First came the wind. Later, like a flash of lightning, like a silver tongue in the heavens over the Valley of Anáhuac, a storm appeared that would wash the blood from the stones. After the sacrifice, the city darkened and thunderous eruptions were heard. Then, a silver serpent appeared in the sky, seen distinctly from many different places. And it began to rain in such a way as had been rarely seen. All afternoon and evening it rained and through the following day as well. For three days the rains would not cease. It rained so hard that the priests and wise men of Anáhuac became alarmed. They were accustomed to listening to and interpreting the voice of the water, but on this occasion they insisted that not only was Tláloc, God of Rain, trying to tell them something but that by means of the water he had allowed a new light to fall over them, a new vision that would bring a dif-ferent meaning to their lives, and although they did not yet clearly know what it was, they could feel it in their hearts. Before their minds could correctly interpret the depth of this message that the waters revealed as they fell, the rains stopped and a radiant sun was reflected in myriad places among the small lakes and rivers and canals that had been left brimming with water.
That day, far from the Valley of Anáhuac, in the region of Painala, a woman struggled to give birth to her first child. The sound of the rain drowned out her groans. Her mother-in-law, who was acting as midwife, did not know whether to pay more attention to her daughter-in-law about to give birth or to the message of the god Tláloc.
It didn't take long for her to decide in favor of her son's wife. It was a difficult delivery. In spite of her long experience, she had never been present at such a birth. While washing the mother-to-be in the bathhouse just prior to the delivery, she had failed to notice that the fetus was in the wrong position. Everything had seemed to be in order, yet the anticipated birth was taking longer than usual. Her daughter-in-law had been naked and squatting for quite a long while and still couldn't deliver. The mother-in-law, realizing that the unborn was unable to pass through the pelvic channel, began to prepare the obsidian knife with which she cut into pieces the fetuses that could not be birthed. She would do this inside the wombs of the mothers, so that they could easily expel them, thus sparing at least their own lives. But suddenly, the future grandmother, kneeling in front of her daughter-in-law, saw the head of the fetus poke out of the vagina and then shrink back a moment later, which probably meant that the umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck. Then, just as suddenly, a small head poked out from between its mother's legs with the umbilical cord caught in its mouth, as if a snake was gagging the infant. The grandmother took the sight as a message from the god Quetzalcóatl, who in the form of a serpent was coiled around the neck and mouth of her future grandchild. The grandmother quickly took the opportunity to disentangle the cord with her finger. For a few moments, which seemed like an eternity, nothing happened. The hard rain was the only sound that accompanied the moans of the young mother.
After the waters had spoken, a great silence took root and was broken only by the cries of a young baby girl whom they named Malinalli, since she was born under the third sign of the sixth house. The grandmother shouted like a warrior to let everyone know that her daughter-in-law, a great fighter, had come out victorious in the battle between life and death. She pressed the granddaughter to her bosom and kissed her again and again.
Thus the newborn, daughter of the Tlatoani of Painala, was welcomed into her paternal grandmother's arms. The grandmother sensed that the girl was destined to lose everything so that she might gain everything. Because only those who empty themselves can be filled anew. In emptiness is the light of understanding, and the body of that child was like a beautiful vessel that could be filled to overflowing with the most precious jewels -- the flower and song of her ancestors -- but not so that they would remain there forever, but rather so that they could be remade, transformed and emptied anew.
What the grandmother could not yet understand was that the first loss the girl would experience in her life was far too soon at hand and, much less, that she herself would be strongly affected by it. Just as the Earth had first dreamed about the flowers, the trees, the lakes and rivers on its surface, so had the grandmother dreamed about the girl. The last thing she would have thought at that moment was that she could lose her. Witnessing the miracle of life was powerful enough to prevent her from dwelling on death in any of its manifestations: abandonment, loss, disappearance. No, the only thing her body and mind wanted to celebrate was life. So the grandmother, who had so actively participated in the birth, looked on joyful and spellbound at how Malinalli opened her eyes and shook her arms vigorously. After kissing her on the brow, she placed her in the arms of her father, the Lord of Painala, and proceeded to carry out the first ritual after a birth, the cutting of the umbilical cord. She did it with an obsidian blade that she had prepared just for the occasion. The blade had been polished with such care that it seemed more like a resplendent black mirror than a knife. At the moment of cutting, the piece of obsidian captured the rays of the sun filtered through the thatched roof and their intense reflection was focused on the grandmother's face. The magnificent rays of the solar star knifed into the grandmother's pupils with such force that they irremediably damaged her sight. At that moment she thought that maybe this was the meaning of the reflections, a coming nearer to the light. She also understood that in helping her daughter-in-law give birth she had become a link in the feminine chain created by countless generations of women who assisted each other in childbirth.
The grandmother then carefully placed the child at her mother's breast so that she could be welcomed into this world. On hearing her mother's heartbeat, the girl knew she was in the right place and stopped crying. The grandmother took the placenta outside to bury it by a tree in the courtyard of the house. The ground was so heavy with the rains that the burial was made half in earth, half in water. The other half of Malinalli's umbilical cord was drowned in the earth. With it, life was sown anew, returning to the earth of its origin. The cord that binds the earth with the heavens ceded nourishment to nourishment.
A few days later, the grandmother herself baptized the girl, for tradition stated that the midwife who had brought the child into the world would have that honor. The ceremony took place at sunrise. The girl wore a huipil, a traditional sleeveless dress, and tiny jewelry that the grandmother and mother had personally made for her. They placed a small clay washbowl in the middle of the patio and next to it arranged a small trunk, a spindle, and a weaving shuttle.
In beautifully decorated ceramic stoves they burned copal. The grandmother carried a censer, and directing it toward the spot where the sun was beginning to rise, she spoke to the wind:
"God of the Gusts, stir my fan, raise me to you, lend me your strength, lord."
In response, a light breeze grazed her face and she knew that it was the right moment to make her greeting to the four winds. She turned slowly toward each of the four cardinal points as she said her prayers. Then she swung the censer under her granddaughter, who was being held high in the air by her parents, as they offered her to the wind. The small figure, silhouetted against the blue sky, was soon blanketed with copal smoke, a sign that her purification had begun.
The grandmother put the censer back in its place and, taking the child into her arms, raised her again to the heavens. She then dipped her fingers in water and let the girl taste it.
"This is the mother and father of us all," she said. "She is called Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of Water. Take her, let your mouth receive her, for you will need her in order to live on this earth."
Then, dipping her fingers in the water again, she touched the child's breast.
"See here, for she is the one who will enable you to grow and revive, the one who will purify you and will make your heart and your insides thrive."
Finally, using a calabash, she poured water over the girl's head.
"Feel the freshness and greenness of Chalchiuhtlicue," she said, "who is always alive and awake, who never sleeps or dozes, may she be with you and embrace you and keep you in her arms so that you will be awake and resolute on this earth."
Immediately afterward, she washed the child's hands so that she wouldn't be a thief and her feet and her groin so that she wouldn't be lustful. Finally she asked Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of Water, to cast out all evil from the body of the child, to set it aside and take it with her. Then she concluded by saying:
"From this day forward you shall be called Malinalli, a name that will be yours alone, the one that by birth belongs to you."
To end the ceremony, Malinalli's father took her in his arms and said the customary words of greeting, in which he chanted the prayer of welcome given to newborns.
"Here you are, my awaited daughter, whom I dreamed about, my necklace of fine jewels, my quetzal plumage, my human creation, engendered by me. You are my blood, my color, in you is my image. My little girl, look on peacefully. Here is your mother, your lady, from her belly, from her womb, you were engendered, you sprouted. As if you were a leaf of grass, you sprouted. As if you had been asleep and awoke. Now you live, you have been born. Our Lord, the keeper of all things, the maker of people, the inventor of man, has sent you forth unto the earth."
At that moment, Malinalli's father felt an inspiration within him from somewhere quite different and instead of continuing with the traditional words of welcome, he mouthed a different chant.
"My daughter, you come from the water, and the water speaks. You come from time and will live in time and your word will live in the wind and be planted in the earth. Your word will be the fire that transforms all things. Your word will live in the water and be a mirror to the tongue. Your word will have eyes and will see, will have ears and will hear, will have the tact to lie with the truth and to tell truths that will seem like lies. And with your word you will be able to return to the stillness, to the beginning where nothing is, where all of creation returns to silence, but your word will awaken it and you will name the gods and give voice to the trees and you will give nature a tongue to speak for you of the invisible that will again be visible through your word. And your tongue will be the word of light, a paintbrush of flowers, the word of colors that your voice will use to paint new codices."
In the year 1504, when a young Hernán Cortés first set foot on the island of Hispaniola (nowadays comprising the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and realized that he had entered a world that was not his own, his imagination became filled with desires. Like a typical only child, he was used to having anything that he longed for. When he was growing up, he never had to share his toys with anyone and as a result was a capricious child who as soon as he wanted something would take it without hesitation. With such traits, it is not surprising that on discovering new lands his mind was overcome with ambition. He had arrived in Hispaniola on his own, not owing allegiance to any army or religious order. What he brought with him, aside from delusions of grandeur and a yearning to see the world, was a desire for liberty. The persistent pampering of his mother had suffocated him and made him into a weak and sickly child. His adventurous spirit was a prisoner within the parental walls. Moreover, his parents' enormous expectations were an onus, a weighty burden that tormented him. He also felt that his parents, though they never told him outright, were disappointed with his short stature. He was not tall enough to join a cavalry or an army. So he was left with three options: to become a page in the king's court, to become a priest, or to train for a suitable profession. His father was never able to get Hernán accepted as a page, so that option was discarded. They found a place for him as an altar boy at the church, but he never made it past that position, perhaps because his character was not suited to serving God in such fashion. Ultimately, Cortés attended the University of Salamanca, where he learned Latin and studied law for a short period. On the lookout for fresh opportunities, however, he soon decided to lift anchor and set sail for the New World. He wanted to prove to his mother that he wasn't as small as she thought he was, and that he didn't need so much schooling to obtain money and power. He wanted to be rich, just like the nobles, who could do whatever they wished.
There in Hispaniola, the path his life would take depended on himself and himself alone. Almost as soon as he arrived he introduced himself to the Spanish rulers of the island, foremost among them, Governor Nicolás de Ovando and several of his close associates. In conversing with them he learned of the way of life in this new world and what it had to offer them. He didn't hesitate to suggest solutions to problems of governing, designing projects and then persuading them that he was the one who could carry them out.
Soon enough he had gained the trust and regard of the rulers, for not only had he succeeded in battles against the natives and helped to quell rebellions, but he had also designed routes and roads to cover distances in less time and in a much more secure fashion, as a result of which he was awarded a royal land grant of considerable value in a region where they planted sugarcane. For Cortés, this was not enough. His ambitious spirit wasn't satisfied. He wanted gold. All the gold he could get his hands on. He wanted to dazzle the world.
One morning, shedding the fear of always having to appear perfect, he decided to take off his boots -- which added a little height to his short stature -- and unfasten and cast off his clothes, so that he could feel his body just as nature had made it. He needed to rest his cracked feet, which during his voyage from Spain had become infected with various fungi that were difficult to treat.
The joyous prospect of walking barefoot in the sand motivated his spirit. The peace he felt that morning was so vast that he thanked God for his life and for the chance to live in such a historic period. Approaching the sea, he allowed the water to wash his feet and he felt immediate relief knowing that the water would purify his wounds the same way it purified the clothes of sailors on the high seas. During long seafaring trips, the only way to wash clothes was to bind them tightly inside a net that was cast overboard as the ship sailed on; the sea penetrated the fibers of the cloth, washed off all impurities, and left them completely clean. He remained there on the shore a long while, letting the waves wash his wounds. Staring off toward the horizon, he recalled the long days of his voyage when, overwhelmed on the ship's deck, he observed the sky and the stars until his mind opened and he understood for the first time the roundness of the earth and the infinity of the cosmos.
Later, when he emerged from the sea, he lay down in the grass so that his feet would benefit from the purifying rays of the sun. With one arm he covered his eyes to protect them from the midday light and let his mind relax. The distant sound of the waves lulled him to sleep for a moment. And that one careless moment was all it took for a venomous scorpion to sting him and release all its poison into his body.
For three days, Cortés struggled between life and death. They were days of rain and prayers. A powerful storm lashed into the island and it rained ceaselessly. Cortés did not even notice the thunder, and the Spanish companions who had helped him, listened to him, frightened by the things he said in his delirium. He spoke in Latin and other strange tongues. He told them that there was an enormous sun that continued to grow and grow, a sun that would explode and spread bloodshed everywhere. He said that human beings would fly through the sky without needing to rest on the earth, that tears and the unbearable stench of death would conquer all of his body. He pronounced the names of Moorish kings, spoke of the historic defeats of Spain, mourned the Crucifixion, entrusted himself to the Virgin of Guadalupe, shouted out curses and stated that it had been a serpent, a great serpent that had bitten him, a serpent that lifted itself up in the air and flew in front of his eyes. On and on he raved until he fell completely asleep. Some had left him for dead, and he seemed so peaceful that they made plans to bury him the morning after, but when they arrived there to proceed with the holy burial they found that Cortés had opened his eyes and miraculously recovered. Observing a transformation in him, they realized that his face radiated a new strength, a new power. They all congratulated him and told him that he had been reborn.
Copyright © 2006 by Laura Esquivel