Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753
This delightful legend, retold by Miguel Ángel Asturias, introduces the reader to the imagination of the Guatemalan Indian, an imagination that still reflects the worldview of the old Maya. It is a worldview that seems at first totally strange, but its dissolving categories of time, place, and being are familiar...
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This delightful legend, retold by Miguel Ángel Asturias, introduces the reader to the imagination of the Guatemalan Indian, an imagination that still reflects the worldview of the old Maya. It is a worldview that seems at first totally strange, but its dissolving categories of time, place, and being are familiar to the modern Western mind in dreams, fairy tales, and surrealism.
Master Almondtree, the protagonist, can take either human or tree form. As a priest, he is so brilliantly arrayed that “the white men” think that he is “made of gold.” Well-versed in curative herbs, he can also understand the messages of obsidian and the stars. He is old, with “a frosty beard,” and as a tree, “the tree that walks,” he mysteriously appeared in the forest already mature.
During the full Owl-Fisherman moon, Master Almondtree decides (no reason is given) to apportion his soul out to the four roads. Each road has a color and name: “the black one, sorcerer night; the green, spring torment; the red, Guaycamayo or tropical ecstasy; white, promise of new lands.” The last three roads go off and meet something with a corresponding color—a white dove, a red heart, and a green vine—which tries to get their portions of the Master’s soul from them, but the three roads refuse to listen and keep going. Not so careful is the Black Road, “speediest of all,” which goes into town to the marketplace. There the Black Road meets the Merchant of Priceless Jewels and swaps him the Master’s soul “for a little rest.”
When the Master hears, he assumes human shape and heads for the city. In the marketplace he finds the Merchant of Priceless Jewels, who has the portion of his soul locked away in a box. The Master tries to buy it back, making numerous offers—“a hundred arrobas of pearls . . . a lake of emeralds . . . amulets, deers’ eyes to bring water, feathers against storms, marihuana for his tobacco”—but the Merchant will not sell. Instead, the Merchant intends to use the Master’s soul to purchase a beautiful slave girl. The Master departs, leaving behind his curse.
A year later, the Merchant and thirty of his servants are traveling on horseback along the mountain highways, returning home with the purchased slave girl. She is naked except for long black hair sweeping to her feet, while the gold-clad Merchant sports “a mantle of goat’s hair” on his shoulders. After telling her that she is worth her great price, the Merchant describes the life of ease they will enjoy together and the old woman who will tell their fortunes: “My destiny, she says, is the fingers of a gigantic hand.” Not replying, the slave girl stares at the horizon. Then, out of the peaceful sky, a fierce storm breaks on them. The horses spook, and the Merchant’s horse falls, dumping him at the base of a tree hit just then by lightning: “It seized him by its roots as a hand picks up a stone and flung him into the abyss.”
Back in the city, the Master has been roaming the streets during this time like a crazed man, speaking to animals, knocking on doors, and frightening people, who are “amazed at his green tunic and frosty beard as if confronted by an apparition.” As the full Owl-Fisherman moon comes around again, he knocks on the Merchant’s door. The beautiful slave, the only survivor of the terrible storm, answers. He twice asks her the question he has been asking everyone else: “For how many moons did the roads go traveling?” She does not reply; instead, they stand gazing deep into each other’s eyes.
They are interrupted by rude sounds, followed by the authorities, who arrest them “in the name of God and the King.” He is charged with “sorcery,” she with “being possessed by a demon.” After seven months in prison, they are sentenced to death by burning. The night before their scheduled execution, the Master comes to the beautiful slave girl, Tatuana, and uses his fingernails to tattoo the figure of a boat on her arm. He tells her to trace the same figure on the ground or in the air, step into it, and escape any danger. She will become as “free” and “invisible” as his thoughts. Following his instructions, Tatuana escapes. The next morning when the guards enter the prison, all they find is “a dry tree . . . on whose branches were two or three still frosty almond flowers.”