This is another excerpt from my new novella, “Songs of Circe,” that I hope to publish later this year. In this excerpt, we have a chance to hear the words of Lightning Snake, the enigmatic Aztec guide/shaman who is the unwilling (or so it would seem) guide of one Ignacio Ramirez, a caballero on a secret mission for Carlos I (also known as Charles V) in the 16th century. The following is taken from the secret journal kept by Lightning Snake as he leads the expedition toward the Sargasso Sea and the promise of secret treasure.
4-Ocelotl, 1-Ozomatli, in the year of 7-Tochtli
On the path toward Tlaloc’s Courtyard.
This record may never reach the eyes of those who would benefit most from its contents; the priests and their library at Tenochtitlan are ashes in the fires of the ghosts from the East, and I am the last of a people who had become scarce even before the arrival of the invaders. Yet I am Ohyanqui, and it has always been our duty not only to travel, but to remember; not only to journey, but to make real those journeys for others. And so begins the final chronicle of Lightning Snake, born 90 winters ago to Obsidian Jaguar and Chalchiuhticue Jade-Skirt, last scion of the House of a Thousand Journeys.
Having spent much of the long summer conferring with the Ohyanqui of the Kingdom of First Nations, I was not surprised when the iron turtle who calls himself Ramirez came to drag me from my home. I put up a show of fighting with him and his armored servants, these “knights” who would stand little chance against a Jaguar or Eagle warrior without their precious metal skins, but in truth I had been prepared for some time. The eldest of the Ohyanqui in the Kingdom, the one called Reynaldo, is my skill-brother; neither time nor distance bars our path on the Road of a Thousand Journeys, and so as the rays of possibility faded from the Walking Stone in my little hut upon the mountain, he and I both knew that the remaining path would lead the iron turtle to my door. So, in the months before he arrived, I prayed and purged and gave offerings to the Red Woman, to bring sharpness to these old eyes and strength to my aged bones. I gave Rainbow Fire, my daughter’s daughter, all the wealth left to me on this world. She took it readily enough, stashing the cocoa beans and pepper in the heavy jars she keeps behind her house in the village, but I could tell her heart was troubled. “Grandfather, why do you give me these things? You are old, yes, but still strong and have your wits. You still catch your own fish and throw axes with the warriors at festival-time. You are not ready, I think, to give up living for a glorious death and a walk with the gods.” I rebuffed her, but gently; neither she nor her three sisters are Ohyanqui, and they cannot know what this journey means. She will have a nice dowry set aside when she marries, although she seems to prefer the company of the ghosts, who set no value on treasure but only demand gold and silver to feed their hungry goddess Spain across the sea. There is a man, one of these “knights” called “García,” who fawns over her and calls her by the name the priests made her take, “Marisol.” She says they might marry, and then her children – children with the blood of our House, stretching back to the first days – will go to Spain, where the angry goddess will eat them up with her teeth of silver and gold. They will have no protection, for they have forgotten our gods and the debt of blood, and none are left save me with the gift of walking the Road of a Thousand Journeys.
These young people, ay-ya…they throw away everything they are out of fear of death and fear of the little god on a stick that the bald ghosts say we must worship. There are others like them in the Kingdom, men and even women who say everyone must bow to this Joshua, or Jesus, or whatever name they may give him in other lands; yet they are not so fierce as these Spanish priests, who see us not as people, but as sheep for their shepherd or wolves to be killed. When the man Cortés came with his swords and horses and lying heart, I asked the bald priests why they hated our gods so much, when their god demanded sacrifice and even commanded them to drink the red blood of his son to show obeisance. But they called me a blasphemer and had soldiers beat me with their spears to drive me away. I think they hate our gods because they know that all life is both a gift and a debt, and must be paid back in pieces small and large until all is returned; this knowledge conflicts with their lies about eternal life and never-ending peace, and so they cast down our gods to ensure the ascendency of their own. I cannot fault them in this, at least; a man must do the will of his gods, or else how can he expect their protection and succor?
But I am an old man, now, and my thoughts will drift into dark currents if I do not keep a firm hand on the till.
The iron turtle came, and took me to the island of Ocelots. When I was a child, we would sacrifice the fiercest of the cats to Tlaloc on the island, leaving a dozen or more in reed cages, giving their fiery blood and strong hearts to ensure plentiful harvests from the bay. Once, in my thirtieth year, I saw a great wave in the shape of a mighty crocodile rise and engulf the island and the growling cats upon it, two blazing eyes of swamp fire burning in that watery face before it swept the rocks clean; I knew that Tlaloc had found our offering worthy, for that year’s harvest from the sea was bountiful; there was even a leviathan from the deeps, larger than the house of the wealthiest merchants. But it has been many years since anyone has offered anything to Tlaloc on the island of Ocelots, and the Spanish ghosts know it only as a lonely stretch of rock that slips in and out of the sea with the storms of Autumn. I knew the path that lay before us, but there is no explaining even the simplest of things to these metal-skinned, thick-headed ghosts. They wanted me to scratch our path onto their maps; they would not listen when I told them we must take the Walking Stone. They do not know the Road of a Thousand Journeys, or how to open the way, or even that the Walking Stone is there, I suspect. So we sat in angry silence for a trecena, waiting for 13 days and an alignment of the energies I need to activate the stone. The iron turtle, blind and slow and stupid like so many of these ghosts, did not recognize the man who appeared from the sea the day before we left, but I knew him well. Tlaloc honors his bargains, and had the captain taken the time to examine the wrinkled visage before him, he might have eventually puzzled it out as well; sadly, the iron turtle is slow to think but quick to kill, and so he once again took the path of regret. There was a time, early in the journey down this branch of the Road, that he might have avoided what awaits; that when is gone forever now, though, and his hard heart and blind arrogance will bring him to ruin.
That is far down the road, though, and this chronicle must record our journey in proper order.
We have been at sea for two trecenas. We are now in Ozomatli’s trecena, a good time to work good from ill. The sea breeze tells me we are close, as does the metal god-knife the iron turtle’s men use to mark their progress on their map. In four days, we will reach Tlaloc’s courtyard, and these ghosts will see a wonder of the latter days. Ramirez has promised me freedom when we return home, but I do not think he realizes what he has promised me. The Kingdom is easy to enter, so long as one has an Ohyanqui to open the way, but not so easy to leave without aid, especially across the Obsidian Sea. I can feel the Walking Stone even now, cold and white and impermeable as it slumbers on the ocean floor. The Ohyanqui were the first to come here to this place of blue water and red earth, in the early days when Ozomatli’s children and their hunger to rule had not yet driven the other men of the First Nations to expel most of their number from the Kingdom. It was my House that built the bridge and brought the People from Aztlán when Huitzilopochtli demanded their blood in payment of the debt they owed for the slaughter of the Azteca Chicomoztoca. But that was long ago, and the truth of it has been forgotten, even by the People. They remember the seven cities, carved from the living rock of the Kingdom’s greatest mountain, but do not know what it means to go to Aztlán. Not anymore. The wheel of the tonalpohualli turns, and the Mexica are ground like maize beneath it. We are not what we once were, and the roads that branch from the Road take us ever into darkness unless we can leave this land behind and return to Aztlán once more. The gods have long memories, and their power remains great in the Kingdom; I do not think it will be easy to convince them to permit such a thing, even if I could convince the Mexica to come with me to a place most believe a dream. Even so, I must try; when I am gone, there will be no more Ohyanqui left to guide the People home. I do not like this iron turtle, and I do not trust him, but even the most crudely-fashioned tool may be used with a purpose.
I can hear Ramirez on deck; his crow has spotted the dense greenery that shields the Walking Stone from prying eyes. Soon, he will shout for his men to kick me awake, and I will be led up to the deck to begin the Pathfinder’s Dance. Already I can feel the Stone growing warm, shaking off the silt of hundred thousand cycles of the sun. In my mind, I can hear the songs of my ancestors, marking the mirrors and jewels that line the path across the Obsidian Sea. It will be quite amusing, I think, to watch these ghosts try to chart the sea on their maps.
It will be good to go home.