Note: This piece was originally written in Yucatecan Maya, and was probably adapted from the oral tradition. The Maya to Spanish translation was done in a collaboration with Miguel Angel May May, Santiago Domínguez Aké and Joaquín Bestard.
The three translators from Maya to Spanish are among the best known writers and translators of Yucatecan Maya. Miguel Angel May May, himself a widely published writer in Maya, Spanish and English, is also one of the leading figures in the maintenance of Maya language and culture. He has traveled widely to promote the teaching of indigenous languages and cultures, including to the Cup’ik and Yup’ik villages of Alaska, where the climate is somewhat cooler than that of his native Yucatán.
Mr. Aurelio Zamarraga tells the story of a certain little old lady whose name was poverty and who lived on the outskirts of the town. At the entrance to her house, she had planted a huaya1 tree, and it bore fruit all year long. What bothered the little old lady was that anyone who saw the fruit felt like eating it and, without asking permission, climbed the tree and ate the fruit.
One day, when the little old lady went to the center of the city, she saw an old man begging for alms. Although they might give him something to eat instead of money, he said, no one was paying any attention to him. The old lady was troubled seeing him in this pitiful state, so she took him home to give him lunch.
When the old man finished eating, he said to the old lady, “Now that I have eaten, ask me for whatever you want, for I can give it to you.”
“My good man,” said the old lady, “the only thing I want is for you to tell the huaya tree that whoever climbs up its branches will not be able to come back down unless I say so.”
“May you get what you ask for!” answered the old man, and left satisfied.
The old lady was very pleased to see that the old man’s promise was fulfilled.
Many years passed, and one day the Lord of Death came to the old lady and commanded, “It is time you come with me, Old Lady Poverty, that’s why I came looking for you.”
She thought quickly of a way to escape Death, and said, “I’ll go with you, but first I want you to get me some huayas2 so that I can gnaw on them.”
“Fine, I’ll do it right away,” said Death.
“Climb up to the highest part, because that’s where the biggest and most beautiful fruits are, and those are the ones I want.”
Death very confidently climbed up the tree, but he couldn’t get down.
So Poverty, seeing what had happened, went to her house and stopped worrying about Death. Many years went by, and Death did not take anyone, even if he was sick. The doctors marveled that the old lady Poverty didn’t die, even though they were expecting it to happen.
One day, one of the doctors went to the old lady’s house, and the first thing he saw was the tree loaded with fruit, which gave him the urge to eat some. He climbed up the tree, but couldn’t come back down. In the branches, he met the Lord of Death, and he asked him, “What are you doing here? Everybody is looking for you, because some people are ready to die and you don’t take them.”
“Look, what happened was that silly old lady in the house did me in. When I came to get her, the cunning woman told me that she would go with me, but first she wanted me to bring down some huayas. After I went up I couldn’t get down, and here you have me. Everyone who climbs up can’t get down, even you.”
“That’s why no one is dying,” said the doctor.
“What we have to do is come down,” he started to shout. “Come here! Death is in my power! Come and see!”
He shouted so much and so loudly that the townspeople gathered under the tree.
“Come down,” they said.
“We can’t , whoever climbs up stays here,” answered the doctor.
Then the people agreed to chop down the tree, so that the doctor and Death would come down. At the moment they began to chop, the old lady Poverty appeared.
“What are you trying to do? If you want them to come down, why don’t you ask me?”
“Forgive us,” said the townspeople.
The old lady Poverty went up to the tree and said “Let them both come down!”
When they had both come down, the Lord of Death said, “Old Lady Poverty, because you did not let me come down from the tree, I now have a lot of work and I can’t take you. Perhaps another day.”
Thus, the Lord of Death left and Poverty remained on earth. This is why she is still with us.
1.The huaya is a sturdy tree like the sapodilla, nearly extinct now in the Yucatán, but still flourishing in its Cuban variation (sapindaceae).
2. Fruits of the huaya tree. It is known to have a seed that is easily swallowed, causing choking, which may be why the huaya tree was chosen as a place to sequester Death.
Originally published in Los escritores indígenas actuales, Poesía narrativa, teatro, selección de Carlos Montemayor, México, CONACULTA, 1992.