Aztec is the extraordinary story of the last and greatest native civilization of North America. Told in the words of one of the most robust and memorable characters in modern fiction, Mixtli-Dark Cloud, Aztec reveals the very depths of Aztec civilization from the peak and feather-banner splendor of the Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan to the arrival of Hernán Cortás and his conquistadores, and their destruction of the Aztec empire. The story of Mixtli is the story of the Aztecs themselves---a compelling, epic tale of heroic dignity and a colossal civilization's rise and fall.
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Gary Jennings was known for the rigorous and intensive research behind his books, which often included hazardous travel--exploring every corner of Mexico for his Aztec novels, retracing the numerous wanderings of Marco Polo for The Journeyers, joining nine different circuses for Spangle, and roaming the Balkans for Raptor. Born in Buena Vista, Virginia in 1928, Jennings passed away in 1999 in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, leaving behind a rich legacy of historical fiction and outlines for new novels.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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...
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