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"Fire-bow "

FireBow

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Once, we had sat under the stars, we two, through every phase of the moon: the snowfields above the courtyard glimmering in starlight or moonlight, or towering blind in the darkness of new moons; and there Abuelito would spin out stories of the wilderness and of discovery, lost empires and lost knowledge, cities of gold and white cities of the sun. From the fire, sparks started up like fireflies - and one night there were real fireflies - as we prodded the embers with our traveller’s sticks. In that enchantment of lights hovering and blinking all about us, Abuelo told me he had seen our volcano answer one night with its own crimson shower the swarms of shooting stars falling all that August night, firefly-green, through the sky.

With the years, such flights of poetry from him had grown rarer, the evenings shorter, the silences longer. During the past year I had hardly spent any time by the fire. There were hardly any new stories, which wouldn’t have been quite so bad if so much repetition had kept polishing the old ones. Instead, I heard him speaking now in a tired sort of blur, often trailing off... Not only would he forget the details, he’d forget he’d been talking at all. Many nights he stayed out there alone. But sometimes Josefa or María, or even our mother, would go out to sit with him for a little. Afterwards, he would go back to the library. When I got up in the night I could sometimes see the lantern casting its light from above his armchair deep in the corner.

But now the firepit was once again the indispensable end to our day in the library. And it was almost as before. After one of these new evenings together and the fire had finally burned down, I lurched exhausted to my feet. I hugged him and kissed his dry white hair.

"Good night, Abuelo."

"It was a good day, was it not?" he said softly, looking up at me. And I remembered. The many times, when I was just a young child, that he had carried me from the firepit and tucked me into bed. If I woke, he would kiss my hair, and ask if it was not just the finest of days. To which I would murmur in answer as I answered now.

"Sí, Abuelito. We had a wonderful time...."

[]

I could help him with his stories now since I knew most of them. More confident of finishing them, perhaps, he made more of an effort. And at last I began to sense that to keep the blur in his right eye and the blankness in his cheek from tripping up his tongue, the effort it cost him was not small.

He spoke of such things as the comet that hung like a sword over the hills of Rome for months after Caesar’s death. Caesar had ruined the republic with his presumption. I was hoping to hear a word or two about Cleopatra next, but Abuelito wasn’t finished with Julius Caesar just yet. "Pontifex Maximus, he appointed himself, Angelina. Infallible high priest, bridge to God! The comet, they called the Soul of Caesar, called it certain proof of his divinity. And a very neat trick it is to establish one’s divinity by dying - do you not think? Dictator for Life, indeed."

Other stories, some I’d heard often, he no longer liked to tell. However much I asked about the Mexico of our day - the Royal University, its library, the city’s drainage schemes and countless construction scandals - it had become for him an emblem of fallen greatness, of all the chances we, perhaps he, had lost.

But the Mexico of the Triple Alliance he would always happily talk about. Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, Tlacopan. The valley of the three capitals, three kings. Some things I could add to the telling. I knew that unlike the Athenian alliance at the time of Melos, Mexico’s never dissolved. It held firm to the final hour. And I knew that Tenochtitlan was the greatest in power, as Texcoco was in learning. In Europe of that time, the only city to compare it with was Florence. Texcoco of the greatest poets, astronomers, historians. Texcoco of the archives, the painted books, the annals. For me, Texcoco was Athens, then Alexandria, and in the end, Florence.

Tenochtitlan was always Rome.

The last time Abuelo spoke of this was the last time we ever talked of the past. Both eyes were alive again that night with an emerald fire. He had just been telling me of his intention, as a young man, to explore to the very tip of tierra del fuego, just to see for himself the land did not simply trail away into smoke. Now he spoke with a passion I had not seen in so very long, and this night, three stories were new. Three. An unhoped for bounty.

We had been in the library after dinner and were late lighting the fire. It was an hour or two before moonrise. On a night so clear, the skies above our mountains cannot be called dark at all. The darkness is in the land. Its dark rises up and through that sky of lights in finest tendrils ... like shoots through the brilliant muslin of a bedding cloth. We walked out of the library together, out from under the arcades, and to move beneath that sky, to arrange the tinder and kindling then strike these tiny kindred sparks under the eyes of such multitudes, we were touched by a shyness ... as perhaps of newlyweds before a vast and joyous wedding party. Or so it seems, looking back.

As Abuelo drilled sparks into the tinder I blew softly, then as little pink and tangerine flames licked up, blew myself dizzy. It was like coaxing a flower into bloom. Once it took, I backed up, my bottom seeking out the smooth hollow I liked to sit in. Finding it I sat, facing east toward our mountains. Less trusting of his bottom, Abuelo reached out a tentative hand and settled stiffly into his place.

The first of Grandfather’s three tales was about Nezahualcoyotl. FastingCoyote. Emperor of Texcoco and the greatest poet and philosopher of all the Mexica.

Abuelo turned and fixed me with his light green eyes. "This FastingCoyote founded a Council of Music - not just musicians but painters, astronomers, physicians. Poets and historians. This, at the exact moment the Medicis were founding their Academy. Can you imagine if they had known of the other’s existence? Here was such a ruler as even Lorenzo the Magnificent would have been honoured to know. Such a synod that would have been!"

There came a time in the Triple Alliance when a particularly brutal general was to take the throne. To block his ascension, FastingCoyote offered to subject his people, the city of Texcoco, to the rule of Tenochtitlan. Forever. "This is the calibre of man we are dealing with, Angelina. A generation before the Conquest, FastingCoyote will give proof of his vision yet again. The leadership of the Mexica is now in the hands of one man, Moctezuma the First. FastingCoyote goes forth from Texcoco to warn him, as the poet’s son will one day go to repeat his warning to Moctezuma II as Cortés approaches. Do you see, Angel? Disaster was near."

Sparks shot up like molten beads as Grandfather poked at the flames. I had never really seen the boyishness in him. The soft pelican pouch at his neck seemed almost to pout as his chin nodded and wagged at the fire. His thoughts turned to a temple that FastingCoyote had raised, a temple to the Unknown God. My grandfather praised the king’s delicate poetry, regretted how many of his writings had been lost when the archives of Texcoco were burned by the friars. Abuelo recited a beautiful fragment in Castilian for me, and I decided to try to put it in Nahuatl again for him. I would ask for Xochitl’s help with the translation and tomorrow night recite it. It did not occur to me that she knew it in the original.

I, Nezahualcoyotl, ask this:

Is it true one really lives on the earth?

Not forever on earth,

only a little while here.

Though it be jade it falls apart,

though it be gold it wears away,

though it be quetzal plumage it is torn asunder.

Not forever on earth,

only a little while here.

Abuelo grew quiet for a while. A three-quarter moon rose and shimmered through the plume of Popocatepetl. A few tongues of flame sputtered up. Once clear of the volcano, the moon bathed the courtyard in a creamy radiance. It softened the edges of everything, smoothed the lines and creases away as even our cream of avocado and honey could not do.

As Abuelo tried to tip the unburnt end of a log into the embers, I watched the big-knuckled hands grip and waggle his traveller’s staff. From earliest memory my eyes had been drawn to those sausage fingers, and in that soft, milky light I thought of the blankness just below the elephant’s eyes where its trunk seems grafted on. The thought seemed to come from such a long way back....

After a while he began to talk of the last great sorcerer, who had no doubt sat at many campfires on this very spot. Now I learned that he had not lived all his life in the mountains. Just before the Conquest, Ocelotl had gone to live in Texcoco and study at the archives, for it was a time of restlessness. Then, great temples of sail were sighted off the coast. Moctezuma II, disturbed by the portents, summoned the seers and historians. But he imprisoned them. Their pronouncements displeased him. Next he summoned the sages and the sorcerers, and Ocelotl first among them.

"We do not know, Angelina, the precise words Ocelotl chose. But from what I have been able to learn of his character, I believe they ran to something like this. ‘Lord Speaker, I can dispel certain mysteries for you. The auguries have become ever more evasive and strange because those who brought them were afraid and had no taste for prison. Whatever is coming is rooted in the past, and I have come from Texcoco just as others have in the past to say this: The Speaker has not listened. The levies have become excessive. Tenochtitlan is feared and detested far and wide. And this, for generations. Whatever advantage the Mexica might have gained from fear, we have lost to hatred, for a sufficient hatred overcomes much fear and caution.’ And so Ocelotl spoke to an emperor. You know how Moctezuma thanked him for his troubles?"

"He threw him into prison!"

"Eso, hijita. As Ocelotl must have expected." Abuelo’s smile was less rueful than wry. It was good to share such things. "And as far as I can tell, he was not released until some time after Moctezuma was himself Cortés’s prisoner...."

The moon had swung high into the south. The light fell slant on the rock faces and the snowfields, faintly purple now, like the milk in a bowl of moras. The sloping cone of the volcano above Grandfather rose pale and featureless, like a tall Bedouin, I thought, in his flowing headdress, or a jinni, its face in shadows of amethyst.

The fire had burned down. Sleepy now, I looked up at the sky as I listened, the constellations just visible in the starry profusion. The Great Bear, Gemini ... the Fire-Bow that Amanda had known how to find for Abuelo in Orion.

Grandfather’s third tale too was about Ocelotl. It had to do with the Inquisition and Ocelotl’s new friend the Bishop. We spoke of Ocelotl often here - Abuelo and Xochitl both. There was nothing strange in this. As she would say, Truly his mist had not scattered. And yet as Abuelo began, something was bothering me.

"The races of Man come and go, Angelina. This I understand. And I have seen enough of the rest of Europe to know no other nation would have done better than Las Casas, Sahagún - and Antonio Vieyra, today...."

No, what bothered me was this: We never all of us spoke together - of Ocelotl or anything else.

"And Lord knows, Angel, an honest man expects no thanks, even from a Bishop. But God, O God, how we lied to them...."

And then I asked, as if it were nothing, a question I had not asked for years.

"Abuelito, what happened between you and Xochita?"

Now that I had startled myself by asking it, I expected him to be angry. He was staring into the ember glow. Drafts played in shadows over the coals. The tip of his traveller’s staff lay among them, smoking, motionless.

"Some things are better left unsaid, Juanita. It does not mean we were not friends."

After another moment or two he looked up and turned stiffly to face me. He did not look angry at all. "But it is good you ask about this. I have need of your help."

"With what Abuelo? - anything."

"Her."

"Xochi?"

"And Amanda, yes. Your mother is pregnant.... You knew."

"Josefa said."

"From now on, it will be harder for Amanda and her mother."

"De acuerdo, Abuelito. We’ll watch over them together."

At that, his frown eased. He scratched at the ruff under his chin.

"Yes we will. Now do you want to hear about our Ocelotl and his Bishop or not? Good. Well, you remember I once told you Ocelotl had a twin...."

[]

When I awoke, he had one arm still under me and was bending to pull back the sheets. He had not carried me to bed for years and I wouldn’t have thought he still could. Moonlight flooded into the room through the doorway. Moonlight spilled under the eaves and in through the window. Pure white now ... the tint of amethyst was gone, as if a trick of light from the fire. In that milky light his face was rinsed clear and clean of lines, as if the blankness had spread from his sausage finger to an eye, a cheek, finally to fill the room, the moon...

My arms were still around his neck. So close above me, the eyes in that big fine head were like opals, black yet clear, like smoke through lantern glass. Reluctantly I let go of him, regretted it. Over my forehead a big hand hovered ever so lightly now as if cupped to shield a candle. He smoothed my hair and kissed it.

His mouth was firm, resolute, an old lion’s. The smile was only in his voice.

"Has it not been the finest of days, Angelina?"

Ah, si, Abuelito. The very finest.

We had the most wonderful time.

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