This is the frist chapter of my novel Fulfillment. I invite your comments.
The sea was providing no answers. Gently rolling waves licked the sand where Tom Wolftone sat, gazing at the horizon. Shimmering, turquoise and lime, as ancient as the planet itself, the Caribbean softly nibbled at the beach.
There was a time when the sea had spoken to Tom, whispering wise advice while he walked an Oregon beach. He had listened, followed the advice and later understood why. Now? Nothing.
Six weeks in this obscure country and his purpose there was still a mystery to him. Six weeks of perpetual sweating, a pox of insect bites and the consumption of quarts of the weak, over-priced local beer. Six weeks of visiting the remnants of Mayan cities and ceremonial sites, of trying to understand the decline of that once-mighty civilization and the current status of its humble descendants. How could he understand when the Maya, themselves, didn’t know?
Or did they?
Tom had been drawn to Belize in a way he didn’t understand. He felt there was work to do, that he had a purpose to fulfill in this tiny nation.
Six weeks later he was still mystified. Why was he here?
Belize seemed to have been with Tom as far back as he could recall. The country’s name resonated hard with him the first time he heard it, as though there were some connection. He was drawn, finally, to quit his job with The Post-Standard and take off. No one really understood that seemingly rash act, although some thought they did: the lure of palm-fringed beaches, rum punches in the comfort of a swaying hammock, escape from the tedium of a daily newspaper. Actually, it was all that – but something much more. And that was the part eluding Tom.
“Have you been waiting long?”
The voice behind Tom belonged to Jack Dunraven, who Tom was meeting for dinner.
The question had an immediate double-meaning for Tom but he answered the most-obvious one.
“Not long,” Tom said as he rose and slapped sand off the seat of his pants. “Maybe 15 minutes. That’s OK. I was enjoying the water.”
Punctuality was not crucial in this part of the world. Time was more abstract than in the U.S., the land of ubiquitous timepieces. Belizeans were not in a rush, ever. There was always plenty of time.
Jack, a British expatriate in his mid- to late-40s, had lived in Belize the past 15 years – long enough to become a citizen and to marry a Belizean woman. He was program director for SMACO, an acronym for the Santa Maria Archipelago Conservation Organization. SMACO, a non-governmental entity, managed a chain of 14 cays offshore.
Tom had first met Jack the day he arrived in Punta Gorda and an immediate bond formed. They quickly discovered not only a shared interest in protecting the natural world from excessive – and often unnecessary – exploitation but in metaphysics and mysticism. Tom didn’t share that side of himself with many people.
“Hungry?” Jack inquired, smiling.
“Well, let’s go then.”
The men strolled along the shoreline for about 100 yards toward a gray, three-story compound containing half a dozen apartments and a top-floor restaurant. Maria’s Bayshore Cafe was one of the few eateries in town that offered an alternative to the nation’s standard, ubiquitous “fry chicken” with rice and beans. As they climbed the stairs up from the courtyard, Tom noticed large patches of black mold spotting the building’s walls, typical of most concrete structures in this humid climate. No one seemed concerned about it, though, unlike the U.S. where black mold was considered a health hazard.
The restaurant, however, was clean and bright; the view of the Bahia de Amatique from the veranda was magnificent; and Maria’s food was exceptional.
Tom led the way to his favorite table, next to the railing above the water and close to the kitchen. The aroma of curry drifted toward them.
“How was the trip?” Tom asked.
“Fairly easy. The sea was calm all the way. Actually, it was quite beautiful.”
Broad in the chest and standing a little more than six feet tall, Jack was a robust defender of the cluster of tiny islands, 35 miles offshore. His passion for the site was so vigorous that he tended to alienate some of the natives he hoped to draw into his alliance. There was a strong environmental consciousness, manifesting in national protection of the long reef system and creation of several national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. But Belizeans did not like being pushed – especially by an outsider. And, most distressingly, many locals exhibited a sense of complacency about threats to the sea.
“Would it be possible to get out there with you sometime?”
Tom had already had enough of jungle living. He and Rhonda Fuller were renting a stilted house 20 miles inland, near the Mayan village of San Pedro Columbia. The heat, humidity, rain and hordes of biting and stinging insects there had made life unbearable. Here, in town, a steady breeze cooled the air a bit and kept mosquitoes at bay.
It was the sea that had lured him anyway. Tom looked again at the water. Colors were shifting, reflecting the rapidly changing moods of the sky. The sun was setting behind them, streaking the offshore clouds with bands of pink and orange. A patch of water about half a mile out glowed with a carnelian hue.
“I don’t see why not,” Jack replied. “But, I’ll have to clear it with Lenora. Sure, if it’s OK with her.”
Lenora Carranza and her husband, Mario, operated the main water taxi service across the bay to Guatemala from the downtown wharf, as well as arrangements for inland excursions to Mayan sites and national parks. The Carranzas were also the co-founders of SMACO.
Maria suddenly appeared next to their table.
“Good evening gentlemen. How are you?”
The round, middle-age, East Indian/Creole woman looked tired. Tom knew she worked long hours to make a go of her restaurant, which was open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. She, her husband and three daughters lived in a downstairs apartment, so Maria was always on call. Her two helpers were incapable of running the place without her, she had told Tom.
“Fresh from the sea and ravenous,” Jack answered.
“That’s good, because tonight we have fish fillets, fresh from the sea,” Maria said with a smile. “But not quite ready yet. Can I get you some drinks?”
“Sure. How about rum punches?” Tom asked Jack.
“Excellent. You’re talking about the one with pineapple squash and coconut juice?”
“Make it two,” Tom told Maria.
“And I’m ready to order dinner now,” Tom added. He remembered the three-entrée menu scribbled on a chalkboard behind the bar as they entered, as well as the length of time it always took for food to appear, even though he and Jack were the only customers.
Tom ordered curried chicken with steamed rice and vegetables, while Jack bit on the fish fillet.
“Why do you want to go out to the keys?” Jack asked.
“Just to see what it’s like out there. I’m feeling penned up here. I need to get out on the water.”
“I hear you. I’m surprised you’ve taken life in the bush as well as you have. How’s your book coming?”
“Slowly,” Tom said, grimacing. “I really can’t get rolling on it. I dumped the original idea, so I’m off in a different direction.”
“It’s not going to be about the Maya then?” Jack looked surprised.
“It’s going to be a novel. I haven’t gotten many insights about the Maya here that I could turn into a book. Either they don’t know, or won’t say, what caused their civilization to collapse in the thirteenth century. So, no, it won’t be a scholarly work. I’m tired of that anyway. It’s one of the reasons I quit the newspaper.”
Maria quietly appeared and put their drinks on the table. Nothing fancy here. No paper umbrellas topping the small water glasses. Just the fine Belizean One Barrel rum and the mixes over purified ice cubes. The beach resorts at Placencia, San Pedro and Caye Caulker catered to tourists who were charmed by cute presentations. No one bothered with that in gritty Punta Gorda.
“Here’s to fiction then,” Jack said, raising his glass.
Tom clicked his glass against Jack’s.
“Sometimes fiction is the best way to put the truth across,” Tom said, smiling. The two men gladly sipped their drinks.
“Do you know anything about the crystal skull that supposedly was found at Lubaantun?” Tom asked.
“A bit,” Jack said, smiling. “It’s supposed to have mystical powers. The daughter of an archaeologist, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, said she found it in the ruins there in nineteen-twenty-four.”
“Right. There’s some question about whether that ever happened, but I guess the skull is real. Anna Mitchell-Hedges has taken it on tour with her, and I’ve seen photos of it. There apparently are several others. Most of them were supposedly found in Mexico and Central America, at Mayan and Aztec sites. You know, the funny thing is, I’ve known about that crystal skull for maybe the past ten years or so, but I had no idea it was found here until I visited Lubanntun about a month ago. What a coincidence, eh?”
They both laughed. Neither of them believed in coincidences.
Lubaantun was built and occupied by the Maya from the seventh through the 12th centuries, Tom had learned. Some estimates put the peak population at around 20,000 people, although there was little sign of that level of occupation. It’s estimated that approximately 300,000 Maya once lived in Belize – more than the nation’s current total, mixed population. Five main plazas and 13 smaller ones sprawl across the site, located less than two miles from San Pedro Columbia. The limestone structures were unique in several ways, including rounded corners. Unlike Maya sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, little restoration work had been done; so many of the ruins consisted mainly of rubble.
“I’ve been there several times,” Tom continued, savoring the warmth of the rum in his belly. “I’ve talked to the caretaker, Alberto, about the story. He was in on one of the later digs, back in the nineteen-sixties or seventies; he’s met Anna and seen the skull. He said it’s life-size and has a removable jaw. She gave him three different versions of the skull’s discovery, so I’ve got my doubts. Some people think it was manufactured in Germany and bought at an auction in England in nineteen-forty-three.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that,” Jack said, his expression turning serious. He looked intently at Tom. “I agree that it wasn’t found at Lubaantun, but I’m sure it wasn’t manufactured in Germany.”
“What’s your theory?”
“It’s not a theory. It’s a fact.”
“OK. I’m listening.”
Jack took another sip of his drink.
“Well, you know I’ve been involved in protecting the keys for the past few years and I spend quite a bit of time out there.”
“As a result, I’ve heard many stories about those keys. Pirates of course. They certainly were there. But did you know the Maya lived out there? It’s quite a journey by boat today, so it’s hard to conceive of it. They had an outpost, regulating trade along the coast, from the Yucatan to Honduras. “We’ve found lots of buried artifacts and trade goods. Obsidian blades, turquoise, things like that.”
“I knew that was the purpose of Tulum and Cerros, but I wasn’t aware of anything this far south, in the keys.”
“No. It isn’t well known. It seems no one spent much time digging out there because nothing was apparent. Actually, we’ve kept what we’ve discovered to ourselves.”
“Oh, people involved with this project. People with an interest in what we’ve found. That’s all I can say right now.”
“What else did you find?”
Tom looked up as he saw Maria approaching and was quiet.
“Would you like more drinks?” Maria asked, smiling.
“That’s a good idea,” Jack replied. “Certainly.”
When Maria walked back toward the bar, Jack continued.
“We found the remains of a city out there, underwater. For some reason, those islands never attracted much interest from divers or fishermen. Maybe because they’re so far out. In any case, one of our people was following up on a tale he’d heard some time back and started poking around out there. He had an idea of where to look and, by God, he found some ruins about twenty-five feet underwater.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Not at all. If you don’t believe me, I’ll take you out there to see for yourself.”
Tom paused to absorb what Jack had just told him.
“I’d like that. Very much. So, where does the crystal skull fit into this?”
“That’s where it was found.”