Pyramid Of The Sun
I walk into the plaza by way of the market. It's a shantytown of
wooden stakes and afterthought roofs, and the whole thing sags with
hopeless ambition. Dark-skinned vendors peer around tent poles,
casting shouts in the air to lure in the tourists. Hot plates
sizzling with carnitas and tamales send up shimmering steam like a
holographic oasis. I breathe in the desert air, gritty and
particulate, washed in an arid perfume of corn flour and chiles.
Colorful banners drape from wide entryways and flap in the heavy
I am taller than the vendors, and so are my gringo dollars. It is
1986: a single greenback is worth 487 pesos. The native people crave
dollars like a panhandler craves tequila, and I feel their eyes on
me as I stroll through the market. I have something they want. This
inescapable fact gives me a subconscious sense of advantage. Without
any malice, I play cat-and-mouse with the vendors I visit, teasing
them with interest in their wares, surprising them with fluent
Spanish and a desire to haggle. They don't expect this from the
fair-skinned American, only sixteen years old.
I walk through the dust and the flickering sunlight, hypnotized
by eggplant purples and emerald greens, confused by textures woven
and embroidered. There is so much to see here. I can't take it all
in at the same time. Everywhere I turn, another earthen peasant man
in a giant sombrero, or a wizened old woman in folding skirts, gives
me that same cannibalistic look. I need souvenirs for the trip back
home, so I bargain and dicker until I get what I fancy: a
hand-loomed carpet with geometric greca designs and a solid marble
chess set that my father will love. I pluck them like petals from
the vast bouquet of goods, and lay them aside to await my return.
It's pyramid time.
In the middle of the desert, in the middle of the country,
someone planted two pyramids and a cluster of temples. Centuries
ago, and centuries away from anything in my own experience, a hardy
people built monuments to eternity. No one knows who they were;
archaeologists can't decide between Aztecs, Toltecs, or their
contemporaries. I walk from the low market stalls out into the sun,
and the ground opens, falling away from my feet. Vast expanses
stretch forward and outward like a map stretching around the globe.
It's so hot and so bright. I squint but can't focus anywhere except
side-to-side. The sun overhead is merciless and persistent, and I
wonder why a civilization that took a daily solar beating would
eulogize the sun with a temple.
I keep walking and sweating. Interesting, I think, but Mexico
City will be so much better. Condescension is an inbred American
habit. Still, I've never seen a real pyramid, so I look around. I'm
standing at the narrow end of the Avenue of the Dead, a central
space enclosed entirely by pyramids. All around its perimeter low
buildings lie, trapezoidal and flat-topped, ceremonially similar
like burial vaults. The desert dust struggles to reclaim grass from
the Avenue and from the mossy edges of the stone-still structures.
Straight ahead in the distance I can see the silhouette of the
Pyramid of the Moon, the second-largest structure in Teotihuacan.
It's dark against the blue sky and the choking yellow-green grass.
It looks impressive enough, but the star of this show is the Pyramid
of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world, and I slow my
footsteps as its massive form comes into view on the right.
It's always the same phenomenon with fabled wonders: you hear
them described, you see them in photographs, and think you won't be
blown away. You think you're prepared. I look at this building,
really nothing more than a tall collection of rocks, and I'm
transfixed. 213 feet of sheer-faced altitude, taking up a broad base
700 feet on any side. I take another step, as if drawn to its
presence, trying to tell myself I'm still in control. Another step,
and another, the horizon disappearing, and after several hundred
more, I stand at the base of the Pyramid of the Sun.
Made of stone, it's a haphazard mosaic of mottled grey, with
salt-and-pepper shadings and notches and flakes. The stones are
everywhere, filling my vision. I'd have to turn completely around to
escape. They stretch up and up, to the distant sky, and I wonder how
I will ever climb to the top. One foot on the first step: I am
dismayed to look down, and see my size-ten foot hanging halfway off
the stair. Those diminutive Aztecs, I mutter to myself, for Aztecs
are as likely a culprit as any. I raise my other foot alongside, and
just avoid teetering. I look like a diver getting ready for a
backward flip, the tips of her toes barely hugging the springboard.
It's going to be an interesting journey.
I try to count steps, but there are too many, and I can't be
distracted from the more pressing obsession of keeping my balance. I
can't turn around and see how far I've come. I just keep going, up
and up, feeling very much too tall. By the first hundred steps, I am
one with the stones. I've studied them with laser eyes, watching for
my raised foot to meet their surface once again. The fear of falling
is as big as this mountain. I am one shift of gravity away from the
sky, and the sky is getting closer as I climb and climb.
Finally, I take that last upward step. I suck in my breath and
rest my hands on my knees. I'm standing at the top of the world,
twenty-one stories above the earth, and now I can say I've been
there, done that. Something to write home about, or tell tales about
But it's not like that at all. It's not like anything I was
expecting. There is a wind up here, a constant pressure of air. It
swirls and dives, ducks under me, threatens me. It's a supernatural
presence as real as the rocks, and I am not ready. My eyes strain
against it; my legs will themselves to the ground. I stare at the
stone slab in the center of this space, and my mind dances
frantically, recalling with horror the history of the Aztecs. They
sacrificed each other atop mountains like these by ritualistically
ripping hearts alive from pulsing flesh. My heart throbs as if
remembering the pain of those reverent believers. They were ordinary
people, believing in their sacred honor, thrown to this wind for
half a millennium. I am certain I can hear screams just underneath
the wind, a never ending agony left behind by silenced throats. I
turn slowly in all directions and look out over the rocky plain,
over the tops of the Indian city that housed a hundred thousand
people. Those steps that I climbed used to be painted blood red, and
now they plunge downward like a terrible slide.
Other climbers have surrounded me since this vertical trek began,
but I scarcely notice them now and I can't care what they are
experiencing. They stand like hazy mirages around the top of this
impossible height; they seem unfocused, unreal, and meaningless.
Their existence makes no difference--in the company of this scolding
wind I am achingly alone. The presence that survives here crashes
over me like lightning, electric and hot with a timeless knowledge.
Stripped of any will, I bow to it with reverence. This wind. I'm one
with the earth and all other low things. I'm part of the same race
as those sacrificed people. Those who were never meant to crawl down
these slopes, but to be cast out alone into the inevitable fall.
Laura Polley has received awards for her writing from
Purdue University and Indiana University/Purdue University at
Indianapolis. Her poetry has recently appeared in the Winter 2006
issue of Crescent Moon Journal online, published by the
Desert Moon Review. Laura plans to pursue an MFA in either poetry
or creative nonfiction.