Curse of Cortes'

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Chapter 10: Beginning of Time

Archaeology Department, UCLA, Westwood

June 18th 11:15 am | 67 hours to Mayan chaa

After a muscle aching eighteen hours, including a tedious layover in Mexico City, and a sleepless, turbulent red eye flight, Sophia endures the long line at Los Angeles International US Customs, and yet another line for a taxi. Another forty-five minutes of bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic, she arrives at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) in Westwood with a fresh appreciation for why these people come to Roatan to recover from daily life.

After getting lost twice, Sophia finds the Anthropology & Archaeology Department in a 1950s era brick building wrapped in ivy, and slips into the back of an old theater style room. Much older and taller than his book photo, she recognizes Dr. Estefan Martinez, slim and fit with salt and pepper hair that sweeps back in waves. Unsure what she will learn, she sits back with a sense of anticipation that she found her mysterious Estefan. He notices her enter, but continues his lecture.

“When Hernan Cortes’ arrived in 1517, all the nations of Mesoamerica shared a common mythology, and calendar, suggesting they shared a more ancient mother culture. While many scholars believe the Olmec of the Gulf Coast were that culture, a growing body of evidence points to a much older civilization,” Dr. Martinez lectures.

His deep, resonating voice reminds her of papa with an American accent. Somehow, the familiarity warms her with a sense of connection she didn’t expect.

“The Aztec king Montezuma told Cortes’ they lived during the fourth creation of the earth, the fourth epoch, or rather in my view the fourth Long Count calendar cycle. If so, then in order to find the creators of the calendar we will need to look much farther back in history,” he explains, “before the Younger Dryas Impact event of 12,800 BPE (before present era).”

A few students murmur at the suggestion. Scanning the room to gauge their attention, he gives Sophia a momentary glance and continues. Still dressed in Carmen’s vintage clothing, she looks and feels out of place, but coming from a small island, just the ability to sit in a major university classroom excites her.

“Toward the end of 2012 many people bought into the false hysteria that the Mayan calendar pointed to the end of the world,” he says with a chuckle that spreads around the room. “At least some of that hype was based on a Mayan prophet named Chilam Balam who not only accurately foretold of the Spanish invasion, but also spoke of a darkness at the end of the 13th Baktun, December 21, 2012. While the world obviously didn’t end, global problems continue to increase at an exponential rate, so perhaps the prophecy is in progress,” he grins.

“Either way, the enigmas of the Mayan long-count are both profound and inspiring,” he declares. “Profound in the mind bending accuracy over a 5,126 year period with enough precision to predict planetary, lunar, and solar events such as an eclipse. So advanced it incorporates precession, the 26,000 year wobble of the earth with an awe inspiring point 001% error rate.”

Sophia knew very little about the Mayan calendar, but had no idea of the accuracy. Living on a tropical island made it hard to imagine such things, although there were many tourists, and a few Garifuna caught up in the end of the world hysteria. A little confused about where he’s going, perhaps a little surprised, she’s listens carefully.

“Such accuracy over so long a period of time indicates the creators must have observed the sky for at least one full cycle,” asserts Dr. Martinez. “On that premise alone, we can rule out the Olmec who didn’t even exist until 500 years after the start of the fourth cycle. If not the Olmec, then who created such amazing technology?”

A few students mumble. Sophia still doesn’t understand the controversy. She feels a bit of shame she doesn’t know more about her local history and a bit of envy of the entitled students who get to study the mysteries of her homeland. All of this must mean something.

“The secret may be in the myths themselves,” he continues. “Unlike the Bible, the Polpul Vuh tradition speaks of three creations, with the first creation as a mud people epoch, where the buildings were made of mud, and forgotten over time. A second wooden people or structure epoch, which according to the Polpul Vuh was destroyed by fire and flood.”

A student raises his hand. “You mean Mesoamerica had a flood myth like the Bible?”

“Yes, and not only Mesoamerica, but 140 other cultures speak of a devastating flood,” Dr. Martinez elaborates.

He rotates to play a video animation on a large overhead screen. The video opens over North and Central America with a series of meteors, and then zooms in on the Caribbean region.

“Scientists have documented several major flooding events that together have risen ocean levels over four hundred feet since the Ice Age. Imagine a four hundred foot ocean rise today reshaping every coastline on earth, in some cases by hundreds of miles, and effecting more than a third of our population. Around 12,900 BPE, during the second epoch, a meteor slammed into the two-mile thick Canadian ice sheets of northern Quebec. Called the Younger Dryas Impact Event, enormous plasma waves only possible with an asteroid or meteor impact swept over half the globe, igniting all-consuming wild fires, and leaving a black mat deposit of carbon, iridium and Nano-diamonds as far east as Turkey, and as far south as Colombia,” he explains.

“When the asteroid hit the ice sheets, it threw ice ejecta as large as sports stadiums thousands of miles to create a half million Carolina Bays along the Eastern seaboard and pummeled the Atlantic, Gulf and Caribbean oceans to create a series of massive tsunamis. The aftermath ushered in the worst extinction event since the dinosaurs, killing dozens of mega fauna such as mastodons, mammoths, sabretooths, and giant sloths. Known human civilizations such as the Clovis people who simply vanished,” he narrates the video.

The film ends leaving Sophia in a silent, humbled awe as Dr. Martinez paces the stage.

“Don’t let anyone fool you, the Mesoamerican long count doesn’t point to the end of time,” he calls out with an excited voice. “Rather, it points us backward to the beginning of time, when myths were born during the last ice age.”

The bell clangs and the class empties quickly as he reminds them, “Don’t forget we’re off next week, and your final reports are due the following week.”

Packing his briefcase, he tries to avoid eye contact. “Sorry miss, I’m late for an appointment. I have office hours today at 1pm,” he pushes past her to race down the hall.

Disappointed, she turns to see a man peering around the corner towards her. When she catches him, he disappears, yet he seems familiar. She dismisses the irrational sense of alarm, probably just someone checking out her odd attire.

Archaeology Department, UCLA, Los Angeles

June 18th 1:04 pm | 65 hours to Mayan chaa

With a groan, Sophia takes her place at the end of a long line of students who congest the hallway outside the office of Dr. Estefan Martinez. An hour and a half later she gets her turn just as the professor packs his briefcase to leave again. A shudder of panic sweeps over her.

“I’m sorry miss,” he apologizes. “I only take appointments until 2 pm. You can come back on Thursday, or post to my blog.”

Exhausted beyond words, and fed up with waiting in lines, she blocks the doorway. “I’m not a student,” she declares, “and this can’t wait.”

She holds up Carmen’s book. “Are you the son of Olivier, who was the son of Joaquin who migrated from Roatan?”

His eyes narrow. “I don’t mean to be rude, but who are you, and what do you need?”

She hands him the photographs. “I want to know why someone would kill for these artifacts,” her voice quivers.

He casts a startled glance, then looks down to the images. Only the image of the bloody book lights in his eyes. “Who died?” he queries.

“Carmen Morales Martinez, the wife of Joaquin Martinez,” she hands him the wedding photo. “I don’t know who killed her, but they came for those relics.”

He studies the wedding photo seeming to wrestle with something, then hands back the images. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” he replies, continuing to pack. “You should contact the local police to solve a murder.”

“Do you have the key to the curse of Cortes’?” she asks, eager to keep him engaged. The curse of Cortes’ was how papa once referred to the legend, unsure where the name originated, she’s hoping it will mean something.

His eyes dart up in surprise. “Who told you about that?”

“Carmen,” her throat catches, “before she died to protect these relics. Please senor, I’ve traveled all the way from Roatan, and I haven’t even eaten since yesterday. I just need to understand why she died.”

“I’m sorry miss,” he dismisses softly, “I don’t believe in curses.”

“Good,” she retorts. “I’m looking for facts, not folklore. Do you have the key?”

He seems like a rational man, staring at her several moments trying to decide something. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he asks again.

“Sophia Martinez, daughter of Antonio Martinez, grandson of Franco Martinez, father of Joaquin.”

He smiles. “So you’re Antonio’s daughter.”

“You knew papa?” she reacts.

“Well, no,” he hesitates. “I knew of him. I should explain, my son and I were in Belize when we learned of his disappearance. When I realized there was a family connection, we joined in the search. For some reason we weren’t welcomed on Roatan, so we stayed with a man named Hector on Isla Barbareta. Hector mentioned that Antonio left a daughter. I’m so sorry we were unable to find your father.”

She doesn’t remember him. Hundreds of people joined in the search, but mana kept her at home. She recalls hushed whispers of shame between Carmen and mama over a distant family member, but so devastated by the loss of papa, she paid no attention.

“How’s your mother doing? Did your uncle recover?” he asks trying to show concern, but revealing he never kept in touch. Why should he, he wasn’t welcome.

Sophia looks down. “Mama died of cancer a few months after papa disappeared. Rafe fell into chronic dementia.”

“Oh,” he murmurs, his voice softening. “I’m so very sorry to hear.” With a sigh, he points to the images, “Please tell me where you found those.”

Abuelita used to say ‘you don’t know who to trust until you know who not to trust.’ Sally’s advice to have faith rings in her mind, even more profound knowing she reached back from the grave to deliver the message. She takes a deep breath.

“I found them after an earthquake, they were hidden in a stone wall,” she describes. “When Carmen saw them, she claimed they were cursed. Before she died, she said you had the key.”

His expression changes as if he wrestles with another decision. “Come with me.” He leads her down the hall towards an area marked Secure–University Personnel Only.

“My grandfather Joaquin gave them to me before he died,” he comments on the way.

“Gave you what, a key?” she prods, but he doesn’t respond.

After a few hallways, they approach a locked metal door. Entering a key code, he uses a thumbprint to gain access. They enter an air filtered, temperature and humidity controlled document room with a door that automatically seals behind them. Three large lightbox examination tables illuminate the center of the room with two walls of document storage drawers of various sizes.

Sophia has never seen such sophistication, raising her confidence and expectations. A distant relative has agreed to share something he inherited from Joaquin and kept in a secure room. So different from her museum experience, she reminds herself to have faith.

Unlocking a wide, thin architectural plan drawer, he pulls out a double Plexiglas panel to lay on the lightbox. Between the two clear pieces of plastic are three hand-written pages about five by eight inches, obviously the missing pages torn from the end of her book. On top of the light box, she can clearly see layers of blood and etching over previous layers of writing. The professor pulls out several enlarged photographs of the blood-soaked pages, propping them up against the walls. Some images use ultra-violet, infrared, or other light spectrums to reveal the hidden text. Two or three layers on each page show a steady deterioration of the handwriting, changing from barely legible to an erratic scratch as if written by an arthritic hand, or perhaps a dying one.

Unsure what she expected as ‘the key’, she didn’t expect more incoherent, bloody pages.

“What you call the key, I call insane gibberish. Meaningless,” he explains.

“What do you mean?” she pushes.

He takes a moment to think. “Well, to begin with the writer used an illiterate level of old Spanish mixed with K’iche, but mainly because the content is quite insane and sadistic.”

Insane and sadistic sounds like the perquisite content of a curse, not that she would know.

His eyes take her in. “Trust me. I’ve studied these pages many years, and I assure you there are no secrets, and no keys, only the insane ramblings of a poorly educated man with immense rage, and a vindictive imagination.”

“What someone else might call a curse,” she eyes the professor with a raised eyebrow. “What does it say?”

He smiles, shaking his head. “First, tell me what happened that made you fly two thousand miles without an appointment.”

She hesitates, unsure what to share then exhaling a deep breath. “There was an earthquake on Roatan a few days ago that damaged our family home. I found the relics in an unmarked stone box hidden inside a rock wall.”

“You said that, but where are the items now?” he asks.

Still stung from the betrayal at the museum, she sees no harm in caution. “Hidden on a remote island,” she admits the truth, but not all of it. He nods acceptance.

“When Carmen saw the relics, she warned me to re-bury or destroy them or the dead would follow me.” Guilt tightens in her throat, threating tears, forcing her to pause until she can breathe.

“I don’t believe in curses,” she repeats to herself as much as to him. “I wanted facts, so I went to the Belize Museum. Dr. Colon who told me they were worthless fakes.”

“Wait, you met with Dr. Edwardo Colon?” he bristles at the name.

Sophia shakes her head. “No, his name was Ricardo. Do you know him?”

“I’ve encountered his father,” he explains. “I was working on a site in the region, and met with the senior Dr. Colon to help translate an inscription. Within days, raiders ambushed our camp. I’ve always suspected Dr. Colon, but could never prove it. Ricardo was working under his father.”

Dr. Martinez grinds his teeth. “Go on, what happened next?”

Still traumatized by the experience, she doesn’t want to discuss the details. “The attack came later that same night without warning. It was raining. Three men stormed the terrace demanding the relics, and then they shot Carmen and Emilio, but only took the stone box, disappearing as fast as they came. Emilio may have killed one, I’m not sure, but it was over in seconds.” Numb and disassociated, she stares at the floor.

“I thought you said you hid the items?” he asks.

“Si,” she confirms, lifting her gaze. “The box was empty. They didn’t even check. The next day they came back and tore up my house, and now I’m afraid to go home, or endanger anyone else.”

An attempt at a brave smile swells her eyes with tears, leaking desperation, fatigue, and sorrow down her cheek. Even in her own ear, it all sounds crazy.

“Dr. Colon lied to you,” he finally replies. “I need to see the real items to be sure, but the dagger and tortoise script could be quite old, making them valuable on the black market.”

“So Carmen’s death was a robbery gone wrong?” replies Sophia.

“Perhaps, but I’m guessing Dr. Colon is a middleman to someone who wants to avoid a paper or bank trail, likely a cartel or other illegal buyer. They thought you would be an easy target. You fooled them when you moved the items,” Dr. Martinez clarifies.

Relieved to hear an answer that doesn’t involve a curse or a hoax, but it sadly confirms that her stubborn actions led to Carmen’s death. A deep aching of guilt and remorse sucks the air from her lungs. How can she ever forgive herself?

Dr. Martinez hesitates. “Either way, your life may be in danger as long as you have the artifacts.”

Living with the shame of Carmen’s death, while fearing for her life on a daily basis sure sounds like a curse in so many other words.

He considers a moment longer. “If you loan these to the university, I can arrange a modest stipend fee,” he offers. “Once the items are secured, we can issue a press release. Maybe it will take the target off your back.” He shrugs. “If nothing else, we’ll put the artifacts in our folklore collection.”

“What about those who want revenge?” she asks.

He falls silent. She’s questioning his courage, and he may be doing the same.

“I know the perfect team to help us once we get to the region,” he replies.

Speechless, Sophia reaches out to embrace the older professor in a powerful, long Garifuna hug. Grateful and relieved for the first time in days, she holds him until he relents to her gratitude.

“Dr. Martinez, I don’t know how to thank you,” she offers. His help may not be exactly what she expected, but it’s an offer she’s willing to accept.

“You can start by calling me Estefan,” he replies. “It looks like we’re distant cousins.”

A cousin, what a strange notion, another Martinez, she’s not the last after all.

“Well, Estefan, if you don’t mind, I’d like to start with something to eat,” she suggests. “To be honest, I’m starving.”

“I know just the place, the Del Frisco’s Grille near the beach in Santa Monica,” he replies with a wide smile. “The food is good, but the service is painfully slow. It’ll give us time to get to know each other, and book a red-eye flight.”

She smiles, truly encouraged. His approach seems rational and logical, except for the part about taking another brutal overnight flight. Inwardly, she pulls a secret curtain over the lingering asandiruni that the worst is yet to come.

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