General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Nov 2020/5 Flower
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Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Mexicolore contributor Karel Baresh’s book on the Hero Twins

RESOURCE: The Ultimate Ballgame

We’ve already uploaded a rave review of author Karel Baresh’s retelling of the Hero Twins’ story from the Popol Vuh (link below). With the author’s permission, and thanks to expert illustrator Steve Radzi, we bring to life here the magical story from his book of that classic ballgame, in which the Twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, play against the lords of the underworld, for the last time...

‘Right now, the sun was inching about halfway up the slab...’
‘Right now, the sun was inching about halfway up the slab...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

THERE WAS NO RECEPTION that morning. The dark lords were sure of their victory, and they went directly to the ball court. There, they had Hunahpu’s head placed on the wall beside them. This was a sign of their victory.
The start of the game was always set to the moment when the rising sun’s rays reached the emblem of K’inich Ajaw, the Sun God, carved on the tall slab at the head of the ball court. Right now, the sun was inching about halfway up the slab.
The lords sat in their places of honor, biding their time. Once the sun reached K’inich Ajaw and the twins were not there to play, the game would be forfeited. The boys would automatically lose. At least one of them! The other one had lost already!
“They won’t come,” said Seven Death, watching the sun slide up the pillar.
“How could they?” said One Death. “One of them is dead, and the other one is probably scared.”
“Even if he shows up, our players will hammer him!”
“As it should be, Lord Seven Death.”

‘“This player is one of my team,” said Xbalanque. “His name is Mukun”’
‘“This player is one of my team,” said Xbalanque. “His name is Mukun”’ (Click on image to enlarge)

A moment later, a well-dressed young player stepped onto the court. It was Xbalanque. He approached the place of the high lords.
“I am here to play,” he announced in a firm voice.
The lords stared at him in disbelief.
“All by yourself?” asked One Death.
“I bring with me another player from my team,” said Xbalanque, and he pointed to a youth, who, with somewhat unsteady, clumsy steps, marched onto the court.
“Who is that?” asked One Death. “He looks strange.”
“This player is one of my team,” said Xbalanque. “His name is Mukun.”
“Squash Head! Suits him well,” said Lord Seven Death, and he laughed.
“Who told you that you could bring another player from your team?” thundered One Death.
“You, my lord. You explained to me that as long as only two players are placed against each other, it is according to the rules.” Xbalanque surveyed the pale lords. “I am sure the same rules still apply?”

‘The head flew all across the ball court and landed in the tomato patch...’
‘The head flew all across the ball court and landed in the tomato patch...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

While Xbalanque was squabbling with the lords, Hunahpu went to the far side of the ball court. There was a tomato patch growing past the edge of the stone pavement. He whistled softly, and a fluffy, round rabbit appeared.
“Imul, Brother Rabbit, the time is here,” he whispered.
The rabbit twitched his ears. “As agreed this morning?”
“Yes. When the ball lands here, you’ll hide it, and you start bouncing off as if you were the ball. Understood?”
“Yes, my lord,” said Imul. “It should be fun!” He laughed softly and hopped away.
THE HEATED DISCUSSION at the lords’ seat of honor continued. Xbalanque was buying time.
“You’ve lost the game already,” said One Death. “Look at this head. Isn’t it one of your players?”
“You mean this?” said Xbalanque, pointing to Hunahpu’s head, perched on the wall.
“Yes, this!” answered One Death.
“To me, it looks just like another ball,” said Xbalanque defiantly. “If you wish, let’s play with it.”
Lord One Death looked at him, surprised. Playing with the head would mean a profound dishonor to the victim.
“You mean that?” One Death asked curtly.
“Yes, I do.”
“Be it so!”
Lord One Death grabbed the head-ball and threw it onto the court. It was heavier than the usual rubber ball, so it fell directly in front of Xbalanque. He didn’t lose a minute and gave it a swift kick. The head flew all across the ball court and landed in the tomato patch.

‘The whole crowd, including the lords and the players, ran after the bouncing head-ball...’
‘The whole crowd, including the lords and the players, ran after the bouncing head-ball...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

“Oooooh!” resounded through the stadium. And then, “Look! It’s running away!”
When the head hit the patch, it rebounded briefly, fell back…and then it started to bounce away.
“After it!” yelled the lords.
The whole crowd, including the lords and the players, ran after the bouncing head-ball. They were slipping and sliding through the ripening tomato patch, hot in pursuit. But the ball-rabbit was already out of the patch and was gaining speed on open grassland.
“After it, after it!” resounded from the distance as the Xibalbans gave chase.
As soon the crowd was out of sight, Xbalanque ran to the tomato patch. He retrieved Hunahpu’s head from the weeds and rushed back to the court.
Hunahpu was sitting on a low bench, his squash-head propped against the wall.
“This vegetable head is killing me,” he said bitterly. “I feel like a dummy.”
“Not much longer,” said Xbalanque with a smile. “Look what I’ve got.”
He showed Hunahpu his own head.
“I just clean it up a bit, and it’s yours.”
“Thank gods for that!” said Hunahpu.
“And thank the rabbit Imul. He saved it for you.”
“I’ll be grateful to him forever.”

‘Xbalanque cut off the filaments holding the squash, removed the gourd, and placed Hunahpu’s head back where it belonged’
‘Xbalanque cut off the filaments holding the squash, removed the gourd, and placed Hunahpu’s head back where it belonged’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Xbalanque finished picking off the pieces of tomatoes and some broken weeds.
“Ready to do it?” he asked.
“Please, brother!”
The operation wasn’t as complicated as they had expected. Xbalanque cut off the filaments holding the squash, removed the gourd, and placed Hunahpu’s head back where it belonged. As if by some magic powers, the tendons and the muscles started to fuse, and the skin began to close up. In no time, Hunahpu was whole again.
“How do you feel?” asked Xbalanque.
“Like I have a huge headache,” said Hunahpu, moving his head slowly from side to side. “Besides, someone kicked me real hard just here, on the cheek.” He pointed to his left cheek, where a big bruise was starting to show.
“Sorry about that,” said Xbalanque.
The twins started to laugh.
SOON AFTER, THEY could hear the Xibalbans coming back. The crowd didn’t sound happy.
“Quickly, we have to make you up,” said Xbalanque.
He took some light dirt from the side of the court, spat on it, and rubbed it onto Hunahpu’s face. Then he took the headband off the squash, and with the dry grass still sticking out of it, he tied it across Hunahpu’s forehead. Meantime, Hunahpu scooped some of the soot from the squash and smeared it around his eyes.
Xbalanque looked at him. “Not bad. Just like the old squash-head yourself.” He laughed.

‘One Death grabbed it with his tomatoey hands and threw it onto the court...’
‘One Death grabbed it with his tomatoey hands and threw it onto the court...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

“Unpack our ball! They are here,” said Hunahpu.
When the Xibalbans arrived back at the court, they found Hunahpu and Xbalanque by the opposition’s hoop, practicing with the rubber ball.
“I’ll be darned!” mumbled Lord One Death as he climbed into his seating place on the wall. He was sweaty from the running, and he was soiled from the tomatoes.
“Pardon me, Lord; you have some tomato sauce stuck to your cheek,” said Seven Death. He deftly flicked it off.
“And you…” One Death looked at his second-in-command and wanted to laugh. Stained clothes, bits of tomatoes clinging to his hair, general disarray. But he controlled himself. They had been fooled again, and this was not a laughing matter.
“My lords,” said Xbalanque, “we have found the ball.”
“Where did you…” demanded Seven Death.
“It was in the tomato patch, under some weeds.”
Seven Death turned to his companion. “Then? What did we chase?”
One Death just shrugged. He was getting fed up with this whole affair. Win or lose, he was going to have the boys sacrificed. They were causing him too much trouble!
One Death turned to the ball court. The players were standing ready; Xbalanque was holding the ball.
One Death noticed Hunahpu. He looked a little different from the Mukun player who was presented earlier, although he moved in the same simpleton way.
“Must be him,” One Death muttered to himself. He leaned down to the court. “The ball!”
THE ATTENDANT RECEIVED the ball from Xbalanque and brought it up to the lords. One Death grabbed it with his tomatoey hands and threw it onto the court.

‘The squash sailed clear through the hoop, hit the ground behind, and splattered into thousand pieces. Squash seeds sprang into the air and scattered everywhere.’
‘The squash sailed clear through the hoop, hit the ground behind, and splattered into thousand pieces. Squash seeds sprang into the air and scattered everywhere.’ (Click on image to enlarge)

“May we win!” he croaked discontentedly, knowing full well that his utterance should have been neutral.
The game began…and it went on. It was an even game, with both sides scoring almost equally. Under normal circumstances, the twins would have won easily. But Hunahpu, as best as he tried, just wasn’t himself. Besides, he needed to feign the clumsy squash-head player, lest the lords would catch on.
But the lords didn’t bother. Everyone seemed to be very bored with the game. It looked as if it was going to be another tie. Another game would have to be played. Oh no!
And then it happened!
The score was even. The timekeeper stood up and readied his shell trumpet to sound the end of the game.
At that moment, Hunahpu retrieved the chilacayote squash, hidden in the recess of the wall, and passed it to Xbalanque. Xbalanque kicked it swiftly through the opponent’s hoop. The squash sailed clear through it, hit the ground behind, and splattered into thousand pieces. Squash seeds sprang into the air and scattered everywhere.
The shell trumpet sounded. It was the end of the game.
“What just happened?” called the stupefied lords.
“The boys won the game,” the timekeeper announced.
He was beheaded on the spot.

Special thanks to Karel Baresh and Steve Radzi. All illustrations © Steve Radzi/Mayavision.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 20th 2020

‘RESOURCE REVIEW: Hunahpu & Xbalanque, Hero Twins of Popol Vuh’

The author’s website, senderosbooks.com
Steve Radzi’s website, mayavision.com
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