SHORT STORY OF THE MONTH:
A Flood In The Yucatan
BY SEAN LUSK
Paco has his notebook out. “How many people speak your language?” he asks us.
“You want to find out what language we have been speaking, my brother and I. You want to know something you do not already know. You are surprised that you don’t know everything in the world, because at twenty…how old are you…twenty-two?”
He looks almost as if he is disappointed in me, this Paco. He thinks <my brother> is a simpleton, what we call a xixi in our language. But he is wrong. Quique is no fool. He makes more money than I do and always has, driving his taxi and talking nonsense. He talks shit in Spanish just as fluently as he talks shit in Xoxotil.
“Our language is called Xoxotil and it is not for sale,” I say, getting up to leave.
“I don’t want to buy it,” he says.
“Then you want to steal it, and that is worse.”
He orders three more beers.
I decide to tell him the truth. “Only us,” I say, “we are the last who speak Xoxotil. We two and our mother and her parrot.”
The final scene in Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s epic set during the end-times of Maya civilisation, delivers a sucker-punch. The film, a tale of personal struggle set within the context of a crumbling empire – a man fighting to escape being ritually sacrificed and find his marooned wife and child – delivers a knockout blow at the death. After much daring-do our man breaks free from his captors and runs, but then…hero and villain alike, the hunter and the hunted stop dead, on witnessing the strangest of sights: ships, a whole fleet of vessels, lying off the coast. Both betray their confusion but they don’t know what we, the viewer knows – that their protracted drama, all that blood spilt in internecine conflict, will amount to nothing – for the Modern World, in the shape of the Spanish, lies in wait. Gods and Clods alike will soon be decimated through superior arms and disease. Their shared fate is to be expunged from the earth.
Fast forward to current times, and to what remains of the Maya people: in large part rural, and poor in relation to their Hispanic neighbours – an underclass. And it is these people in these same conditions, that give context to A Flood in the Yucatán by Sean Lusk – a short story made into a chapbook by TSS Publishing.
The protagonist is a man in his late 60s, a Maya with a wife that hits him, a brother that drinks too much and a mother who only talks to her parrot. He is also a subsistence rural dweller, and resentful of a young Hispanic in their midst – educated, urban and urbane, the youth is everything that he and his own people are not; a personification of the charity on which they depend. And on one level, the story is a tug-of-war between the curmudgeon and this indefatigable youth, who doesn’t even give the old man an excuse for his dislike. Which, of course, sours his mouth even further.
But underlying this, just below the surface, is the knowledge of being on the wrong side of history – and the weight that this brings to bear. Whether a subconscious burden or not, it’s a pain that’s never voiced – Lusk doesn’t grant his protagonist the privilege to simply open a vein and bleed. And yet ‘defeat’ clogs his very marrow, infecting every word, his inertia as well as his actions.
But can we blame him? What must it feel like, to be the custodian of a language on the verge of extinction? To be seen by people at large as a relic, a museum specimen? Lusk’s story raises several uncomfortable questions for his First World reader.
A Flood in the Yucatán is short fiction crafted to perfection, with its payload coming from what is divined between the lines. Lusk’s story is sober, disturbing, depressing – and yet so intense. Moreover, he draws an empathetic response without imposing a weeping tax. He’s not asking us to self-flagellate. Lusk leaves sufficient distance between reader and protagonist for one’s reaction to be intellectual, rather than emotional. And in a culture where emoting is an ever-ready currency, to withhold is exquisite – it’s a strategy that pays back, and with interest.