In the beginning was the Bird, and the Bird was with God and the Bird was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by the Bird; and without the Bird was not anything made that was made. In the Bird was life; and the life was the light of men. And the Bird was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
Fleeing through the jungle at the sound of gunfire, Paco remembered the afternoon when his grandfather, the day keeper of the village, introduced him to the legend of the Bird. He had been seven-years-old and listened with bated breath to every word the old man uttered about the beauty of the creature made flesh. An amalgam of blue, green, and gold, its plumes adorned the costumes of their ancestors in the time before the bearded men stole upon them like rain clouds. Their lords wore elaborate headdresses made of the creatures’ feathers as symbols of authority at sacrificial dances and other ceremonies.
From then on, Paco never went a day without dreaming of the ancestors and absorbed all he could about their gods and rites. He imagined as clearly as if he could see them in front of him the red and white thorny oyster shells and the conch shells they used in ceremonies, warfare, and the chase, the cuirasses that covered their breasts. He heard the din of their drums, whistles, shell trumpets, and war cries.
Yet none spoke of more loveliness than the bird. When would he see a quetzal, he inquired of his grandfather one day. The old man smiled and assured Paco that if he mastered the virtues of watchfulness and patience in the cloud forest he would sight one of the great birds.
But regardless of how he followed the advice, Paco failed to realise his dream. The day keeper sketched the bird for his grandson. Another time he withdrew a weathered quetzal bill and showed him the green and scarlet image printed on it. The bird’s day would come again, he insisted as a last resort in his efforts to mollify the inquisitive boy.
Paco relinquished hope over time. He became convinced the bird had returned to the same bedrock of myth from which it took wing in the flights of fancy he was subject to at a younger age. The colourfully ornamented lords must have sequestered themselves in the same element.
In his seventeenth year, news filtered through to the villagers that the government in the faraway capital had been toppled. The men and women received it with disquiet though they hid their deepest misgivings much as they did the grains, seeds, and shoots they collected when they sensed in the marrow of their bones the approach of a time of drought and hunger.
The toppled president had tried to improve the lot of the campesinos, so they heard. He took steps to give back portions of the land wrested from them years before by foreign-owned fruit companies. But now, ousted by an army general, he languished in exile and they knew neither their future nor that of his land reforms. The village doubled in size in a matter of weeks as dispossessed people from elsewhere in the country fled to the Verapaz hills bent on starting their lives anew.
Paco stared in amazement at one middle-aged couple whose foreheads must have been flattened at birth, in accordance with the ritual his grandfather told him the ancient Mayans practised on their newborn. In his astonished eyes they stepped straight out of the bygone era.
Around this time, collecting shoots on the outskirts of the village with several others, Paco raised his head and glanced skyward on hearing a delighted shout. Quetzal .. l .. l .. l, one of the younger men roared. Through the treetops, against a background of raw cloud shot through with sunlight, Paco thought he glimpsed the green plumes and bright crimson belly.
Alas, his grandfather, all the grandfathers, spoke of the inauspiciousness of the times. The day keeper’s magic secrets revealed themselves unto Paco through voices that drifted out of the silence and the night. They advised the young never to abandon the professions of their elders because the professions derived from their traditions.
Were they ever to abandon those they would be like traitors to their kind. They conceived menace in the surrounding mountains and hills, conjured up enemies intent on driving them away and seizing the land’s comfort and wealth for themselves. The cloud forest, the natural habitat of the bird, shrank by the year, a fact someone demonstrated to Paco on a hike through the hills.
In the early years of the civil war catechists joined them and quoted from the Christian Bible. At first, Paco refused to listen because by then he knew that when the red beards arrived centuries ago they read from the same book and spoke of sin, nothing but sin. But the new preachers did not harbour ill. They helped the people to cope, they helped Paco too when he gave them the chance. They explained that their ancestors suffered before them and yet gained solace from their conception of time as a circle, of a physical world on an endless cycle of creation and destruction.
One among them, a Franciscan, spoke with the authority borne from respect and knowledge of another’s ways. He had studied to be a day keeper and alerted them to the proximity of Baktun 13, an era that would turn fortune once more in their favour. Those who died would be prayed to where they had lived. Their names would not be lost. Their days would be kept by those born in the light, begotten in the light.
Meanwhile, the oppression made itself felt in ever more insidious ways. They heard of the random slaughter of poor folk like them and the brave souls who spoke out on their behalf. Successive military regimes promised them a better future if they fulfilled certain conditions. Guerrillas, on the other hand, insisted they not be misled by the lies of the state and urged them to brandish arms. They had no idea who to believe. Much that the guerrillas said made sense but they rejected their aggressive means. They met the army detachments with silent protest. The placards they held aloft, upon which they wrote their demands, said all they wished to say.
Paco reacted with a start the day he noticed a boyhood friend among the group of soldiers watching them. He had lived in a village elsewhere in the mountains until press ganged into the army. Paco exchanged looks with him but the fledgling soldier showed no willingness to heed the former tie.
When the first rounds sounded Paco took to his heels. But he had advanced fewer than fifty yards on a frenzied zigzag through the jungle when shrapnel tore into his lower back. Brought to his knees, he slid in mud and water until he banged chest first into a tree.
He lost the sound of his grandfather’s voice and the voices that issued out of the silence and the night. At his back he heard screaming and the report of Uzis and machine guns mounted on nests. What use knowing the only difference between his forebears and him lay in the fact that they destroyed him with bullets? What solace gained in the thought of Baktun 13, in the idea of a better future, when they had to live and die atrociously in the here and now?
His eyes bulging with pain, Paco glimpsed the soldier who rushed to his side. It was his erstwhile friend. He uttered plaintive words to him in their indigenous tongue. But the soldier, through eyes blinded with tears, rejected the invitation and lashed out repeatedly with the butt of his weapon. Paco’s knees went out from under him and his head slowly sunk in a pool of water.
Before his eyes lost focus he sighted a bird soaring high above the canopy. He imagined the great bird of blue, green, and gold and contented himself with the thought. He would never know the last thing he saw in this life was a zopilote, a species that had flourished in recent years, sated on the carrion amongst which it dance-stepped the length and breadth of the sad land.