Her Many Names

Her Many Names

Art Credit: From the film "El sueño de Malinche"  directed by Gonzalo Suárez, illustrated by Pablo Auladell

We do not know the first of her many names.

Her birth language was really two languages: one for common people, and one for nobility and priests. She understood both.

Learning the high language required the ability to speak in echoing juxtaposition. Just like two human eyes combine their separate images to create the illusion of a whole, it was a way of saying two things to imply a compound third. To speak -- to think -- in such a stereoscopic way had to be carefully taught.

For example, to say “poetry” in the high language, she must say “flower/song.” To describe the common people, her teachers taught her to say “tail/wing.” The tail and the wing referred to the body of a great bird that represented the whole of society.

Everyone in her world, though diverse and always at war, had a common love of birds. Their home had a splendid diversity of them; a riot of colors painted on feathers.

Even dreams were made from doubleness. For centuries there was a collective premonition of a snake/bird that could slither/fly through the air/water. It was not an ordinary snake, but rather The Snake.

The Snake was the wind. He was a steward who cleansed the way for the rain; the gods' own street cleaner. When you saw the dust trembling under a dark sky, and you waited for a torrent of rain and the release of thunder, you were in the presence of the Snake.

Huddled under hastily found shelter, you imagined him. You knew that his body and head were ringed with an ecstatic assemblage of feathers. Their colors were made from unreality. Your eyes did not see them so much as your body registered a gasp of shock.

The flower, and the song. The Snake, and the Feather. Close to the ground, flying through the sky. She could say two things to say one subtle, impossible thing.

She was born on the eastern rim of civilization, where the true power of the world began to blend into the embers of a much older, but now fading culture. This liminal place, a river meeting a wide gulf, was known to be the hiding place of the Snake.

After her birth, her mother buried her umbilical near the hearth and prayed that she would have a settled life. However, being on the edge of a conquering civilization means being in the maw of the jaguar – the place where war must come next. So her mother's prayers would be for nothing.

At that time, the world was knit together by necessities imposed by war. The known universe was a cauldron: a steaming, simmering stew of violence. For centuries, the boil approached but never quite came.

At the center of a whirling vortex in that cauldron was a City. It emerged out of a lake, nestled in a high valley. Long causeways stretched like tongues from the City to reach the shores. Pyramids, apparently floating, loomed over everything. The sky was permeated with a drum, or perhaps many drums played at once. Their sound slowed time. If you had a dream about it, you likely saw the silhouette of a body falling, and you felt the drum like an augur, hollowing your bones. You woke choking and crying, clutching your heart.

Whole towns and their people were mere flotsam in the cauldron, inevitably drawn to the City and its floating pyramids. When her town lost its own fight, it acquired a debt beyond its means. History doesn't record the deliberation, but in its despair the town concluded it must sell its own children to survive. There were a neighboring people with a need for labor still living in the remnants of the elder culture. Better slavery to strangers than total erasure.

So, she was sold. The process of selling was not simple. First she went to a scraggly town even further on the hinterland. No one bothered to build anything real in that sad, hectic place. Mud and sticks were assembled into something like buildings. The paltry market was excused from the cauldron because it was useful to the City. Where else could a town go to pawn their children in order to pay their debts?

Before long she was sold again, and found herself deeper in the territory of the old culture. She added their language to her birth language, the two-languages-in-one.

Languages were easy for her. If you could say two things at once, you could slither/fly through the common registers of simpler speech. Perhaps you could navigate simpler minds, too.

Although the elder culture had undoubtedly fallen from its heights, it was still wealthy. Like many decadent cultures before them, their nobility had gradually all become merchants – few true warriors left among them.

The old culture could make something few others could: a beautiful cotton cloth. Their commitment to cloth surpassed reverence. Only the privileged hands of wives and daughters of the culture could do the spiritual work of weaving. An endless parade of slaves did everything else: the preparation of food, the fetching of water, the care of children, the agricultural work. Everything except weaving.

So her childhood and adolescence was spent watching, but forever excluded, from the holy labor of other women. Every mundane and dirty work was hers.

We do not know the first of her many names; we also don't know her second name among these people. It would not have been an honorable or beautiful name. It was like the handle of a jug – the part of herself that was made to be manipulated, to be commanded.

There were stories of strange men seen around the coast. The stories were vague and unimpressive; an accumulation of tales over the years about strange boats and hairy faces.

The rumors took on new urgency. The new story was that an impossibly large boat was hovering somewhere offshore. It was moving here and there, supposedly searching for something. Four little boys bravely (and foolishly) tried to approach it to trade. They were kidnapped. The stories became darker.

Then they became real: the ship found her new town.

The ship floated in the mouth of the river, waiting. Hundreds of the town's guard gathered on the shore, observing the ship and chattering nervously. They gathered canoes and their weapons, and gingerly made their way into the water. They were close enough to hear the lapping of water against the hull of the big boat. A dog barked occasionally, and the sound of men's voices carried indistinctly over the water.

The dog must have been bored of the boat. Once the ship drifted close enough to land, he saw the shore and slipped between the distracted sailors. A man on the ship yelled after his dog, but it was too late. The dog was in the water, paddling to the shore, panting happily.

The anxious waiting, the strangeness, and the stories of kidnap were too much for the guard. Someone shot an arrow at the dog. In seconds that single shot became a brutal shower.

The ship and the guard seemed to hold their breath together. There was an angry shout and a few more moments of tense silence. Then there was hell: a cacophony from the ship and a typhoon gale of hot, piercing metal. Some members of the guard died where they stood. Others were merely injured. Confused and bleeding, the guard retreated.

The ship stayed where it was, quiet, looming. A few well hidden scouts left on the beach heard the water against the shore, tense voices debating in the distance, but no more barking.

The next day, a few canoes were dispatched to try to speak to the crew of the ship. History doesn't record how they signaled their peaceful intent as they approached. They must have done so, because they survived the attempt.

The men on the ship brought out a prisoner who could speak the elder language. He had a harrowing story to tell.

"These men are dangerous, and they want treasure and food. They want it regularly, and they will kill to get it."

The lead negotiator from the town did something clever next. In his mind's eye he saw the swirling cauldron, with the City at its center. He now imagined it brought to boil.

So, he said something like "the real people they should see are in the City to the west. They have gold, food, more than you can imagine."

They moved on to some inconsequential bartering, more to smooth over the killing than to make anyone wealthy. The real objective of course was to get the four kidnapped children back. Promises were made.

The boys were not in the canoe when the negotiators left the ship.

Hours later the wind shifted, and as quickly as it appeared, the ship was gone.