The council was unanimous. The ceremonial bat cave in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico originally sealed off by the conquistadors was to be reopened with explosives. The mayor herself led the demolition team to the ancient Mayan ruins in the pre-dawn light amid the fog that had crept in from the surrounding jungle. Placing the plastic explosives in three strategic dirt crevices, three men and the mayor crouched behind the Temple of the Crosses’ walls. Five seconds later, the entire embankment rumbled and ruptured spraying them all with dirt, stones, dead tree roots, and stones. For the first time in several centuries, the rising sun rushed into the ceremonial bat cave.
Narrow shafts of light filtered into the dark cavern. A sonic boom ricocheted off its ancient walls. Stalactites cracked and dropped in shards to the guano littered floor. The Mayan vampire god, Camazotz, shook his massive head as swirling dust choked him. He sneezed, spraying the space around him with dried blood and bits of torn human flesh. Nearly six feet tall, he was little different in appearance from ordinary men except for his giant wings, which when folded hugged his broad, well-muscled shoulders. But now, as in his first remembered daylight, morning arrived. In hundreds of years he stretched his wings until their tips covered the inside, a quarter of the cave. Outside, the explosive noise ricocheted amongst the Mayan temple ruins. Thunder rumbled. Flashes of light split the inner bat cave chamber in half as daylight flooded in.
“Saved by the descendants of those who had previously entombed us. Their cannon still seems to work.” Acan said.
“Wake the others.” ordered Camazotz. “We must see how many of us survived our premature burial. See if you can find any grub among our guano. We must eat to keep up our strength until we can organize a hunt.”
Acan, one of Camazotz’ younger vampire priests, nodded and expanded his wings. They were half the span of his god. Flicking off an offending insect from his left wing, awakened from its own dormant slumber, Acan chewed on the insect releasing its fresh juices which mixed with his centuries old saliva.
“When do we eat fresh meat?” he asked.
“When the warriors leave and bed down for the night. We will strike them when they sleep and their guards fall asleep at their posts.”
“I remember. Enough to suck, but not to bleed dry. We must conserve what we’ve been offered, but not eat all of it.”
“The altar is not set up. Work before pleasure. We need our strength first for further play and enlightenment.”
Outside the inner bat chamber, sounds of laughter filtered it through the debris left by the massive explosion.
“What is that?” Acan asked, his tone puzzled yet interested.
Camazotz dropped to the floor feet first and flew to the cavern’s opening.
“Dinner has come to us.”
Acan flew to the cavern’s mouth, alighting next to Camazotz. Both looked toward the sacred ball court. Foreign tourists – men, women, and children -- loitered in the middle of the court, snapping pictures of the temple ruins and gawking at the jungle surrounding them. Their faces were filled with toothy smiles and wide-eyed astonishment.
“Maybe we should indulge them,” Chac said.
Chac, a lower order priest, stared over the winged shoulders of Camazotz and Acan, his tongue flickering in and out of his salivating mouth. Camazotz swiveled his head sideways and smiled.
“Get the sacred parrot feathered headdresses and grass-stuffed padding,” he told Chac.
“They are in the ceynote,” Acan added, referring to the sink hole at the steps of the temple.”
Camazotz cracked his wings together, almost knocking over Acan.
“Get them,” he instructed Chac. “We can lure these pale-skins into our sacred ball game and hide them when they lose. Their women and girls will see what I want them to see. They will not suspect anything wrong when they do not see what is really in front of them.”
“At your command,” Chac said.
Camazotz’s head snapped back toward the visitors. One person in particular caught his attention.
“Turn around so that I can see your face,” Camazotz murmured.
As if he heard the nearly silent command, the man turned full-faced toward the god. Camazotz hissed and then literally spouted flames. Gabrielle Tairino, how did he get here? The last time Camazotz saw him was when the priest dragged him away from the altar and threw him to one of his metal-clad warriors. The boy had grown into a man, but kept his youthful appearance. Camaztoz noticed that Tairino still wore the jade earring that was given to him as a boy-priest, and pushed through his nostril’s inner cartilage.
He watched as Tairino pulled his hand away from a girl’s shoulder and threw his hands up into the air as the girl stomped away from him. She ran toward the bat cave with Tairino running after her. At his side, Acan stirred.
“What flames she ignites. I want her.”
“Dinner? She is a bleeder, but why don’t you wait until her meat turns sweeter,” Camazotz replied.
“I don’t want her dead. I meant for pairing. She would make a good mate.
“Wait until she’s older. She’ll make good eating for all of us then.”
“I’m back,” Chac said. “Found everything, but bits of flattened bark layers are twisted around the headdresses with strange markings.”
“Give me the bark. Take a set of pads and one headdress for yourself. Wake three lower priests and have them pad up themselves. Did you find the skull-ball?”
“Catch!” Chac said.
Acan caught the skull-ball along with the grass stuffed leather padding and two feathered headdresses. He handed two stuffed pads to Camazotz, helping the god position the pads over his elbows, knees, and thighs. Acan then affixed one of the feathered headdresses to Camazotz’s head. The god ruffled the feathers until they stuck out from his face forming a brilliant multicolored halo, at once beautiful and intimidating.
“What happens if the pale ones win?” Acan asked.
“Win, lose, it doesn’t matter. Get dressed and let’s make our presence known.”
“We need more warrior opponents,” Chac said. “Playing ball with boys will not fill a vessel between us.”
Camazotz shielded his eyes with his winged-hand.
“There’s a large metal box resting on four skull-balls. I see what looks like older warriors standing beside it. There’s a darker skinned man arguing with a woman.”
Acan squinted in the direction that Camazotz indicated.
“That man you spoke of, he’s still warring with that redheaded girl,” Acan said. “I’ll see if she needs my help. You go see if that woman needs help with that older warrior. Those other warriors will help the pale-skinned boys even up the teams.”
Camazotz nodded his head, made massive by the feathered crown.
“Chac, collect the priests and get them positioned on the ball court. Make those pale-skins put on the grass-stuffed pads. We want to bite and nip them, not bruise them.”
Acan and Camazotz advanced on light feet to the ball court. Stopping ten feet from the red-haired girl, Acan stared at her, his eyes devouring her but ignoring the man at her side. Camazotz snaked past them and trotted toward the opposite side of the court where the older warrior and woman argued. Acan’s polite words with the girl reached Camaztoz’s sensitive ears.
“Can I help?”
The girl stopped arguing with the man and switched her attention to the newcomer. She studied the stuffed pads on his torso and the feathered parrot headdress he wore.
“Why are you dressed like that? Is it Halloween down here?”
“For playing the sacred ball game with our enemies,” Acan answered. “Halloween? What is that?”
“For God sakes, Francesca, they’re re-enactors,” Tairino admonished. “Don’t be stupid. It doesn’t become you. They’re here to entertain us. We’ve got them back in the States, re-enacting in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. We’re not the only country that celebrates history with volunteers who dress up and play soldier. As for that one, his ancestors played an ancient ball game that determined who lived and who died. Theirs wasn’t a society based on lies and innuendos, but on action and success. It’s a lot like chess. Victors took all.” Tairino looked at Acan. “You guys need some more players?”
Acan clapped his hands over his ears, managing to keep his wings closed tight to his body, uncertain of how these pale-skins would react if he were to open and flex them.
“Some more players would be good. My god is going to see if those older men will play on your side. Would you like that?”
Francesca frowned and stood with her arms akimbo and her legs wide apart. She bristled.
“What? No girls?”
“Not for Pok-A-Tok. Women and girls are not warriors and do not play it. It is a rough game,” Acan said.
“We play soccer, hockey, baseball, and basketball in the States. No rougher than -- what do you call it – Pok-A-Tok?”
“That’s the point, Francesca,” Tairino admonished. “You’re not in the States. How many times must I remind you? Mexican culture and society have different norms regarding what women and girls are allowed to do. I thought you and your friends would appreciate their machismo while waiting for your prince charming to come and take you away.”
“That will be the day,” Francesca quipped.
Turning to Acan, Tairino continued speaking in a teacher-to-student voice.
“What’s your friend doing? Explaining the all-male code to that woman?”
Acan looked toward the other end of the ball court where Camazotz stood beside the woman. He didn’t see the older warriors or the metal box resting on four skull-balls, but he did spot four padded warriors trotting toward the ball field followed by ten boy-warriors.
Turning, Acan’s eyes swept appreciatively over Francesca.
“We are playing after all. See you later, red flame.”
“I’m not your red flame. My name’s Francesca Coleman.”
“I’m Acan, high priest to Camazotz.”
“That’s nice,” Francesca said, “Let’s see if you’re as good as you think you are.”
Smiling, Camazotz, with a woman a generation older than Francesca traipsing behind him, ambled up to Acan.
“Why am I here with you?” the woman asked Camazotz.
“To watch us play Pok-A-Tok. Then, I will escort you home to protect you from the metal-clad warriors.”
“The only warriors I see here are you and your friend. Excuse me, and them. Where did they come from?”
“Go sit with the other woman,” he said.
“You’re serious? At least, the bus driver knew when to quit. It’s too bad he didn’t take you with him.”
She then sniffed.
Camazotz’s eyes stared at her chest. She froze and covered her breasts with crossed arms. He inclined his head forward toward her.
“I am Camazotz, Lord of all this.”
She laughed in his face.
“I am Elena Roberto Eduardo de Gonzales. You’re trespassing on my land -- the land I inherited after my husband died eleven years ago. If you and your friends are not gone by the time I get back with la commissionaire, you’re dead meat.”
“Too late for that,” Camazotz said. “Stay and watch me. I’ll take you to the metal clad box when we are finished playing. When the yellow orb goes down, outside my temple walls is no place for a lone woman.”
“What makes you think I’ll go anywhere with you?”
“I am not that bad. Even my priests like me. Besides, it is probably the best offer you’ve had in eleven long years Elena. Go join the other woman. I will come find you after the game.”
Camazotz pushed Acan in front of him. They ran to the middle of the field where the older warriors and young boys already stood facing Camazotz’s men.
“How is your red-haired lady? Is she easier to handle than mine?”
“I think, she is just as spirited -- a younger version.”
“Is everyone ready to play?”
“Chac took care of all the details. The older warriors and boys are in place in the right spots. The extra warriors and boys wait on the sidelines. Our priests offered them our ritual drink. Their minds are ours.”
Camazotz swept his eyes toward the sidelines. The women of the warriors and the girls from Tairino’s group, he noticed, had climbed the temple steps and sat on the stone benches lining the ball field.
“You’ve got the ancestral skull-ball?”
“Right here.” Acan quickly responded.
“Give it to me. Let us play Pok-A-Tok.”
Acan and Camazotz strode to the middle of the field. Acan carefully handed the skull-ball to Camazotz.
“How are we going to remove the enemy warriors and boys without alarming the women?” Acan asked.
“Leave them to me. I will put pictures in their minds showing them their side defeating us.”
“Is that why the men who wore robes sealed us into our bat cave? They did not want us to really see them as they truly were?”
“In part,” Camazotz replied. “They wanted to kill me and my priests and followers. By sealing us into my cave, they believed that our people wouldn’t follow us anymore. They thought that our beliefs would be destroyed when our people couldn’t see us perform our divine ceremonies. When they sealed us into the cave, they prayed to their pale-skinned god to make our people start worshiping him instead of us. How little they understood or knew us.”
“They believed it worked. Our people have forgotten us,” Acan said wearily.
“They are playing Pok-A-Tok, our sacred game. That shows they have not won yet. Acan, you see that bearded man standing underneath the stone hoop on the enemy warrior’s side?”
Acan swung his eyes toward the man Camazotz recognized.
“He is not dinner. Leave him to me.”
“Anyone you know?”
“Gabrielle Tairino. He is one of us, but I am not sure how. He still wears that bat brooch I gave him when he was a child serving the brown-robed priests.”
Acan stared at the man, focusing on the brooch dangling from the man’s inner nostrils.
“Do not stare. It is not polite. Besides, he will not disappear, not yet. He is tempted by your red-haired girl. Or perhaps, she is in love with him. I cannot tell. The yellow orb sinks toward the enemy’s side of the field. We must start the game now and collect our sacrifices before the great darkness comes.”
“The red haired girl is mine. I claimed her back at the cave. The priests all heard me.”
“I do not want her. I like the angry one better. Her inner fire will take years to burn and fade. I must have her. Remember, do not touch the man. He is mine.”
“As you wish,” Acan said.
Camazotz cupped his hands and shouted to both sides.
“When I throw the skull-ball up into the air, the game begins. It does not end until one side scores a hoop.”
The warriors and boys nodded their heads. The vampire bats raised their arms in a formal salute, but kept their wings folded. Camazotz threw the skull-ball up into the air. Both teams waited until it plunged back to earth and bounced at a slant. Chac caught it on its first bounce with his thigh and knocked it toward Camazotz. Camazotz allowed the skull-ball to bounce against his elbow and shunted it toward Acan. It slammed off Acan’s chest and flew toward Gabrielle Tairino. He leaned to one side and smacked the ball with the left side of his head. The skull-ball skidded toward one of the older tourist-warriors. The tourist-warrior caught the skull-ball between both elbows extended in front of him. He ran three steps and using his elbows threw the skull-ball toward Tairino. Camazotz blocked the skull-ball with both arms and sent the skull-ball spiraling toward Acan.
Out of the corner of his right eye, Camazotz noticed that the red-haired girl and his woman sat together. Both sat upright with their fists clenched and resting on their laps.
“Look out,” Chac screamed.
Camaztoz turned his head and saw the skull-ball seconds before it slammed into his chest. With a quick motion of his giant wings, Camazotz jerked aside, raised his left leg and kicked the skull-ball into the sky. It angled down to the field and skimmed through the stone loop.
Ignoring Camazotz giant wings, the women and the girls jumped to their feet chanting.
“Way to go! Way to go! Woo hoo!”
Acan hurried to Camazotz who was lying on his side.
“Can we take them?”
“Take them. The mist will come in from the jungle soon and they will not see a thing.”