National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
Sun, Stone, and Shadows

Sun, Stone, and Shadows

by Jorge F. Hernández

The temples and gods of pre-Columbian Mexico are a pile of ruins, but the spirit that breathed life into that world has not disappeared… Being a Mexican writer means listening to the voice of that present, that presence.


Temple of El Castillo in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (Copyright Mark Segal/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Carlos Fuentes reads from "Chac-Mool"...

It was only recently that Filiberto drowned in Acapulco. It happened during Easter Week. Even though he'd been fired from his government job, Filiberto couldn't resist the bureaucratic temptation to make his annual pilgrimage to the small German hotel, to eat sauerkraut sweetened by the sweat of the tropical cuisine, dance away Holy Saturday on La Quebrada, and feel he was one of the “beautiful people” in the dim anonymity of dusk on Hornos Beach. Of course we all knew he'd been a good swimmer when he was young, but now, at forty, and the shape he was in, to try to swim that distance, at midnight! [...] When I arrived, early in the morning, to supervise the loading of the casket, I found Filiberto buried beneath a mound of coconuts; the driver wanted to get him in the luggage compartment as quickly as possible, covered with canvas in order not to upset the passengers and to avoid bad luck on the trip.

Reed: That's Mexican author Carlos Fuentes reading his short story entitled, “Chac-Mool.”

Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: In collaboration with the NEA, the Fondo de Cultura Económica published Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories to celebrate masterpieces of short fiction from Mexico. Part two of our presentation is dedicated to a short story entitled “Chac-Mool,” written by Carlos Fuentes. Before we listen to the story, let's hear about the author himself.

A prolific writer of novels, short stories, and essays, Carlos Fuentes is considered one of the greatest authors currently writing in Spanish. Born in 1928 in Panama City, Fuentes was the son of Mexican diplomats and grew up in various capitals of the Americas, including Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, and Washington, D.C. At age 16, he moved to Mexico City where he studied law and began writing fiction.

The story “Chac-Mool” was published in 1954 as part of Fuentes's first book—Los Días Enmascarados, or The Masked Days. The story title refers to an ancient pre-Colombian statue historically associated with rainfall.

“Chac-Mool” chronicles the final, strange days of a dispirited and disillusioned bureaucrat named Filiberto. The voice in the story alternates between the narrator, who is a friend and co-worker of the dead Filiberto, and entries from Filiberto's diary, from which we learn of the fantastic and frightening events that lead to his death. In the first entry, he describes returning to a café of his youth—a visit that triggers a flood of memories and a nostalgic bitterness over what his life has become.

 

Carlos Fuentes reads from "Chac-Mool"...

"Today, after all this time, I again sat in the chairs—remodeled, as well as the soda fountain, a kind of barricade against invasion—and pretended to read some business papers. I saw many of the old faces, amnesiac, changed in the neon light, prosperous. Like the café, which I barely recognized, along with the city itself, they'd been chipping away at a pace different from my own. No, they didn't recognize me now, or didn't want to. At most, one or two clapped a quick, fat hand on my shoulder. So long, old friend, how's it been going? Between us stretched the eighteen holes of the country club. I buried myself in my papers. The years of my dreams, the optimistic predictions, filed before my eyes, along with the obstacles that had kept me from achieving them. I felt frustrated that I couldn't dig my fingers into the past and put together the pieces of some long-forgotten puzzle. But one's toy chest is a part of the past, and when all's said and done, who knows where his lead soldiers went, his helmets and wooden swords. The make-believe we loved so much was only that, make-believe. Still, I'd been diligent, disciplined, devoted to duty. Wasn't that enough? Was it too much? Often, I was assaulted by the recollection of Rilke: the great reward for the adventure of youth is death; we should die young, taking all our secrets with us."

Gioia: At one point in his diary, Filiberto describes a chance encounter with an old friend named Pepe who likes to pontificate about Mexicanidad, or Mexican national character. The concept of blood sacrifice, Pepe tells Filiberto, is fundamental to both native cultures and Catholic conquerors.

Pepe, who is aware of Filiberto's passion for pre-Colombian art, informs his friend that there's a rare statue of a Chac-Mool for sale in the flea market at La Lagunilla. Filiberto quickly realizes that by bringing the mysterious statue into his home, he has dramatically altered the course of his life forever. As the story develops, Fuentes effectively and artfully blurs the line between what is real and what is imagined.

 

Carlos Fuentes reads from "Chac-Mool"...

"Today, Sunday, I had time to go out to La Lagunilla. I found the Chac-Mool in the cheap little shop Pepe had told me about. It's a marvelous piece, life-size, and though the dealer assures me it's an original, I question it, the stone is nothing out of the ordinary, but that doesn't diminish the elegance of the composition, or its massiveness. The rascal has smeared tomato ketchup on the belly to convince the tourists of its bloody authenticity."

"Moving the piece to my house cost more than the purchase price. But it's here now, temporarily in the cellar while I reorganize my collection to make room for it. These figures demand a vertical and burning-hot sun; that was their natural element. The effect is lost in the darkness of the cellar, where it's simply another lifeless mass and its grimace seems to reproach me for denying it light. The dealer had a spotlight focused directly on the sculpture, highlighting all the planes and lending a more amiable expression to my Chac-Mool. I must follow his example."

"I awoke to find the pipes had burst. Somehow, I'd carelessly left the water running in the kitchen; it flooded the floor and poured into the cellar before I'd noticed it. The dampness didn't damage the Chac-Mool, but my suitcases suffered; everything has to happen on a weekday. I was late to work.

"At last they came to fix the plumbing. Suitcases ruined. There's slime on the base of the Chac-Mool."

"I awakened at one; I'd heard a terrible moan. I thought it might be burglars. Purely imaginary."

"The moaning at night continues. I don't know where it's coming from, but it makes me nervous. To top it all off, the pipes burst again, and the rains have seeped through the foundation and flooded the cellar."

"Plumber still hasn't come; I'm desperate. As far as the city water department's concerned, the less said the better. This is the first time the runoff from the rains has drained into my cellar instead of the storm sewers. The moaning's stopped. An even trade? They pumped out the cellar. The Chac-Mool is covered with slime, it makes him look grotesque; the whole sculpture seems to be suffering from a kind of green erysipelas, with the exception of the eyes. I'll scrape off the moss Sunday. Pepe suggested I move to an apartment on an upper floor, to prevent any more of these aquatic tragedies. But I can't leave my house; it's obviously more than I need, a little gloomy in its turn-of-the-century style, but it's the only inheritance, the only memory, I have left of my parents. I don't know how I'd feel if I saw a soda fountain with a jukebox in the cellar and an interior decorator's shop on the ground floor."

"Used a trowel to scrape the Chac-Mool. The moss now seemed almost a part of the stone; it took more than an hour and it was six in the evening before I finished. I couldn't see anything in the darkness, but I ran my hand over the outlines of the stone. With every stroke, the stone seemed to become softer. I couldn't believe it; it felt like dough. That dealer in La Lagunilla has really swindled me. His ‘pre-Columbian sculpture' is nothing but plaster, and the dampness is ruining it. I've covered it with some rags and will bring it upstairs tomorrow before it dissolves completely."

"The rags are on the door. Incredible. Again I felt the Chac-Mool. It's firm, but not stone. I don't want to write this: the texture of the torso feels a little like flesh; I press it like rubber, and feel something coursing through that recumbent figure... I went down again later at night. No doubt about it: the Chac-Mool has hair on its arms."

"This kind of thing has never happened to me before. I fouled up my work in the office: I sent out a payment that hadn't been authorized, and the director had to call it to my attention. I think I may even have been rude to my co-workers. I'm going to have to see a doctor, find out whether it's my imagination, whether I'm delirious, or what... and get rid of that damned Chac-Mool.

Up to this point I recognized Filiberto's hand, the large, rounded letters I'd seen on so many memoranda and forms. The entry for August 25 seemed to have been written by a different person. At times it was the writing of a child, each letter laboriously separated; other times, nervous, trailing into illegibility. Three days are blank, and then the narrative continues: 

“It's all so natural, though normally we believe only in what's real ... but this is real, more real than anything I've ever known. [...] An ephemeral smoke ring is real, a grotesque image in a fun-house mirror is real; aren't all deaths, present and forgotten, real...? If a man passes through paradise in a dream, and is handed a flower as proof of having been there, and if when he awakens he finds this flower in his hand... then...? Reality: one day it was shattered into a thousand pieces, its head rolled in one direction and its tail in another, and all we have is one of the pieces from the gigantic body. A free and fictitious ocean, real only when it is imprisoned in a seashell. Until three days ago, my reality was of such a degree it would be erased today; it was reflex action, routine, memory, carapace. And then, like the earth that one day trembles to remind us of its power, of the death to come, recriminating against me for having turned my back on life, an orphaned reality we always knew was there presents itself, jolting us in order to become living present. Again I believed it to be imagination: the Chac-Mool, soft and elegant, had changed color overnight; yellow, almost golden, it seemed to suggest it was a god, at ease now, the knees more relaxed than before, the smile more benevolent. And yesterday, finally, I awakened with a start, with the frightening certainty that two creatures are breathing in the night, that in the darkness there beats a pulse in addition to one's own. Yes, I heard footsteps on the stairway. Nightmare. Go back to sleep. I don't know how long I feigned sleep. When I opened my eyes again, it still was not dawn. The room smelled of horror, of incense and blood. In the darkness, I gazed about the bedroom until my eyes found two points of flickering, cruel yellow light.”

“Scarcely breathing, I turned on the light."

"There was the Chac-Mool, standing erect, smiling, ocher-colored except for the flesh-red belly. I was paralyzed by the two tiny, almost crossed eyes set close to the wedge-shaped nose. The lower teeth closed tightly on the upper lip; only the glimmer from the squarish helmet on the abnormally large head betrayed any sign of life. Chac-Mool moved toward my bed; then it began to rain.”

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, as part two of our program about the Mexican short story, we're listening to Carlos Fuentes read from his classic short story, “Chac-Mool.”

Weeks earlier, Filiberto purchased a life-sized, pre-Columbian statue, called a Chac-Mool, which is historically associated with rainfall. It was the French explorer, Augustus Le Plongeon, who is credited with having first excavated a similar statue from a Mayan pyramid in the late 1800s.

Soon after bringing the Chac Mool replica into his home, Filiberto is plagued by a series of strange events: broken water pipes, heavy rains, and a flooded cellar. Later, he describes in his diary how the Chac Mool frighteningly comes to life.

The living, breathing, moaning statue slowly begins to take over Filberto's house, tormenting the poor bureaucrat until he's consumed by paranoia and fear. In the middle of this fantastic story, the narrator, a co-worker of Filiberto's, reflects back on his friend's gradual and bizarre undoing.

 

Carlos Fuentes reads from "Chac-Mool"...

I remember that it was at the end of August that Filiberto had been fired from his job, with a public condemnation by the director, amid rumors of madness and even theft. I didn't believe it. I did see some wild memoranda, one asking the secretary of the department whether water had an odor; another, offering his services to the Department of Water Resources to make it rain in the desert. I couldn't explain it. I thought the exceptionally heavy rains of that summer had affected him. Or that living in that ancient mansion with half the rooms locked and thick with dust, without any servants or family life, had finally deranged him. The following entries are for the end of September:

“Chac-Mool can be pleasant enough when he wishes... the gurgling of enchanted water... He knows wonderful stories about the monsoons, the equatorial rains, the scourge of the deserts; the genealogy of every plant engendered by his mythic paternity: the willow, his wayward daughter; the lotus, his favorite child; the cactus. His mother-in-law. What I can't bear is the odor, the nonhuman odor, emanating from flesh that isn't flesh, from sandals that shriek their antiquity. Laughing stridently, the Chac-Mool recounts how he was discovered by Le Plongeon and brought into physical contact with men of other gods. His spirit had survived quite peacefully in water vessels and storms; his stone was another matter, and to have dragged him from his hiding place was unnatural and cruel. I think the Chac-Mool will never forgive that. He savors the imminence of the aesthetic.

[...]

"He didn't seem to like my question about his relation to Tlaloc, and when he becomes angry his teeth, repulsive enough in themselves, glitter and grow pointed. The first days he slept in the cellar; since yesterday, in my bed.”

“The dry season has begun. Last night, from the living room where I'm sleeping now, I heard the same hoarse moans I'd heard in the beginning, followed by a terrible racket. I went upstairs and peered into the bedroom: the Chac-Mool was breaking the lamps and furniture; he sprang toward the door with outstretched bleeding hands, and I was barely able to slam the door and run to hide in the bathroom. Later he came downstairs, panting and begging for water. He leaves the faucets running all day; there's not a dry spot in the house. I have to sleep wrapped in blankets, and I've asked him please to let the living room dry out.”

“The Chac-Mool flooded the living room today. Exasperated, I told him I was going to return him to La Lagunilla. His laughter—so frighteningly different from the laugh of any man or animal—was as terrible as the blow from that heavily braceleted arm. I have to admit it: I am his prisoner. My original plan was quite different. I was going to play with the Chac-Mool the way you play with a toy; this may have been an extension of the security of childhood. But—who said it?—the fruit of childhood is consumed by the years, and I hadn't seen that. He's taken my clothes, and when the green moss begins to sprout, he covers himself in my bathrobes. The Chac-Mool is accustomed to obedience, always; I, who have never had cause to command, can only submit. Until it rains—what happened to his magic power?—he will be choleric and irritable.”

“Today I discovered that the Chac-Mool leaves the house at night. Always, as it grows dark, he sings a shrill and ancient tune, older than song itself. Then everything is quiet. I knocked several times at the door, and when he didn't answer I dared enter. The bedroom, which I hadn't seen since the day the statue tried to attack me, is a ruin; the odor of incense and blood that permeates the entire house is particularly concentrated here. And I discovered bones behind the door, dog and rat and cat bones. This is what the Chac-Mool steals in the night for nourishment. This explains the hideous barking every morning.”

“February, dry. Chac-Mool watches every move I make: he made me telephone a restaurant and ask them to deliver chicken and rice every day. But what I took from the office is about to run out. So the inevitable happened: on the first they cut off the water and lights for nonpayment. But Chac has discovered a public fountain two blocks from the house; I make ten or twelve trips a day for water while he watches me from the roof. He says that if I try to run away he will strike me dead in my tracks; he is also the God of Lightning. What he doesn't realize is that I know about his nighttime forays. Since we don't have any electricity, I have to go to bed about eight. I should be used to the Chac-Mool by now, but just a moment ago, when I ran into him on the stairway, I touched his icy arms, the scales of his renewed skin, and I wanted to scream.

“If it doesn't rain soon, the Chac-Mool will return to stone. I've noticed his recent difficulty in moving; sometimes he lies for hours, paralyzed, and almost seems an idol again. But this repose merely gives him new strength to abuse me, to claw at me as if he could extract liquid from my flesh. We don't have the amiable intervals any more, when he used to tell me old tales; instead, I seem to notice a heightened resentment. There have been other indications that set me thinking: my wine cellar is diminishing; he likes to stroke the silk of my bathrobes; he wants me to bring a servant girl to the house; he has made me teach him how to use soap and lotions. I believe the Chac-Mool is falling into human temptations; now I see in the face that once seemed eternal something that is merely old. This may be my salvation: if the Chac becomes human, it's possible that all the centuries of his life will accumulate in an instant and he will die in a flash of lightning. But this might also cause my death: the Chac won't want me to witness his downfall; he may decide to kill me.

“I plan to take advantage tonight of Chac's nightly excursion to flee. I will go to Acapulco; I'll see if I can't find a job, and await the death of the Chac-Mool. Yes, it will be soon; his hair is gray, his face bloated. I need to get some sun, to swim, to regain my strength. I have four hundred pesos left. I'll go to the Müllers' hotel, it's cheap and comfortable. Let Chac-Mool take over the whole place; we'll see how long he lasts without my pails of water.”

Filiberto's diary ends here. I didn't want to think about what he'd written; I slept as far as Cuernavaca. From there to Mexico City I tried to make some sense out of the account, to attribute it to overwork, or some psychological disturbance, by the time we reached the terminal at nine in the evening, I still hadn't accepted the fact of my friend's madness. I hired a truck to carry the coffin to Filiberto's house, where I would arrange for his burial.

Before I could insert the key in the lock, the door opened. A yellow-skinned Indian in a smoking jacket and ascot stood in the doorway. He couldn't have been more repulsive; he smelled of cheap cologne; he'd tried to cover his wrinkles with thick powder, his mouth was clumsily smeared with lipstick, and his hair appeared to be dyed.

“I'm sorry... I didn't know that Flliberto had...”

“No matter. I know all about it. Tell the men to carry the body down to the cellar.”

Reed: Thanks for joining the Big Read. This program was created by The National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

It was written and produced by Cecilia Vaisman. Executive producer Adam Kampe. Excerpts from “Chac-Mool” were read by the story's author, Carlos Fuentes.

“Chac-Mool,” copyright 1954, was used by permission of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc. It was translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden and this translation was used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The story can be found in the anthology: Sun, Stone and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories published by Fondo de Cultura Económica especially for The Big Read.

Excerpts of instrumental selections from the album Manifiesto composed by and used courtesy of Rodrigo Sigal.

Excerpts from the String Quartets composed by Silvestre Revueltas, and performed by the Latin American Quartet, used courtesy of New Albion Records.

Production assistant, Dan Stone. Administrative assistants Pepper Smith, Erika Koss, and Liz Mehaffey.

We'd like to thank the following people for their invaluable help: Hernan Bravo Varela and Juan Garcia de Oteyza of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. and to Alejandro Pelayo, Alejandro Madrid, Jennifer Kareliusson, and Pennie Ojeda.

A special thanks to the Embassy and Consulates of Mexico in the United States, and the Embassy and Consulates of the United States in Mexico.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

 

 

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