His second favorite way to pass the time when it was slow was to hide in the tiny spaces flanking the entrance to the cenote, watching the foreigners as they made the awkward decent into the cave. Their footing was always unsure and if they were a couple, the man always led the way, holding onto his female partner’s hand proudly. Filiberto would scurry along unseen beside them, making little noise. He loved to watch the faces of these foreigners as they changed from mild concern as to what they’d gotten themselves into this time to complete and unabashed awe. The cenote had that affect on everyone who saw it, including locals. It made Filiberto swell with his own type of pride, for this was his home. This was a magical place that he had been chosen to protect.
Even to his village elders, the formation of the cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula was a mystery. Too many years back for his mind to comprehend rationally, sinkholes had formed across the flat land. They provided the only freshwater available to his ancestors, so around them great cities were formed. And Filiberto knew, although he’d only seen one other, that Cenote Dzitnup must have been the most splendid of them all. Cave-like, its grand inner space, to his mind about the size of the moon if it fell to Earth, was interrupted by the beautifully grotesque stalactites that hung liberally from its ceiling. A single arm-width-sized, circular hole at the top provided the only natural light. During the daytime that light was all that was necessary to illuminate the haunting greenish-blue water, so clear you could have seen to the bottom if there had been one. Filiberto described the color as similar to the useless blind eye of his grandmother’s mangy dog when sunshine hit it just right.
The young boy’s job, which he took as seriously as if he were his father collecting admission just outside, was to provide small inner tubes to those too frightened to wade out into the icy pool unaided. He didn’t understand their trepidation, for in addition to the tubes, four large long ropes fanned out in separate directions across the top of the water connecting to the back wall of the cave. He didn’t like the ropes. They took away from the natural beauty. But, it was important for the family’s livelihood, his father had told him, that nothing be left to chance. Foreigners were a fickle people and if word got out that Dzitnup was a dangerous place to visit, there would be no money for food. Filiberto understood this and respected his father’s claim. As much as he pined to see the cenote as it was when first discovered, he also wanted to eat.
Filiberto policed his domain with kindly importance. He wasn’t like his siblings, who didn’t much appreciate the fortunateness of having such a natural wonder near their village. His sister, who sat outside at the mouth of the entrance selling Dzitnup postcards, would often leave them unattended in the sun, causing the pictures to fade until the color of the water turned a false gray. And his brother, a year his junior, was worst of all. While Filiberto was intrigued by the tourists who came from all over the globe just to visit his special cave, Fernando despised them all with their odd languages and overt wealth.
Every automobile that entered the parking lot was fair game for Fernando’s unrelenting appeal to “watch your car?” Never mind that usually there was only one or two cars ever there at one time, or that the only people in the area were members of his family, so that if anything bad did happen, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who had done it. Upon exiting the cenote, determined Fernando would follow after the foreigners with a glazed look in his eye, hand extended and calling out in a horrifyingly monotone voice of a TV zombie, “I watched your car. Five pesos. I watched your car.” Usually people would quickly hand over change just to get him to leave, but for the few that ignored him as they made their way back to the car, Fernando would cling to the driver’s side window repeating his mantra until they either gave in or sped away in fear. Filiberto knew this must ultimately be bad for business as well, but his father always seemed to find his youngest son’s routine amusing. Plus, it did bring in a few extra pesos, which were always desperately needed.
For most of his day, Filiberto wiped down the rocky pathway that led bathers into the water. Because it sloped slightly, he was careful to keep it dry so that no one would slip and fall. If it was busy, he would keep a careful eye on his supply of inner tubes, filling them full of air and wiped down for the next visitor. On occasion, if it was slow and he was bored, Filiberto would allow himself to giggle at the attempts of some to use the tube to sit, instead of just to ring around their neck and arms. The tubes were much too small to carry the weight of an adult, but he had witnessed many people flailing and sputtering with conviction, only to finally manage themselves up and find the nozzle poking into their backsides. Filiberto fancied himself the Dzitnup expert, so if his guests spoke Spanish, he would always graciously instruct them on what to do. If they didn’t, he would pantomime or simply jump in himself, although quickly as he felt nervous not being able to lead the ladies by the hand across any slippery rocks.
Filiberto’s absolute favorite thing to do at cenote Dzitnup was something he kept a closely guarded secret and only did at the end of the day when the cave was deserted. It was when his father and siblings had long since headed for home and he was left to close down that he would fling the many-scattered rocks at one stubbornly large stalactite. It was his intention to knock it down and even though it never seemed to budge, no matter how hard he threw, and no matter that he knew it would be dangerous if it ever did, Filiberto was obsessed with it nonetheless. Although he could never imagine doing anything else with his life other than handing out inner tubes and swimming leisurely when it was slow, Filiberto had decided that the day he was finally able to knock down the stalactite, it would be time to leave Dzitnup to follow in his oldest brother’s footsteps.
Hector had left Valladolid two years back and would sometimes come to visit, although not often enough according to their mother, bringing back gifts, money and stories of his successful life in the resort town of Cancun. Filiberto was less intrigued with the stories than he was with the way his mother spoke of Hector with pride afterwards. The young boy was torn between wanting to do what was best for his family, by moving to a place where he could send good money back home, and staying where he felt comfortable, in a place he loved dearly. In order to keep his conscience clear, Filiberto had decided a year ago to put his fate in the hands of the stalactite. It would tell him when it was finally time to leave. And so every day he threw three rocks at it as hard as he could waiting for it to fall, but also selfishly willing it not to.
On one particularly slow day, Filiberto found himself rearranging the inner tubes on the platform into shapes of animals. There had only been four guests that day and two of them, a young local couple in love, were still milling about in the water. Just a few years older than Filiberto, the boy kept leading his girlfriend around the corners of the rocks to steal kisses in private. Filiberto didn’t care to pay much attention, especially since he’d seen this same boy hiding and kissing with a different girl a few weeks back. In fact, he rather tired of seeing all the kissing that went on in the cenote, but figured the beauty of the place was so overwhelming it must have the power to make people do strange things. As he was forming a menacing serpent with the tubes Filiberto spied an old man feebly trying to make his way down the path into the cave. He left his tubes and ran to aid the man down the wooden planks.
Grateful, the old man grabbed Filiberto’s hand and allowed himself to be led to firmer ground. He thanked Filiberto and handed him ten pesos, but when offered a tube refused politely. Then, the man, who a few seconds previous could barely stand upright without aid, stepped onto the slippery rocks and dove headfirst into the water. His splash was delicate and Filiberto held his breath in astonishment. For a second he worried that the old man would not surface, but finally he did. In his hands he held one of the onyx black catfish that swam abundantly in the water. It squirmed and jerked, longing to breathe. The old man looked pleased and let out a bellowing laugh that echoed deeply off the walls of the cave. He let the fish go. The couple in love, their spell broken, abruptly made their way out of the water to their towels. For the rest of the afternoon, Filiberto watched the man swim expertly around the cenote and occasionally crawl out at various points only to dive back in again. Filiberto didn’t have the heart to tell him to be careful or that he probably shouldn’t be diving headfirst into the water, which itself was filled with stalagmites. The man was simply enjoying himself too much to be bothered with rules. Finally though, he made his way back to Filiberto, a smile plastered on his face, his breath ragged and spent. Gazing up at the young boy’s stalactite, he playfully ruffled Filiberto’s hair.
“I, too, used to be the guardian of cenote Dzitnup, young man. And I can tell you that our stalactite will never come down, for I tried half my life.”
Originally published on TravelBetty