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 España 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.
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.