la reina roja

There is no way to describe it. It’s a fever that spreads over you that makes you want to turn your back on everything you know and on everything you hold dear at home. It makes you stumble through an unfamiliar language and it overwhelms you with a kaleidoscope of clashing colours and sensations. It creeps into your dreams and screams at you at night in the voices of macaques tearing fruit from heavy branches.

There is something particularly other worldly about this place. Your senses sharpen as your ears strain to cope with the overload. There is always music here, so much music. Even in the middle of this rainforest, there is the music of water on rocks and branches creaking in spirit filled breezes. As you bend your head to step through the tiny doorway carved from not so silent rock you feel the shift in temperature and your skin prickles. You imagine how this place must have looked at the time that she was buried here, resplendent in cinnabar and a cold malachite mask. In the surrounding chambers are the skeletons of those sacrificed to accompany her, to accompany her bright red bones.

A rainforest queen in the jungle city of Palenque. Decorated in hand beaten Mayan gold and feathers she would pray as a man’s blood was spilt before her that the sated sun might rise anew. Her slender slippered feet would trace familiar paths on hand hewn stone steps as she walked from the temple in a haze of smoke.
She would laze away the midday heat here at the waterfalls, right where I was standing, camera dangling from one hand, transfixed in the amber warmth of the filtered sun light. The tiny eye of my camera was never big enough for the vastness of Mexico, could never quite capture the thousands of years of violence and splendour that your feet could sense through the vibrations of the very unquiet ground.

Back at El Panchan, I left my camera on my bed and shrugged off the extra clothing. It wasn’t particularly hot, but here even my skin wanted to drink this strange country, to interface between the thickened air and my gelatinous insides, pulsing to a new rhythm. I walked between the peculiar cabins erupting out of the ground in haphazard formations. El Mono was dwarfed by the larger constructions of El Jaguar and La Estrella, but I’d been won over by the thought of a room to myself. Past the tangled washing lines and fading flags the path disintegrated into a dirt track over grown with frenzied vines and I had been told that once the sun went down to beware the scorpions and tarantulas.

There was something strange about the plant life here. Vines grew in earnest on every vertical object, supple tendrils winding up captive trees as they crept and climbed, strangled then suffocated. Ginger flowers erupted in flame red flowers, their perfume permeating the heady dank wetness of the rainforest. Even when the sun dropped out of the afternoon sky and slumped like a cracked egg on the horizon they blazed with their own heat.

I listened for the sound of the nearby river. I wanted to dangle my legs in the current, to feel crystal water from limestone caves slip under the arches of my feet aching from walking. The afternoon light was hazy and perhaps I should have turned back to the cabins but a strange sensation compelled me to persist sliding through the undergrowth. Low branches whipped at my hair and scratched my shins, but still I went forward, towards the sound of water.

I could no longer see the cabins behind me as I crawled through a maze of fleshy calla lilies to the edge of the river. There was a pool, deeper than I expected, and small islands of river smoothed rocks broke the water flow. I took off my shoes and tip toed to the water’s edge, stepping delicately through the shallows to the closest rocks.

Water like ice spread agonisingly over my toes and sent a flash of pain through my legs. I gritted my teeth and stood still as ever so slowly the shock gave way to numbness. As my muscles uncoiled I could feel my heat dissipating and dissolving in the water that lapped around my startled feet.

From my perch on the rock I could look down into the pool, black with the detritus of a thousand seasons. I remembered reading something about crocodiles and I shivered inwardly at the thought of one golden eye slicing lazily open to gaze up at my sun pinked skin.

I crouched down and stared into the shiny blackness, my trousers rolled to the knees. As I rocked back and plunged my feet into the pool, air compressed through my constricted throat wheezed out in a strangled scream. My ankles, the soles of my feet, the spaces between my toes, the taught skin of my calves protested in pain. I inhaled through a straw hole sucking warmth through my mouth as the water tore heat from my sun seared legs.

Slowly, very slowly, it became bearable. As convulsions of shock subsided and my palms flattened beside my thighs I leant back and let the last of the early evening light stroke my upturned face. I was drowsy from the day’s exertions and felt myself unravel in the current. It was all so much to take in, I felt so saturated from the past few days. My mind slowly disintegrated into the sounds of the forest shrugging off the heat of the day and awakening to the electricity of the night.

I thought about her tiny funerary crypt, walled in with imposing slabs of stone dragged by a thousand hands. She would have watched it emerge from the ground, take shape and cast shadows over her. She would know that they would lay her shrouded body inside it and seal the entrance. She would have her ceremonial axes and bone needles, the incense censers and her coronet of jade. In the dark she would glow red with cinnabar and spices as eventually her flesh decayed and crumbled into dust.

Water eddied around the backs of my knees, seeping into my rolled trousers. The hairs on my arms prickled as cool evening air swayed splayed branches and licked silvering leaves. Imminent night loomed impatiently and from the corners of my heavily lidded eyes dark streaks darted ever closer.

I looked down at my legs disappearing into the inky water. If I leant forward far enough I could see my face reflected in the obsidian sheen. It must have been the light but my face had a soft red glow. I stretched my neck and leaned closer to the surface, my breath making tiny ripples. My undulating reflection distorted and reformed as I held my exhalation inside myself. Red. So strangely red. I leaned a tiny bit further forward and slid head first into the freezing black mirror.

Its cold, very cold. A bubble of trapped air sits like a pearl on my tongue as the circle of light on the surface recedes. The pool opens into a cave as I sink unprotesting for so very long. Water weighs heavily and my hair is wrapped in a tangled nest around my head. I feel so tired.

She’s telling me to rest, to have a little sleep. I’ve come so far.


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