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"Snake Woman"

Snake Woman

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19th day of October, 1667

Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores

Juana Inés,

Another letter from you on the heels of the last, and after so much silence. Your words come to relieve me in my torment. Each night I sit down to write you and fill the page with such trash. It seems I have nothing to write that I can bear to have you read. Then your letter arrives and my head teems with things to say.

Truly am I honoured by this sonnet on Guadalupe. You said you would write it for me one day and you have. These lines I love:

La compuesta de flores Maravilla,divina Protectora Americana,que a ser se pasa Rosa Mexicana,aparaciendo Rosa de Castilla;la que en vez del dragón — de quien humillacerviz rebelde en Patmos — huella ufana,hasta aquí Inteligencia soberana,

de su pura grandeza pura silla...*

But do not think you have thrown me off the trail: I know how easily this kind of elegance comes to you.

You ask if I am truly interested in the Indians’ salvation, if I am not perhaps more concerned with my ‘Americanist project,’ as you refer to it. The world’s myths, as you say, are treasures of the imagination, not to be plundered for worldly advantage. Is this what you suspect we are doing? But even if it were true, could not one answer that the gains go far beyond politics, to the healing of the American soul? Then you ask if the Franciscans are not more devoted to taming Eve than to venerating Guadalupe. Point taken.

And you are right of course — to ‘have powers over the serpent’ does not necessarily mean she must use them to destroy it.

But proceed more carefully now. You intimate that the Church has modelled the Blessed Virgin on the Egyptian Isis even while stripping her of her godhood. Then you argue persuasively — and dangerously — that the Church has struggled as much to prevent her regaining the divine plane as it has Lucifer.

As a friend I repeat the question: Are you not afraid of them making you our Queen of Wisdom? I do not think the fear an idle one.

It is becoming imperative that we develop a code so as to express these thoughts more safely. Indeed like a dragon in its death throes, the Inquisition is these days at its most dangerous, flailing out in all directions ... at perversions, heresies and false gods. At women falsely claimed to be saints, and at female poets who make Mary into Sophia, a seductress of Christ, but cloak her in the costume of a Greek wood nymph.... Be very careful, Juanita, with this rash plan of yours to finish your Divine Narcissus after all. Be more careful still to whom you show it.

un abrazo, Carlos


12th day of November, 1667

Convento de Nuestra Señora de Dolores


I wish you the happiest of birthdays. To think that I have known you almost four full years. To think you were barely fifteen.... And is it really possible I shall soon be twenty-three? My senescence may even now be revealing itself to you in the gaps in my reasoning and the infirmity of my hand.

Still not one word of the palace. Each day you become more mysterious. I cannot shake this stubborn hope of mine that you have left that den of fops. But no, as you have said, where would you go? I readily admit that for one with neither means nor connections, life in Mexico is quite difficult enough, even for a man. You could of course come here, without prejudice or conditions. A woman’s reputation is not a thing to be surrendered lightly — not even as the price of her independence — but can yours truly survive their palace so much longer than my jungle? I take you at your word: you have written how much you envy me the collegial atmosphere and the freedom of this place, the soberness of this work — my mind flashes to you on your way here and my heart races for an instant. But no, enough. We have each chosen our place, and this one, for all its satisfactions, is not palatial.

If you will say nothing of your present life, let me tell you of mine. The monastery has been astir with a discovery that lends credence to the rumours that brought Fray Cuadros here in the first place. In the jungle a full day southwest of here we’ve discovered a village, Pital, at the edge of a ruined city. Although their ways and manner of dress are unfamiliar to Brother Cuadros, the villagers do speak a dialect of the Mexican language and have moreover made themselves the custodians of a large codex, an ancient Mexican book that they venerate in one of the old temples.

We are expecting a native interpreter to arrive any day from the Indian College in Tlatelolco, but the difficulty here, as Brother Cuadros explains it, is not strictly one of language. These painted-books, which we misleadingly call histories, are only the pictorial notation, not unlike a musical score, for a performance. It is not enough to read the glyphs; they are just the cues. The performers once carried within them the script, and when they needed to, redrafted it. I am learning that history was for the ancient Mexicans a dramatic art. Nor do they seem to insist there be one sole version: it falls to each people to continually create and recreate its own. (To us, the Creoles, who find ourselves orphaned by history, how could this fail to bring inspiration?) While for the European, the age of myth ends and history begins with the birth of Christ, for the Mexican, the frontier between myth and history is fluid and the influence reciprocal. Time is both linear and cyclical, and so history is also prophecy and pattern, but nevertheless admitting of a series of variations on central themes.

You have perhaps learned all this at your wetnurse’s knee; but for me it remains most difficult to grasp that the Mexicans not only use the past to interpret the present, as we do, but the present to reinterpret the past. Am I right, then, in concluding that they see Time’s effects flowing not just forward but also backward? How strange to contemplate, as if to reverse the river of causes, make it flow uphill, see the sun setting in the east.

They keep their codex in the temple of their war god, at the western edge of this ruined city. The book rests on a stone altar the length of a man. Cut into the altar is a series of channels draining to a stone basin embellished with a relief of skulls and flowers. In the shadows, overgrown with moss, is a statue with a woman’s face, one side fleshed, the other side peeled back to reveal a death’s head. As for the codex, it is well cared for, and the villagers are protective of it. We now believe their ancestors were not just left with the book but also with the story. Someone in this village still carries that story within him... Though we have been allowed only cursory readings, Fray Cuadros is sure it comes from Cholula and deals at least peripherally with the Conquest. Most intriguingly, images of Cortés’s interpreter Malintzin appear on almost every page.

Sleep well,



8th day of December, 1667



I am sorry to take so long to reply. Your letter took longer to reach me here.

Today Pital is just a fishing village on a lake, one of many linked in a network of canals and streams. The beaches are black, laced by the runnels of freshwater springs — some steaming, others deliciously cool. The shore lies shrouded in jungle and studded with curious hillocks; but on closer inspection one sees these arranged along straight broad avenues starting out from the shore. Only those building mounds immediately surrounding the village have been kept clear of the encroaching jungle.

Your letter might have taken longer still, had not Brother Cuadros’s interpreter brought it in from the monastery on his way down from the capital. We thought he had come too late, but it turns out he is just in time. Just as we were preparing to return to the monastery last week, a village youth came to offer his help with the codex.

Although Fray Cuadros seems perfectly fluent to me, this new science, as practised by the Franciscans, requires that the Indian testimonies be recorded with rigorous precision. Which means, in this case, two interpreters — one whose mother tongue is Castilian, the other a native speaker of Nahuatl. The two must constantly check each other’s assumptions and understandings, which are in turn tested against the testimonies of others.

This former student of his is most impressive. Brother Cuadros tells me Juan de Alva Ixtlilxochitl has become their foremost translator of the Bible into the Mexican language. Their secret project is to prepare together a version of the Song of Songs for the day when the Church deems it safe to translate. Incredibly enough, Juan’s great-great-grandfather was Nezahualcoyotl himself, the legendary poet-emperor. I indulge in the hope that this might finally be incitement enough to bring you here — this is your grandfather’s work we are at. As for myself, I feel at last that my life might be close to acquiring a more weighty purpose. Surely at twenty-three it cannot be too late for me? I am like a man from the mountains first finding the sea.

And yet for all the combined skill and vast knowledge of our interpreters, the work proceeds haltingly. We suspect the boy either knows more than he lets on, or has not been completely initiated. "Did someone send you?" we ask but get no reply. At least we now have full access to the codex.

Juan de Alva and Fray Cuadros now concur: The book travelled here with a party of Mexican priests fleeing after the sack of their capital. Our codex begins where, after the kidnapping and subsequent death of Moctezuma, Cortés’s army — routed and driven from the capital — returns battered and bloody to Cholula, a city swirling with rumours. Everyone, including the Spaniards, is desperate to understand what has just happened. Then, as now, so much depends on the translation. The conquest of our New Eden hanging in the balance...

The picture script shows us the wife of a Cholulan general, who goes to meet Cortés’s beautiful interpreter in the market — the Spaniards have not eaten for three days. Each woman attempts to enchant the other, angling for information. The interpreter Malintzin apparently wins the contest, since at some point her new friend, thoroughly captivated, first warns then begs her not to go back to the compound where the Spaniards are housed. An ambush is planned. They will be wiped out to the last man, outnumbered a thousand to one. The Cholulan commanders are only waiting for the Mexican forces to join them. A matter of hours at most.

Malintzin is able to spin out their talk for long enough to piece together all the details of the attack. She then returns to the compound on the pretext of salvaging her personal affairs and forewarns the Spaniards.

This codex, then, contains the gossip she left with the general’s wife, an account of Moctezuma’s last days as a captive in the very heart of his own empire.

As I sit here among the ruins and conjure up the scene of these two women gossiping amiably in a marketplace, yet with such deadly implications, I think of Scheherezade. And of you, the palace’s most enchanting songbird singing for her life.

ever yours, Carlos


2nd day of January, 1668


Dear Juana Inés,

I wish you a prosperous new year. I truly hope you celebrated it surrounded by friends, as I have.

Cuadros is kind and learned and generous, and our Juan de Alva looks every bit the Indian prince in face and bearing yet conducts himself in all humility. He is without a doubt the most handsome man I have seen. A mestizo, and therefore more an exile in America than even we are, he works ceaselessly, speaking with the natives, learning details of their dialect, patiently listening, gaining their trust. He and Cuadros are teaching me some of the Mexican language. So you and I shall be able to converse a little in the language of your childhood when I get back to Mexico....

For my part I have been unwell, too feverish to concentrate long. At the fever’s highest pitch, their healer came to sit with me. He examined me closely for evidence of bites, then, presumably to join me in my delirium, ingested quantities of a dried toadstool in order to complete his diagnosis. I give Brother Cuadros great credit for permitting his visit. It appears my condition was precarious and Cuadros had seen native healers work wonders with fevers similarly severe. My recovery has been equally wondrous. I am being treated for a loss of soul.

Father Cuadros smiles and tells me the diagnosis is only natural, since the native Americans have three souls to the Christians’ one.

With the worst over now, I divide my time between short, shaky walks around the village and visits to the healer, where I strip naked to be swept clean of noxious spirits by egret’s wings. I then drink a bitter broth and, perspiring rivers, sleep a peaceful siesta beneath leaves the size of parasols.

My walks have been fascinating. More than once have I heard the Indians’ capacity for work praised in the same measure as their short life span is lamented. But then, I had never seen an Indian settlement not in service to the Crown. While I do see great industry, I see also many old white heads....

What strikes me most forcibly is what I can only call a genius for wringing fine tools and materials from this wild place. Cylindrical fish traps of woven reeds, three-pronged spears tipped with horn and bone. All manner of baskets and platters and ladles. Polished and painted gourds. Spinning drills for piercing jewellery, and a sort of tarabilla: by pulling at handles mounted on a drum one drives an axle that in turn twists fibres of hennequen and agave into ropes fabulously strong. The principle of the wheel, Juana, they seem to have mastered quite nicely on their own.

On the twentieth, we helped the people of Pital mark the winter solstice. Even in the ruins, they preserve the ancient knowledge of the heavens. How this gladdens my astronomer’s heart! Four days later we celebrated Christmas Mass. I should not have been surprised that these villagers have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the sacraments. Christians have after all passed through here from time to time. But Juanita, to see our native Americans so willingly taking the host into their mouth...

I know you are not a little disdainful of this theory of ours bringing Saint Thomas to the New World. Much more troubling to me is your observation that our theory risks making the spiritual glories of the Americas mere mimicry, and the Indians incapable of getting the details straight. But consider for a moment the Mexican conception of the Eucharist. For the centrepiece of their most holy festival, their priests grind seeds and grains into maize flour, then, stirring in quantities of blood, make out of this dough a man-sized figure. After which, at the close of a month of processions an arrow is shot through the figure’s chest by an archer whom they equate with the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. Each member of the community then receives with great awe and weeping a portion of the body and, having swallowed its flesh, cries out — Teocualo! god is eaten.

God is eaten, is this the savage hunger of a cannibal or the hunger of the human spirit for communion with its god? They even possess an equivalent to our Holy Wafer, in the form of little idols of dough, which they call ‘food of our soul.’ Who could help but recall the Gospel of John?

Whosever eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life....

The great glory of the Mexican spirit is to have perceived as well as any Christian theologian the deepest intent of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. We ourselves might well have worshipped exactly as they did, had Christ not revealed to us He wished otherwise. Indeed, the Mexicans understood this alternative perfectly, for it was from the Feathered Serpent that they had chosen to turn away, their god-prince who forbade the sacrifice of men and yet sacrificed himself.

You knew, perhaps, that the Mexicans baptized their infants as we do, that they practised confession leading to absolution. That their earthly paradise was lost when a woman ate of a forbidden fruit. Heresy, the Inquisition will call it, but how can it be heresy when we have so miserably failed to communicate a deeper understanding of our Faith? Monasteries and convents, the symbol of the Cross, and a young man-god who willingly sacrifices himself while promising to return — so much our peoples already shared! So much in fact that the Dominicans have convinced themselves Satan, no less, must have visited America to propagate a perversion of the Gospels. Who, indeed, could blame them? — to cross an ocean and find a faith in many ways more similar to ours than that of the Jews or the Moors.

No, Juana, it is undeniable. An overwhelming series of correspondences exists between the Old World and the New — if, as you have often argued, Egypt shaped our beliefs as much as did Greece, perhaps we should really be looking much further back than Saint Thomas. Lucian writes of grain ships of two thousand tons’ displacement leaving your beloved Alexandria. If the Egyptians could sail around Africa, and the Phoenicians dispatch fifty ships to colonise its west coast, then why not here?

Such similarities in weaving, pottery and metal work. Both architectures developing spiral staircases, sculptured doorways and lintels — pyramids and hieroglyphs. The same insignia of kingship — sceptres, canopies, palanquins, the conch shell as royal trumpet...

I walk through the ruins of this city that encompasses the village and see glimpses of these things. A long colonnade ... pillars weeping lichen and lime. Fragments of fresco under moss, itself bright as paint — a face in profile, a bundle of reeds, daubs of hectic red, cobalt. Pale lintels carved with stone flowers and leaves. Sprouting from the midst of these, living rose-pink polyps, sprays of orchids and other leaves green and alive.

I have come to see this city laid out around me as a text, a living palimpsest slowly being rewritten by older scribes of Time and Vegetation — and deciphered at hazard now as I turn, wander, glancing this way and that, as if to follow the waver of a finger down a page....

So now I turn your question back to you: If not through the visit of an Old World Apostle how to explain such bewildering similarities in the New? We have been talking here about little else lately. Fray Cuadros can go on relentlessly reciting the lists he’s compiled. Still more wondrous to me than these twinned inventions of the world are those of the spirit. In both the Mexican and Egyptian skies, a hero is birthed from the waters of darkness, beset by dragons, forges a hazardous passage through the heavens, is devoured at dusk in the Western lands of death ... then is resurrected.

For the villagers here, as for the ancient Mexicans, the world has already been created and annihilated four times. And the Fifth Sun, which passes over us today, will also die, and will be the last. At the end of every fifty-two year cycle, their universe hovers between a final destruction and a temporary renewal.

When Hernán Cortés first stepped ashore in America on Good Friday, four vast myth systems came into collision. Like four great ships rafted grindingly together in a turbulent sea, with mankind in the water, struggling not to be crushed, not to be drowned, fighting to clamber aboard any one of them and gain the shores of a new world. Good Friday, 1519, marking the death of the Son of God, was also the first day of One Reed, the year of Quetzalcoatl’s death, and also the year of his promised return. Good Friday that year fell on the first day of the Mexican new century.

In Cortés the first Mexicans saw Quetzalcoatl. In this Feathered Serpent, who forbade human sacrifice and yet sacrificed himself, the first Spaniards saw a parody of Christ, and Cuadros now sees Saint Thomas. Your Athanasius Kircher finds, in Christ, Osiris resurrected. You have seen Narcissus. In Quetzalcoatl, the god led unwittingly to incest and his own destruction, who would fail to see Oedipus?

While in you ... in you, Mexico sees the Phoenix.


29th day of January, 1668



There is so much more to this settlement than we realized. Last week I think I mentioned that a string of islands reaches almost to the shore. During a walk through the village I thought to take a certain route to meet them at the beach, drawn as I was by a curious configuration of rock there. At the edge of a clearing behind the village stand two thin jagged spires and between them a gap of perhaps three armspans. The spires are not more than two storeys high, and glisten with minerals deposited by countless small springs leaking from the rock. The formation itself is not man-made, but the hollowed-out trunk that spans that gap undoubtedly is, for through a string of perforations in the wood trickles a fine mist of spring water. When I made inquiries as to its purpose I was told at first that the mist kept the clearing cool, which indeed it does. And in reason of this coolness, I thought, many women and children work there at the water’s edge, on the fresh green grass, at looms and metates.

But what we have at last been shown is how this archipelago once was linked by bridges. Whatever its present purpose, I think this veil of mist was originally intended to conceal that first bridge from the casual onlooker. The islands constitute what I believe to have been a string of fine craters, high-sided along the periphery yet flat and open through the centres, which apparently still house many fine buildings. Even when fully populated, this city on a string of jagged emeralds would have been not just invisible from most angles of approach but virtually impregnable. And yet there is every evidence that already by the time of the Conquest, the city was abandoned save for a coterie of priests....

Juan de Alva has persuaded our hosts to take us by canoe tomorrow to the islands. It turns out that the women and children of the village live there, in comparative safety, while the men defend the approaches. But then why, I bade Juan ask, do we see women and children in the clearing on the shore? There are no villages without women, the answer.

From the beginning this place has been an illusion maintained for our benefit. And at last we are being allowed to peer through the mist. Tomorrow night I will write with a full report.



24th day of February, 1668



Thank you for writing after all this time. I will take your anger as a sign our work has at last piqued your interest.

Yes, there was darkness in the Mexican past. But Fray Cuadros and I have seen on these islands the warmth and light and joy that were its counterpoint. Juan de Alva is seeing it too — perhaps, like us, for the first time. Last night he spoke to us with enormous passion of the work of reform that his kinsman the poet-emperor Nezahualcoyotl began. The poet’s son continued it, as did Juan de Alva’s grandfather, until his work and his life were ended by the Inquisition. It is hard, even here, not to speak of this in whispers. Talk of reformation is as dangerous for Catholics and Creoles now as it ever was for the Mexicans.

Our work of transcription is nearly done. You are right of course — our theories may, in the end, accomplish no more than making the Indians imitators of not the Christians but the Egyptians. But then so are we, it seems. Which would make our similarities to the native Americans almost inevitable, I suppose, as those between more or less faithful copies of one original. But there is so much more at stake here than originality, as the followers of Sepulveda tirelessly press the argument that these Indians no more have souls than do apes, and may therefore be uprooted and enslaved without conscience or compunction.

And yes I deserve to be reminded that it was sometimes the blood of slaughtered children the Mexicans used to bind their sacred dough. Tell me, is this why you seem so determined to turn your back on these stories of your childhood?

And no I had not stopped to consider that in one obvious respect the Mexican rite is the opposite of ours: for us, the wafer and the wine become the flesh and blood of God. For them, human flesh and blood become the divine ambrosia and soma. They are more literal-minded in this than even we. But was it not the unfinished work of Nezahualcoyotl to sing of an unseen god whose hungers were less material?

These Indians are not, I know, the same people as the Mexica of the past. During these peaceful weeks here, perhaps I have been too willing to overlook the daily hardships and horrors of that past. Father Cuadros has reluctantly recited for me the gruesome calendar of passion plays — tearing the still beating heart from a victim’s chest ... decapitation ... searing off the living victim’s skin in a brazier of coals ... riddling the victim with volleys of arrows ... flaying and wearing his or her skin over one’s own...

But is it not always to the stupefying scale of the carnage that the discussion inevitably turns, as it now has with even you and me? The thousands of victims scaling steep temple steps to be stretched out over the spine of a sacrificial stone. The endless, mind-dulling repetition, the stones grown slick under foot, the gut-lifting stench ... With all the emotion of a peasant husking corn, a priest plucks a palpitating heart from a man’s chest and sends the still conscious carcass flopping down the pyramid steps.

This picture you paint is not false. And Juan de Alva admits that where once the sacred flesh was to be eaten only sparingly by the reverent few, the capital’s markets soon fairly bulged with meat for sale to any merchant hoping at the banquet table to impress a client with that most prized of dishes, the Precious Eagle Fruit. No one denies that by 1519 the Mexican empire had become a terrible engine of death. But Brother Cuadros insists the numbers we learn as schoolchildren are grossly exaggerated. One hundred and thirty thousand skulls found in one heap — who could have counted them? Where were they supposed to have been found, where are they now? What’s more, this wild story of eighty-five thousand victims sacrificed on one temple top in the span of a single day — no fewer than sixty per minute? It is all but physically impossible.

And I ask you this: How do we weigh their hunger for mass sacrifice against our thirst for massacre?

Our sky, like theirs, is dominated by eternity, but the eternities these two skies conceal are mirrored opposites — ours a brief death and an eternal life, theirs a brief life and an eternal death. For these strange and wondrous people of our America, the world, the cosmos entire, is a flowery temple dedicated to death, with the sacrificial stone its central altar and the temple itself poised at the edge of an abyss. Four suns, all destroyed. The close of every fifty-two year cycle a time of terror and omen and reproach — when a tenuous New Fire must somehow be struck in the open chest of Night.

I wonder, did you already know they call this wrenching-free of the heart ‘husking the corn’? That to give birth is to ‘take a prisoner,’ and to die in childbirth is to be made a sacrifice?

Juana, if you can just permit yourself to suspend for a moment your admirable sympathy for the sacrificed, you will admit that to offer up to your god the thing you hold dearest — your life, your very heart — is at least a faint echo of Christ’s sacrifice to the world. Though the victims are made to drink the ‘obsidian wine’ to calm their fear, most go on to die without resisting. After questioning Juan de Alva and Fray Cuadros closely I believe for the Mexican the greatest privilege was this, the warrior’s death, precisely because of the sublime opportunity it represents: to choose his fate, and so take upon his own flesh the impress of the World’s death. It was the hearts of men that sped the Sun, it was the Precious Eagle Fruit that fed even Time, and none fed as well or as long as the warrior’s heart, of the captive who chose to die well for his captor.

I confess it leaves me sick at heart to contemplate the bloody strangeness of this history, the awful poetry of our Eden. Yet how extraordinary it must have felt, to be desperately needed by one’s gods.

And I have been giving thought to what you seem to be suggesting: Christ, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, Oedipus, Narcissus — all tricked or betrayed and brought low by love. All loved by goddesses, nymphs, priestesses. Woman as deceiver, as nemesis and whore — or the woman of sorrows, who has failed to protect....

Indeed the Mexican war-god Blue Hummingbird of the South triggers his first war by arranging for the daughter of a neighbouring king to be married to a Mexican. The father arrives at the wedding ceremony to see a Mexican priest standing in the bride’s place wearing her flayed skin. At the end of another fifty-two year cycle, the Blue Hummingbird beheads his own sister to spur the Mexicans to wage war for the promised land. Another woman of discord, another century of violence. After that of Emperor, the second highest office in the Mexican hierarchy is that of the Snake Woman, so called after the goddess, Cihuacoatl, who leaves a sacrificial blade in the cradle of every newborn. It is to the man who occupies that office that the greatest number of blood sacrifices is made.

More Snake Women — Coatlicue, Serpent Skirt, wearing an obsidian blade swaddled like a child on her back, and a necklace of skulls. Chicomecoatl, Seven Snake, crying out in the road at night, some say for a lost child, others, for human hearts and blood.

The Mexicans did everything possible to exaggerate her monstrosity and, killing her, unleashed their wars.

Here in Pital, in the broken temple of their war god, the blood trail is still fresh, the pug marks still distinct. Is that it, is this the book you would have us resist opening? That in these signs — not so ancient, not quite buried — lies the contour of the Apocalypse, the key to its violence, its symbolic notation, its codex....


2nd day of March, 1668


Juana Inés,

Until your last letter I had been thinking about going on to Yucatan. Fray Cuadros is leaving soon for Vera Cruz. From there, he and a few others will launch their peaceful conquest of the Maya, among whom there have been heard legends of a bearded god called Votan and of an underground treasure of books guarded by his priestess. I believe in Cuadros at least and wish them Godspeed.

Today Juan de Alva has asked me if I thought I could stay and live here. But for all the peace and beauty we have found, so unexpectedly, I cannot reconcile myself. Cuadros has the gift for living among an alien people; I do not. I have for too long felt an alien in my own land. For his own reasons, Juan cannot stay either, and bound together in our separate exiles, the Creole and the half-caste, we have I think become true friends.

Now that we have finished the translation and finished asking all our foolish questions, the elders of the village have come forward and offered, as a parting gift, to perform the codex for us tonight. Is it truly a parting gift, I wonder, or as a seal on our promise to leave? Brother Cuadros is worried we will be called on to share this food of visions they call peyotl.

I sit here alone at the top of a ruined temple in the midst of a jungle calling out to itself. The monkeys are roaring like lions. In the forest it is already night. It speaks to me, day and night, this hot forest, but in tongues I do not know. Birds that croak like goats, the buzz and clatter of insects shaped to inconceivable ends. The soughing of branches in the wind off the lake, and back in the trees a rich belling, like bottles half-full of water dropped into a pool....

Over the lake a half-moon rises pocked and golden. A buttery light sits on the skin like a second skin. Young girls go about the clearing lighting torches. Musicians arrive with their instruments. Slit drums, little gourds on sticks, flutes of clay and reed, notched thigh bones. A man brings a kind of vihuela or guitar with a pumpkin belly. A few dancers gather, bringing animal masks, shell tunics, colour whisks of iridescent feathers.

From the black forest at my back, moths the colour of vellum float past toward the clearing, eyes glinting ruby.... I sit brooding on the implications of the drama about to play itself out below me.

So accustomed are we to seeing Cortés as protagonist that this new codex cannot help but startle; for revealed therein as neither god nor apostle, he drives the plot merely through his insatiable appetite for the abstractions of power and gold. Meanwhile, Moctezuma, captive in his own palace, brooding on his fate, retreats to the seclusion of the fabled Black Room, its stinking walls smeared in blood. Is he the blood-spattered devil rumoured by the Mexicans themselves to gorge daily on his favourite dish, the tender flesh of newborns? Is he a monster of vicious passions with four hundred concubines, among them his insatiable sister? Or is he the chaste and mystic philosopher-king described by the Spaniards who knew him, and who after all would have had every motive to vilify?

Moctezuma knows that choosing the warrior’s death at the hands of his captor means submitting unflinchingly to its ironies and humiliations. Their chief instrument is Cortés’s ignorant and slow-witted country chaplain, Father Olmedo, more mercenary than priest, who has the effrontery to lecture, to try to convert Moctezuma II — the most learned man in the New World, its equivalent of Saint Augustine. The Emperor whose title is the Speaker. Yet now, who else is there to talk to, who else will enter the Black Room, who else can help sort through the haunting intersections of their hopes and faiths?

The Mexicans are a chosen people, with a duty to convert by force the peoples of this earth — force them to worship and to nourish the Sun, keep it moving through the heavens, serve the god of war who takes and holds all other gods prisoner. Moctezuma is not merely responsible for his people, his empire. No, he has custody of the very universe, the frail Fifth Sun. Has any mortal known such a crushing destiny? In his place what man, Christian or pagan, would not have succumbed to doubt, to guilt? For by now the brief rise of the Mexica must seem, to the prisoner Moctezuma, more and more like a time of cataclysm, famine and death, perpetual war. And sin — the Mexicans understand sin, know the stench of rotting roots, of a sacred tree overwatered.... Fifty-thousand sacrifices a year, ten to purchase each hour of sun.

You and I, Juana, have spoken often of destiny. Mine, I thought, was a simple one, until I met you. Their destiny has led them here, and his, to this: to suffer until his death the insolence of a dullard and the mocking eyes of this woman who sees everything but whose own outline is constantly shifting. If he is elusive, she is multi-form. One name could never suffice. She is forever sloughing skins, mistress of tongues, master of language, oracle. La Malinche interprets for him, who speaks for the people. But, a prisoner now, without her he cannot speak to the people. And so for a brief time one person — a woman — occupies the two highest offices of Tlatoani and Cihuacoatl, Snake Woman and Speaker. Small wonder the Indians revere the woman they claim to revile.

This woman controls the information. Without her he cannot act. But she serves Cortés, and her words have the power to humiliate and deceive. She knows just how to goad him, to accent the ironies, to underscore the chaplain’s plodding insolence, just as once she knew how to temper and smooth the rash words Cortés first spoke to him. But the Emperor knows that, more even than words, she interprets actions. This is why he needs her now, and she understands. La Malinche understands how to exploit the confusions that surround her. She knows too how to exploit the growing confusion in Moctezuma’s mind.

She is everywhere, the great mother whore in the arms of all his adversaries. She tempts him with her beauty, offers to become his lover as she has with Cuauhtemoc, FallingEagle, the commander designated to replace him. But she also knows at times Moctezuma still thinks of Cortés, his captor, as his father and so must not lie with her. Mother of mercy, she holds the power to comfort and forgive. She holds the key to his redemption and to the encrypted destiny of the world. Woman of discord, she grows to fill his mind.

I cannot help reading our transcription of the codex with a sense of what might have been if not for her. And for me, had I not met you....

In a marketplace, two women sit gossiping, suspended in time, on the eve of one battle and the morrow of another, reducing all battles and all outcomes to this one moment. One woman tells the other of an emperor she has known, how just before his death she held up to him his own fallen image, how she became his eyes, his ears, his voice. His nemesis.

Leaning back against a warm stone in the midst of a nervous, bustling market, this woman who is all women and none complacently pats her belly that ripens with Cortés’s son, with the fruit of a new and hybrid race on a continent that she, the new Eve, has given a new destiny.

This jungle all about me lies littered with the shattered symbols of our New World, yet I think of nothing but you. And I am not alone. The Viceroy’s cousins offered me a parting gift also. It is one I had thought to keep it to myself but now share with you: that secretly they have begun calling you the Pythoness of Delphi.

Whenever I have asked you to join me, you have always said no, but in this last letter you say you cannot, you say it is too late. What has happened? Something is wrong, I know it. I will be in Mexico in two weeks. Please, hold on. Too late for what?


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