CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Western Rim
Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part 1 of Matthew Gleeson’s The Western Rim, published on Web Conjunctions Wednesday, August 6.
Here I will gracefully withdraw my presence, and leave you with Cortés’s pursuit of the woman in the frogskin smock—
She was in her element in the jungle and Cortés clumsy and awkward in his armor, forging a crushed path with brute force. He followed her nimble flight, trying to keep her in sight, the slick multicolored garment and the long bright flashes which were her strange legs: he had no idea what he would do when he caught her, just as he had no idea what he would do when he found Ferdinand—he propelled himself like a mindless missile towards a future that had only the shape of a simple target. He heard Marina’s words: “She knows more than that.” At some point Cortés realized that he could no longer see the woman, and he gave a bitter last burst of stumbling speed. His men were far behind, out of view. Marina and Aguilar had not followed him either. In near panic, he considered the possibility of staying in the area, searching in a wide radius, slashing and burning the jungle day by day, because he wouldn’t let Ferdinand escape—pacing, hacking with his sword in blind anger, he broke through a dense layer of vine and discovered a hut made of wood and thatch and vines, leaning at a precarious angle. The adornments over the doorless threshold, bright skins of frogs, announced its ownership.
Cortés entered, saw the woman standing against the back wall across a charred firepit. He crunched right through the pit, planted his feet, very calmly asked her his question again in untranslated Spanish, with the subverbal suggestion that she should own up to any secrets she was keeping. She giggled in response and said, “Culhúa. México.” Cortés then brought his hand up and knocked her across the side of the face, in a rush of uncontrollable energy. “Culhúa, México,” she told him. “Culhúa México.” Cortés thought about his brother and something in him recoiled violently from that thought; his sword had come unsheathed in his hand; he gave her a diagonal blow to the head with the hilt which spread her across the dirt floor. “Just tell me and I can stop,” he wanted to say to her. Then he did say it in Spanish. Her metal legs lay like thin sticks loose from a bundle spilled haphazardly onto the ground from a great height, the strangest and most unexplainable thing he had ever seen. It took three more minutes of this treatment before she drew in the soil a map of Tenochtitlán, the lake city, during which he felt a very odd tenderness for her which he did his best to swallow.
When I was a child I sometimes used to squeeze the neck of my pet bird, thin and hot as a vein under the feathers, until his grey little tongue stuck out and, panicked, he breathlessly tried to screech. Then before I choked the life out of him I would let go and watch him gasp and look around dumbly, and feel a powerful pity for the little animal mixed with hate for myself because I had done it and could never undo it; together they were a strong peculiar feeling something like pure love. I imagine Cortés had come to the realization that he had done it wrong, that during that afternoon in Medellín he should have hauled his half-dead brother out of the pickling barrel after a minute or two and let him cough little infant coughs on the dirt floor of the cellar, then hugged the shuddering Ferdinand all slippery with brine. After this he could have loved his brother, because it would have made him ache forever to be so hurtful. Maybe Ferdinand would have a dim memory, half unconscious, of Hernán as a shadowy aggressor; but most likely he would have remembered nothing concrete. It would have been Hernán’s dark secret then, and every time he hugged his little brother in a fit of remorse, Ferdinand might have wondered where the impulse came from, and decided it was just fraternal generosity in dispensing love. It made Cortés horribly sad to think of the relationship he had missed.
Cortés said nothing about his solitary flight into the jungle, only gave a terse order to march onward. The next day Jerónimo de Aguilar disappeared wordlessly from the ranks, but by now Marina had picked up a bit of Spanish, presumably during her nocturnal sessions with Cortés. Eventually they passed through the jungle, and after the jungle there were rocky forested hills, where they made contact with several Indian towns, and after the hills was a desert plain, and at the northern horizon a wide band the vague color of the sea near two volcanic cones, and something else large and unclear in form like a cloud crouched upon the distant earth. Several emissaries from the city visited their camp on the plain at night. After grunting a greeting in their own tongue, the Aztecs took a seat on several large flat stones, and peered carefully at the Spaniards as if sorting through them like kernels of corn, without speaking. It seemed to Cortés’s men that, although they looked level into the Indians’ eyes, they were staring upward at monolithic statues with furrowed brows, and even the fearless Tuerceosos was quieted. After fifteen minutes of silence the Aztecs exchanged some words with Marina and left. In another day the seacolored band resolved itself into a lake and the cloudlike form became visible as a city that had spread like a crawling plant to cover an island in its midst. Somewhere between shore and city a ranked row of strange bristling spines projected upwards from the sparkling blue water. At last Cortés and his men arrived at a beach where water gently lapped and waterlogged flowerpetals bobbed. The city’s proportions had grown more painfully impossible with every step forward, but it still remained somehow unreal, a white and sprawling vision ahead across the wide expanse of lake that separated it from the awed Spaniards. The same Aztec emissaries, or perhaps different ones, were silently waiting at the beach under the clear yellow sun. From here broken sections of a causeway traversed the lake like a dotted line of stepping stones meant for a giant. The upthrust spines that the Spaniards had seen before were long wooden bridges which stood retracted and at attention in the air, but could be lowered to unite the causeway, which the first bridge, with laborious creaks of strange engineering, was now doing.
Cortés and his men tried to make the hollow thump of their boots on the thick wood ring with confidence, but once they stood massed on the earth and rock of the first fixed island, their shuffling feet made dry crunches on the grit blown in by the wind from the surrounding plain, and somehow they all felt chilled despite the sun heating their armor. The bridge behind them moaned back into standing position. Puertocarrero could not help darting a glance back across the placid blue gap that now cut them off from the land, and feeling a similar gap drop yawningly in his own chest. Then the second bridge was lowered, and in this way, span by span, the Spaniards tripped and stumbled their way towards the island city of Tenochtitlán. Small canoes and prows dotted the lakesurface all around, and up ahead the city’s labyrinthine cluster of architecture was exceeded in beauty only by the shine of gold visible through its gates.
Perhaps the best way to start building a description of Tenochtitlán is to start with a framework, the layout drawn in the black jungle soil by the woman in the frogskin smock.
She divides the irregular oval of Tenochtitlán into four quarters of uneven size fanning out from a roughly central square—the heart of the city, the momentously wide base of the palatial temple of Quetzalcoatl. Her map in two dimensions only crudely indicates how the temple rises and tapers pyramidwise to a grand summit, which is simultaneously the primary shrine to the god Quetzalcoatl and the palace of the emperor Moctezuma. The four quarters arranged around the temple are a jumble of buildings veined through partly by a webwork of dirt alleys, all swept astonishingly clean, and partly by canals through which thousands of canoes circulate, penetrating deep into the city and debouching in swarms into the surrounding lake. The North Quarter and the large West Quarter, separated by a thin wobbling line on the map, are inhabited mainly by average citizens, full of stone and adobe houses, market squares, small shrines, ball courts, public gardens that let greenery trail into the waterways, the bustle of society and exchange. The woman has filled her drawing with approximations of the massed roofs that look something like the rows of scales on a fish.
This double line traversing the lake here is the enormous causeway which the Spaniards crossed over, and it leads to the South Quarter, also known as the Glory Quarter because of the magnificent Quetzal Way that extends through its center from the causeway directly to the broad steps of the temple. Priests and nobility live here in large stone homes with flower gardens, as do the tax collectors who cross the causeway regularly to go forth and demand tribute from villages all around. Gold abounds.
Then there is the East Quarter. The woman in the frogskin smock has demarcated its borders with much thicker lines, and drawn a peculiar symbol in its center, but otherwise she has left this section of the map mysteriously blank, a swath devoid of detail.
There are other marks scratched on the map too, symbols or instructions of some import, which the woman accompanied with a suite of explanatory gestures. Or there were, before the map was rubbed out, first violently by the tip of the woman’s metal leg as soon as Cortés left, then gently by an evening’s rain while she sat muttering at her firepit, shaking her head.
At the end of the bridge the Spaniards waited over an hour while a city guard ran news of their arrival to the palace. Cortés insisted that they behave politely as guests. Then five Aztec soldiers led them northward along the Quetzal Way, lined with statues of feathered serpents and scaled birds whose gilding made the Spaniards salivate and stand straighter with renewed confidence in their leader. Cabeza de Mono nudged Marco Marco, saying, “You see?” There were also pillars of stone etched with odd symbols and pictures of gods, battles between armies of men, sodomies, priests with hearts in their palms, as well as numerous designs representing flowers of all sorts, slim and elegant or generously petalled, and hummingbirds in postures of hovering. Then up the long sunbaked expanse of the pyramid’s steps. Scattered about the steps were men and women sitting and panting, with woven baskets containing piles of flowers set next to them, resting partway along their long journey to the top. Near the apex of the pyramid, the Spaniards were able to gaze from on high over the outspread city; and from this vantage point they could see below and to their right a high stone wall that ran along the eastern side of the temple’s base and around the East Quarter to enclose it entirely. From above, the East Quarter did not make visual sense. Cortés and his men could make out only a vague impression of jumbled shapes that seemed to shine the grey of old metal and the iridescent of sliding rainbows.
Then they were at the top, and through the feathered golden archway of the temple, which would have fit men standing on each other’s shoulders, into a spacious and sunny room, before Moctezuma himself…
In sickness Moctezuma’s skin had darkened and tightened on its frame and he rested permanently in a huge canopied bed. Servants brought him food and herbs to stall death; guards in stiff leather jerkins watched him. The golden feathered headdress which his bald and recumbent head could no longer support was placed neatly on a shelf behind him. The cause of his illness was unknown, but it was said that his mental faculties had begun to drain his physical ones, and that in keeping with the equilibrium of things the lower the torch of his blood burned the higher that of his brain burned, until the man would one day dissipate into pure thought. I understand Cortés a little, there are some things we have in common, but I still don’t understand what sense of fatality or finality caused Moctezuma to open the city and allow the entire Spanish army access to the palace. I have my own blank geographies to explore, in the realm of invention, and many of them I do map, but here we’ve arrived at a place where the topography remains sketchy to me. The escort led Cortés and his captains and Marina before the emperor; the nearly 200 soldiers outside hardly filled the top twentieth part of the pyramid’s south-facing steps.
Moctezuma lifted his left eyebrow, and maidens brought forth golden vessels filled with a brown liquid that they whipped into a froth using whisks and then gave to Cortés and his captains to drink. The beverage was intoxicatingly rich, bitter, spicy, and laced with a delicate floral bouquet; it seemed to embody hospitality itself and it left the Spaniards with their brains cleared of fog and their hearts invigorated. After this ritual, Cortés bowed in thanks, ducked inside the canopy, and placed himself on armored knees before Moctezuma. He asked a certain something else which Marina translated; and changing expressions began to slide loosely across the ruler’s nutbrown face, like those of an emotionally labile idiot. The emperor smiled, then frowned, then coughed drily, and eventually he gathered his face into a look of disapproval and shook his head as though his visitors had not understood something. Cortés made Marina repeat his entreaty. The Indian frowned beneath a proud nose, rolled his head from side to side on the pillow, coughed weakly.
Cortés in appeal lifted a slender finger of the Aztec ruler to his face so that a tear slid onto its crepepaper surface. A sympathetic sibling tear sprang immediately to Moctezuma’s eye and trickled a slow trail through the dust of his cheek; but he shook his head sadly and helplessly, full of unimparted knowledge and finality. “Culhúa,” he offered as if knowing a hidden meaning would be lost. “México.”
The brutality began quickly, with a prearranged signal from Cortés: six guards slid to the floor gutted by five captains (Tuerceosos having taken two); and at a whistle the massed soldiers outside crowded to the temple doors and began to roam through the halls in search of all priests and servants and soldiers alive inside, so that they might remedy this. Several rooms of the temple were equipped with gutters to catch blood running from sacrificial victims, and these came in handy now.
The period of Moctezuma’s captivity was a period of fever for Cortés. He seemed to hear Ferdinand running through the halls of the palace, shouting words he might have shouted; he slept on a woven rug on the ground beside Moctezuma’s bed and woke up frequently with the sensation of a terribly heavy child sitting on his chest, causing his heart to ache. Once he awoke and in the dimness of the night the sleeping face of the Aztec seemed to be the face of a small boy, alert and mouthing strange words.
Each day he would say to the failing emperor, through the mouth of Marina: “Tell me how I can find him, because he is here.” Marina would listen to the barely breathed response.
“He says useless.”
Cortés would pace. For days now with an effort of will he had kept his face rigid and steely. “I don’t know how to find him, but you do. It has something to do with the walled-off area, but that’s all I know. I can’t let you go until you tell me.”
“He says very sorry. He says gave up that place long ago.”
Cortés hardly attended to the signs of life outside Moctezuma’s chamber. His head throbbed and the horseflies that flew through the open temple seemed to be always buzzing around his ears. At one point while Marina was gone a horsefly alighted on Moctezuma’s face. Cortés threw a bundled wool blanket over the face to squash the fly, then held it there and pressed harder, feeling the bone structure of cheeks and nose jutting against his palms, its edges softened but the basic hardness still there. A pressure seemed to be building up beneath his hands, an accumulation of warm blocked-up breath from Moctezuma’s lungs, like a covered and boiling pot of water. Then Cortés released his hold and removed the blanket from the face of the ruler of the island of the dead, and at the same time that Moctezuma sucked in a gasp of fresh air, Cortés’s chest managed to draw in a small bit of feeling which glowed there briefly and made Ferdinand feel painfully near, a beacon in a desolation of ghosts.
Each of the five captains had a room of his own in the palace, vacated by swordedge, while the rest of the soldiers piled into several other chambers. None of them understood Cortés’s obsessive attention to Moctezuma. They slept surrounded by gold statues, with no way to remove them from Tenochtitlán to their Caribbean plantations or homes in Spain. Did those homes actually still exist? No one dared descend the steps.
Below drumbeats echoed to the rhythm of massive organization. The Aztec general Cuitláhuac oversaw mass sacrifices. These would strengthen those who remained and give his deluge of soldiers the power to surge uphill. Runners gathered flowers from the hills around, which were woven into colorful garlands, and the Spaniards could hear the Aztec throats singing in unison a song that went: “I destroy one with flowers; I destroy him with flowers; I injure one with flowers.” Cuitláhuac sent a messenger up from the Glory Quarter to inform the Spaniards that if they did not release Moctezuma they would be slaughtered by this flood of warriors, which could easily engulf an army ten times the size of theirs.
Puertocarrero had not touched his Marina for several weeks, and no longer felt any desire for her. A sort of numbed agreement to take whatever might come had become the dominant state of his brain. The excitement of forging a way into a world without rules had turned into terror, and now terror had turned into very little sensation at all. When Cuitláhuac’s messenger arrived and spoke his piece through Marina, an uneasy wave stirred through the Spanish ranks, and only Puertocarrero and Tuerceosos were perversely faithful and brought the message to Cortés. “We have the advantage of height,” said their commander absently.
Marco Marco scoffed when he heard this: though he believed somewhat in the advantage of steel, he saw too clearly how things would end for them. It was at this point, with a wave trembling on the edge of breaking, that Marco Marco decided to kill Cortés in order to take command and spare what lives he could. He strode into the chamber where the emperor slept like an old fruit left too long in the sun. Cortés was nowhere to be seen, but Marco Marco plunged his sword into the ruler’s heart, this source of mysterious magnetism that seemed to be tugging them all towards ruin. Moctezuma didn’t open his eyes; no one saw the deed and Marco Marco left swiftly in search of Cortés without bothering to publicize it.
At the mercy of the restless soldiers, the Aztec messenger was executed with a swordstroke to the gut, jabbed and slashed by several other nervous blades, and tossed down the steps of the pyramid; it doesn’t do to be the vehicle of unwelcome news to such a desperate bunch.
For the Aztec masses straining to the south and the north and the west, a tumbling body, so small against the steps, was enough to puncture the stasis. A great roar went up; Marco Marco stopped in his search, and when he ran back to the edge of the temple above the Glory Quarter, he saw that it was much too late to bother with killing Cortés and much too late for escape.
Cortés paid no attention to the great roar because a short time ago, just outside Moctezuma’s bedchamber, in the mouth of an ill-lit and little-used hallway, he had made a discovery: a small fat severed finger lay at his feet, the finger of a child. When he followed the twists of the hall, he found another finger at its opposite end, where it opened onto the eastern edge of the temple overlooking the East Quarter. A third lay several steps down the east face of the pyramid.
Meanwhile arrows flew and meanwhile Puertocarrero had left the men to the command of the other four captains and was flying through the palace in search of Cortés.
Cortés went unnoticed down the east side of the pyramid. By the time he reached its bottom he was clutching an armful of infant flesh: fingers, an ear, a pudgy arm. Here at the border of the East Quarter he found himself confronted by the stone wall. But there was a hole in it, with rubble scattered nearby as though it had been punched outward from within. Cortés wriggled through. The sounds of battle suddenly seemed very distant.
The East Quarter is known to the Aztecs as the Trash Quarter. It is filled with mechanical and industrial waste, a junkyard of renounced objects. Once there were doorways set into the walls around the East Quarter, but they are now filled in and sealed. No one lives there, there are only collapsed structures with watereaten wooden supports amid fallen roofs of corrugated metal, vast complexes of broken buildings and empty lots, bars and sheets of metal, old pipes, rusted girders and panels, nails and bolts strewn about, gears and engines, and many other things that have never been identified, all lying among still pools of liquid either oily or virulently acidic in color. A neglected and crumbling stone causeway, the only structure that spans the lake besides the main bridge, ends on a greasy shore at a blocked-up portal that once opened into the Trash Quarter.
Here on the other side of the wall Cortés found a large metal canister, rusty and sticky with a dark residue at its bottom. He excitedly dropped the body parts inside; they fell with metallic-undertoned thumps. In his eagerness Cortés paid no attention to anything but the ground at his feet; he began to drag the rattling and grating canister behind him as he followed a trail of limbs and pieces along a derelict street.
Meanwhile the two shorelines of two ferocious continents had met on the steps, and were mixing violently.
Cortés collected the parts of his brother; last was the head, a face he recognized that seemed to be in calm repose with angelically closed eyelids. There was no sign of the distortions of the terror of death, only of a long and beautiful sleep.
Cortés set the canister on the broken ground and then carefully set the head of Ferdinand on top of the pile formed by his scattered and recollected body within it. There was silence, broken only by a sound of liquid dripping nearby. Cortés stepped back, feeling a sickening levitation of the gullet, and a certain word the woman in the frogskin smock had given him rose out of his throat. A faint scraping began inside the canister; it slowly grew stronger and was joined by periodic restless bumpings. Cortés moved so that he could see over the metal rim, and crouching within was the naked figure of his brother, smeared slightly with the oily filth of the canister and peering warily upwards with aged eyes. The moment hardly seemed to register, hardly seemed to be strong enough to contain all he wanted it to. “Ferdinand,” he said.
Meanwhile Puertocarrero had returned to the scene of battle in despair because Cortés was nowhere to be found. Men died all around, Spaniards brutalized by stone weapons and Aztecs gutted; Cuitláhuac wore the towering red-skulled uniform of the god of death, with a necklace of long-tubed red flowers; the air smelled like dying and the steps glowed with it.
The canister clattered to the ground and Ferdinand, having knocked it over, scrambled from its interior. The skin of his whole body was pathetically soft and wrinkled, unnaturally whitened, presumably an effect of the brine he had died in. “Ferdinand—” said Hernán, and his little brother cut him off. “Fucking shit,” Ferdinand said, staring directly at Hernán, and then he turned and ran. He toddled with astonishing speed, on feet slightly clumsy because they were missing one or two toes which Hernán had neglected to pick up. Hernán raced after his brother, calling, “It’s Hernán, it’s Hernán. It’s your brother!” Ferdinand turned his head around, still running, and called back over his smudged and pallid shoulder, “Fucking son of a bitch. Fucking shit.”
Meanwhile Tuerceosos, lifting his arm to split the head of an Aztec with his sword, was pierced through the armpit all the way to the heart. He died without grace, cursing Cortés for deserting him, for whatever he had been searching for, for dragging his soldiers with him.
Hernán pursued his infant brother through streets littered with old forgotten devices. Ferdinand, impossibly fast, splashed through oily green puddles and scraped his naked legs on sharp edges of metal, skirted mounds of rubble and deep wells and pits.
Hernán was now crying desperately, every breath a mixture of sob and pant. “You can’t do this to me,” he cried in helpless fury, “I need to talk to you, I only want to talk to you,” and Ferdinand called back, “Cunt. Hell shit. Cunt bastard fuck.” A crippling fit of remorse seized Hernán, a sorriness for everything that had ever occurred in the world that was connected to him. He was twisted with unbearable remorse for killing Ferdinand; he felt a deforming remorse for bringing his captains, his friend Puertocarrero, into death, into this continent, only because he had wanted to set it all right. He felt the entire world being broken at his touch. The feeling had gone too far for him to apologize; he only wanted to erase it all. “It’s me, your real brother. Not the false one who killed you.” Ferdinand didn’t even look back as he spit: “Fuck. Fucking cunt prick. Fucking shit.”
Meanwhile Puertocarrero had slipped on a spot of blood and as he tumbled clumsily down the steps he only felt vaguely sad and inert and briefly imagined the face and body of Marina before his neck was broken by the hard touch of stone.
What had Hernán expected? Nothing to begin with, but much by this point. He slipped in a small scummy pool, stumbled and recovered, but then quit and sat down carefully. He had a vision of the interior of a wooden barrel, too awful to ever be forgotten. “Okay,” he said. “Run away then.” Ferdinand stopped a short distance away by a hole in the ground, a deep ragged well into which long wires and cables trailed, and looked directly at his brother. “Fuck,” he said, the blindest rejection possible. “Shit bastard.” There were seven men killed on the pyramid’s steps at the exact instant that Ferdinand jumped. A soft sound came when he hit bottom and broke.
The epitaph on the gravestone of this story: countless broken things. The Spaniards under the temporary leadership of Marco Marco, despite height and steel on their side, were driven to the border of the Trash Quarter and forced to scramble in on that sad night; Cuitláhuac snorted and tossed his head as if to say this was where they belonged, and called off the pursuit; now they floundered through the waste of the quarter and over the ancient causeway, leaping over or swimming through the gaps where it had thoroughly disintegrated. Marina slipped away from their main column of retreat and found Cortés sitting quietly by a deep well. His desertion would surely have caused a mutiny were it not for the fact that he and Marina reappeared just a few days later at the head of an army of Indian allies from subjugated cities in the vicinity, ready to help the Spaniards, those unfortunate predecessors of mine, continue the long road to México as we know it. It didn’t take long for his men to notice a renewed and almost superhuman rigidity and drive in their commander, and their respect regrew. He died years later twisted, aged, and ugly.
There was a happy ending for Marco Marco, who returned to Spain rich and bald with a few golden objects. News of the final taking of Tenochtitlán reached him several years later. He lived for decades afterwards sitting by a warm fire and thanking blessed God that he had been allowed to slip free the noose about his leg when the boulder tumbled.