The Mayan Caper

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(Excerpt from The Soft Machine)

William S. Burroughs

Joe Brundige brings you the shocking story of the Mayan Caper exclusive to The Evening News

A Russian scientist has said: “We will travel not only in space but in time as well” — I have just returned from a thousand-year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw — And to tell you how such time trips are made — It is a precise operation — It is difficult — It is dangerous — It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply — But it belongs to anyone who has the courage and know-how to enter — It belongs to you

I started my trip in the morgue with old newspapers, folding in today with yesterday and typing out composites — When you skip through a newspaper as most of us do you see a great deal more than you know — In fact you see it all on a subliminal level — Now when I fold today’s paper in with yesterday’s paper and arrange the pictures to form a time section montage, I am literally moving back to the time when I read yesterday’s paper, that is traveling in time back to yesterday — I did this eight hours a day for three months — I went back as far as the papers went — I dug out old magazines and forgotten novels and letters — I made fold-ins and composites and I did the same with photos —

The next step was carried out in a film studio — I learned to talk and think backward on all levels — This was done by running film and sound track backward — For example a picture of myself eating a full meal was reversed, from satiety back to hunger — First the film was run at normal speed, then in slow-motion — The same procedure was extended to other physiological processes including orgasm — (It was explained to me that I must put aside all sexual prudery and reticence, that sex was perhaps the heaviest anchor holding one in present time.) For three months I worked with the studio — My basic training in time travel was completed and I was now ready to train specifically for the Mayan assignment —

I went to Mexico City and studied the Mayans with a team of archaeologists — The Mayans lived in what is now Yucatan, British Honduras, and Guatemala — I will not recapitulate what is known of their history, but some observations on the Mayan calendar are essential to understanding this report — The Mayan calendar starts from a mythical date 5 Ahua 8 Cumhu and rolls on to the end of the world, also a definite date depicted in the codices as a God pouring water on the earth — The Mayans had a solar, a lunar, and a ceremonial calendar rolling along like interlocking wheels from 5 Ahua 8 Cumhu to the end — The absolute power of the priests, who formed about 2 percent of the population, depended on their control of this calendar — The extent of this number monopoly can be deduced from the fact that the Mayan verbal language contains no number above ten — Modern Mayan-speaking Indians use Spanish numerals — Mayan agriculture was of the slash and burn type — They had no plows. Plows can not be used in the Mayan area because there is a strata of limestone six inches beneath the surface and the slash and burn method is used to this day — Now slash and burn agriculture is a matter of precise timing — The brush must be cut at a certain time so it will have time to dry and the burning operation carried out before the rains start — A few days’ miscalculation and the year’s crop is lost —

The Mayan writings have not been fully deciphered, but we know that most of the hieroglyphs refer to dates in the calendar, and these numerals have been translated — It is probable that the other undeciphered symbols refer to the ceremonial calendar — There are only three Mayan codices in existence, one in Dresden, one in Paris, one in Madrid, the others having been burned by Bishop Landa — Mayan is very much a living language and in the more remote villages nothing else is spoken — More routine work — I studied Mayan and listened to it on the tape recorder and mixed Mayan in with English — I made innumerable photomontages of Mayan codices and artifacts — the next step was to find a “vessel” — We sifted through many candidates before settling on a young Mayan worker recently arrived from Yucatan — This boy was about twenty, almost black, with the sloping forehead and curved nose of the ancient Mayans — (The physical type has undergone little alteration) — He was illiterate — He had a history of epilepsy — He was what mediums call a “sensitive” — For another three months I worked with the boy on the tape recorder mixing his speech with mine — (I was quite fluent in Mayan at this point — Unlike Aztec it is an easy language.) It was time now for “the transfer operation” — “I” was to be moved into the body of this young Mayan — The operation is illegal and few are competent to practice it — I was referred to an American doctor who had become a heavy metal addict and lost his certificate — “He is the best transfer artist in the industry” I was told “For a price.”

We found the doctor in a dingy office on the Avenida Cinco de Mayo — He was a thin grey man who flickered in and out of focus like an old film — I told him what I wanted and he looked at me from a remote distance without warmth or hostility or any emotion I had ever experienced in myself or seen in another — He nodded silently and ordered the Mayan boy to strip, and ran practiced fingers over his naked body — The doctor picked up a box-like instrument with electrical attachments and moved it slowly up and down the boy’s back from the base of the spine to the neck — The instrument clicked like a Geiger counter — The doctor sat down and explained to me that the operation was usually performed with “the hanging technique” — The patient’s neck is broken and during the orgasm that results he passes into the other body — This method, however, was obsolete and dangerous — For the operation to succeed you must work with a pure vessel who has not been subject to parasite invasion — Such subjects are almost impossible to find in present time he stated flatly — His cold grey eyes flicked across the young Mayan’s naked body:

“This subject is riddled with parasites — If I were to employ the barbarous method used by some of my learned colleagues — (nameless assholes) — you would be eaten body and soul by crab parasites — My technique is quite different — I operate with molds — Your body will remain here intact in deepfreeze — On your return, if you do return, you can have it back.” He looked pointedly at my stomach sagging from sedentary city life — “You could do with a stomach tuck, young man — But one thing at a time — The transfer operation will take some weeks — And I warn you it will be expensive.”

I told him that cost was no object — The News was behind me all the way — He nodded briefly: “Come back at this time tomorrow.” When we returned to the doctor’s office he introduced me to a thin young man who had the doctor’s cool removed grey eyes — “This is my photographer — I will make my molds from his negatives.” The photographer told me his name was Jiminez — (“Just call me ‘Jimmy the Take'”) — We followed the “Take” to a studio in the same building equipped with a 35 millimeter movie camera and Mayan backdrops — He posed us naked in erection and orgasm, cutting the images in together down the middle line of our bodies — Three times a week we went to the doctor’s office — He looked through rolls of film his eyes intense, cold, impersonal — And ran the clicking box up and down our spines — Then he injected a drug which he described as a variation of the apomorphine formula — The injection caused simultaneous vomiting and orgasm and several times I found myself vomiting and ejaculating in the Mayan vessel — The doctor told me these exercises were only the preliminaries and that the actual operation, despite all precautions and skills, was still dangerous enough.

At the end of three weeks he indicated the time has come to operate — He arranged us side by side naked on the operating table under floodlights — With a phosphorescent pencil he traced the middle line of our bodies from the cleft under the nose down to the rectum — Then he injected a blue fluid of heavy cold silence as word dust fell from demagnetized patterns — From a remote Polar distance I could see the doctor separate the two halves of our bodies and fitting together a composite being — I came back in other flesh the lookout different, thoughts and memories of the young Mayan drifting through my brain —

The doctor gave me a bottle of the vomiting drug which he explained was efficacious in blocking out any control waves — He also gave me another drug which, if injected into a subject, would enable me to occupy his body for a few hours and only at night. “Don’t let the sun come up on you or it’s curtains — zero eaten by crab — And now there is the matter of my fee.”

I handed him a brief case of bank notes and he faded into the shadows furtive and seedy as an old junky.

The paper and the embassy had warned me that I would be on my own, a thousand years from any help — I had a vibrating camera gun sewed into my fly, a small tape recorder and a transistor radio concealed in a clay pot — I took a plane to Mérida where I set about contacting a “broker” who could put me in touch with a “time guide” — Most of these so-called “brokers” are old drunken frauds and my first contact was no exception — I had been warned to pay nothing until I was satisfied with the arrangements — I found this “broker” in a filthy hut on the outskirts surrounded by a rubbish heap of scrap iron, old bones, broken pottery and worked flints — I produced a bottle of aguardiente and the broker immediately threw down a plastic cup of the raw spirit and sat there swaying back and forth on a stool while I explained my business — He indicated that what I wanted was extremely difficult — Also dangerous and illegal — He could get into trouble — Besides I might be an informer from the Time Police — He would have to think about it — He drank two more cups of spirit and fell on the floor in a stupor — The following day I called again — He had thought it over and perhaps — In any case he would need a week to prepare his medicines and this he could only do if he were properly supplied with aguardiente — And he poured another glass of spirits slopping full — Extremely dissatisfied with the way things were going I left — As I was walking back toward town a boy fell in beside me.

“Hello, Meester, you look for broker yes? — Muy know good one — Him,” he gestured back toward the hut. “No good borracho son bitch bastard — Take mucho dinero — No do nothing — You come with me, Meester.”

Thinking I could not do worse, I accompanied the boy to another hut built on stilts over a pond — A youngish man greeted us and listened silently while I explained what I wanted — The boy squatted on the floor rolling a marijuana cigarette — He passed it around and we all smoked — The broker said yes he could make the arrangements and named a price considerably lower than what I had been told to expect — How soon? — He looked at a shelf where I could see a number of elaborate hourglasses with sand in different colors: red, green, black, blue, and white — The glasses were marked with symbols — He explained to me that the sand represented color time and color words — He pointed to a symbol on the green glass, “Then — One hour” — He took out some dried mushrooms and herbs and began cooking them in a clay pot — As green sand touched the symbol, he filled little clay cups and handed one to me and one to the boy — I drank the bitter medicine and almost immediately the pictures I had seen of Mayan artifacts and codices began moving in my brain like animated cartoons — A spermy, compost heap smell filled the room — The boy began to twitch and mutter and fell to the floor in a fit — I could see that he had an erection under his thin trousers — The broker opened the boy’s shirt and pulled off his pants — The penis flipped out spurting in orgasm after orgasm — A green light filled the room and burned through the boy’s flesh — Suddenly he sat up talking in Mayan — The words curled out his mouth and hung visible in the air like vine tendrils — I felt a strange vertigo which I recognized as the motion sickness of time travel — The broker smiled and held out a hand — I passed over his fee — The boy was putting on his clothes — He beckoned me to follow and I got up and left the hut — We were walking along a jungle hut the boy ahead his whole body alert and twitching like a dog — We walked many hours and it was dawn when we came to a clearing where I could see a number of workers with sharp sticks and gourds of seed planting corn — The boy touched my shoulder and disappeared up the path in jungle dawn mist —

As I stepped forward into the clearing and addressed one of the workers, I felt the crushing weight of evil insect control forcing my thoughts and feelings into prearranged molds, squeezing my spirit in a soft invisible vise — The worker looked at me with dead eyes empty of curiosity or welcome and silently handed me a planting stick — It was not unusual for strangers to wander in out of the jungle since the whole area was ravaged by soil exhaustion — So my presence occasioned no comment — I worked until sundown — I was assigned to a hut by an overseer who carried a carved stick and wore an elaborate headdress indicating his rank — I lay down in the hammock and immediately felt stabbing probes of telepathic interrogation — I turned on the thoughts of a half-witted young Indian — After some hours the invisible presence withdrew — I had passed the first test —

During the months that followed I worked in the fields — The monotony of this existence made my disguise as a mental defective quite easy — I learned that one could be transferred from field work to rock carving the stellae after a long apprenticeship and only after the priests were satisfied that any thought of resistance was forever extinguished — I decided to retain the anonymous status of a field worker and keep as far as possible out of notice —

A continuous round of festivals occupied our evenings and holidays — On these occasions the priests appeared in elaborate costumes, often disguised as centipedes or lobsters — Sacrifices were rare, but I witnessed one revolting ceremony in which a young captive was tied to a stake and the priests tore his sex off with white-hot copper claws — I learned also something of the horrible punishments meted out to anyone who dared challenge or even think of challenging the controllers: Death in the Ovens: The violator was placed in a construction of interlocking copper grills — The grills were then heated to white heat and slowly closed on his body. Death In Centipede: The “criminal” was strapped to a couch and eaten alive by giant centipedes — These executions were carried out secretly in rooms under the temple.

I made recordings of the festivals and the continuous music like a shrill insect frequency that followed the workers all day in the fields — However, I knew that to play these recordings would invite immediate detection — I needed not only the sound track of control but the image track as well before I could take definitive action — I have explained that the Mayan control system depends on the calendar and the codices which contain symbols representing all states of thought and feeling possible to human animals living under such limited circumstances — These are the instruments with which they rotate and control units of thought — I found out also that the priests themselves do not understand exactly how the system works and that I undoubtedly knew more about it than they did as a result of my intensive training and studies — The technicians who had devised the control system had died out and the present line of priests were in the position of some one who knows what buttons to push in order to set a machine in motion, but would have no idea how to fix that machine if it broke down, or to construct another if the machine were destroyed — If I could gain access to the codices and mix the sound and image track the priests would go on pressing the old buttons with unexpected results — In order to accomplish the purpose I prostituted myself to one of the priests — (Most distasteful thing I ever stood still for) — During the sex act he metamorphosed himself into a green crab from the waist up, retaining human legs and genitals that secreted a caustic erogenous slime, while a horrible stench filled the hut — I was able to endure these horrible encounters by promising myself the pleasure of killing this disgusting monster when the time came — And my reputation as an idiot was by now so well established that I escaped all but the most routine control measures —

The priest had me transferred to janitor work in the temple where I witnessed some executions and saw the prisoners torn body and soul into writhing insect fragments by the ovens, and learned that the giant centipedes were born in the ovens from these mutilated screaming fragments — It was time to act — Using the drug the doctor had given me, I took over the priest’s body, gained access to the room where the codices were kept, and photographed the books — Equipped now with sound and image track of the control machine I was in position to dismantle it — I had only to mix the order of recordings and the order of images and the changed order would be picked up and fed back into the machine — I had recordings of all agricultural operations, cutting and burning brush etc. — I now correlated the recordings of burning brush with the image track of this operation, and shuffled the time so that the order to burn came late and a year’s crop was lost — Famine weakening control lines, I cut radio static into the control music and festival recordings together with sound and image track rebellion.

“Cut word lines — Cut music lines — Smash the control images — Smash the control machine — Burn the books — Kill the priests — Kill! Kill! Kill! — ”

Inexorably as the machine had controlled thought feeling and sensory impressions of the workers, the machine now gave the order to dismantle itself and kill the priests — I had the satisfaction of seeing the overseer pegged out in the field, his intestines perforated with hot planting sticks and crammed with corn — I broke out my camera gun and rushed the temple — This weapon takes and vibrates image to radio static — You see the priests were nothing but word and image, an old film rolling on and on with dead actors — Priests and temple guards went up in silver smoke as I blasted my way into the control room and burned the codices — Earthquake tremors under my feet I got out of there fast, blocks of limestone raining all around me — A great weight fell from the sky, winds of the earth whipping palm trees to the ground — Tidal waves rolled over the Mayan control calendar.

The Soft Machine was originally published in June 1961 by Olympia Press in Paris. On the cover was a calligraphic drawing by Brion Gysin. (Maynard & Miles A5a) Burroughs then revised the text and it was published in 1966 by Grove Press in New York. On the cover of this edition was a calligraphic drawing by Burroughs himself. (Maynard & Miles A5b)

One thought on “The Mayan Caper

  1. does anyone know if there is an audio recording of burroughs reading ‘the mayan caper’? would love to hear it, but haven’t been able to fing one as of yet…

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