Paired Prose: The Golden Bird

This week’s prompt for Paired Prose is “crush!” Be sure to check out Aaron’s entry, The Crush.

The gray stone blocks, crumbling and faded by the elements, formed a squat pyramid enveloped in the dense foliage of the jungle surrounding it. Ramirez and I stood at its foot, staring in awe at the entrance thirty feet above us at the peak of a steep staircase. My partner gave a whoop of joy, pumping his fist in the air triumphantly.

“Four days of hacking our way through the jungle, three nights of mosquitoes the size of my thumb, and there she is, amigo! We’re rich!”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I said. “We don’t know what we’ll find inside. Could be we’re not the first folks to find this place. Could be the Mayans laced the place with subtle traps.”

Ramirez stroked his bushy black mustache thoughtfully.

“Ah, you worry to much, Alan. This is it! The ruin we’ve been hunting for years! In there we’ll find the lost treasure of Mu. Ay, I can feel it singing to me, can’t you?”

He guffawed, throwing back his head. Ramirez was a year older than me, but he had the mirth of a much younger man. The recklessness, too. The man was a talented archaeologist and never shied away from a challenge, but that kind of fearlessness can be a double edged sword. When the going gets tough, it’s always the fearless people that make mistakes.

Me, I’m the cautious type. I like to plan my moves, to research my subjects meticulously. Even now the pockets of my sun-faded vest were stuffed with tools, notations, bottles of antivenom, measuring devices, a weapon or two, and even a good luck charm. We complemented each other. It’s why we made such a good team, and it’s what led us to this temple that received only the vaguest mention in the most obscure Mayan codex.

There was no sense beating around the bush. I may be circumspect, but I could hear the call of the ruins as surely as Ramirez. We practically ran up the steps, breathless by the time we summitted the pyramid, and stepped through the portal into the temple. The light from outside cast dim shadows around the chamber within, so we flicked on our flashlights and took a look around.

The room was rather small, with an altar on one side adorned with typical carvings of a massive bird flying near the sun, its tail feathers curling majestically.

“Entrance to the vault has got to be around here somewhere,” mused Ramirez out loud. He started pacing around the room anxiously, prodding and pulling any stone that might be loose. I took a closer look at the sun, tracing the concentric geometric grooves which ringed a carving of a face in the center. And there, on the face’s right eye, the slightest dimple…

I pressed the eye. It slid inward an inch, and the sound of stone grinding on stone could be heard from all around us, echoing through the rock. We felt a rumbling beneath our feet, and a section of the floor dropped down a foot before sliding away. The ancient mechanism had revealed the secret entrance to the vault, where I was sure the secrets of Mu awaited us.

“You did it again, amigo!” said Ramirez. “That brain of yours is worth ten times its weight in gold!”

He rushed to the newly opened aperture, impatient as ever, and climbed down onto the revealed staircase below. I could only chuckle and hurry after him.

The stairs took us deep into the bowels of the temple. When we at last reached the bottom we had descended below the surface of the earth, and the stone was cool to the touch. A carved archway opened into a circular chamber with a series of concentric steps leading down to a low central area. The tall ceiling was lost in the gloom above us. In the very center of the room was a pillar which stood at least fifteen feet high, higher even than me standing on Ramirez’s shoulders. When we aimed our lights at the top, we could just make out a glittering gold object resting there.

“Cojeme,” said Ramirez, rubbing his mustache. “What do we do now, Alan? Did we come all this way only to be laughed at?”

“Don’t give up yet,” I said. “Let’s take a look around.”

We walked around the room in opposite directions, me silently taking in the glyphs carved into the walls, Ramirez muttering darkly under his breath in Spanish. After making a lap of the room I moved toward the pillar in the center. That’s when I noticed the plates.

“Take a look at this!” I called. Ramirez trotted over, his interest piqued again, and I showed him what I’d found. Set into the stone floor on opposite sides of the pillar where two square stone plates, raised a half inch above the ground. I stood on one, and there was a thunk of a gear sliding into place somewhere beneath us. Ramirez stood on the other, and the room instantly began to shudder as a low rumble emanated from the stones all around us. Dust and pebbles fell like rain from the vaulted ceiling, and the pillar sank slowly into the ground with a grinding sound. It felt like the whole temple might shake itself apart, but eventually the rumbling ceased. The pillar was now only five feet off the ground, and on it was a glittering gold statue of a bird with elegant plumage, the same one we’d seen up above, untouched by human hands for centuries.

“Dios mio,” whispered Ramirez. “It’s beautiful.”

I felt a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, and a bit of the glyphs I’d managed to decipher came back to me.

“Don’t move!” I shouted before Ramirez could step forward off his plate. I shined my light above us, and on the ceiling high above we could make out two huge boulders, suspended precariously above each of the plates on which we now stood. “It’s a trap,” I said. “If we move, we die.”

“Great,” said Ramirez. “So what do we do now?”

I closed my eyes and thought about the glyphs I’d read. They could only mean one thing, and my heart sunk with the realization.

“It’s rigged up so only one of us can get the treasure. If one of us moves, the other gets crushed.”

Ramirez sighed long and hard and gave me a sad smile.

“That’s too bad,” he said. “All partnerships gotta end sometime, though. No hard feelings, eh, amigo?”

With that he stepped off his plate. There was a snap as a rope broke above us. Ramirez looked up, horrified, as the shadow of the boulder above him suddenly grew larger on his face. His mouth dropped open in horror, and he only had time to shout the vitriolic beginning of what I assumed was “bastardo” before the boulder smashed into my partner, crushing his body into a gory red paste.

I shook my head sadly and stepped off my own plate, the trap now safely disarmed. It had been wrong to lie to Ramirez about what the glyphs said, but it was really his fault for never learning Mayan. He had tried to kill me, anyway, so I couldn’t feel too bad for him. It was too bad, like he said, and I knew Maria was going to kill me when I told her what happened to her husband, but at the moment my gaze was transfixed by the golden bird, the treasure of Mu, the object archaeologists had quested after for a hundred years. Ramirez’s lust for it had killed him in the end, and now the bird was mine, all mine.

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