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Laura Polley

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 Mexican breeze.

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 next week.

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.

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