Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
An Ancient Well
By John Lloyd Stephens (18051852)
[Born in Shrewsbury, N. J., 1805. Died in New York, N. Y., 1852. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. 1843.]
XCOCH was but a league distant, and, besides the ruins of buildings, it contained an ancient poso, or well, of mysterious and marvellous reputation, the fame of which was in everybodys mouth. This well was said to be a vast subterraneous structure, adorned with sculptured figures, an immense table of polished stone, and a plaza with columns supporting a vaulted roof, and it was said to have a subterraneous road, which led to the village of Mani, twenty-seven miles distant .
It was a wild-looking place, and had a fanciful, mysterious, and almost fearful appearance; for while in the grove all was close and sultry, and without a breath of air, and every leaf was still, within this cavity the branches and leaves were violently agitated, as if shaken by an invisible hand.
This cavity was the entrance to the poso, or well, and its appearance was wild enough to bear out the wildest accounts we had heard of it. We descended to the bottom. At one corner was a rude natural opening in a great mass of limestone rock, low and narrow, through which rushed constantly a powerful current of wind, agitating the branches and leaves in the area without. This was the mouth of the well, and on our first attempting to enter it the rush of wind was so strong that it made us fall back gasping for breath, confirming the accounts we had heard in Nohcacab. Our Indians had for torches long strips of the castor-oil plant, which the wind only ignited more thoroughly, and with these they led the way. It was one of the marvels told us of this place, that it was impossible to enter after twelve oclock. This hour was already past; we had not made the preparations which were said to be necessary, and, without knowing how far we should be able to continue, we followed our guides, other Indians coming after us with coils of rope.
The entrance was about three feet high and four or five wide. It was so low that we were obliged to crawl on our hands and feet, and descended at an angle of about fifteen degrees in a northerly direction. The wind, collecting in the recesses of the cave, rushed through this passage with such force that we could scarcely breathe; and as we all had in us the seeds of fever and ague, we very much doubted the propriety of going on, but curiosity was stronger than discretion, and we proceeded. In the floor of the passage was a single track, worn two or three inches deep by long-continued treading of feet, and the roof was incrusted with a coat of smoke from the flaring torches. The labor of crawling through this passage with the body bent, and against the rush of cold air, made a rather severe beginning, and, probably, if we had undertaken the enterprise alone we should have turned back.
At the distance of a hundred and fifty or two hundred feet the passage enlarged to an irregular cavern, forty or fifty feet wide and ten or fifteen high. We no longer felt the rush of cold wind, and the temperature was sensibly warmer. The sides and roof were of rough, broken stone, and through the centre ran the same worn path. From this passage others branched off to the right and left, and in passing along it, at one place the Indians held their torches down to a block of sculptured stone. We had, of course, already satisfied ourselves that the cave or passage, whatever it might lead to, was the work of nature, and had given up all expectation of seeing the great monuments of art which had been described to us; but the sight of this block encouraged us with the hope that the accounts might have some foundation. Very soon, however, our hopes on this head were materially abated, if not destroyed, by reaching what the Indians had described as a mesa, or table. This had been a great item in all the accounts, and was described as made by hand and highly polished. It was simply a huge block of rude stone, the top of which happened to be smooth, but entirely in a state of nature. Beyond this we passed into a large opening of an irregular circular form, being what had been described to us as a plaza. Here the Indians stopped and flared their torches. It was a great vaulted chamber of stone, with a high roof supported by enormous stalactite pillars, which were what the Indians had called the columns, and though entirely different from what we had expected, the effect under the torchlight, and heightened by the wild figures of the Indians, was grand, and almost repaid us for all our trouble. This plaza lay at one side of the regular path, and we remained in it some minutes to refresh ourselves, for the closeness of the passage and the heat and smoke were becoming almost intolerable.
Farther on we climbed up a high, broken piece of rock, and descended again by a low, narrow opening, through which we were obliged to crawl, and which, from its own closeness, and the heat and smoke of the torches, and the labor of crawling through it, was so hot that we were panting with exhaustion and thirst. This brought us to a rugged, perpendicular hole, three or four feet in diameter, with steps barely large enough for a foothold, worn in the rock. We descended with some difficulty, and at the foot came out upon a ledge of rock, which ran up on the right to a great height, while on the left was a deep, yawning chasm. A few rude logs were laid along the edge of this chasm, which, with a pole for a railing, served as a bridge, and, with the torchlight thrown into the abyss below, made a wild crossing-place; the passage then turned to the right, contracting to about three feet in height and the same in width, and descending rapidly. We were again obliged to betake ourselves to crawling, and again the heat became insufferable. Indeed, we went on with some apprehensions. To faint in one of those narrow passages, so far removed from a breath of air, would be almost to die there. As to carrying a man out, it was impossible for either of us to do more than drag himself along, and I believe that there could have been no help from the Indians.
This passage continued fifty or sixty feet, when it doubled on itself, still contracted as before, and still rapidly descending. It then enlarged to a rather spacious cavern, and took a southwest direction, after which there was another perpendicular hole, leading, by means of a rude and rickety ladder, to a steep, low, crooked, and crawling passage, descending until it opened into a large broken chamber, at one end of which was a deep hole or basin of water .
The water was in a deep, stony basin, running under a shelf of overhanging rock, with a pole laid across on one side, over which the Indians leaned to dip it up with their calabashes; and this alone, if we had wanted other proof, was confirmation that the place had been used as a well.
But at the moment it was a matter of very little consequence to us whether any living being had ever drunk from it before; the sight of it was more welcome to us than gold or rubies. We were dripping with sweat, black with smoke, and perishing with thirst. It lay before us in its stony basin, clear and inviting, but it was completely out of reach; the basin was so deep that we could not reach the water with our hands, and we had no vessel of any kind to dip it out with. In our entire ignorance of the character of the place, we had not made any provision, and the Indians had only brought what they were told to bring. I crawled down on one side, and dipped up a little with one hand; but it was a scanty supply, and with this water before us we were compelled to go away with our thirst unsatisfied. Fortunately, however, after crawling back through the first narrow passage, we found some fragments of a broken water-jar, with which the Indians returned and brought us enough to cool our tongues.
In going down we had scarcely noticed anything except the wild path before us; but, having now some knowledge of the place, the labor was not so great, and we inquired for the passage which the Indians had told us led to Mani. On reaching it, we turned off, and, after following it a short distance, found it completely stopped by a natural closing of the rock. From the best information we could get, although all said the passage led to Mani, we were satisfied that the Indians had never attempted to explore it. It did not lead to the water, nor out of the cave, and our guides had never entered it before .
As we advanced, we remained a little while in the cooler atmosphere before exposing ourselves to the rush of cold air toward the mouth, and in an hour and a half from the time of entering, we emerged into the outer air.
As a mere cave, this was extraordinary; but as a well or watering-place for an ancient city, it was past belief, except for the proofs under our own eyes. Around it were the ruins of a city without any other visible means of supply, and, what rarely happened, with the Indians it was matter of traditionary knowledge. They say that it was not discovered by them; it was used by their fathers; they did not know when it began to be used. They ascribe it to that remote people whom they refer to as the antiguos.
And a strong circumstance to induce the belief that it was once used by the inhabitants of a populous city, is the deep track worn in the rock. For ages the region around has been desolate, or occupied only by a few Indians during the time of working in the milpas. Their straggling footsteps would never have made that deep track. It could only have been made by the constant and long-continued tread of thousands.