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Authors: David Stacton

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BOOK: A Signal Victory
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Thus they entered Tulum.

On the other side of the wall was a broad street, half a mile long, and lined with loosely built stone palaces. It, too, was deserted, but they heard far off a murmur, like the swarming of voices at dusk in the
of any Spanish city. The street they found eerie. Everything was neat and clean, yet weeds sprouted out of the walls. Above them the sky had the blue shimmer of steel.

They did not go so far as the square, but were taken into one of the buildings on their right, guarded, and left there.

By now they were frightened. They were also tired, weak, and comfortable for the first time in weeks, and that made them apathetic. In the centre of the building was a patio. There they were brought food, and from there beckoned into the sweat bath. A sweat bath was a new experience for them, it frightened them, but it did make them feel better.

They would have relaxed, had it not been for glimpses of that barbaric guard at the outlets of the building. Aguilar did not speak. He was preoccupied by the imminence of devils. He sat in the midst of all that unexpected splendour and read his breviary. A priest was sacred. He had no fears. Later he would be taken to someone in authority, explain
himself, and convert the heathen. He would have read his breviary in Hell with the same composure, and indeed did daily, for Hell was what the world was to him.

Guerrero and Valdivia were more practical. Hospitality from the enemy, and the world, though a good place, was full of enemies, never meant anything good. They had defeated Caribs, who were ferocious but debased, and the shivering Indians of Panama, but here, they knew, they were up against something else. Here they were up against not a tribe, but a world.

They could not even ask questions. And without weapons, their men were demoralized and grateful to be fed. For they were fed, at about noon, fruit in strange shapes and sizes, a heavy, frothy drink, served in glazed bowls, which they did not yet know was cocoa, and a rich red dish of some kind of porridge, hot with spices, served with a crisp rolled bread stuffed with chopped meat.

They were given the best care, and that was what made them nervous, for in their experience prisoners did not receive the best care, but, at most, a grudging second best. There was something, too, disturbing about the manner of their attendants, something mocking, considerate, and perhaps a little sad. Valdivia did not know what to make of it.

Neither did Guerrero, but he set himself to learning how to ask questions. He pointed to things until the attendants told him the name. By late afternoon he knew the names of twenty things in the house, but how can you ask what is being done to you, if you have no verbs? The words came easily to his tongue, but not to Valdivia’s, and Aguilar would not even try. If God speaks Latin and Spanish, why should one bother to learn anything else?

At evening two men came to see them, a religious-looking one, some kind of overseer, surrounded by apprentices, who looked them over carefully but said nothing, and another who insisted upon examining the men with care, probing here and pinching there. Both were ritually dressed, and
neither seemed to care for what he saw. Valdivia they singled out at once, as the obvious leader of the party. He seemed to displease them least. They also paid particular attention to one of the soldiers, a man from Estramadura named Léal, no more than a boy really. Then they left.

Guerrero and Valdivia were alarmed, but nothing more happened. They were allowed to remain by themselves all next day. They were fed, as usual. They were bathed. But something made them uneasy.

A little before dawn, on the second day, while Aguilar was setting up his equipment (he had already smashed several small idols, in order to reconsecrate what was clearly an altar), about twenty soldiers, a party of priests, and the same sacerdotal personage they had seen before, who was this time elaborately dressed and painted a curiously vibrant shade of blue, came into the house. Chocolate was served to all the Spaniards.

Aguilar signalled that they should not drink before mass. Since the visitors paid no attention to this, Valdivia thought it better that they drink. Their rooms were still cool and shadowy. The sun had not yet warmed them.

When the chocolate was finished, the guard beckoned to Valdivia and Léal, smiling amiably, and the priest and the man who seemed to be a doctor or shaman, led them into a side corridor.

Without their leader, the Spaniards felt uneasy. There was no sound but that of Aguilar droning through his interrupted service.

The mass ended, and still Valdivia did not return. Aguilar blinked and clutched his breviary tighter. Far off, somewhere, over the roof-tops, they heard the rumble of drums, and then, one by one, the entry of whistles and flutes. They had no way of knowing what was out there.

At last they heard footsteps, turned towards the corridor, but did not at first recognize what they saw.

Valdivia and Léal had been drugged, that was clear. They moved heavily and almost complacently. Both men had been
stripped naked and painted that same shade of ominous blue. Even Valdivia’s beard was painted blue. He was still a muscular man. Under the paint his body glistened. He wore an elaborate feathered breechclout, such as the natives wore, high masked sandals, and a peaked feather head-dress. Léal was dressed the same way. Each man was flanked by priests to hold him.

What did that drug do, that it could make you so docile? Guerrero was excited. He wanted to know what it felt like to be tricked out so. Yet even painted up that way, Valdivia was a gentleman and Léal was not, so the priests were the more considerate of him.

Guerrero caught the eye of the high priest, who was watching him with some sudden interest, and looked away.

Valdivia and Léal left the building, surrounded by the priests. Guerrero, Aguilar and the others were herded out behind them.

Guerrero was not worried. He knew that for the moment he was safe. Aguilar ran forward. He had taken up the scent at once, and had officiated at executions before. It was his duty to offer the consolations of a pious Latinity. Guerrero hauled him back.

“Do you want them to kill all of us?” he snapped.

Aguilar glared at him, but no, he did not. He fell back.

They went out not the way they had first entered the building, but through a corridor. The sound of drums and flutes was now louder, and to it was added the great peremptory braying of a conch.

They came out into abrupt sunlight and found themselves in a square, like the choir of a church without walls, but a choir somehow magnified. At one end rose the altar, but high, in two stages, like a pyramid, with some structure on top that might have been a monstrance. On either side of the square solemnly danced and chanted those dignitaries the worshippers are usually prevented by the rood screen from seeing.

At the top of the pyramid two columns of incense rose
like scented candles. The music now was faster, and even so, beginning to quicken. It had a rapid and yet stately rhythm, impetuous but grave, as though the jungle had learned order and polyphony. It was full of birds and omens.

It was hypnotic, and over it all came that deliberate, hopeful, and hungry chant, from everywhere around the square, spaced by the double drums.

Valdivia and Léal were led towards the altar.

The drums beat faster.

It was all too bright and cruel out there. Yet Guerrero understood it very well, better than Aguilar, whose sort of business it was. When the body runs wild, or when it is driven so, we cross a border. Then we either scream our heads off when they beat us, or laugh with delight, according to our nature, according to the nature of the God we worship. And that is what these people were doing. As at all religious rites, they were crossing a border. They drove the body wild. They whipped the hell out of it, slowly, and with compassion. A little under-sexed, they had to find release in other, indirect, and sadistic ways. Well, a Spaniard could understand that. That was how a Spaniard worshipped his own phallic ethnic gods, and only called it Christianity.

Guerrero was excited, and therefore impatient with Aguilar. For Aguilar was cringing. To him it was as though someone had suddenly slit a bull’s throat in the middle of a mass. It was a little more of religion than he wished to know about.

Guerrero, Aguilar, and the others were driven into the middle of the square and up some steps to a platform. In the middle of the platform was a large wooden cage, ten feet on a side, seven feet high, and barred at the top. They were shoved into this and the gate fastened behind them.

Guerrero looked around him. The Spanish were in love with death. But these people must be terrified of it, to have to make so much of it.

From the elevated cage he could see the pyramid, which was low and crudely made. He could even see the stone at
the top of it, where four blue priests were waiting, for the stone was placed to be seen from below.

Valdivia and Léal had reached the foot of the stairs.

The drumming stopped. There was not even an overtone to ripple out into that sudden hush.

The party went up the steep stairs towards that stone. The sun was risen now. The priests helped the men up.

Léal was sacrificed first, being the lesser man, and then Valdivia. That procedure was a customary honour. But Valdivia was a gentleman, one who made an idol of self-control, he had therefore made an effort to throw off the effects of the drug, had succeeded, and therefore saw what was to be done to him.

The crowd was motionless. Then, it was to be expected, not a mass bell sounded, but a single note on a double drum.

Guerrero looked up.

The priests had laid Valdivia on the stone, holding him down by his wrists and ankles. The stone was convex, so that his head and feet hung down, and his chest thrust up as though straining towards heaven. He did not flinch.

The high priest stepped forward and made an expert upward incision with an obsidian knife. Valdivia screamed. His body twitched. But he was not yet dead. The priest groped his right hand into the incision and tore out the heart. Valdivia’s soul flew out of the top of the life tree, like a bird, as may be seen in the
The priest held the heart up and then passed it to an attendant.

It is unforgettable to hear a self-controlled man scream.

Aguilar began to mumble the office for the dead, turning his back on everyone.

The four assistant priests flung the empty body down to the courtyard.

There other priests took the body and flayed it, peeling it from the back. The drumming and chanting began again. The corpse was carted off, red and fatty, except for its feet and hands, which had not been skinned.

The Spaniards sat down in their cage. Now they knew
what was in store for them, and it left them without the desire to go on watching. One of them was sick.

Only Guerrero remained standing.

Except that he did not want to die, and did not intend to, which gave him confidence, what he had seen did not distress him. It was easier to take than the Inquisition. The Inquisition was a system of oppressive punishment. Being self-righteous, the Church offered you dirt, filth, squalor, torture, and damnation. This hazard was different. It was a risk you took, everybody believed in it, and at least you were fed properly until it was over. The victim was drugged. It took only a moment. And besides, he understood: to watch someone else die violently was a way of being reborn yourself. It wasn’t a punishment, but a communion. It did not, like the Inquisition, cast you out, but took you in.

He knew now why they were in the cage. They were in the cage to be fattened up. He went on watching.

The priest came down the steps of the pyramid, surrounded by his acolytes, who at the bottom closed in around him.

Again there was silence, and again, the sudden shrilling of pentatonic flutes, the snake-like slither of rattles. The acolytes moved away into their ritual positions.

Then the high priest began to dance, slowly, solemnly, and wet with blood.

He was wearing Valdivia’s flayed skin, fastened over him at the back, with the face drawn over his own face. Slowly he forced Valdivia’s appearance into the movements of another world, the beard waggling up and down, quite dead, a rod through his nose, but the body alive, and his thighs quivering with the hieratic movements of a sad, gentle, and yet wryly hopeful ritual. Please, death, the flutes seemed to say, let us live, now that you have this offering, for life is so beautiful. It was something Valdivia alive would never have thought to say, something no Christian would ever have said, for to Christians Man was the earth’s Manichee, to whom loveliness was only a heap of cinders, and the moon an ash dump for souls.

Aguilar had turned around, white faced and round eyed. He had seen the Devil at last, and it had almost destroyed his faith in God. He had always suspected the two were identical twins.

But it is something after all to see the devil dancing in a dead man, particularly when that man was an hidalgo and in some wise your friend. The little beard wagged up and down, and Guerrero almost envied Aguilar. He was almost sick himself.

For everything is so easy for people who believe in the Devil. For them the problem of good and evil is solved, because for them it exists. And then, it is so much easier to believe in evil than in good. But if one is a realist, and therefore believes in neither, and yet in both, then one has to face events for one’s self. That is harder.

Not that Guerrero thought of it that way, but there was something here he understood. He heard it in the sound of the flutes and trusted it. And as for the horrors, he had seen worse horrors, and these people were like flowers. There was something absurd and touching about the way they opened so uxoriously to the sun.

He meant to live.

It was to be many years before he realized why.


They spent a month in that cage.

It was better, at any rate, than a Spanish dungeon, or being kept below decks, in the bilge, as discipline. They had the sun and the nights were warm. Guerrero became brown as an Indian, which was what he wanted.

BOOK: A Signal Victory
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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