AZTEC: excerpt

Malinali

My lord Tendile arrives with the usual fanfare; 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 colored 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 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 realize 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 miter 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 recognized my lord as the incarnation of Feathered Serpent.

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

I had supposed that my lord would surely be moved at recognizing his very own emblems, but to my dismay he immediately removes the 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 lords, 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 lords 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.”

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

“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; jewelry of shell, gold, turquoise and jade; and five emeralds of enormous size.

The thunder lords 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 center, 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.

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. The failure of his mission almost certainly means his own death.

✽✽✽

After the Mexica had left, the thunder lords and their moles fall on the bounty. They trample on the beautiful and valuable quetzal feathers, though they have been intricately worked by master craftsmen; the prized shell jewelry crunches under their boots; the sacred wooden masks are kicked aside. The only thing they seem to want is 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

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