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Woman of a Thousand Secrets


Wood crafts a complex and compelling pre-Columbian world.  Publisher's weekly


(image of Woman of a Thousand Secrets by Barbara Wood)

Tonina came from the sea: a baby found floating in a basket: A "gift from the gods" her adoptive grandmother told her.

She doesn't look like the other villagers of Pearl Island. She is tall, lean and light-skinned, and considered "ugly". Tonina longs to know where she comes from and what lies on the other side of the ocean, beyond her small island.

A cruel trick leads Tonina away from the protective cove of her family to a new land: the land of the Maya, where she embarks on a quest to find a mysterious red flower with healing qualities. A flower that she believes will cure her ailing grandfather.

Her quest leads her on an epic and dangerous adventure through the rain forests of the Yucatan, the jungles of Guatemala, and into the ancient land of Mexico. She encounters a new and different people and in so doing, discovers the mysteries of her past.

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Excerpt from Woman of a Thousand Secrets


Chapter 1

Revenge was in Macu's heart as he searched for the girl who had humiliated his brother.
     Pretending to be interested in her as a prospective bride, he asked about Tonina in the village and was told that she could be found on the beach of the western lagoon, where the pearl divers were hauling in their oyster catch for the day.
     Macu's brother, who was at that moment on the other side of the island with their canoe, had begged Macu not to go.  It was bad enough a girl had bested him in a swimming contest, but Macu exacting revenge would only make matters worse.  "She is a better swimmer," Awak had said.  "You cannot beat her, Brother."  But twenty-two-year-old Macu of nearby Half Moon Island was proud and vain and despised girls who thought they were better than men.
     Pearl Island was a small, verdant dot on the green sea off the western tip of a land mass that would one day be called Cuba, and it had only two accessible harbors: the western lagoon, and a cove on the northern tip, where Macu and his friends had paddled their canoe between rocky shoals and made landfall on a tiny beach.  From there, a trail led through dense trees and brush to a lively, bustling village where children played, women stirred cooking pots, and men toiled in tobacco drying sheds.
     As Macu marched through the settlement and down to the beach, he was followed by an excited entourage.  He ignored the chatter as he curled his hands into fists, vowing to exact revenge.  He strode with a firm step across the hot white sand where egrets and pelicans flew up out of his way, and men looked up, startled, from their work repairing canoes and fishing nets.  Naked children digging for clams in the calm, warm surf of the peaceful lagoon watched in curiosity as the stranger marched past.
     Macu was dark brown, stocky and muscular, his nearly naked body scarred and tattooed with myriad symbols and decorations.  His black hair hung long, indicating his unmarried state, and besides a loincloth made of woven palm fibers, he wore numerous necklaces and protective amulets.  That he was an outsider was evident by the clan tattoo on his forehead.  The group that followed him beneath the warm tropical sun, traipsing over the wide swath of sand between the lime-green lagoon and the lush inland jungle, was made up of the young men who had accompanied him from Half Moon Island, and a few villagers who had abandoned their labors as they sensed an afternoon's diversion.
     A man was showing interest in poor, plain Tonina!
     The pearl divers were clustered at the end of the beach where a rocky cliff rose against the sea.  Ranging in age from twelve to twenty-three, the girls' dark brown bodies glistened with sea water, and they laughed and joked as they unloaded nets of oysters from their canoes, piling the shells onto the cool sand beneath shady coconut palms.  Although Macu had never met or seen the girl he had come to challenge, he was able to spot her at once.  "She isn't beautiful," his brother had said.  "In fact, she's homely."  He had gone on to describe her so that Macu's eyes went straight to the grass-skirted girl called Tonina.
     His brother was right.  Although Tonina's hair was worn long and loose and decorated with many shells,  and although her face and arms were painted with myriad white symbols and designs, she was not at all fetching.  No wonder she was still unmarried.  Everything about Tonina was wrong.  Her coloring was too light, her hips too narrow, her waist too slender and, by the gods, Awak had spoken the truth: the girl was tall.  If Macu had not seen the swelling breasts, golden-skinned and still wet from her dive, he might have suspected she was a man.  
     Macu raised a hand in friendly greeting and called, "Hello!"
     The girls turned and, taking stock of the attractive young man, immediately adopted flirtatious attitudes.
     Tonina paid no attention at first - young men never looked at her - until she realized in shock that the charming smile was directed at her.  She wondered why, having no idea that he was the brother of a young man she had bested at swimming days ago.  
     As Macu took the measure of this tall, plain girl, he thought of his cunning plan to get back at her for what she had done to Awak.  A plan that involved the ghost of an ancient sea monster.
     All the nearby islands knew the legend of the beast that slept in a forbidden area of Pearl Island's lagoon, near the opening in the barrier reef, where the calm water met the choppy sea.  It was said that the skeleton of an enormous sea monster occupied the ocean floor there, and that the monster's ghost haunted the waters.  
     No one swam there, ever.
     Because Macu had not grown up here, fear of the sea monster's spirit had not been cultivated in him.  But he knew that Tonina had lived her life hearing about the ghost and would be terrified to swim near it.  Beneath the warm afternoon sun, as trade winds whispered through the swaying palm trees and gulls circled overhead, Macu played his role to perfection.  
     "Are you the one called Tonina?" he asked.
     Tonina smiled shyly, unused to male attention.  Boys did not like girls taller than themselves, but as Macu was of equal height, she decided he must not mind. 
     As the pearl divers stood in a group around the two, their curiosity piqued, Macu introduced himself to Tonina and boasted about his skill and prowess at spear fishing, as was the custom when beginning a courtship.  He exaggerated his accomplishments as he carefully laid his trap.  The islands' courting ritual involved each prospective partner proving himself or herself.  
     Secretly pleased with his cleverness, Macu fixed his smiling eyes on Tonina as he said, "Are you brave enough to swim with me to the haunted place and bring back one of the monster's bones?"

     "Guama!  There is a boy here from Half Moon Island.  He is interested in Tonina!"
     Tonina's grandmother, in the tobacco shed rolling leaves into cigars, looked up.  "What?  A boy?  Are you sure?"
     "They are at the lagoon.  And he is challenging her to a contest!"
     Guama blinked.  A boy was interested in her granddaughter?  Tonina was twenty-one years old and still unmarried.  Every spring, when boys and men from other islands came to Pearl Island to select a bride, Tonina was always overlooked.  So why was this boy from Half Moon Island suddenly showing such interest?  Had the impossible finally happened?
     Guama prayed so.  The girl must get married, otherwise what sort of life would she have?  With no children to raise, no man to cook for, what use was a woman?  Tonina was a fine pearl diver, one of the best, but pearl divers did not live long.  
     As she followed the boy down to the beach, old Guama remembered the swimming contest a few days prior, when Tonina had bested all the boys, even though Guama was always telling her she must let the boys win.  Unfortunately, Tonina was cursed with an ingrained honesty that wouldn't allow her to cheat.  
     "What sort of contest?" Guama asked now, suddenly suspicious.
     "To swim out to the bones of the sea monster."
     "Guay!" the old woman cried, voicing her dismay with a word that, in the language of the islanders, conveyed pain, surprise or distress.  She broke into a sprint, running as fast as her ancient legs could go.


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Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Wood. All rights reserved.