This series of excerpts from MEXICA is
freeware, not shareware, and may be copied,
distributed, and posted freely without limit.
by Norman Spinrad
Why, dear reader, assuming that you may one day
exist, am I writing yet another account of Hernando
Cortes' heroic conquest of "New Spain" for King and
I ask it of myself as I embark on this wine-
dark sea of narrative up here in the chilly mists,
for down below, the minions of the Church burn
every Mexican codex they get their hands on in the
name of the suppression of blasphemy, so it is
hardly likely that they would allow this account to
reach you or its author to survive should it come
Still less should they finally learn who Alvaro
de Sevilla really is.
Perhaps they know already. I am not about to
descend from my refuge to find out, for if they
have learned that Alvaro de Sevilla was once Alvaro
Escribiente de Granada, the price for satisfying my
curiosity would surely be paid at the stake. Worse
still, should they see who was hiding behind that
Who am I? Where am I as I write this? And when?
It is the Year of Their Lord 1531 by their
calendar, 5291 by that of my people, and matlactli
omei acatl as the Mexica not the span of a man's
life ago would have counted it in their own
I am writing this true story in a hut in a
small village of similar dwellings high enough on
the slopes of the great volcano Popocateptl, to
remain untouched by the rise and fall of the great
empire far below, small and poor enough to remain
beneath the interest of the conquistadores, now
that they have caused the Indians to be baptized
and erected a tiny stone church.
Having left this singular mark of the conquest
in the care of the local teopixqui, a sort of lay
priest of the rain god Tlaloc turned lay priest of
the tripartite God of the Church for the sake of
his people's tranquility, the friars and their
armed escort left, hopefully never to return In
the service of which this village shall herein
remain nameless, and likewise this priest of two
gods who has succored me, to shield it and him from
I was born Avram ibn Ezra, though even that is
not quite the full truth of it, since "ibn Ezra" is
an Arabization of the Hebrew "ben Ezra," for I come
from a Jewish family distinguished by a long line
of scholars and poets and a shorter line of less
famed advisers to the sultans of Granada, of which
I was the last.
I was baptized Alvaro Escribiente de Granada
shortly after the surrender of my patron Muhammad
Abu 'Abd Allah (known as Boabdil to the victors who
wrote the history) made him the last of these
Islamic rulers of Spain in the Year of Their Lord
1492 and before the Inquisition was to reach its
full baleful flowering. I had seen the handwriting
inscribing itself on the fallen walls soon enough
to become one of the earlier conversos, converting
at a time when openly forswearing Judaism in favor
of Christianity was enough to save me from my minor
notoriety as a member of the last Islamic court.
Later on, when the times changed, and the
Inquisition began its fanatically diligent rooting
out of maranos--conversos secretly still observing
the rites of the sons of Abraham--being known as a
convert who had been baptized in a manner which in
hindsight appeared just as opportunistic as it
actually was lost its protective magic.
And so, like second and third sons of noble
families, backers of the wrong sides in the
struggles afflicting the former petty
principalities attempting to become a nation called
Spain, starry-eyed dreamers and bullion-eyed
schemers, I set off in 1518 for those lands
discovered by Columbus in 1492 and then beginning
to be styled "the New World" by freebooters unaware
of how true that would prove to be.
Thus I became Alvaro de Sevilla somewhere in
the ocean between Spain and the isle of Cuba, my
baggage consisting of my skills as a scribe and
secretary, and laudatory letters of recommendation
to its governor, Diego Velazquez, forged by
myself, which enabled me to secure service in his
Thus, on a tropical isle thousands of leagues
across an ocean from the memory of Europe, then but
thinly settled by Spaniards of the sort mainly
concerned with securing plantations and the Carib
slaves to wrest wealth from them, as the most
learned man in the employ of Velazquez, I soon
enough also became the most valued whisperer in his
Thus did Avram ibn Ezra thoroughly disappear.
But not from the heart of he who now sets pen
to Mexica paper. For however great a weight of
paper may be have been burned in the bonfires in
Mexico, however great a weight of flesh may have
been burned at the stake in Europe, memory cannot
be burned from the hearts of those who survive,
even if they may wish it so.
And now I find it is Avram ibn Ezra who is
compelled to relate the true story of Hernando
Cortes' conquest of the Empire of the Mexica and
the part Alvaro de Sevilla played therein.
Why, dear reader, you may well ask, am I
compelled to inflict upon the unknown future one
more version of a great tale of which there are
sure to be a surfeit?
Because what has already been written and what
is likely to be written is at best half the truth
and at worse farragoes of self-serving lies.
Why should swallow this version as the truth
when its author has spent the bulk of his life
lying about his own identity?
The answer is that I secretly transcribed
Montezuma's own account of many of these events,
and, having saved the manuscript from destruction,
I have it with me now, and, moreover, I presume to
believe that I was the closest intimate among us
that he had. For I fancy that only one born into a
Jewish family bred for generations to survive in a
mighty civilization not their own, only to see it
fall , could hope to even begin to achieve such
communion with a soul as alien to the European mind
as his hideous gods were to the Christian clerics
who sought and still seek to supplant them here
with the singular one on the Cross.
The fathers of the Spaniards who arrived on the
jungled coast of what they first believed to be a
mere island inhabited by savages little different
from the Caribs of Cuba and the Antilles had lived
the heroic history of the Reconquest of Spain from
the Muslims, leaving them with the firm belief that
they had triumphed in the service of the one true
Their sons, lacking the opportunity to be the
heroes of such a noble cause, inverted this sense
of moral certainty into the conveniently sincere
belief that they too served God as they conquered
and stole, as long as they did so marching behind
the True Cross; that as long as they converted the
Indians they enslaved to the True Faith, God served
their cause as much as they served His.
Montezuma, Emperor of all he surveyed,
nevertheless enjoyed no such hubric moral fantasy.
He not only sincerely believed he was the servant
of his gods, but agonized endlessly and sacrificed
profusely, sparing not his own blood either, in a
life-long attempt to discern what they wanted him
To a one-time Jewish scholar there was
something familiar about this priest-king's
obsessive quest for knowledge of the will of his
gods. For while the Christian faith expediently
adopted by Alvaro Escribiente de Granada is founded
on the certainty that the nature of God is set out
in the Bible and His will clearly enunciated in the
words of Jesus Christ, the sophisticated
cosmopolitan Judaism of Avram ibn Ezra consisted of
a philosophic and moral argument between God and
Man that neither wished to see concluded.
And while I found Montezuma's metaphysical
system horrifyingly repugnant in many of its
aspects, its complexity and sophistication appealed
to my mind, and therefore, I have reason to
believe, did my mind appeal to his.
As for my insight into the mind, if not the
heart of the great Cortes, all I can claim is that
I was with him from the beginning, all too often
his Iago, to my present sorrow, but not that I even
now can fully comprehend a man that combined such
virtue and evil, that I can to both love and hate,
often at the same time.
Hernando Cortes was not an uneducated man. He
was reasonably versed in the classics, he could
write a decent enough poem, he a great orator, and
he was a more than competent general if not the
Caesar he thought himself to be. He was also a
masterful plotter, liar, and double and triple
betrayer, who could charm the carrion birds out of
the trees, blessed with the sincere Christian
belief that whatever he did served God and hence
absolved him from any necessary sin committed in
the process thereof.
For this master sophist was the product of a
civilization able to convince itself not only to
believe that it was anointed of God to rule over
lesser breeds, but that he and the Church were
doing these people a special favor by conquering
them and converting them to the True Religion. For
if they didn't, would not their souls burn in hell
But when you reach a such a exalted state of
sophism that you can apply it so perfectly to
yourself, how to comprehend the mind of a ruler who
was product of a civilization whose capital made
anything in Europe seem like a backwater provincial
seat, whose philosophical theology was up there
with the Egyptians in its complexity and its
concept of time, and whose cuisine put that of
Spain to shame?
Still less when the said cuisine included the
meat of its prisoners of war, and the civilization
believed we were insane because we sought to kill
as many of our enemies in battle as we could
instead of capturing them, sacrificing them to our
gods, and savoring them in our banquets as a
civilized people should.
And therein lies the tale.
After many machinations on the isle of Cuba, Cortes and
his expedition, Along with Alvaro set sail for the unknown
shore of fabled gold-rich Mexico.
We departed on the nineteenth of February 1519,
under fleecy skies, with what I was told was a good
following wind. Five hundred and fifty three
soldiers, including thirty-two crossbowmen and
thirteen arquebusiers. Melchior, our interpreter,
Julian having expired, perhaps of homesickness. Two
hundred Carib slaves. Sixteen horses and a pack of
war dogs. Two priests. Ten heavy cannon and four
lighter ones. And a crew of some hundred and ten
sailors to convey it all.
As I stood on the forecastle of the flagship
gazing forward across the blue tropical sea at the
future of our adventure, it finally came to me how
ridiculously tiny an armada this was to presume to
confront the forces of an unknown empire whose
outlying province had already demonstrated the
ability to marshal forty times our forces.
On the other hand, I told myself sardonically
as I looked back and watched the Cuban shore and
the unseemly manner of our departure disappear
behind the curve of the Earth, were we not in truth
the largest fleet of pirates ever to set sail?
The fleet is scattered by a storm.
The storm finally broke, and at length we found
ourselves alone on a choppy but tolerable sea,
though the lightening of the skies did little to
lighten Cortes' humor until a few sea birds
appeared, a sign, so the sailors told us, that we
were nearing land.
Then the lookout high up on the mainmast
shouted out its distant sighting, everyone came up
on deck, and soon the horizon became tinged with a
misty line of greenish brown. A while later, this
became a distant island, then a narrow rocky coast
crowned with lush green foliage above a narrow
Even Cortes' mien brightened when the subtle
but unmistakeable odors of land--distant
vegetation, the sun's heat upon sand, the tang of
seaweed rotting and drying on a beach--reached our
nostrils on the breeze, a perfume otherwise too
faint to discern rendered blissfully tangible in
contrast to the previously all too prevalent stormy
sea stench of salt, tar, dung, urine, and vomit.
We sailed anxiously around the coast of the
island, until, rounding a headland guarding a
decent enough natural harbor, we spied masts and
spars, then a ship, then another and another and
another, and a cheer of relief went up, and this
was greatly enhanced as we approached anchorage,
for ten were counted. The entire fleet had
Our joy was somewhat tempered when we saw in
what condition. Spars were splintered, cracked, and
missing, rigging hung in tatters, some masts had
even been reduced to jagged stumps.
"Fear not," the captain of our flagship
reassured Cortes, "I've seen such tempests in these
seas do much worse. This is nothing that ship's
carpenters can't set straight, what with all that
This mollified Cortes, and as we dropped
anchor, close enough to the beach now to see them,
our spirits were further raised by the sight of
several score men awaiting us on the beach, who, by
the gleam off their armor, and by the standards
planted in the sand, were easily enough recognized
as our comrades waving to us in welcome. Indeed, I
could make out not only the standard of Pedro
Alvarado, but the golden hair and beard of the
bareheaded figure standing beside it.
I say our spirits were raised by this sight,
but this was not true of Cortes. "They landed
against my orders," he grumbled.
"How can you charge them with disobedience to
orders that were never given?"
"I would have given them were I there!"
"How were they to know that?"
To this Cortes made no direct reply. Instead
he issued the highly unpopular order that everyone
was to remain aboard for the moment, myself
included, while he went ashore in a boat to discern
As one might well imagine, the mood aboard the
flagship grew more and more sour, then iresome, as
the "moment" stretched on towards an hour, while we
watched Cortes being rowed ashore, being greeted by
the party there, then engaging in some kind of long
gesticulating conversation with Alvarado before
being rowed back to the ship .
Our petty ire, however, was nothing to what was
visible on the face of Cortes when he climbed back
aboard. His normal sallow skin was reddened with
rage to, and his scowl was darker than the departed
storm clouds, to the point where no one dare
approach or speak to him, myself included.
But as he stormed into his cabin, he wordlessly
beckoned me to follow, and once inside slammed the
door behind us and poured out his fury.
"That arrogant half-wit Alvarado! I would chop
off that golden head of his if I did not know that
it was as empty of maliciousness as it is of wisdom
or even cunning!"
"What did he do?" I inquired mildly as Cortes
paced the little cabin seeming fit to attack the
furnishings with his sword at any moment.
"What did he do! Not content with landing his
troops without orders, he whiled away the time
awaiting my ire not merely by barging into the town
armed to the teeth like a pirate raider but
behaving like one too, looting the temple of its
few worthless trinkets and so terrifying the
natives that they have disappeared into the jungle.
And do you know what he told me?"
"I surmise that you are about to tell me," I
all but whispered.
"'You are not pleased, my Captain?' he said
with an air of wounded innocence. 'True, we found
no great treasure, but I assure you on my honor we
secured all there was to be had.' 'You call
unprovoked looting and desecration honorable?' I
roared at him. "And then...and then...."
"And then the man had the effrontery to display
righteous outrage rather than contrition!" Cortes
shouted, slamming his fist down on the tabletop, no
doubt as it were the head of Pedro Alvarado. "'You
were not there to see it,' he told me. 'A hideous
idol caked with the blood of I dare not imagine who
or what and these loathsome creatures done up in
vile parody of priests of the Cross conducting some
sort of evil ceremony while the benighted savages
paid it obesiance! An outrage to the honor of
Christ himself! What true Christian's honor would
not demand that he put an end to it and teach them
Cortes shook his head and took a deep breath.
He sighed and sank down into a chair, and when he
spoke again, his rage had been tempered, though
with nothing better than a certain despair.
"'A fine lesson you have taught these heathens
with whom we would trade and win to the True
Faith,' I told him. 'To fear and hate us before our
mission is even begun'. To which he replied: 'I
thought we were here to conquer these lands for the
King and the Cross.'"
"Well he did have a point," I ventured
cautiously, "didn't he?"
"One way or another," Cortes said with a sigh,
"but surely not like this! Save for the tales
brought back by Hernandez and Grijalva, we know
nothing of this savage empire we confront, not even
if that is truly what it is, and the first Indians
we encounter who might supply useful intelligence
are frightened off into the jungle to spread tales
of our forthright thievery."
His anger now spent, Cortes motioned for me to
be seated beside him. "What am I to do now,
Alvaro?" he asked plaintively.
"Well, I can tell you what you are not going to
do," I told him. "In the dispatches to be sent back
to the King, this fiasco must never have happened."
"To be sure, but how am I to retrieve the
situation so as to make it disappear?"
"Are there any of the natives left in the
"I believe Alvarado mentioned something about
taking captives, but I was paying little heed at
"And unless I am mistaken, our Melchior speaks
the local tongue."
"So we had best redress the natives' grievance
against us with largesse and the promise of more,"
I told him.
"We must redress their grievance against us,?
said Cortes, getting my drift. "Not quite, Alvaro.
I have a better idea. And one that I shall find
both just and amusing."
And so our first congress with the subjects,
however few, of the great Montezuma, took the form
of a most bizarre formal ceremony.
Cortes unloaded his grateful forces from the
ships--though leaving the poor horses and dogs
behind for fear of giving further fright--lined
them up behind his standard on the beach, sweating
in their full gleaming metal armor under the
tropical sun in the steaming humidity, and took his
place before them, a fine martial display meant to
impress rather than intimidate.
To his left stood Pedro de Alvarado, his
handsome face an impassive mask, only his darting
eyes betraying his discomfort. To his right was
poor Melchior, a pathetic spectacle dressed as a
parody of a Spanish grandee in a threadbare blue
velvet tunic and green pantaloons a size or two too
large, but with his hair long and unkempt in the
Indian fashion, and the downcast, furtive and
uncomprehending eyes of a forest creature plunked
down at mass in a cathedral. Before them was a
cloth sack and a small wooden chest.
Dragged forth by four soldiers to confront this
august company were two aged and cowering Indians,
wearing white loincloths and cloaklike affairs,
beardless but sporting long graying black manes,
and wearing copper earrings embedded with blue
stones, and copper tablets likewise embellished
depending from their lower lips, their modest
weight serving to draw them down to display
purpling lower gums and unsmiling yellowish teeth.
"Tell them that we are vassals of the great
King across the sea and followers of the True Faith
come to this shore in peace and friendship to
convey upon them the gifts and advantages lavished
upon those whom he would in his gracious
magnanimity befriend and liberate them from their
darkness," Cortes declared, turning to Melchior.
The poor man, whose Spanish both Cortes and I
knew to be minimal , must have comprehended little
more of this than we did of whatever he then
proceeded to babble to the captives in their own
language, and to judge from their expressions, it
was insufficient to convey to them the honor being
bestowed upon them and their people.
"Tell them that this man, overwhelmed by their
beauty, sought only to examine their treasures,
not to steal them," said Cortes, pointing to the
hapless Alvarado, "and when their people,
misreading his intent, fled, rather than leave them
unguarded prey to thieves, he thought it prudent to
take them into his care for safekeeping against
Had this been delivered by a great orator in
their own tongue, it no doubt would have been
difficult enough to swallow, and many of those
comprehending it in Spanish were hard put to
repress their sniggers, so there was no surprise
when Melchior's rude translation was met with utter
incomprehension by the two captives.
These ridiculous niceties being concluded to
the expected no avail, Cortes nodded to Alvarado,
who, grimacing, picked up the sack and gently
poured its contents out upon the sand--copper
implements of unknown use, several blades of a
shiny black substance, handfuls of jewelry, some of
it gold but most of it copper set with stones that
were neither diamonds, rubies nor sapphires, though
there were some with pearls.
The captives were then shoved forward to
observe with incomprehension becoming amazement as
one by one, displaying each item first with the
utmost politesse, Alvarado replaced them in the
"Tell them that we now return their safeguarded
treasures to them, and they will find that nothing
is missing," Cortes said, giving Alvarado a
sidelong glance that clearly said there had better
Melchior's translation may or may not have been
understood, but it needed not be, as Cortes himself
handed the sack to one of them.
He then opened the little chest, and one by one
displayed its contents: a glass mirror in an iron
frame, a steel knife with a leather-wrapped handle,
a handful of rosaries, several base metal crosses
on chains, a pair of scissors, a cheap miniature
portrait of the Virgin and Child, a Bible, and
heaping handfuls of colored glass beads.
Closing the chest, he handed it over to the
other Indian. "These are precious gifts from His
Majesty King Charles to your people as token of his
friendship," he proclaimed. "Take them back to your
people, and tell them to return to their homes
without fear. Tell them also that there is much for
them to have, in return for what presents they may
wish to give to us as tokens of theirs."
This time Melchior's translation seemed better
understood, greatly aided no doubt by the
obviousness of the gestures which needed none, and
the Indians' eyes lit up with no little relief and
pleasure, albeit of a somewhat tentative and
When their guards released them and stepped
aside, they stood there numbly for a moment, then,
at a farewell wave from Cortes, began slowly
backing away towards the forest fringing the beach
with their shoulders forward, their backs bent, and
their heads lowered, like obsequious courtiers
departing the royal presence. Only when they neared
the treeline did they deem it meet and prudent to
turn their backs and disappear therein at a dead
Cortes sets out to explore the island of Cozumel.
Cozumel proved to be an island of no great
size, and no great fertility of soil, where a
meager population of Indians, clustered mainly in
scattered villages, eked out a modest living from
the surrounding fields of what they called "maize"
and the beans from which they made their brown
On the way back to their base....
We were on our way back to our main
encampment,when, of a late afternoon, we
encountered a village larger than most, and so too
its pyramidal temple, though it was hardly a grand
What must have been most of the village was
gathered silently around the foot of the temple
gazing up at the stone hut which crowned its
flattened summit, and at a respectful or perhaps
fearful distance, though no papas were in evidence
to enforce it.
Though nothing seemed to be happening, it was
an eerie unsettling sight, with the blue of the sky
deepening, and the shadows of the surrounding trees
lengthening, and the ominous shadow of the temple
itself enfolding that silent congregation of what
to my eyes now seemed savages, with their half-
naked bodies, long black hair, lips, ears, and
noses pierced with metal embellishments.
Cortes marched his troops into the village and
brought them to a halt a discreet distance behind
this somber gathering, whether out of curiosity,
unease, or the tentative aspect of respect one
tends to assume as a witness to the ceremonies of a
faith other than one's own, I could not tell, and
perhaps he could not either. There was such a
pregnancy in the heavy tropical air that even
Fathers Diaz and Olmedo fell silent, nor did our
advent serve to distract the Iindians from the
object of their worshipful attention save but
How long we all stood there so still and
silent, I cannot tell you, dear reader, for time
itself seemed to have stopped until--
A hideous scream rang out from the summit of
the temple, a sharp cry of sudden pain that rose
into an even worse ululating, blubbering, howl of
terrible agony, that had Cortes himself and many of
our company drawing their swords, and rushing
Before the Indian congregation could do more
than turn in reaction to the commotion behind it,
they were through their midst, and Cortes had
mounted the lower steps of the temple with a cordon
of steel swords and armor behind him as the
horrible screaming guttered into a somehow even
Then, as all seemed to freeze into mutual
uncertainty, something large came tumbling and
bouncing down from the summit of the temple,
obscured by shadow and motion, until it all but
collided with Cortes as it came to its final rest
close by his feet.
Only then did he and we and I realize that
what we had seen thrown down from on high like so
much refuse was the corpse of a man, his chest a
gory gaping hole, the path his body had taken down
the stone steps drawn in gouts and rivulets of
fresh and still dripping blood like a red stream
burbling across the rocks of a rapids.
Cortes shouted in wordless outrage and dashed
up the steps two at a time, sword in hand, several
men behind him, while the others menaced the
outraged Indians with their own swords. Someone in
our party behind them gave the order, and four of
our arquebusiers fired off their weapons, the
unprecedented loudness of the reports and the alien
tang of gunpowder dispersing the crowd in terror as
Cortes gained the summit.
"The hut atop the temple was redolent with a
sweet incense blasphemously reminiscent of that in
a cathedral, filling the enclosed space with dense
smoke, which, nevertheless, could not draw a
merciful veil over the Satanic ritual my poor eyes
were forced to behold, and I must cross myself
immediately against it, " he told me later.
"Four black-robes papas stood before a idol
half as tall as a man which seemed to be carved of
stone, though it was hard to be sure, for it was
caked with some brownish stuff that might have been
dried mud or just as well shit, which softened its
monstrous features; great bulging eyes over a
leering mouth, and the top of the head a kind of
bowl as if its skull had been opened.
Before this demon was a rude altar of stone
with a depression in it filled with blood. Blood
ran down onto the floor from a channel cut in the
stone and likewise dripped off the edges of the
altar. One of the papas held a dagger of black
stone coated with more blood. Another was in the
act of anointing the head of the idol with blood
from a clay bowl, and I realized to my horror that
the brownish substance caking the idol, the walls,
the floor, was neither mud nor feces, but a thick
accumulation of old dried blood, indicating that
herein this obscene black mass had been conducted
many, many times.
Try as you may, Alvaro, you will never be able
to imagine the force of my outrage. I was upon the
idol at once, and such was my fury that God granted
me the power to budge it even before the soldiers
mounting behind me rushed to aid, and while two of
them held off the shouting papas with their swords-
-and it must have taken great restraint not to
simply run them through--the rest of us rolled the
Satanic thing out the entranceway and threw it down
And indeed, a statue of stone came crashing and
smashing down the temple facade to crack in two
smaller pieces, a number of shards, and one large
one, to land at our feet.
I was not entirely surprised, having heard
Bernal Diaz's tale of a similar ritual, but the
true horror of it was that now I was confronted
with sudden unavoidable realization that his tale
was true and I was living in it, that the souls who
inhabited this New World it were far more foreign
to my own than I could have ever believed or
imagined, that it might truly be that Satan or
something even worse possessed them.
The smashing of their cherished idol caused
many of the Indians to screw up their courage to
return, some armed with stone-tipped lances and
arrows, all clearly outraged, but none daring to be
the first to launch an attack.
Seizing the moment, Cortes ordered all present
to draw swords, save the priests, and the
arquebusiers whose fusillade had frightened them
off in the first place; these he had take aim at
the Indians at point blank range as a precaution.
He then had a sack of our usual trade goods brought
forth, and its contents spread upon the ground
before them like the disgorged plenty of a
cornucopia, and, through Melchior, managed to
convey that these presents were theirs for the
There was a great confusion among the Indians.
Their temple had been desecrated and their god
destroyed by mysterious strangers possessed of
magical weapons with which they were now menaced.
But these invaders were now offering them wondrous
and perhaps equally magical gifts. I cannot
imagine what they must have made of this
contradiction, and it would seem that they didn't
either, as they milled about, some helping
themselves, some standing back, some still
brandishing their weapons in frustrated outrage.
Father Olmedo took it upon himself to plant his
cross in the soil close by the fallen idol, a
mysterious gesture, which if nothing else served to
draw the Indians' attention.
Rather than make another futile attempt to
preach a sermon against Satanic and blasphemous
idolatry, he summoned Father Diaz, who annointed
the largest piece of the idol with holy water, then
spread a sacramental cloth across it, converting it
to a communion table.
The wine and wafers were then produced, the
appropriate prayers were said, and all present were
"The body and the blood of Christ...."
One by one, led by Cortes, all knelt and
partook of the transubstantiated wine and wafer.
"The body and the blood of Christ...."
Bizarre as it might be to me as an unbeliever,
I could understand why it comforted the Faithful
after such grim and blasphemous events.
"The body and the blood of Christ...."
I not only thought it prudent to eat and drink
of it myself, as I always did under such
circumstances, but though I could not quite bring
myself to believe that I was taking the godhead
into my flesh as I did so, even I drew a measure of
comfort from the familiar ritual.
I was among the last to do so, and, wonder of
wonders, when I arose, I saw that a score and more
Indians were lining up behind me to do likewise, as
Melchior moved among them.
"What did you say to them?" I asked him,
drawing him aside, as, one by one, formerly
benighted savages knelt before the blissfully
beaming Father Olmedo to partake of the Christian
"Ask what is ceremony," Melchior replied in his
broken Spanish. "Tell them is Christian magic. Tell
them Christian magic turn bread and wine into meat
and blood of their god."
"And?" I demanded.
"Tlaloc must be fed blood and meat of men so
rain comes," said Melchior. "But Jesus Christ God
of Heavens give Christians his blood to drink and
meat to eat."
He shrugged. "Is strange, men eat god instead
of god eat men," he said without a trace of humor,
"they not understand, I think, but they like it."
After battles, adventures, and intrigues, and having
accumulated an army of Indian allies, Cortes and his forces
are at last climbing the great mountains, beyond which lies
the Valley of Mexico and its capital Tenochtitlan....
As we moved up through the densely wooded
foothills, what had been a coolly refreshing
climate began to turn cold. Gray mists hid the sun
as often as not. Biting winds blew down from the
canyons still high above us, canyons we must
approach and traverse, rather than avoid.
As we began to climb through rugged ascending
defiles, it grew colder still, and drizzle from
what began to seem like a permanent gray deck of
clouds began to slowly drench us, and fog rolled
down through the passes. Higher still, and the
forests above them became pine, and then began to
thin out, and the rains and the fogs became united
in a single element, for now we had ascended into a
cloud layer. The mighty snowcapped major peaks
which previously had been intermittently visible
were now permanently hidden from view as we crawled
ever upward, with the air becoming ever colder and
the defiles ever steeper and rockier, and our world
became an ominously gray-roofed tunnel clogged with
dank and swirling mist.
If the Hell of the Christians was a one of heat
and fire, this was the cold, dark Hades of the
pagan Greeks, and I at least, who was no Christian,
began to take it as punishment for the terrible
sin with which this grim journey had so blithely
And then we reached the first evidence of the
hand of man that we had encountered in what seemed
like an eternity. But there was nothing comforting
about it, only further diabolic torment.
The road--or rather rocky path--that we had
been so laboriously following came to a fork. The
righthand path was clear, but the lefthand path had
been blocked with a barricade of large rocks and
the trunks of trees whose greenness gave evidence
that the barrier had been erected but recently to
Or to channel us.
Such was the mood that Cortes declared that we
must not proceed as its builders had so obviously
wished us, but take the road they wished not to be
taken. And so, like an army of Sisyphuses, albeit
with less futile result, we were constrained to
roll aside the stones and logs as a further
Onward we climbed through the clouds, passing
beyond the treeline, and the very soil became
something darkly otherworldly; a pitch-black sandy
loam laid down as lava and bolides by the great
volcano Popocatepetl and ground down by the ages.
And then, miraculously, we were above the
clouds and looking down on them, on a grimy grayish-
white false landscape of slowly but visibly moving
ethereal humped hills and misty valleys, as if we
had ascended not merely to the sky but beyond it to
gaze down in discomforted wonder upon a grim parody
of an angel-less and Godless Heaven.
But there were deities of a sort to be seen
rising even above that. On our left hand rose the
mighty snowcapped peak of Ixtaccihuatl, the "white
lady." And even this mountain, dwarfing anything
in Europe, was overshadowed by that which rose on
the right: Popocatepetl, "the mountain that
smokes," a black peak that rose even higher, its
summit freed of any snowcap by the fire of its
volcanic eruptions, from which rose the plume of
grayish-black smoke which gave it its name.
Truly we had left the world we had known behind
Here we paused, exhausted and dumbfounded, to
rest and wonder. The Tlascalans, who had a dread
of Popocatepetl, both superstitious and quite
practical, declared that it was a habitat of
demons, and that no man had ever ascended it and
returned alive. One of the Spanish soldiers, a
mountaineer from the Pyrenees, piqued by the
implied dare, declared his intention to climb to
the summit of the volcano and nine of his comrades
accepted the challenge, as well as a few fearful
Tlascalans who were determined to prove that they
were no lesser breed than Spaniards.
Climb the mountain they did, though not quite
to the peak, and return they did also, with a
The ascent began easily enough along a steep
but gentle slope of loam as black as the heart of
Satan. But then the loam became deep dry black
sand, and the climb a lead-footed slog through it.
And further on, their breathing became labored, and
they entered a strange but not entirely unpleasant
dreamlike state in which their feet seemed
disconnected from their bodies and they seemed to
be floating upward with exaggerated slowness, as if
they were walking through an ocean of viscous air.
Then, as they approached the summit, the sand
gave way to rock, and the rim of the crater at the
summit became visible, billowing black smoke,
shooting out bright sparks and hot cinders, and
exuding a choking satanic stench of burning
brimstone. All but overcome by the thinness of the
air, the heat of the volcano, the showers of
cinders, and perhaps fearing that they might
encounter a portal into Hell itself if they peered
over the crater rim, they turned back and returned
to tell the tale without ever quite encountering
The next day we continued our passage through
this unearthly infernal landscape, through a
winding pass between the great mountains, which
seemed like two forbidding sentinels guarding it.
But that afternoon we rounded a bend and beheld a
sight that took the breath away and transformed
bleakness into soul-soaring wondrous delight in the
blink of an eye.
As if we had been granted a sign from God, the
curtain of cloud far below had been drawn aside,
and we gazed upon Anahuac, the Valley of Mexico
entire, glittering like an immense sapphire set in
an even grander emerald .
The great valley was verdant with rich
croplands and flourishing forests. In the center of
it was an enormous lake. On its shores and inland
rose more cities than the eye could count, and in
the greater ones soared pyramids like unto those in
ruins in Egypt, but gleaming white and entirely
intact. A profusion of small boats hovered on the
edge of visibility on the lake. Gardens floated
magically on the waters.
There was nothing remotely like this
constellation of cities anywhere in Europe. And if
these cities were stars in a celestial
constellation, great Tenochtitlan was a mighty sun,
and I doubted that there was anything like it
anywhere on Earth, or that Marco Polo could have
felt anything like the wonder I did then when he
first set eyes on the cities of Cathay
Tenochtitlan was tremendous. Everything about
it declared its grandeur. Its extent was immense.
The avenues were so broad as to be dimly visible
even at this distance as an enormous grid centered
on a plaza larger than any I had ever seen or
imagined. The city was huge enough, or so it
seemed, that it might hold the entire populace of
But size was somehow the least of it.
Tenochtitlan indeed sat in the lake connected to
the shores only by four long straight causeways,
like a great spider in the center of its web. The
city shimmered in the haze the bright sun burned
off the waters, so that it seemed to be not so
much floating in the middle of the lake as hovering
in the air above it as if by magic.
Who could have known? What extravagant tale
could have prepared the soul for the reality? What
eater of the lotus could have even imagined it?
I was enthralled, enchanted, overwhelmed with
wonder. It was like falling in love. In some
manner, I suppose I did fall in love. And I felt
the hand of Marina, who stood beside me, covertly
steal into my own for a moment, as if to affirm
that this sight, this vision, was indeed all we had
schemed and conspired to attain, that this was a
moment shared between us as between none of those
in our company of would-be conquerors.
Yet when I glanced sideways at Cortes, what I
saw on his lips was a feral grin, what I saw in his
eyes was greedy determination. Mad determination.
For my perception of who we were and what we were
and where we were and what we had presumed to
conquer had turned upside down.
We were not the army of a superior civilization
across the sea confronting an empire of rude and
uncouth barbarians. We were a troop of Greek
adventurers washed up on its mythical shore
presuming to storm Atlantis.
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