to take shelter in. You never accepted me, but the mushrooms are merciful, and they have shown me that something cold has filled your heart. You walk in a forest, along a path scattered with yellow flowers: you grow old. And your ability to understand the gods of darkness and light—it is mine now.”

Gradually the warrior ceases to hear the child’s voice. He comes out of the forested part of the misty region. It is cold, but his desire to walk the path of yellow flowers is strong. He has the sensation of large numbers of beetles running across his body and begins to hear birdsong.

 

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from Pergentino José’s Red Ants, forthcoming from Deep Vellum in 2020.

Pergentino José was born in 1981 in a Zapotec village in the Pacific highlands of Oaxaca. He has published poetry and prose in both Zapotec and Spanish and is a member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte, the Mexican government's prestigious fellowship program for artists and writers.
Translator
Thomas Bunstead is a writer and translator based in East Sussex, Britain. He has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Agustín Fernández Mallo, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Juan Villoro, and his own writing has appeared in >kill author, The White Review and the Times Literary Supplement. He is an editor at the translation journal In Other Words.