The Ledge of Quetzal, Beyond 2012
Preface and Chapter One
We know who we are.
We have stood at the edge of the canyon reaching, reaching beyond our selves to touch once again the eternal. Below, the stream flows deeper and deeper into the earth while, on the far side, the cave dwellings of our ancestors are cut in sunlight and shadow. Above them, a vast vertical outcrop has been poured over with the elemental stain of eons passing. At the horizon, smooth rim rock breasts up against the sky. Ancient footpaths lace down through cleft rock, and still, warm winds whisper through the cottonwoods. Our hearts once knew all the secrets of this place and spoke its timeless language. But we left so long ago. Now we have come back all this way—isolated, mute, filled with hunger to be reborn. From nowhere, an immense golden eagle glides not thirty feet overhead and disappears. For an instant, time opens and we can see infinitely into our selves.
We return to our cities pierced from within.
“I’ve had a vision,”Daniel said to his guides. The guides stirred within him.
“The vision I’ve had is that we are all divine.”
After days of walking and climbing, Daniel was high in the
mountains of tropical Mexico. Early morning clouds and mist
enveloped him like a shell of pearl. Trees dripped with moisture
and the smell of wet soil rose up along the path. High above,
beyond seeing, the chilling call of a chachalaca led the way. Daniel
was in the company of his guides, who spoke to him with one voice
from within. He was on the last days of a journey to the high ledge
where the god Quetzal would appear before him. There, he was to
receive the final realization of his being.
He had climbed and climbed up into the clouds since before
dawn. As he left the village below, Daniel could see in the faint
first light of day a small brown and gray snake moving through
the grass by the side of the road. Possessed for an instant by total
understanding, he picked up the snake gently and fed it into his
shirt and around his waist. He could feel it tightening against his
skin. Now his sandals were soaked through, chafing his feet. “Do
I really belong here?” he wondered, still astonished at how much
had happened and how far he had come. To him, this was the land
of innocent Indians who went to church, planted corn, and ush¬
ered kindling-laden burros along steep hillside paths—of mystical
shamans who used peyote, made sacrifices, and did crazed dances
in the smoke of the gods.
Through all these years, the guides had led him from his home in the United States to this remote place of transformation. It had been a journey through some of the darkest valleys he had ever known, a journey whose purpose was often revealed through the power of epiphany.
Already, warm air had begun to rise up from the valley, urging the mist before it, but Daniel didn’t want the mist to leave. It em¬braced him and the trees and stones and the mountain, and he felt comforted by its moisture, by the sounds it carried and the smells it awakened. He wanted to breathe in its wholeness. The feeling reminded him of times when he yearned to be joined with all his surroundings—joined in a oneness he couldn’t touch. Now, in this instant, he was bathed in it.
The path grew steeper as he ascended. He leaned on his staff and small stones skidded out from under his feet. He looked down and saw his white skin smeared with mud and marveled again that he was in sandals. This was a land of origins and simple things. A land of sandals. He had allowed himself to be drawn into the un¬familiar in order to be transformed. But a part of him feared how terrifying the transformation could become. The bird beckoned ahead. From time to time, his guides spoke to him, urging him to pause, to feel the power of his surroundings. Close to his ears, he heard droplets of dew fall from the trees and pelt the impermeable shell of his jacket. He felt the steepness of the climb and the weight of the pack on his back and he was out of breath.
A number of days ago, when he began this part of his journey, there had been times in the early morning and after sundown when he could barely see the path a few feet before him—a path marked by traces of dark ground occasionally bounded by rocks and grasses and the bare roots of trees. Sometimes the path simply vanished, enveloped in the dimensional whisper of air through pine needles. Where was the heart to follow? The sounds? The dampness?
The darkness that covered his eyes? He had to allow his guides to move him through the ferns and around large boulders to find his way once again. In the beginning, years ago, it had always been frightening to let his guides take over, because he had been so utterly lost and knew how lost he could again become. Trust, the guides had said. And each time they led him through darkness into light, his trust grew.
He remembered only a few nights earlier climbing a long path in the dark, up the hill to where the ceremony had taken place. It was a flat, charred piece of ground. There, in the glow of two large fires, he had looked into obsidian eyes, seen dark painted faces, felt their hands all over his body, their hair on his back, and touched their bare feet stomping among coals in the dust. Amid the dancing and the noise, the priest Bartolomeo, a small, frail man, suddenly stepped from the darkness into the light of the fires holding his hands apart. The people became silent. Two women gently pulled Daniel down to his knees before an altar, then knelt on either side of him. A pair of hands rested on his shoulders.
When all was still—as still as the incense that hung in the air—the priest came to him and placed three fingers on his left wrist. He felt his heart begin to pound uncontrollably. Then the priest touched both of his temples. After a suspenseful silence, the priest intoned,“Susto,” and a murmur of affirmation swept in from the glow of the fires. For the first time, Daniel noticed that a cross made from grass had been planted atop a small mound of earth that formed the altar. Small flowers were strewn about and candles burned around the front edge of the mound. A tall dish at the center held the smol¬dering copal. The women beside him began to moan from deep within their throats. They patted their thighs, then put their hands together in a form of prayer with their index fingers folded inward. They patted their thighs once again.
The priest held a bouquet of albahaca, a white carnation, a thin branch from a pepper tree, and a large specked egg. One of the men held a cup to the priest’s lips and the priest sipped. Then the priest turned and from his mouth sprayed both the bouquet and Daniel’s face with the clear liquid. It felt hot and smelled of sour, fermenting plants.
The priest began to grunt with short breaths and passed the bou¬quet over Daniel’s head, then brushed down his front and back, making sweeping motions over his entire body. The moans from the women beside him grew mournful as they grabbed handfuls of dirt and threw them into the air. When the priest had swept even the soles of Daniel’s bare feet, he placed the bouquet to the left of the altar and broke the egg into a glass of water. Then he took up another bouquet from the right side of the altar, this one with a red carnation, and yet another egg. Again the priest sipped from a cup held to his lips and spat the fermented juice onto the bouquet and onto Daniel. He could feel the closeness of the priest’s body leaning over his own and the heat and grunting of the priest’s sour breath.
After what seemed an extended tunnel of time, the priest laid his hand upon Daniel’s head and, looking up into the dark heavens, released a long, mournful howl that reverberated from his reedy frame. The women on either side of Daniel took him by the shoul¬ders and shook him violently back and forth and from side to side. Then they went to the altar and each withdrew long strands of grass from the cross and wrapped them around Daniel’s wrists and around his head. The priest had now broken the last egg into a second glass of water and was gazing intently through the sides of both glasses. He came to Daniel holding the two glasses before him for Daniel to see. “Su susto,” the priest said. In each glass, the whites and the golden yolks, magnified by the water, formed deep sym¬metrical swirls shot through with burning reflections of the flames that filled the night. Daniel saw the milky threads of his fright that had been cleansed from him. And through the water his fright gazed back at him with the glowing yellow eyes of a great cat.
Looking up into the heavens, the priest released a long, mournful howl.
Now with his guides on the mountainside, he suddenly felt like crying. He stopped. He felt as if he were being taken up into a realm that knew all his secret yearnings—a place that could hold his heart in a light he had never known. In preparation for his journey, the voice that spoke to him when he died told him that, before reaching the ledge of Quetzal, he would experience levels of recollection and realization along the way. Already many levels had been awakened within him. At each one he had stepped outside of time to assimilate the great truth being offered him. They were all similar, and yet different in very important ways. Now, on the verge of crying, there was a part of him that didn’t want to move on, but rather wanted to linger here at this edge of becoming, teasing himself with the possibility of total dissolution.
His body surged with energy. The snake felt the energy and stirred for a moment. His arms and shoulders and heart felt full. There seemed to be a force of incredible love rising up from the mountain. He put his hand on the peeling bark of a tree. This is a holy place, he felt. He wanted to give himself to it, to dissolve into the soil and into all his surroundings. His calves ached from the climb, but the pain felt as if it belonged.
This was not a place without contrasts. There were pockets of great suffering left by those who had come before him, and the mixture of suffering and love awakened in him a feeling of compassion. He wanted to merge with it. Living and dying seemed to be the same. Without warning, he burst into tears and laughter, holding the small pouch that hung from his neck as if to steady himself.
Soon, through the trees a few yards down from the edge of the path, he noticed a small pyramid of stones—like an altar, perhaps waist high—that had been mounded up on a piece of ground that seemed to have been cleared and smoothed over for this purpose. As he moved toward it, he saw that a bundle of twigs wrapped in a vine and flanked by two small circles of ashes and charred wood had been placed before the pyramid. “I’m not the only one who feels the power of this mid-way place,” he said to himself. “This is a place of preparation.”
He crossed his legs and sat before the stones, hands resting palms up on his knees, facing west. Eyes closed, he breathed in deeply to relax his body and drain the churning from his mind. Moist air flowed up around his neck and face. Soon, his breathing settled into a deep and pendular rhythm, and the shell of his awareness extended outward an arm’s length beyond his skin. Amid all the sounds and textures of the mountain, he began to find stillness. With the ledge only a half day ahead, for long moments, moments without time, he allowed himself to be, preparing himself to receive. Here, high on this rapturous mountain, he would soon touch the largest truth of his life.
He had come such a long, long way.