Aztec, стр. 3

"There was a splendor of spears, a splendor of spears!"

An old man of our island of Xaltocan used always to begin his battle tales that way. We listeners were captivated on the instant, and we remained engrossed, though it might have been a most minor battle he described and, once he had told the foregoing events and the outcome of it all, perhaps a very trivial tale hardly worth the telling. But he had the knack for blurting at once the most compelling highlight of a narrative, and then weaving backward and forward from it. Unlike him, I can but begin at the beginning and move onward through time just as I lived it.

What I now state and affirm did all occur. I only narrate what happened, without invention and without falsehood. I kiss the earth. That is to say: I swear to this. * * *

Oc ye nechca—as you would say, "Once upon a time"—ours was a land where nothing moved more rapidly than our swift-messengers could run, except when the gods moved, and there was no noise louder than our far-callers could shout, except when the gods spoke. On the day we called Seven Flower, in the month of God Ascending, in the year Thirteen Rabbit, the rain god Tlaloc was speaking his loudest, in a resounding thunderstorm. That was somewhat unusual, since the rainy season should have been then at its end. The tlaloque spirits which attend upon the god Tlaloc were striking blows with their forked sticks of lightning, cracking open the great casks of the clouds, so that they shattered with roars and rumblings and spilt their violent downpour of rain.

In the afternoon of that day, in the tumult of that storm, in a little house on the island of Xaltocan, I came forth from my mother and began my dying.

To make your chronicle clearer—you see, I took pains to learn your calendar too—I have calculated that my day of birth would have been the twentieth day of your month called September, in your year numbered one thousand four hundred sixty and six. That was during the reign of Motecuzoma Iluicamina, meaning The Wrathful Lord, He Who Shoots Arrows into the Sky. He was our Uey-Tlatoani or Revered Speaker, our title for what you would call your king or emperor. But the name of Motecuzoma or of anybody else did not mean much to me at the time.

At the time, warm from the womb, I was doubtless more impressed by being immediately plunged into a jar of breathtaking cold water. No midwife has ever bothered to explain to me the reason for that practice, but I assume it is done on the theory that if the newborn can survive that appalling shock it can survive all the ailments which may beset it during its infancy. Anyway, I probably complained most vociferously while the midwife was swaddling me, while my mother was disentangling her hands from the knotted, roof-hung rope she had clutched as she knelt to extrude me onto the floor, and while my father was carefully wrapping my severed navel string around a little wooden war shield he had carved.

That token my father would give to the first Mexicatl warrior he chanced to encounter, and the soldier would be entrusted to plant the object somewhere on the next battlefield to which he was ordered. Thereafter, my tonali—fate, fortune, destiny, whatever you care to call it—should have been forever urging me to go for a soldier, that most honorable of occupations for our class of people, and to fall in battle, that most honorable of deaths for such as we were. I say "should have been" because, although my tonali has frequently beckoned or prodded me in some odd directions, even into combat, I have never really yearned either to fight or to die by violence before my time.

I might mention that, according to the custom for female babies, the navel string of my sister Nine Reed had been planted, not quite two years earlier, beneath the hearth in that room where we both were born. Her buried string was wrapped around a tiny clay spindle wheel; thus she would grow up to be a good, hard-working, and humdrum housewife. She did not. Nine Reed's tonali was as wayward as my own.

After my immersion and swaddling, the midwife spoke most solemnly and directly to me—if I was letting her be heard at all. I scarcely need remark that I do not repeat from memory any of those doings at my birth time. But I know all the procedures. What the midwife said to me that afternoon I have since heard spoken to many a new boy baby, as it always was to all our male children. It was one of many rituals remembered and never neglected since time before time: the long-dead ancestors handing on, through the living, their wisdom to the newborn.

The midwife addressed me as Seven Flower. That day-of-birth name I would bear until I had outlived the hazards of infancy, until I was seven years old, by which age I could be presumed likely to live to grow up, and so would be given a more distinctive adult name.

She said, "Seven Flower, my very loved and tenderly delivered child, here is the word that was long ago given us by the gods. You were merely born to this mother and this father to be a warrior and a servant of the gods. This place where you have just now been born is not your true home."

And she said, "Seven Flower, you are promised to the field of battle. Your foremost duty is to give to the sun the blood of your enemies to drink, and to feed the earth with the cadavers of your opponents. If your tonali is strong, you will be with us and in this place only a brief while. Your real home will be in the land of our sun god Tonatiu."

And she said, "Seven Flower, if you grow up to die as a xochimiqui—one of those sufficiently fortunate to merit the Flowery Death, in war or by sacrifice—you will live again in the eternally happy Tonatiucan, the afterworld of the sun, and you will serve Tonatiu forever and forever, and you will rejoice in his service."

I see you wince, Your Excellency. So should I have done, had I then comprehended that woeful welcome to this world, or the words spoken by our neighbors and kinsmen who crowded in to view the newcomer, each of them leaning over me with the traditional greeting, "You have come to suffer. Suffer and endure." If children were born able to understand such a salutation, they would all squirm back into the womb, dwindle back into the seed.

No doubt we did come into this world to suffer, to endure; what human being ever did not? But the midwife's words about soldiering and sacrifice were a mere mockingbird repetition. I have heard many other such edifying harangues, from my father, from my teachers, from our priests—and yours—all mindlessly echoing what they themselves had heard from generations long gone before. Myself, I have come to believe that the long-dead were no wiser than we, even when they were alive, and their being dead has added no luster to their wisdom. The pontifical words of the dead I have always taken—as we say, yea mapilxocoitl: with my little finger—"with a grain of salt," as your saying goes.

We grow up and look down, we grow old and look back. Ayyo, but what it was to be a child, to be a child! To have the roads and the days all stretching out forward and upward and away, not one of them yet missed or wasted or repented. Everything in the world a newness and a novelty, as it once was to Ometecutli and Omeciuatl, our Lord and Lady Pair, the first beings of all creation.

Without effort I remember, I recall to memory, I hear again in my age-muffled ears the sounds of dawn on our island Xaltocan. Sometimes I awoke to the call of the Early Bird, Papan, crying his four-note "papaquiqui, papaquiqui!"—bidding the world "arise, sing, dance, be happy!" Other times I awoke to the even earlier morning sound of my mother grinding maize on the metlatl stone, or slapping and shaping the maize dough she would bake into the big, thin disks of tlaxcala bread—what you now call tortillas. There were even mornings when I awoke earlier than all but the priests of the sun Tonatiu. Lying in the darkness, I could hear them, at the temple atop our island's modest pyramid, blowing the hoarse bleats of the conch trumpet, as they burned incense and ritually wrung the neck of a quail (because that bird is speckled like a starry night), and chanted to the god: "See, thus the night dies. Come now and perform your kindly labors, oh jeweled one, oh soaring eagle, come now to lighten and warm The One World..."