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Authors: Avram Davidson

Clash of Star-Kings

BOOK: Clash of Star-Kings
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Clash of Star-Kings

Avram Davidson

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The increase of population and prosperity in and around that great and ancient habitation, the City of Mexico, has brought with it a great many innovations, ranging from the brilliant new Museum of National Antiquities and Patrimonial Treasures to very unbrilliant smog. The visitor who has enjoyed the riches of the former and finds, if he is fortunate, his view of the outside world unimpeded by the latter, can look up and away — very far, indeed, away — and observe the snowcapped outlines of two great and sacred mountains: the splendid shining cone of Popocatepetl and the magnificent snowy sierra of Ixtaccihuatl. The latter, the “white woman” (thus, the meaning in the Nahua language of these syllables, so all but insurmountable to the Anglo-Saxon tongue), was believed by the Aztecs to be the bride of the sun; and, indeed, bears an uncanny resemblance to a figure of a reclining woman: head, bosom, body, hands and feet, all covered in white. Her companion, “smoking mountain,” was set there to guard her.

Little guard was needed to keep away the Indians, whose religious awe alone restrained them — as it did, until too late, from resisting the Spaniards. Cortez, thinking in terms of a different universe, knew a volcano when and where he saw one, sent his lieutenant, Diego de Ordaz, with nine men, to make the ascent. They ravaged the sacred and burning mountain and descended with enough sulfur to make gunpowder. The snows of Ixtaccihuatl remained unsullied. The record does not say if the sulfur was wrapped in fennel stalks like the stolen fire of Prometheus, or if eagles tore at the liver of the audacious Iberian. Probably not.

In the confrontation of the conquistadores with the civilizations of Mexico and Peru we have a situation almost Science Fictional: the potent monarchs submitting in scarcely comprehending resignation, and all their millions of subjects, to the handfuls of men who might well have come from another planet — so alien were their weapons, their manners, and their minds. It is ironic that the Dukes of Montezuma, descendants of the Aztec Blood Royal, became and are, still, grandees of Spain. There are moments, and not a few of them, when the Conquest seems never to have taken place; when one sees the Indians emerging from their brushwood huts, huaraches on their feet, serapes of ancient pattern wrapped about their bodies, drinking the immemorial
from tiny earthen pots….

But then the antique and pre-Columbian silence is broken by the roar of the jet plane, and the elder design reveals, once again, that it has cracked into fragments of an almost infinite number. Standing on the threshold of space and all which that implies, it is well to be reflective.

• • •

The town of Los Remedios does not attract tourists in any great numbers; indeed, it has few amenities to tempt them. Sitting as it does so high up on the slopes of
los volcanes
and surrounded by forests, it has very pure air — and very thin, too; a heart unaccustomed to altitude tends to pump hard and tire easily. There are few famous antiquities, no night clubs, no swimming pools, and its tiny hotel, though clean, has not even running water.

A second-class bus service runs several times a day, requiring several transfers between the town and “Mexico” (“City” being understood), and a cheerful Toonerville trolley of a narrow-gage railroad known as the
mas o menos
because it comes chugging and smoking and whistling to and from the junction at Amecameca twice a day —
“more or less.”
The roads are never in good shape and the weather is usually cold, with frequent rain and often mist.

Now and then a party of alpinists comes through en route to assay the heights of Popo and Ixta, as the mountains are familiarly known locally; or an archaeologist appears to examine the mysterious Tlaloc in the cave; and of course a considerable number of outsiders appear for the feria of El Heremito del Monte Sagrado. There is one Lebanese merchant, called
el Turco
, one Syrian corn-buyer, called
el Arabe
, a refugee Austrian misanthrope,
el Alemán
, and three citizens of the U.S.A., called — with a shade more geographical accuracy than the inhabitants are accustomed to —
los norteamericanos
. These constitute the only inhabitants of the district who are not in whole or in part of Indian blood.

They also constituted the only inhabitants of the district not, at the moment, seemingly totally preoccupied with the approaching fiesta. Not only had extra and ramshackle buses been laid on to transport the visiting pilgrims, but retired engineer Juanantonio Calderón Cruz — whose boast was that he had once transported Zapata — had come out of retirement to navigate a special train — by the appearance of locomotive and rolling-stock, the same one. There were a great many cars and trucks (though few new ones), a great many horses and mules and burros and crude wagons — and a great many dusty feet. There was even a platoon of cavalry from the Federal District. The marketplace was like an anthill and the top of Monte Sagrado (where now stood the 17th-century stone church which replaced the 16th-century adobe one, which had replaced the original Aztec pryamid) was like another, with the roads and paths in between like ant trails.

Every hour or so another procession started up the winding trail with its banner, usually of either the Virgin of Guadalupe or the Virgin of Los Remedios (slightly less popular, she was suspected of anti-Republic sentiments), pausing meticulously to make pagan offerings to the sacred
trees which lined the way. But all these were but opening acts before the day’s main event: the procession down from Monte Sagrado and all through the town and then back of the figure of the sainted Heremi to. Everyone was anticipating this with great pleasure — with the probable exception of Sarah Clay, the pleasantly plump and sometimes charming wife of Jacob Clay, one of the two male Northamericans of the town.

Sarah, at the moment, had fixed her soft pink mouth into a discontented line and was breathing noisily through her small and freckled nose. The source of her annoyance, Lupita, the Clays’ maid, stood before her in the patio making dramatic faces and gestures. She was small and scrawny and squinting and walked with a curious shuffle and was not a very efficient maid, but maids in Los Remedios — good or bad — were hard to get. “Infirm,” she was repeating now for the twentieth time, speaking rapidly and mixing in many words of Nahuatl. “Infirm — in bed — mother — alone — mañana — infirm — ”

The mere sight of the beautiful Douanier Rosseau patio denuded of almost all its flowers and branches by the landlady, Señora Mariana, to make decorations for the fiesta, had put Sarah in a bad mood. Plus the fact that Evans, the tootsie cat, for whom Sarah had saved a dinner tidbit, was nowhere to be seen. And now this.
, being Lupita’s intention of absquatulating and the need for Sarah to speak Spanish. “He did not will know why your (plural) mother so often was also infirm,” Sarah said. “Why not used to could procure a doctor to was meeting her, and return?”

“Infirm!” cried Lupita, seizing the word, triumphantly. “Malady very malign! Immediate attendance!” She rolled her eyes up, hideously, arched her back, and twitched vigorously to indicate the malignant nature of her mother’s malady — adding, encouragingly, “But mañana will be better!”

“Oh, all
” cried Sarah, who didn’t believe a word of it, Lupita bugging out so often on account of maladies unknown to science and holy days of obligation unknown to the church. Adding, too late, “But by favor to wash the utensils since?”

Lupita, already halfway to the gate, half-turned her head. “Mañana, Señora! Mañana!”

Sarah thrust out her lower lip. Unless the dishes were washed for supper the Clays would have to sup off market-bought prepared foods, and their budget showed a cash-on-hand status of only five pesos. She recollected the tidbit in her hand for the tootsie cat, so cunning with his markings like a black and white bunny. “Evans!” she called. “Evans….” Her voice became disconsolate, her lips more prominent. “Oh, well,” she said, after a moment, “maybe he’s only gone off to shack up with the convent cat.” She smiled a trifle. Then she saw the pile of dirty dishes, the scuttlebutt of icy cold water, and the fiber scouring-pad; and her lip went all the way out and she began to snuffle.

• • •

Lupita went shuffling along at a rapid pace down the rain-rutted street. The plaza of Los Remedios had once been paved in preparation for the expected visit of Maximilian, but nothing else had ever been paved before or since. Avoiding the principal avenues and streets, aflutter with women and children and even a number of men preparing the decorations and altars for the forthcoming procession, she made her way by a series of knight’s moves to the outskirts of town — very abruptly demarcated here on this side by a deep arroyo. Into this she slid rather than climbed, and passed beneath the shadow of her own house, from which the sounds of groaning and grinding indicated that her mother — an aged, blind crone — was preparing tortillas. Lupita did not look up, but she did look back. So. Bautist was there coming along behind. Good. And there, up ahead — Solita. The others were probably already there.

And there, after a long uphill trudge which took her and her two companions alongside ruined walls and across little rivers and through groves of trees and around cornfields — but always away from houses and always uphill — there at last she found them: Ruiz and Dolores and Gustavo. Gustavo had hold of a rope on the other end of which frisked a very young, black goat-kid. Lupita broke off a pine branch and swept the ground, Dolores sprinkled it with water from a gourd, Gustavo and Ruiz began the saying of that which needed to be said. Solita built a tiny fire on which they all sprinkled copal-gum and, while one of them waved a turkey wing to spread the fragrant smoke, the others thrust scraps of cloth and hair combings and bits of colored corn dough into the crevices of the ancient tree. Then Ruiz took a sharp pair of scissors and cut the kid’s throat and, while the others sipped the blood collected in the calabash and sprinkled it around and on each other, Ruiz took up the razor-sharp piece of black volcano glass and cut out the animal’s heart and they offered this at the base of the tree and they all bowed down.

Then Gustavo hid the carcass where it would be safe and on top of it they hid their clothes and they dressed in the coyote skins which had been there and they smoked themselves in the odorous embers of the fire and then urinated on it and painted designs on each other’s faces with the paste of ashes. Then they started off — up, up, always up — twitching their rumps from time to time so that their tails wagged and now and then they went a short way on all fours and now and then they chanted and now and then they howled.

• • •

“Josefa, the Widow of Gomez,” as she signed her name on the very few occasions which ever arose for signing it, had gone out to gather herbs in the woods and uplands which stretched away so endlessly and sloping until they came to the dead region of black volcanic sand which surrounded Popo or the gaunt escarpments of the base of Ixta. Señora Josefa had a great devotion to the Blessed Crown, to which she had commended herself before starting out on her little expedition, and it was beyond doubt this which had preserved her from death or even worse. The late Señor Gomez had been of a mature age at the time of his marriage, and his death had left the widow with no more than a good name, a small
in the country and a small
in the town: plus two children. So Señora Josefa had gotten out the black garments which she had worn after the death of her first husband, rented both properties as best she might, reserving the greater part of the income for the education of her son in “Mexico,” and moved with her daughter into the house of her sister, Mariana, the Widow of Matteos. The possibility that she might offer, or her sister accept, money for room or board had never occurred to either of them. By her needle, which was skilled, she was able to supply young Marinita with clothes; and as for other expenses — gifts, for example, or masses — these she supplied by gathering and preparing and selling herbs.

BOOK: Clash of Star-Kings
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