It was difficult to choose only one excerpt from Asturias’ book The Mirror of Lida Sal, Tales Based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends, so I am including excerpts from several chapters. This translation by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert was published in 1997. I begin with an excerpt from Juan The Whirler. A whirling dervish is a dancer who rotates in a precise rhythm as a form of meditation to release his spirit from his body.
Juan The Whirler
“Gullies covered with flowers. Gullies full of birds. Gullies drowned in lakes. Gullies. And not only flowers. Centennial pines. And not only birds. Pines centennial and tall. And not only lakes. Pines and pines and pines. Florid, avian, and lacustrine in the world of Whirling Juan. . . .
‘I am coming,’ he declared, ‘laden with the Whirler’s dream, the whirling dream of whirling worlds, whirling clouds, and whirling skies, and its weight shall accompany me always. . . .
‘It was as if I were being lifted off the ground, absorbing the delicious aroma of mountain flowers, hearing warbling birds and contemplating myself in the mirror of a lake . . . .’
The magic of the Whirlers. The Whirler had made a vow of poverty, a vow not to stay with any one woman, but to leave them behind to perpetuate the decent of the Whirlers, and a vow to help with his magic those in need.”
Legend of the Singing Tablets
“After distributing the tablets, poems for singing and dancing, which were barely fragments from the mat of priceless words — hymns to the gods in the temples, war songs for the fortresses, flower songs for the houses — the Moon-Chewers lost themselves among the crowds at the markets, the ball games, the schools of white earth, or they hid themselves in the outskirts of the city to eat the frozen moon, the swelling moon which suddenly could no longer be contained either in their mouths, or their eyes, it being the first night of the full moon.”
Legend of the Crystal Mask
“He took refuge behind the mask. He didn’t realize what was happening. He believed that it was he himself, still unaccustomed to the underground world, who bumped into the things used for his work. And to quell the assault, he paused quietly, and stood still, stubbornly glancing from side to side, as if asking all those inanimate beings the whereabouts of his smoking tube. It was nowhere to be found. As if to confirm this, he raised a fistful of tobacco to his mouth and chewed it. But there was something strange. The serpent and the jaguar began to move from his wooden drum, the drum with which he greeted the morning star, the light of precious lights. And if the tablets, rugs, benches, jars, baskets, mallets, and chisels had been quieted, now the giants of stone began to raise and lower their eyelids. Agitated by the tempest, they began to flex their muscles. Each arm became a river. Advancing against him. He lifted the quenched stars of his hands to defend his face from the punches of one of these monsters. Battered, winded, sternum caved in by a blow from the immense fist of him in the jaw. In the greenish darkness that wanted to be shadow, but couldn’t, that wanted to be light, but couldn’t project, squadrons of archers created by him, born by his hands, from his artifice, from his magic, arrayed themselves in order of battle. First flanking him, then forming a file at his front, without war cries, they bent their bows, and fired their poised arrows. A second group of warriors, also made by him, sculpted in stone by his hands, spread out with the points of their cane spears to the slats of the bed on which he had set his marvelous mask. There was no doubt. It must save him. He put it on. He fled.”
Legend of the Silent Bell
That morning in June — a June of trays of fruit — there were hurryings and scurryings, comings and goings, murmus and whispers, in the convent of Clarisas, as if the zzz-zzz of the rain drizzling outside were prolonging its murmurings in the vaulted galleries of the convent. Cartoned, crated, in their wimples, collars, dickeys, and handruffles of starchy linen, nuns and novices spoke, one to another, of the jewels that their families had brought to enrich the crucible of the bell commissioned from the founders of Oviedo. It was to be precious and sonorous, worthy of the shrine of Santa Clara of Celestial Clarisas, so new it still had not left the hands of its builders.
The stone was like living song, porous, not yet dry, nipped and tucked with scissors of grace at its cornices and capitals; the fragrant wood of the panelwork on the ceiling, like the prow of a celestial ship which navigates by the light on the highest windows; then there was the defiant cupola, and the cabalistic, platersque façade, sensual and fugitive, offset by the prodigious architectonic audacity of the four arches sustained by a single column.
Santa Clara of Celestial Clarisas had still not entirely left the hands of the builders, and what a contrast there was that morning in June between these slender Indians whose dark flesh was covered by so little linen that they seemed to be clothed in air, made more for flying on scaffolds than for walking on land; and the Asturians, giants with red faces and hands like hammers, occupied day and night with founding the bell for the Clarisas.
The last bell. The one for these hills would be the last that would be made before they returned to Oviedo or perhaps new Spain. And it was so extolled. In fretful meetings by starlight and lamplight, it was said that they had accepted the commission grumblingly, grudginly, and only the insistence of the nuns who had promised to call the bell Clara if its timbre was like that of gold, Clarisa if it sounded like pearls of silver, and Clarona if it spoke with a voice of bronze.”