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St. John USVI Stories: Xtabay Woman
Excepted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean

Jumbie Tree

An ancient Mayan legend warns young men out walking at night of an evil spirit that takes the form of a beautiful woman. The name of this evil spirit is the Xtabay (pronounced Shta-bye). She is said to hide in the buttressed trunk of the kapok tree, which the Mayans call ceiba. If, while passing this tree at night, you catch a fleeting glimpse of an enchanting woman combing her long hair with cactus spines, or if you hear a soft whispered phrase or a sweet song of love, do not look up. Avert your gaze and walk in the center of the path. Avoid the thick bush on the sides of the road from which the spirit may emerge, for if you are unfortunate enough to gaze into the eyes of this bewitching and seductive creature, she will cast a spell on you and you will be overwhelmed by love. She will beckon you to come closer and you will not be able to resist her passionate embrace, which will cause you to fall into a deep and hypnotic sleep. When you awake you will find that you have been embracing a spiny cactus and the wounds that you receive may result in a fever that is very often fatal. Beware!

Many people think that the Xtabay comes from the ceiba. This is not true. The Ceiba is sacred and good and does not bear evil fruit much less one as malignant as the Xtabay. The Xtabay was born of an evil and spiny weed and only uses the Ceiba to hide herself in its buttressed trunk, which is her home and from where she suddenly comes out to surprise her victims.

The following is the story of how the evil Xtabay woman came to haunt the tropical forests of the Western Caribbean:

Once upon a time in an ancient Mayan village there lived two women who happened to be born at the same time and on the same day. Both of them were extremely beautiful, but one was known to give herself, body and spirit, to whatever man desired her. Because of this, she was called the Xkeban (pronounced ske-ban), which in Mayan means "sinner, whore or giver of illicit sex". It was for this reason that many of the villagers despised her, and she was often taunted and mistreated.

In spite of what people thought about her, however, the Xkeban had a pure and noble heart. She took care of the sick, gave to the needy and even sold the jewels and finery that were given to her by her many lovers to feed the hungry and help the poor. She was the only one in the village to take care of animals that had been abandoned when they were no longer useful. She was loving and humble and never spoke poorly of anyone.

The other woman was pure of body and never gave herself to any man. The villagers called her the Utz-colel, which in Mayan means "virtuous, clean and decent". Because of this, she enjoyed the respect and admiration of the people.

The Utz-colel, on the other hand, was haughty, arrogant, rigid and egotistical. She never gave anything to beggars, pointing out that one should never encourage vagrancy. She treated the humble, the needy and the poor as weaklings and inferiors and held special disdain for those who had committed sins of love. She never cared for sick friends or relatives because illness was repugnant to her. Deep down she was insensitive, uncaring and selfish and her heart was as cold as the cadaver of a rattlesnake.

One day the people of the village began to notice a scent in the air. It was penetrating, yet gentle, light and pleasant. The people in the village followed the scent, which came from the house of the Xkeban. The villagers then realized that it had been several days since anyone had seen her. They called out and when no one answered they opened the door and went inside. There they found the Xkeban dead, abandoned by the people of the village, but cared for by the animals. It was from her dead body that the mysterious and divine odor was emanating.

When news of the death of the Xkeban in conjunction with the mysterious heavenly fragrance, reached the ears of the Utz-colel, she said that the people must be lying or mistaken. She said that any odor coming as it did from a sinner would be harmful and should be avoided. This is what she said, but being curious she went to the house of the Xkeban to find out for herself. Even after she personally smelled the pleasant and gentle aroma, however, she refused to reconsider her position. Out of envy she reported to the villagers that bad spirits were causing the odor in order to intoxicate the men of the village. She then arrogantly added that if the body of a sinner had such a pleasant odor, how much better she, a virtuous woman, would smell when she died.

Only the dregs of society, those marginalized by misery, old age, and sickness, attended to the burial of the Xkeban. Strangely enough, however, the road leading to the cemetery kept the wonderful fragrance for three days after the Xkeban was buried and beautiful wildflowers grew up and covered the earth around her grave.

When the Utz-colel died everyone in the village cried. She died a virgin certain that she would be rewarded in the hereafter. Nonetheless, when she died, and for three days after she was buried, her body gave off such a foul odor that the people of the town could not help but vomit. No one could explain how it was that all the beautifully fragrant flowers that were brought to her grave withered and died within minutes.

It was then that the people realized the truth; real virtue comes from the heart.

They say that the Xkeban, who shared her sweetness, turned into the beautiful white flower of the xtabentún (pronounced shta-ben-tún), a flower that, like love, intoxicates. Today there exists in the Yucatán a liquor, called Xtabentún, made out of the nectar of this flower. It is said that this beverage evokes the sensation of being held in the arms of the lovely Xkeban.
The "virtuous" Utz-colel, on the other hand, turned into the flower of the tzacam, a cactus flower, reminiscent of her character. The tzacam flower is very beautiful, but full of sharp spines. It first appears to have no fragrance, but if you get very close, you will encounter a repugnant and nauseating odor.

Converted into the flower of the tzacam, the Utz-colel began to reflect on her life on Earth. She thought about the Xkeban and how she had been rewarded after death. The envious Utz-colel did not give a thought to the purity of the Xkeban's heart and spirit, but attributed the Xkeban's good fortune to her many love affairs and sexual liaisons.

The Utz-colel called out to the evil spirits and asked to be returned to Earth so that she could experience sex, love and passion.

The love of the Utz-colel, however, was perverted and evil due to the coldness of her spirit and so it came to pass that she became the dreaded Xtabay woman who seduces men and then kills them in the midst of their passion.
This is how the Mayans learned that virtues are born in the heart. If your heart is virtuous your life will be luxuriant like the ceiba (kapok) that grows next to the cenote (an underground pool) and when you die you will be blessed forever under its branches.

(The preceding story comes in part from a loose translation of Diez Leyendas Mayas by Jesús Azcorra Alejos and also from the account of a Mayan holy man who I met while traveling in the Yucatán.)