Updated: Jul 13, 2021
In this issue, we feature work by
Echoes from Teotihuacán
Early this morning I was released from the State Mental Hospital. Left behind are its austere façade and its oppressive walls, which conceal a reality too dreadful to conceive, let alone describe. I am just an ordinary man (some of the doctors, I am sure, would disagree) who never thought that he would find himself in such dire situation. Whether I can put my life back together is at best a questionable proposition. (One never knows what the ‘crazies’ might do next, even if they have been given a clean bill of health.) An underlying air of suspicion will always linger. But it wasn’t always like this.
In my previous life I held a highly respected teaching position at a local university. I worked hard, published on a regular basis and was generally well liked by my colleagues and students. Every summer I made it a point to travel to a new destination; there is no better way to grow intellectually than to experience first-hand a different culture. It was, in many respects, an ideal life.
Although not a professional historian or archeologist, I have always had in interest in ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Often I have wondered how they would have developed had the Spaniards not interrupted their natural development and forced upon them a strange set of customs and religion.
The previous summer I had made a visit to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, and with the aid of a local guide was able to explore that ancient site, including the places where ordinary tourists never go. As I already said, I am not a professional archeologist, just an interested amateur. I have also been fortunate to visit Machu Picchu, that remote Inca site high in the Andes Mountains that was not discovered until 1939.
The one place I had yet to visit was Teotihuacán, that huge citadel found about forty kilometers north east of Mexico City, and probably the most popular tourist site in that country. Located in a large valley, the city is home to both the Pyramid of the Sun and the smaller Pyramid of the Moon, connected by the wide and unobstructed Avenue of the Dead. Truly an awe inspiring place, and it is estimated that at one time twenty-five thousand people lived there. But Teotihuacán remains a total mystery. By the time the Aztecs discovered it, the city had been abandoned for a long time. So impressed were they with the sheer massiveness of the place, with its majestic pyramids, that they named it Teotihuacán, a word that means ‘The Place Where Gods Are Made’ in their native Náhuatl. The physical evidence of its former occupants is evident everywhere, yet the very essence of their culture—language, religion, etc.—remains shrouded in mystery, even after several centuries.
I was understandably excited about such a visit. All my papers were in order and I had even bought a new camera, anticipating the new sights that I would want to photograph. I always kept a detailed journal of each of my trips, since they helped me later to reconstruct each of my journeys. I am, because of my academic training, a meticulous person.
The flight into Mexico City was uneventful. From the airport, I took a taxi to a hotel I had booked near the Zócalo, which is what Mexicans call the main square of the city. The word that would best describe the traffic in that city is chaotic; there seem to be no apparent rules, yet I did not witness any accidents.
The hotel itself was rather a nondescript building that catered mostly to locals and the occasional tourists that found their way there because of its centralized location. The young man at the desk greeted me in English and after making sure all the information was correct, gave me the keys to my room. Since it was still early in the day, I walked out to an area near the Zócalo, where the excavation of an Aztec temple was in progress. The main area was cordoned off, but the authorities had provided walkways so the visitors could see and photograph the activities below. This, of course, was not unusual, since new archeological discoveries were being made almost on a daily basis. I had the opportunity to try out the new camera I had bought for that trip, and in my mind I anticipated the album that I would create after returning to the United States.
I went back to the hotel a few hours later, and after having dinner in their dining hall, I asked the young man at the desk about transportation to Teotihuacán the next morning. It was a common question, and one that he probably had to answer frequently. There were busses that left every hour from a location just a block away. Private automobiles—taxies of a sort—would also be available in front of the hotel. These were more expensive than the busses, but they were by far faster and more comfortable. By the time I returned to my room, I had decided that I would take the bus. It was not a matter of saving money, but one of experiencing that visit to the fullest. Before going to bed I tried to watch a little TV, but the hotel only had available a handful of Spanish-language channels, so I read for awhile and then turned off the lights.
The following morning I was up early. After having breakfast at the hotel dining hall, I returned to my room to get my camera, sun glasses and a hat. Anyone who has seen photographs or visited previously knows that Teotihuacán is devoid of trees or any other form of protection from the elements, so visitors should plan accordingly.
Just as the young man at the desk had told me the night before, I found the bus about a block away, near the baroque Cathedral that faced the Zócalo. After paying for the fare, I took a seat near the back of the bus. Most of the passengers, I noticed, were locals—possibly from other parts of Mexico—as well as a number of foreign tourists. Before long, the bus got under way. At first, due to the traffic, the pace was slow, but as we left the city behind, we gained speed and the landscape began to change. Left behind were the compacted buildings that housed an ever expanding population, the chaotic flow of noisy vehicles, and the seemingly endless expanses of concrete. Slowly they gave way to a more rural, but arid landscape, where dark brown, occasionally interrupted by a patch of green, predominated. We stopped several times along the way, to pick up or let out passengers. Eventually we reached the last stop: Teotihuacán. There would be busses returning to the city every hour, so one could leave the site any time during the day.
After paying the nominal entrance fee, I went through the gate. The adjacent souvenir shop would catch most of the visitors on the way out; everyone wanted a memento from that visit. Before proceeding, I opened a map in order to orient myself; I knew it would be a long day, so I did not want to waste any energy by walking around aimlessly. I have already mentioned that the two tallest structures at Teotihuacán are the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, connected by the Avenue of the Dead. The other two focal points are the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (The Feathered Serpent), and the Ciudadela or Citadel, with its hundreds of apartments.
As soon as I set foot on the site, I was approached by one of the countless vendors that are so prevalent at that location. They offer the tourists an assortment of wares that, literally, would be impossible to take home if one were to buy them all: clay flutes in the shape of the Moon Goddess; obsidian knives; ceremonial masks made of different semi-precious stones and countless other items. I thanked them with my limited Spanish vocabulary and moved on as quickly as possible. I was anxious to start exploring before the sun got too high in the sky.
I started walking slowly toward the Avenue of the Dead, aware that there were many other visitors moving in the same direction. On the way I stopped to study and photograph the partially collapsed stone walls of ceremonial sites. They bore the glyphs carved centuries before and that had yet to yield their secret messages. Instinctively I ran my fingers on the surface of the stones, perhaps in a futile gesture to establish a link with the ancient inhabitants.
By lunch time I found myself in front of the Pyramid of the Sun, almost two miles from the main entrance. Suddenly I realized that I needed a break, so I sat on a carved stone and opened the lunch bag I had procured at the hotel that morning. Besides the bottled water, I had brought some sandwiches and fresh fruit. As I ate lunch, I looked at the impressive structure and realized that I was looking forward to climbing to the top; from that advantageous spot I would be able to take some magnificent photographs.
Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun was not an extremely difficult challenge, but I had to be careful. First of all, there were no railings or anything else to hold onto. Second, the tread of the steps was narrow, so I had to place my feet sideways. Rather than going up in a straight line, I did it in a zig-zag pattern. It took me longer, but I felt it was the safest way. The very top of the pyramid is composed of smooth stone slabs. If an altar of some sort resided there centuries ago is unknown, but at that particular moment I was overwhelmed by the almost unlimited view, in every direction, of the serene valley. The people below had suddenly lost their identifying traits, and from that height they resembled ants crawling aimlessly on the ground. I made sure to take plenty of photographs, since I felt these would be spectacular.
After having exhausted all the views, I slowly made my way back down to the Avenue of the Dead, sat on a stone and drank some water. According to my map, The Temple of Quetzalcoatl was not far, so I moved on in that direction. I must confess that the photographs of the stone carvings fail to convey the mastery of their execution, the patience and reverence the artisans must have felt during their creation. Just as I had done earlier that day, I ran my hands on the rough surfaces and closed my eyes.
Since it was getting late in the day, I moved on to the Ciudadela; I wanted to have enough time to explore the different apartment complexes, study the murals and take more photographs. Then I would go back to the main entrance and catch one of the busses back to the hotel.
Just as I was about to reach the Ciudadela, I felt the wind on my face and heard the thunder overhead. Suddenly and without warning, the sky above had become dark and filled with the clouds of the impending storm. Returning to the shelter of the main gate was out of the question, since I was about two miles away. There are no trees in Teotihuacán, but somehow I had to find shelter from the fury of the coming storm, so I ran as fast as I could, aware that the wind behind me was growing stronger. I felt the first drops of the hard rain as I reached the labyrinthine complex; by then the sky was completely dark and the only sounds were those of the howling wind, the relentless rain, and the increasing thunder. They combined in a frightening crescendo that eclipsed everything else.
In my haste to find shelter, I wondered into one of the apartments of the Ciudadela, and then into one of its inner alcoves. Occasional flashes of lightning would illuminate the frescoes painted on the walls, and the sound of the thunder reverberated within the recessed structure. Then, I heard them, faintly at first. Coming from the darkness itself, there were whispers of different voices whose words I could not make out, but whose tone grew increasingly louder and urgent. Were they speaking to me, or were they engaged in a private conversation? I can’t say, but willingly or not, I was trapped in the alcove with the voices whose tone seemed to grow impatient and choleric as the storm progressed. In an act of desperation, I covered my ears, but to no avail; the voices now resided in my head, easily overwhelming my senses. I must have screamed, but my voice was drowned by the thunder above. Eventually, I lost consciousness.
“Mister, mister. Are you ok?” I heard an unfamiliar voice and then I opened my eyes. It was morning and the stranger looking over me was one of the many vendors found all over Teotihuacán. I slowly got up and realized that I was still wearing my hat. My camera lay nearby. I thanked the stranger and started to make my way back to the main entrance. The busses were already there, so I paid for the fare and collapsed on one of the seats. I had no idea what happened the day before, but since I had never suffered from fainting spells, I decided that I would see a doctor as soon as I returned home. After a few weeks, however, I put the odd experience in the back of my mind; the new semester was underway at the university and I was busy with the preparation of my classes.
The first sign that there was something wrong came unexpectedly and without warning during a lecture. Despite the fact that it was a mild, sunny morning, I heard the sound of approaching thunder and I saw the sky beginning to darken through one of the windows that faced the spacious courtyard. Suddenly I was again in the dark alcove, trapped between the choruses of voices that whispered what seemed to be an urgent message. But this time, beside the sound of the voices, I saw what could best be described as a newspaper with a huge headline and images below, but devoid of everything else. It announced the horrific collapse of a number of buildings due to an explosion due to a leaky gas line. That is all I remember.
I woke up in the dean’s office, surrounded by the familiar faces of the other members of the faculty. According to the students, I had abruptly stopped in mid air during class, as if I had seen something through the window. Then, my entire body began to shake until I eventually collapsed.
I assured everyone that I was fine, but immediately had to recall the odd episode while visiting Teotihuacán. After lunch, I made an appointment with my doctor; better to have everything checked out, I told myself, convinced that it was nothing. I was young, healthy, and had never had any issues of that sort.
That feeling of confidence did not last very long. That evening, while watching the news on television, one of the featured stories was an explosion that had brought down several buildings. The cause? A faulty gas line. The images on the TV screen were exactly the same ones I had seen during the time I had blacked out. I wanted to believe that it was just a coincidence, but deep down I knew that it was unlikely. Yet, I could not find a reasonable explanation.
The following morning I drove to my doctor’s office, and I told him about the fainting episode I had experienced, but purposely omitted the vision and how accurately it had coincided with the news on television. There was no point; I just wanted him to discover a physiological cause so we could address it and fix the problem. But it was not that simple, and since he could not find anything wrong, he referred me to the local hospital, so they could run a series of neurological tests.
A week went by, and the results from the hospital tests testified that I was in perfect shape. Once again I was filled with confidence; I had tangible evidence that my health was what it had always been. The semester was now well underway, so I tried to concentrate on my courses and my other duties at the university. But three weeks later, while having lunch with some colleagues, I heard the approaching thunder once again and saw the darkening clouds though the cafeteria windows. The voices were back, and this time they were stronger than the previous time. Just as before, while trapped in the cacophony of their dialogue, I saw the newspaper headline announcing an earthquake. Beside the pictures, there was also a place and a date.
When I came to, I was no longer in the cafeteria, but in a nearby office. Somehow my colleagues had placed me on a couch and looked over me until the momentary seizure subsided. According to everyone present, I had screamed a warning about an impending earthquake, urging everyone to evacuate the city. Fearing for my safety, the dean drove me home and contacted my doctor, who asked me to rest at home that evening and come in to see him in the morning.
No one expected, I am sure, that the warnings I had uttered during the momentary period of unconsciousness would turn out to be true; they were probably attributed to the incoherent ramblings of someone who was not in his right mind. But later that evening, once again the evening news delivered with their relentless accuracy the latest events. Just as the voices had forecasted, the location and intensity of the tragedy were most accurate.
That night I did not sleep. I was not only terrified of what I had witnessed, but of the visions that I might have in the future. By the time I arrived at my doctor’s office, they were already waiting for me. Apparently someone from the university had told him about the sudden and strange seizures that overtook me without warning. Once again my doctor ordered a battery of tests, but this time they were meant to probe my overall mental health. The only facility equipped to administer such complex examinations was the State Mental Hospital, so I was admitted that afternoon.
The doctors, as I had feared, found nothing out of the ordinary, but while conducting one of their examinations I suffered another episode. This time the prediction had to do with a train derailment over the Alps. The evening news confirmed what I had experienced during the morning session. Fortunately, once again, my desperate words were dismissed as a result of my unstable state of mind.
Baffled by the unexplained condition, the specialists were at an impasse. It was decided, but without my knowledge or consent, that I should remain at the facility until a cure for my condition was found. I believe that during those months they must have exhausted every test they had available. Yet, my condition persisted.
Eventually I became convinced that unless things changed, I would never be released. I also believed that it was up to me, since the doctors were not likely to find a solution. The only alternative was to make everyone believe that the sudden seizures had completely disappeared. In my mind I tried to examine each of the unique experiences. There were two things they had in common. First of all, I was always terrified; second, the choruses of voices did not seem to be speaking to me, but addressing each other. I was just trapped in the middle, absorbing the full impact of their unintelligible words and the angry tone of their dialogue.
I waited patiently in my aseptic room; eventually I heard the thunder and saw the darkening skies. Once again I was transported to the dark alcove, so distant in miles yet ever so present in my immediate reality. Before the voices could initiate their dialogue, I took a few steps backwards, until I made contact with the cool stone wall behind me. Just as before, I heard the words and saw the horrific visions, but I was no longer trapped in the midst of their anger. For the first time I was just a spectator who did not play any part in their exchange. This time I did not pass out. Eventually the voices subsided, the dark clouds dissipated and the thunder died down. I was back in my room.
This went on for several months. Since I no longer manifested the symptoms that had brought me to the hospital, the doctors had no alternative but to release me. Several weeks later I returned to the university and resumed my teaching duties. I still hear the thunder, see the dark skies and have the apocalyptic visions while trapped in the alcove with the angry voices. Of course, I have told no one; it is a burden I must bear alone. The only indication, barely noticeable, is a slight twitch over my left eye.
About the author
Carlos Rubio was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 1961. After finishing high school, he attended Concord College and West Virginia University. A bilingual novelist, in Spanish he has written Saga, Orisha and Hubris. In 1989 his novel Quadrivium received the Nuevo León International Prize for Novels. In English he is the e author of Orpheus’s Blues, Secret Memories and American
Triptych, a trilogy of satirical novels. In 2004 his novel Dead Time received Foreword’s Magazine Book of the Year Award. His novel Forgotten Objects was published by Editions Dedicaces in 2014. Since then he has completed two Spanish-language works, Final Aria and Double Edge. The latter was a finalist in the International Reinaldo Arenas Literary Contest and was subsequently published by Ediciones Alféizar in 2019.
Copyright © 2021 by Elli Bosch.
About the artist
Elli Bosch is a fervent adventurer, committed environmentalist, and incidental photographer. Based in Richmond, Virginia most of her photography is captured while hiking, biking, and kayaking near and on the James River and its tributaries. This photograph was captured after sunset while kayaking on the Potomac River during a visit to the Washington, DC area.