by Anita Mason
“Maize” is an excerpt from Anita Mason’s forthcoming novel Hummingbird, of which it forms the fifth section. The novel deals with the Spanish conquest of Mexico under Hernán Cortés in 1521. The story is told partly from the point of view of the Spaniards, notably Cortés, and partly from the point of view of his interpreter, Gerónimo de Aguilar, who was shipwrecked off the coast of Yucatan approximately ten years earlier. It is Aguilar’s story—the story of his life among the Maya after the shipwreck—that is told in “Maize”.
Cortes’s expedition to Mexico was the third expedition sent from Cuba to that coast, and by the time it sailed the Spaniards had heard rumours of two white men living in captivity to a native chief in the region. Cortés was ordered to bring them back. On his arrival off the Mexican coast he therefore sent a native trader to them with a message and a bag of glass beads to buy their freedom. Only Aguilar in fact joined him.
Hummingbird begins with Aguilar’s journey to join the Spaniards at the island of Ix Chel (now Cozumel). The story continues in more or less chronological fashion as the Spaniards proceed along the coast, decide to march inland to confront Muctezuma, make themselves masters of the Aztec capital by a dazzling piece of effrontery but then are forced to flee from the city, with enormous losses, in what appears to be irrevocable defeat. This is the point at which “Maize” begins, a lengthy flashback into Aguilar’s past and an exploration of the way of life that is about to disappear. It is followed by an account of the Spanish recovery and the siege and capture of the city.
The storm had blown us off course. It tossed us for three days and nights. When it had passed, the ship’s master did not know where we were. He set a course to the north-west, saying it would bring us to the island called Jamaica. That night we struck a reef. The ship went down almost at once. It was surprising she had weathered the storm, Gonzalo said later. In the condition she was in, she should not have left port.
It was Gonzalo who pulled me out of the water. He hauled me into the ship’s boat, into which he and a few passengers had flung themselves as the waves swept over the deck. In the end there were about a dozen of us in that boat, including two nuns, and a cask that we had managed to heave aboard, not knowing what was in it. There proved to be water in it. If there had been anything else, salt pork or cassava or wine, we would all have died.
There were two oars in the boat. We thought ourselves very lucky when we found them, but trouble started as soon as we had to decide in which direction to row. We couldn’t agree. Several of us nearly came to blows over it, but the problem was solved by the oars themselves because one of them snapped as soon as it was pulled on. They were worm-eaten. After that, Gonzalo took charge of the other one, saying it might still serve as a mast, and he wedged it somehow so it was upright and tied his shirt to it, and we agreed to let the wind take us where it would. But there was no wind, or hardly a breath, and for day after day our sail hung limp as a ghost.
The cask had been broached and was far from full. We took turns to drink, watching each other closely. It became such torture to watch another person drink that in the end it was almost a relief when the cask was empty. We tipped it overboard, but it bobbed alongside us for a long time, an eerie bulk in the moonlight, like a second boat, until we cursed it as if it were the cause of our misfortunes. That was when people began to die. Of thirst, which we had made worse by gnawing the leather of our shoes and belts. Of the sun, which had no mercy on us. Of simple weariness, perhaps, of being in that boat.
We pushed them overboard. As my mind began to stray, I used to see them, at night, climb back into the boat to sit with us.
All this time, without our knowledge, a current was taking us. One day it cast us up on the shore of a country that had never been heard of.
Chanek was a little white-walled town that perched above the sea. When the winic who found us on the beach took us there, carrying us, for we could not walk, I did not believe that anything I saw was real. My eyes had deceived me for so long, showing me land where there was none, streams of water where there were none, that I assumed that this town, too, with its strange painted buildings set on platforms, its brown-skinned people decked with shells and feathers, was just as much a fantasy. But when they brought us before the chief of the town, I became frightened.
He was sitting cross-legged on a mat, playing with something. When we were brought in, he did not at once raise his head to look at us, but turned it to say something to an attendant. I saw his profile. The nose was large and hooked, but it was the high, sloping forehead that astonished me. It sloped backward as if it had been pressed back by a huge hand, and the skull rose almost to a point like the narrow end of an egg. From the top of the head to the tip of the nose was an unbroken line. It was a profile utterly savage, like that of a bird or animal of prey. Sweet Saviour, what place is this? I thought.
Then he turned his gaze on us, and it was not ferocious at all but aglitter with curiosity. He motioned for one of us to be brought up to him, and he felt the man’s clothing, peered into his eyes and pulled his beard. It was Gonzalo, of course.
I don’t remember the day the others were taken away. Gonzalo told me about it when I recovered. After we came ashore I was ill for a week—raving, he said, as if I had held madness off for as long as I could and now that we were safe it had overtaken me. He said that eight of us had come ashore, and the other six had been distributed among three of the neighbouring chiefs. He and I would stay in Chanek. I was sorry that we had all been separated; I thought it would have been a kindness to keep us together. But I told myself that, since the others had gone to neighbouring towns, it would not be long before we met again. I was quite wrong.
We were put to work in the fields. The fields lay between the town and the forest. They had been cleared from the forest, and they were doing their best to go back to it. We had to get the roots out so that the soil could be used for planting. The undergrowth had been burnt off, and a crust of grey ash covered it. A new growth of vegetation was already springing up through the ash. Below, the ground was knotted with roots.
I was given an axe. I didn’t know how to use it. My hand was used to steel, the weight of it, the sureness of the bite. This tool, which was too light, its beak of flint bound into the socket with creeper, would not cut a root. It only bruised it, and my palm grew raw with useless chopping. I had to be shown how to send the flint at the correct angle into the root’s fibres, how to peck instead of chopping, how to use my arm and not just the axe.
Then, when the clearing was at last done and the rains began, how to sow. How to drive the long, bladed digging-stick into the soil with the strength of my shoulders. How to place, in each hole that was dug, three seeds of maize as white as the sun.
Gonzalo helped me, particularly at first, when the labour exhausted me. He was very strong, and was generous with his strength. But it was the other slaves who taught me. They taught me with patience and smiles. Their smiles were innocent, they were the smiles of children.
Gonzalo had adapted easily to the place we had come to although it could not, I thought, have been more alien.
I watched him with amazement. He crouched on his heels like a winic as if he’d always done it, he folded and wore his loincloth (the winic had taken our clothes away: they were rags) as if he had never worn anything else. He walked barefoot in the forest, where there were snakes, without fear, and barefoot on the burning sand of midday as if he didn’t feel the heat. He ate the food we were given, a tasteless cake of maize and a bean stew fiery with peppers, with relish when I could barely swallow it. He did his work without complaint. When he lay down on his sleeping mat he fell asleep at once, while I lay staring up at the thatch, listening to the sounds of love the slaves made in the darkness (it shocked me that they did this, and did it without shame), and thinking of the life I had lost.
I reproached him once for his acceptance of all the things that had befallen us.
He said, “There’s no use in not accepting a thing if you can’t change it.”
He was carving a piece of wood with a flint he had set into a handle. The batab had taken away his beloved knife.
“Are you happy here?” I challenged him.
He looked up at me calmly. “I’m content, I suppose.”
“But you’re a Spaniard!” I protested.
“What else could you be? Do you think you’re one of them?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t speak the language, do I?”
He was learning it, though. I had heard his stumbling attempts at conversation with the slaves.
“Once I lived in Palos,” he said. “Then I lived on a ship. Now I live here.”
“You’re still a Spaniard.”
“I’m Gonzalo,” he said. “That’s who I am.”
“What a stupid thing to say!”
He laid aside his carving and said, quite gently and seriously, “We have to forget where we came from.”
“No!” I cried. “We must remember! And if we remember, if every day we remember, a day will come when we are rescued.”
He said nothing more. But the next day I saw him do what the slaves always did at the start of a meal. Before eating, he took a morsel of his food and threw it into the fire as an offering to the hearth-god. When I spoke to him about it, he didn’t even seem to know what he’d done.
We lived in a long hut with about thirty other field slaves, who were all youths or men. The hearth was at one end of it, and consisted just of three large stones between which the fire was made. A big pot of stew was brought every day from the batab’s kitchens and put there for us. We ate it sitting around the fire, or on the earthen platform outside, spooning it from clay bowls with our maize cakes.
The hearth and the clay bowls, the sleeping mats and a pile of tools at the far end, were all there was in the hut. There were no windows and no doors, just an opening at either end. The winic did not seem to know about doors, or perhaps didn’t see a need for them. The hut, like all the buildings in which the slaves or the common people lived, was built of wooden stakes planted upright in the ground and bound together with creepers. A thick jumble of thatch covered it, made of many different kinds of leaves and twigs all woven together. There was a hole in the thatch just above the hearth, where the smoke was supposed to go out, but often the smoke didn’t, but hung around making our eyes smart. The rain, on the other hand, always came in through the hole in the thatch. The rain was wiser than the smoke, the winic said, laughing, shaking the rain out of their sleeping mats if they had left them too near the hearth.
The rain came heavily in the summer months, and was the reason why all the houses were built on platforms. During a downpour, water would rush in torrents through the streets. The streets were mostly mud, but a few in the centre of the town, where the temple and the batab’s palace were, were paved with limestone. The temple and all the official buildings were made of stone and stood on stone platforms, approached by wide, shallow steps. They were plastered and brightly painted, these odd, blocky buildings with their squat pillars and carved roof lintels, and in the clear, sparkling light of the ocean they shone like sea-washed coral.
I used to say my prayers, at first. After we had eaten our stew of beans, I would kneel down on my sleeping mat, fold my hands and close my eyes.
The slaves were very interested by this habit of mine. When I had done it several times, they began imitating me. They, too, would kneel down, fold their hands and close their eyes. Knowing they were doing it didn’t help me, as I knelt there, to pray.
Nothing would have helped me in any case. It was as if I’d used up all the prayers there were in me on the night of the shipwreck. My mind was empty, as empty as the cask we had thrown back into the sea. Because it was empty, it filled itself up with nonsense. Something irritating that Gonzalo had said. Something particularly baffling that one of the slaves had done. A picture of the field we were working in, with its snaking roots and its white-brown soil. Or another picture, that often drifted into my dreams, of a blinding sea and the bleached curve of a hull.
I was distressed by my inability to pray. I wondered what it meant. Perhaps, I thought, it meant that I was damned, although I did not see why I should be damned simply because, through no fault of mine, I had been shipwrecked on to an ungodly shore. After all, I had not thrown my food into the hearth as a sacrificial offering. However, if it was not my fault that I couldn’t pray, it must be God’s fault, and that was a sinful thought so I tried not to think it.
As a boy, I had been devout. I had wanted to be a priest. I had served at the altar. I had fastened my eyes on the crucifix and believed that He was talking to me and I to Him. When I had closed my eyes, in those days, to pray, He would appear before me, white against my eyelids, his arms stretched out on the Tree. He would stay there for as long as I was talking to Him.
In this new place, He was reluctant to appear. By a great effort of will, I sometimes conjured Him. He did not stay long. After a very short time in which I fumblingly tried to frame a prayer to Him, He would fade, and I would find myself looking, strangely, at the bare wood of the Tree.
It was all the more necessary to pray, I felt, because of the spiritual darkness of the place we had come to.
It was not that the winic had no gods: they had hundreds of them. In every street there was a wayside shrine or two. It was always spotted with blood. A little clay censer stood in front of it, burning pieces of pine resin. The smoke was rich and heady, and I supposed kept away flies, for there never were any, in spite of the blood. It was the blood that upset me, and that I couldn’t connect with the gentleness of the people. It was human blood. It was their blood. This was the way they worshipped their gods.
They would cut their ears. The lobes, if these were not already too scarred; if there was no room on the lobe, they would try devotedly to draw a drop of blood from somewhere on the fleshy rim of the ear. They used, for this purpose, a specially-shaped flint, a piece of oyster shell or a spine which they got from a certain fish. The instrument they did it with was treated with great respect, as if it were a person, and kept in its own pouch. When they had drawn a drop of blood, they would flick it on to the image of the god, and perhaps light a bead of incense as well. In time, I found that cutting the ears was only one of the things they did, that sometimes, if greater devotion needed to be paid, they would mutilate their tongues, and that the nobility would offer their blood smeared on to the bark-paper they made, for this paper was precious, and they would burn the bloodstained paper so that the offering would be carried to the god.
All of this seemed to me to be horrible, and it was the first thing I noticed because there was an image just outside the hut to which the slaves paid their devotions every day. However, it also touched me, because clearly they loved their gods very much. I pitied their state of ignorance; they did not know that the only blood that had needed to be shed was that of our Redeemer. I wondered if I should try to tell them, but hastily put away the idea. I couldn’t say my own prayers: who was I to teach them? In any case, I didn’t speak the language.
Some of their gods were of human form, but others were grotesque and I supposed they were demons. They had faces that were half-human and half-cat, or half-human and half-lizard; they had pointed fangs or long arms like monkeys. The god whose image stood outside the hut, however, resembled a young winic with a serene face. He had the high, sloping forehead the people admired and curving lips. He was seated on a kind of throne, and behind his head rose, like the plumes of a headdress or the rays of the sun, the spear-like leaves of the maize plant.
Gonzalo was not respectful about my attempts to pray.
“How long are you going to keep it up?” he asked me one evening.
I pretended not to know what he meant. “Keep what up?”
“Saying your prayers.”
“And why shouldn’t I say my prayers?”
“Because there’s nobody listening. God isn’t going to help us.”
I was not greatly surprised to hear him say that. “He will help us if we have faith,” I said.
“He didn’t help all those poor souls the night the ship went down, did he?”
I had had the same thought myself, and not been able to answer it. At least a hundred people must have lost their lives that night, in the inky water. I could not answer Gonzalo now.
“God has never heard of this place,” Gonzalo said.
Because we must remember, I would not become like the winic. I would not learn the language. I would not sit on my heels. I would not use the maize-cake to scoop up food, but made myself a spoon out of tree bark. Because we must remember, I kept count of the days.
I had started it in the boat. Each day, I cut a notch in the wooden side with Gonzalo’s dagger. As our condition worsened, I sometimes forgot to do it or did not know if I had already carved the notch for that day, or even if it was the day I thought it was. In the end, Gonzalo wouldn’t lend me the knife in case I dropped it overboard. After that, I stopped trying to count the days.
In Chanek, as soon as my strength began to come back, I started again. I worked out what was likely to be the date we came ashore, and counted forward from that. It was a guess, but it was something. It made a foundation for the world. But then we were taken to work in the fields, and for the first days I found the work so overwhelming that I simply forgot about keeping a calendar. It was quite a long time before I remembered, and by that time I had forgotten the date I had decided it was when we came ashore.
One day I began the count again. For some reason I fixed on the fifth of April as the date for that day, and I looked for a means of keeping my calendar. In the fields there were a lot of little white pebbles. They were a nuisance when you were preparing the ground: they were forever forcing themselves to the surface of the patch you had cleared. However, they were a handy size. I collected a pile of them and put them beside my sleeping mat. Then I took out five and put them at a little distance from the others. Tomorrow I would take another pebble from the pile and add it to the five. I would do this every day. Later, I would find a means of recording the months.
The slaves noticed the pebbles straight away, but did not touch them. Probably they thought the pebbles had something to do with my kneeling on the mat with my eyes closed. Gonzalo asked me what they were.
“My calendar,” I said, proudly.
“Oh? How does it work?”
I told him.
“So what day is it today?”
I told him the date.
I was disappointed in his response: he just looked perplexed. But then he said with a smile that he was glad I had found a way of doing it.
Gonzalo and I didn’t talk much. It was partly because the work didn’t give us much chance to, and when we weren’t working we were usually too tired to do anything but sleep. But it was also because, in spite of all we’d been through together in that open boat (which we never spoke of), and in spite of the fact that we were both Spaniards, we had very little in common. Often I thought that Fate had played a rather cruel trick in giving him to me as my only companion. He seemed to be closer to the winic than he was to me. Seeing him squatting on his heels made me feel betrayed. He said it was comfortable. I said it wasn’t Christian. He laughed.
He didn’t think about things, as I did. If I wanted to talk about Spain, he was unwilling to. He said it was over, that part of our lives. We would never leave the country we had come to, and the sooner we accepted the fact the better, he said. This filled me with despair.
We argued often. That is, I argued with him. His simplicity maddened me. His ability to make himself at home in the slaves’ hut struck me as an insult. I picked quarrels with him because I couldn’t bear the situation we were in and I felt that he should not be able to bear it either. The arguments were usually about nothing—what name the winic gave to a certain fruit, whether the animal that had come into the hut one day and looked like a pig was a pig, what had been the name of our ship that went down—and they were unsatisfying because Gonzalo would not argue back. He would put up, patiently, with my outbursts until I pushed him too far, and then he would either walk away or tell me I was being stupid. It was impossible to provoke him. It seemed to me very unfair.
The days went by. I marked their passage with pebbles, occasionally missing a day but always making it up the next day. I would say to myself, “Today is the twelfth of May,” or whatever the pebbles told me it was. Saying this was like throwing out a very long, slender rope to the place I had come from. The rope meant that the place I had come from was real and therefore that I would one day go back to it. It meant that Chanek, the fields and the slave-hut were not all there was. It meant that I was a Spaniard, for the calendar I kept was the Christian one of saints and fasts and memorials, even though these things were becoming immeasurably distant to me, and like husks from which the fruit has gone.
One day I came back from the fields very tired and lay down on my mat to rest. Beside the mat was a pile of pebbles. I glanced at it and fell asleep.
Gonzalo woke me: he was holding out my bowl of food. I thanked him.
He pointed at the pebbles. “What day is it?”
For a moment I didn’t know what he meant. I had forgotten that the pebbles were supposed to tell me the date. I had not moved a pebble from one pile to the other that day, or—I suddenly thought—the day before. Or had I? It was difficult to remember. I supposed I had done it the day before that. It was something I did every day: I always did it. Except that I could not remember when I had last done it.
Gonzalo looked at my face, and went away.
I felt as if I had fallen into a pit. I lay on my mat and stared blindly up at the rafters. I do not know what day it is, I thought, and I shall never know again. For it was clear to me that there was no point in starting the reckoning for what would be the fourth time. By now, my calendar was beyond rescue. It could not have any connection with the calendar kept in Christian lands.
I gave in to my hopelessness and wept. The slaves gathered round me in concern and waited silently until I had stopped weeping; then they left me. While I was weeping, the thought came into my head that I had known all along that this would happen.
I washed my face with a handful of water from the pitcher and ate my bean stew. When I had finished eating, I gathered up all the pebbles. I took them outside into the fields. By now there were only the stars and moon to see by. I walked into the fields a little distance and began throwing the pebbles away, one by one and then two by two, like sowing seeds, throwing them back to the soil they had come from. In the end I finished and stood there looking out over the shadowy field and it seemed to me that I could see them, under the starlight, in the pattern they had formed when I threw them back, like stars themselves, and perhaps, I thought, that was what the stars were, pebbles thrown by God. A moment later, I couldn’t see them at all.
I entered on a state which must, I thought, be like that of animals. The sun rose, the sun set; these were the events that marked the passage of time. I lived each day as it came, and saw how the maize grew and the beans began to twine around its stalks. I began to feel the earth’s rhythm of growth and decay, and how it gave shape to time. This slow rhythm, which was the circling of the seasons, would have to be enough for me, for it was all there was. It sufficed the winic.
I was finding the labour less exhausting now. My body had learnt ways of preserving itself. Every stroke of the axe, every plunge of the digging stick, had to be done at a measured pace, otherwise you would have no strength for the end of the day. Breathing itself had to be done with care. In the middle of the day the air was so hot that, if you took a gulp of it, it burnt your lungs.
I learnt from the slaves. I did what they did. I squatted in the shade when the sun was at its fiercest, and drank from the gourd. In it was k’eyen, water that tasted of maize, from a little bit of fermented maize dough that had been mixed into it. It had made me feel queasy at first, but after a time I found that it gave me strength. I had begun to enjoy the taste of maize. It did have a taste. It was a mild taste, but it filled the mouth. There was a depth to it. It was slightly milky. I found myself wanting it, when the day was over.
When harvest came I worked along the maize rows, picking the ripe cobs and throwing them into the basket which was held by a strap across my forehead. This way of carrying a load, which at first had horrified me (it turned a man into a beast of burden; and mightn’t my neck snap?), now seemed the obvious way to carry a burden, although nothing reduced the weight of it. Feeling the sinews of my neck I found them as tough as forest creepers.
As I worked my way along the maize rows one day I wondered what the Spaniards I had known before the shipwreck would think if they could see me labouring in the fields like a winic. Then my gaze fell on my sunburned, calloused feet and the looped end of my loincloth, and I knew that if a Spaniard saw me he would not know I was not a winic.
One day a terrible thing happened.
Gonzalo was called away from the hut when we returned from the fields. He was away for quite a long time. I got his food and put it by the hearth to keep warm. I began to worry when it was completely dark and he still had not come back. But then I heard his step, and he sauntered in and made his way by the dim glow from the fire to his sleeping mat.
I brought him his food. “Thanks,” he said. He started to eat it.
“Where were you?” I’d hoped he would tell me without being asked.
“They’re building a road.”
“What?” He had spoken with his mouth full, and a road didn’t seem a very likely thing for him to be talking about.
“They’re building a road. North of the town. It goes into the forest.”
He munched. It was the usual soup of beans and peppers, with a bit of squash.
“It’s going to be a good road,” he said. “They’ve put in the foundations and the drainage.”
“Gonzalo, for heaven’s sake! I’m not interested in a road!”
“Well, you asked me where I’d been.”
“They took you to see it?”
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
“They want me to work on it.” I couldn’t see his grin, but I heard it in his voice. “They obviously don’t think much of me as a farmer.”
The news was not welcome. I was so used to working alongside him that the thought of working without him, of not feeling his solid presence near me as I hoed my maize row or rested in the shade to drink, was dismaying. However, I would see him in the evenings.
“It means,” he said, “that I’ll have to move to another hut.”
My belly went cold. For a moment I couldn’t get my breath. I must have made some small noise, because he said, “Are you all right?”
A little time went by. The ashes of the fire settled down.
“When?” I said.
The following day he left the hut, taking his flint knife, a deer antler he was carving and his sleeping mat. He gave me a funny half-salute as he went, and looked as if he wanted to say something, but all he said was, “New berth, then.”
“I will come and see you,” I said.
“Good.” He ducked through the low entrance and walked away.
When Gonzalo left, I watched him walking up the dirt road that led to the town, not looking back. I thought, he did not say he would come and see me. And I knew he wouldn’t.
I became very angry. How could he care so little about being taken from me? How could he walk away with such a jaunty step? He thought he could do perfectly well without me: let him find out. Let him pine for the companionship of the hut and the maize field. Let him hate his wretched road.
I knew that all this was nonsense and that he would manage perfectly well without me. The question was how I would manage without him.
When my anger, which was a sad flurry pretending to be a storm, had died down in spite of my attempts to keep it alive, I could not hold off my grief. It was as if he had died. He had died—to me. I knew that when I went to see him again, trudging through the town to where he would be living, in a different hut among different slaves, he would already be different himself. I knew this because Gonzalo adapted himself instantly to wherever he was. Without me, he would quickly become just like the winic, because there was nothing to stop him. He had almost achieved it already.
I mourned him, but I mourned my own state as well. There wasn’t another human being in the world to whom I could talk. I wondered if it was possible to die of loneliness and, if so, how long it took. To hasten the process I stopped eating, but started again after I fainted in the maize fields and the overseer forced some water mixed with a bitter herb down my throat. The winic were kind to me, but they were not going to allow me to die because Gonzalo had gone. Or to stop working, either.
I found a thought in my head when I awoke one morning. It was a simple thought and it had probably been there for some time, but I had ignored it. It was, “I have to learn the language.”
I still knew only a few words of it. Obstinate, and afraid of becoming like the winic, I had always left it to Gonzalo to do what talking was necessary and explain to me what he thought the slaves were saying. I suddenly saw this behaviour in a new light: not just obstinate, but stupid. And now, a luxury I could not afford.
I began learning the language that day. I asked the slaves, humbly, to teach me. I would point to something, and they would tell me what it was called. Hut. Earth. Foot. Stone. Maize. Simple words. The names of things.
After a while, I went to see Gonzalo in his new quarters. It was as I had known it would be: there was a shyness between us, and we hardly knew what to say to each other.
I asked him how it was in the new hut, whether the labourers were as friendly as the slaves in the field hut, and whether the work was very hard. He replied in his usual way, with not many words and none of them telling you much about how he felt. The hut was all right, the winic were friendly enough, the work was not too bad and the road was going to be a good one.
He took me to see the road. We had entirely run out of things to say by that time. It was certainly a good road. It was wide enough for four to walk abreast and as straight as an arrow. They had dug the ditch for it as far as the edge of the forest and put in a bed of small stones, well packed down. A short stretch, just outside the northern entrance to the town, was paved already with white slabs.
“It’s a fine road,” I said, to please him. “What is it for?” It seemed to me that if it only went as far as the forest it would not be very useful.
“Some festival,” he said.
“All this for a festival?” There were frequent festivals: I did not bother to go to them. I would take advantage of the day of rest, and sleep or sit on the beach. Sometimes I wrote messages no-one would ever read in the sand.
“Well, they make a big thing of them, don’t they?” he said. Then, to my surprise and pleasure, he added that there was going to be a festival in three days’ time and suggested that we go to it together. I accepted, of course.
Normally Chanek was a quiet, drowsy town. On the day of the festival the streets were in a ferment. The cries of fruit-sellers rose above a general hubbub of greetings, laughter, the shouts of children and drumming from the temple. Pushing my way, with Gonzalo, through the crowds, I passed men selling caged birds and monkeys on perches, women carrying great circular baskets of yellow fruit, a boy with a stick over his shoulder from which hung dried and salted fish, another boy exhibiting live fish in a wooden pail of water—and then, as we entered the market, I saw a whole world for sale. Vendors sat behind heaps of maize cobs, beans, straw, coloured ribbons, clay pots for cooking, firewood, seaweed, flint tools, face-paint in glazed dishes, ropes woven from creeper, grinding-stones, feathers, weavings and fowls with their necks wrung, sold singly or by the string. Every few paces I wanted to stop and stare, for some of these things I had never seen before and some I could not even guess the use of, but Gonzalo would not let me linger. He wanted to get to the temple, where the dancing would be.
The dancers were taking their places in the square in front of the temple when we arrived. They wore deerskin sandals and their bodies were painted black: Gonzalo said this meant that they were warriors. Below their knees, like leg-guards, were tied string upon string of brown nutshells, that rattled as they moved.
Great care was being taken to make sure that every dancer was in the right spot. The drummers pattered the drums with their fingertips, lifted them to their ears and seemed to talk to them. I studied the paintings that glowed in blue, green and yellow on the long stuccoed wall that flanked the stairway: sea shells, fish, a god with bulbous eyes, another that had the horns of a deer, a creature that resembled the small dogs the winic bred for meat, and a branching plant-like form in whose top perched a bird with long tail-feathers. To the right of these, presumably extending behind the temple and standing between it and the cliff, I glimpsed a collection of slender upright stones like fingers.
When I looked again, the dance had started—or, rather, some subtle change had taken place between not-dancing and dancing, and the whole group of dancers, forming a perfect square of eight men by eight, was moving with a quiet and stately motion like the swaying of maize in a breeze.
It was a patient, beautiful dance and, before long, I could not take my eyes from it. It was both simple and not simple, for, however long I watched, I could not work out the sequence of the steps. Just as I thought I had it, I would find I had been fooled; and then, when I least expected it, they would turn. The whole group would turn together, a square locked in a wheel, to face another of the four directions. Each direction was danced to in turn. Over and over. From time to time, incense was lit in bowls in the space separating the dancers from the crowd, and the resinous smoke drifted heavily on the air.
When we left I was light-headed from copal and hunger. Gonzalo found us something to eat. They were little pies of steamed maize, fresh from the pot, filled with sweet fruit. They were delicious. We were supposed to pay for them with the small black beans the winic used for money, but we had none and were excused because the woman selling the pies knew who we were. Then Gonzalo found us something to drink.
At the time I knew nothing about balche, the intoxicating drink of the winic, and accepted a cup gratefully. I gulped it because I was thirsty, and accepted another, but found I had to sit down when I was only half-way through it as my legs had become weak. Gonzalo laughed and finished my cupful.
“It’s a good job they only have one of these every twenty days,” he remarked.
I had no idea what he was talking about. I said goodbye to him, staggered back to the hut and fell asleep. It was quite a while before I gave his last remark any thought.
Very quickly, as I began to learn the language, I discovered that the simple words were not simple. No sooner had I learnt what I imagined to be the meaning of a word than a second meaning came along, like a jealous twin, to join it. And there was hardly ever any connection that I could see between the second meaning and the first. “Can,” for instance, meant both “sky” and “serpent.” It wasn’t just the names of things that were twinned; the words that described them were, as well. An adjective, after, all, was only the name of how a thing appeared. So that “blue smoke,” for instance, could also mean “shining water,” and again, it could also mean “shining smoke” or “blue water.” How could you possibly be sure what was meant? And why on earth did the winic not simply make up more words, if they didn’t have enough?
As I grew more ambitious in what I attempted to say, I discovered other frustrations. What kind of tongue was this in which there seemed to be no verbs? Words that expressed something being done were reduced to little syllables that attached themselves to words that were more important, the naming words. You couldn’t say, in this language, “I caught a fish today.” You would have to say something about the now-caughtness of the fish. Past and future weren’t important either. Everything happened, in so far as it did happen, in the present. But, really, what the language seemed to say was that nothing happened. Things were: or rather, they had always been.
Nor did mastering the sounds of the language come easily to a Spaniard. It was full of rise and fall, of indrawn breaths and little clicks made at the back of the throat. Often I would think I had got a word right but the winic would correct me, laughing, making me say it again and again, because not only must the pronunciation be right but the tone of voice must be right as well. I despaired every day of learning to speak this language. I persevered because I had no choice. I told myself I must not keep trying to say in it things that could not be said, and that if it forced me to say something I did not want to say, that was the price of speaking it—and I would know what I meant.
I gave it a name, this language, for the winic did not have one for it: they called it simply “our-speaking.” I named it Ahau, which means “lord,” because I could not make it do my will.
The second time I went to see Gonzalo was much the same as the first time. For something to say, I mentioned that I was learning the language and I told him some of the thoughts I had had about it. He seemed puzzled. He could talk quite freely in it by now, or so it seemed to me (at any rate, the winic understood him), but the idea that a language was something you could think about had not occurred to him. You spoke a language or you didn’t. If you wanted to learn it, you did.
“I suppose so,” he said, when I remarked on the way every word in Ahau meant two different things. His brow creased. “But you can usually work out which it is.”
I concluded, as I walked home (for the field slaves’ hut was home now), that I wanted something from him that he couldn’t give. Well, he had given me enough, and now that I no longer saw him every day and breathed the same air as he did, I knew what I owed him. I was sorry that I couldn’t say so. I was certain he would not let me get the words out, and I wasn’t sure that I could frame them in any case. Thinking what I would say, I even fell silent in my mind.
Perhaps I could do something for him, or give him a present, to say thank you. I liked this idea, but it was hard to think of anything. There was nothing he needed. There was nothing I had. I supposed I could make him something…
The idea came to me of plaiting a reed pouch he could keep his flint knife in, and perhaps other small possessions. I thought with embarrassment of how he might laugh, although in fact it was not such a bad notion.
I found that the seasons ruled more than just the agricultural cycle. They ruled an activity that was extremely important to the winic: war. The season for war started as soon as the rains were over.
The first time there was a war, I knew nothing about it until it happened. The town was suddenly full of young men swaggering, and one day it was impossible to cross the public garden near the batab’s palace because they were practising their slingshots there. I did not give it any thought. Two days later they marched off to fight. But before they marched off, they paraded.
The whole town went to see them muster.
When we arrived, they were just filing into the plaza. Their bodies, naked except for the loincloth, were painted black, with a pattern of red and white triangles on the chest. Their arms were tattooed, and their heads shaved to leave only a long braid of hair at the back, which was stuck with feathers. Each carried a round leather shield high on the shoulder and his weapons: a spear, bow or the wooden, flint-bladed sword called macana. The black paint on their skins glistened like oil and had a pungent smell, for it was made from a fungus that grew in the forest. This smell mingled powerfully with the scent of copal that was burning in the braziers.
Above them rode their banners. Eagle, snake, coyote, squirrel. The banners were elaborate: they were fringed and studded with coloured stones and sewn with hundreds of tiny, bright feathers. The warriors made a fine sight, drawn up under their floating banners, stamping their feet in rhythm so that their plumes waved and jostled. But what most held my eye were the drums.
The drummers stood apart on the temple steps, and their drums were of many kinds. Some hung at the drummer’s waist and were tapped with the fingers. Others came up to a man’s chest and were beaten with both hands. There was a drum that was like a finely-carved log of wood, that was struck with the antler of a deer. There were drums that were the shells of sea-turtles and were beaten with sticks. There were four drums that were simply clay pots which, struck across the opening with the flat of a hand, gave out a sound between a boom and a sigh. Lastly there was the drum I could not see, that lived in the temple, that was the lord of them all and paced out their music with a single, deep throb that seemed to come from the ground beneath my feet.
While the drums were still speaking, the captains came into the square. They carried their huge war-masks in their hands. When they had taken their places, each in the middle of his company, all the drums ceased, and in the hush that followed each captain lowered his mask on to his head, becoming eagle, snake, coyote, squirrel.
Down the temple stairway then stepped a man wearing round his shoulders the tawny, spotted skin of the animal the winic most revered. His body was so lithe and spare, and his eyes, in a face that fasting had reduced nearly to bone, burned so fiercely, that I was uncertain for a moment whether it was a man or a beast I was seeing. He walked through the assembled companies, where mask now answered to mask and beaked head to fanged one, and there, in the very centre of the host, he set on his shoulders a huge and gaping mask through whose jaws his face showed as if being born, and all the drums leapt.
Five days later the war was over.
The warriors came back into town with music and triumphant shouts. Those at the head were leaping and dancing. At the back, roped together in a line, walked their prisoners. About a dozen men, walking with bent head. They would become slaves, I supposed.
That night and for two days following, the warriors, captains and town elders feasted and drank. Through the evenings, warriors stunned with balche caroused in the plaza and staggered through the streets. On the third day, all of this stopped abruptly and one of the prisoners was sacrificed in the temple.
I did not know what was happening. I had gone with the field slaves to what I thought was a festival like all the other festivals. I saw the prisoner, dressed apparently in paper and holding a macana made of paper, climb the temple stairway with a guard holding either arm. Behind them, walking alone, came a warrior in full war costume. The prisoner did not seem reluctant: he climbed steadily between his captors. There were smoking bowls of incense on each step, and clouds of smoke billowed from the censers at the top of the stairway, where there stood a smooth, curiously-shaped boulder.
At the top of the stairway the priests, with the prisoner between them, halted. I saw the man’s paper robes stiffly outlined against the blue sky. Then four priests came forward, with a fifth behind them. The four seized him and flung him down on the stone. The fifth held a flint knife. He raised it and brought it down in a savage, unerring swoop on the prisoner’s breast. He pulled out, and held up, the heart.
After this had happened, I was so shaken and frightened by what I’d seen that I could hardly bring myself to speak to the other slaves. Everything around me now presented itself in a new light. Behind every ritual I now saw a human sacrifice. The gentle smiles of the slaves concealed the souls of murderers. Even worse than murderers: I had been told, by the slave standing next to me in the crowd, that the victim’s flesh was going to be eaten by the family of the warrior who had captured him.
I was sickened. I drew away from the slaves, into myself, until they asked me in concern if I was ill. I said brusquely that I was not. What I meant was that my soul was sick and they had poisoned it.
If Gonzalo had still been in the hut, I would naturally have talked to him about it, but I did not have the strength of will to make my way through the town, passing the temple, to where he would be. I should have turned to God. I should have prayed. I had never been more in need of prayer. But I could not pray. I had given up trying to pray months earlier.
It had become usual for me to forget, as I knelt, what I was supposed to be doing, and my mind would go off and amuse itself. When I recollected why I was on my knees, in that unnatural position, I would hastily cast around for the appropriate words. They would not come. Even the prayer all Christians are taught as children, the prayer Lordjesuschrist gave us, slipped away from me. How could I forget it? It was part of me, it had grown with me. But it had gone.
I would abandon the search for the Lord’s Prayer, then, and try to make up a prayer of my own. It should not have been hard to find things to say. If nothing else, “Please deliver us from this place” would have done. But often I did not get even that far. It eventually dawned on me that the reason I could not pray was that I did not believe there was anybody listening.
Of course I couldn’t admit it. I went on trying to pray. Telling myself I was praying, although the words were without meaning and my head was empty, and Lordjesuschrist was no longer on his Tree. He had faded like a bleached cloth on which you can’t see the pattern any more. I could still see the Tree, if I concentrated, standing tall and bare against the sky. But not him who had hung there. Not once.
In the end, I stopped doing it. It was not something I could one day just abandon, as I had thrown away the pebbles. I could only stop doing it by not noticing I had stopped doing it. One night when I hadn’t tried to pray for quite a long time it occurred to me to kneel down and I knew I was not going to, that I didn’t want to, because there was no point in it. I admitted then what I had fought against knowing: that God was not there, that he did not know this country existed, that Gonzalo had been right.
I did not go to visit Gonzalo for quite a while. Gradually, when there were no more terrible events at the temple, my spirits recovered from the shock they had received. Life went on as normal. The slaves took on again, in my mind, the nature they had always had—mild, helpful, mysterious—, the work was the same as ever, the crime I had witnessed had left seemingly no mark on either the town or its people. I put it to the back of my mind, since there was nothing else to be done with it.
I gathered some reeds at the edge of the pool and wove a purse for Gonzalo. When it was finished, however, I still did not hurry to take it to him. I wasn’t sure that he would like it. As long as I hadn’t given it to him, I could imagine his pleasure at receiving it. In any case, at the end of a day’s work in the fields I could always tell myself I was too tired to go visiting.
I don’t know how long had gone by when I eventually picked up the purse I had made and walked to his hut. He wasn’t there. They told me where he was, but I didn’t understand the directions, so a slave came with me. He left me outside a hut in another district.
Gonzalo was resting on his elbow, on a mat, smoking tobacco. The front of his head was shaved and his hair at the back was long and braided. He had dyed it to make it look blacker, and wound a thread of crimson into it. In the holes in his earlobes were two discs of painted clay. Blue spirals like the whorls of sea snails were drawn on his cheekbones, and a leather bracelet sewn with small blue feathers circled his left wrist. The other wrist, and the arm above it, were covered in a web of fresh scars.
I simply gazed at him.
“Come in,” he said. “You don’t have to stand half-in and half-out.”
I took a few steps towards him. The tobacco smoke hung thickly. I was bewildered. I said in the end, “Gonzalo, you’ve become an Indian.”
“Have I?” He ran his hand over his shaved scalp. He smiled. “What do you think you are?”
“Do you cut your ears and sprinkle the blood on the altar? Do you have an idol that you deck in bits of paper?”
“No,” he said.
My eyes moved down his body. His skin was burnt as brown as a winic’s, and down the centre of his chest from the collarbone to the belly was painted a column of red and black triangles. His loincloth was as white as a sail.
He said, “I’m a warrior.”
He pointed to the nasty mess of scabs on his arm. “That’s the badge of my company.”
I was filled with anguish. “How proud you must be,” I said bitterly. “Once you were a Spanish seaman, but this of course is much better.”
“It’s better than chopping roots and heaving stone.” As always, I could not provoke him to anger. “They know how to fight, and no mistake,” he said. “But there are a few things I can show them. I’ve done a bit of soldiering.”
“I’m sure you have.” Then the horror of what I had recently seen rushed at me, and I burst out, “Gonzalo, they sacrifice their prisoners!”
“Is it worse than killing them on the battlefield?” he asked.
I did not know why.
“It’s more difficult to take a man alive,” he said. “It’s more dangerous. There’s glory in it.”
“And is there glory in what happens after the sacrifice? The body is eaten!”
“Only a bit of it,” he said mildly. “They don’t think of it as food. It’s a religious rite. They eat a bit of the flesh with maize. They say it’s to acknowledge that they will die, too.”
“And you accept all this? You think it doesn’t matter?” He said nothing. “Gonzalo, it is horrible!”
He met my eyes but his were unreadable. He would not let me into his mind. We stayed like that for what felt a long time, he reclining on his elbow on the earth floor, I leaning at the hut’s entrance, not speaking.
“What’s that you’ve brought?” he suddenly asked. He had noticed the purse that I had in my hand.
There was nothing for it but to give it to him, although in the light of the conversation we had just had it seemed a ludicrous gift. “I made it for you,” I said. It sounded like a reproach. “I thought you could keep your knife in it, perhaps.” I wished I had got rid of the thing on the way.
He turned it over in his hands. “I like it,” he said, to my great surprise. “Thank you.” He scratched his ribcage idly and drew on his tobacco pipe. His muscles moved like cats under the body paint.
I did not know what I felt. I was terribly confused. Part of me was humbly grateful to him for liking the purse, and part was furious with him for what he had done. It was a few moments before I realised there was a third element to my confusion: a feeling I was wholly unprepared for and couldn’t at once identify. A painful longing swept me, and I could only stare at him. Then, as I understood what it was, this feeling, and that it was utterly forbidden to a Christian, I had to make some excuse to get away from him, so I said that I was very tired, and went back to my hut.
Little by little, as I learnt the language, I was learning how the winic reckoned time. For they did, of course, and Gonzalo had known it before I did, with his casual remark about how they held a festival every twenty days. Twenty days was the length of their month, and the festival was the celebration of that month. The winic thought of months as people, and the words for “month” and “human” were almost the same. Both words had in them the sound that meant “twenty.”
Since twenty days were a month, it took eighteen months to make a year. Five days were left over, and these days were said to be unlucky. No-one did anything, if they could avoid it, on these five days. Certainly you would never embark on a journey. Then the New Year would be brought in with great rejoicing by one of the year-bearers, whose image was set up at the appropriate gate of the town, and there would be a festival that went on for days.
They thought that years were a burden carried by the gods. There were four gods who were year-bearers, and these four were connected with other fours: the four directions (which the winic held to be sacred), the four holy colours (which were the four colours in which maize grew) and the four who held up the sky. Pondering these fours one day, I saw that I could set alongside them the fourfold way in which the winic named things: blue smoke, shining water, shining smoke, blue water.
I did not understand why they called the years by the word that meant “stone” until one day, at another festival, I went to look at the grove of upright stone slabs that stood behind the temple. Each had engraved on it a sinuous design, similar to a picture but not quite a picture, and all different. There were many of them, there must have been nearly a hundred. Some were much newer than others. I studied them, puzzled, for some time before it dawned on me what they were. They were year-markers. The winic erected one of them at every New Year. A year was a stone.
They used the same word for “day” and “sun.” I liked this very much, and I was pleased to come across a pair of meanings that at once made sense to me. Each day also had its own name. But here things became very complicated, and I could get no further until someone explained to me that there were two calendars, two independent ways of reckoning time, and that one was used by the ordinary people and the other by the priests for divination. In the people’s calendar, a day was known by its numerical position in whatever the month was (just as the Christian calendar reckons). In the other, it was known by its own name (there were twenty day-names, such as “monkey,” “flint” and “wind”) paired with a number from one to thirteen. Each day that came, therefore, had a twin designation, which itself had two parts, the name and the number, so that here was yet another four.
However, there was more to it than this. In the priests’ calendar, the “year” was 260 days. In the people’s calendar, it was 365 days. They ran alongside each other, their four-part combination of names and numbers different each day, until finally a day came in which the combination had already occurred. The count, in other words, had run to its full length and was back at its starting point. This happened every fifty-two years. It was a moment of great danger, the winic believed, for there was no way of knowing whether the gods would allow time to begin again.
Something else also followed from the circling of time. The days would follow in the same intricate order as they had before. But a day was not just “one sun.” Each was a divine being with its own character, at which its name hinted. It brought its own fate and was shadowed by its own omens. This meant that events would repeat themselves. Past and future could not be told apart.
Learning and practising the phrases the slaves taught me, I built on them. I built them up as you build a picture out of bits of coloured stone. I, too, was building a picture. It was a picture of the world. Because it took shape so gradually, I was hardly aware of how it was starting to eclipse the picture that had been there before.
One day I had to take a basket of the fruit we had been picking to the batab’s house for a banquet. I walked through the gardens behind the palace, seeing for the first time the tended shrubs, the fishponds and birdcages. Fish was being grilled on open fires in a courtyard; behind the yard stood a wide thatched building from which came gusts of steam, the clatter of pots and women’s laughter.
I went through one of the tapering doorways and for a moment my eyes, accustomed to the afternoon sun, were blinded. The kitchen was a huge, dim space lit by flaring fires, over which clay vessels bubbled, smoked and steamed. Intent winic faces reflected the glow of the fires, and turned to survey me as I stood uncertainly there.
“What do you want?” one of the women asked me. They were all women.
I said I had brought fruit for the banquet. A plump, toothless woman dressing a fowl said never mind the banquet, what had I brought for them? and thrust her hand into the cavity of the bird and held it up in a gesture so frank that I didn’t know what to do, and there was much laughter.
I was rescued by a girl who, carrying a plate of quails’ eggs, beckoned me to follow her. I did, down the length of the kitchen to where large crocks of water seethed on platforms of brick above a charcoal-fired stove. A mound of uncooked maize glistened ready by the pots. A short distance away stood three baskets heaped with melon and other fruit. I set down my own basket next to them.
Then I noticed what the two women at the stove were doing. Each had taken a handful of maize and was breathing on it, hard.
“What are you doing?” I asked, curious.
They said they were going to cook it. The winic always answered patiently, even when the question appeared to them stupid.
“But why are you breathing on it?”
They laughed. “Because it needs heart.”
I thought this over. Perhaps I had mistaken a word.
“The maize needs heart?”
They could not believe my slowness. “Because it is going into the fire!”
Maize cannot be afraid, I thought as I walked outside. This is a childish idea. But I thought it without much conviction. I was not sure of thoughts like this any longer. Living every day among the winic, living as a winic, I was seeing things I had never seen as a Spaniard, feeling things I had never felt. I knew the winic thought of maize as a living being that had a soul, and I did not find that foolish. But if maize lived and had a soul, why should it not dread the fire? And if it did, was it a childish notion that human breath should give it courage? Or was it touching, even beautiful?
At the New Year that belonged to the colour red and the direction north, the year’s image was carried into the town along the road Gonzalo had helped to build. It was the height of the war season. Warriors danced to the tall drums. They danced in the square below the temple from dawn until the sun went down. The drums could be heard far out into the fields. In the mud streets beyond the walls, little boys with turkey feathers stuck in their hair stamped and leapt to the beat.
In front of the temple, with their heads tilted back, the dancers trod the step that looked simple but wasn’t. Each direction was danced to in turn. I looked for Gonzalo among the dancers, but couldn’t find him.
The priests moved about the town, thin as shadows, with their censers and strips of paper. Many people were going to the temple to give thanks. A gong sounded in the shrine every few minutes, to show that a sacrifice of quail had been made. At the bottom of the stairway, children were giving away coloured ribbons to the people who had sacrificed. Men tied theirs on their wrist, women to their blouses. Quail for offering were being sold in the streets, two cacao beans for five.
I wandered through the crowds, enjoying the bustle and the colour. A man with a jar of balche gave me a cupful to drink. As always, it made my head fuzzy, and after a while I went back to the hut.
A bit later, the other slaves began coming back. They brought balche with them. The drinking began early that day. I drank only a little.
I was sitting outside on the platform with some of the slaves in the late afternoon when an official arrived and said that ten of us were needed to carry jars of balche to the warrior house, where there was a feast and supplies had run short.
I was chosen as one of the ten because I was still sober. We set off. The slave in charge of us also appeared to be sober, but in fact he was very drunk and fell down as soon as we got into the streets. We propped him against a wall and went on.
We had to go to a warehouse where the balche was stored. After several mistakes we found it, but now the sun had set, the town was lit by pine torches and everything looked different and confusing. We couldn’t agree about where the warrior house was. None of us had ever been there. Two of the slaves said it was useless, sat down on the ground and refused to go any further. They opened their jar of balche and began to drink it.
We left them where they were, too, and tried to find the warrior house. The streets were narrow and twisting and, away from the centre, dark. We bumped into one another. A jar of balche was dropped and broke. Balche spilt everywhere, splashing our legs, and a slave cut his foot on the broken pot.
We found the place by accident. We were trying to get back to the centre of town in order to start again, when we found ourselves outside it. We knew it by its four thick pillars and by the torchlight and the strong smell of drink that came from inside. We carried our balche up the two shallow steps, past the pillars and into the warriors’ hall.
It seemed they had found another source of drink. Either that, or they had gone beyond needing it.
The torches lit glistening mounds of melon rinds and sticky pools of balche. Half-eaten pastries, broken clay cups and charred plugs of tobacco mingled on the floor. Warriors lay slumped and snoring, or sat looking puzzled at the ruin of their clothes, or were coupled in the form of love that was now familiar to me from the slaves’ hut.
I set down my jar of balche. It was not needed, but I had done my job. Then I saw Gonzalo. Over in the shadows of a corner where the brazier threw a warm, unsteady glow. He had cast his clothes aside. I saw how he tended the youth whose body was turned to him. I saw how in the act of love he arched himself like a porpoise in its leap.
I could not bear it, but I watched.
When I went back to the warrior house it was about the third hour of the night. The moon rode overhead, nearly full. The streets were empty. Some dogs whimpered from a yard.
I went into the hall, where the pine torches still flickered, not knowing what I might find. My heart was drumming and I was feverish with desire and fear.
Gonzalo was asleep in the corner where I had last seen him, one arm flung out as if to caress his lover. But the boy had gone.
I walked over the strewn floor, past the slumbering forms. I stood beside him. I let my loincloth fall to the ground.
He stirred, then opened his eyes. His eyes went very wide. He took in everything, my look, my nakedness.
Slowly he shook his head. “Not you,” he said.
I felt as if he had struck me. “Why not?” I whispered.
“You are a Spaniard,” he said. “It would not be right.”
I picked up my strip of cloth and slunk away.
A morning came when I cut my ear with the edge of a shell and sprinkled the blood on to the image of the maize god. Then I lit a bead of copal and watched the blue smoke curl up.
The maize god was the spirit of the young plant. I had grown to love the noble serenity of his face, but that was not why I sacrificed to him. A simple and mysterious thing had become clear to me. I lived on maize. I ate it twice a day and drank, in the fields, a drink in which maize was mixed with water. It was not only that I ate and drank it: it came closer than that. Maize became my flesh. I was maize.
That was how the winic regarded themselves. They were maize. They loved the maize plant with passion and reverence. That—not so that he would bless the harvest—was why the maize god stood outside the hut.
There was more. One day they would die, and their bodies would go back into the earth. Their bodies would feed the earth, and the earth would in return produce more maize. They would be reborn as maize. The maize would again become winic. The cycle was perfect and eternal. But what touched the heart was that the maize could not seed itself. Every grain had to be planted by a human hand. This plant, without which the winic could not live, could not live without them.
Their reverence was reflected in the many names they had for maize. There was a word for the sprouting maize plant, another for the plant when it was full-grown, and another for the plant when it began to die. There was a word for the grain when it was white and another word for when it was golden, and yet another for the grain stored as seed. There were more words still for the young cob, the mature cob, the cob with and without its silken tassel. And all of these were the names of gods.
After I had laboured for a few years in the fields, the batab took me into his household service. Instead of clearing and planting the ground, I had to weed the batab’s gardens, sweep the paths, feed the fish and birds and clean the birdcages. It was lighter work and my tasks were different every day, and I preferred it.
However, I did not want to move to a new hut. My feet knew every hollow and bit of flint in the earth floor of the hut I had lived in, and the way the wind stirred the thatch just before rain came, and I had grown very attached to the field slaves. I asked if I couldn’t go on living in the field slaves’ hut and work in the gardens, but I was told this was not possible. I said goodbye sadly and went to live in a long hut behind the batab’s house, across a courtyard from the kitchens.
It was quite unlike my previous home. It was always noisy, always busy, because the courtyard was used for all manner of things. The women ground maize there, on slabs of heavy dark stone with rollers of the same stuff; children played; washing was put in the sun. We ate our meals there, sitting on our heels around the clay stove. The slaves gambled there, using a wooden board and dried beans. They were forbidden to gamble and did it all the time. They would gamble for anything—beads, a woven bracelet, a feather.
The hut was larger than the field slaves’ hut, and divided roughly into sections with a few strips of coarse cloth hung from the rafters. At first, until I grew used to it, the presence of so many other people in that wooden compound pressed on my thoughts at night. It was as if I could feel their dreams. I could certainly hear their sounds of intimacy. I lay awake in my desolation. But that, too, passed.
I could not find the courage to visit Gonzalo for a long time after I had gone to the warrior house. So long that, by the time I did, the war season had started and he had already fought, and distinguished himself, in a battle.
In the end I had to see him. It was ridiculous not to. It was not even as if I was angry with him. I understood the reason for his “not you,” and I told myself I should have expected it. I could not forgive myself for my stupidity. I could not forgive myself for inviting that humiliation. But as for forgiving him… surely I had done that, long ago.
I went to the hut where he lived. I prayed that he would not refer to the night when I came to him and took off my clothes. I prayed that he would not even look at me in a way that suggested he remembered it. What on earth we would talk about, I didn’t know.
We talked about fighting. It seemed that the way winic fought battles was altogether different from the way Spaniards fought battles. The difference was not just in the weapons and the tactics, and in the main object of the battle—to capture, not to kill—but also (and this in fact was the greatest difference of all) in what the battle was thought to be.
“It’s a divination,” said Gonzalo.
“A divination. You know what that is?”
“Of course I do. I just don’t understand what it has to do with battles.”
“The battle divines the will of the gods.”
“Whoever the gods favour, wins?”
“That’s right. It’s a sort of game, really. A sacred game.”
I had no difficulty in fitting this into the way the winic thought.
“It means that there are rules,” said Gonzalo. “You can’t just attack someone. There has to be a proper declaration of war. Then you have to present the enemy with shields.”
“In case they haven’t got any?”
Gonzalo’s look reproached my levity. “It’s a ritual. But it means something. The two sides have to be evenly matched. Otherwise…”
“Otherwise it doesn’t reveal the will of the gods.”
“It doesn’t sound,” I said, remembering something he had told me, “as if anything you could show them about Spanish fighting methods would be welcome.”
Gonzalo grinned, the impudent grin that once had so exasperated me. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “We’ll have to see.”
I was greatly relieved that the conversation had been an easy one and had kept away from dangerous areas. I was preparing to leave when he said casually, “By the way, I’m getting married.”
I went to the wedding. By that time Gonzalo had risen to be a captain of five, and had an amber disc in his lower lip. I asked him if it was painful. He said of course it was.
I didn’t stay long at the celebrations. His friends were bent on getting drunk as quickly as possible
The marriage had been arranged by the matchmaker, I was surprised to hear. The bride’s parents had been correctly approached, a bride-price paid. I do not know why I expected Gonzalo to have behaved like a ruffian rather than following custom: perhaps I wanted him to.
The girl was not at all pretty, I thought.
Gonzalo said to me, “I always wanted to get married. I like family life.”
“In that case I wonder that you weren’t married before,” I said.
“I was,” he said. “I’ve got a wife in Palos. But that’s not much use here, is it?”
Now that I worked in the batab’s gardens, I walked through the town almost every day. Almost every day I passed the temple with its gods and creatures painted on the walls in the clear colours of sea and sky. You can see a thing many times before you truly see it and, when you do, what has made you see it? There was nothing different about the morning when, several months after my interview with the batab, the strange half-plant half-tree, with a bird perched atop it, reached out from the wall of the temple as I went by and stopped me.
It was elaborate, this plant, it had many curlicues and plumes that confused the eye, but on this particular morning my gaze ignored all these decorations, seeing them suddenly for what they were, mere ornament, and went straight to the place where the fan of branches leafed at the top. There, inside the stem or trunk, at the thing’s heart, the cross sprang cleanly out. Two simple lines, the vertical slightly longer than the other. It was the Christian cross.
I trembled. Tears came to my eyes. Here, where I thought Lordjesuschrist had never been, was the cross on which he had hung. Here was the Tree on which he had always shown himself to me, until I came to Chanek and he vanished from it. His cross was here on a winic temple, and what it was telling me could not be misunderstood. He had not abandoned me. This was the form in which he wanted to be worshipped in this country.
I saw it, after that, in many places, either the tree or the cross, or sometimes both together. I learned that the tree was the Yaxché, and the cross was its sign. And I realised—indeed, the way it was depicted on the temple wall was telling me this—that the sacred tree was also the maize plant.
One day I was ordered to go to a place half a day’s journey away and bring back a basket of freshwater fish for a banquet at the batab’s house.
I set off at dawn. The path was sometimes a path, sometimes a few snapped twigs. The sun opened brilliant halls into the forest. I walked with sure feet and open eyes. I picked out at a glance the mushrooms that could be eaten from the mushrooms that must not, the tree that bore a fruit the same colour as its leaves, so that only with the sharpest eye could they be found, the creeper that stored enough water for my journey, the creeper that was not a creeper but a snake.
Before midday, I came to the lagoon. A reed hut had been built on the shore. Canoes were drawn up on the sandy beach. The fishermen were out in the lagoon, standing in water up to their thighs, the fringes of their loincloths tucked in to keep them dry. They were raising and dropping long poles in the water. They worked in pairs, holding the poles between them, each gazing into the distance over the other’s shoulder.
The water foamed with the churning of the poles, and a greenish scum, in which small pieces of leaf appeared, was forming. The poles made a thudding sound, and after each thud came a sucking noise as the pole was pulled out of the mud and leaves. They were pounding into the water a drug to make the fish sleep.
I squatted on the shoreline, watching. The figures of the fishermen wavered in the heat. Behind the thudding of the poles I heard the chirp and hum of insects and the baying croak of the marsh frogs. My eyes began to close from the heat and the hours of walking, and I opened them to see the lagoon a plate of silver and the men wading to the shore.
We rested in the hut, talking, and the fishermen smoked tobacco which they had dried themselves and which hung in sweet-smelling flags from the rafters. While we talked, they told me something that would lengthen my journey home.
We went out again when it was a little cooler, each one with a wide reed basket. We waded into the shallows. The fish floated just under the surface, as if pushed up by an unseen hand, a still harvest. Their gills opened and closed pinkly. We picked this cold-fleshed fruit out of the water and laid it in our baskets, where it shuddered and began to die.
I lined my own carrying-basket with fresh leaves, packed into it the fish I was to take and set it on my back. I said goodbye to the fishermen and set off through the forest again. They could not spare a man to show me the way, and I was afraid of missing the path. But when I came to the fork they had told me of, the way was quite clear.
I arrived in the town soon afterwards and stopped at a long hut outside which a group of youths sat gaming. I asked them where I could find the women with pale skins.
They laughed and said I should wash the smell of fish off myself before I approached women. They directed me to a large house with red gateposts in the centre of the town.
I found it without difficulty. I went through the courtyard, where a huge steward with rolls of flesh like ropes asked me what I wanted.
He turned his head, when I told him, and at the same moment I saw them. They crouched just on the other side of the open doorway, with the grinding stones between them, grinding corn with the patient movement I had seen countless times. They raised their faded eyes to me without interest.
I said in Spanish, “God be with you.” I had prepared this greeting in the forest.
They did not stop grinding at once. The words had to sink down a long way, and then be tested against the knowledge that they were impossible.
The hands faltered on the stone.
“Who are you?” said one.
“He is Gonzalo,” said the other.
“He is a ghost,” said the first, and made the sign of the Tree.
“No, he is Gonzalo.”
“Gonzalo is dead.”
“Gonzalo is alive,” I said, “but I am not he.”
I told them that Gonzalo and I were both living in Chanek, the town we had first been taken to. They listened, but with a sort of dullness, as if they thought I was lying. Then they spoke to each other, in a rapid Spanish that made me realise how heavy, like something waterlogged, mine had become.
“There were others,” said one of them to me.
“No, they have killed them all,” said the one who had said I was a ghost.
The steward came past and said to me, “Are you still here? Haven’t you got your own work to do?”
I apologised and said I would not be much longer. He went away, grumbling. The women started grinding the maize again. As they pressed the shaped stone into the yellow grain, they remarked that I could speak the language of the country.
“Don’t you?” I asked in some surprise.
They shook their heads.
“I hate it,” said one. “It sounds to me like monkey-chatter.”
This offended me, and it must have shown in my face.
The other smiled, rather unpleasantly. “You are at home here,” she said.
I did not know what to reply to this, understanding that it was not kindly meant, so I said, “What is your life like? How do they treat you?”
The one who had said she hated the language set her mouth bitterly and said, “We grind the corn all day. That is all we do.”
“Yes,” said the other. “And that is all we will ever do.”
“All we have to look forward to is death,” said the first. They both made the sign of the Tree.
A moment later they both looked at me with the same thought.
“You are a priest!” they cried. And although I protested that I was not, they threw themselves at my blackened feet, babbling prayers.
I pushed them from me in horror, picked up my basket and fled. As I hurried through the courtyard I heard one say to the other, “It was a ghost, you see,” and the reply, “But it was not Gonzalo.”
The seasons passed and I was content. The world of the winic came close and I breathed its breath. It was my world now.
I spread my hand, seamed with toil, on the seamed bark of the Yaxché. I gazed at my brown feet and saw that they were part of the earth. In the forest a kukul-bird flew up from its branch straight at the sun, cascading emeralds into my eyes.
When the maize was harvested we all went to the fields to help. I worked alongside my old companions, laughing and joking with them, showing them I had not forgotten how to pick a crop. I tossed the ripe cobs into the basket at my back. The cobs pressed themselves into my hand, full, magnificent. The stalks of the maize bent towards me. Their heads rippled, their floating banners were silken, their fruit was proudly borne. And they sang: the field of maize was singing.
Then the maize parted, and I followed the path. At the heart of the maize where the light was brightest, where the song was loudest, I saw Him again, Lordjesuschrist, his features as they were on the clay image the slaves adored, his head crowned with radiant spears.
The seasons passed. The season for sowing, the season for harvesting, the season for war.
There came a disturbed time in which rumours bred like flies. Some of them were about a new invasion from the north. Invasions always came from the north, which was the region of bad luck and where the land of the dead lay. The invasions of the past, about which no-one remembered anything except that they had once happened, were a part of the story of the winic.
The rumours were believed, not because there was anything convincing about them—in fact the stories were fantastic, they were clearly inventions— but because the past and the future were the same to the winic. They were not-the-present. Since they were the same, what had happened before was bound to happen again. It was certain that there would be more invasions, or, more accurately, dreams of invasions, since the past was a dream and so, in a different way, was the present.
The slaves looked at me and joked when they talked about all this. My stupidity amused them greatly. They asked what kind of country I came from, where people did not count the years in a great circle, or know that there had been other worlds before this and would be after.
Because of the rumours, there was talk that the ancestors would be consulted.
The priests, it seemed, were divided about whether this should be done. Some sided with the oracle priest, the Chilan, and some with the batab, who was scornful of the ancient prophecies.
This disagreement, people said, was bad, and Chanek was not the only place where it had happened. The times were changing. Once the winic had possessed magical powers, they had known how to see things far off and divine the past and future, and the gods and ancestors had spoken to them every day. And at that time gods and ancestors had spoken clearly, not as now, when everything said was a riddle and like something seen through smoke; and the speaking had been freely given, not as now, when it must be painfully sought and bought with blood.
Just before the New Year of Yellow, it was announced that the rite would be performed. All the people of the town, whatever their rank, must attend.
When I went to the plaza it was already crowded. People were standing on the flat roofs of the buildings. The noise of talk, the shouting of vendors, the beating of a drum in the distance, the screeching of parrots in a cage nearby, all combined in a deafening hubbub.
The noise stopped quite abruptly. Into the hush came a silvery percussion of shells and, immediately after it, the shrilling of flutes. Then into the plaza from the direction of the temple threaded a procession headed by four temple slaves carrying a sumptuously draped litter, and on the litter, his back resting against a carved wooden pillow, sat an aged priest clothed from head to foot in white.
Behind him came a line of priests carrying incense. And behind the priests, walking with his courtiers and wearing an expression of solemnity which might have hidden a profound boredom with the proceedings, came the batab.
The procession wound its way around the plaza and the litter halted in front of a tall carved stone. The Chilan stepped down on to a mat which had been placed for him. He stood there quietly and alone for a few moments, a frail figure in the very centre of the plaza. Down the stone steps of the temple now came a fantastically decked figure in yellow and scarlet, plumes nodding at his shoulder, a mask of snakeskin on his head and bracelets of shell and bone on his wrists. He held a glazed bowl in his right hand, and in his left long strips of paper that floated upward behind him over the steps.
This priest came to stand behind the Chilan, who took something out of the bowl and held it up. It looked like a blade of some kind, perhaps shell; at any rate, the people recognised it and greeted it with acclamations. The Chilan turned it and it caught the sun with a hard glint. He lowered it slowly, until his arm was almost straight down at his side but the wrist was crooked a little, so that the object in his fingers was held pointing upward. With his other hand, in a swift and sudden movement, he tugged at the loop of his embroidered loincloth and it fell to the stones, where the snake-headed priest bent and picked it up.
The old man now stood in his cloak and sandals on the plaza, his nakedness exposed to public gaze. I glanced for reassurance at the faces of those around me, but they did not answer my look; they were all entranced, it seemed, by what was taking place in the centre of the plaza, except for some who were gazing not at the spot where the Chilan stood but at a place in the sky above him, where there was nothing to be seen but a few wisps of cloud.
I was looking, myself, at this spot in the sky when there came a sound from the assembled people which was between a cry and a groan. The Chilan had done something, and for a moment I did not understand what it was, but gazed in horror at the blood which darkened his thighs.
He had driven the thin blade of shell through his penis.
He held the dripping blade up to the people. They shouted.
Above, in the sanctuary, a drum began to beat. Incense drifted heavily on the air.
Again the Chilan plunged the blade into the wound he had made. His intention seemed to be to make it wider. In his pain his eyes had rolled upward so that the whites showed under the iris, but still he stood firmly and did not sway as his blood fountained anew and pooled shining on the ground.
The drum beat again, more insistently, summoning. They had lit burners of incense all around now, so that the blue smoke wreathed in the air and the smell overpowered the senses. The air itself was getting heavier; the sky was clouding as if the wisps of vapour I had seen were drawing others to them. There would be rain, out of season.
Remorselessly the Chilan drew blood and yet more blood from his flesh. I was bathed in a sweat that was partly horror, and could scarcely breathe for the suffocating incense. Nor could I move. I was wedged tight in the crowd, who seemed hardly to be breathing either, and whose gaze was now entirely fixed on the spot in the sky where there was nothing to be seen but a cloud rapidly becoming denser.
The rhythm of the drum grew faster and complicated. A series of quick running taps now preceded the dominating boom, and then between the main beats that were summoning something, or someone, came a slithering half-beat that was gone as soon as you’d heard it, like a snake into grass.
Something moved on the air that I could not quite see. It was huge and elemental. The sky was changing.
The costumed priest took the crimson blade from the Chilan and handed him one of the strips of bark paper which he was holding. The Chilan held the paper up for the people to see, and then, as my knees began to shake and the sky grew every moment more terrifying, he inserted the paper into the piteous hole he had made in his flesh and pulled it completely through.
Again he held the paper up, drenched and dreadful, for the crowd. Who were sighing, weeping, praying and seemed to see everything that was taking place on the plaza without removing their gaze from the sky above it.
The priest took the bloodied strip from the Chilan and dropped it into the burning censer nearest him. It flared and smoked, and the smoke spiralled dense and black straight into the heart of the coiling thundercloud.
The drum tugged and smote me, and the reeking smoke took away my wits. As my knees gave way I saw it at last, the thing at which the winic had long been gazing. I saw the serpent of the sky, in its vast misty coils, its infinite jaws agape and its neck bent down in tenderness to its people.
The rains came again, and the maize was planted in the cleared ground. While the shoots were young, bean seeds were sown a hand’s span from their roots so that the beans, as they climbed, should have support. At the edge of the field the beehives were set out, and the beekeepers brought offerings of honey and danced their dance at the festival of bees.
At the festival of fish, the fishermen danced, and the nets were brought to the temple to be blessed. At the festival of the carvers and painters, the tools were daubed with blue, and the children’s hands were touched so they would be able to practise the crafts of their parents. At the festival of the new images, the images were anointed, and the carvers, who had lived apart from their wives while the images were being made, returned to them. At the festival of children the infants were baptised, and at the festival of hunters, animals that had been caught in the forest were offered at the temple.
At the festival of warriors, victories over enemies were celebrated and the warriors danced.
The years melted together. At one of the New Year ceremonies, a bearer stumbled when carrying the image to its house and it fell to the ground.
But it was not that year, but the next one, that a trader came down the coast with a bag of beads and a letter rolled in his hair.