Thursday, October 25, 2012

Halloween Story: La Princesa, Part 1

Occasionally I like to resurrect favorite stories that were published before I had many readers on this blog. So in the spirit of the Halloween season, here is an authentic Yucatán ghost story, the true tale of  The Princess of San Antonio Xpakay, originally published in July, 2010. This is the first of two parts.

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 XpakayHacendados 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, 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.

Part Two of this story will be posted soon.

(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. What a coincidence. I was just reading some Billie Collins, and I wondered how his cultural word play would translate to Spanish. It must be incredibly difficult without doing damage to the poet's work. Of course, you then end up with such conundrums as: "You will never enjoy Shakespeare until you read it in the original Klingon."

    1. I think Jonathan did a good job translating, but with three languages involved, it is never easy to know for sure. And, of course translation is more art than science. One of the most enjoyable things about the visit I talk about in this post was the hours we sat around the hacienda with Mayan and Spanish texts and dictionaries, trying to figure out the intent of Briceida, and going over possible wording in English. Much good food was prepared over a wood fire and consumed. Beer and words flowed. If you enjoy language and writing it doesn't get much better than that.

      The bilingual Spanish/English book of these poems is now in print. I intend to post a link to the publisher.

  2. Going to a place sans electricity forces one to adapt to a basic relaxation mode, you have little outside interruptions except nature and sounds of life....
    Enjoy, before you get back to noise...which Mexicans love!

    1. I love getting away from the city and its hustle, and make occasional trips out to the hacienda. Hauling water and chopping wood remind me of rural Alaska, actually. It's work to be there, but at the same time relaxing and restful.

  3. I like the word "La Princesa".

  4. Intriguing tale of betrayal, lost love, murder and ghosts...perfect story any time of the year. I look forward to Part 2.

  5. Wonderful story Marc, I look forward to hearing more!

  6. mysterious, always wonders about "the facts," but then knowing them for sure would take away the mystery and the magic.

  7. Very interesting story... can be a good subject for a movie or something... !

    love, love... more stories please.


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