I can still see him burning.
On that long-ago day when I watched the man being set afire, I was already eighteen years old, so I had seen other people die, whether given in sacrifice to the gods or executed for some outrageous crime or simply dead by accident. But the sacrifices had always been done by means of the obsidian knife that tears out the heart. The executions had always been done with the maquáhuitl sword or with arrows or with the strangling “flower garland.” The accidental deaths had mostly been the drownings of fishermen from our seaside city who somehow fell afoul of the water goddess. In the years since that day, too, I have seen people die in war and in various other ways, but never before then had I seen a man deliberately put to death by fire, nor have I since.
I and my mother and my uncle were among the vast crowd commanded by the city’s Spanish soldiers to attend the ceremony, so I supposed that this event was intended to be some sort of object lesson to all of us non-Spaniards. Indeed, the soldiers collected and prodded and herded so many of us into the city’s central square that we were crammed shoulder to shoulder. Within a space kept clear by a cordon of other soldiers, a metal post stood fixed into the flagstones of the square. To one side of it had been built a platform for the occasion, and on it sat or stood a number of Spanish Christian priests, all clad in flowing black gowns, as are our own priests.
Two burly Spanish guards brought the condemned man and roughly shoved him into that cleared space. When we saw that he was not a Spaniard, pale and bearded, but one of our own people, I heard my mother sigh, “Ayya ouíya…” and so did many others in the crowd. The man wore a loose, shapeless and colorless garment and, on his head, a scraggly crown made of straw. His only adornment that I could see was a pendant of some kind—it flashed when it caught the sun—hanging from a thong about his neck.
The man was quite old, even older than my uncle, and he put up no struggle against his guards. The man seemed, in fact, either resigned to his fate or indifferent to it, so I do not know why he was immediately encumbered by a heavy restraint. A tremendous piece of metal chain was hung upon him, a chain of such dimensions that a single link of it was big enough to be forced over his head to pinion his neck. That chain was then fixed to the upright post, and the guards began piling about his feet a heap of kindling wood. While that was being done, the oldest of the priests on the platform—the chief of them, I assumed—spoke to the prisoner, addressing him by a Spanish name, “Juan Damasceno.” Then he commenced a long harangue, naturally in Spanish, which at that time I had not yet learned. But a younger priest, dressed in slightly different vestments, translated his chief’s words—to my considerable surprise—into fluent Náhuatl.
This enabled me to comprehend that the old priest was reciting the charges against the condemned man, and also that he was—in a voice alternately unctuous and angry—trying to persuade the man to make amends or show contrition or something of the sort. But even when translated into my native language, the terms and expressions employed by the priest were a bafflement to me. After a long and wordy while of this, the prisoner was given leave to speak. He did so in Spanish, and when that was translated into Náhuatl, I understood him very clearly:
“Your Excellency, once when I was still a small child I vowed to myself that if ever I were selected for the Flowery Death, even on an alien altar, I would not degrade the dignity of my going.”
Juan Damasceno spoke nothing more than that, but among the priests and guards and other officials there ensued a great deal of discourse and conferring and gesticulation—before finally a stern command was uttered, and one of the soldiers set a torch to the pile of wood at the prisoner’s feet.
As is well known, the gods and goddesses take mischievous delight in perplexing us mortals. They frequently confound our best intentions and complicate our most straightforward plans and thwart even the least of our ambitions. Often they can do such things with ease, simply by arranging what appears to be a matter of coincidence. And if I did not know better, I would have said that it was mere coincidence that brought us three—my uncle, Mixtzin, his sister Cuicáni and her son, myself, Tenamáxtli—to the City of Mexíco on that particular day.
Fully twelve years previous, in our own city of Aztlan, the Place of Snowy Egrets, far to the northwest, on the coast of the Western Sea, we had heard the first startling news: that The One World had been invaded by pale-skinned and heavily bearded strangers. It was said that they had come from across the Eastern Sea in huge houses that floated on the water and were propelled by immense birdlike wings. I was only six years old at that time, with a whole seven years to wait before I could don, beneath my mantle, the máxtlatl loincloth that signifies the attainment of manhood. Hence I was an insignificant person, of no consequence at all. Nevertheless, I was precociously inquisitive and very sharp of ear. Also, my mother Cuicáni and I did reside in the Aztlan palace with my Uncle Mixtzin and his son Yeyac and daughter Améyatl, so I was always able to hear whatever news arrived and whatever comment it provoked among my uncle’s Speaking Council.
As is indicated by the -tzin suffixion to my uncle’s name, he was a noble, the highest noble among us Aztéca, being the Uey-Tecútli—the Revered Governor—of Aztlan. Some while earlier, when I was just a toddling babe, the late Uey-Tlatoáni Motecuzóma, Revered Speaker of the Mexíca, the most powerful nation in all The One World, had accorded our then-small village the status of “autonomous colony of the Mexíca.” He ennobled my Uncle Mixtli as the Lord Mixtzin, and set him to govern Aztlan, and bade him build the place into a prosperous and populous and civilized colony of which the Mexíca could be proud. So, although we were exceedingly far distant from the capital city of Tenochtítlan—The Heart of The One World—Motecuzóma’s swift-messengers routinely brought to our Aztlan palace, as to other colonies, any news deemed of interest to his under-governors. Of course, the news of those intruders from beyond the sea was anything but routine. It caused no small consternation and speculation among Aztlan’s Speaking Council.
“In the ancient archives of various nations of our One World,” said old Canaútli, our Rememberer of History, who also happened to be the grandfather of my uncle and my mother, “it is recorded that the Feathered Serpent, the once-greatest of all monarchs, Quetzalcóatl of the Toltéca—he who eventually was worshiped as the greatest of gods—was described as having a very white skin and a bearded face.”
“Are you suggesting—?” began another member of the Council, a priest of our war god Huitzilopóchtli. But Canaútli overrode him, as I could have told the priest he would, because I well knew how my great-grandfather loved to talk.
“It is also recorded that Quetzalcóatl abdicated his rule of the Toltéca as a consequence of his having done something shameful. His people might never have known of it, but he confessed to it. In a fit of intoxication—after overindulgence in the drunk-making octli beverage—he committed the act of ahuilnéma with his own sister. Or, some say, with his own daughter. The Toltéca so much adored the Feathered Serpent that they doubtless would have forgiven him that misconduct, but he could not forgive himself.”
Several of the councillors nodded solemnly. Canaútli went on:
“That is why he built a raft on the seashore—some say it was made of feathers felted together, some say it was made of interlaced snakes—and he floated off across the Eastern Sea. His subjects prostrated themselves on the beach, loudly bewailing his departure. So he called to them, assuring them that someday, when he had done sufficient penance in exile, he would return. But, over the years, the Toltéca themselves gradually vanished into extinction. And Quetzalcóatl has never been seen again.”
“Until now?” growled Uncle Mixtzin. He was almost never of very warm or cheerful temperament, and the messenger’s news had not been of a sort to exhilarate him. “Is that what you mean, Canaútli?”
The old man shrugged and said, “Aquin ixnéntla?”
“Who knows?” he was echoed by another elderly councillor. “I know this much, having been a fisherman all my working life. It would be next to impossible to make a raft float off across the sea. To get it out past the breakers and the combers and the landward surge of the surf.”
“Perhaps not impossible for a god,” said another. “Anyway, if the Feathered Serpent had great difficulty in doing that, it seems he has learned from the experience, if now he has voyaged hither in winged houses.”
“Why would he need more than one such vessel?” asked another. “He went away alone. But it appears that he returns with a numerous crew. Or passengers.”
Canaútli said, “It has been countless sheaves of sheaves of years since he left. Wherever he went, he could have married wife after wife, and begotten whole nations of progeny.”
“If this is Quetzalcóatl returned,” said that priest of the war god, in a voice that quavered slightly, “do any of you realize what the effects will be?”
“Many changes for the better, I should expect,” said my uncle, who took pleasure in discomfiting priests. “The Feathered Serpent was a gentle and beneficent god. All the histories agree—never before or since his time has The One World enjoyed such peace and happiness and good fortune.”
“But all our other gods will be relegated to inferiority, even obscurity,” said that priest of Huitzilopóchtli, wringing his hands. “And so will all us priests of all those gods. We shall be abased, made lower than the lowest slaves. Deposed…dismissed…discarded to beg and starve.”
“As I said,” grunted my irreverent uncle. “Changes for the better.”
Well, the Uey-Tecútli Mixtzin and his Speaking Council were soon disabused of any notion that the newcomers included or represented the god Quetzalcóatl. During the next year and a half or so, hardly a month went by without a swift-messenger from Tenochtítlan bringing ever more astounding and disconcerting news. From one runner, we would learn that the strangers were only men, not gods or the progeny of gods, and that they called themselves espaóoles or castellanos. The two names seemed interchangeable, but the latter was easier for us to transmute into Náhuatl, so for a long time all of us referred to the outlanders as the Caxtiltéca. Then the next-arriving runner would inform us that the Caxtiltéca resembled gods—at least, war gods—in that they were rapacious, ferocious, merciless, and lustful of conquest, because they were now forcing their way inland from the Eastern Sea.
Then the next swift-messenger would report that the Caxtiltéca certainly displayed godlike, or at least magical, attributes in their methods and weapons of war, for many of them rode mounted on giant, antlerless buck deer, and many of them wielded fearsome tubes that discharged lightning and thunder, and others had arrows and spears tipped with a metal that never bent or broke, and all wore armor of that same metal, which was impenetrable by ordinary projectiles.
Then came a messenger wearing the white mantle of mourning, and with his hair braided in the manner signifying bad news. His report was that the invaders had defeated one nation and tribe after another, on their way westward—the Totonáca, the Tepeyahuáca, the Texcaltéca—then had impressed any surviving native warriors into their own ranks. So the number of fighting men did not diminish but continually increased as they marched. (I might mention, from my advantage of hindsight, that many of those native warriors were not too reluctant to join the aliens’ forces, because their people had for ages been paying grudging and heavy tribute to Tenochtítlan, and now they had hopes of retaliating against the domineering Mexíca.)
Finally there came to Aztlan a swift-messenger—with white mantle and bad-news hairdress—to tell us that the Caxtiltéca white men and their recruited native allies had now marched right into Tenochtítlan itself, The Heart of The One World, and, inconceivably, at the personal invitation of the once-puissant, now-irresolute Revered Speaker Motecuzóma. Furthermore, those intruders had not just marched on through and continued westward, but had occupied the city, and seemed inclined to settle down and stay there.
The one member of our Speaking Council who had most dreaded the coming of those outlanders—I mean that priest of the god Huitzilopóchtli—had lately been considerably heartened to know that he was not about to be deposed by a returning Quetzalcóatl. But he was dismayed anew when this latest swift-messenger also reported:
“In every city and town and village on their way to Tenochtítlan, the barbaric Caxtiltéca have destroyed every teocáli temple, torn down every tlamanacáli pyramid and toppled and broken every statue of every one of our gods and goddesses. In place of them, the foreigners have erected crude wooden effigies of a vapidly simpering white woman holding in her arms a white baby. These images, they say, represent a mortal mother who gave birth to a child-godling, and are the foundations of their religion called Crixtanóyotl.”
So our priest wrung his hands some more. He was apparently doomed to be displaced anyway—and not even by one of our own land’s former gods, who had stature and grandeur, but by some new, incomprehensible religion that evidently worshiped an ordinary woman and a lackwit infant.
That swift-messenger was the last ever to come to us from Tenochtítlan or from anywhere else in the Mexíca lands, bringing what we could assume was authoritative and trustworthy news. After him, we only heard rumors that spread from one community to another and eventually reached us by way of some traveler journeying overland or paddling an acáli canoe up the seacoast. From those rumors, one had to sift out the impossible and the illogical—miracles and omens allegedly descried by priests and far-seers, exaggerations attributable to the superstitions of the common folk, that sort of thing—because, anyway, what remained after the sifting, and could be recognized as at least possible, was dire enough.
In the course of time, we heard and had no reason to disbelieve these things: that Motecuzóma had died at the hands of the Caxtiltéca; that the two Revered Speakers who briefly succeeded him had also perished; that the entire city of Tenochtítlan—houses, palaces, temples, marketplaces, even the massive icpac tlamanacáli, the Great Pyramid—had been leveled and reduced to rubble; that all the lands of the Mexíca and all their tributary nations were now the property of the Caxtiltéca; that more and more floating houses were coming across the Eastern Sea and disgorging more and more of the white men and that those alien warriors were fanning out northward, westward and southward to conquer and subdue still other, farther nations and lands. According to the rumors, everywhere the Caxtiltéca went, they scarcely needed to use their lethal weapons.
Said one informant, “It must be their gods—that white woman and child, may they be damned to Míctlan—who do the slaughtering. They inflict whole populations with diseases that kill everyone but the white men.”
“And horrible diseases they are,” said another passerby. “I hear that a person’s skin turns to ghastly boils and pustules, and he suffers untold agonies for a long time before death mercifully releases him.”
“Hordes of our people are dying of that blight,” said yet another. “But the white men seem impervious. It has to be an evil enchantment laid by their white goddess and godling.”
We heard also that every surviving and able-bodied man, woman and child in and around Tenochtítlan was put to slave labor, using what material was salvageable from the ruins, to rebuild that city. But now, by order of the conquerors, it was to be known as the City of Mexíco. It was still the capital of what had been The One World, but that, by order of the conquerors, was henceforth to be called New Spain. And, so said the rumors, the new city in no way resembled the old; the buildings were of complex designs and ornamentation that the Caxtiltéca must have remembered from their Old Spain, wherever that was.
When eventually we of Aztlan got word that the white men were fighting to subjugate the territories of the Otomí and Purémpecha peoples, we fully expected soon to see those marauders arriving on our own doorstep, so to speak, because the northern limit of the Purémpecha’s land called Michihuácan is no more than ninety one-long-runs from Aztlan. However, the Purémpecha put up a fierce and unflagging resistance that kept the invaders embroiled there in Michihuácan for years. Meanwhile, the Otomí people simply melted away before the attackers and let them have that country, for what it was worth. And it was not worth much to anybody, including the rapacious Caxtiltéca, because it was and is nothing but what we call the Dead-Bone Lands—arid, bleak, inhospitable desert, as is also all the country north of Michihuácan.
So the white men finally were satisfied to cease their advance at the southern edge of that unlovely desert (what they called the Great Bald Spot). In other words, they established the northern border of their New Spain along a line stretching approximately from Lake Chapálan in the west to the shore of the Eastern Sea, and thus it has remained to this day. Where the southern border of New Spain was finally established, I have no idea. I do know that detachments of the Caxtiltéca conquered and settled in the once-Maya territories of Uluómil Kutz and Quautemálan and still farther south, in the blazing, steaming Hot Lands. The Mexíca had formerly traded with those lands, but, even at the height of their power, had had no craving to acquire or inhabit them.
During the eventful years that I have sketchily chronicled here, there also occurred the more expectable and less epochal events of my own youth. The day I became seven years old, I was taken before Aztlan’s wizened old tonalpóqui, the name-giver, so he could consult his tonálmatl book of names (and ponder all the good and bad omens attendant on the time of my birth), to fix on me the appellation I would wear forever after. My first name, of course, had to be merely that of the day I came into the world: Chicuáce-Xóchitl, Six-Flower. For my second name, the old seer chose—as having “good portents,” he said—Téotl-Tenamáxtli, “Girded Strong As Stone.”
Simultaneous with my becoming Tenamáxtli, I commenced my schooling in Aztlan’s two telpochcáltin, The House of Building Strength and The House of Learning Manners. When I turned thirteen and donned the loincloth of manhood, I graduated from those lower schools and attended only the city’s calmécac, where teacher-priests imported from Tenochtítlan taught the art of word-knowing and many other subjects—history, doctoring, geography, poetry—almost any kind of knowledge a pupil might wish to possess.
“It is also time,” said my Uncle Mixtzin, on that thirteenth birthday of mine, “for you to celebrate another sort of graduation. Come with me, Tenamáxtli.”
He escorted me through the streets to Aztlan’s finest auyanicáti and, from the numerous females resident there, picked out the most attractive—a girl almost as young and almost as beautiful as his own daughter Améyatl—and told her: “This young man is today a man. I would have you teach him all that a man should know about the act of ahuilnéma. Devote the entire night to his education.”
The girl smiled and said she would, and she did. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed her attentions and the night’s activities, and I was duly grateful to my generous uncle. But I also must confess that, unknown to him, I already had been foretasting such pleasures for some months before I merited the manly loincloth.
Anyway, during those years and subsequent years, Aztlan never was visited by even a roving patrol of the Caxtiltéca forces, nor were any of the nearer communities with which we Aztéca traded. Of course, all the lands north of New Spain had always been sparsely populated in comparison to the midlands. It would not have surprised me if, to the north of our lands, there were hermit tribes who had not yet even heard that The One World had been invaded, or that there existed such things as white-skinned men.
Aztlan and those other communities naturally felt relief at being left unmolested by the conquerors, but we also found that our safety-in-isolation entailed some disadvantages. Since we and our neighbors did not want to attract the attention of the Caxtiltéca, we sent none of our pochtéca traveling merchants or even swift-messengers venturing across the border of New Spain. This meant that we voluntarily cut ourselves off from all commerce with the communities south of that line. Those had formerly been the best markets in which to sell our homegrown and homemade products—coconut milk and sweets and liquor and soap, pearls, sponges—and from them we had procured items unavailable in our lands—every sort of commodity from cacao beans to cotton, even the obsidian needed for our tools and weapons. So the headmen of various towns roundabout us—Yakóreke, Tépiz, Tecuéxe and others—began sending discreet scouting parties southward. These went in groups of three, one of them always a woman, and they went unarmed and unarmored, wearing simple country clothes, seeming to be simple country people trudging to some innocuous family gathering somewhere. They carried nothing to make any Caxtiltéca border guards suspicious or predaceous; usually nothing but a leather bag of water and another of pinóli for traveling provisions.
The scouts went forth with understandable apprehension, not knowing what dangers they might encounter on the way. But they went with curiosity, too, their mission being to report back to their headmen on what they saw of life in the midlands, in the towns and cities, and especially in the City of Mexíco, now that all was ruled by the white men. On those reports would depend our peoples’ decision: whether to approach and ally ourselves with the conquerors, in hope of a resumption of normal trade and social intercourse; or to remain remote and unnoticed and independent, even if poorer for that; or to concentrate on building strong forces and impregnable defenses and an armory of weapons, to fight for our lands when and if the Caxtiltéca did come.
Well, in time, almost all the scouts returned, at intervals, intact and unscathed by any misadventures either going or coming. Only one or two parties had even seen a border sentry and, except for the scouts having been awestruck by their first sight of a white man in the flesh, they had nothing to report about their crossing of the border. Those guards had ignored them as if they were no more than desert lizards seeking a new feeding ground. And throughout New Spain, in the countryside, in villages and towns and cities, including the City of Mexíco, they had not seen—or heard from any of the local inhabitants—any evidence that the new overlords were any more strict or severe than the Mexíca rulers had been.
“My scouts,” said Kévari, tlatocapíli of the village of Yakóreke, “say that all the surviving pípiltin of the court of Tenochtítlan—and the heirs of those lords who did not survive—have been allowed to keep their family estates and property and lordly privileges. They have been most leniently treated by the conquerors.”
“However, except for those few who are still accounted lords or nobles,” said Teciuápil, chief of Tecuéxe, “there are no more pípiltin. Or working-class macehuáltin or even tlacótin slaves. All our people are now accounted equal. And all work at whatever the white men bid them do. So said my scouts.”
“Only one of my scouts returned,” said Tototl, headman of Tépiz. “He reports that the City of Mexíco is almost complete, except for a few very grand buildings still under construction. Of course there are no more temples to the old gods. But the marketplaces, he said, are thronged and thriving. That is why my other two scouts, a married couple, Netzlin and Citláli, chose to stay there and seek their fortune.”
“I am not surprised,” growled my Uncle Mixtzin, to whom the other chiefs had come to report. “Such peasant oafs would never before in their lives have seen any city. No wonder they report favorably on the new rulers. They are too ignorant to make comparisons.”
“Ayya!” bleated Kévari. “At least we and our people made an effort to investigate, while you and your Aztéca sit lumpishly here in complacency.”
“Kévari is right,” said Teciuápil. “It was agreed that all of us leaders would convene, discuss what we have learned and then decide our course of action regarding the Caxtiltéca invaders. But all you do, Mixtzin, is scoff.”
“Yes,” said Tototl. “If you so disdainfully dismiss the honest efforts of our peasant oafs, Mixtzin, then send some of your educated and refined Aztéca. Or some of your tame Mexíca immigrants. We will postpone any decisions until they return.”
“No,” my uncle said, after a moment of deep thought. “Like those Mexíca who now live among us, I too once saw the city of Tenochtítlan when it stood in its zenith of might and glory. I shall go myself.” He turned to me. “Tenamáxtli, make ready, and tell your mother to make ready. You and she will accompany me.”
So that was the sequence of events that took the three of us journeying to the City of Mexíco—where I would get my uncle’s reluctant permission to remain and reside for a time, and where I would learn many things, including the speaking of your Spanish tongue. However, I never took the time to learn the reading and writing of your language—which is why I am at this moment recounting my reminiscences to you, mi querida muchacha, mi inteligente y bellísima y adorada Verónica, so that you may set the words down for all my children and all our children’s children to read someday.
And the culmination of that sequence of events was that my uncle, my mother and myself arrived in the City of Mexíco in the month of Panquétzalíztli, in the year Thirteen-Reed, what you would call Octubre, of the Aóo de Cristo one thousand five hundred thirty and one, on the very day—anyone but the prankish and capricious gods would have deemed it coincidence—that the old man Juan Damasceno was burned to death.
* * *
I can still see him burning.
Copyright © 1997 by Gary Jennings