Song of the Hummingbirdby Graciela Limon
Fiction. From Aztec princess to slave and concubine, Hummingbirdor Huitzitzilín in her native Nahuatlrecounts her life during the Spanish conquest of Mexico to Father Benito, the priest who seeks to confess and convert her, to offer her an absolution she neither needs nor wants. Instead, she forces him to see the conquest, for the first time,… See more details below
Fiction. From Aztec princess to slave and concubine, Hummingbirdor Huitzitzilín in her native Nahuatlrecounts her life during the Spanish conquest of Mexico to Father Benito, the priest who seeks to confess and convert her, to offer her an absolution she neither needs nor wants. Instead, she forces him to see the conquest, for the first time, through the eyes of the conquered. Other novels by Graciela Limon available from SPD include IN SEARCH OF BERNABE, THE DAY OF THE MOON, ERASED FACES, and THE MEMORIES OF ANA CALDERON.
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Coyoacanthe outskirts of Tenochtitlan-Mexico1583.
The Franciscan monk approached the convententrance, cautiously tugged at the rope that rang the
steps of the gatekeeper. When a small window cut intothe door opened, he caught a glimpse of a woman's wrinkledface. The white wimple framing her head hid anyother signs of age.
"Good morning, Sister. I'm the new confessor,Father Benito Lara."
The nun had small, myopic eyes that stared at thepriest's face unabashedly. "You're young. Much youngerthan the one we had before you."
She shut the panel with a thud that forced him toblink involuntarily, then he heard the brass key turnloudly in the lock, followed by the creaking of hinges asthe door lumbered open. Father Benito stepped into thevast cloister enclosed within the convent. He wasmomentarily halted by the nun who took time to scanhim from top to bottom. She saw that he was of a mediumbuild, thin, light-complected, and that his hair,already beginning to thin to baldness, was chestnut-colored.The rough, brown wool of the habit he wore was asyet not frayed or threadbare.
"I see that you haven't been a friar that long. Let ussee how this land treats you and if you can accustomyourself to it."
Father Benito did not catch the full meaning of thenun's words, but he nevertheless followed her quietlywhen she motioned him to come into the corridor. To hisleft, the priest took in the images of saints, prophets andangels sculpted into the walls. To his right, his eyesscanned a garden shaded by orange, lemon and pomegranatetrees. The place was lined with clay pots filledwith geranium andbougainvillea flowers. A large stonefountain was at the center of the garden. As he walked,he could make out the sound of splashing water, its tinklingmingled with the scraping of his sandals on the tilefloor. He followed silently until the nun led him to asecluded nook at the end of the main cloister, where hewas able to make out the figure of an elderly woman. Hesaw that she was sitting in the center of a patch of palesunlight.
"She's been nagging Mother Superior to get her aconfessor. Really, she can be such a nuisance eventhough she is an old woman! She knew that we had towait until a new priest was assigned to the convent, butoh, no! She demanded special attention right away! Shekeeps reminding us that she's nooo-bi-li-ty." The nunpuckered her mouth and mockingly slurred the word.
"Please, Sister, it's no bother. Besides, as you say,she is very old, and perhaps she senses that her end isnear. The spirit many times tells the body. . ."
The nun did not allow Father Benito to finish."These people are not like us, Father. They have no spirit!"
Even though she had mumbled, the priest made outwhat she said.
"Don't say that, Sister. You're wrong. We're all God'schildren. Now, if you will allow us to be alone for a while.I'll let you know when I'm finished."
When the priest was alone, he stood for a long whilegazing at the frail woman with the waning autumn lightspilling over her bony shoulders. She appeared to be lostin thought and seemed to sing as she rocked back andforth in her chair. He realized that she was even olderthan he had thought when he first saw her. Her skinlooked brittle and transparent, yellowish-brown in tone.His eyes shifted to concentrate on the old woman'shands and noticed that they were tiny and tightlyencased in thin skin; they fluttered nervously from timeto time.
"Like brown swallows," he thought.
He stepped closer, hoping to get her attention, butshe was oblivious to his presence. As he got closer to her,he confirmed that he had been right. She was singing,but he could not make out the words of her song. FatherBenito was now so near the old woman that he could seethat her face was small, skeletal, and that one of her eyesockets was empty; its darkened hollow was markedwith scars. Her hair was white, coarse and stringy, andit was fastened tightly at the nape of her neck.
The priest was gaping at the old woman with suchconcentration that when her face suddenly whippedaround to look at him, he was startled. He flinched withunexpected fright. Her good eye, he saw, was bird-likeand it glared at him with a black, flinty pupil that madehim shiver.
"Ah! You must be the priest who has come to hearmy last confession."
Father Benito was taken by surprise and he couldn'tfind words with which to answer. As he was scoldinghimself for being so awkward, he heard himself say,"Last confession? Senora, what makes you think such athing?"
She giggled, exposing toothless gums. Her nosehooked downward, giving her the look of an eagle. "PerhapsI should say, my only confession, because I havenever told any of your priests the real sins of my life.Come, sit here by me."
She pointed to a small chair that Father Benito hadnot seen before. He moved closer to her as he tried tomake himself comfortable in the seat. She stared at himsteadily, making him squirm and fidget with one of thethick knots on the cord that hung from his waist. Notknowing what to say, the priest mutely reached into hispocket and pulled out a purple stole. The woman lookedat him with more intensity as he clumsily fixed the stripof cloth around his shoulders.
"You're very young. Where were you born?"
"In Carmona, Senora," he stammered.
"Over there?' She pointed her nose at a spot somewherebehind him. He unthinkingly swiveled his head tolook at where she had pointed, but saw only the fadedstucco of the convent wall. After a few moments, however,he understood what she had asked.
"Yes, I'm from Spain. I was born in a small villageoutside of Seville." He paused for a few seconds, waitingfor her to speak, but she had returned to her silence.Clearing his voice, Father Benito asked, "And you, Senora,where were you born?"
With that, the woman returned to her silence.
Father Benito again cleared his throat. "Shall we begin?"
She ignored his question. "I was born here, wherethis building, this house of women has now been constructed.My father's house was built on this very place."
Seeing that the priest was confused by what shehad said, she added more. "That housethe first onewasdestroyed by Captain General Cortes before he gavethe land to your people. He and his captains did much ofthat, but I suppose it was all meant to be."
The woman focused her eye on the monk. "How oldare you?"
She ran her tongue over dry lips as she wagged herhead in calculation. I was born eighty-two years ago,during the Melancholy Days. In your reckoning, springof the year 1501. What I am remembering happenedmany years before you were born. But perhaps you knowsome of the details of those times. I mean those dayswhen your captains and your four-legged beasts cameacross the waters to infest our world."
Father Benito was jolted by the sharp edge of herremark, and for an instant he felt like retorting with hisown ideas, reminding her of the blessings the Spaniardshad brought to her people. He decided instead to keephis words to himself. After all, he told himself, she wasonly an old woman and they had just met.
The woman sighed, moving her head from side toside despondently. "We were guided by a divine trinity.One brother was all-knowing, the other was a preacherand priest, but the last one thirsted for human hearts."
"You're confused, Senora. That is not the Trinity at all."
Father Benito's voice was urgent, rising above thesoft garden sounds; it echoed in the hollows of the cloisterceilings.
She ignored the monk and spoke as if lost in thesolitude of another time, another place. "With the passageof time my people grew to revere this third brother,forgetting the good one, listening to words prompting theMexicas to wage war in this land and to gather newofferings for him, the lord of blood. So it was that mypeople abandoned the planting of maize and became anation of tiger and eagle warriors."
Father Benito's body shivered with the same revulsionhe used to feel when he was a schoolboy listening tohis teachers tell of what the explorers had encounteredin the Indies. He remembered letters, circulated andread everywhere, even from church pulpits. He recalledvivid descriptions of bloodied temples, hearts carved outby obsidian knives, human flesh devoured by blood-encrustedwarlocks who called themselves priests. Hismind flashed back to the solemn requiem mass that hadbeen dedicated to the memory of two soldiers, natives ofhis hometown; they had been slashed and eaten by thosesorcerers. He was deep into his memories when he wasstartled back to the present by the woman's words.
"In the beginning, I didn't understand why thetribes surrounding us became our enemies so easily, butnow that I am old, it's clear to me. It was because of thatgod's constant demand for human hearts that webecame feared, and then detested. It had to be! Then, ontop of it all, the preacher god unleashed his wrath on ourfaithlessnessjust as he had promised. It was at thattime that your people came to devastate us."
Father Benito knew that this was not a confession,but he was intrigued by what the woman was saying. Hehad never heard of those events told by someone likeher, someone native to that land. He moved closer to her,straining to grasp her lilting words, which had becomemore and more accented as she drifted back in time.
"The Mexica people were splintered by theSpaniards and we were cast out of our kingdom likescattered leaves. We had thought that we were the lightof the universe and that our city was the mirror of theworld. Instead we were uprooted and destroyed by yourpeople. When it first happened, we were wracked byhunger and pestilence; all we did was weep because wesaw that now we were the strangers in this land, notyou. Our warriors were humiliated and died with dirt intheir mouths. As for me, I was young then, and with mychildren I walked aimlessly among crowds of lost, driftingpeople. Like everyone else, I wailed, hoping that thegods would feel pity."
She stopped abruptly as if realizing that she hadrevealed secrets unintentionally. After some momentsshe sighed, and whispered, "But that was then. It's overnow."
Father Benito felt embarrassed by what he hadheard. Not knowing what to say, he waited, hoping thatthe right words would come to him. Nothing elseoccurred to him, so he decided to have the woman beginher confession.
Senora, the morning is drawing to a close, and Imust return to say mass this afternoon. Please, shall webegin? In name of the Father, and of the Son, and of theHoly Gh. . ."
She interrupted the priest. "You want to hear mysins, don't you?" Her voice was shrill and transformedfrom its previous soft tones. When Father Benito staredat her without answering, she added, "You don't evenknow my name, and you want to hear my sins."
"It is you who have called me to come. Please! Let usbegin." This time he silently made the sign of the cross.
"My name is Huitzitzilin, but because I know thedifficulty my language causes your tongue, you may callme Hummingbird, since that is what the word means."She smoothed the folds of the shawl that outlined thesharp angles of her shoulders.
"Although I am now destitute, I am of noble birth, adescendent of Mexica kings. My life has been a pathwhich has taken unforeseen turns. The first of thoseunexpected twists happened long before the arrival ofyour captains, when I was still a girl. On that day Zintleand I went swimming.'
"Swimming is not a sin."
"Is fornication a sin?"
Father Benito blushed so intensely that the skinaround his eyebrows took on a purplish hue. He wasagain without words, so he averted his face from herquestioning gaze.
"Zintle was my cousin. He, too, was noble and likeme, he paid a high price for that happenstance. You'llhear more about him later on. On the day I am speakingof, he and I ran toward the river. We romped andjumped. We skipped and lunged. We ran in a straightpath, then we snaked back and forth, all the while lettingout whoops and squeals of joy. We ran, unconsciousof our young vigor, taking the gift of energy lightly. Weran until we lost our breath. Then we flopped on thewatercress that covered the river embankment. I canstill smell its sweetness, its damp, green matting.'
Huitzitzilin stopped speaking and turned to look atthe monk. She saw that even though his head was lowered,he seemed to be listening to her.
"We laughed, snorting through our noses and thengiggling even more at the sounds we were making. Whatmade us laugh so much? I don't know."
"Senora, forgive me, but this is really not. . ."
Huitzitzilin held up her hand stiffly, sticking it infront of the monk's face as she countered his complaint.It's coming!"
"The sin. That's what you want to hear, isn't it?"
This time Father Benito's face reflected irritation,but he kept it to himself
"It was Zintle's idea. He said that we should take offour clothes. I did. When I looked at him I saw that wewere different. At the time, I had not yet reached myfirst bleeding."
The woman stopped speaking and looked at FatherBenito. He was self-consciously staring at the tiled floor,so she returned to her confession.
"We jumped into the water, splashing each other,screaming shrilly, as if the drops burned our skin. Wepretended fear when one would push the other into thewater, and we scooped gulps of water into our mouths,spitting it out, spraying each other.
"Then Zintle did something that both of us thoughtvery funny. He waded out to the edge, plucked a largegreen leaf from an overhanging tree, poked a holethrough its center with his finger, and then hooked theleaf onto his penis. We were both astounded that the leaflooked exactly like a green and gold stemmed flowerclinging to his body. At first we stared at it, then weburst out laughing. Then he dared me to do the samething, but all I could do was stick my finger through aleaf and hold it tightly to my body.
"When we tired of so much laughing, we left thewater to lie on the grass to dry ourselves. Without sayinganything, Zintle rolled over onto his side, his facejust above mine. We had never done this before, andeven though we knew that it was wrong for a maiden todo such a thing before marriage, we did nothing to stopit. There was something different in his eyes, and Ithink he saw the same look in my eyes. Soon I felt hisbreath on my cheeks and his lips brushing my eyes, mychin, my lips. Then he got on top of me and I could feelhis masculine part hovering in the area between mylegs."
"Senora, please! You can be sure that I understandclearly that you fornicated with that boy. You need notdescribe it any further." Father Benito got to his feet andstood in front of Huitzitzilin. He looked down at heruplifted face; his eyes were stern. "Besides, I cannotbelieve that you have not confessed this sin before. Awoman of your age. . ."
"No! I have never said this to anyone because I havenever told anyone about my life."
The priest seemed perplexed. "Why are you tellingme these things?"
"Because I will soon die, and someone must knowhow it was that I and my people came to what we arenow. Please, young priest, sit here and listen to me."
Father Benito obeyed her despite his evident desireto leave. "I absolve you of your sins." With one hand heldflat against his chest he lifted the other in preparationto utter the prayer of absolution.
But Huitzitzilin interrupted him. She spoke rapidly."Wait a minute! There's more."
The priest, hand frozen in midair, quizzically echoedthe woman's words. He gaped at the woman for a longtime before he realized that his mouth was hangingopen. Knowing that he looked foolish, he clamped itshut; the clashing sound caused by his teeth startledhim. He looked down at his feet for some time before hedecided what to do.
"I must leave now. I'll return tomorrow at thistime."
THE PAPER TRAIL
By Dorothea Straus
Copyright © 1997 Dorothea Straus.All rights reserved.
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