Xibalba by Stephen Ground

The sun dove as I reached the main square—sunstroked, boozy tourists mingling with buskers and vendors hocking beads and tees, washing like tide from buzzing, shoe-closet bars and markets clutching sweating beers, yapping like parakeets. I ambled, trying to decide between empanadas or burgers, when I crossed a dark avenue leaking strings and timbales and froze, tang of foreign meat wafting around a corner. I stepped from the square, and the street took on darkness like a punctured skiff.

I turned the corner, stumbling on a man shearing roasted meat off a spit, jamming it in tortillas dishes to tourists muddled drunkenly in white plastic lawn chairs. A three-piece band wailed, and tourists bobbed, shimmied, slumped orange meat across their shorts. I fell in line, watching what’d really caught my attention— jeans and mesh-backed tank, Frida on a shoulder. She smiled, laughed, gently mouthed the song. I perched on a three-legged chair with a mound of food. The band finished, implored the crowd to reach once more into bottomless pockets, then wandered in search of their next set. I wove through an exodus of red-faced tourists hungry for more music and meat, and slid beside her.

Hola, I said. Como estas?

She didn’t laugh at my accent— her eyes popped like newborn stars, and she pocketed her phone, babbling like a burst pipe.

Stop, I said. I don’t understand.

She grabbed my wrist and dragged me, sidestepping a golf cart tearing too close to the crowded curb, inside a small dark bar, a table in the corner. She stuck out a hand, I gave her mine— she yanked free, stuck it out again but spat, Dinero. I knew that one, and forked over the first bill my fingers found. She grabbed two beers and two tequilas—knocked her shot into mine, dribbling wet fire over my fingers, stinging the nails. Salud, she yelped, then thumped it back and down. I followed— coughed, covered my mouth. She laughed, sang something I didn’t catch, clinked my beer and it foamed; took my hand and pulled between tables, turned and flowed, pressing into me. I swayed a little; she took my hands and put them on her— swerved like a jungle stream. Her hair smelled like hibiscus and sun.

The song ended and she vanished, left me swaying between a free table and a young couple clearly regretting booking off-resort. She was at the table, sipping her beer, tapping her phone. I sat, took a mouthful—already warmish. She swallowed hers, then held out her hand. I forked over the first bill my fingers found. She came back with more beer and tequila. I decided to show off.

Como se llama?

She smiled. Amarissa.

Her phone blipped— she glanced, then jumped, babbling again, gesturing for me to follow. She tugged the bottom of my shirt. Vamonos. She rushed out, and I chased— heat, rhythm, buzz, cries of waiters fighting to reel in hungry fish. She led through the square, a side street, to a path, between beach and residentials, walled and gated. A shot cracked behind us.

Was that—?

No problema, she said. We hiked in silence to the end, through the stone gate of a graveyard. I nipped at her heels up a dark, steep hill, old stones leaning; down the ridge, it became beach sheltered by jagged rocks. A fire crackled near the water. Eight shadows lounged around it. We sat, and they passed beer, a joint— girls with purple eyes and beaded earrings; shirtless, inked surfers in board shorts. One strummed a guitar; a trio of girls swayed and crooned. Beers were swallowed, herb burned, waves crashed in the dark—echoes from vast, black depths licking at our heels.

Amarissa had circled the fire to chat with a lithe surfer. He whispered in her ear, and she laughed. He passed her something, and she slipped back to me— fanned a baggie, shaking a round, white, ten-legged spider on my tongue. It crawled down my throat like a mineshaft, and she kissed me.

We ebbed with crashing water, flowed with the twinkle of maybe-dead stars.


We hiked back through the square and the late-night crowd. Seduced by heat and agave, they laughed maniacally, doubled over, faces huge, horrible, twisted, joyously agonized— screaming to a sky blotted black by the warm honey of civilization.

Amarissa charged ahead— I searched for help, pleaded voicelessly, but found only skulls, skeletons, vibrant and flat but watching, mustached and flowers in their hair. Sweating, vertiginous, I tripped a few steps, bumping someone snapping a photo of another skeleton— slowed near a fire dancer, spinning, fanning flames to catastrophic rumbles. I gazed, dumb, felt myself dripping through the cracks to fires below, spinning like her flames.

A firm hand yanked me, down a road with shops dug like ticks in its flesh. The further we went, boutiques and bistros spilling onto the street became cramped liquor marts and shadowy bodegas. Hunched shopkeepers watched us pass, their faces huge, twisted, indifferent. We arrived at a makeshift market, wooden ladder leaning next to tables of candy and rubber balls. She nodded to the old woman minding them, then clambered up. I grasped the silvery rungs and dragged myself up, to the balcony of a loft blocked by thick, ragged blankets hung on a line. She held it as I stooped in, then closed it behind us. There was a small kitchenette. A couch. A door.

Sit, she said, pointing to a chair against the wall. I obeyed and she dropped opposite, picking her nails. I watched the fan spin, too slow for relief, and nodded— startled awake by someone clomping up the ladder. A stocky, dour man swung the blankets, waving in a tall, thin man with a soft, yellow beard. Amarissa shuffled over without abandoning her nails.

Do you speak English? I mumbled. The man and Amarissa argued in Spanish. They stopped, and he faced me.

You took la Arana? he asked, pointing at his tongue. I nodded, and he stomped to the kitchenette. Dug in a drawer.

Are you excited? said the blond. He grinned, knees bouncing—eyes glassy, hazy cornflower. It’s the best I’ve had.

The man tossed him a spider, and he popped it on his tongue, grinned, and swallowed, leaning back on the sofa.

You took yours how long ago? I can’t wait to be where you are.

I was drowning, desperate, and the blond yammered dreamily. Third time’s the charm, a horrid guffaw, though the man and Amarissa he’d never seen.

I sunk before his reviews.


She nudged my face to wake me. I glanced around— Blondie unconscious, the dour man gone. The street buzzed like distant, electric music through the blankets. The night was only beginning.

She smiled, tugged my sleeve; led through the door to a dark room. I sat on the bed, crinkly, plastic-sheeted. She drifted into the darkness, rummaged invisibly, then reappeared, sitting and placing a long, wooden box between us. Kissed me. I kissed harder but she pulled away, wagged finger leaving ectoplasmic contrails in the humid nothingness. My breath short, sweat dripped off my nose, shirt soaked. She laughed. The dour man’s voice broke my trance.

Feeling lucky?

I mumbled.

Some night. You must thank the Gods.

She laughed again.

Around here, he said, we play a little game.

Her weight lifted, the box opened— a pulsing, ten-pronged star, glinting in the swirling black. An owl screeched nearby.

Feeling lucky, amigo? he growled, an inch away.

I had to admit, I kinda was.

Stephen Ground holds a BA in Theatre and a certificate in Community Arts from York University. Post-grad, he lived in a remote, fly-in community in Canada’s far north, then cofounded Toronto-based collective Pearson House Films. Find his work on The Esthetic Apostle, Flash Fiction Magazine, Sky Island Journal, or www.stephenground.com.