NOTE: New story. It’s about a prince from an indeterminate Mesoamerican civilization faced with Conquistadors. It’s supposed to be more of a fable and so it’s NOT historically accurate. The spiritual elements of the story are all over the place, either Mayan, Aztec, Inca, or simply made up. First draft, so please excuse any grammar-related errors. WARNING: Contains violence, namely ritual sacrifice, burning at the stake, suicide, as well as emotional violence and gaslighting. Also contains purple prose.
At the edge of the Ocean, the Prince remembered the time he had followed the High Priest inside the cave deep in the heart of the mountains.
“Unseeing, the Serpent moves over the Earth and nothing the Earth whispers is unknown to him, for he is of the Earth and forever united with the Earth.”
After the High Priest had lit a fire, he had given the Prince the Food of the Gods to taste. Now, sweat was dripping out of his every pore, as if his life’s very blood was leaving him.
“Above the Serpent is the Jaguar, the Master of the Night,” the High Priest was saying. “He is unforgiving, yet he is wise, as he moves like a shadow and attacks like the lighting. He knows the jungle and nothing can fool him.”
The Prince was breathing heavily, struggling to keep his eyes and ears open.
“And above all,” the Priest continued, “flies the Condor. He is unbound to the Earth and so the Earth belongs to him and nothing on Earth is hidden from him.”
The Prince felt his heart slow down and return to its normal beat.
“Let the Serpent be your senses,” the High Priest said. “Let the Jaguar be your motions, let the Condor be your eyes.” A boy had entered that cave. A man had come out.
When the Spaniards came from over the waters, his father welcomed them into the City. The Prince watched the people fall to their knees and heard them cry out, “He has come! Quetzalcoatl has come!” A feeling he had never known before washed over him like a giant wave. It was dread, and it tasted like bile on his tongue. The strangers all wore strange, solid-looking clothes that shone in the sun, unlike anything he had ever seen. Their faces were dirty, their jaw lines hidden under unkempt beards. Their eyes were hard and murky. One of them was walking ahead of the others, and the Prince knew him to be their leader. Feathers were jutting from his strange head covering.
“Father,” he said, “what is happening? This is a mere man.”
The King frowned and said nothing. The Prince looked around. He wanted to speak. He wanted to say, “Stand up! Don’t you know who you are? You are the People, you are proud and you cannot be fooled by this man’s disguise!”
As the Spaniards looked around the City, their mouths gaping wide open, he heard some of them whispering something in their tongue. He knew nothing of their language yet, but as the strangers kept repeating the word, he learned its sound. They were saying “El Dorado”. He could not suspect what it meant, but as he silently repeated it to himself, it tasted like doom in his mouth.
His father welcomed the Spaniards inside the castle. For a while, they showed no sign of their true intentions. They learned a few words of the ancient tongue, and, in their turn, shared their own, strangely musical way of speaking with anyone willing to learn. They even showed those who would ask how to use their firespitters, those terrible weapons that worked with powder and released strange darts deadlier than their own poisoned ones. Still, it did not escape the Prince, the way their eyes would at times light up with greed. They seemed to be hungry for something, and though the Prince could not tell what it was, he knew it was consuming them on the inside.
Then came the day of the sacrifice. The leader of the Spaniards was invited to sit at the King’s side in the royal box, as a guest of honor. They watched as the ones chosen, their bodies covered in blue paint, marched through the square and took their places before the first step of the Pyramid.
At the top, next to the sacrificial stone, the High Priest stood waiting. He spoke the ceremonial words and the crowd cheered. When he was done, a man with a curved blade stepped over to the stone. The High Priest then made a sign and the square went silent. The first man stepped up. He was tall and strong, almost god-like as the light shone over him. The blue paint covering his body made it seem like he was one with the sky, born from thin air. His eyes were shining with pride as he smiled at the High Priest. The High Priest returned his smile and gave a nod. The man moved over to the stone and lay over it on his back.
The High Priest took out the knife from his belt. “Great Winged Serpent,” he said, “accept this man’s sacrifice. He gives his blood so that we may keep living in your light.”
Then, quick as lightning, he plunged the knife into the man’s stomach, just under the ribcage. Carving with one hand, he plunged the other inside the heaving body. His movements were sure and his face was calm as he pulled out the still beating heart from the man’s chest. He held it up over his head as blood slid from it and fell over his face. As the people cheered, the man standing behind the stone lifted his blade and cut the head off the carved body on the stone. He then threw it down the pyramid steps and moved to push down the body that had grown still. Another man began to walk up the stairs.
The Spaniard, pale as a ghost, jumped to his feet. “What is the meaning of this?” he shouted. “This-this savagery!”
“Peace, my friend,” the King said. “It is the greatest honor to give your heart to Quetzalcoatl so that your fellow beings can live. Quetzalcoatl is cruel and demands our blood, yet he will not take just anyone’s blood. He will only take the very best. Those who give their blood sustain us and our prayers help them brave the great voyage to the land beneath, where the black Jaguar reigns, and reach its end, which the living cannot know.”
“A great honor?” the Spaniard shouted. “To be butchered in this way? Not even like a criminal, but like a pig in the slaughterhouse!”
It was the King’s turn to rise to his feet.
“Be quiet!” he ordered. “You will show respect for their sacrifice. You will not tarnish it with thoughtless words!”
It was the first time he stood up to the Spaniard, as well as the last. That evening, the King held a great feast. All throughout, the Prince watched the Spaniard as in a waking dream. He saw the man eyeing his father with a look that spelled pure hatred, yet he could not say anything. At the end, the Spaniard finally spoke.
“The plates,” he said, “that we have feasted from. They are pure gold.”
“Indeed,” the King approved.
“And the city,” the Spaniard continued, “why, there is gold everywhere. I’ve even seen commoners wearing it.”
The King nodded.
“The Earth has been generous to us,” he said. “It is how we show gratitude. We take the gifts and fashion them in ways that would bring joy to Our Mother.”
The Spaniard’s face twisted into a grimace that was gone as soon as it had appeared. Then, in a breathless voice, he asked, “Is there more?”
“More?” the King seemed confused. “There is the vault, but we don’t take from it. We only use it in times of need.”
“I’d like to see,” the Spaniard urged.
The King shrugged.
“Very well,” he said, getting to his feet.
A few of the guards stirred, but the King stopped them with a wave of his hand.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said.
The Spaniard followed the King inside the vault. After only a few minutes, expanded into an agonizing eternity in the Prince’s mind, the Spaniard alone came out. He walked up to the empty throne and sat on it as if it were his own.
“Your King is dead,” he announced. “I claim this land in the name of their Holy Majesties, the King and Queen of Spain! May God keep them for as long as He will!”
The guards looked around in confusion, until their eyes finally settled on the Prince. He knew they were expecting him to do something, but his tongue was heavy inside his mouth, his mind not yet grasping what was happening. When he found his voice, it came out broken and child-like “Murderer!” he shouted. “You killed my father!” He looked around and saw that no one was moving. “Seize him!” he ordered. “He killed your king!”
The Spaniards had their firespitters ready. One of the guards stepped forward and in less than a moment a firespitter roared and he was lying on the ground with a hole in his chest. No one else dared move.
They went rabid then, the Spaniards. They began to kill people in whatever way they felt like, either with their firespitters or by drowning them. Even more were those they did not even have to touch to kill. They’d brought the diseases of their world along with them. The Prince saw people wasting away, unable to carry on with their daily lives, falling down and never getting up.
Once, when he was walking through the almost deserted city, with the eyes of his Spaniard guards boring into his back, a woman flung herself at his feet. “Son of the Sun,” she cried in their ancient tongue, “save us from them!” She told of how she had run into a group of Spaniards on her way to get water from the river. They had dogs with them, large, slobbering beasts. She had her newborn son tied to her chest. One of the Spaniards looked from the dogs to the baby. Then, before she could run away, he tore her son from her, and threw him on the ground in front of the famished hounds. As the beasts bared their fangs, the man hit her and she fell to the ground, unknowing, unseeing.
The Prince heard all this as if through a thick fog. He felt ill, about to collapse to his knees. His guards stepped up, lifted the woman from the ground and flung her aside like a rag. “O grieving one,” the Prince thought as they ordered him to keep walking, “there is no salvation from them.”
They tied the High Priest to a wooden pillar. A man in a rough hewn robe approached him, holding up the heavy book with the gilded thread cover and that terrible image engraved upon it, the image of a dying man pinned to a what must have been a rudimentary execution device. “There is still time, my son,” he said, that young man, who was playing in the dirt when the High Priest already stood in honor at the King’s side, looking down into the wrinkled eyes. “Cast away your sins and accept Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” The High Priest was silent.
“Speak, my son,” the young man insisted, his voice muddled with confusion. “Do you repent?” The High Priest tilted his head in annoyance. “I know nothing of this Christ you speak of,” he said, calmly, as if explaining something to a stubborn child. “I serve the Great Winged Serpent Quetzalcoatl of whom you, too, are a messenger, and therefore you cannot harm me, for I embrace what you are, what you have done and what you are about to do.”
The young man cast his head down and walked away with his shoulders slumped and his back bent as if under a yoke. Two other men carrying lit torches stepped up to the wooden pillar and set the High Priest on fire.
The prince watched as if in a dream. “This is not real,” he thought.”This is a vision sent to weaken me. Blood of my father, give me strength. This land is mine. The Serpent is my senses, the Jaguar guides my motions, the Condor…” A jolt of horror, and his train of thought came to an end. He could not ascend to the Condor. He knew everything the Serpent knew. He could move through the night like the Jaguar, but the sight of the Condor was denied him. He had failed to see them coming. He had failed his father and his people.
One day, he heard a commotion outside the palace gates and rushed out to see what it was. He saw the Spaniard leader coming towards him at the head of a group of men. The Prince saw that they were carrying something on a bier. As they came closer and he was able to make out what it was, he felt as if his heart would stop dead in his chest. It was a dead jaguar. They’d killed it with their firespitters. That fearsome beast, the Master of the Night, killed as if it was no better than a mere tapir by the barbaric weapons of these savages.
“Have it skinned,” the Spaniard ordered, when they came to a halt, “and have the pelt delivered to my rooms.”
The Prince rushed forward. The man’s back was still turned to him, even though he must have known he was there. The Prince had grown used to this sort of treatment. It was the Spaniard’s way to let him know that he did not matter anymore, that he was now merely tolerated. With a pang of self-hatred, the Prince realized that the Spaniard had won. He had made him feel like a puppet dragged along by a string, like something that was not a man at all. Always ignoring and mocking him, calling him a mere boy. But this time, he would speak. This time, he would be heard.
“What is the meaning of this?” he spoke into the back of the man’s head.
The Spaniard turned around with the annoyed expression of a man disturbed by a buzzing insect flying around his head.
“No meaning,” he said after a few moments, grinning. “This beast attacked us.”
“The Jaguar is sacred to my people,” he said. “He is Master of the Night and keeper of its secrets. Nothing in the jungle is unknown to –”
“The jaguar,” the Spaniard interrupted, “is a wild beast. You kill it before it kills you.”
“I have been alone in the jungle,” the Prince said. “I have been alone in the night with the Jaguar and it did not harm me.”
“Well, then, you were lucky, boy!” the Spaniard replied. “Pray to God that it lasts.”
“God?” the Prince repeated the strange word.
The Spaniard gnashed his teeth.
“Bloody heathen,” he spat. “I’ve had enough. Tomorrow, you will be baptized into Christ, like your sister, my wife.”
The Prince winced. He remembered how, some time after his sister was married to the Spaniard, he asked to be received by her. He had found a woman whose skin had turned ashen and whose eyes had grown shadowed and lifeless. Her beautiful thick hair was bound tightly at the back of her neck. Her coarse, colorless dress was open at the back and in her hand she held a strange, cruel looking whip with nine tails, each one ending in a hook. He could still hear the sinister noise as she flung it over her shoulder. It hooked into her skin, opening it, releasing rivulets of blood that flowed over white marks that told she had been doing this to herself for a while.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Penitence,” she answered, continuing to whip herself.
“Stop it,” he pleaded. “Please, Yatzil.”
“Don’t call me by that name,” she cried out, this time pausing from her self-flogging. “I am Maria Dolores, and I need to atone for the sins of my father.”
The Prince felt anger surge through him, irresistible as a flood. The words came out before he could stop them.
“Don’t you dare mention our father!” he shouted. “You have no right to mention him, you traitor! You spit on his dead body when you became that beast’s whore!”
She flung the whip aside then, covered her ears with her hands and shut her eyes tight. Her sobs were too much to bear, so the Prince turned around and quickly walked out.
Their mother had died giving birth to her, ascending to the realm of the skies, as women who die in childbirth do. Yatzil had been the light of their father’s eyes, beautiful, laughing and spoiled like a chick in the nest. The Loved One, he had named her. She had become loveless, devoid of laughter, nothing but a shell. He did not know what these “sins” that she was talking of could be. The Spaniards mentioned the word often. He suspected that it meant something wrong. A crime committed. If that was so, her father – his father – had committed no such “sins”. He had done nothing but right by his people.
The Prince realized that he was now king. With his father dead, he was the rightful king. And there stood his father’s murderer, mocking him to his face.
“This is my kingdom,” he said. “This is my home. You do not belong here. Turn back.”
The Spaniard frowned.
“What did you just say, boy?”
The Prince’s head was pounding. He remembered the evening when his father had entered the vault and never emerged. He remembered the greed in the Spaniard’s eyes and his casualness as he sat on the throne, mere minutes after he had committed the murder. He remembered that dreaded whisper of “El Dorado”.
“Was it the gold all along?” he murmured.
“What?” the Spaniard asked, annoyed.
“The gold,” the Prince said, louder. “That was what you wanted all along, wasn’t it?” Then, the words came pouring out, yet each one was too weak for the pain that it was holding. “You act as if you need it in order to live!” he shouted. “What do you do with it? Do you feed on it? Take it, take all of it and leave us be! You have brought nothing but destruction and suffering!”
For a while, the Spaniard said nothing. He merely stood looking at the Prince, his eyes hard and dark as the starless night. When he spoke, every word coming out of his mouth was dripping with disdain.
“You do realize, boy,” he said, “that I am Governor of this city, by order of their Majesties the King and Queen of Spain, and will not leave because of a child’s hysterics!”
“I am sixteen,” the Prince said. “I have stopped being a child when the priest led me inside the cave and taught me the secrets.”
“What is this you’re saying?” the Spaniard retorted, a lascivious grin spreading across his face. “The priest led you into a cave and taught you secrets?” He chuckled. “Why, that old sodomite!”
“What does that word even mean?” the Prince retorted, angrily.
The Spaniard kept laughing. “I’m sure you can figure out what it means, boy,” he replied. Then, his face turned hard again. “And now I’ve really had enough,” he said. “You will be baptized, boy,” he declared. “Tomorrow, at dawn.”
“Baptized.” It was what they had done to his sister. They had held her head underwater. He thought they would drown her, like they had done with so many others. Then, the man who had his hands clenched on the back of her neck pulled her back up. She coughed and spat out the water she had swallowed. Yet the Prince knew that they really had killed her. The thing that had come back up – the Spaniard’s wife, the wretch inflicting pain upon her own flesh, that Maria Dolores, whatever that horrible name meant – was not his sister.
That night, he did not sleep. He waited until he heard the snores of his guards. He knew the palace like the back of his hand. As a child, he used to climb up and down the walls. There was no corner of it left unknown to him and he could find his way with his eyes closed.
Once he found himself outside the walls, he started to run. He ran until he was out of the City and did not stop when he reached the edge of the jungle. He heard the cries of animals, he felt the branches of the trees reaching towards him, as if to retain him, and still he did not stop. He ran until he reached the Ocean. He found it still and quiet, the almost full moon hanging above it like a pearl. “You,” he said, finally pausing to let his anger wash through him. “You brought them here.”
Then, at the edge of the Ocean, the Prince took out the knife from the sheath at his belt. He paused, looking down at the arm holding it, the skin taut over the strong muscle. The life.
“Even when the Jaguar guides you,” the High Priest had said, in the cave, “be not proud, for higher than the Jaguar is the Condor. The Jaguar moves through the night of which he is master, but the Condor sees all. The Condor flies far above the Jaguar, and nothing in the world is hidden from him.”
He did not find it strange at all, that he felt no pain as he plunged the blade right under his ribcage. “Let the Jaguar die.” He was rising. “Let the Condor be born.” There was a body lying in the sand, and even though he did not recognize it, he felt pity for it. And yet he knew that it was none of his concern.