Pardon me, my lord, that I do not know your formal and fitting honorific, but I trust I do not hazard my lord’s taking offense. You are a man, and not one man of all the men I have met in my life has ever resented being addressed as a lord. So, my lord
* * *
Your Excellency, is it?
Ayyo, even more illustrious—what we of these lands would call an ahuaquáhuitl, a tree of great shade. Your Excellency it shall be, then. It impresses me the more that a personage of such eminent excellency should have summoned such a one as myself to speak words in Your Excellency’s presence.
Ah, no, Your Excellency, do not demur if I appear to flatter Your Excellency. Common report throughout the city, and these your servitors here, have made plain to me how august a man you are, Your Excellency, while I am but a threadbare rag, a frayed raveling of what once was. Your Excellency is attired and arrayed and assured in your conspicuous excellency, and I am only I.
But Your Excellency wishes to hear of what I was. This has also been explained to me. Your Excellency desires to learn what my people, this land, our lives were like in the years, in the sheaves of years before it pleased Your Excellency’s king and his crossbearers and crossbowmen to deliver us from our bondage of barbarism.
That is correct? Then Your Excellency asks no easy thing of me. How, in this little room, out of my little intellect, in the little time the gods—the Lord God—may have vouchsafed me to finish my roads and my days, how can I evoke the vastness of what was our world, the variety of its peoples, the events of the sheaves upon sheaves of years?
Think, imagine, picture yourself, Your Excellency, as that tree of great shade. See in your mind its immensity, its mighty boughs and the birds among them, the lush foliage, the sunlight upon it, the coolness it casts upon a house, a family, the girl and boy who were my sister and myself. Could Your Excellency compress that tree of great shade back into the acorn which Your Excellency’s father once thrust between your mother’s legs?
Yya ayya, I have displeased Your Excellency and dismayed your scribes. Forgive me, Your Excellency. I should have guessed that the white men’s private copulation with their white women must be different—of more delicacy—than I have seen them perform forcibly upon our women in public. And assuredly the Christian copulation that produced Your Excellency must have been even more
* * *
Yes, yes, Your Excellency, I desist.
But Your Excellency perceives my difficulty. How to enable Your Excellency to see at a glance the difference between our inferior then and your superior now? Perhaps one summary illustration will suffice, and you need trouble yourself with no more listening.
Look, Your Excellency, at your scribes: in our language “the word knowers.” I have been a scribe myself, and I well recall how hard it was to render onto fawnskin or fiber paper or bark paper so much as the unfleshed bones of historical dates and happenings, with any degree of accuracy. Sometimes it was hard even for me to read my own pictures aloud, without stumbling, after just the few moments the colors took to dry.
But your word knowers and I have been practicing, while awaiting Your Excellency’s arrival, and I am amazed, I am struck with wonder, at what any one of your reverend scribes can do. He can write and read back to me not just the substance of what I speak, but every single word, and with all the intonations and pauses and stresses of my speech. I would think it a talent of memory and mimicry—we had our word rememberers, too—but he tells me, shows me, proves to me, that it is all there on his page of paper. I congratulate myself, Your Excellency, that I have learned to speak your language with what proficiency my poor brain and tongue can attain, but your writing would be beyond me.
In our picture writing, the very colors spoke, the colors sang or wept, the colors were necessary. They were many: magentared, ocher-gold, ahuácatl-green, turquoise-blue, chocólatl, the red-yellow of the jacinth gem, clay-gray, midnight-black. And even then they were inadequate to catch every individual word, not to mention nuances and adroit turns of phrase. Yet any one of your word knowers can do just that: record every syllable forever, with a single quill instead of a handful of reeds and brushes. And, most marvelous, with just one color, the rusty black decoction they tell me is ink.
Very well, Your Excellency, there you have it in an acorn— the difference between us Indians and you white men, between our ignorance and your knowledge, between our old times and your new day. Will it satisfy Your Excellency that the mere stroke of a quill has demonstrated your people’s right to rule and our people’s fate to be ruled? Surely this is all that Your Excellency requires from us Indians: a confirmation that the victor’s conquest is ordained, not by his arms and artifice, not even by his Almighty God, but by his innate superiority of nature over lesser beings like ourselves. Your Excellency can have no further need of me or words of mine.
My wife is old and infirm and unattended. I cannot pretend that she grieves at my absence from her side, but it annoys her. Ailing and irascible as she is, her annoyance is not good for her. Nor for me. Therefore, with sincere thanks to Your Excellency for Your Excellency’s gracious reception of this aged wretch, I bid you
My apologies, Your Excellency. As you remark, I have not Your Excellency’s permission to depart at whim. I am at Your Excellency’s service for as long as
* * *
Again my apologies. I was not aware that I had repeated “Your Excellency” more than thirty times in this brief colloquy, nor that I had said it in any special tone of voice. But I cannot contradict your scribes’ scrupulous account. Henceforth I will endeavor to temper my reverence and enthusiasm for your honorific, Señor Bishop, and to keep my tone of voice irreproachable. And, as you command, I will continue.
* * *
But now, what am I to say? What should I cause your ears to hear?
My life has been long, as ours is measured. I did not die in infancy, as so many of our children do. I did not die in battle or in holy sacrifice, as so many have willingly done. I did not succumb to an excess of drinking, or to the attack of a wild beast, or to the creeping decay of The Being Eaten by the Gods. I did not die by contracting one of the dread diseases that came with your ships, and of which so many thousands upon thousands have perished. I have outlived even the gods, who forever had been deathless and who forever would be immortal. I have survived for more than a full sheaf of years, to see and do and learn and remember much. But no man can know everything of even his own time, and this land’s life began immeasurably long ages before my own. It is only of my own that I can speak, only my own mat I can bring back to shadow life in your rusty black ink.…
“There was a splendor of spears, a splendor of spears!”
An old man of our island of Xaltócan used always to begin his battle tales that way. We listeners were captivated on the instant, and we remained engrossed, though it might have been a most minor battle he described and, once he had told the foregoing events and the outcome of it all, perhaps a very trivial tale hardly worth the telling. But he had the knack for blurting at once the most compelling highlight of a narrative, and then weaving backward and forward from it. Unlike him, I can but begin at the beginning and move onward through time just as I lived it.
What I now state and affirm did all occur. I only narrate what happened, without invention and without falsehood. I kiss the earth. That is to say: I swear to this.
* * *
Oc ye nechca—as yon would say, “Once upon a time”—ours was a land where nothing moved more rapidly than our swift-messengers could run, except when the gods moved, and mere was no noise louder than our far-callers could shout, except when the gods spoke. On the day we called Seven Flower, in the month of God Ascending, in the year Thirteen Rabbit, the rain god Tlaloc was speaking his loudest, in a resounding thunderstorm. That was somewhat unusual, since the rainy season should have been then at its end. The tlalóque spirits which attend upon the god Tlaloc were striking blows with their forked sticks of lightning, cracking open the great casks of the clouds, so that they shattered with roars and rumblings and spilt their violent downpour of rain.
In the afternoon of that day, in the tumult of that storm, in a little house on the island of Xaltócan, I came forth from my mother and began my dying.
To make your chronicle clearer—you see, I took pains to learn your calendar too—I have calculated that my day of birth would have been the twentieth day of your month called September, in your year numbered one thousand four hundred sixty and six. That was during the reign of Motecuzóma Iluicamína, meaning The Wrathful Lord, He Who Shoots Arrows into the Sky. He was our Uey-Tlatoáni or Revered Speaker, our title for what you would call your king or emperor. But the name of Motecuzóma or of anybody else did not mean much to me at the time.
At the time, warm from the womb, I was doubtless more impressed by being immediately plunged into a jar of breathtaking cold water. No midwife has ever bothered to explain to me the reason for that practice, but I assume it is done on the theory that if the newborn can survive that appalling shock it can survive all the ailments which may beset it during its infancy. Anyway, I probably complained most vociferously while the midwife was swaddling me, while my mother was disentangling her hands from the knotted, roof-hung rope she had clutched as she knelt to extrude me onto the floor, and while my father was carefully wrapping my severed navel string around a little wooden war shield he had carved.
That token my father would give to the first Mexícatl warrior he chanced to encounter, and the soldier would be entrusted to plant the object somewhere on the next battlefield to which he was ordered. Thereafter, my tonáli—fate, fortune, destiny, whatever you care to call it—should have been forever urging me to go for a soldier, that most honorable of occupations for our class of people, and to fall in battle, that most honorable of deaths for such as we were. I say “should have been” because, although my tonáli has frequently beckoned or prodded me in some odd directions, even into combat, I have never really yearned either to fight or to die by violence before my time.
I might mention that, according to the custom for female babies, the navel string of my sister Nine Reed had been planted, not quite two years earlier, beneath the hearth in that room where we both were born. Her buried string was wrapped around a tiny clay spindle wheel; thus she would grow up to be a good, hard-working, and humdrum housewife. She did not. Nine Reed’s tonáli was as wayward as my own.
After my immersion and swaddling, the midwife spoke most solemnly and directly to me—if I was letting her be heard at all. I scarcely need remark that I do not repeat from memory any of those doings at my birth time. But I know all the procedures. What the midwife said to me that afternoon I have since heard spoken to many a new boy baby, as it always was to all our male children. It was one of many rituals remembered and never neglected since time before time: the long-dead ancestors handing on, through the living, their wisdom to the newborn.
The midwife addressed me as Seven Flower. That day-of-birth name I would bear until I had outlived the hazards of infancy, until I was seven years old, by which age I could be presumed likely to live to grow up, and so would be given a more distinctive adult name.
She said, “Seven Flower, my very loved and tenderly delivered child, here is die word that was long ago given us by the gods. You were merely born to his mother and his father to be a warrior and a servant of the gods. This place where you have just now been born is not your true home.”
And she said, “Seven Flower, you are promised to the field of battle. Your foremost duty is to give to the sun the blood of your enemies to drink, and to feed the earth with the cadavers of your opponents. If your tonáli is strong, you will be with us and in this place only a brief while. Your real home will be in the land of our sun god Tonatíu.”
And she said, “Seven Flower, if you grow up to die as a xochimíui—one of those sufficiently fortunate to merit the Flowery Death, in war or by sacrifice—you will live again in the eternally happy Tonatíucan, the afterworld of the sun, and you will serve Tonatíu forever and forever, and you will rejoice in his service.”
I see you wince, Your Excellency. So should I have done, had I men comprehended that woeful welcome to this world, or the words spoken by our neighbors and kinsmen who crowded in to view the newcomer, each of them leaning over me with the traditional greeting, “You have come to suffer. Suffer and endure.” If children were born able to understand such a salutation, they would all squirm back into the womb, dwindle back into the seed.
No doubt we did come into this world to suffer, to endure; what human being ever did not? But the midwife’s words about soldiering and sacrifice were a mere mockingbird repetition. I have heard many other such edifying harangues, from my father, from my teachers, from our priests—and yours—all mindlessly echoing what they themselves had heard from generations long gone before. Myself, I have come to believe that the long-dead were no wiser than we, even when they were alive, and their being dead has added no luster to their wisdom. The pontifical words of the dead I have always taken—as we say, yca mapilxocóitl: with my little finger—“with a grain of salt,” as your saying goes.
* * *
We grow up and look down, we grow old and look back. Ayyo, but what it was to be a child, to be a child! To have the roads and die days all stretching out forward and upward and away, not one of them yet missed or wasted or repented. Everything in the world a newness and a novelty, as it once was to Ometecútli and Omecíuatl, our Lord and Lady Pair, the first beings of all creation.
Without effort I remember, I recall to memory, I hear again in my age-muffled ears the sounds of dawn on our island Xaltócan. Sometimes I awoke to the call of the Early Bird, Pápan, crying his four-note “papaquíqui, papaquíqui!”—bidding the world “arise, sing, dance, be happy!” Other times I awoke to the even earlier morning sound of my mother grinding maize on the métlatl stone, or slapping and shaping the maize dough she would bake into the big, thin disks of tláxcala bread—what you now call tortillas. There were even mornings when I awoke earlier than all but the priests of the sun Tonatíu. Lying in the darkness, I could hear them, at the temple atop our island’s modest pyramid, blowing the hoarse bleats of the conch trumpet, as they burned incense and ritually wrung the neck of a quail (because that bird is speckled like a starry night), and chanted to the god: “See, thus the night dies. Come now and perform your kindly labors, oh jeweled one, oh soaring eagle, come now to lighten and warm The One World.…
Without effort, without striving, I remember the hot middays, when Tonatíu the sun, in all the vigor of his prime, fiercely brandished his flaming spears while he stood and stamped upon the rooftop of the universe. In that shadowless blue and gold noontime, the mountains around Lake Xaltócan seemed close enough to touch. In fact, that may be my earliest memory—I could not have been much over two years old, and I had yet no conception of distance—for the day and the world were panting all about me, and I wanted the touch of something cool. I still recall my childish surprise when I stretched out my arm and could not feel the blue of the forested mountain that loomed so clear and close before me.
Without effort I remember also the days’ endings, when Tonatíu drew about him his sleeping mantle of brilliant feathers, and let himself down on to his soft bed of many-colored flower petals, and sank to sleep in them. He was gone from our sight to The Dark Place, Míctlan. Of the four afterworlds in which our dead might dwell, Míctlan was the nethermost, the abode of the utterly and irredeemably dead, the place where nothing happens, or has ever happened, or ever will. (It was compassionate of Tonatíu that for a time (a little time only, compared to what he lavished on us), he would lend his light (a little light only, dimmed by his sleeping) to The Dark Place of the hopelessly dead.
Meanwhile, in The One World—on Xaltócan, anyway, the only world I knew—the pale blue mists rose from die lake so that die blackening mountains roundabout appeared to float on them, between die red waters and the purple sky. Then, just above die horizon where Tonatíu had disappeared, there flared for a while Omexóchitl, the evening star After Blossom. That star came, After Blossom always came, she came to assure us mat, though the night did darken, we need not fear this night’s darkening to the oblivion darkness of The Dark Place. The One World lived, and would live yet a while.
Without effort I remember me nights, and one night in particular. Metztli the moon had finished his monthly meal of stars, and he was full fed, he was gorged to his roundest and brightest, so that die figure of die rabbit-in-the-moon was as clearly incised as any temple carving. That night—I suppose I was three or four years old—my father carried me on his shoulders, his hands holding tight to my ankles. His long strides bore me through cool brightness and cooler darkness: die dappled moonlight and moonshade beneath die spreading limbs and feathery leaves of the “oldest of old” trees, the ahuehuétque cypresses.
I was old enough then to have heard of the terrible things that lurked in the nighttime, just beyond the edge of a person’s vision. There was Chocacíuatl, the Weeping Woman, the first of all mothers to the in childbirth, forever wandering, forever bewailing her lost baby and her own lost life. There were the nameless, headless, limbless torsos mat somehow managed to moan as they writhed blind and helpless on the ground. There were the disembodied, fleshless skulls that drifted head-high through die air, chasing travelers overtaken by night upon their travels. If a mortal glimpsed any of those things, he knew it to be a sure omen of dire misfortune.
Some other denizens of die dark were not so utterly to be feared. There was, for instance, the god Yoáli Ehécatl, Night Wind, who gusted along die night roads, seeking to seize any incautious human abroad in the dark. But Night Wind was as capricious as any wind. Sometimes he seized, then let a person go free, and if that happened, the person would also be granted his heart’s desire and a long life in which to enjoy it. So, in hope of keeping the god always in that indulgent mood, our people had long ago built stone benches at various of the island’s crossroads, whereon Night Wind might rest in his rushings about. As I say, I was old enough to know and dread the spirits of the darkness. But that night, set on my father’s broad shoulders, myself temporarily taller than a man, my hair brushed by the rustling cypress fronds, my face caressed by the dapples of moonlight, I felt not at all afraid.
Without effort I remember that night because, for the first time, I was being allowed to observe a ceremony involving human sacrifice. It was but a minor rite, for it was in homage to a very minor deity: Atláua, the god of fowlers. (In those days, Lake Xaltócan teemed with ducks and geese which, in their seasons of wandering, paused there to rest and feed—and to feed us.) So, on that night of the well-fed moon, at the start of the season of the waterfowl, just one xochimíqui, one man only, would be ritually killed to the greater glory of the god Atláua. And the man was not, for a change, a war captive going to his Flowery Death with exhilaration or resignation, but a volunteer going rather ruefully.
“I am already dead,” he had told the priests. “I gasp like a fish taken from the water. My chest strains for more and more air, but the air no longer nourishes me. My limbs weaken, my sight darkens, my head whirls, I faint and fall. I had rather die all at once than flop about fishlike until I strangle at last.”
The man was a slave who had come from the Chinantéca nation, far to the south. Those people were and still are prey to a curious illness which seems to run in certain of their family bloodlines. We and they called it the Painted Disease, and you Spaniards now call the Chinantéca the Pinto People, because an afflicted one’s skin is blotched with livid blue. His body somehow gradually becomes unable to make use of the air it breathes, and so it dies of suffocation, exactly in the manner of a fish removed from its sustaining element.
My father and I arrived at the lakeshore, where two sturdy posts were embedded a little way apart. The surrounding night was lighted by urn fires and made smoky by burning incense. Through the haze danced the priests of Atláua old men, black all over, their robes black, their faces blackened and their long hair matted with oxitl, which is the black pine tar our fowlers smear on their legs and lower body to shield them from the cold when they wade into the lake waters. Two of the priests tweedled the ritual music on flutes made from human shinbones, while another thumped a drum. That was a special sort of drum, specially suited to the occasion: a giant dried pumpkin, partly filled with water so it floated half submerged in the lake shallows. Beaten with thighbones, the water drum gave out a resonant rataplan which echoed from the mountains invisible across the lake.
The xochimíqui was led into the circle of smoky light. He was naked, he wore not even the basic maxtlatl which customarily encircles a man’s loins and private parts. Even in the flickery firelight, I could see that his body was not of flesh color mottled with blue, but a dead blue touched only here and mere with flesh color. He was spread-eagled between the lakeshore posts, one ankle and one wrist bound to each stake. A priest, waving an arrow as a Song Leader waves his stick, chanted an invocation:
“This man’s life fluid we give to you, Atláua, mingled with the life water of our beloved Lake Xaltócan. We give it to you, Atláua, that you may in return deign to send your flocks of precious fowl to the nets of our fowlers.…” And so on.
That continued long enough to bore me, if not Atláua. Then, without any warning or ritual flourish, the priest suddenly lowered the arrow and jabbed it with all his strength upward, twisting it, into die blue man’s genital organs. The victim, however much he might have thought he desired mat release from life, gave a scream. He howled a scream, he ululated a scream that overrode the sound of flutes, drum, and chanting. He screamed, but he did not scream for long.
The priest, with the bloody arrow, drew a cross on the man’s chest for a target, and all the priests pranced about him in a circle, each carrying a bow and many arrows. As each passed in front of the xochimíqui, he thrummed an arrow into the blue man’s heaving breast. When the prancing was done and the arrows used up, the dead man looked like an overgrown specimen of the animal we call the prickly little boar. There was not much else to the ceremony. The body was unloosed from the stakes and tied by a rope behind a fowler’s acáli pulled up on the sand. The fowler rowed his canoe out into the lake, out of our view, towing the corpse until it should sink of the water that seeped in through its natural orifices and the arrow punctures. Thus Atláua received his sacrifice.
My father hoisted me to his shoulders again and started his long strides back across the island. As I bobbed along, high and safe and secure, I made a boyishly arrogant vow to myself. If ever it was my tonáli to be selected for the Flowery Death of sacrifice, even to some alien god, I would not scream, whatever was done to me, whatever pain I suffered.
Foolish child. I thought death meant only dying, and doing it badly or bravely. At that moment in my snug and unthreatened young life, being borne on strong shoulders homeward to a sweet sleep from which I would awaken to a new morning at the Early Bird’s call, how could I know what death really is?
As we believed in those days, a hero slain in the service of a mighty lord or sacrificed in homage to a high god was assured of a life everlasting in the most resplendent of afterworlds, where he would be rewarded and regaled with bliss throughout eternity. And now Christianity tells us that we all may hope for an afterlife in a similarly splendid Heaven. But consider. Even the most heroic of heroes dying in the most honorable cause, even the most devout Christian martyr dying in the certainty of reaching Heaven, he will never again know the caress of this world’s moonlight dappling his face as he walks beneath this world’s rustling cypress trees. A trifling pleasure—so small, so simple, so ordinary—but never to be known again.
* * *
Your Excellency evinces impatience. Forgive me, Señor Bishop, that my old wits sometimes drift off the straight road onto meandering bypaths. I know that some things I have told, and some other things of which I shall tell, you may not regard as a strictly historical account. But I pray your forbearance, for I do not know whether I shall ever have another opportunity to say these things. And, for all I say, I do not say all that could be said.…
* * *
Casting my mind again backward to my childhood, I cannot claim that it was in any way extraordinary for our place and time, since I was no more or less than an ordinary boy child. The day number and year number of my birth were numbers I regarded neither as fortunate nor misfortunate. I was not born during any portents in the sky—an eclipse biting at the moon, for example, which could similarly have bitten me with a harelip or permanently shadowed my face with a dark birthmark. I had none of the physical features our people regarded as unhandsome defects in a male: not curly hair nor jug-handle ears, no double chin nor any cleft in it, no protruding rabbit teeth, my nose neither flat nor too beakishly pronounced, no everted navel, no conspicuous moles. Most fortunate for me, my black hair grew straight and smooth; there were no tufts turned up or turned awry.
My boyhood comrade Chimáli had one of those unruly feathers of hair, and all his young life he prudently, even fearfully, kept that tuft clipped short and plastered down with oxitl. I remember once, in our early years, when he had to wear a pumpkin over his head for a whole day. The scribes smile; I had better explain.
The fowlers of Xaltócan caught ducks and geese, in the most practical way and in goodly numbers, by raising large nets on poles here and there in the lake’s shallow red waters, then making some violent noise to startle the birds into flight, and seizing those that got entangled in the nets. But we boys of Xaltócan had our own sly method. We would cut off the top of a pumpkin or other large calabash gourd, and hollow out its inside, and cut a hole in it through which to see and breathe. We would put the pumpkin over our head, then dogpaddle out to where the ducks or geese sat placidly on the lake. Our bodies being invisible underwater, the birds never seemed to find anything alarming in the slow approach of a floating gourd or two. We could get close enough to grab a bird’s legs and yank it under the surface. It was not always easy; even a small teal can put up quite a fight against a small boy; but generally we could keep the bird underwater until it drowned and went limp. The maneuver seldom even disturbed the rest of the flock afloat nearby.
Chimáli and I spent a day at that sport, and we had a respectable heap of ducks stacked onshore by the time we got tired and decided to quit. But then we discovered that all the swimming about had dissolved Chimáli’s hair plaster, and his tuft was sticking up behind like die back feather worn by certain of our warriors. We were at the end of the island farthest from our village, meaning Chimáli would have to cross the whole of Xaltócan looking like that
“Ayya, pocbéoa!” he muttered. The expression refers only to the malodorous passing of gut wind, but it was a vehement enough expletive, from a boy of eight or nine years, that it would have earned him a thrashing with thorns if an adult had been there to overhear it
“We can get back into the water,” I suggested, “and swim around the island, if we stay far enough offshore.”
“Maybe you could,” said Chimáli. “I am so winded and waterlogged that I would sink on the instant Suppose we wait until dark to walk back home.”
I said, “In the daylight you risk running into some priest who may notice your standing tuft of hair. In the dark you risk meeting some monster even more terrible, like Night Wind. But you decide, and I am with you.”
We sat and thought for a while, idly nipping at honey ants. Those were everywhere on the ground at that season, their abdomens bulging with nectar. We picked up the insects and bit then-hinder ends for a sip of the sweet honey. But each droplet was minuscule and, no matter how many ants we nipped, we were getting hungry.
“I know!” Chimáli said at last. 1 will wear my pumpkin all the way home.”
And that is what he did. Of course he could not see too well through its eyehole, so I bad to lead him, and we were both considerably encumbered by our burdens of dead, wet, heavy ducks. This meant mat Chimáli quite often stumbled and fell, or walked into tree trunks, or toppled into roadside ditches. By good fortune, his pumpkin never broke to pieces. But I laughed at him all the way and dogs barked at him and, since me twilight came before we reached home, Chimáli himself may have astonished and terrified any passersby who saw him in the dusk.
But it might otherwise have been no laughing matter. There was good reason for Chimali’s being always aware and careful of his unruly hair. Any boy with such a tuft, you see, was especially preferred by the priests when they required a male youngster for sacrifice. Do not ask me why. No priest has ever told me why. But then, what priest has ever had to give us a credible reason for the unreasonable rules he makes us live by, or for the fear and guilt and shame we must endure when we sometimes circumvent them?
* * *
I do not mean to give the impression mat any of us, young or old, lived lives of constant apprehension. Except for a few arbitrary vagaries like the priests’ predilection for boys with disordered hair, our religion and the priests who interpreted it did not make too many or too onerous demands of us. Nor did any other authorities. We owed obedience to our rulers and governors, of course, and we had certain obligations to the pípiltin nobles, and we heeded the advice of our tlamatíntin wise men. But I was born into the middle class of our society, the macehuáltin, “the fortunate,” so called because we were equally free of the upper classes’ heavy responsibilities and of the lower classes’ liability to being basely used.
In our time there were few laws—deliberately few, so that every man might hold them all in his head and in his heart, and have not the excuse of ignorance for flouting them. The laws were not written down, like yours, nor pasted up in public places, like yours, so that a man must forever be consulting the long lists of edicts, rules, and regulations, to measure his every last action against “you shall” and “you shall not.” By your standards, our few laws may seem to have been lax or whimsical, and the penalties for their infraction unduly harsh. But our laws worked for the good of all—and all, knowing the dire consequences, obeyed them. Those who did not—they disappeared.
An example. According to the laws you brought from Spain, a thief is punished with death. So he was in our time. But, by your laws, a hungry man who steals a thing to eat is a thief. Not so in our time. One of our laws said that, in any maize field planted alongside a public road, the four rows of stalks adjacent to mat road were accessible to the passerby. Any hungry warfarer could pluck as many ears of maize as his empty belly required. But a man who greedily sought to enrich himself, and plundered that maize field to collect a sackful for hoarding or trading, if he was caught, he died. Thus that one law ensured two good things: that the thieving man was permanently cured of thievery, and that the hungering man did not die of hunger.
Our lives were regulated less by laws than by long-standing customs and traditions. Most of those governed the behavior of adults or of clans or of entire communities. But, even as a child not yet grown beyond the name of Seven Flower, I was made aware of the traditional insistence on a male’s being brave, strong, gallant, hard-working, and honest; of a female’s being modest, chaste, gentle, hard-working, and self-effacing.
What time I did not spend at play with my toys—most of them miniature war weapons and replicas of the tools of my father’s trade—and what time I did not spend at play with Chimáli and Tlatli and other boys about my own age, I spent in the company of my father, when he was not at work in the quarry. Though of course I called him Tete, as all children childishly called their fathers, his name was Tepetzálan, meaning Valley, after the low place among the mainland mountains where he had been born. Since he towered well above the average height of our men, that name, given him at the age of seven, was rather ridiculous in his adulthood. All our neighbors and his fellow quarriers called him by tall nicknames: Handful of Stars and Head Nodder and the like. Indeed, he had to nod his head far down to my level, to speak the traditional father-to-son homilies. If perhaps he caught me impudently imitating the shuffle gait of our village’s hunchbacked old garbage collector, my father would tell me sternly:
“Take care that you do not mock the old, the ill, the maimed, or anyone who has fallen into some folly or transgression. Do not insult or despise, them, but abase yourself before the gods, and tremble lest they bring the same misery upon you.”
Or if I showed little interest in what he tried to teach me of his trade—and any macehuáli boy who did not aspire to soldiering was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps—he would lean down and say earnestly:
“Flee not any labor to which the gods assign you, my son, but be content. I pray mat they may grant you merits and good fortune, but whatever they give you, take it gratefully. If it be only a small gift, do not scorn it, for the gods can take even that little away. If it be a large bestowal, perhaps some great talent, do not be proud or vainglorious, but remember that the gods must have denied that tonáli to someone else that you might have it.”
Sometimes, at no discernible instigation, and with his big face reddening slightly, my father would deliver a small sermon that made no sense to me at all. Something on this order:
“Live cleanly and be not dissolute, or you will anger the gods and they will cover you with infamy. Restrain yourself, my son, until you meet the girl whom the gods destine for your wife, because the gods know how to arrange all things properly. Above all, never disport yourself with another man’s wife.”
It seemed an unnecessary injunction, for I did live cleanly. Lake every other Mexícatl—except the priests—I bathed twice a day in hot soapy water, and swam often in the lake, and periodically sweated out my remaining bad vapors in our oven-like little steam house. I cleaned my teeth, night and morning, with a mixture of bee’s honey and white ashes. As for disporting myself, I knew of no man on the island who had a wife my age, and none of us boys included girls in our games anyway.
All those father-to-son preachments were so many rote recitations, handed down through the generations word for word, like the midwife’s discourse at my birth. Only on those occasions did my father Tepetzálan talk at great length; he was otherwise a taciturn man. In the noise of the quarry there was little use for talk, and at home my mother’s incessant fretful chatter gave him little chance to put in a word. Tete did not mind. He always preferred action to speech, and he taught me far more by example than with the parroted harangues. If my rather was at all defective in the qualities expected of our men— strength, bravery, and all that—it consisted only in his letting himself be bullied and brow-beaten by my Tene.
My mother was the most untypical female among all those of our class on Xaltócan: the least modest, least docile, least self-effacing. She was a shrill termagant, the tyrant of our little family and the bane of all our neighbors. But she preened herself on being the model of womanly perfection, so it followed that she lived in a state of perpetual and angry dissatisfaction with everything around her. If I learned anything at all useful from my Tene, it was to be sometimes dissatisfied with myself.
I remember being corporally punished by my father on only one occasion, when I richly deserved it. We boys were allowed, even encouraged, to kill birds like crows and grackles which pecked at our garden crops, and that we did with reed blowpipes which propelled shaped clay pellets. But one day, out of some impish perversity, I blew a pellet at the little tame quail we kept in our house. (Most houses had one of those pets, to keep down scorpions and other insect vermin.) Then, to compound my crime, I tried to blame the bird’s killing on my friend Tlatli.
It took my father not long to find out the truth. While my murder of the unoffending quail might have been only moderately penalized, the strictly prohibited sin of lying could not. My Tete had to inflict on me the prescribed punishment for “speaking spittle and phlegm,” as we called a lie. He winced himself as he did it: piercing my lower lip with a maguey thorn and leaving it there until bedtime. Ayya ouíya the pain, the mortification, the pain, the tears of remorse, the pain!
* * *
The punishment left such a lasting impression on me that I have in turn left its impress upon the archives of our land. If you have seen our picture writing, then you have seen figures of persons or other creatures with a small, curly, scroll-like symbol emanating from them. That symbol represents a náhuatl, which is to say a tongue, or language, or speech, or sound. It indicates that the figure is talking or making a noise of some sort. If the náhuatl is more than ordinarily curly, and elaborated by the symbol for a butterfly or flower, then the figure is speaking poetry or singing music. When I myself became a scribe, I added another elaboration to our picture writing: the náhuatl pierced by a maguey thorn, and all our other scribes soon adopted it. When you see that symbol before a figure, you know you see a picture of someone telling a lie.
* * *
The punishments more frequently dealt out by my mother were inflicted with no hesitation, no compunction, no compassion; I suspect even with some pleasure at giving pain besides correction. They may have left no legacy to this land’s pictured history, like the tongue-and-thorn symbol, but they certainly affected the life history of myself and my sister. I remember one night watching my mother ferociously beat my sister’s buttocks bright red with a bundle of nettles, because the girl had been guilty of immodesty. And I should explain that immodesty did not necessarily mean to us what it evidently means to you white men: an indecent exposure of one’s unclothed body.
In the matter of clothing, we children of both sexes went totally naked, weather permitting, until we were four or five years old. Then we covered our nudity with a long rectangle of rough cloth which tied at one shoulder and draped around us to mid-thigh. At the attainment of adulthood—that is, at the age of thirteen—we boys began wearing a maxtlatl loincloth under our outer mantle, which was now of finer cloth. At about the same age, depending upon when they had their first bleeding, girls donned the womanly skirt and blouse, plus an undergarment rather like what you call a diaper.
Pardon my recital of minor details, but I am trying to fix the time of that beating of my sister. Nine Reed had become Tzitzilíni some while before—the name means “the sound of small bells ringing”—so she was past the age of seven. However, I saw her nether parts beaten nearly raw, meaning that she was wearing no undergarment, so she was not yet thirteen. All things considered, I reckon her age to have been ten or eleven. And what she had done to deserve that beating, the only thing of which she was guilty, was that she had murmured dreamily, “I hear drums and music playing. I wonder where they are dancing tonight.” To our mother, that was immodesty. Tzitzi was yearning for frivolity when she should have been applying herself to a loom or something else as tedious.
You know the chili? That vegetable pod which is used in our cookery? Though the degree of piquancy varies, all the different types of chili are so hot to the tongue, so pungent, so biting, mat it is no accident that their name comes from our word for “sharp” or “pointed.” Like every cook, my mother used the chilis in the usual ways, but she had another use for them which I almost hesitate to mention, since your Inquisitors already have instruments enough.
One day, when I was four or five years old, I sat with Tlatli and Chimáli in our dooryard, playing the patóli bean game.This was not the grown men’s gambling game, also called which on occasion has cost a family its fortune or caused a mortal family feud. No, we three boys had merely drawn a circle in the dust, and had each put a jumping bean in its center, the object being to see whose bean, warmed to activity by the sun, would be the first to hop outside the circle. My own bean tended to sluggishness, and I muttered some imprecation at it. Maybe I said “pochéoa!” or something of the sort.
Suddenly I was upside down and off the ground. My Tene had snatched me up by the ankles. I saw the inverted faces of Chimáli and Tlatli, their mouths and eyes wide with surprise, before I was whisked into the house and to the cooking hearth. My mother shifted her grip so that one of her hands was free,and with it she flung into the fire a number of dried red chilis. When they were crackling and sending up a dense yellow smoke, my Tene took me again by the ankles and suspended me head down in those acrid fumes. I leave the next little while to your imagination, but I think I nearly perished. I know that for half a month afterward my eyes watered continuously so that I could scarcely see, and I could not draw a breath without feeling as if I were inhaling flames and flints.
Yet I must count myself fortunate, for our customs did not dictate that a boy spend much time in his mother’s company, and I now had every excuse not to. Thereafter, I avoided her, as my tuft-haired friend Chimáli avoided the island priests. Even when she came looking for me, to command some chore or errand, I could always retire to the safety of the hill of the lime-burning kilns. The quarriers believed that no woman should ever be allowed near the kilns, or the quality of the lime would be spoiled, and not even my mother dared to trespass on that hill.
* * *
But poor Tzitzitlíni knew no such refuge. In accordance with custom and her tonáli, a girl had to learn womanly and wifely labors—cooking, spinning, weaving, sewing, embroidering—so my sister had to spend most of every day under our mother’s sharp eye and limber tongue. Her tongue neglected no opportunity to deliver one of the traditional mother-to-daughter orations. Some of those, which Tzitzi repeated to me, we agreed had been fashioned (by whatever long-ago ancestor) more for the benefit of the mother than the daughter.
“Attend always, girl, to the service of the gods and the giving of comfort to your parents. If your mother calls, do not loiter to be called twice, but come instantly. When commanded to a task, speak no insolent answer and show no reluctance to comply. Indeed, if your Tene calls another, and mat other does not come quickly, come yourself to see what is wanted, and do it yourself, and do it well.”
Other preachments were the expectable admonitions to modesty, virtue, and chastity, and even not Tzitzi or I could find fault with them. We knew that after she turned thirteen, until she was perhaps twenty and two and properly married, no man could so much as speak to her in public, nor she to him.
“If, in a public place, you meet with a likely youth, take no notice, give no sign, lest that inflame his passions. Guard against improper familiarities with men, yield not to the baser impulses of your heart, or lust will befoul your character as mud does water.”
Tzitzitlíni would probably never have disobeyed that one sensible prohibition. But by the time she was twelve years old, surely she felt some sexual sensations stirring in her, and some curiosity about sex. It may have been to conceal what she considered unmaidenly and inexpressible feelings that she tried to vent them privately and alone and in secret. All I know is that one day our mother came home unexpectedly from a trip to the market and caught my sister lying on her pallet, nude from the waist down, doing an act of which I did not understand the significance for some time. She was caught playing with her tipíli parts, and using a small wooden spindle for the purpose.
* * *
You mutter under your breath, Your Excellency, and you gather the skirts of your cassock almost protectively about you. Have I somehow offended by telling frankly what occurred? I have been careful not to use the coarser words for the telling. And I must assume, since the coarser words abound in both our languages, that the acts they describe are not uncommon among either of our peoples.
* * *
To punish Tzitzitlíni’s offense against her own body, our Tene seized her and seized the container of chili powder, and viciously rubbed the burning chili into those exposed, tender tipíli parts. Though she muffled her daughter’s screams with the bed covers, I heard and came running, and I gasped, “Should I go to fetch the physician?”
“No! No doctor!” our mother snapped at me. “What your sister has done is too shameful to be known outside these walls!”
Tzitzi stifled her sobs and added her plea, “I am not much hurt, little brother. Summon no doctor. Mention this to no one, not even Tete. Try to pretend that even you know nothing of it. I beg you.”
I might have ignored my tyrant mother, but not my beloved sister. Though I did not then know the reason for her refusal of assistance, I respected it, and I went away from there, to worry and wonder by myself.
Would that I had disregarded them both, and done something! I think, from what came later, that the cruelty inflicted by our mother on that occasion, intended to discourage Tzitzi’s awakening sexual urges, had exactly the contrary effect. I think, from that time on, my sister’s tipíli parts burned like a chiliblistered throat, hot and thirsty, clamoring to be slaked. I think it would not have been many years before dear Tzitzitlíni would have gone “astraddle the road,” as we say of a depraved and promiscuous woman. That was the most sordid and squalid depth to or so I thought, until I learned of the even which a decent Mexícatl maiden could sink—worse fate that eventually did befall my sister.
How she later behaved, what she became, and what she came to be called, I will tell in its place. But I want to say here only one thing. I want to say that to me she was and always will be Tzitzitlíni: the sound of small bells ringing.
Copyright © 1980 by Gary Jennings