Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mystery: La Princesa, Part 2

Last week I posted the story of La Princesa, wife of a 19th-century owner of the Yucatán hacienda San Antonio Xpakay who was brutally murdered by her husband for infidelity with a hacienda employee. She bled to death in the main house, known in Yucatán as a casona, more than 150 years ago, but locals believe that her unhappy spirit still lingers on the hacienda. Verse by the Mayan poet Briceida Cuevas Cob, translated into English by current San Antonio Xpakay owner Jonathan Harrington, helps tell the story.

When Jonathan bought San Antonio Xpakay about ten years ago, there was a family that had been on the hacienda for twenty years still living in one of the houses, and Jonathan kept them on for awhile after he moved in. Jonathan reports that Basilio, long-time hacienda employee and father of the family, his wife and children all had stories about La Princesa. these moments in which the blood of the sun
is scratched by the limbs of a tree
like the blood of my heart
is scratched by the claws of solitude. (1)

She appears as a faint female figure normally seen at a distance, wandering around the grounds in the evening. She is beautiful.

The children reported seeing a lone female moving along the albarradas, or stone fences, at the far ends of the garden. And they were pretty sure it wasn't just some neighbor. San Antonio Xpakay is located in the midst of wild monte, which is forest or what we in Alaska might call The Bush, kilometers away from the nearest pueblo or other house. It is reached by traveling over horse trails or rough ranch roads and has no close neighbors. The area is remote, can be dangerous, and is an easy environment in which to get lost. Occasionally in the Mérida newspaper there appears a story about a skeleton or just a few scattered human bones found in the monte, which if they are ever identified, usually turn out to be the remains of someone who had been reported missing. Authorities and family members often can only speculate how and why the deceased died alone in el monte. The wild country around San Antonio Xpakay is not the kind of place where someone, especially a woman alone, would be out wandering in the moonlight.

Basilio's family did not go out at night.

Night falls, and the crickets begin to sing again,
once again the night sinks into my sadness. (2)

Late one night not long after moving in, Jonathan was asleep in his bedroom in the casona when he was awakened by the clap-clap of sandaled footsteps on the tile floors. He went back to sleep and thought little of it until the next day, when he casually asked Basilio why he had come into the house in the middle of the night. Basilio swore that he had stayed in with his family after dark, and had not been in the main house the night before. Basilio was not surprised because the explanation was easy: it was just La Princesa.

After posting the first part of this story last week, I decided to go back out to

the hacienda to talk once again with Jonathan about La Princesa and to take more pictures. Although the murder room (right) has undoubtedly changed a lot since La Princesa died here more than 150 years ago, it still exists just off of a main living area used as a guest bedroom, where I usually sleep when I visit. The large room measures five by ten meters, with six meter ceilings (16 by 33 feet with 20-foot ceilings). It is sparsely furnished with several small tables, shelves, and a bed with mosquito net, and is accessed by three doors and two windows.

When I arrived at San Antonio Xpakay, Jonathan was not there, so I located a hidden key and let myself into the house. It was afternoon, so I put sheets on my bed, readied some food I had brought along, and after a short walk decided to take a siesta while I waited for him to get home. Laying on the bed, I looked straight up at the high ceiling, with the mosquito net, designed to cover the whole bed and lowered on a rope by means of a pulley attached to a ceiling beam, directly over my head. The drape of the suspended mesh reminded me of the hems of an old-fashioned woman's dress. I began thinking about my first night in this room, several years ago.
On my first overnight visit, after a long day on the hacienda and in the nearest pueblo, we stayed up late in the dark, sitting on the front terrace and talking. Jonathan had told me stories about the hacienda, mentioned that there had been a murder in the house and that people believed that the ghost, called La Princesa, still haunted the area.

Finally I went to bed in the big room, and Jonathan went to his adjoining bedroom. Nights in the country can be noisy, and when you are not accustomed to the variety of sounds, it takes awhile to get comfortable and to sleep. I am not accustomed to sleeping in such a large room, and it is not cozy, with its numerous open windows and doors.

It took me a long time to get to sleep. Besides all of the noises, including frogs, crickets, owls and other night creatures, the house has its own set of sounds: creaks and bangs of the old metal kitchen roof, scurryings of unidentified creatures, the sounds of the metal windmill and its tower, and many small knocks and rustlings.

Although there were not many insects about, I had lowered the mosquito net over the bed. In the candlelight it glowed a soft yellow. Another candle flickered twenty feet away inside the bathroom, where La Princesa died so long ago. It took me awhile to get there, but I slept.

In the middle of dreamless sleep I suddenly awakened with the feeling that someone had closed a cloth bag or pillowcase over my head. Although I lay in the middle of the double bed and the mosquito netting formed an ample tent overhead, the netting from the right side of the bed was now pushed inward toward me, covering my face and head. Startled, I lay still for a few minutes, listening and moving only my eyes back and forth in an attempt to figure out what had happened. Sensing nothing, I calmed down and rearranged the netting. Although I observed no air movement, I attributed the event to a maverick wind blowing through the open windows, and after tossing and turning for a good long time, eventually went back to sleep.

Now you suffer.
You remain in the sounds of the deaf night. (3)

Later, I was having one of those dreams in which I am scared, being chased or hiding from something that I never can quite recall after I awake. Suddenly it GOT me. I was enveloped and suffocating, and I awoke with a gulping for air, to find the gauze of the netting again in my face and over my mouth. This time I did not stay still, but bolted up and groggily pushed the net quickly away with a flailing of my arms. I sat still and looked around the room. Not a breath of wind wafted through the windows, but again the tent was deformed, the netting to my right pushed inward toward me. I could see that the candle in the room where La Princesa died was no longer burning. Nothing else was disturbed. I wanted to say something out loud, but I didn't know what to say, or to whom.

Where is your voice?
Where have you lost it? (4)

I never figured out what happened and it does not matter. There did not seem to be wind, and my arms were not tangled in the netting when I twice woke with a start, so I did not think that I had somehow pulled the material over onto myself. It was an interesting experience and it makes a good story, no matter what the cause. Although I like to think that I had an encounter with La Princesa, it will remain another of the occasional mysteries I come across around here that keep life interesting.

(1) from the poem, In These Moments, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(2) from the poem, Like the Morning Star, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(3) from the poem, Hypocritical Moon, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(4) from the poem, Your Voice, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.


  1. What a marvelous story. And a grand experience. I am deeply envious. She has not visited you since? Perhaps she was merely curious about the new gentleman in the house? Love this, Marc.

  2. Fabulous telling of this story! I had not heard this one. I have heard of the Aluxes (I call them Mayan leprechauns) and I have Yucatecan friends who have stories about their experiences with the Aluxes (sp?) But I love this hacienda legend even better. More operatic! I am reminded of a movie called "Oriana" that is about a murder that happens on a hacienda on the Venezuelan coast involving the daughter of a haciendero and one of the ranch hands. Fabulous. I also love your photos.

  3. WOW! Sure am glad you are back from the US, for I really missed your writing. This story is so well written, we must have more....please


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