"Here, this one." I pointed at the image on the page open in front of us.
Ismael straightened when he saw the scene.
"It is a picture of a family, with a new baby." Ismael's tone was different than it had been.
"But why did they shape their heads like that, I mean? With the boards?" Ismael kept his eyes on the pages in front of us, though I could tell he wasn't really studying them. He was quiet for so long I thought maybe he hadn't heard me. I had whispered very softly so as not to attract anyone's attention. Just as I was about to repeat my question, Ismael spoke.
"To look like them." His response was barely audible, quieter than I thought even he could be. I hesitated, thinking he might say more but he didn't.
"Like who?" I said, louder this time. His lack of eye contact was making me a little nervous and the discomfort of it made my voice louder than I intended. Again I had to wait for him to respond. There was no doubt he had heard me this time. That it was taking him so long to answer was unlike Ismael. I couldn't shake my uncomfortable feeling and thought perhaps I shouldn't have asked him any more questions. Why would this be such a taboo question, though? My head started to feel funny and I realized I was holding my breath, making myself lightheaded. I exhaled and in my rush to breathe in oxygen, I inhaled deeply. Ismael interpreted my quick breath as a sign of impatience and looked over at me, his eyes as dark as a moonless night.
"The Star People," he said softly.
Had I heard him correctly or was it his Spanish accent? "Who?" I said.
"Los de las estrellas." He had locked his eyes with mine, unblinking, as if to make sure there was no interruption or misunderstanding. "The boards made the front part of the head look flat and the back of the head look longer. They wanted to look like the Star People," he said finally and then closed the book with a loud thud. The noise caused a few people sitting at nearby tables to look in our direction.
"They wanted us to be as they were--my ancestors took that literally and tried to change the way they looked. It was a misunderstanding," Ismael said.
I lost my train of thought. Little Green Men? Martians? Friends of Spock?
"Ismael..." I didn't know what I wanted to say but my expression must have been one of disbelief.
"Mira, Emma, I know you have work to do here and I need to help Abuela collect some plants before the doctors' conference tomorrow. I will see you later." Ismael stood up from the table and started toward the door. He turned around after taking a few steps and looked back at me. "You will return the book, no?"
"Yes, of course. I mean, claro." My attempt to practice Spanish humored him and the moment of weirdness between us passed.
"Muy bien," he said and then started back toward the door.
Long after he had left me alone in the library, I sat thinking about what he had told me. Part of me, the logical part that needed black and white answers, found it hard to believe him. "It was just a ritual," I muttered to myself. And yet, Ismael's intensity about the subject was completely genuine, that I was sure of. Again I opened the book in front of me. I flipped back to the pages we had been looking at depicting the ancient Mayan practice of tying boards to the heads of infants. A woman stood holding a tiny baby wrapped in what looked like some kind of animal hide. It could have been like any other drawing of Native peoples except for the wooden board that was bound to the front of the infant's head. "Why?" I whispered the question to the woman in the picture. If she had answered me, I would have booked the first flight back to the States and never looked back. But she didn't. Instead she just stared at me from the page, looking at me with those same dark-as-night eyes that Ismael had.