Portal to the Underworld

Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman, is a roller coaster ride of emotion – from the heights of love to the depths of loss, Goldman relates the story of his life with Aura Estrada, a beautiful young graduate student with whom Goldman, a self professed ninote, or man-child, fell desperately in love.

Smack-dab in the middle of the book, there are two pages of splendid nature writing which immediately caught my eye, probably because I was recently working on a nature themed essay for the Creative Nonfiction class I’ve been taking. Francisco and Aura are in Mexico, on what will turn out to be the last vacation of their lives, because within just  a few days Aura will perish in a swimming accident. They stumble across as cenote, which I learned (after a bit of research) is a sinkhole containing groundwater with exposed rocky edges, typically found in the Yucatan Peninsula or the Caribbean.  Reading and writing are becoming more intricately linked together in my mind than ever before, as I work on new aspects of my writing and turn to reading even more often for inspiration and instruction. These pages seemed exemplary of the way in which nature “embodies aspects of the human condition*,” as Goldman sees the cenote in its mythological form as way to reunite with his lost love.

Crevice: cenote. On the dirt road just past our hotel in Tulum, before you entered the Maya Biosphere Reserve, there was a small cenote by the side of the road, a seemingly bottomless crevice filled with the crystalline water of a subterranean river. We pulled our rental car over – we were in bathing suits – and got out to swim alongside the local kids who climbed up into the scraggly trees on the banks to dive into the water. I did that, too, provoking shy grins and laughter, launching hairy-belly-hanging-over-bathing-suit and winter-pale torso into the air, making a big splash as I went under, driving my arms and kicking as hard as I could to see how deep I could go into the chilly purplish depths until, overcome by fear of accidentally swimming into a cave and not being able to escape, I turned and kicked frantically upward. The Yucatan peninsula, we learned from my travel book, is one immense slap of brittle limestone, flattened millions of  years ago by a giant meteor, the impact filling it with deep fissures and cracks through which all rainwater seeps, feeding the underground rivers running beneath the peninsula’s arid surface. Whenever there’s a collapse of rock above a watery void, or the shifting of tectonic plates opens a crevice in the limestone strata a cenote if formed.

Portal to the underworld is how Aura and I heard the guide at a Mayan ruin site explain a cenote to his package-tour gaggle, that one’s smooth pea-green surface hiding the sinkhole’s murky depths and the skeletons of human sacrifice victims tossed in after their hearts were cut out.


Sometimes I think that if cenotes really are portholes to the underworld and I can go through one and be reunited with Aura, it’s on the shores of that jungle lagoon that I’ll come out and find her waiting.

*from Tell It Slant, Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola


One thought on “Portal to the Underworld

  1. What a beautiful passage! There’s something so haunting and sad and yet strikingly beautiful about the idea of a literal passage to the underworld, of being able to enter a natural formation and this world and end up…somewhere else. Thank you so much for sharing what sounds like a great book, and I totally know what you mean about reading and writing growing closer and closer the more you do both. Here’s wishing you good luck on merging the two even more!

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