Sabina Murray

Last Days

It seems most credible that our Lord God has purposefully allowed these lands (Mexico) to be discovered…so that Your Majesties may be fruitful and deserving in His sight by causing these barbaric tribes to be enlightened and brought to faith by Your hand.

                                               --Hernan Cortes, 1519

During the last days of the Aztec Empire, Nezahualpilli, ruler of Texcoco, went to meet with the king of the Aztecs.

     Nezahualpilli had a bad feeling about his meeting with Motecuhzoma the second. I feel for Nezahualpilli and his ability to see the future. Motecuhzoma had called on him because of Nezahualpilli's skill as a seer, but Nezahualpilli saw nothing good in the future, and it took no trance, no rare herbs, for him to see that things were not getting better. For years he had managed a modicum of autonomy for his small island state, his kingdom within a kingdom. Tenochtitlan dominated without challenge as it had done since the days of his father, Nezahualcoyotl, but the great kingdom of the Aztecs was in danger of crumbling, disappearing as the revered Toltecs had before them, and in Motecuhzoma's desperation he had begun casting about his own kingdom for an explanation. In Texcoco, the cult of Quetzalcoatl was flourishing, although in secret. The feathered serpent was favored by the ancient and wise Toltecs. More directly, Quetzalcoatl did not demand human sacrifice, as did Huitzilopochtli. And years of rivers running with blood, corpses rolling down the canted steps of the Great Temple, and feasting on elaborate stews made with the flesh of one's own countrymen had resulted in widespread despair. The Texcocons and other vassal states were not hardened by years of tribute to the humming bird, they were worn down. Quetzalcoatl, the god concerned with regeneration, was more appealing, especially when Huitzilopochtli demanded beating human hearts to send the sun across the sky.

     Nezahualpilli could not believe in this god. Was there anything more ridiculous than an aggressive, bloodthirsty, carnivorous hummingbird? He watched hummingbirds daily in his garden-tiny suspended jewels hovering about the plumeria sipping nectar. How could one reconcile this with the god of Tlacaelel and the Aztecs, who demanded life after life and threatened total darkness? Nezahaulpilli had been there at the consecration of the Great Temple in 1487. He had witnessed the columns of slaves and citizens, children and warriors, snaking through the streets. One after another they were sacrificed at the hands of the nobles. Ahuizotl himself (who had ruled before the unfortunate collapse of the northern dam) had sacrificed for close to an hour until his arms grew tired. Plunging an obsidian blade into a struggling man's chest and pulling his heart out from the tangle of vessels and densely muscled torso was not easy work. Nezahualpilli had sat on his chair behind a curtain of flowers wishing himself to a peaceful place where water trickled endlessly down the stone walls of his temple and men sat in quiet dialogue with the ruler of the One World, his god, Quetzalcoatl, god of Venus who disappeared with the morning light and then, each evening, was triumphantly brought back to life. His god was the god of resurrection, not hopeless blood-letting and infinite death.

     Nezahualpilli ate many bitter mushrooms, drank more than his share of cocoa juice that day and in the days that followed, but he could not numb his senses. The reek of decomposing bodies and jellied mounds of clotted blood filled the streets of the capital. Even back in Texcoco, the stench was vivid and inescapable. When Nezahualpilli asked Tlacaelel how many had been sacrificed, the great general and true ruler of Tenochtitlan had no exact figure. He estimated somewhere near eighty thousand.

This meeting was to be the second Nezahualpilli had with Motecuhzoma and he feared he would be held responsible for this dire second installment of prophecy.

     Nezahualpilli felt the weight of his cloak descend on his shoulders. He nodded at his two attendants and they continued with his wardrobe and placed a heavy feathered headdress on his head. The weight of his cloak, the weight of this headdress, the weight of his years, and the knowledge that the kingdom was doomed…that he could sink back into the great lake from which all this had been born! The boat was ready for him to make the trip to Tenochtitlan. Maybe he would sink like a stone. Maybe that would be better for all of them.

     Was it his fault that he could divine the future? He saw what he saw, did not make it, and when his prophecies were fulfilled, he felt no joy at his accuracy. He would have loved to be wrong, wrong about the defeat at the hands of the Tlaxcalans, wrong about ominous fireballs falling from the skies. Most worrisome, his final prophecy-that the great city of Tenochtitlan would fall and all the inhabitants and their children and vassals would be annihilated-had yet to pass. Maybe he was wrong about that. All this was to occur in Motecuhzoma's lifetime, not his. In fact, the only comfort Nezahualpilli had was his age. He would be dead when it all happened. Maybe Motecuhzoma would kill him, although he doubted this because he was already close to death. The other seers and necromancers had been stripped naked and set in cages to starve when their prophesies failed to please, but Nezahualpilli, in addition to being old, was a blood relative to Motecuhzoma, so he did not fear that.

     Nezahualpilli paused by the side of the water. All around him the islands of the city constructed by the Aztecs stood as monument to their power to overcome nature. Crops were harvested on the chinampas, fields dragged up from the lake that were barely above water level. Fresh water flowed in from Chapultepec in two stone aqua ducts. Great dams held the salty flows from the mountains at bay, but soon it would all be just a part of the great chronicles of Aztec history. “Take my elbow,” he said to a young attendant. He stepped onto the flat platform of the boat and sank into the chair that was set upon it. “Go, go quickly,” he instructed the rowers. He found it difficult to leave his palace anymore, to see the columns of children being lead to the temple, to hear their mothers weeping. He closed his eyes, not wanting to witness the nobility leading their slaves, Aztec citizens, back from the market eager to butcher and eat them. Was it no wonder that this kingdom was doomed? In his mind he called on his god, Quetzalcoatl, who was his only comfort.

Quetzalcoatl return before we are all dead. Return and save us.

Nezahualpilli was not demanding the impossible in his prayers. Quetzalcoatl, revered by the Toltecs, had lain in the shadow of Huitzilopochtli long enough and there was a prophecy that he would come again. The ancient Toltecs, with whom the Aztecs tenuously linked their lineage, had disappeared without explanation. One day these great beings would return with their god, coming from the east to the One World, and when that happened, there would be little that the Aztecs could do. Quetzalcoatl and his retinue of Toltecs would be recognized because they would accept the gifts of their land to which they had a righteous claim. They would eat the food offered to them and accept the rich gifts, and this would let the Aztecs know that their days of supremacy had ended.

     Nezahualpilli covered his face with a feathered fan and fell to sleeping. He was old and this practice for death, sleep, was his only comfort.

Finally, Nezahualpilli reached Motecuhzoma's palace. As he walked through the stone archways that led to the throne room, the torches flaring and sputtering, the metallic stench of blood rising off the stone in the heat of day, he was struck by the silence in the palace. The hiss of torches and soft step of the bare-footed steward were the only things that intruded on the ominous quiet, on his dark thoughts.      The monarch was sitting on his throne surrounded by his dwarves. Usually, his dwarves and acrobats amused Motecuhzoma, but lately their comfort had been to listen to his increasingly insane ranting. Nezahualpilli had heard that the dwarves were Motecuhzoma's closest confidants. They crouched around him like evil, wisened children. It was said the king wanted to escape to the hills, that he wanted to die. What kind of ruler was this? Motecuhzoma was unaware of Nezahualpilli's approach. His eyes were closed and he appeared to be napping.

      “Lord,” said Nezahualpilli, his eyes respectfully lowered, “you summoned me.”

     Motecuhzoma's eyes snapped open. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I need to ask you some things.”

      “You have your own seers…”

      “Fools, all of them.”

      “But you surround yourself with jesters,” said Nezahualpilli.

      “Because they are not hypocrites,” said Motecuhzoma. “There are fools. And there are fools who are fools.”

     The dwarves, Nezahualpilli counted eleven, looked up at him, offended. “I did not know we had so many stunted men in our realm,” he said.

      “A sign,” said Motecuhzoma. “Things are not right. The women bring forth dwarves and just yesterday a two-headed pup was born in Tlateloco. They brought it to me. I saw it.”

      “Two-headed dogs have always been born, my lord.”

      “And has it ever come to any good? Did the birth of a two-headed dog ever mean victory in the provinces, or an end to this drought, or,” and here the monarch sobbed, “a long reign?”

      “You are upsetting yourself needlessly. I have heard you sent your seers to all corners of Tenochtitlan to find these perversions of nature…”

      “I did. And here they are,” Motecuhzoma spread his hand over the heads of his dwarves. “And you said to look in the sky, and I did, and a great ball of fire fell. And you said to not to wage another Flower War, and I went against the Tlaxcalans, and saw my warriors flayed and strung from trees for target practice.”

      “That is true,” said Nezahualpilli. “But today I have nothing for you. No dog. No dwarf. No whirlpool sucking at the lake.”

      “Because that has all happened. But what does it mean? Last week, lightning struck the temple of Tlaloc, but there was no rain, and he is the rain god. What does that mean?”

      “It means it did not rain.”

      “And the earth shakes and quivers. Our temples wobble as if they're made of reeds.”

      “The earth shakes because we live on a lake.”

      “And what of the fire in the Great Temple of Huitzilopochtli?”

      “Where there are torches, there is often fire, my lord.”

      “Not good enough, old man. You know things that you do not tell me.”

      “And you defy my reasoning,” said Nezahualpilli wearily. “You place your trust in me, but just this year you ordered me to march my army against the Tlaxcalans in retribution for your loss, then ordered the Aztec warriors to pull back. My armies were destroyed and two of my favorite sons are dead, which is what you desired for me. In the months since my first visit to warn you of the dangers faced by our great city, you have reduced me from a leader of the Triple Alliance to the lowest of vassals. You have snuffed whatever autonomy I had. Even my desire to worship the god Quetzalcoatl is denied…”

      “But this is why I've called you here. Repeat that prophecy,” said Motecuhzoma. He half-covered his face with a feathered fan and watched.

      “This is not my prophecy,” said Nezahualpilli. “I heard this from the priests in Cholula.”

      “Tell me,” said Motecuhzoma. “Tell me what they foretell.”

     Nezahualpilli sighed. “Quetzalcoatl will return. The Toltecs will be with him. They come to reclaim this land. As the reign of the Toltecs once ended, now it is time for the reign of the Aztecs to end. We will recognize Quetzalcoatl from his lordly attire, the marvelous beasts that will be at his command. He will accept our gifts of food and treasure, for is it not truly his? Is not everything the land brings forth the property of Quetzalcoatl?”

      “Go on,” said Motecuhzoma, “why stop there?”

      “Because that is all there is.”

      “What about your other prophecy?”

      “We've been over that before and recently.”

      “Are you refusing to repeat it?”

      “No, my lord,” said Nezahualpilli. He took a deep breath. “Be forewarned that in a very few years our cities will be laid to waste, that we and our children and our vassals will be annihilated. Do not lose faith or become anxious about what will happen because it is impossible to evade. I am comforted only by the knowledge that I will not see these calamities and afflictions because my own days are counted. And because of this, before I die, I wish only to warn you as if you were my own dear son.”

      “Is that it?” asked Motecuhzoma.

      “Yes, my lord.”

      “It's shorter this time,” Motecuhzoma lowered his fan. “Yes. I'm positive that it's shorter.”

      “Yes, my lord.”


      “Because, my lord, the rest of the prophecy has all ready come to pass.”

      “But why not say it?”

      “Because, my lord, a prophecy only deals with the future. You can't have a prophecy that deals with things that have already happened. This goes against the very definition of 'prophecy'.”

      “I see,” said Motecuhzoma “I see very clearly. What is left of the prophecy is inescapable doom, but you are wrong. Yes. I have no doubt about it. You are wrong, and do you know why?”

      “No my lord.”

      “Because I am no longer merely the leader of the Aztecs. I am a god, supreme ruler of the universe and heavens.”

     Nezahualpilli was momentarily stunned. He had witnessed this claim before and seen the commoners prostrated along the street-forbidden to gaze at Motecuhzoma-when the monarch chose to leave his palace, but Nezahualpilli had always thought this to be some variety of political maneuvering, just as he'd always thought the blood-thirsty cult of Huitzilopochtli was a good way of frightening the whole valley into submission and keeping the warrior population down in the vassal states. But looking at Motecuhzoma now, Nezahualpilli saw that the king had succumbed to a powerful dementia. Truly, there was no hope for the empire now. He heard the death knell, the drums of defeat, but realized it was only his own heart pounding in his ears with the unhealthy force typical to men his age.

      “Well, my lord,” he said, “I'm sure Quetzalcoatl will see you as a great adversary.”

     Unfortunately, the prophecy would prove to be true, the only trope the great emperor, or god, was capable of tossing in Quetzalcoatl's progress would be the bloody clinging to a lost empire, a network of fissures and plumbing choked with bodies, a brilliant, fecund breeding ground for the conqueror's seeds of progress, seeds that burst in suppurating ulcers, seeds that filled ones lungs with the oil of their own organs and left them struggling for breath. The citizens of the great city burst apart with gunfire, burst like the dry puffer mushrooms that appeared after the rain, fell to ground riddled and pitted with bitter blacking and dirty blood.

But I will rewrite the end of this story, because we already know that version. Let us say that Nezahualpilli is actually a capable soothsayer, that he sees the dwarves sitting anxiously (or drowsing unaware) about the throne of Moctecuzoma and he says, “slaughter them all and make a stew.” And by eating this stew, Motecuhzoma is, in fact, transformed into a god. And that when Quetzalcoatl does appear, that somehow Motecuhzoma, ruler of Tenochtitlan, now newly incarnated as a god, rather than showing up with tasty food and treasury worth of gold, instead makes no such mistake of hospitality.

     Let us arm him with the sun in a small pill. Something he can throw down at the foot of the conqueror, and then let it bloom in all its power at the feet of these two men, annihilating them, spilling its brilliance into the city, burning up the slopes of Popocateptl and Iztaccihuatl and to limits the ocean, then into the ocean where all the fish begin to fall, as if enchanted, to the bottom of the water to lie upon the sand until the sand itself is consumed by this brilliant power, until the very histories stretching forward and backward, all that mankind was and hoped to be, are eradicated, snuffed, burned quickly until the only scent is that of the scorched numbers, 2006 and 1968, 33 A.D. and all those B.C.'s and that everything is burned until. Until.

     And now all is white, and we can start all over again.