In 1493 in Medellín Hernán Cortés murdered his infant brother, after it was prophesied that the young Ferdinand would grow to be stronger and more clever and able in every way than his older sibling. This threat of supplantation, overheard by chance, caused the sickly Hernán to have nightmares of his baby brother crawling on hands and knees over the foot of his bed and suffocating him with a rough woolen blanket while he tried to move in vain. He quivered in bed every other week with one ailment or another, feverdreaming an endless and pointless repetition of his brother’s laborious and gurgling approach. In the meantime Ferdinand grew fat and rosy in his crib and was always chuckling, as though he were sucking his older brother’s blood through a secret tube and turning ruddy with it. He became the one cooed over, the repository of future hopes, while Hernán was left to the businesslike ministrations of his nurse. Thus it was out of a combination of fear and injured pride that eight-year-old Hernán sealed Ferdinand inside a pickling barrel meant for cucumbers in the cellar of the family home and let him drown in the brine, listening to his muffled chokings for a full fourteen minutes.
After this Hernán’s fevers left him and the blood seeped back into his cheeks. He spent his days racing across tilled fields and oak plains towards the unreachable horizon, dominating other boys in alleyside games in the dirt roads of town, and daydreaming in the shadow of the monstrous castle. He felt himself strong and capable, ready to sprout into a solid hero now that the small but terribly heavy Ferdinand no longer obstructed his growth. Did his parents, Don Martín and Doña Catalina, suspect who had been at fault when a day after the deed they found their missing son bobbing in his fatal bath of brine? Perhaps it was an unavoidable conclusion, for there was no sign of an intruder, and the barrel’s lid had not been sealed as tightly as an adult might have managed. But could one really suppose little Hernán capable of it? Officially a call went out among the soldiers to find whatever townsperson or vagabond Jew or gypsy was responsible. But maybe there was something different that went unnoticed in the way they watched their surviving son, a little shadow that never left them, a little distance that grew, a horror never allowed to fully bloom, a fright at being unable to understand his motives and impulses.
During the rest of his childhood Hernán enjoyed the environment of the cellar, especially the corner where the pickling barrels were, with their lightlessly soaking cucumbers like big blind fish and their crowded bumping masses of olives. The specific barrel that had seen his brother’s death had been removed and destroyed. His nurse sometimes heard his voice murmuring from below but when she approached it would cease and she would find Hernán staring warily up at her. At eighteen he left Spain for Hispaniola, in the New World where absolutely anything might happen, especially financial gain. Fifteen years later he had made the long-desired metamorphosis from Hernán to Cortés, won a battle with syphilis contracted from an unattractive but willing native lady, joined several expeditions of conquest to other islands, and married the daughter of Hispaniola’s governor. Cortés at this time was strong and straight, Cortés the Polite, bearded, dignified, and masterful. Later he was muralized as a crippled greenish dwarf, Cortés Cut Short, a creature whose twisted malevolence seemed to be the only force keeping him semi-upright. There is nothing metaphorical to this description, as his bones unearthed in México testify. This will be the story of his transformation.
Though he owned a farm and had a beautiful wife, Cortés found he had little taste for Hispaniola’s sunny sugarcane plantations, their profits, their organized indentured labor. This was all safe and modest compared to the unmapped places to the west. It was the interior of Nueva Espaņa that began to call him, as reports of its alien grandeur came trickling in from previous expeditions.
For instance, he met a soldier from the company of Grijalva named Jerónimo de Aguilar, a man with tangled mustaches and haunted eyes, who had learned the language of the Yucatán. From Aguilar he heard that far in the interior of the New World, deeper than any explorer had yet been, there lay an island in the center of a certain lake, and that on it lived the departed souls of the dead. The Indians were supposed to have regular commerce with this island. How Aguilar knew this, never having reached the lake himself, was unclear; but he swore that the Indians of the region were only partly human—if that—due to their proximity to the dead. They knew devilish secrets that they would never tell the Spaniards, at least not willingly.
It was Aguilar’s report that caused Cortés, on slow mornings waking up in his hammock, to think about his long-dead little brother, and to sift through piercing yet strangely opaque memories. He knew, in almost the way one knows a fact learned in school, that he had murdered Ferdinand. He remembered the breezy freedom of his childhood afterwards, and his visits to the cellar to speak to his deceased brother in the location of his death. Sometimes he told Ferdinand all about the games he had played in the street and names other children had called each other, as if reporting them to a friend who’d been grounded for the day. Sometimes he fantasized about the heroic acts he’d perform thanks to Ferdinand’s brave sacrifice. Sometimes he gloated over who had turned out to be stronger after all. But now Cortés saw this period of his life performed like a Nativity play viewed through a clouded pane from outside the church. The emotions and the narrative of desperate self-preservation belonged to little Hernán; and Hernán had changed into Cortés without giving it any thought, unreflectively crossed great psychic spans to become a different person. He wasn’t sure he had even really seen the scarf-wrapped fortune teller in the firelit den praising baby Ferdinand as the strong one and the good one; he couldn’t access the sense of threat produced by his pudgy helpless brother. Cortés now felt a love for Ferdinand so strong it made him sick. Yet the play repeated in his brain and the script could not be changed, and the love was dirtied with a terrible and unfair shame. He was angry at little Hernán for performing such a stupid and irrevocable act that would forever attach itself to the strong, good, innocent Cortés. And inevitably the full vividness of the old memories started to come back.
After jamming the barrel lid as tight as he could manage, Hernán had stood in the pool of spilled brine among the cucumbers he’d removed to make space for the new contents, and listened to the small thumps of Ferdinand’s limbs and the barely audible chokings. He held his own breath until he nearly blacked out, and when he finally had to wheeze out his stale lungful and suck in more air, he could still hear Ferdinand wrestling with the cucumbers. Five times Hernán did this. Each time he became more sure that Ferdinand was invincible, would just go on banging in there, enraged, until he was let out. But finally all the noise did stop. Probably there had been a pocket of air at the top into which the baby rose every now and then, an accidental gulp of oxygen before the stinging brine closed over his head again and filled his nostrils…These details washed over Cortés electrically when he tried to sleep in placid Hispaniola, keeping him wide eyed long into the night.
He confessed to an anonymous father but did not feel pardoned by God. He suspected that if the earth were a just place he might never be forgiven. Yet he felt a desire to find Ferdinand again, and prove that Cortés was the real brother that Hernán had not been, that they were separate people. It was a desire that often sharpened into panic, because it was likely that he would not make it to heaven to reunite with Ferdinand.
Most men on Hispaniola who agitated to explore more lands did so because they were poor and had no encomiendas. Without mentioning other motives, Cortés began to arrange things to become Captain General of a new expedition, calling for volunteers to conquer and letting their self-interest guide them to him. Even so, a good deal of political intrigue nearly halted his voyage to the continent. In 1519 he left from Santiago de Cuba for the Yucatán with a fleet of armored men. He went with two hundred soldiers, whose names I won’t trouble you with. Several priests and about twenty horses accompanied them. Directly under his command were five captains: Alonso Puertocarrero, Cortés’s good friend met on Hispaniola; Juan Cabeza de Mono; Marco Marco; Francisco Porvenir; and Pedro Tuerceosos, named after a feat of strength in a zoological garden. Finally there was Jerónimo de Aguilar, acting as translator. Their ships palpated the bulbous Yucatán coast, leaped across it like bristling and belligerent fleas, making their presence known to a small handful of coastal villages full of converted Indians, the safely known, rounded up to human rather than down to beast. His chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the footsoldiers, has recorded that Cortés asked at each site for gold, and then for a whispered something else which no one ever quite seemed to hear. Initially blank looks transformed into westward-pointing fingers and the words, “Culhúa. México.” At the Tabasco River he was forced into battle with Indians who outnumbered his men severely and whose front line flung grass into the air to hide their numbers; the natives were routed. Cortés stood before the half-naked cacique, lifted his sword as though to smack the man across the face with the flat of it, while the Indian tried to stand upright and expressionless. Then Cortés lowered the sword gently and touched the cacique’s forehead with his hand in forgiveness. The Spaniards moved in, renamed the village, accepted gifts. Gold? And something else. “Culhúa,” the Indians said with deference. “México.” And pointed westwards towards the interior. The Spaniards knelt and prayed pacifically before planted crosses, began dunking the natives in baptismal waters, trying to bring Godly and human light to their savage lives.
In Tabasco Cortés was given the gift of twenty young Indian women. He made sure they were baptized before accepting them. Nineteen of them fell into insignificance, were soon worn out, might have been misplaced somewhere in the coastal mangrove swamps. One, named Marina, Cortés presented to his friend Alonso Puertocarrero. The cacique mentioned that she had originally come from parts to the west. A woman of high breeding, some grade of barbaric royalty, she was, most importantly, a woman of mystery. No matter how many times Puertocarrero slept with her, he couldn’t make her look directly at him and see him; her gaze slipped past and through him, a stare cluttered up and darkened by secrets. We have all met women like that, women of mystery: the vast majority of them—and the same is true of men of mystery—are not really looking at anything and they don’t really know anything you don’t. They are fakes and while young they write terrible poetry, and then they age and try to retain their magic but succeed in nothing but moping alcoholically, too afraid of discovery to be anything but stingy with their personalities. I used to fall in love with them all the time. Eventually I stopped bothering with the women and started pursuing the secrets directly.
However, this was not the case with Marina. She really did know things that others did not. Her enigmatic horizons were genuine. Cortés very quickly came to see this and treated her with the highest respect. Maybe he regretted giving her away so hastily, though he couldn’t revoke a gift made to a dear friend. He was known to disappear with her for hours at a time, which gave rise to numerous jokes about Puertocarrero being cuckolded. So many mentions were made of horns sprouting from his head that he became affectionately known thereafter as The Jew—for, as everyone knows, the Jews were cuckolded by the Christians. There was adultery as far as their god and scriptures were concerned.
The inland journey was begun abruptly and with little explanation. After weeks spent among the loyal defeated Tabascans, Cortés and Marina made a five-hour disappearance one afternoon, from which he came back wild eyed. That night the Spanish ships anchored at the beach were set ablaze. In the morning, as his soldiers stood dumbly before the charred and useless timbers of the vessels, Cortés waited on his saddle, helmeted, until the men took the cue to ready themselves for a march across land, to the west, the only direction left open to them now.
The first day they crossed mangrove swamps, with roots like colonies of petrified worms riddling the soft brown mud and the stagnant pools. One man was bitten by a water spider that crawled into his breeches and his leg swelled up and caused shooting pains as he limped along (an episode treated with sympathy, incidentally, in the chronicle of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who was a good pal of the man in question).
The second day they reached more solid ground, and the trees became lusher and greener. While hunting for the evening meal, one man gored his thigh on a sharp tree branch, one twisted his ankle in a snare he was setting, and one returned shameful and emptyhanded, with marks of rodent’s teeth on his face and arms.
The third day Cortés spoke with an Indian emissary. Marina was able to translate his words into the dialect of the Yucatán for Aguilar, who in turn translated for Cortés. “He is from a city far to the west,” Cortés told the captains, “but he says there is a village nearby where they will show us welcome.” When they arrived at the village, located in a flat valley, it was entirely empty, except for piles of men inside a sort of shrine, lying in a centimeter of congealed blood with darkmouthed breaches in their chests.
The fourth day the surrounding vegetation had thickened into a steaming jungle. Camped at night, hearing the strange howlings and damp rustlings from deeper within the interior, the men finally felt poised on the edge of a frighteningly new world. “From this point on,” said Puertocarrero, “anything really might happen.” “Yes, thank God,” said Tuerceosos, rubbing his thick palms. After drinking from a stream that tumbled into a pool covered with a placid green fur of moss, the soldiers picked up a protozoan that chittered through their intestines causing intolerable diarrhea.
The fifth day the horses had to be abandoned, and the men hacked slowly with swords through an unfriendly growth of nodding dark leaves, ropy vines, hot water droplets condensed over everything, ghostly voices of arboreal primates and twitters of unseen birds piercing through the steam like the rhythm of neurons firing in the jungle’s body. Jewelled lizards and glistening frogs sunned themselves in rare shafts of light. Nineteen men, including the captain Marco Marco, found a fungus growing inside their helmets, which reappeared within ten minutes after being rinsed away with water, and soon spread to their scalps. By the next day their hair was falling out in large clotted hanks. Meanwhile by night Cortés and Marina slipped away into the wild growth to perform whatever strange or mundane ritual they performed.
The sixth day one of the men curiously touched a bright orange and black frog and was dead within six seconds, curled into a ball so stiffly that when others tried to stretch him out his muscles creaked but would not yield.
The seventh day they rested, and buried their dead comrade in a spherical grave.
The eighth day the party was attacked. Small darts came from the surrounding foliage, several men were struck in the back of the neck before they understood what was happening, and chaos ensued, armored soldiers blunderingly trying to flee a sourceless blanket of darts. There was the very strange impression that the darts had not been fired by natives but were an inexplicable phenomenon of the jungle itself. Later the men came across a small glade in which the trees and plants breathed, swelling and contracting with a thick sleepy intake and release of air. They passed through very quietly, afraid of waking them. When camped, the men, seasoned as they were to new rigors, whispered amongst themselves nervously, and the fathers fingered rosaries, hunched within their stained robes.
The ninth day five men went mad, dashing into the thick of the jungle in pursuit of the ghosts of lost friends and relatives. Cortés watched with a peculiar tense alertness, but Marina calmed him by stroking his forearm and shaking her head: no. Puertocarrero watched from the corner of his eye. At night three men were taken by something that laughed wildly; the others squeezed their eyes shut and buried their faces in the soil, breathed as shallowly as possible.
The tenth day they had covered a distance through the jungle roughly equal to a day’s march across Spanish hills or plains. For the first time in several days they encountered a band of natives. These natives had no heads: instead there was a mess of white scar tissue at the neck stump, and set in the chest where nipples should have been were two eyes, and there was a mouth farther down towards the abdomen. They spoke an unrecognizable language in deep belching voices. There were at least thirty of them, but they were frightened away by the sight of a single sword (belonging to Tuerceosos).
Poor horned Puertocarrero watched Cortés in an agony of jealousy, fear, anger, curdled friendship, unwillingness to act mixed with a feeling that he would be forced to. Perhaps giving Marina back to his friend and commander would solve the matter. No, impossible: he’d lose face this way, and then there was the fact that he actually wanted her. The steaming jungle had a hot sexual energy, green and fecund and pulsing, moisture and fertile rot; it filled his mind with images of female bodies sweating, swelling and bursting with crawling larvae, the smell of guts mixed with the smell of sex. It was unbearable to imagine Cortés and his Marina, who never once even gasped when he took her, chasing each other nude through the undergrowth, not casual conquest and rape but a game of ferocious panting lovers, because the jungle had gotten into his blood, the jungle made him want that too. Poor Puertocarrero, who would give anything for even one of those bottomless mystifying glances, but who only got a blank stiffness when he tried to hold her. It frustrated him with the impossibility of anything other than taking her, nothing would ever be given, and then further frustrated him with the fact that he should be so preoccupied with an Indian woman given to him as a casual gift.
Meanwhile other unrest simmered in a discussion among the captains in Cortés’s absence.
“No, of course he wants gold and silver, some land of our own, we’re working together for those things. But still, haven’t you heard him…” probed the educated and astute Marco Marco. “That’s right, too quietly to be understood, we’re not fit to hear the secret,” said Marco Marco, rubbing the bald patches on his head. “Only Aguilar knows, and he won’t talk because he’s so snugly held in the man’s palm. If you need proof that he doesn’t have our welfare in mind, look at what happened to our ships. I mean that we are being dragged along in pursuit of some mad and private goal,” said Marco Marco, “and when this man sinks like a boulder in the sea, we’ll find that he’s tied to our legs…”
There were looks for Puertocarrero, sitting at the edge of the firelight tracing patterns in the moist jungle humus, losing half of everything said to the noise of Cortés and Marina cavorting in his imagination. There were looks: Marco Marco’s eyes burned at him expectantly. Puertocarrero burned secretly: why and how want her like this? Stolid Tuerceosos puffed up and spoke grandly in support of Cortés and of Adventure and of the need to burn ships sometimes so as to spur yourself to greater heights of bravery (though some believed that like many of the footsoldiers he had a good deal to run away from, and little to lose; in other words, that he had burned his own ships long ago). Cabeza de Mono invoked the commander’s right to withhold certain information and the enlisted men’s duty to place trust in him. Marco Marco bubbled indigestively: he had hardly spilled the sour foam on the surface of his unease—a disquieting vision of Cortés as the boulder he had described was rapidly clarifying in him. All this slow ferment was blooming into something both alcoholic and rotten.
The rest of the men huddled and shrank into each other to gain millimeters of distance from the strange things crying and hooting just out of range of the firelight.
After another day’s march into the jungle, after a morning in which one soldier was found dead, drowned in the night, his nose and mouth full of water, the expedition met with another woman. In front of the weary train of bodies with their dulled and battered armor wet with vegetal juices and dew, she stepped into view, wearing only a piece of clothing like a long smock that had been sewn from the skins of hundreds of tiny bright poisonous frogs using a spiderweb threaded through a sliver of frogbone. Her face was darker than any Indian’s. She stood perfectly still, watching them, and Puertocarrero saw the soft hand of Marina creep onto Cortés’s and tighten.
Motioning his men to be still, a gesture which multiplied itself in a backward passsage through the ranks, Cortés stepped towards her and skipped gold, neglected to ask after nearby villages, and with moist eyes went directly to the something else, echoed by Aguilar and then Marina. None of the men heard clearly; but you of course know what directions he was requesting. In a young and surprisingly musical voice the woman said: “Culhúa. México.” Then she playfully turned and ran into the foliage. A bright flash showed beneath the hem of her smock: her legs were made of thin rods of metal like stilts. Cortés turned an angry gaze toward Marina, and she shook her head and said something to Aguilar, who reported, “She knows more than that.”
I met a similar woman once in the Nevada desert when I went searching for my own dead brother, who had passed away as a four-year-old child. She was old and white haired, and wore a smock of leathery beige toad skins. I asked her the way and she pointed, in a direction which happened to be westward, more or less. I won’t tell you exactly where this area is, but I will say that it is the most desolate region I have ever walked through, hardly even a cactus land, nothing to the horizon except dry rock and dusty twigs, a distance which didn’t invite spread-armed flight but instead created a terrible exhaustion with just the thought of trying to cross it under the hot weight of the sun. After I had walked for several miles I came across a severed ear on the ground, bleeding slightly; I had a large burlap sack with me and I picked up the ear and placed it inside. With a few more paces I discovered another ear, again ragged and bleeding. Soon I was finding scattered body parts at every step: a finger, an entire hand, toes, a lost fingernail, the small penis of a child, thighs and then an entire trunk, squat and limbless and curiously like a small soft barrel. I placed them all in my sack, which was soon heavy, and so I dragged it across the rocks; eventually I had collected the separated equivalent of an entire child’s body, the head last of all. At this point a grey desert fox came scampering across the plain; it crossed my path, stopped, looked straight at me for a very long moment—then it let me stoop down and slit its throat, looking sad and happy at the same time, I imagined, and after I killed the fox I skinned it and put the skin into the sack, and then I spoke a word that the woman in the toadskin smock had given me. The bulk I was carrying in the sack began to shift, and move, and the voice of my brother came, muffled by the burlap, high and speaking half in babytalk. My brother had died young, but even then it was clear that he was remarkable, that he would have graced the world with special ways of seeing and accomplishing things that just weren’t in me. We spoke together for an hour, never mind what we spoke of, and the entire time my brother pushed and shifted inside the sack, so that I saw the shape of a little hand pressing out its side, and restlessly moving lumps of other limbs. Finally he said, “Let me out, it’s scratchy, I can’t breathe.” I did, although you are not supposed to, you are supposed to keep tight hold on the dead: I put the sack on the ground and opened it, and I only saw my brother for a second, a naked body of a three-year-old child wrapped up in a foxskin as though it were a shawl, before he ran away into the desert with impossible bounding steps. Nothing like this has ever happened to me since.
Read Part 2 of Matthew Gleeson’s The Western Rim, published on Web Conjunctions Wednesday, August 13.