Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mystery: La Princesa, Part 1

On a recent Friday night I slept in the midst of el monte, or forest, and it was the noisiest night I have spent in a long, long time. I had driven out that morning to Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay, owned by my friend Jonathan Harrington, the poet, translator and writer, to spend a couple of relaxing days enjoying the remoteness, to read, and to have a rambling conversation with him about one of our favorite topics: translating poetry.

It rained Friday afternoon, and roused by the moisture, as soon as the sun went down the frogs, ranas in Spanish, began to call. When the frogs on Xpakay start up, you can't help but notice. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of them, and their groaning, ribbeting chorus is a wall of sound that they begin constructing at dark and maintain into the morning hours of the next day. In addition there was an occasional breeze, which meant that the old windmill next to the house would begin to turn from time to time, adding its rusty screech to the din. A broken rhythm was added to the mix by the fruits of the ramón trees whose branches overhang the back of the house. With an irregular-regular beat these fell tapping like hail on the metal roof of the kitchen, and then rolled slowly down its canted surface to drop on the ground. To this, Jonathan's calf and sometimes owls or other animals of the night added their voices. Romanticizing the atmosphere, there is no electricity at Xpakay; flickering candles provide the only illumination.

After getting used to this music it is possible to sleep, but the erratic nature of the cacophony makes for a wakeful night. A weird thing that happens is that suddenly, coordinated by a signal that we humans cannot perceive, the frogs all stop at once, both the ones close by and all those barely audible in the far distance. This abrupt silence wakes me with a start more certainly than any sudden noise. When I awoke at these silences and found myself unable to go right back to sleep, I began wondering what kind of signal it could be that would prompt all of the frogs over a wide area to stop together so suddenly. Whatever it might be, it is something I am unable to detect. I then, watching long shadows thrown by a single candle flame play on the high beamed ceiling, began thinking about another mystery on the hacienda, that of The Princess, known here as La Princesa.

I was reminded of the stories of La Princesa earlier that day because Jonathan and I were reading over his translations of work by the Mayan poet from Campeche Briceida Cuevas Cob. She writes in the Mayan language and has translated some of her poems into Spanish. Jonathan is working for a publisher in the United States on English versions of some of these poems. The themes of Cuevas Cob's writing, often revolving around love, longing and loss, frequently remind me of the story of La Princesa.

Some time in the early to mid 1800's, La Princesa was the wife of the hacendado, the owner of Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. Hacendados didn't usually live full time on their haciendas, preferring to overlook their business interests from the comfort of Mérida or another larger town, and to leave the dirty day-to-day running of things to managers, called encargados. However for a period this hacendado was on the hacienda, accompanied by his wife. Apparently La Princesa became interested in the encargado. An attraction that began perhaps with small smiles or a glance held a little longer than appropriate eventually became something more.

Because your heart, you handsome boy,
is a red firefly that winks in the darkness of my existence. (1)

We do not know how it began or how long it lasted. We don't know whether it was love or just a strong physical attraction. But one can imagine a protected, younger wife (why else is she called La Princesa?) who is tired of being stuck in the middle of nowhere, bored with her pampered existence and distant, busy husband. She feels irresistibly drawn to the muscular, energetic hacienda foreman in his wide-brimmed white hat. Perhaps she observes him through a barred and partially-shuttered window as he supervises work around the main house. Possibly he notices her watching, and occasionally glances toward the house to see if she is still at her window. There is more eye contact. This goes on innocently for awhile, but at some point they find themselves alone together, and the situation escalates.

What do I care?
I love you down to my bones!
What the devil do I care if our love goes to hell,
if I go by your side. (2)

The story goes that the hacendado walked one day into the bathroom and discovered not just that his wife was being unfaithful. There he saw that she was willing to perform the most intimate of acts with his employee -- things that a proper woman, a lady of this era should not even have known about, much less done -- things that, if the hacendado had ever experienced them, he probably paid a prostitute to do.

This very day
the knees of my soul are sore,
because they have knelt down to cast off your sins,
because they have gone down to receive the lash of your voice, Sir:
...this day you have dismantled my soul (3)

In his rage the hacendado stabbed his wife to death on the spot. Whether the encargado fought or ran, the story does not mention, but considering the customs of the times, to fight El Patrón probably would have meant a death sentence whatever the short-term outcome. The encargado most likely fled and was never able to return to the area. After the murder, possibly the hacendado did not return either. What we do know, if the stories told by local people can be believed, is that the restless spirit of La Princesa, brutally killed by her husband and abandoned by her lover, never left the hacienda.

Come back.
You must realize that if you are not with me,
the night does not fall. (4)

It is believed around the hacienda that La Princesa still lingers at San Antonio Xpakay. I have mentioned La Princesa to others but have rarely told the whole story, in part because I don't want people to think that I have cracked or started having hallucinations from drinking rot-gut mezcal. I'll tell the rest of this story, including my experience with her, in my next post.

(1) from the poem, In the Darkness, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(2) from the poem, By Your Side I Go, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(3) from the poem, This Very Day, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(4) from the poem, Come Back, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.


  1. I feel as if I should remove my shoes for I have been on holy ground. Thanks, Marc.

  2. can I live up to that comment?

    In the interest of fulfilling my promise to tell "the rest of the story" in this blog, I head back out to the hacienda tomorrow. There I will tie up loose ends of my research and sleep in La Princesa's bedroom, which is "my" room when I visit, and only short steps from where she breathed her last on this earth. It's always interesting, being there. More soon...

  3. Oh Marc!!! This is glorious! I had no idea. I can't wait to read Part II. Paul already said what I would say if I could say it so well. Lovely.


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