God Incarnate


Old Coyote took the girl who picked flowers

all the way down to Tamoanchan, and so

Ometeotl sent their four sons to earth

to generate, while in exile, the new world;

four suns fell, but the fifth sun’s still in motion.

Quetzalcoatl, who would one day found Tollan,

was charged with rebuilding the earth, along with

Tezcatlipoca, after the flood had caused

the roof of heaven to crack and crumble down.

They set out to find the monster cipactli,

for where her heart was would be the new center.

Walking west to the sea, Tezcatlipoca

plunged his foot in, to entice Tlaltecuhtli

the eye-studded goddess of earth whose joints were

covered with mouths—to emerge from the waters;

she came up and bit off his foot, but he tore

her jaw so she couldn’t descend deep again.

Then both gods became two enormous serpents

that twined the beast, to separate her in two.

Out of her body they made the earth’s surface,

raising the sky from her heart and stationing

gods at the corners to hold up the heavens,

while the two gods themselves became two trees

that grew above all, rooting the roof of sky.

Then to make amends for the violence done 25

the goddess, they gave her gifts: they graced her hair

with plants and trees and flowers, her skin with grass

of prairies and meadows; her eyes were grottoes,

springs and pools now, her mouths hollow caverns,

and her nose became mountains and low valleys.

With that done, Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl

set out in search of the bones of the ancients

to recreate humankind. Down in a cave

he met the Lord of Death and asked for the bones.

Mictlantecuhtli posed a test: make music

with a solid conch shell. He took the challenge.

He asked earthworms to bore a hole in the shell

then got some bees to buzz around inside it.

So he won the bet and stole the bones from death.

But as he was escaping with the bundle of

male and female bones, a flock of quail

scared him and he fell down a hole in the ground

and lay there as if dead while the quail pecked

the scattered bundle of bones. When he revived,

his nahual (his spirit double) informed him

what to do. He bundled the bones back up and

took them to Tamoanchan where Quilaztli

Cihuacoatl ground them up in a tub

of fine earthen ware while Quetzalcoatl

drew blood from his penis to bless the mixture. 50

From that tub of bones and blood arose a race

of creatures with human faces and features

whose lives were owed to the penances of gods

who were born the day humans were created.

But these beings were hungry and had no food.

The gods all together, following the hint

of red ants hauling corn, entered a deep cave

in search of the source of sustenance mountain

and there they witnessed the sexual union

of Piltzintecuhtli and Xochiquetzal,

who soon after gave birth to Cinteotl,

the young god of the maize cob, who crawled beneath

the earth and from his hair grew cotton, his nose

grew sage, from his fingers camotli sprouted,

and from his fingernails flowered young maize.

And so his body grew all foods for humans,

of which their flesh is made, by which they flourish,

Tzinteotl, beloved ground of being.

And every eight years, when the four year bearers

had twice cycled round, he rose before the sun,

first light of the sky, first spark out of Mictlan,

and people hymned his birth, his royal return

from the same sky house as eight full years before

(the mirror for his eight day fall and rising).

But still the people felt no true happiness, 75

but sadness on the earth, great pain, great anguish,

and the gods grew tired of groans and wanted

people to sing and dance, to praise their goodness.

Ehecatl thought in his heart, “what liquor

could cause these people to sing, dance and rejoice?”

But his thoughts strayed to a virgin he once saw,

Mayahuel, who lived with her old grandmother,

an ugly old vicious crone, Cicimitl.

The god reached their house at night, found all asleep.

He woke the virgin and told her “Come with me.”

And so, with her on his shoulder, they arrived

at a place where they transformed into one tree,

his side weeping willow, her side bloomed flowers.

Her grandmother woke and found the girl gone

and called her cronies, hideous Cicime,

to help her recover the girl. They found

the tree, but Ehecatl’s branches were gone;

but still they broke the branches of the virgin,

chewed her limbs to pieces to punish her sin

then left them scattered like bones and went back home.

The god gathered up the virgin’s scattered bones

and buried them in the ground, from which arose

the maguey cactus from which the pulque milk

is made by which the people of the valley

made merry and found spirit to sing and dance. 100

In Teotihuacan, where men became gods,

the gods then gathered, to see who would be sun,

to bring the dawn, to light the world for all.

Tecciztecatl eagerly stepped forward

to take the position. Quetzalcoatl

then proposed his son, Nanahuatl, but he

demurred: “I’m poor and weak, unworthy to be

the lord of light. There are other, nobler gods.”

But, at last, he accepted the great honor.

Then Nanahuatl and Tecciztecatl

performed their penances. They fasted four days,

they heaped the holy stone brazier with fire.

The latter was decked with costly attire

and burned expensive copal on the brazier

and pierced his body with precious greenstone barbs;

the former had simple reeds to smear his blood,

drawn from his tongue with true maguey cactus spines,

upon a grass ball, made of dried pine needles,

and all he burned were scabs and pus as incense.

Then they mounted the pyramids at midnight

and burned their bloody penitential tools

and donned the costumes that turn men into gods.

Tecciztecatl wore a splendid headdress

made of heron feathers, but Nanahuatl

wore a paper headdress and paper clothing. 125

They danced at midnight round the holy fire

blazing in the hearth stone, the heart of the rite,

spirits swell to drum beats, flutes and conch shell tunes,

and the gods bid them both, “Fall into the flames!”

The former ran to leap in the fire but

balked when he reached it, felt its unbearable

heat intolerable stopped the lord in fear;

he turns around, retreats, then tries again and

again withdraws, recoils, exerts himself

twice more to no avail. Then the other

takes the chance to prevail, steels his heart,

casts out every fear in one sure strong resolve

and quickly plunges headlong in the fire.

Flames burn Nanahuatl’s body to the full.

After him Tecciztecatl joined the flames

after the blaze died down and smoke plumes billowed.

An eagle ascended bearing the new sun

away into the heavens, and a jaguar

jumped over the fire, becoming spotted

from the smoke and ashes, and carried away

the one who was to become the spotted moon.

And gradually the whole horizon began

to glow, faintly first, but soon intensely red

and the gods made bets on which side the new sun

would rise from. Some bet on east, and sure enough, 150

soon the bright young sun graced the east horizon.

But neither the sun nor, behind him, the new moon

would move; they simply sat on the horizon.

The gods were distressed and sent a messenger

to find out from the sun why he would not move.

The messenger inquired and the sun said:

“Because I require the blood of their reign,

their legitimacy must feed my fierce flames.”

The messenger returned, reported the news

and the gods vowed to die for new motion’s sake.

Ehecatl was chosen to fire-drill

upon the hearth stone the hearts of all the gods,

and toss their broken bodies down the stone steps

of both the pyramids, and so, from then on,

gods began to die in Teotihuacan.

(Because of this the ancient Mexicans said,

“He who has died, he becomes a god.” They’d say,

“He became a god there,” meaning that he died.)

Topiltzin Ce Acatl lived in this sun,

and ruled the famous city of Tollan,

the fabulous city where all arts flourished.

But Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl was not

native to Tula, but son of the nomad

Mixcoatl, a warrior for the sun,

who raided the cities of men for fine souls 175

with whom to daily nourish the sun’s famine.

(The myths at this point are unfortunately

not the easiest to decipher because

our sources, in Spanish records, are garbled,

abbreviated, distorted and confused,

or lacking the pictures to which they refer.

Nevertheless, what’s left is still intriguing—

which claims to be true Tolteca history—

and so, with caution, I’ll return to telling.)

Mixcoatl was a great Chichimec hunter

from the northern country of desert highlands

whose hearty nomadic clans were greatly feared

by the settled peoples of the southern lands.

He was of his mother’s five special children,

born after the four hundred cloud-serpents were,

in the Place of Seven Caves, the year One Flint.

Such was the genealogy he fought with,

a savage tribal lord whose totemic god

was the blazing eyeball of the desert sun,

and who carried his patron in a bundle

of powerful sacred stones full of prestige

animated by a myth of origins.

Two cloud-serpent hunters, Xiuhnel and Mimich,

were hunting two deer, both bicephalous deer;

all day they pursued them in the heat of day 200

and at sunset they were tired and pitched camp.

By night the deer, which had become women, came

calling, “Where are you? Come to drink, come to eat.”

Xiuhnel, alone in his tent, called, “Come in here.”

So one came to him and gave him blood to drink

and lay down beside him, and suddenly she

threw him on his face and tore open his chest

to devour his heart, his flower of life.

But Mimich heard the call, and heard his brother

scream in horror as he died, and did not come.

Instead he spun his fire sticks and lit up

a blazing fire, and threw himself in it.

The woman pursued him into the fire

through the night until the following noon

then into the trunk of a barrel cactus

where he trapped her and shot her full of arrows,

and in that form she became Itzpapalotl,

Obsidian Butterfly, who blossomed flint

of five diverse shades, blue, white, yellow, red, black.

The white was wrapped into a holy bundle.

Armed with this white flint bundle, Mixcoatl

went and waged war in a place called Comallan

whose people sent food to appease him, and then

he waged war in Tecanma and Cocyama

where he leveled all the high village temples, 225

then came to Huehuetocan and to Pochtlan,

where he took food and conquered, resting his heart.

But when Mixcoatl came to Huitznahuac

the woman Chimalman came to confront him.

A priestess of the civilized lamenting

with her sisters as their city burned and bled

their fathers, mothers, families, and temples

ground down like corn, flowing with blood like water,

and she stood naked before this warrior

whose four arrows missed her as he shot them all,

for her eyes, her body, pierced his savage heart

and he would have her. As a sharp-eyed eagle

catches in his glance from on high a rabbit

unsuspecting below, though born under fear

of shadows crossing the ground as one does now

when the eagle shoots like a flint-tipped arrow

and fulfills the need foreseen in his sharp glance,

so now the warlord swept like wind through the house

and clutched the woman Chimalman in his grip

and forced her manfully on the temple steps.

Her body was a wound that soon gave true signs

that in it was ripening the warlord’s seed,

and when a full day-count had turned, her garden

was ready to give forth its fruit. For four days

she labored, then our Prince was born, on One Reed. 250

When he was born his mother died, and One Reed,

as he was called for the day of his birth and

the year of his birth—Ce Acatl as well—

was raised by Quilaztli and Cihuacoatl

through the next years Two Flint, Three House, Four Rabbit,

Five Reed, Six Flint, Seven House, and Eight Rabbit,

and in the year Nine Reed, when One Reed turned nine,

Topiltzin wished to know what happened to his

father, ever-absent and unknown to him;

father’s face, he was told, had flowered in death.

So Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl set out

to wander the earth in search, to turn the sand

to bring the bones of his father into light.

Finding the bones, he dug them up, looked on them,

and sowed them in the temple of Quilaztli.

In the year Two Rabbit, Ce Acatl came

to Tollantzinco where he dwelt for four years

and built his house of fasting. From there he went

to Cuextlan in the east, where he built a bridge

of stone (still there, they say) across the waters.

In the year Five House the Toltecs came and asked

Ce Acatl to be their ruler in Tollan.

There he installed his throne and became their priest.

There in the year Two Reed he built his palace,

his fourfold houses of penances and prayer, 275

his turquoise, coral, white-shell, quetzal-feather

houses where he prayed, did penance, and kept fasts.

At midnight he went down to the water’s edge

and sewed his greenstone spines through his flesh and bled

his blood upon a bed of quetzal feathers,

and burned copal incense mixed with his substance.

Up to the heights of Huitzco and Xicocotl,

he prayed, upon the hill of Nonohualco,

he sought the depths of hidden divinity

beyond the fatal play of dualities

chanting the many names that amount to the

same so long as they serve to silence the mind.

He had his father’s heart, red and full of fire,

but his blue-green eyes he had from his mother,

those deep lunar caves of liquid consciousness

that tempered, fed his heart with flowers and songs

and shed tears like rain of compassion for things

so prone to catastrophe and suffering.

His father’s force, his mother’s authority,

with one he ruled himself, with the other

he guided his Toltecs like wind a herd of

deer will scent and follow through a marsh of reed.

His guidance first brought the windfall of great wealth,

of jade and greenstone, turquoise, gold and coral,

white-shell and many colors of obsidian, 300

conchs from both the coasts, fishes of all species,

fine feathers of all the birds beneath the sun,

the quetzal, cotinga, roseate spoonbill,

the troupial, the trogon and the heron,

pink flamingos from Florida or Cuba,

birds of beautiful song, parrots who could talk

brought all the way from Mayan Costa Rica.

His traders traded seed and song and story

for turquoise and for slaves from northern pueblos

whose people knew them by their flutes and backpacks

full of strange surprises from the fabled south;

they painted glyphs of them on canyon cave walls

and prayed for their arrival when the spring came.

Cacao of many colors and of cotton

grew that way upon the branch; no need for dye

before weavers could spin all colors of thread

then weave abundant rainbow-patterned blankets.

Squashes grew huge and perfectly round, and maize

had ears the size of grindstones, long as deer horns,

and amaranths so large that one could climb them.

All food heaped in abundance like a mountain.

From the hill called Tzatzitepetl criers

stood and called down orders clearly heard by all,

and from every corner of the land they flocked

to hear and learn the laws Quetzalcoatl made. 325

For he himself never appeared before them,

but dwelt deep within his palace protected

by counselors and bodyguards and keepers,

seated upon his three mats of authority,

and heralds held his ear and did his bidding,

they heard each word well and retold them to

whomever it was he willed that they should hear.

Often, they say, Owl sorcerers in vain

sought to humiliate Prince Quetzalcoatl

who only sacrificed birds, butterflies, snakes,

they tried to tempt him into sacrificing

humans to the gods, to tear people’s hearts out

and drill in them the annual new fires

and toss their bodies down the pyramid steps

and tease out prophecies from how they landed.

But he refused and drove them from his presence

for greatly did he love his common people,

his Toltecs, brilliant masters of arts and crafts.

He would not sacrifice them to any god,

but rather he bid them magnify the gods

with true architecture and subtle sculpture,

with his holy temple of serpent columns,

in painting and writing the red and the black,

in murals depicting creation’s bounty

uniting real things to form equations 350

that honed the mind to focus on ideals.

Prince One Reed Quetzalcoatl synchronized

the seasonal and sacred calendar rounds,

the dual differential gear of day signs

that coordinates the cycle of the solar

circuit round the houses of the cosmic tree

with the course of the Lord of the House of Dawn,

and assigns to each human soul its tonal,

the fire that drives each heart to its own fate.

No day arrived too early, and none too late.

And when the eighteen months, each of twenty days,

was counting thirteen for the twenty-eighth time

and all the days the year of seasons would allow

had risen to their zenith and descended,

they’d fast five days, relight fires, begin again.

The crisis of the seasons had passed again

and feasting and processions were in order.

Beans cooked with red chiles filled hot tamales

which all, both poor and rich, partake of freely,

and around the square of temples wind parades

of celebrants drunk on spirit and pulque.

But the prince and his inner circle stay in

the palace court and discourse on the world

and its affairs. His generals propose wars,

which border tribes deserve retaliation, 375

which refused to offer tribute to his throne.

His traders report on their explorations

into unknown lands, off the edges of maps.

When such temporal affairs had been settled

the wise prince consulted with his star readers

till he was at ease, then called for attendants

to pour and pass brimming bowls of chocolate

to stimulate the flowers of fine discourse.

Then Ce Acatl spoke to his fellow priests

and told his noble friends his wealth of wisdom:

“There grows in Tamoanchan a mighty tree

whose roots reach Tlalocan, the cold dark nether

regions; its canopy spreads all the way up

out into Omeyocan, where two are one,

beyond and above the nine spheres of heaven.

It was there that Huehuecoyotl seduced

Xochiquetzal, wife of Piltzintecuhtli,

who broke the branch that blossomed flowers and bled,

so that with sex, death first entered our world.

In its branches nest bird-souls of dead rulers.

Around its roots is a cloud of cold, wet mist.

It has two trunks like snakes twining each other.

Within each trunk flows a vital energy,

for heat and cold cross paths there and mix, so that

fire’s hot light contends with cold dark water. 400

Their fight creates our world of wheeling time,

of daily changing destinies, of the dry

and rainy seasons, of that great tree of sky

that spins its hanging branches above the earth.

Below, in Tlalocan, is the house of Death

where fall the seeds of souls once their life resolves.

But here between, in Tlalticpac, is it not

here that we face the light and speak our minds?

But we, my lords, can’t fulfill all our wishes,

nor can we rest safe on even what we see.

When they will the gods, whose lowly slaves we are,

thrust up a mountain, or knock down a mountain,

they flood our fields, or parch and blight our crops,

or shake the earth and crack new craggy caverns,

and who are we to protest, what can we do?

Only make better this life for each other,

shore up our losses, store food for the people—

isn’t this true worship of the gods on high?”

His counselors, as they will, approved his speech

and offered in turn minor variations

on this or that thread of themes he had sounded.

Some draw examples, some expand the moral.

So passed the years of peace and stability.

But in the year Eleven Flint the Owl

sorcerers gathered round like dogs, like vultures 425

to contrive a plan to oust the prince and tear

the body of his empire into shreds.

Some suggested brewing powerful pulque

and drugging him into corruption and shame

so that his priestly authority would fall.

Then Tezcatlipoca rose like smoke and said:

“I say that we should show him his own body.”

With a cackle of laughs all approved this plan.

So he went with a double-sided mirror

of smooth black obsidian, small, wrapped in cloth,

to the palace of Prince One Reed of Tollan

and announced himself to the palace porters.

By now the year Twelve House had lit new fires

when he was allowed to enter in disguise

having intrigued the prince with his dark riddle

about his body that he himself must see.

“What is this thing you call my body?” he asked,

and Tezcatlipoca unwrapped his mirror

and handed it to the prince saying, “Look there,

your body which is so loved will appear there.”

Quetzalcoatl took it and beheld himself,

squinting, studying the strange apparition,

until, in a flash of recognition, shock

flooded his heart and horror overcame him.

Like a thorn, like a spine, like a biting wind, 450

it cut his heart, it tore, it severed his heart,

to see his face so old, his great beard so grey.

His eyelids were swollen, his blue eyes sunken

deep in their sockets, his face was all furrowed

and spotted like a large mottled jaguar pelt.

He saw a monster mirrored back at himself

and declared, “If my subjects ever saw me

they would flee for sure. They must never see me.”

The stranger withdrew, left the prince in anguish,

but sent his double in, Coyotlinahual,

a fine craftsman of feather, turquoise, and jade

who bowed before the prince and offered his gifts.

“Permit me to array and prepare you, prince,

to appear in splendor before the people.

I can make a mask and costume to transform

you into what they revere: the gods above.”

The prince was intrigued and ordered the costume.

So Coyotlinahual undertook the work.

First he had quetzal-bird tail-feathers brought

which he worked into a network he had wrought

of fine-spun cotton thread, adding beads of jade

to dazzle when sunlight caught on their facets,

and this became the prince’s feathered headdress.

Then he carved a mask of stone and laid in it

a mosaic of squares of red and green stone 475

with white quartz eyes and obsidian pupils.

Next he painted red the mouth and yellow stripes

upon the face, then inserted serpent teeth

into a beak covered with spoonbill feathers;

this second face grew from the chin of the mask.

When the work was perfected and beautiful

Coyotlinahual displayed it to the prince,

and with permission arrayed him in the mask,

adorned him with the headdress, then handed him

the mirror so he could see himself disguised

by the brilliance of the artist’s handiwork.

When Ce Acatl saw Quetzalcoatl

he was very pleased with himself and forgot

his former sorrow for his aging body.

The aging prince then began to show himself

in the mask of Coyotlinahual atop

his temple pyramid before the people

as their god he presented himself to all.

So the year of Twelve House went by in Tollan.

During the prince’s season of renewed joy

the sorcerers schemed the next step in their plan.

Out in the countryside they cooked up a stew

of tomatoes, chiles, green corn and red beans

then harvested maguey and boiled a brew

to make four-day pulque, a stout cactus beer 500

mixed with, to sweeten it, wild honeycomb.

Then they returned with the fruits of their labors

to Tollan when Thirteen Rabbit had come round

requesting the prince’s presence, to offer

him presents from his bountiful countryside.

He bid they be brought before him and greeted

and he accepted a bowl of their chili.

He enjoyed it very much, but it was hot,

and they, disguised as humble country farmers

simply desiring to please their great ruler,

offered him pulque to cool his mouth down.

“Isn’t it fatally intoxicating?”

the inexperienced ruler asked his guests.

“Oh no, just taste it with one of your fingers,

your majesty, it is indeed strong and fresh.”

He dipped his index finger and licked the milk,

and liked it, and said “Let me drink but three sips.”

“No, you must drink four!” they said, so he drank four.

“A fifth, a libation to you!” He drank some more.

So he drank, and they passed it around to all

his counselors, priests, advisors and heralds,

all drank five drinks till they got completely drunk.

And one of them, Ihuimecatl, piped up

and spoke, “My Prince, may it please your grace to sing

a holy song to honor you,” and he sang, 525

“My house of quetzal, my house of troupial,

my house of turquoise, my house of coral shell,

soon, oh soon, for my carelessness, I must leave!”

And the prince was drunk and full of joy and heard

the song of his shame but reveled just the same,

for all his life he’d known pain and affliction

and all of a sudden life’s burden lifted

and he understood his condition fully.

A deep joy welled up and burst out into tears

and the aging king, with watery eyes, spoke:

“My friends, is it true one really lives on earth?

Not forever here, only awhile here.

Even jade crumbles, even gold wears away,

even quetzal plumes eventually decay.

Only a while, not forever on earth.

“I grasp the secret, my lords, the hidden: so

it is, we are but men, must go away, die.

Like a fresco of red, we will be erased.

Like a flower, our petals, our hearts will dry.

“Is it true that we really live here on earth?

We come here only to sleep, only to dream.

Our hearts bloom for a season, and blossom buds

but wither when the seething summer winds blow.

Is it only here we come to know faces?

Or will we hear our friends’ voices there as well? 550

“I am drunk and I weep, I grieve and I think,

I speak within myself and discover this:

indeed I shall never die, indeed I shall

never disappear. Where there is no death,

there where death is overcome, let me go there.

“Where is it we go where death does not exist?

Should I live weeping? May your heart find its way.

Here no one lives forever; princes must die,

people turn to ash. May your heart find its way.”

His words moved his counselors, sorcerers too,

and all stood silent, some wept in sympathy,

others hung their heads, ashamed in their knowledge.

Just then the sorcerers’ plans may have foundered

had the lord of illusion not been with them.

Tezcatlipoca, who is he, what power

does he possess? All is smoke and dark mirrors

with him, the deceptions of fortune and change,

the elation of ball games, taking chances,

he whose slaves we are who dare to know who owns

the here and now.

Who is Quetzalcoatl?

a hybrid spirit, a flying bird-serpent,

a mediator between spheres of being,

a king of the arts, a priest of penances,

a Christ, but one in being with a Caesar.

The two as one express all poles of conflict. 575

Just then Tezcatlipoca winked knowingly

and put to death this moment of clarity.

As though it had been torn from the page of time

the scene went on as though the fatal knowledge

had not become so explicit beautifully

in the mouth, off the tongue of the falling king.

Drunk, still turning new thoughts in his head, he said:

“Bring my sister, Quetzalpetatl, down to me,

down from her mountainside austerities

into my palace so she can drink pulque,

this milk white liquor that has turned my mourning

into gladness again. She should drink with me

and we will rejoice together all night long,

all night long we’ll rejoice and lie together.”

His heralds went up Nonohualco and called

Quetzalpetatl, “Noble lady of fasts,

your brother the High Priest Quetzalcoatl

awaits you in his palace. Will you join him?”

She consented and came and sat down beside

her brother and drank five servings of pulque.

The seducers sang another song to her:

“O Quetzalpetatl, my sister, where now

will you live? Let’s drink now until we are drunk!”

The priest and his sister, the lady of fasts,

stayed together all night long. Now no longer 600

did their prayers and penances reach the heavens,

no longer did they go down to the waters

at midnight nor perform sacraments at dawn

but when the sun rose they were filled with anguish,

and hollow their hearts, hearts orphaned in remorse.

He asked his day counters what tonal had come.

They told him the day’s power was Ten Serpent.

Quetzalpetatl fled to the hills in shame

where she was transformed into a yellow moth.

“I’m doomed! A wretched fool!” Ce Acatl groaned,

“No longer will the day signs be counted here,

here in my house! Let it happen, let it be!

With this body of earth, who can be but base,

miserable and afflicted? All that’s precious

is no more! I return to sober virtue.

Ah mother, who formed me and shaped me, mother!”

His heralds wept in sadness and raised a chant:

“He gave us a life of abundant riches,

He who is our Prince, Lord Quetzalcoatl.

Lost your headdress, the tree, broken and bleeding.

Let us behold him now and weep as we see.”

“I will go away, abandon the city.

Have prepared for me a stone sarcophagus.”

It was done, and on the day Eleven Death

Quetzalcoatl hid himself within it. 625

For four days he lay there without food or drink

and at sunset on One Water he became

sick unto death. “It is time for me to go,”

he said upon rising. “Hide all my riches,

my jewels in the springs, my jade in the hills.”

So it was done, and at sundown on Two Dog

Prince One Reed departed from his home Tollan.

The arrows of fate had struck him from the sky

and by the day Five Reed he was fully gone.

In Mesoamerica the full orbit

of an entire era could be figured

in the life-course of an individual

being; which is another way to say that

ontogeny rehearses phylogeny.

So as, long ago, the extinct sauropsids

diverged in two distinct, surprising branches—

one, bereft of limbs, slithers along the soil

and coils, like ivy, limbs and trunks of trees

camouflaged, its forked tongue tastes its way along;

the other, plumed by rituals of courtship

found a surprising emergent property:

a feathered wing was perfect for sky flying;

so birds were born, incredible soaring saurs.

Quetzalcoatlus N. once flew in Texas,

a huge pterosaur with forty foot wingspan 650

that lived and died in the late Mesozoic

seventy-five million years ago, they say.

So the human being, in its rise to life,

embeds the brains of both the bird and serpent

in its own neo-cortical blossoming.

The spinal chord buds at the snaky brain stem

which nests in the limbic ring of gut instincts,

above which fans the wings of the human brain,

our cross-wired hemispheres that soar in thought.

I have, in dreams of lucid elation, flown

high over sea shores, above rocky cliff lines

where waves surge in unison, cracking the crags,

and crosswinds catch my pinions and I swoop down

and skim the seething surface of the sea foam,

and before I wake I’ve felt the joy of flight,

grounded imagination raptured by night.

Topiltzin Ce Acatl, like a broken reed

departs for the east from beloved Tula

a bird in flight he seeks the salty sea mist,

his eyes are thunder clouds, his hot tears are rain.

Just as when later Nezahualcoyotl

fled his Texcoco and the persecution

of his rival, Lord of Azcapotzalco,

usurper and the slayer of his father;

a marvelous maker of flower-and-song 675

who scattered precious jades of soulful longing

in a time inauspicious for wisdom’s depth;

Itzcoatl, his ally in Tenochtitlan,

was burning books and reworking history

to align with novel lies of sovereignty.

Aztec nomads became heirs of Toltec states.

So now in Tollan Tezcatlipoca reigned

and instituted human sacrifices

as the fundamental way to please the gods,

feed the hungry sun on human hearts and blood

and so cement an empire with terror.

But Quetzalcoatl, the broken ruler

sought Tlillan, Tlapallan, the Red and Black Land,

the land where in wisdom the heart finds its way.

They say on his wandering way he left signs

like the tree at Cuauhtitlan at which he threw

stones that are still embedded in the tree’s bark;

at another place he shot one ceiba tree

through another so it stands there like a cross;

some say he built a ballcourt in their village,

others that he named their surrounding mountains;

some tell how he changed cacao trees to mesquite,

others how his tear drops drilled holes into stones.

In all the villages he passed they tell of

marvelous exploits of Quetzalcoatl, 700

proofs of his power and care for all people.

But nowhere did his heart stop and find its rest.

From a hilltop he caught a glimpse of Tula

and sat down on a rock to rest and look back

on his life and city. He sighed deep inside

and spoke a prophecy that welled up within:

“Tula, oh Tula, nothing stays in its place,

all things in this life are subject to decay;

only scraps remain of your former greatness

and I am powerless to stop your downfall.

I see another city rising in your

shadow, upon the waters of Texcoco.

Today it is a village but tomorrow

its size and strength will rival all your glory.

Its granaries will give birth to great harvests

and its tribute wealth will pour in from all four

quarters of the world as to its center.

For a time they will seem unsurpassable,

unassailable in their right to rule.

But every sun that rises just as surely

sets and every dawn is balanced by twilight.

A day shall come when earthquakes shake the country,

a fatal new plague will sweep away millions

for your healers will not know how to cure it,

and death and despair shall rule everywhere. 725

It makes me grieve; I am not pleased to see it,

for I, it’s me who comes to sack your city,

to wreak the havoc that shall wreck your world,

come back from the eastern sea where I go now

when another year One Reed falls into place;

disguised as a glittering green-faced fighter

speaking a strange tongue, riding a frightful beast,

I’ll enter your great city demanding gold,

your lordly speakers will be stricken speechless,

and on a day Five Serpent the city burns.

Your warriors will die violently by sword

confused by strange new rituals of warfare

of soldiers who ignore your rites of battle

by which your eagle-jaguars reach their heaven.

But they’ll have their own heaven to send you to,

and their own gods to which you will have to bow

or else they’ll send your souls quickly to their hell.

And I see your city rise again, beneath

a bright new sun mirrored by a smoking moon

and many new deaths and agonies of birth,

and in your sufferings the world will see

its aging image reflected and they’ll grieve.

These things shall be when the eagle of the east

sails over the sea and sinks its talons

into the native serpent sunning itself 750

on top of a flowering barrel cactus;

under this sign the new world will be born.”

So he spoke, then stood up to be on his way,

and where the palms of his hands had pressed the stone

were prints as though in mud, such was his distress

as he traced the future of the valley floor,

and they are there today, at Temacpalco.

Quetzalcoatl continued toward the east

until he reached the beach and heard the sea cry,

the heart’s silence in the roar and surge of waves

breaking on the shore. A warm west wind blew in

out of the gulf where sea and sky merge in one

like life and death, the breath draws in to pass on.

He stood there, held his breath and heard his heart beat.

He wept as wind washed salt and sand in his eyes.

He donned his headdress of blue-green quetzal plumes,

put on his death mask of turquoise mosaic

and mounted a bonfire heaped up on the shore.

He sat cross-legged silently facing east

on his pyre, his flesh lit up like a star,

offering himself up, focused on the flames,

steeling his consciousness against the heat

searing the dross of mortality to ash

when, beyond belief, they say from the flames rose

a thousand birds of bright beautiful colors, 775

roseate spoonbills, trogons and cotingas,

white cranes, herons, flamingos pink as coral,

keel-billed toucans, scarlet macaws, caciques,

canaries, currasows and chachalacas,

green parakeets and parrots, aracaris,

the piculet, the motmot and pionus,

tanagers, jacanas, dancing manakins

whose males shiver and flip in choral troupes

competing with other choruses to win

the chance for their ring leader to procreate

while the rest simply cede their right and wait,

sometimes for as long as eighteen years, to mate.

At last the pyre reached its consummation

and consumed his heart from which the quetzal bird

rose into heaven, streaming its blue tail,

it reached the sky within the sky in the east

across the sea to become the Lord of Dawn

who rises and shoots his arrows at the sun

urging him to come forth with each day’s tonal,

a sign that seeds sown in death dawn to new life.

Thus were completed all the days of One Reed

in the year, in the trecenta, on the day

Ce Acatl, under three signs of One Reed,

thirteen days shy of fifty-two years of age,

one hundred days after he left his Tollan. 800


(BOOK FOUR: Woe is Man)


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