from Underworld Lit


Upon reading the scroll, affairs from long ago began to infiltrate Chen's memory, although in a disordered and cloudy fashion. He thanked his old retainer. A passing dragonfly landed on his sleeve.

"Your presence has been requested at the Lower District Court," the motorized airport staircase informed Chen. "Would you prefer to travel on foot, or by some other means?"

"Whoever heard of a legendary warlord trudging through the mud?" protested the cadaverous valet, already beginning to fade around the edges. Ascending the scuffed metal steps, Chen reluctantly bid his former factotum farewell.

After a journey of many leagues, the staircase arrived at a red river moving slowly through jungle. Two boys swam against the current, their heads dipping in and out of view. Chen noted how their blowguns helped them to stay afloat. He could see shimmering clouds of butterflies suspended above the leafy canopy on the far shore.

Up to this point in his travels, Chen had marveled at his expeditious conveyance, which traversed mountains and deserts alike without any action on his part. But now he protested in vain as the rattling contraption sped into the river's shallows. Chen waved to the boys midstream, calling for assistance. Out of earshot, they waved back. The staircase pushed on through the deepening flow.

As the waters rose around him, Chen's soaked robes grew impossibly heavy, dragging the former assistant magistrate down, down, into the crimson flux. The last thing he remembered was his mouth filling with blood, which he sensed, somehow, wasn't his own.


They arrived at a village high in the clouds. The deputy constable came out to meet them, a shovel slung over his shoulder. He exchanged a few pleasantries with the twins, but it was mostly lost on Chen.

[El pueblo unido / jamás será vencido—trans].

[El derecho a la revolución es incondicional, pues sólo esto establece las condiciones para los derechos—trans].

[Verde que te quiero verde—trans].

[No te preocupes, el chino puede ser útil—trans].

Smiling crookedly, the old man motioned for them to follow. He explained that the people here knew next to nothing of the outside world, though they received occasional remittances from the living. They grew what they needed in their terraced gardens—plantains, pumpkins, maize and beans—but they didn't have salt, only some kind of powdery black clay that they used instead. Chen would remember the taste long after his tale had ended.

The twins wandered off with the constable, passing an enormous cigar back and forth. Chen sat under a stunted box elder and surveyed his surroundings. This underworld looked nothing at all like the hell of his grandmother's bedtime stories. Where were the meat hooks? The demons? The mountains of knives?

One by one, villagers emerged from their houses to offer their visitor, whose robes were in frightful condition, whatever they could spare. Muzzled with wire, a donkey observed the proceedings from her soiled enclosure. Chen wondered whom she'd offended in her previous life.

[George? Fadi? Rita? John?—trans].

When Chen was decent again, an old woman approached, covering her mouth, and held out an ancient hand mirror. Inspecting its cracked surface, he saw a modern-day highland Mayan farmer in a dented grey fedora, patched trousers, and an XXL T-shirt that read "Orgy of One." For the first time in recent memory, Chen felt almost at home.


That night, the twins put on a show for the villagers. Chen watched from a wobbly stool in the front row. Some sort of fermented pink liquor was passed around in a hollow gourd. Low in the sky, a full moon polished everything silver.

The boys danced on stilts like drunks in high marsh grass. One shook a rain stick, wearing an armadillo mask. The other, dressed as a whippoorwill, blew into a flute carved from bone. Everybody clapped in time. As if by magic, the gourd kept reappearing in Chen's hands.

With a flourish, the spotted boy unsheathed his machete, looking up to the sky. Opening wide, he slid the blade down his throat. It disappeared slowly, passing through the pharynx, the voice box, and then the esophagus. Chen retched in sympathy, but soon recovered himself. Deep in the foliage, the crickets and rain frogs resumed their pulsating whistle.

[I love Popol Vuh: Definitive Edition trans. Tedlock—trans].

Next, the twins set fire to the schoolhouse with lit cigars. Jugular bulging, the constable howled in the moonlight. Burning papers fluttered out like hurt birds from the window. A storm lantern exploded with a fiery pop. The load-bearing joinery began to show through, lit from within, until the whole affair was reduced to blazing lacework. At last the roof caved in, followed by the walls, leaving only a spidery doorframe full of smoke. It was too much for the children, who were led away in tears.

[I love Popol Vuh: Edición Definitiva trans. Villanueva—trans].
Now it was time for the night's final act. The boy with the jaguar spots dropped to his knees. His brother lay on the ground before him, eyes rolled back, looking inward. With a swift fluid motion, the kneeling boy plunged a hand into his brother's chest, withdrew a dripping fist, and brandished it like a fishmonger advertising the day's catch. A dark rift opened, unnoticed, in the Milky Way overhead.

[I love Bō bō ěr·wū: Zuìhòu de bǎnběn trans. 列子—trans].

"Rise up!" the jaguar commanded.

The bloodied youth rose to his feet and, gazing out on the crowd, slowly raised a fist in the air. The villagers leapt from their seats with a universal roar. Wobbling on his stool, Chen struggled to stand, too, as the world began to spin, counter-clockwise, around the former tea-totaler from Hóu-tcheou-fou. The last thing he remembered was somebody leading him off in the dark.