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Before my Aztec uncles were hanged, they took me to the mystery city of Tula to teach me the Way of my people. They expected to die there and even brought along a yellow dog—which, according to our beliefs, would guide them through the Nine Hells after death.
I was sixteen years old.
I will tell you more of the Nine Hells, the Mystery City, and Yellow Dog in a moment, but first let me introduce myself. My name is Mazatl—which means "Deer" in the Aztec tongue, Nahuatl—and Mazatl is the name I have always answered to in our village. By law, however, I must have a Spanish name, and in their language I am called Juan Rios.
The Spanish call all indios "Aztecs," which many of my people resent. In the Spaniards' minds, slaves are beneath contempt, and we indios are indeed enslaved. Few Spaniards acknowledge that we have had a culture rich in art, architecture, medicine, and astronomy and that our culture thrived long before they arrived and destroyed our towering monuments to the majesty of the past. Nor has it occurred to these people whose roots are in Europe that people of the Americas did not need to be "discovered."
In truth, however, I am heir to an even older and mightier people than the Mexica, the first people whom the Spanish condescendingly call Aztec: I am of the Toltec, a civilization that scholars call the first true "Aztec" because those civilizations that followed—the Mexica-Aztecs, Mayan, Zapotec, and all the others—shamelessly aped Toltec civilization in their art and architecture, most notably in the construction of their own cities and in the rendering of their .nest artworks.
Like the Mexica-Aztecs and other empires in central Mexico, the Toltec speak Nahuatl—the melodious tongue of the gods.
My people were a mighty empire when the Mexica-Aztec, the People of the Reed, wandered naked and defenseless, the prey of snakes and crocodiles, jaguars and wolves, living on grubs and weeds and worms. These uncouth savages feared our fury and lusted after our prodigious riches—all the while trembling before our soaring pyramids and illimitable empire. Most of all they stared in awestruck wonder at our Scintillating City of Turquoise Gold, our Invincible Citadel and Sacred Shrine—Tula. To the Aztec, Tula was a city of golden turquoise-laden palaces, where meat, maize, beans, avocados, and honeyed sweets were plentiful as earth and air, where mescal, corn beer, and fermented chocolate .owed like water.
Perhaps most of all, the Aztec envied our science and our skill with numbers. To them our learning must have indeed seemed inscrutable as the sun and stars. Rather than working fields, the people of Tula probed the heavens and through their celestial science and godlike wisdom divined the future.
My Toltec ancestors raised wondrous plants—which cured all the ills that human flesh is heir to. Erecting vertiginous temples and magnificent monuments, we even placated the implacable gods.
Aztec emperors would later claim lineal descent from Tula's royalty, while its high nobility truckled after Toltec wives.
Now all that remained of Tula's golden grandeur was shards and slivers, wrack and ruin—the centuries-ravaged wreckage of a five-tiered step-pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcoatl; cracked, crumbling foundations of other toppled temples; ruins of two ball courts, and the scattered, shattered remains of a Sun King's grandiose palace.
The terraces of the step-pyramid's sloping sides were still embellished with painted and sculpted friezes of marching jaguars and ferocious dogs, of birds of prey devouring human hearts, and of human faces, trapped and staring wild-eyed inside the gaping jaws of serpents.
No, nothing before or since had equaled the Toltec—including the Mexica. Ignorant of art and architecture, the Mexica ransacked the culture of my people. When building their own great city, Tenochtitlán, they pillaged Tula's religion, culture, art—even the concept of themselves as warrior-priests of the sun god. Thus most "Aztec" myths, legends, their pantheon of gods, pictographs, temples, and palaces were imitations of our own culture, our infinite creativity.
Even now the grandeur of our lost Toltec world could be felt—despite the barbarism of the Spanish. Indio ruins throughout the colony were shaped to resemble Toltec edifices, including those of the magnificent Chichén Itzá monuments in the land of the Maya to the far south.
Ayyo . . . Tula had been a great empire a thousand years before I was born—though now it was only an abandoned ruin. The city, however, was not abandoned by the gods of my people—I sensed their presence the moment I reached the pyramid's summit and walked among the forest of giant stone warriors now known as the Atlanteans, a name drawn from the legend of the lost continent of Atlantis rather than the history of my people because no one knows the true name of these mighty warriors.
These fierce stone warriors, standing nearly three times the height of a man, evoked visions of great wars and conquest by a people far superior to those that walk the land today.
I have lived my entire life in a village in the mountains to the east of Tula. The village is small, fewer than a hundred huts and not really big enough to support a church, though we had our own small chapel. It was said that our village was so small and poor that only priests being punished for transgressions against God and the Church were sent there.
No Spaniards lived in the village except for the priest, and as would be expected for a man sent to purgatory on earth, he was neither a very good Spaniard nor a very devout priest.
Mexico City was two long days' walk to the south. I had never been to the great city, though I had heard many tales of its savage wrath and majestic wonder.
The people of my village subsisted on the maize and beans and peppers we grew. We also mined a sulfur pit in a nearby mountainside.
My people did not grow rich off the sulfur. Unlike gold or silver, it is not precious. There would be a time when we used the sulfur as an ingredient in black powder, but we never profited from the sale of the black powder.
In the end, however, that damnable gunpowder doomed my uncles—and had forced our journey to Tula to fight our last battle.
Excerpted from AZTEC FIRE by ROBERT GLEASON AND JUNIUS PODRUG
Copyright © 2008 by Eugene Winick, Executor Estate of Gary Jennings
Published in April 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.