There is no pervading moral about the triumph of good over evil, life over death, gods over humans. Characters — in various forms — fall in love, seek revenge and attain salvation. Humans turn into animals; gods inhabit vegetation.
Some learn their lesson, others don’t. Many of the stories end abruptly, brutally, sadly. Love is often cut short or left unrequited.
But the simplicity of the language, thanks in part to the collection’s translator, David Bowles, is disarming. We feel compelled to turn the page and begin again, hoping that the earth can start afresh or that two characters can live happily ever after. Sometimes they do, but this unpredictability — inherent to mythology — has a humbling effect.
The collection’s structure prompts a similar reaction. Along with a story about the sun and the moon in love, readers will encounter one about the sun throwing ash in the moon’s face, and another about the sun and the moon as half-siblings born of rival fathers.
“The Sea-Ringed World” is provocative as well. In “K’awil and the Prince,” from the Mopan (Maya) tradition, K’awil (God of Lightning and Magic) and the prince are homosexual lovers. In “Aakulujjuusi and Uumarnituq,” from the Inuit tradition, the first two humans to emerge “from mounds of earth on Igloolik Island” are men. They fall in love. One becomes pregnant and is transformed into a woman to give birth. Without being fussed over, sexuality and gender are presented as fluid.
In this way Esperón keeps readers wondering, wobbling. Her deliberate arrangement of this lore, a mixture of confusing plots and unexpected endings, tells readers to be patient about extracting meaning.
One of the later stories, “Universe,” a Nahuan legend, lays out how the universe is structured and who controls it. A few others trace the origins of recognizable places such as Lima (the capital of Peru) and Mexico. These tales would have been helpful blueprints up front, but Esperón offers them at seemingly random intervals, as puzzle pieces that will form a coherent picture only after the entire book has been read.
Puzzle-making and bonfire storytelling feel like luxuries in a society moving at pandemic-spreading speed. Thank goodness for mythology, in which time is irrelevant and endings are unseeable; it is more relatable than ever before.