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Authors: James Runcie

Tags: #Historical, #Fantasy, #Modern, #Romance

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BOOK: The Discovery of Chocolate
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He turned away, and his servants carried him off into the distance.

We had never seen such a man, and longed to speak amongst ourselves, but Cortés insisted that we remain silent, warning us to be constantly on the alert, lest we be the victims of some fearsome trap.

That night I wrote my first dispatch.

Sent to His Sacred Majesty, the Emperor, Our Sovereign, by Diego de Godoy, notary to Don Hernán Cortés, Captain General of New Spain
.

Most High and Powerful and Catholic Prince, Most Invincible Emperor and Our Sovereign
,

The city of Mexico is of some four score thousand houses, and consists of two main islands, Tenochtitlán and Tlatelcolo, linked to the mainland by three raised causeways, each wide enough to allow ten horsemen to ride abreast. It is almost impossible to attack, since there are gaps in the causeways
spanned by wooden bridges that can be removed at the approach of an enemy. Many of the people live on the lake in rafts, or on small man-made islands where vegetables grow: peppers, tomatoes, avocado, papaya and granadilla. The lake is filled with people in small boats, catching fish in nets, selling goods or collecting fresh water. Two aqueducts bring fresh water into the city from the spring at Chapultepec, which opens out into reservoirs where men are stationed to fill the buckets of those who come in their canoes
.

The city itself has many broad streets of hard earth, and is divided into four areas: The Place Where the Flowers Bloom, The Place of the Gods, The Place of the Herons and The Place of the Mosquitoes. The houses are of one, or two floors of stone, capped with flat roofs made either of wooden shingles or of straw laid across horizontal poles. Poorer homes consist of small one-room huts, without chimney or windows, and are made of mud brick on a stone foundation, or of wattle and daub, with thatched gabled roofs. All travel in the city is by bark and canoe, and some of the streets consist entirely of water, so that people can only leave their homes by boat
.

The Central Palace has three courtyards, over twenty doors or gates, and a hundred baths and hot houses, all made without nails. The walls are wrought of marble, jasper, and other black stone, with veins of red, like rubies. The roofs are built of timber, cut from cedar, cypress and pine trees; the chambers are painted and hung with cloths of cotton, coney fur, and feathers. Within this palace there live over a thousand gentlewomen, servants and slaves. The soldiers’ chambers are hung with a luxurious golden canopy. So beauteous does it seem that even if it were to become a prison,
many of us think that we could stay here for all eternity
.

On the first night that we stayed in the city there was a tremendous feast. It is impossible to list all the delicacies that were produced: turkeys, pheasants, wild boars, chickens, quails, ducks, pigeons, hares and rabbits. It appeared that anything on earth that moved and could be eaten would be put in front of us. We even heard rumours of human flesh being one of the delicacies, and it would have been impossible to tell if this were the case, so spiced the recipes, so rich the variety of meat. There were locusts with sage, and fish with peppers and tomatoes. There were frogs with green chilli, venison with red chilli, tamales filled with mushrooms, fruit, beans, eggs, snails, tadpoles and salamanders. Small earthenware braziers stood by the side of each dish, and over three hundred men waited upon us, bringing torches made from pine knots when the sky began to darken
.

Montezuma sat at a table covered in cloths with Cortés alone by his side. A screen had been erected so that no one should see them eat, and tasters stood at each end, checking the food before it was served. After the meal three richly decorated tubes, or pipes, filled with liquid amber and a herb they called tobacco were placed in front of them. The screen was removed, and Montezuma encouraged our leader to smoke and drink as we watched jesters and acrobats, dwarves and musicians dance and play and sing
.

Truly, this is a place of wonders, another world, and I urge Your Sacred Majesty to send a trustful person to make an inquiry and examination of everything that I have said in order that your Kingdoms and Dominions may increase as your Royal Heart so desires
.

From the town of Tenochtitlán, dated the fifteenth of
November fifteen hundred and nineteen, from Your Sacred Majesty’s very humble servant and vassal, who kisses the Very Royal Feet and Hands of Your Highness – Diego de Godoy, notary to Herná Cortés
.

To tell further of the evening would have been to include information only pertaining to myself for which, I am sure, the Emperor had little concern.

Yet I know that it was on this night that my life changed irrevocably.

Five hand-maidens dressed in simple cream tunics now arrived in the banquet bearing an urn. One of these women caught my eye and smiled.

I could not help but stare. Her olive skin seemed to glow in the half-light, and her dark hair shone.

She gestured to the urn, brought over a jug, and poured a deep brown liquid into my goblet.

Bringing the drink to my lips, I found that the beverage had a cool and bittersweet taste, enlivened perhaps with chillies, and that it was not possible to discern its full effect with ease.

The woman nodded at me, encouraging me to continue.

Supping again, the strangely comforting taste began to intrude upon my palate as if one sip could never be enough. It was a liquid that only inspired further drinking, and it began to fill my entire body with its smoothness, as if I need no longer fear the affliction of the world; and all anxiety might pass.

I smiled at the woman and made a gesture to inquire as to the nature of the drink. She replied with one word:
‘Cacahuatl.’

At this the soldiers around me roared, jesting that I had drunk liquid
caca
, and that it would soon emerge from my body as a substance no different from the way in which it had entered.

I turned away with great sadness at their vulgarity. They had not tasted as I had tasted. They had not felt their life change in an instant.

As the meal progressed, I found that I could think of nothing else. I wondered what kind of life this woman led and where she lived. Did she make the beverage, or simply serve it? Perhaps I could learn something of the language and speak to her? The drink had left me so desirous of more that I wondered if perhaps it was a kind of medicine, or if I had been drugged, so tired did I now find myself.

As I lay on my mat that night, under a dais of yellow silk, I realised that I could no longer think of Isabella, but only of the mouth and eyes of the woman who had served me, savouring the sense of ease and peace she had provided. I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed that this woman was coming towards me, slowly and relentlessly, and that I could not escape. Backing away, I could not take my eyes from hers, as she kept walking towards me. Isabella’s voice came into my head, telling me to go, to run away, into a forest. I turned and ran, but found myself in an orchard of fig trees, where Isabella’s pet canary lay dead on the ground. The lady with the
cacahuatl
was looking down at the bird, and then said, in Spanish, ‘
Voló golondrina’
, the swallow has gone, the opportunity is lost.

What could this mean?

I awoke with a start, greatly troubled by my dream, and
found a return to sleep almost impossible. It was clear that I would find no rest until I saw the lady once more.

The next morning we began our exploration of the marketplace. Stalls filled with exotic and extraordinary goods had been set out as far as the eye could see: embroidered cloths, capes and skirts; agave-fibred sandals, skins of wild beasts, cottons, sisal and ropes; robes made from the skins of pumas and jaguars, otters, jackals, deer, badgers and mountain cats. There were stalls selling the richest of spices: salt and sage, cinnamon, aniseed and black pepper;
mecaxochitl
, vanilla, ground hazelnut and nutmeg;
achiote
, chillies, jasmine and ambergris. Stalls of firewood and charcoal jostled with traders roasting fowl, foxes, partridges, quails, turtle-doves, hares, rabbits, and chickens as large as peacocks. There were even weapons of war, laid out for purchase, as their owners sharpened flints, cut arrows from long strips of wood and hammered out axes of bronze, copper and tin. There were flint knives, two-handed swords, and shields, all ready to be bartered, exchanged or sold.

There were thirty thousand people here, each in search of new delights. The method of buying and selling was to change one ware for another; one gave a hen for a bundle of maize, others offered mantles for salt. But everything was priced, and for money they used the strange brown almonds I had seen one of the natives spill in his canoe when we first arrived. These, we were told, were the beans of the cacao tree, and were held in great regard. One of them could buy a large tomato or sapota; a newly picked avocado was worth three beans, as was a fish, freshly prepared on a
stall and wrapped in maize. A small rabbit would sell for thirty beans, a good turkey hen might cost a hundred, and a cock twice that amount.

From another corner of the marketplace rose the smell of cooked food: roasted meat in various sauces, tortillas and savoury tamales, maize cakes, dishes of fish or tripe and toasted gourd seeds sprinkled with salt or honey.

And then I saw the lady who had served me the previous evening, sitting at a stall, carefully grinding cacao beans on a low basalt table. I was lost in amazement, realising that this drink must surely be one of the greatest of delicacies, for she was destroying the actual coinage of the realm in order to create it. If one could only find the source of these beans, and the flower in which they grew, one might perhaps find the secret of all future wealth.

By the lady’s side stood a man whom I took to be her father, roasting beans over a fire, sweeping them backwards and forwards with a fan made from rushes. He then sieved them, removed the husks, and poured them onto the lady’s table.

Here she crushed the beans with a roller, creating a thick, dark-brown paste which was scraped away into a large gourd and given to a second woman, who now added a little water.

My lady then took the heart of a sapota seed, and began to grind it. This too was added to a small quantity of water, and passed to the second woman.

Then she took some maize, ground it in a gourd and mixed it in the same manner, until the time came to combine all three pastes, which were aerated by vigorous whisking and the slow addition of more water.

And, at last, my lady stood on a chair and poured the finished mixture of cacao, sapota seed and maize down from a great height into a new, larger bowl, where it was whisked into a foaming liquid, and poured into a richly decorated calabash gourd which she held out for me to taste.

I drank of the heady concoction, the foam stretching up towards my nose. It was a strange, almost bitter drink, more spicy in nature than the previous evening. I reached into my knapsack for one of the small sets of bells I had brought with me for barter and the lady smiled so invitingly that I found I could not but meet her gaze.

But then: disaster.

Aguilar, the interpreter, tried to pull me away, arguing that I was neglecting my duties by indulging in flirtation. He told me that I must rejoin Cortés immediately, and keep a note of the sights we saw.

‘What is your name?’ I asked the lady as Aguilar attempted to remove me from this prospect of paradise.

She did not understand me, saying again the strange word for the drink she had given me, although this time it sounded different –
chocolatl
.

I pointed to my breast.

‘Diego. Diego de Godoy.’

She repeated my words, as if I had two Christian names. ‘Diego – Diego de Godoy.’

‘Diego,’ I insisted, and then stretched out my arm to point to her.

She took my hand in hers and placed it on her breast. ‘Quiauhxochitl.’

‘It means Rain-Flower.’

The wife of Cortés had appeared by my side.

‘You will never be able to pronounce it,’ she said dryly. ‘Call her Ignacia.’

‘After Ignatius of Antioch,’ added the priest who accompanied Doña Marina, looking at the girl intently. ‘Ignis is Latin for fire, you know. You must burn with love of the Lord …’

‘And with love for his creation …’ Doña Marina added tartly, inspecting the girl’s body with wry, almost competitive amusement.

Our peace was broken.

‘Ignacia,’ I said.

‘Ignacia.’

She smiled and returned to her work, serving Ortiz, the musician, who began to ingratiate himself immediately. I was convinced that he received the same look that I had accepted myself when first arriving at her stall, and a second violent emotion overcame me, as I moved, in an instant, from incipient passion to total jealousy. I had never known such volatility of heart and felt in such torment that I could have killed Ortiz on the spot.

‘Come on,’ said Doña Marina, taking my arm. ‘We have work to do.’

Lost in thought, I walked through courtyards filled with citrus and jasmine until we arrived before an enormous temple. It was square, and made of stone, raised as high as the reach of an arrow shot from a crossbow. One hundred and fourteen steps stretched up towards two great altars and priests in white robes made their way up and down in ceaseless movement. From the top one could see over the entire city, the lake and the three giant causeways. Although
it was one of the most incredible sights we had witnessed thus far, it meant nothing.

BOOK: The Discovery of Chocolate
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