Alexander and family visit the Yucatan on an archaeological search.
Afternoon of May 25, 1999; the skies above Mexico City
"OH MY GOD, oh my God, oh my GOD, this is gonna be so cool!" Alexander bounced and danced in his seat, his seatbelt scarcely stopping him from jumping up and down.
Jessica, who was sitting next to him in the plane, chuckled at his enthusiasm, shaking her head. "This is your first time scuba-diving. You ready?"
"Pfft. Ready is my middle name. Like, I'm Alexander Shay Ready Bhaduri."
"Check my birth certificate."
"What birth certificate?" Jessica giggled.
"No, really, we found you lying in a ditch on the side of the road. The vet figured you didn't have rabies, so we ended up keeping you."
Alexander stuck a tongue out at his older sister, too excited to give a rebuttal to her teasing. This was going to be a great day.
Some time ago, Dr. Itzel Luna Kan, a Mexican archaeologist working in the Yucatan peninsula, found an obsidian bottle in a cave, an old sheet of paper inside. That piece of paper turned out to be a treasure map, written in Maya script, to a chest of Maya treasure off the coast of Tulum. Dr. Luna Kan and her colleagues, many of whom either studied the Maya Empire or were descendants of Mayas, started an expedition to find the treasure.
When Mr. Bhaduri and Mrs. Bhaduri got the call asking if they wanted to help two days ago, they practically danced a jig before (happily) screeching at their two children to pack as fast as possible. Not that Alexander minded. In a few hours, Alexander would be hundreds of feet underwater, among sharks and stingrays and every other kind of sea creature, looking for long-lost jade, gold, and silver. Not only would he have the chance to finally go deep-sea swimming, he would have a part in uncovering a piece of history. He'd be a hero, another step further on becoming a real adventurer!
Then, internally, he shook his head. They weren't about to uncover some gold cup or necklace that belonged to a long-dead people. They were about to uncover a piece of a culture that still existed: millions of Maya people lived across Latin America.
Plus, the map which Dr. Luna Kan found vaguely mentioned several jade pieces. Alexander knew that the Mayas believed that jade was a sacred object, placing jade beads in the mouth of the dead. Regardless of his own beliefs, it would be wrong to treat discovering these people's culture--in fact, anyone's culture--as a notch on his belt on his personal quest to become a great adventurer.
He was still excited about the prospect of scuba-diving and he hoped the team would discover the treasure. But he knew this trip wasn't about him. He was there because he and his family had been invited to help, and for no other reason. Thus, he would be as respectful and helpful as possible.
Twilight of May 25, 1999; Coast of the Yucat Peninsula, Mexico
SURE ENOUGH, when he finally met Dr. Luna Kan, he--after slipping and tripping thanks to the super slippery sand--shook her hand, smiled warmly and politely introduced himself, "Ma'lob ak'ab. (Good evening). In k'aaba'e Alexander Bhaduri. (My name is Alexander Bhaduri). Bix a beel? (How are you?)"
She smiled, readjusting her glasses with her right hand. "Hach ma'aloob.' (Doing well). Jach ki'mak in wl in wilikech. (Pleased to meet you.)"
Then, in English, she said, "Thank you for coming out to help us."
Nodding, he stepped aside--and again started slipping on said super slippery sand, just stopping himself from swearing up a storm--to let Jessica introduce herself. Again, Dr. Luna-Kan smiled, perhaps mentally snickering slightly watching Jessica slip and slide just like her younger brother as she made her way forwards.
Jessica opened her mouth, letting out a quiet, strangled yelp. Then she started to nibble on the inside of her lip, twiddling her long hair with a finger. Dr. Luna Kan frowned, confused eyes blinking behind round lenses.
Without a word, Alexander darted over to Jessica, kicking mountains of sand with each step, and put his hand on her shoulder. This was a time-tested technique to help Jessica whenever she froze talking to someone. A few moments of rubbing and Jessica stammered out the same stock Maya phrases. Dr. Luna Kan, now understanding, smiled and walked away to greet their parents.
Jessica turned to her younger brother, her eyes a bit misty and her cheeks scarlet.
"You didn't have to do that," she said.
"Hey dude, it's no problem. Seriously."
She sighed, wiping away a tear. "I wish I could just...open my mouth and be normal." Her voice started to crack, and her face began reddening even further. "Like, it's not fair! Y-you can talk to people just fine and you're way younger than me."
"Hey, hey, listen," Alexander said, shaking his head. He wrapped her in a hug and let her rest her chin on his shoulder. "It might take you a little while, but you'll get it someday. Someday soon, I bet."
"Yeah right," Jessica scoffed, letting go of her brother to wipe her eyes.
"I'm serious. And don't think I'm, like, perfect at keeping friends," Alexander said.
This time, Jessica laughed softly. Alexander noticed that her eyes weren't quite as wet anymore. This was good.
"I remember," she said, voice a little clearer now, "that one thing you knocked your little friend Emily into a pond full of leeches. Bet she didn't want to stay your friend after that."
Alexander thought of Emily glaring at him with the fury of a thousand suns, her round, beige face black and wet with leeches. He shuddered.
"We don't talk about that day."
This time, Jessica let out one of her signature laughs, a honking, snorting mess no one could find cute. Alexander, smirking, got an idea.
"Your laugh sounds like a donkey getting a stick pulled out its butt," he said.
"...WHAT WAS THAT?!?"
"And like the stick is REALLY wedged deep into the butthole. Ahem: Hee-haw! Hee-haw! Hee-ha ha ha ha ha!" he broke into laughter halfway through his joke.
"That's it!" With that, Jessica tackled Alexander, pinning him to the sand. The two rolled around the beach, arms and legs flailing, laughing and screaming, getting caked in the hard crunch of dirt.
THE TWO, having dusted themselves off, made their way over to the coast, joining a group of around seventeen Maya archaeologists and scientists, not including their parents. Dr. Luna Kan explained how to safely put on and use scuba gear, first in Maya then in English.
"Remember everyone," Dr. Luna Kan said, "our tanks only have enough oxygen for one hour before we have to resurface. Ten minutes before that hour is up, I will flash this red light." She held up a flashlight attached to her left wrist for all to see. "That is your signal to swim to the surface to refuel. We'll go two trips today before coming back tomorrow."
After making sure everyone was ready, Luna Kan stepped towards the ocean, gesturing for them to follow her.
Alexander, too excited to notice the bitter taste of the snorkel in his mouth or the pinch of goggles on his face or the tight rubber on his body, was the second into the water. He pushed forward, the cool, salty waves first slapping his feet, then his knees, then his thighs, stomach, chest, and finally he was totally underwater.
No, scratch that. He was in a totally different universe.
Each step he took was like stepping on the moon--he fought the weight of a million barbells to plant his feet on the slanted mud slope. With an awe-struck grin, he corrected himself: this was better than being on the moon. The moon had gray, black and white. It had no blues, greens, reds, violets, or oranges. It had none of the stomach-clenching barracudas, graceful blue marlins, or miniscule Yucatan killifish darting to and fro to get out of the way of these stomping giants of the surface world.
Out the corner of his eye, he saw Jessica gesturing towards him. He turned to look at her and saw she was pointing to Dr. Luna Kan and some of the other Maya scientists.
They were swimming down.
Alexander then remembered that they were here for a reason, to play a part in protecting a culture, not to sight see. Merely enjoying this experience wasn't wrong, in and of itself, but he understood he had an obligation to respect the Mayas' time and beliefs. Crouching down on the slope, he jumped up, reoriented himself and began to kick downwards.
As he swam deeper and deeper into the briny, silent blue, his eyes peeled for any reaction from the Maya scientists leading the search or for any chest, he wondered how long he'd been underwater. A brief glance at his watch told him it was 8:30 PM. Twenty minutes.
Those twenty minutes became thirty, then forty, then fifty. Then it was time to resurface and refuel.
ITZEL, now on a full scuba tank, frowned in her scuba gear. For the life of her, she couldn't shake the feeling that something was amiss. That was quite the disappointment. Everything had been going swimmingly (no pun attended) up until this point. The Bhaduris, even that young boy whose enthusiasm always brought a smile to her face), had been very helpful and respectful of their culture. Her colleagues were all in high spirits, nary a word of complaint. Of course, they hadn't found any artifacts yet, but that was to be expected.
So why was she uncomfortable? There was nothing to worry about! Not a thing to bother her in this empty, aqua--
Where had all the fish gone?
It couldn't have been a fishing boat, they would've heard. Other scuba divers? Would've seen them. It had to be some sort of impending threat they couldn't immediately see coming, something fast and deadly and--
Sharks lived in these waters.
Itzel practically slammed her red light, flailing her limbs in every direction. The light flickered and flashed, turning the ocean floor a sharp red again and again. Soon, every other diver was staring her straight in the face.
WHAT'S going on?' Alexander tilted his head, confused. It had only been fifteen minutes. Next to him, Jessica shrugged, equally bewildered.
Having got everyone's attention, the doctor stopped flailing and gave the sign to go up: a thumbs up straight towards the surface.
'And just when we were having fun,' Alexander sighed. But he kicked up, away from the ocean floor and up towards the surface.
ITZEL wanted to follow the others. It certainly would've been the logical thing to do. There was just one problem: as she turned to join them, something glinted and shone, far below her.
Could it be? Perhaps a ray of light made its way through a crack, an imperfection of some kind, in the chest's design. That light could've hit the jade and reflected back towards her.
'Hun-Nal-Ye, I beg you, stay your patrons away from me,' Itzel said as she swam towards the source of the light.
She was twenty feet away.
She ducked to the side, her leg barely missing the snap of a thousand teeth, into a bed of seaweed.
The tiger shark, nearly three times as long as she was tall, teeth like swords in a cavern of a mouth, wheeled to look in her in the eye.
She crouched down low.
Shark nostrils flared and sniffed. Part of Itzel told her it was safe, that the shark would sniff her, realize she was human and go for safer, tastier food. She knew that sharks rarely went after humans. This one probably tried to bite her to see what she was.
The other part of Itzel told her to run like hell.
The shark stared deeper and deeper into her eyes. It was still. Very still. Then Itzel vaguely remembered that sharks had to constantly move, or else they would die. Her stomach dropped.
The shark was getting closer. An inch now. Then another. And another.
Then, as quickly as it come, it turned and left.
WHAT's taking Dr. Luna Kan so long?" Alexander wondered aloud.
"She probably went to make sure no one got lost," Jessica replied.
Before Alexander could respond, a scuba-diver head poked out of the water. Dr. Luna Kan splashed through the waves until her entire body was out of the water. She collapsed on the beach, dropping the wooden box she was holding in--
Wooden box? Could it be?!
"YOU FOUND IT!" Alexander jumped in the air and did a little fist bump. Then, noticing the Mayas' looks of confusion--and, just as worryingly, his own parents' faces of disapproval-- he straightened himself up and cleared his throat. "Well done," he corrected himself, in a more sober tone.
Chuckling slightly at his excitement, Dr. Luna Kan went down on her knees pulled out a metal tool--sort of like a nail file, only much larger--placed it between the grooves of the box and opened it.
The other Mayas gathered around her, bent over yet silently reverent.
Alexander watched them for a while. Then, Dr. Luna Kan waved her hand to him and his family, in invitation.
Beaming--but just as silent-- he stepped forward, family right behind him.
His eyes widened like satellite disks at the sight. Dark green jade vases bore pictures of the one-legged lightning god Huracan (his one leg was serpent-like), the salt water god and patron of sharks Hun-Nal-Le, the creator god Itzamna with an animal hair brush in one hand and a ficus bark paper with Maya script on it in the other. Dr. Luna Kan traced Itzamna's shape a few inches above the actual image. A tear fell down her cheek. Several of the Maya scientists wept openly.
They'd found it.
Dr. Luna Kan was the first to stand.
"This is a great day for our people!" she said, voice loud with a slight crack. "Our gods will be very pleased with our victory today! Let us now go and pay homage to our great deities!"
ALEXANDER and his family were now almost back to the Aquila. As they came closer to the plane, Alexander thought of something.
"Hey Dad," he asked, "why did the doctor tell us all to leave the water."
Mr. Bhaduri, rustling fingers through black hair, shrugged. "Probably a shark."
"Not that surprising," his mother chuckled. "She once stared down a jaguar."
"...WHAT? Oh my God, tell me more! I wanna be just as awesome as her! How'd she do that?!? H-how is that even possible? Is this woman even real? Like what?!?"
Those questions and more spilled out of Alexander's mouth for the rest of the plane ride back home.