Viking Love
By Marta Palos

The Swede, as his friends called him, took no notice of the storm brewing above his head. Lost in the Mayan past, he sat on the shore of Tulúm and watched a large dugout canoe arrive, laden with goods brought home from distant ports.

To his disappointment, before the Indians could beach the dugout a towering wave washed them out of sight.

Now a girl emerged from the ruins on the hill behind him, walking his way, her feet barely touching the white sand. In her hands she carried a clay bowl. Her slender body wrapped in a piece of jaguar skin, her black hair piled high on her head, she made him forget Karen for the moment, the real woman in his life who should have been with him today but wasn't.

On reaching him, the girl knelt down and removed the green leaf from the top of the bowl. "May this meal keep you in good health, Daniel Ingborg," she said, her head bowed in reverence. "I prepared it exclusively for you."

Once in a while Karen cooked but not exclusively for him, and she never bowed her head in reverence or otherwise.

About to take a closer look at his dinner, he heard the first thunder. The wind rose and blew girl and bowl out of sight. Somewhere around the ruins lightning struck. The gusts tore at the trees surrounding the small pyramids, the snakes in the underbrush took refuge in the temples.

The rain, coming down hard and cold, stung his scalp and neck and his sunburned arms, soaked his clothes through in seconds. He ran up the sandbar toward the ruins. Just before he reached a small temple next to a pyramid, the rain turned into hail. He took shelter under a canvas tarp fastened to wooden posts in front of the building, the awning set up by workers to protect the murals from sun and rain.

Changing direction from vertical to nearly horizontal, the shower of hail was now beating on his legs and chest. Behind a frayed sisal cordon the temple stood open. A musty smell caught his nostrils as he stepped inside. Except for the entrance door behind him, the room had no other source of light.

He stood still until his eyes began to adapt to the dark. A wheelbarrow in one corner came into focus, next to it lay an empty cement bag. Paintings covered the wall on his right, the colors better preserved than on the stucco outside.

Karen would trace her fingers now over the faded headdresses of the ghostly priests, careful not to touch the flaking paint. She had great respect for ancient art, but less and less for him, as time passed.

If she came along and no storm raged outside, he would tear a piece of vine from the jungle brush growing thick around the temples, drape it around his head and go thump thump in front of the murals, making war sounds. "How goofy can you get?" Karen would scowl. "Can't you just simply admire these things? Where's your Swede dignity?"

Karen of the cascading light brown hair and sober disposition liked to refer to his Scandinavian forebears. They lived in her imagination as brave, sea-roving men, who had also rescued ladies in distress beside plundering the coasts of Europe.

The last true Swede in his family was his grandfather. He still spoke the language, and among his possessions he guarded a broken gold ornament that once used to adorn the sheath of a Viking dagger. Daniel kept an old photo of him on his bedroom wall, taken in his early fifties. The resemblance between grandfather and grandson was striking: the same small nose, the blond hair, the same tendency to gain weight if they didn't watch out. When the old man died, the family's last bit of Norsemen connection also went with him.

Karen's decision not to come with him to Yucatán was her way of saying good-bye to their long and torturous affair. For all the difference in character between them, she was at least straightforward, and since this meant no unpleasant surprises, two years ago Daniel asked her to marry him. Yes, she would, she said, if he only could take life a bit more seriously. But that he couldn't promise. Not even now, at thirty-two, was he ready to make promises of the kind.

He sat on the dirt floor, facing the storm. Though the hail changed back to rain, the ground was still white with it, the pea-size pellets slowly melting in the puddles of water. In the near distance lightning struck with more frequency than before, thunders shook the building.

In the lull between two thunders he heard a noise behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the dark head of a snake sticking out from under the empty cement bag. The snake, for all he knew, could be poisonous — did vipers exist in Yucatán? He slowly raised himself from the floor and looked around for a weapon, but found nothing on the smooth dirt floor. Mesmerized, he watched the slender creature advance along the base of the wall to his right. Now it stopped, raised its head and began to slide toward him. Either he'll let himself be bitten, he thought, or he'll have to run into the storm.

He ran into the storm. His rented Volkswagen sat in a parking lot about half a mile from the ruin. While he ran for it, he heard laughter behind him. He glanced back. Two native girls were trying to keep up with him, holding burlap sacks over their heads.

Without stopping, he searched for the keys in his shorts pocket. At last the car came in sight, somewhat protected under a big tree from the driving rain. He opened both doors, and as the girls where about to dash past him, he motioned to them to climb in. The taller of the two stopped, the other kept on running toward a cluster of shacks in the distance.

The girl dropped the burlap sack to the ground, took the passenger seat and began to talk. Daniel tried to decipher her rapid-fire Spanish, but gave it up and watched her lips move.

Although she was not as beautiful as the ghost girl on the beach, she had the same arched eyebrows, the same black, slanted eyes. Her straight, shoulder-length hair was dripping rain down her cotton shirt, the wraparound skirt clung wet to her thighs. Water from their clothes began to gather into little pools on the car floor, mist fogged the windshield.

"Americano?" she touched Daniel's arm.

He nodded. The girl said something about Mérida. In his halting Spanish, he asked her to speak slower.

"I said I went to Mérida once," she said, now keeping a pause after each word. "I saw lots of Americanos there. My name is Itzá. What's yours?"

"Daniel Ingborg."

"A pretty name. I live in the town of Tulúm. I am twenty-two. I was married but my husband broke his neck."

"He what?"

"Broke his neck." She pointed at Daniel's neck and made a twisting motion with her hands. "He fell from a tree. I have five brothers. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Only if you speak slowly. What were you doing at the ruins?"

"I wasn't at the ruins. We harvest chicle." She held up an arm. "This is

the sapodilla tree, see? Now you cut, like this." She slashed her arm with an imaginary knife. "And then you collect the milk. And you? What do you do for a living?"

"Well, I draw things." He draw lines into the fog on the windshield.

"What things?"

"Whatever they want me to draw."

"And they pay you for it?" she laughed, her teeth flashing white against her brown complexion. "Do you have brothers and sisters?"

"Two brothers."

"And mamá and papá?"

"And mamá and papá, yes."

"And wife, too?"

"No, no wife."

"Does this work?" Itzá pointed at the car radio.

"It works."

"Turn it on, por favor. Don't you like music?"

He caught a station blaring American rock, mixed with lots of static. Itzá's bare feet started to move to the rhythm.

"Let's dance, Daniel."

Glad to be in a dry place, he shook his head. The girl got out of the car and began to dance under the big tree. He opened the window.

"You'll catch a cold," he said, imitating a sneeze.

"Come on, dance with me,' she said. "Don't be afraid of the rain."

The rock changed to a slower tune. He climbed out of the car, drew her close and they danced in the pouring rain. She stood on tiptoe, drew his head close and kissed his neck.

"You taste salty," she laughed.

He kissed her on the mouth. "You taste like papaya."

"I think I love you," she said.

And I'm a Viking, he said to himself. And I'm going to kidnap you from Yucatán.