I awake to darkness. For the briefest of moments I lie in bed confused, wondering where I am, unsure of how I came to this place. Exposed wooden beams hang above me like row housing suspended in the sky, and walls washed in sienna hold Mayan art that feels of an other world, ancient and native. As quickly as the sense of being lost strikes me, I remember where I am: San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Beside me, Preciliano sleeps peacefully unaware of my stirrings, so I rise quietly, a wisp of smoke slipping from beneath the covers. I pull on a pair of shorts and step outside to the second floor balcony. Here on the outskirts of the city I face the mountainside where jungle still controls the land. Above the trees I see the first hints of umber painting the eastern horizon, mountaintops silhouetted against the promise of a sunrise to come. I settle against the rough wooden fence and watch.
Even as tawny fingers stretch into the black sky, I remain aware of how filled with stars the canopy above me is, how coming from Dallas to this place so near the Guatemala border affords me so much that has been lost: a night full of twinkling voices that long ago were hushed in civilized society, a nighttime silence that feels oppressive in its beauty, and the stirring of nature in its sacred home.
I’ve been to the tops of mountains before, including many of Colorado’s fourteeners, but this is different. San Cristóbal feels so much less commercial, so much less accessible. It feels almost as if it exists in a different time, and so I feel the same: a city boy lost in a tropical paradise worlds apart from where I live.
Driven from the night sky, stars blink out like lit candles blown by a gentle wind, and suddenly they’re gone with nary a goodbye. I watch in awe as one by one they step down from their celestial pedestals and disappear behind a curtain of dim sunlight that struggles to seize the heavens.
The air rests cool and moist against my bare skin. A gentle breeze caresses me. Somewhere not too distant in the shadowy realm of the jungle, I hear a bird whose voice I do not recognize, the first of many such voices to come. A sense of thrill rises within me as I think of the day that lies ahead.
Vermilion hues tint the sky, and where streaks of morning battle the cobalt night, brushstrokes of crimson bleed across the stars. The world provides a dawn of such unspoken beauty that its description stumbles over words and loses itself even in deft writ. I wonder if I can ever describe the splendor.
“Buenos días,” Preciliano says from behind me as he rests his hands on my shoulders. I’m momentarily startled as he leans against me and settles his face against mine, both of us looking out toward the looming bright of day.
I turn my head slightly so I can see him. He stares fiercely toward the horizon, toward the gathering forces of day which continue their onward march. The night retreats before it. This battle has gone on for time immemorial yet has never lost its potent awe.
More and more the indigo retreats toward the west until it disappears, giving way to azure, then sapphire, and finally cyan. All the while, vermilion races across the heavens until it too is pushed from existence. In its wake, amber and gold first, then flaxen, and finally bright yellow just before the sun climbs into the sky, a solar parade of one carefully offering its brilliance to all who welcome it, and forcing it on all others.
“La belleza…” Preciliano whispers into my ear when at last the horizon explodes in sunlight.
It’s difficult not weeping at that moment. Mountains become dark shadows standing between us and the sun, immovable soldiers who guard this city despite the daily battles fought in the heavens. Wisps of rouge and tangerine streak through the ether above us, a place where the forces of light and the forces of dark clash in an indescribable dichotomy.
Then not twenty feet distant, a raucous call booms from the trees. We both snap our heads toward the sound and smile in unison: a toucan calls into the morning, celebrates with us this memorable start to the day. Its size amazes me, its beak shines in bright colors, and its voice seems to welcome us to San Cristóbal.
I know it will be a fine day indeed.