The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore. Read an excerpt from Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow—available July 23rd from Del Rey!
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.
Every state, and sometimes every city, earns itself a reputation. The people from Mexico City are haughty and rude. The people from Jalisco are brave, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. But the people from Veracruz, they are all laughter and joy. Reality and rumor do not always match, but Veracruz, lately, had been trying to build up its happy façade. In 1925, two years before, the local authorities had instituted a carnival.
Oh, there had been a carnival before, despite the mutterings of the Church. But it had been a sporadic, tumultuous affair, flaring up and cooling down. Its purpose and its organizers had been different. Now the carnival was modernized, molded by civic leaders who saw in it a chance to quietly insert useful post-revolutionary values into the community, amid all the glitter and dances. The newspapers said this was a festivity for “all social classes,” exalting the beauty of the women on display—models of Mexican femininity, filled with softness and quiet grace. A few years before prostitutes had been engaged in civil disobedience, protesting rental prices. Unions had been busy agitating workers, buzzing about bourgeoisie pigs. But Carnival smoothed out differences, brought people together, pleased the organizers. There was also, most importantly, money to be made.
Casiopea and Hun-Kamé arrived in Veracruz a day before Carnival. This meant the hotels were bursting at the seams and there was little chance of proper lodging to be had. After a few inquiries they managed to find a run-down guesthouse that would take them in.
“I have two rooms. I don’t see no wedding rings on your fingers, so I imagine that is what you need,” the owner of the guesthouse said with a frown. “If that is not the case, off you go. This is an honest home.”
“That will be fine. This is my brother,” Casiopea said. “We’ve come from Mérida to see the parade and do some shopping.”
Underneath the shadow of his hat and with the sun glaring so fiercely around them, it was difficult to discern Hun-Kamé’s features. This, along with the ease of Casiopea’s lying tongue, smoothed the old woman’s concerns.
“The door of my house closes at eleven. I don’t care if there are revelries outside, if you come by later, you’ll have to sleep on the street,” the woman told them, and they followed her to their rooms.
The rooms were more than modest, and the woman was overcharging, but Casiopea knew there was no point in complaining. She placed her suitcase by the bed and paused before a painting of the Virgin, which served as decoration upon the sterile walls. Ordinarily she would have made the sign of the cross upon coming in contact with such an image, but now she considered it futile to engage in genuflections in front of a deity, who, very likely, did not reside in her vicinity.
It also made it a lot easier to fly down the hallway and knock on Hun-Kamé’s door, bidding him to go out with her. There was a city to see, the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, the most important port in the country. Always beleaguered, poor Veracruz; when Sir Francis Drake had not been assailing it, the French looted it, and then the Americans seized it. It was tenacious, one must say that about Veracruz: it weathered Spanish conquistadors, British buccaneers, French soldiers, and American marines. Perhaps that was why its inhabitants were said to be so cool and collected, dressed in their guayaberas and laughing the night away to the music of the harp and the requinto. When war has knocked on one’s front door that many times, why should the minuscule daily ills matter?
They went for lunch. There were many places offering elaborate seafood dishes near the arches of the downtown plaza, but Hun-Kamé avoided the larger restaurants. Too much noise there, too many people, and no tables to spare.The air smelled of salt and if you walked down the malecón you could glimpse the sea, but it wasn’t the Pacific Ocean from the postcard which she longed to gaze at. It seemed fun, though, this port. They said it resembled Havana, and there were frequent dances for the younger set at the Lonja Mercantil. Or else, sweethearts from middle-class
families walked around and around the main plaza under the watchful eye of their older relatives: courtship still followed strenuous rules.
Since they were not courting and they had no nosy relatives to trail behind them, Casiopea and Hun-Kamé
wandered around without direction, heading wherever they pleased. They took a side street and ended up sitting in a café, all whitewashed outside, like most buildings in the city, where the patrons smoked strong cigarettes and drank dark coffee, safe from the muggy heat that assailed the port.
The café offered a minimal menu. It was not the kind of place where one had a decent meal; instead it sold coffee with milk, poured from a kettle, and sweet breads. To summon the waitress, one clinked a spoon against the side of a glass and the glass would be refilled with coffee and steaming milk. The patrons could also avail themselves of a café de olla, sweetened with piloncillo.
Casiopea, imitating the other customers, clinked her glass and summoned a waiter this way, ordering bread and coffee for both of them, although, as usual, her companion was uninterested in their meal.
Hun-Kamé took off his hat and she noticed, for the first time, that he had acquired a black eye patch that contrasted with the whiteness of his clothes. Though white was not his color—she suspected he had elected to blend in with the other men in town who outfitted themselves in this fashion—he looked rather fine. He always did and yet the novelty of him never ceased.
Casiopea stirred her coffee while he ran a finger around the rim of his glass. The table they were sharing was so small that if she moved a tad forward she might bump her elbow with his or knock his glass to the floor. Others had come earlier and secured bigger tables, and now they were playing dominoes.
“How will we find the Mamlab? Where is he?” she asked.
“The Huastec people are cousins to the Mayans, and their gods are cousins of mine. The Mamlab are not one god, but several.”
“Loray spoke as though he was referring to one.”
“Oh, he is referring to one. The Mamlab live in the mountains, where they play music, drink, and make love to their frog wives. But some of them venture into town to partake in festivities and seduce enticing women. And the youngest, he is more insolent than the rest, and that cousin of mine has my ear.”
She knew of Chaac, who carried his stone axe and beat the clouds to release the rain. And there was the Aztec Tlaloc, with his heron-feather headdress, but the Mamlab she did not recall.
“And he, this god, he has a name, then?”
“The Mam is called Juan,” Hun-Kamé said laconically, sipping his coffee.
“Juan? What kind of name is that for a god?” she asked, dismayed to discover deities had names taken out of the Santoral. It hardly seemed creative, or appropriate.
“Sometimes he is Juan, sometimes he is Lord Thunder, sometimes not. Are you not Casiopea, Lady Tun, a Stone Maiden, and other permutations? And beyond these is there not some secret name in your heart, which you keep under lock and key?”
Casiopea’s father, he’d called her kuhkay—firefly—because the little bugs carried lights from the stars, and she was his little star. She wondered if he meant this, if this might be her long-lost name.
“Maybe,” she conceded.
“Of course. Everyone does.”
“Do you have a secret name?” she asked.
His arm stilled, the glass freezing in midair. He placed it down, carefully, on the table. “Do not ask silly questions,” he told her, his tongue whip-hard.
“Then I’ll ask a smart one,” she said, irritated by his scalding tone, hotter than the coffee they were drinking. “How will we find your cousin? The city is large.”
“We will let him find us. As I’ve explained, he is fond of pretty young women he can seduce. You will do for bait.”
He looked at her with a certainty that would accept no excuses, the certainty of a god before a mortal, yet she felt compelled to protest. Casiopea had a gap between her two front teeth and heavy-lidded eyes; neither trait had ever been declared attractive. The papers were full with ads for whitening creams that would yield an “irresistible” face. She was dark and made no effort to rub lemons on her skin to acquire what people said was a more becoming shade.
“You must be joking,” she told him.
“You claim he is fond of pretty young women, and I am not a pretty young woman.”
“You have never gazed at your reflection, I suppose,” he replied offhandedly. “Blackest of hair and eyes, black like the x’kau, and as noisy.”
She could tell he wasn’t trying to flatter her; he had remarked on her looks like he might remark on the appearance of a flower. Besides, he’d insulted her in the same breath.
He did not mean it as a compliment. He couldn’t have meant it like that, she thought.
“Even if he’d look at me—”
Hun-Kamé rested a hand flat against the wooden surface of the table.
“Some of my essence drifts in your body. This means some of my magic rests upon your skin, like a perfume. It strikes a strange note, which will surely attract him. The promise of something powerful and mysterious cannot be ignored,” he said.
It puzzled her to imagine death as a perfume that clung to her and, rather than striking the sour note of decay, could be as pleasant as the scent of a rose. But she did not give this too much thought because she was busier summoning her outrage.
“I do not want to be seduced by your cousin,” she countered. “What do you take me for, a woman of ill repute?”
“No harm will come to you. You will lure him, bind him, and I will deal with him,” Hun-Kamé said.
“Bind him? You are mad. How? Won’t he know—”
“Distract him with a kiss, if you must,” he said, sounding impatient. Clearly they had been discussing the point far too long.
“As if I would be going around kissing men at the drop of a hat. You kiss him.”
She stood up and in the process almost toppled the table. Hun-Kamé steadied it and caught her arm, lightning fast. He stood up.
“I am the Supreme Lord of Xibalba, a weaver of shadows. What will you do? Walk away from me? Have you not considered my magic? It would be foolish. Even if you managed it, the bone shard will kill you if I do not remove it,” he whispered.
“Perhaps I should hack off my hand,” she whispered back.
Casiopea realized she should not have said this, alerting him to her knowledge of this exit clause, but she’d spoken without thinking, needled by his haughtiness. She wanted to bring him down a peg, and though it is impossible to humble a god, her youth allowed her to naïvely think it might be done.
“Perhaps. But that would be unkind,” he replied.
His gaze was hard as flint, ready to strike a spark. Despite her outburst of boldness, Casiopea was now forced to lower her eyes.
“It would also be cowardly, considering you gave me your word and pledged your service to me. Though it might merely reflect your heritage: your grandfather was a traitor and a dishonorable man. He knew not the burden of patan, nor its virtue.”
She closed her hands into fists. There was nothing she had in common with her grandfather: it was Martín who inherited all his virtues and his vices. Casiopea liked to believe herself a copy of her father or closer to her mother, even though she did not feel she possessed the woman’s kindness. Like many young people, ultimately she saw herself as a completely new creature, a creation that had sprung from no ancient soils.
“I’m no coward,” she protested. “And when have I pledged anything to you?”
“When we left your town. ‘Very well,’ you said, and accepted me. Is that not a promise?”
“Well, yes… but I meant—”
“To cut your hand off at the first chance?” he asked, taking a step forward, closer to her.
She echoed him, taking a step too. “No! But I’m also no fool to… to blindly do your bidding.”
“I do not consider you a fool, although you do raise your voice louder than an angry macaw,” Hun-Kamé said, gesturing toward their table and its two chairs. His movements were those of a conductor, elegant and precise.
“It might be that, in my haste, I have been crude,” he said. “I do not wish to give you a poor impression. At the same time, I must emphasize that we are both united by regrettable circumstances and must proceed at a quick pace. Had I been given a choice, I would not have inconvenienced you as I have. Yet your assistance is quite necessary, Casiopea Tun.”
On a table nearby, old men shuffled their dominoes with their withered hands, then set down the ivory-and-ebony pieces. She glanced at the game pieces, lost for a moment in the contrasting colors, then looked back at him.
“I’ll help you,” she said. “But I do it because I feel sorry for you, and not… not because you are ‘supreme lord’ of anything.”
“How would you feel sorry for me?” Hun-Kamé asked, incredulous.
“Because you are all alone in the world.”
This time his face wasn’t flint, but basalt, cool and devoid of any menace or emotion, though it was difficult to pinpoint emotions with him. Like the rivers in Yucatán, they existed hidden, under the surface. Now it was as if someone had dragged a stone upon a well, blocking the view. Basalt, unforgiving and dark, that was what the god granted her.
“We are all alone in the world,” he said, and his words were the clouds when they muffle the moon at night, it resembled the earth gone bitter, choking the sprout in its cradle.
But she was too young to believe his words and shrugged, sitting down again, having accepted his invitation. He sat down too. She finished her coffee. The slapping of dominoes against wood and the tinkling of metal spoons against glass around them was music, possessing its own rhythm.
“You said you’d bind him. How?” Casiopea asked.
“A piece of ordinary rope.”
“A piece of ordinary rope,” she repeated. “Will that work with a god?”
“It’s the symbolism that matters in most dealings. I’ll speak a word of power to the cord, and it will be as strong as a diamond. It will hold him, and I will do the rest. Do not be frightened,” he concluded.
“It is easy for you to say. I bet gods don’t need to fear many things while regular people have an assortment of fears to choose from,” she replied.
“You are not a regular person, not now.”
For how long, she wondered. And she had to admit to herself that part of what kept her next to him was not just the promise of freeing herself of the bone splinter or a sense of obligation, but the lure of change, of becoming someone else, someone other than a girl who starched shirts and shone shoes and had to make do with a quick glimpse of the stars at night.
“Do not be frightened, I say,” he told her and took her left hand with his own.
It was not a gesture meant to provide comfort, at least not the comfort that can be derived from the touch of another person. This would have required a trace of human empathy and affection. It was a demonstration, like a scientist might perform. And still her pulse quickened, for it is difficult to be wise and young.
“Feel here, hmm? My own magic rests in your veins,” he said, as if seeking her pulse.
He was right. It was the tugging of a string on a loom, delicate, but it ran through her, and when he touched her it struck a crystalline note. Upon that note, another one, this one much more mundane, the effect of a handsome man clutching a girl’s hand.
She pulled her hand free and frowned. She was not that unwise.
“If your cousin frightens me, I’ll run off, I don’t care,” she swore. “Angry macaws bite, you know?”
“I shall have to take my chances.”
She tapped her spoon against her glass, summoning the waitress, who poured more coffee and milk for them.
“Do you like it? This drink?” he asked her after the glass was refilled, a frown upon his brow.
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“It’s too thick and awfully sweet. The milk disrupts the coffee’s bitterness.”
“We must not disrupt the purity of the coffee bean,” she said mockingly.
She chuckled at that, and he, of course, did not find it amusing. Not that it would be likely that a god of death would be very merry, not even in Veracruz, where no one must wear a frown, and not even during Carnival, when every trouble must be thrown to the air, left to be carried off by the winds.
Thus they sat there, together in the café, the dark, serious god and the girl, as the night fell and the lights were turned on in the streets.
Excerpted from Gods of Jade and Shadow, copyright © 2019 by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.