AZTEC: excerpt

It was late, deep into the Sixth Watch of the Night, when Tendile and his fellow lords arrived at the royal palace.

Montezuma had given orders that he be woken immediately upon their arrival. The delegation removed their sandals and stripped off their decorated mantles, replacing them with plain cloaks of maguey fibre. Then they were led up the great staircase to Montezuma’s apartments.

Revered Speaker awaited them in one of his private chambers. As they entered they were assailed by the pungent musk of copal incense. Sandalwood glowed in a copper brazier, and Teztcatlipoca, Bringer of Darkness, watched them from the smoky gloom. Woman Snake lay prostrate in front of the altar. A young girl was spreadeagled, naked, over Montezuma’s own sacrificial stone, arms and legs hanging limp, her chest open, her heart cooking in the coals.

A skein of black smoke rose to the ceiling.

Tendile and his officers approached on their faces. Montezuma stepped from behind the slab, his robes wet with gore from the sacrifice. He approached them with the basalt jaguar receptacle that held some of the dead girl’s blood. He sprinkled it over his messengers, to purify them. They had spoken with gods.

Montezuma had hoped for good news, but instead saw a terrible truth written on their stricken faces. “Speak,” he said.

“The great rafts appeared off our coast five days ago,” Tendile said. “We met with the strangers and have hurried day and night since to bring you news.”

“Well?”

“They do not have the elegant speech, they speak some other language that sounds like the quacking of ducks. They have a woman who speaks for them: a Person, like ourselves. She calls herself Malinali.”

“And what did this Malinali say to you?”

Tendile was trembling. Saliva leaked from his mouth onto the floor.

“What did she say?” Montezuma shouted.

“She said that the ancient prophecies are to be fulfilled. She said … that Feathered Serpent has returned as promised.”

Montezuma pressed his knuckles to his forehead, as if trying to burrow his way inside his own skull. “Who was this woman?”

“I confess I do not know my Lord, except that she spoke most insolently to me.”

“What did she say?”

“That Feathered Serpent wishes to speak with you in person, that he has been commanded to do this by Olintecle himself.”

Tendile lay prostrate on the cold marble, waiting a hundred years for these few terrible moments to pass. I will be sacrificed to Hummingbird for this, he thought. My skin will be flayed and thrown into the great pit at Yopico.

Montezuma took an agave thorn from the shrine and stabbed at his own flesh, repeatedly, until the blood ran down his arms. “Did you see this stranger who claimed to be Quetzalcóatl?”

“Yes, my lord. His skin was white, like chalk, and he had a dark beard and a straight nose. He was dressed in black and wore a green feather in his cap.”

“A quetzal plume!” Montezuma murmured. A god was known best by his head dress. A jade feather signified Feathered Serpent. And black was one of his colours. “What of the others who were with him?”

“Like him, they wore strange clothes that had a pestilential odour about them. Many of them had long beards and hair of strange and unnatural colours. Their swords and shields and bows are all made of some metal that shines like the sun. And yet, great Lord, if they were indeed gods, their excrement was not of gold, as it should be, but like ours. For we waited after our meeting to observe them and …”

“What do you know of the ways of the gods!” Montezuma shouted.

Tendile lay on his belly, silent. Please do not kill me.

“Did this woman tell you why this bearded lord wishes to speak with me?”

“She says it concerns matters of the gods.”

“They spoke of religion?”

“No, but I saw them at their ritual, great Lord. They were drinking blood.”

For the first time Montezuma allowed himself to hope.

But then Tendile said: “Yet it was not the blood of a man they were drinking, or this is what she said, but the blood of a god.”

“The blood of a god?”

“My artists drew pictures for you, great lord.”

One of Tendile’s scribes crawled forward clutching several bark sheets, the paintings that he and his companion had made on the beach at San Juan de Ulúa. Montezuma snatched them from him. He stared at the floating temples with their great banners of cloth, the logs spitting fire, the two-headed monsters, the angry beasts that followed them.

“What is this?”

“Great Lord, the strangers possess stone serpents that shoot smoke and sparks from their mouths. If the serpent is pointed towards a tree, the tree falls. If it is pointed towards a mountain, the mountain cracks and crumbles away. The noise is like thunder and the smoke has a vile smell that made us all sick. Some of them rode great stags, taller than two men standing on each other’s shoulders, and these beasts carry them wherever they want to go. They breathe smoke from their mouths and when they ran it was as if the very ground trembled under our feet. They also possess dogs as no dogs we have ever seen, monsters straight from the land of the dead, with great jowls and yellow teeth.”

What this woman called Malinali had told Tendile could not be denied. It was the year One Reed, the day Feathered Serpent had been born and the day he had sailed away. The portents were there for even the most obtuse priest to read. The owl men had prophesied:

If he comes on 1-crocodile he strikes the old men, the old women,

If on 1-Jaguar, 1-Deer, 1-Flower he strikes at children.

If on 1-Reed, he strikes at kings …

Montezuma stared at the shadows, lost in his own despair. Finally, he remembered Tendile and the other lords, who were awaiting his answer.

“Is there anything else you have to tell me?” he said.

Another of Tendile’s retinue crept forward. He was holding a metal helmet, made of some shining metal that resembled silver. What is this?

“One of the strangers gave us this head-dress,” Tendile said.

Montezuma examined it. It was similar to the helmet worn by Hummingbird on the Left, their own war-god.

“He gave you this as a gift?” Montezuma asked.

“No, great Lord. He demanded that we return it, filled with gold.”

“Gold,” Montezuma said. “Why gold?”

“They said it was to heal a sickness peculiar to their kind. Indeed, they ignored all our other gifts, the finest cloth and feather work and some exquisite pieces of jade. Only the gold seemed to excite them.”

Perhaps that is why they have come, Montezuma thought. He started to giggle. Perhaps there was an answer to this after all …

“You shall return to the coast tonight and give these strangers exactly what they ask. If it is gold they want, it is gold they shall have. We shall also discover if this Malinali’s Lord is truly Feathered Serpent or just a man, as you claim. There are ways we may divine the truth.”

 

 

After they had gone Montezuma stared again at the pictures that had been painstakingly painted on the sheets of bark, and his fingers began to tremble uncontrollably.

One Reed. A bad year for kings.

 

San Juan de Ulúa

 

A depressing place, just sand dunes with sparse patches of straw-coloured grass and a few groves of forlorn and wind-bowed palm trees. In the distance they could make out a range of blue mountains, dominated by a peak the local indians called Orizaba, a volcanic caldera cloaked in great banks of cloud.

The indian slaves that Tendile left behind helped them make shelters from green branches and palm fronds and thatch. The naturales made their own camp a little way off, a shantytown built overnight to service the needs of the Spaniards. They cooked fish and turkeys over open fires and the women peeled fruit and prepared corn cakes under canopies of woven mats.

For the first few days the Spaniards clustered around their own fires, shivering in the teeth of the northerly winds. Then quite suddenly the wind died away and the weather turned unbearably hot. They huddled in the shade of the few gnarled trees, slapping at the voracious clouds of tiny black insects that descended to feast on them and make their lives misery.

Only Cortés seemed immune to the discomforts. Day after day he patrolled the dunes, staring at the forbidding range of mountains far to the west, and waited, and wondered, and planned.

 

MALINALI

 

Rain Flower pulls off her huipitl, the long tunic of sheer cotton she wears over her skirt. As she undresses I see there are dark, plum-coloured bruises on her arms and her breasts. A she wades into the cold, black water of the pool, she sees me stare. “My hairy lord is rough with me. I don’t think he means to be. He is big and clumsy. When he is in the cave he forgets how strong he is and how small I am.”

She crouches down so that the water reaches her shoulders. I feel a sudden and powerful affection for her. In Potonchan Rain Flower was thought ugly. Her mother had neglected to hang a pearl from her cap when she was an infant and so she had not grown up with the crossed eyes that the Tabascans found so becoming in a woman. Rain Flower’s mother had in fact been Tiger Lip Plug’s elder wife and Rain Flower was only a few years younger than I. She was like a younger sister to me. Like me, she had a quick tongue and a quick temper that had been curbed only a little by the chili smoke fires over which her father had upended her as punishment.

“I do not believe they are gods, little mother. Their bodies have a rank smell and they spill their seed like any man.”

“Your cave has opened for the first time and now you know all there is to know of men. You are disappointed then, that he does not have claws on his maquauhuitl?”

“I do not dare to look,” she says and dips her head below the water.

“Some men are not born gods,” I tell her, when she bobs up again. “Sometimes the spirit of a god is born in them, or is given them, as it was with Montezuma.”

“And what of your god with the violet eyes?”

“He has three penises and he keeps me awake all night! While the others are recovering their vigour he always has one that urgently seeks the cave of joy. Then at dawn he turns into a cat and joins the other ocelots in greeting the dawn with their cries.”

“You have a fancy tongue. I fear one day Montezuma’s priests may cut it out and roast it in their fires.”

I have to smile at that. It is a warning I heard from Tiger Lip Plug many times.

My Alonso is a better husband. He uses me gently and takes me in the way of the gods, with our faces and bodies pressed together. I see him only at night, for he does not try to speak to me through Aguilar, either because he does not wish to, or perhaps he finds Aguilar as tiresome as I.

And I know his only purpose is to teach me the way of the gods so that I can come to Feathered Serpent better prepared.

“Perhaps one day none of us will have to fear Montezuma.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Why else would our thunder gods have come here?”

Rain Flower ladles water from the palm of her hand over her shoulder, wincing at the small bruises on her flesh. “They are just men. They will take whatever they want and go back to the Cloud Lands.”

“Perhaps they will take us with them. We will be better off than we were before. I do not wish to spend my whole life sewing cloaks and baking corn.”

“What else should a woman do?”

How can I explain to her? I was born to the ordinary woman’s life of pounding tortillas and having babies but I always knew in my heart that I was a warrior, a queen, a statesman, a prince-maker, a poet. I had always known it and my father had known it too.

“You hope for too much,” Rain Flower said. “Life is just a dream. What happens here should not matter to a Person.”

Lord Sun was sinking in the sky, to battle for another night against his sisters and brothers. Cicadas pounded a rhythm in the forest. A butterfly danced among the ferns, the spirit of a dead warrior playing forever among the flowers and reeds. “You may be right,” I murmur, but I do not believe it, I do not believe it at all.

The water seems suddenly black and very cold. We stand up and wade, shivering, towards the bank. I see a shadow running from a hiding place among the forest. It is one of the thunder gods; it is Jaramillo.

 

 

My lord Tendile arrives with the usual fanfare; there are snakeskin drums, conches, clay flutes and wooden clappers. But this time his heralds also bear green quetzal standards to show that the delegation carries royal approval.

“The Lord Tendile, governor and voice of the Mexica, appointed by the Revered Speaker himself, now comes! He brings greetings and friendship to Malintzin, newly arrived from the cloud lands of the east!”

Malintzin. In Nahuatl it means Malinali’s lord. So this is how they have decided to address him. So typical of Mexica ambiguity, skirting admission that he is either man or god.

Tendile is dressed magnificently in a mantle of sheer orange cotton, embroidered with geometric designs along its hem. His head-dress is of flamingo plumes inlaid with gold. He is accompanied by a much larger retinue than before, both lords and slaves. Two young boys brush the insects aside from his face with feather fans while two priests walk ahead bearing braziers of copal incense. Behind him come the owl men, in their feathered cloaks and beaked helmets, skulls and human bones tagged to their cloaks. They scream like shrikes, and blow clouds of coloured smoke from clay censers.

“Who are they?” Aguilar whispers to me, clearly alarmed.

“Sorcerers. They are here to break the power of our great lord with their spells.”

A sharp intake of breath, and Aguilar turns pale. “Witchcraft!” he mutters and makes the sign of the cross.

Feathered Serpent receives them under the palms, seated on a heavy oak chair inlaid with turquoise. At my suggestion he again wears the black velvet suit and soft black cap with green plume he wore on the occasion of his last meeting with Tendile.

Tendile kisses the ground and puts a finger to his lips. Then his priests step forward and walk around Feathered Serpent and his retinue, fumigating them with incense. When it is done, Tendile announces to me: “I bring words of greeting and friendship to Malintzin from Revered Speaker.”

I relay this greeting to Aguilar who pronounces ‘Malintzin’ as “Malinche”.

“Revered Speaker has asked me to give Malintzin these gifts as a token of his friendship.”

I realise what he is about to do. It is more, much more, than I had dared to hope. I turn to Aguilar. “Will you respectfully ask the great lord if he will stand? These men wish to dress him in ceremonial robes.”

Aguilar can only frown. “To what purpose?”

“Will you do as I say!”

Aguilar’s eyes go wide. He would like to whip me for my insolence. But what can he do at such a moment? He must pass on what I have said. Feathered Serpent gets to his feet.

The Mexica lords step forward and knot a beautiful feathered cape at his shoulder, then place a collar of jade and gold in the shape of a serpent around his neck. Other lords bend down to put anklets of gold and silver on his legs. They give him a shield worked entirely from brilliant green quetzal feathers and place a mitre of tiger skin on his head.

Finally Tendile himself produces a mask of turquoise mosaic, with gold fangs and a crossband of quetzal plumes, which he places on Feathered Serpent’s head. It is the official regalia of a high priest of Quetzalcóatl, and so, by extension, the garb of the god himself. Montezuma has just publicly recognised my lord as the incarnation of the god. He believes also.

The other thunder gods and their moles look on, bemused.

I had supposed that my lord would surely be moved at recognising his very own emblems, but to my dismay he immediately removes his garments and drops them at his feet, as if they are an impediment to him. He resumes his seat on his makeshift throne and barks a command at Aguilar.

“My lord Cortés wishes to know what else they have brought,” Aguilar says to me.

I try to hide my confusion. Is it possible that Feathered Serpent is trying to hide his own identity? But to what purpose?

I turn to Tendile, who is as bemused as I. “Feathered Serpent wishes to see your other gifts.”

“We have brought provisions for himself and his companions.”

A line of slaves is waiting his command. They carry heavy baskets of food which they lay on mats on the ground; guavas, avocados and hog plums, panniers of eggs and roasted turkeys and toasted maize cakes.

All the food has been liberally sprinkled with a sauce made from human blood. I can smell it.

I hold my breath as one of the thunder gods, the one with the golden hair, steps forward and tears a joint from one of the turkeys. He holds it to his nose and sniffs, his face wrinkling in disgust. He throws the meat into the dirt.

There is a deathly silence, all the other thunder gods watching Feathered Serpent, waiting to see what he will do. I hold my breath. This is the moment when he will prove his identity to all, if he acts correctly.

He speaks softly to Aguilar, who then turns to me. “My lord asks you to thank Tendile for his gifts but says his religion forbids the eating of human flesh as all men are born brothers. To break this commandment is considered one of the greatest sins in the sight of God.”

I do not understand all of this long and confusing harangue, but I understand its meaning. I turn back to Tendile. “As you well know, Feathered Serpent has returned to abolish all human sacrifice. Do not be so transparent as to tempt his patience further.”

Tendile seems disappointed, as well he might. I know what he is thinking: this Malintzin will not assume the trappings of Feathered Serpent yet in all other ways he acts like a god. He is as confused as I am. What will he tell Montezuma?

The thunder god with the golden hair says something to Aguilar.

“My lord Alvarado wishes to know if the Mexica have returned his helmet.”

I pass on this request. Tendile raises a hand and the rest of the porters – there must be more than a hundred – hurry forward. “My lord Montezuma has done this, and more besides,” Tendile says.

Straw mats are laid on the sand at Feathered Serpent’s feet and the helmet is produced, filled to the brim with gold dust. Then other objects are produced; gold figurines in the shapes of ducks, deer, jaguars and monkeys; gold necklaces and bracelets; a gold wand studded with pearls; gold shields inlaid with precious stones; mosaics in turquoise and onyx; statues and masks carved in wood; jade pendants and brooches; fans of solid silver; a head dress of quetzal plumes studded with jade and pearls; capes of finest feather work; jewellery of shell, gold, turquoise and jade; and five emeralds of enormous size.

The thunder gods and their moles stare slack-jawed in astonishment. Then the final gifts are brought forward; two identical discs, each the size of a cartwheel and two inches thick, one of silver, the other of gold. The silver disc has the figure of a woman at its centre, Sister Moon; the gold disc has the figure of Lord Sun on his throne.

The presents are arrayed there on the sand; the precious metals and jewels reflect the sunlight, hurting the eyes. There is complete silence save for the wind that murmurs across the sand, shifting grains across the mats and their treasures, as if my lord had commanded them to gently touch each piece and examine it, so that he will not have to stoop to do it.

Finally, he speaks and Aguilar turns to me. “He wishes to know if that is all there is.”

I do not know what to think now. I can scarce relay this sentiment to Tendile. Now it is my turn to wonder if Aguilar translates exactly everything that Feathered Serpent says to me.

I hesitate. “Feathered Serpent thanks you for your gifts,” I manage, finally.

Tendile looks sour. “Perhaps now they will leave us alone.”

Feathered Serpent speaks again, through Aguilar. This time I understand exactly what he requires of me. “My lord asks you to send his thanks to Revered Speaker for his generosity. It only remains now for my lord to thank Revered Speaker in person.”

Tendile appears stricken when he hears this. “That will not be possible. It is a long and dangerous journey to Tenochtitlán. Montezuma asks that he take these few humble gifts as a token of his esteem and return to the Cloud Lands from whence he came.”

I pass on these sentiments and wait for further direction. But I know what Feathered Serpent will say.

“My lord Cortés has travelled far for the great pleasure of gazing on Montezuma’s face,” Aguilar says. “He has been ordered to pass on his greetings in person and he cannot do otherwise without disobeying his king.”

It is an effort to keep the smile of triumph from my face. With one hand Montezuma dresses my lord as a god, with the other he tries to buy him off like a mortal man. How he must be trembling on his throne in the place of the Eagle and the Cactus!

“Feathered Serpent is a god and is not easily fatigued,” I tell Tendile. “He must meet the Revered Speaker in person. He is guided in this by Olintecle, Father of all Gods and Mover of the Universe.”

Tendile groans, as if a great burden has been settled on his shoulders. In a way, it has, for he must now bear this news to Montezuma personally, and at great risk to himself, if I am not mistaken. Perhaps in his failure here he foresees his own death.

 

 

After the Mexica had left the thunder gods and their moles fall on the bounty. The beautiful and valuable quetzal feathers, intricately worked by master craftsmen; the prized shell jewellery; the sacred wooden masks; the fine embroidered cloths; all are trampled under the moles’ boots as they fight each other to touch and admire the gold.

Feathered Serpent looks dismayed. I believe my god is ashamed of his cohorts. I recall what he had said about the heart sickness from which his followers suffer. It must indeed be terrible to be afflicted by such a disease for it turns gods into monkeys.

AZTEC is part of my EPIC ADVENTURE series and is available on Amazon