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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 753 words.)