Fiction by Vinny Corsaro
There was a gift shop inside Mount Acatenango. A real life gift shop, with fridge magnets, five-dollar sunglasses, and souvenir bobble heads. Some people might find it a little disingenuous to have one in an ancient holy site, but I didn’t.
How else would the monks pay for food? They can’t live off donations alone. Not many believed in the primitive era gods of Chimaltengo anymore, and if they did, it was rare they were descendants of the Montecomans or even cared at all.
I had been hiking for five days, lost Dr. Lemargo, had cuts and gashes from the Montecoman booby-traps, and was greeted by sliding glass doors and a bald monk carrying a silver platter of key chains.
“Would you like a blessed volcano pendant?” the monk asked me as I stumbled into the air-conditioned room. I collapsed on the ground and stared at the ceiling tiles. My chest felt like it was on fire. I still had dust caked on my teeth from earlier. It had been a day since I had a drink of anything.
“Water,” I croaked. The rest of the group wasn’t far away. Levine had been trying to help Doris cross the spike pit when I last saw them, and that hadn’t been a long time ago. Aapo had grabbed a handful of gold and left when he saw the dead treasure hunter’s skeleton. He looked at me, laughed, and then ran off. I had no idea what happened to Boox.
“Sure,” the monk smiled. His nametag said Paul. “Cash or card?”
When Dr. Lemargo told me about the expedition, and how he was willing to pay for my rent for the next year if I came along and documented “the discovery of a lifetime,” I was sold, but not because of the money, or even because it was a good career opportunity. I didn’t even like the guy or anything. In fact, when he fell from The Cliff of Knives, the first thing I thought of was what I was going to say to my landlord when I got back. I quit my job at Caroline’s, the diner on campus, a month before the trip.
No, I was in a different position than the other members of our party for a few reasons. For one, Dr. Lemargo was funding my trip. The others were being paid by Alabama University’s department of archaeology. This included Aapo, the guide from Tunkuruchu, associate professors Andrew Levine and Doris McGinley, and even Boox K’aay, the fake shaman. Normally, universities aren’t too keen on spending money to research mythological areas, but Dr. Lemargo had a colleague in Chimaltengo write the department a letter of persuasion. I found out later that he forged the whole thing, and that Dr. Maribella Montoya never existed in the first place.
Boox had a bone in his nose when I first met him. Dr. Lemargo introduced us, and Boox bowed and clapped three times, “like the customs of the Montecomans themselves.” I played along and returned the greeting. When Dr. Lemargo left us alone to return to his car, I told Boox that nobility, shamans, and warriors clapped twice when they said hello. Only the peasant class clapped three times.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“No shit,” Boox said. He looked down at his grass skirt, tribal tattoos, and wooden sandals. He looked back up at me with open, nervous eyes, which, in a very non-Montecomanlike fashion, were blue. Boox had a spray tan, and I found out later that he was originally from Portland.
“Is this racist?” he asked in a whisper.
“Probably,” I said.
Boox nodded soberly. He was making $1,000 for guiding us. It was supposed to be a two-day trip. Not a bad deal for him.
“Are you going to tell Dr. Lemargo?” he asked.
I never really told anybody about my secret heritage. It played such a little part of my life, and besides, I looked white. I really only used it for official things, like scholarships and government ID’s. Dr. Lemargo didn’t even know. He hired me purely off the recommendation of one of my professors, a doctor of journalism that he wanted to ask on a date but didn’t have the balls.
My dad worked in the Peace Corps after high school, and, most unbelievably, he even claimed to me that he never smoked pot. He met my mom while working on the wells in the Chimaltengo. She was a traveling musician, a bad one, and was being thrown out of her current boyfriend’s home at the exact moment my dad walked by. She ran up to him, yelling over her shoulder in a language my father didn’t understand.
She grabbed his face, whispered “play along,” and kissed him right as her boyfriend came storming out. She screamed at her lover and pulled my dad along, away from her house. He told me that he could see how smart she was from her eyes, and that he was scared to break away from her grasp and go back to work. Eventually, they reached one of the defunct wells and my mom sat on the stone and wept. My dad claimed that he heard her tears patter against the empty, stone floor of the well.
He stayed in the village, and they got married six months later.
My mom rarely talked about the Montecomans, and when she did she had to be drunk. She was a fierce whiskey drinker, and my dad always joked that it was because she was trying to kill her inner demons. I don’t think he ever really knew if he was joking or not.
“Have I ever told you about the House of the Living Rock?” she asked one night. My dad wasn’t home. He rarely was at nights thanks to his warehouse shift. When he was gone, my mom would drink and drink and drink, sitting by the window and staring into the nothingness of our neighborhood. We lived in an area that tried desperately to be the suburbs, but in reality, the fakeness of our housing development wasn’t fooling anybody. There was no real money around here.
“What’s that?” I asked. I was in sixth grade and avoiding my math homework. I didn’t really care. Our TV broke the week before and I had nothing else to do.
Mom smiled and shook her head, mumbling some phrase in Montecoman. She never taught me how to speak it, saying that it wasn’t useful anymore.
“The House of the Living Rock is what makes us Montecomans different than the rest of the world,” she said, a light glinting in her eyes. She had three different flowery nightgowns, a red, black, and green one. That night she wore the green, and she looked like a forest nymph.
“Back when our ancestors used to live in Acatenango, it was said that the flesh of the Living Rock had healing properties.”
She smiled and took another sip of whiskey from her Spiderman thermos. She was obsessed with American superheroes, especially Spiderman. She claimed that he also had some Montecoman blood in him, although I never told her that Steve Ditko had created him, and if anything, Spiderman had Jewish, not indigenous blood.
“My papa said that the priests had special knives that could separate the Flesh from the Bone of Acatenango. It was worth more than gold. One spoonful could cure any ailment. Two spoonfuls made you grow a foot taller. The third spoonful gave you special powers,” she said, trailing off.
“What sort of powers?” I asked. I had moved closer to her armchair, which was a brown leather and smelt of cigarettes. Dad found it a few months ago, lying on a sidewalk in the neighborhood.
She mumbled another phrase in Montecoman and went quiet. I waited patiently for an answer for two whole minutes, and then finally moved back to my homework on the kitchen table. Mom was done talking.
She took another sip from her thermos and smiled bitterly at me doing my maths. She had a lined face that made her look older than the 50 that she really was. Montecomans had fair skin and light brown hair, looking like Europeans more than anything else. I always got dirty looks from my teachers when I said that I was Latino. They thought I was just trying to be difficult. One teacher even told me that “Latino people don’t speak English very good, and they’re dark skinned. You’re not really a Latino.” My mom came to school the next day and talked to her in private. The teacher walked like a neutered dog for the next month. She didn’t call on me in class anymore.
Dr. Lemargo was an idiot, and Levine and Doris did nothing but stroke his inflated ego. I guess it wasn’t entirely his fault, though, because the textbooks knew nothing about Montecomans, and their editors always happened to be white men who had never even been to Guatemala. Dr. Lemargo’s PhD director, Dr. Wilhelm Kutz, wrote an academic paper about the Montecoman religion without ever actually stepping foot in Central America.
“The Montecoman priests were feared back in their heyday,” he told us. We were cutting through the thick, alpine vegetation on the second day of our hike. Aapo and I were taking up the rear, while the academics and Boox deciphered the trail.
“Human sacrifices were not only expected, but demanded,” he said, incorrectly.
Boox nodded and made a phony blessing to the sky. He was speaking gibberish, no real language at all. Aapo and I raised our eyebrows at each other. We had exchanged similar glances all day. Even though he spoke limited English, I could tell that Aapo was smart enough to smell Dr. Lemargo’s bullshit, which made two of us in the whole party.
Dr. Lemargo made a hushing noise and gestured to the whole party wildly. He jumped up and down, presenting his buckteeth with an unhinged smile.
He pointed at a small, spiked plant. It was growing underneath a large fir tree, otherwise known as an Abeto de Guatemala. The head of the plant was a bright yellow, with a red stem, and green thorns. It wrapped around the tree trunk like a belt, and the head of the flower rested gently against the bark.
“This is the Eye of the Sun!” Dr. Lemargo exclaimed. He laughed giddily and danced around. His red mustache jiggled with each jump. “The gods are smiling at us today, fellas!”
“What’s the Eye of the Sun?” Doris asked. She had a buzz cut, and wore the same khaki safari getup that Levine and Dr. Lemargo had.
“It’s only the most important plant in the Montecoman culture,” he said, incorrectly, with gleaming eyes. “Priests would take this plant to receive visions from the rock gods. Some professors theorize that the entire Montecoman community wouldn’t have existed without this plant.”
He broke off the head and rubbed it in between his fingers. Yellow residue stuck to the grease, leaving stains that looked like mustard. His fingers were also caked with dirt, grass, and other unknown substances.
Aapo opened his mouth to say something, but stopped. To this day, I’ve wondered if he actually knew what plant Dr. Lemargo was holding. I mean, Aapo was Mayan, not Montecoman, so maybe he knew what was going to happen if Dr. Lemargo took the plant, maybe he didn’t. I knew, but once again, couldn’t risk letting the expedition know that I was a little more qualified than previously explained. It just wasn’t worth it.
When they studied Dr. Lemargo’s blood after his death, which was really difficult because the 200-foot fall spread his body parts throughout the forest, they found enough psilocybin in his system to mirror a 10g dosage of magic mushrooms. The plant’s real name in Montecoman was Lunekana, which roughly translates into the Snake’s Moon.
Snake’s Moon was fed to prisoners in the Montecoman culture. Then, once the psychedelics kicked in, the priests would lock them in a dark cavern for hours. Once the prisoners started banging on the doors and screaming for help, a secret door would be opened, leading to a drop off into the alpine forest. Most prisoners came sprinting out of their holding cells to the light. Anything to escape the darkness.
If their souls were purified by the Lunekana, they would teeter on the edge of the cliff and stare into the forest, letting the amorphous gods of rock and nature overwhelm and sedate them. They would be rewarded by a spoonful of The Living Rock, and an opportunity to repent and join the priesthood.
If the prisoners were impure and unrepentant, they would run out of the opening and fall to their deaths, tripping through a nightmarish hells cape the whole way down.
My mom had once told me a story about her ancestor, Montecayuca the cattle thief, and how he stood on the cliff for six hours straight, tears streaming down his face before the priests came out to comfort and congratulate him. Montecayuca was my only ancestor to attain any more status than a peasant.
I wondered what went through Dr. Lemargo’s head as he fell. Was he even sober enough to realize he was dying? Or was it all just one trip even up until the blood separated entirely from his body?
We were hopelessly lost by the third day. Doris hadn’t stopped crying since the death of our Dr. Lemargo. Thankfully, her sobs covered up any need to make small talk. Without our boss, we didn’t have to pretend to like each other anymore.
“We’re never going to get out off this mountain!” she wailed.
“Don’t worry miss, I know exactly where we are,” Boox lied.
I saw him try and use the GPS on his hidden cellphone before Dr. Lemargo’s death. Unfortunately, there was no service on Mount Acatenango. The villagers below didn’t have Internet or phones. It was difficult to set up a cell tower on an active volcano.
Aapo muttered something that I didn’t understand.
I nodded anyways.
We were in a small valley in between two crags of the mountain. A deer ran past, looking at us for a moment before deeming us irrelevant. The air smelled like pine needles and old mud.
“We need to go back,” Levine said. He hadn’t spoken much since Dr. Lemargo died.
“We’re fine,” Boox said. “We’re already halfway to the summit. Let’s make it to the top, have a look around, then head back.”
We were more than halfway up the summit at that point, but I didn’t feel like correcting Boox. The closer we got to the top, the more anxious I felt. I felt like an orphan who was told that they were being adopted the next day and then was expected to sleep the night before.
My mom hadn’t been back to Chimaltengo since leaving with dad, and she never expressed any wish to do so. The village she was raised in was small, traditional, and poor.
“Never take running water for granted,” she would say while doing the dishes.
And I never did. Like I said, I’m a gringo. A white boy. I loved my sheltered upbringing. I had running water, a washing machine, a dryer, and a shower that could also be used as a bath. That made me richer than like 90% of the entire world, and I didn’t even have a TV. That’s some perspective altering shit.
We kept on walking, with Aapo in the front with Doris and Levine, Boox in the middle, and me in the back. We had no clue that we’d reach the secret door to the House of the Living Rock by nightfall, and even that was by accident really.
Paul brought me some water. It was in a shoddy cup, lined by gold, but looked like it was made in a fifth grade art class. The base was uneven and lumpy, and whoever painted it red must have been unfamiliar with how to hold a paintbrush.
I greedily took the cup from his hand and drank. I felt the coolness of the water run down my throat, past the caked dirt and blood and into my empty stomach. I drank until the cup was empty and sank back to the floor.
Paul hovered over me, smiling.
“Cash or card?” he asked again.
I weakly gestured to my backpack, which lied on the ground a few feet to my left. Paul walked over and began to unzip it.
“It’s in the front pocket,” I croaked.
Paul reached around to the back pocket and fumble with the contents. An empty thermos fell out, as well as two pairs of wool socks.
“No, the FRONT pocket,” I said.
Paul glared at me and threw his arms in the air.
“Well then say that next time,” he mumbled, moving his attention to the front most pocket. He unzipped it and pulled my wallet out, smiling triumphantly. I rolled my eyes.
Paul rifled through my wallet, found my VISA, and walked to the counter. Another bald monk was working the cash register, and his nametag said Michael. They were both light-skinned, brown eyed, and frightfully skinny. They each wore red robes with golden zigzags on the side. A sign saying “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Soul, No Service” hung above the cash register.
“Hey mister,” the other monk, Michael, said. “Your chip doesn’t work.”
“Insert it three times and then swipe,” I said, still on the ground. I was slowly catching my breath and regaining strength. I heard the monk fumble with my card, another beeping noise, and a grunt of frustration.
“It’s still not working,” Paul said.
I groaned and sat up.
“Did you swipe it three times? Sometimes the card reader gets-”
“I know how to work my own machine, thank you very much,” Michael snapped. He inserted the card again and again without results. Paul looked away awkwardly, fidgeting with his robe.
“Do you have any cash?” Michael said. He was holding my card up and inspecting it.
“No,” I said. “Sorry, I didn’t expect to find a fucking gift shop inside a volcano. I was hoping for more of a supermarket, you know?”
The monks gasped at my profanity. Michael dropped my card.
“Its, um, it’s forbidden to swear in the House of the Living Flesh if you’re not Montecoman,” Paul said in a quiet voice. They had both grown very pale and were looking at the ceiling like they expected lightning to come shooting downwards.
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m Montecoman,” I said, “because I’m pretty fucking irked.”
Paul’s mouth gaped open. Michael let out a large sigh. I heard a deep clunk from inside the volcano. It sounded like someone dropped a giant ball bearing onto an orchestral drum. They looked at me, then at each other, then back at me again.
“Well,” Michael said, grinning. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“Stupid gringos,” my mom muttered, swerving to avoid the old lady who didn’t know how to use a turn signal. I burrowed into the backseat, hoping I’d die quick when she inevitably smashed our car into the next mildly annoying driver. I was in seventh grade at the time, and we were headed to see a movie. I didn’t know which one, but I knew it was rated R and I felt special for being taken along.
“Hey, you married one of those ‘stupid gringos’,” my dad said from the front seat. She glared at him. He smiled back weakly. “Just because I’m not Montecoman doesn’t mean that I’m stupid too, you-”
“Please, Frank,” my mom said in a cold voice, “not now.”
I wanted very much to disappear. Maybe if I angled my body the right way, the air conditioning vents would suck me up and I’d go tumbling into the car’s interior, bustled around, and shot out the exhaust pipe into the hot summer air.
“Why don’t you ever want to talk about it? You talk more about your heritage with him,” my father jerked a thumb back at me, “than you do with me. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“You don’t know anything about what it’s like to be Montecoman,” she said, raising her voice, “and if I do anything in my life right, he won’t really know either.”
“But mom,” I wavered, “what if I want to know?”
“Dammit, I’m not talking about the Montecomans! You two would never understand. You’ve never even been there. It’s not some magical place where corn tortillas fall from the sky, and the rock gods bless each bean harvest, and gold falls out of each villager’s asshole. You don’t know what it’s like to live in a land of smoke and mirrors, in a land where tradition is more important than clean water, in a land where not everything is real and-”
“Car!” my dad shouted, grabbing the steering wheel. We jolted to the right, barely missing the incoming semi truck. My mom had let go of the wheel in her rant and had been waving her hands wildly.
It all happened too fast to yell or even do anything. I breathed out of my mouth in shallow gulps, like I was trying to drink enough air to smother my upset stomach. My mom put both hands back on the steering wheel and gripped them so hard that her fingers turned white. My dad didn’t talk for the rest of the car ride.
In the backseat, I watched the bundle of my mom’s brown hair bounce up and down with the rhythm of the road. For reasons I can’t explain, even to this day, that was the first time I felt pride about being a Montecoman.
The blindfold was coarse and itchy. I could feel it rub against one of the cuts on my forehead with each step, stinging and biting my raw skin. It smelled like rotting animal skin, and I doubted that it had been washed in the past year.
“Only five more minutes, brother,” a voice whispered. I didn’t know if it was Paul, Michael, or another monk. I wore old wooden sandals on my feet, and they were oddly comfortable.
After our exchange in the gift shop, Paul and Michael treated me very differently. I got another water, on the house, and they even gave me a foil wrapped sandwich, a weird, but filling tuna and mustard.
“We really aren’t allowed to do this, so eat fast,” Paul had said, looking warily over his shoulder. They asked me again if I was Montecoman, I said yes, and then they bowed, clapping their hands two times. I returned the greeting, much to their delight. They told me that they needed to put me through the ritual right away. I protested and told them about Doris and Levine, and how they could come into the gift shop at any moment, but they waved away my excuses and said they’d get a lesser monk to watch the cash register. Soon after, I was blindfolded and led out into the tunnel.
I shivered at the thought of what the ritual could possibly be. My stomach grumbled, but whether it was from the tuna or nerves, I couldn’t tell. I hoped that it wouldn’t take too long, because I was ready to get off the damn mountain.
As we walked, the temperature rose. We went from industrial air conditioning in the gift shop, so cold that I wished I had one of those robes, to an environment so stuffy and humid that when I coughed, I could taste the bitter heat in my throat. It was a sauna.
We walked and walked and walked until, finally, I was stopped by a pair of coarse hands.
“Brother,” a deep voice proclaimed from behind, a voice I hadn’t heard before, “it is time. Take off your blindfold.”
With trembling hands, I reached up and removed the rough garment from my face. A white-hot blast of air hit my then naked forehead, causing me to stumble. Directly in front of my face was a stream of lava, so close that I could reach out and disintegrate my hand if I so chose.
“Brother, turn around!” boomed the voice.
Slowly, I shifted my sandaled feet until I faced what was a large, domed room. Running along the sides of the walls were thin, red and white lines of lava. They pulsed and swirled around the room, looking very much like veins against their stone skin. If I watched one vein close enough, I could see it actually shift its path at will. The lava would go straight down, then at a right angle, then up, then down again. In the center of the room was a humongous puddle of bubbling and steaming lava, feeding the veins.
It looked alive.
No, it was alive.
I was in the House of the Living Flesh!
I was seeing the home of the rock gods and the Montecoman priests themselves, probably one of the first non-indigenous peoples to ever lay eyes on them. They were all bald, like Paul and Michael, and wore the same gold and red robes. I tried to find the two gift shop workers in the crowd but couldn’t. In the dim light, all the monks looked the same.
Sitting on a large throne in the middle of the atrium was an enormous man. At least, I thought it was a man, but it very well could have been one of the rock gods in the flesh. The man had to be at least seven feet tall, and he had swirling red tattoos all over his body. His eyes seemed to glow red, and when spoke the whole room shook.
“Brother,” he said, “are you ready for the ritual?”
The other monks began to whisper-chant in Montecoman. I caught the words for “snake” and “blood,” but nothing else. I fought the urge to piss my pants before answering.
“Yes,” I said, quickly adding, “your highness.”
He chuckled at that, at least I hoped it was a chuckle and not a growl. I had never seen cannibals up close, but I’d imagine that they probably looked a little like that guy.
“If you are ready,” he continued, “then you must answer this one question first.”
He stood up, and the monks began chanting louder, then louder, then louder even. The veins of lava swirled at an almost blinding pace. The atrium was strobing out with ancient energy, and I felt immense pressure pushing on my back.
“Brother! I ask you in the clearest and cleanest words of the gods themselves! Are…..You…..Montecoman!”
The room was roaring. I felt the earth split beneath my feet. I could see each monk’s eyes glow as they stared, piercing my very soul. I struggled to open my mouth as I answered.
Then, suddenly, everything went black.
I was sleeping in a mountain of darkness and water. I felt the winds of heaven tearing through my body, and the salt of the earth on my tongue. I was asleep for a thousand years, and asleep for a second. I was everything, and I was nothing.
And then, for the first time in a millennium, I heard voices.
“Hey man, wake up.”
“He’s not going to wake up, I think he’s dead.”
“He’s not dead, Michael. Shake him again.”
A rupture opened in my chest, and I could feel the energy of a thousand suns pour out of my body and I wanted to kill and yell and scream and eat and-
“Hey, calm down dude,” Paul said as I shot up from the ground of the gift shop, yelling like an idiot.
“Where am-wait, how am I back here? What happened to the ritual?” I said, groggy and confused. I was back where I first fell down and begged for water. My backpack was lying on the ground, and if I hadn’t seen my wallet lying on the ground near it, I would’ve thought that the whole thing was a dream.
“The ritual? Oh man, you killed that shit!” Paul said, clapping me on the back. “When Kawil asked, ‘are you Montecoman?’ I thought you were for sure gonna say no. Way to go! That ritual is some tough shit! I’ve seen some people say no before, and they instantly catch fire and get thrown into the Pool of Death. You’re a natural”
“Wait, what? That was….that was it?”
I felt extremely dizzy and thirsty again. I reached up to run a hand through my hair, and felt nothing but baldness. I guess I was bald. Wait.
I was bald?!
I screamed and felt again, running my fingers along the smooth groove of my skin. I was dressed in the same robes as Paul and Michael, and I found a nametag on myself, reading “Abe.”
“That’s not my name,” I stammered lamely. Of all the things I could’ve said, that’s what I went with. I had just seen a mountain literally move as if it were alive, and I was confused about my nametag.
“It is now, brother,” Michael said, smiling widely. “It is now.”
“No, no, no,” I said, backing away. “This isn’t real.”
I ran over to my backpack and tried to pick it up. It phased straight through my hands.
“What the fuck?”
“Oh,” Paul said, shaking his head with a small smile. “You won’t need that anymore.”
“What’s happening to me?” I cried. I ran over to Paul and grabbed his robe pushing him against the wall. “What the fuck is going on?!”
“You’re Montecoman!” he said defensively. He looked at me with squinted eyes. “Are you feeling ok?”
“Yes I’m fucking feeling ok!” I yelled back, spittle flying. “Why can’t I touch my shit?”
“You no longer need worldly possessions,” Michael said calmly. “You’re one of us now.”
He walked up to us and put a gentle hand on my back. Paul smiled at me, and the smile contained genuine warmth. They didn’t think they were tricking me. They thought they were actually helping.
“Well I don’t want this! I want to go home!” I protested weakly. I knew without them even saying it that leaving the mountain wasn’t an option. “I’m not from here! I’m from the United States; you can even see that on my passport!”
Paul shook his head slowly, still smiling.
“The mountain doesn’t accept liars. You’re truly Montecoman. It’s in your blood. And so is this.”
He gestured at the gift shop. I looked at the souvenir hats, shot glasses, socks, and water bottles. I saw a postcard with a man, flames erupting from his mouth, saying “I lost my lunch at Mount Acatenango.”
“I don’t want this…” I said in a whisper, but I don’t think either of them heard me.
“Oh look, we can teach him how to use the register!” Michael said, clapping joyfully. I was still staring at the ground when I heard Levine bust in.
“Oh god oh god oh god,” he said, clearly crying. “She’s dead!”
“There, there,” I heard Paul say. My eyes were closed and I could feel a rogue tear leak out myself. “Want some water?”
“Please,” sobbed Levine, “please.”
“Sure thing, now will that be cash or card?”
Vinny Corsaro is an MFA candidate at Butler University. He’s had fiction appear in the Canvas Literary Arts Journal and multiple poems in publications like The Flying Island and The Tipton Poetry Journal. He is an avid rock climber, musician, writer, and, most importantly, person.