The riddle of steel – The faith that moves mountains – A parting gift – Forever autumn – A solemn oath
One of the advantages of educating one’s own children while
exploring is that usually, a number of eminent scientists are
near, who are quite willing to keep their teaching hand in by
explaining to your children all they could need or want of their
chosen subject. Another advantage is that the subject of their
teachings will be right under your children’s noses. Alexandra
and Carl took full advantage of this situation. One of the
experts, of course, was the ship’s captain, who taught them all
about navigation and how to manage a ship. Unfortunately, other
experts included the sailors, who taught them a large number of
choice swearwords and songs that I have forbidden my children
from ever repeating until they reach the age of twenty-one,
or in one particularly obscene, graphic and explicit case,
one-hundred and twenty.
— Philip Tennant, Parenting for explorers
As I write this, there is on my desk a steel brush, given to me by the enigmatic Mr. Andrew Parsons. The man is simply mentally incapable of recognising a joke when he hears it. Despite this, he is apparently able to design, in his head, a steam-powered vehicle that can safely carry my children through a barrage of mortar fire. There are those who look down on psychology, the study of various types of insanity and human thought. True scientists prefer a subject that does not squelch and shift like mud or loose sand. And yet, if we could study and understand the very nature of thinking itself, we could rectify so many things that are demonstrably wrong in peoples’ thinking.
One of the experiences that connects people of faith and the non-religious, is the notion that the other party does not really believe or not believe what they say they do. In the case of Itzel, there was no doubt in my mind that she believed the tenets of her Meso-american superstitions like one believes the existence of the Earth and Sun. If I were a psychologist, I might perhaps have found the right way to rid her of the ridiculous idea that she would be convincing a god to whisper the secrets of metallurgy into my ear. As it was, there was nothing, nothing I could do to save poor Itzel from the fate that awaited her. The hour of her death was set. Even if I were to throw myself into the fire, still she had other messages to convey. All I could do was make her remaining time as meaningful as possible.
And so I applied myself to the problem. I knew how to make steel, in principle: Melt down iron in a crucible, adding just enough charcoal, and removing the impurities that make the steel brittle. In a society that is powered by machines, not to know these things would be unimaginable. I had the people of Anctapolepl construct a kiln, from mud bricks, and willing slaves worked the bellows for hours on end to make the charcoal fire as hot as it possibly could be. The King had his subjects search high and low for iron ore, and I had a good supply.
The King’s spies had raided a camp of European travellers for tools such as a heavy hammer, tongs. In fact, even without the great warrior Huitzilopochtli seeing fit to supply me with information, I started a modest foundry, and perhaps with another lifetime, I might have produced a cannon or perhaps blades of steel worth having.
One thing I found quite early was that I lacked the sheer physical strength to work the iron. I mentioned this to the King, and the next day a mountain of a man named Yaotl reported for duty. He was a simple soul, and hit with my hammer what I told him to hit. It worked very well. Yaotl’s story was a remarkable one. There were many gods in that accursed city, and each of them had to be appeased in a different way. Yaotl had been a designated sacrifice for Tezcatlipoca and the proper way of killing a man in that god’s honour was to give him a weapon with feathers instead of sharp obsidian, tie him to a heavy rock, and have him fight against fully armed warriors. Yaotl ended up killing ten warriors with his wooden stick, and then five more with his bare fists. The priests then decided that Tezcatlipoca did not wish for his death, and gave him a job that his strength and ferocity could do proper justice. As it happens, not all sacrifices go gently into that good night, which is a sign of weakness. Yaotl’s job was to remove these miserable cowards from the queue and dispose of them in less honourable ways. Yaotl excelled at this job, and the sight of him standing by the road to oblivion was enough to put some courage into faltering hearts.
“Huitzilopochtli is easy,” said Yaotl, in one of his rare talkative spells. “Just a cut here…” he indicated his stomach. “Take out the tona, badoom badoom, and off they go. Huehueteotl hurts much more. They put you on the fire till you are nearly dead, and then they cut out your tona. And then there are the children for Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue They have to cry because every tear is worth a rainstorm on the fields. Many ways to make them cry.” he pointed at Itzel, who was sitting a way away, talking to a peasant. “I can tell. She is a good sacrifice. She will lie down herself, and thank the priest. She has strong faith. Her destiny is high. I am honoured to help you, because she also helps you.”
Guns do not fire by sheer faith, and I knew that I needed to produce gunpowder. Every school boy knows what gunpowder is made of: sulphur, saltpetre, and a dash of charcoal. The King arranged for me to have a plentiful supply of all these things, and I can only imagine how many of his subjects died in obtaining these noxious substances.
It was plain to me from the start that King Ilhicamina was quite mad. He would come to me every few days or so and ask me how it was going. I made sure always to be able to show him something. A demonstration of the sharpness of a strip of steel, unworthy of being called a knife. I could shatter a piece of obsidian with one of my axes. But most of all, King Ilhicamina loved explosions. I would prepare a bowl of my gunpowder and light it, making fountains of sparks leap up and turning the room black with smoke and soot. It took some experimentation to find the right proportions, and I never showed the King my best mixtures, just so I could show him progress when the situation called for it. I made bombs out of iron, and demonstrated their destructive potential. The King was utterly taken in, and I was denied nothing that I asked for.
Every evening, I would sit with Itzel, and go through my notes. I made sure always to give her only the most important of questions for Huitzilopochtli. If I were to ask her for too much, she might despair of remembering it correctly and go to her death afraid of failing her people, her god, and perhaps even me. However, I still underestimated her, even though the things I did give her to remember would have challenged any of our greatest minds, considering they’d have to remember words in Ancient Greek or Chinese. Her recall was perfect as that of a photographic plate. One evening, I was sitting with her, going through my notes, when she put a hand on my arm.
“Philip? Why do you use so much paper and ask so few questions?”
“It is important that all my questions reach Him without fail,” I said. “It is not always that I am able to ask questions of the very Gods themselves. I ask you only the most important of things.”
Itzel laughed, and I was drawn in by the sparkle in that smile and her gleaming dark eyes.
“Philip, since I came here, there have been three score and twelve people who brought me their messages for Huitzilopochtli. I remember them all. I even remember the small differences between them, and that is not easy because they are mostly the same. Feed my children. Keep me from harm. Make me a stronger fighter. Help me prove my worth to the King, so he will let me live.” Itzel’s face was now very close to mine. “They all ask things for themselves, and they are all important. But your words are for my people. Your words are the most important of all, because they ask how you can help every one of them, and nothing for yourself.” Itzel bit her lip. “Their words are easy. Yours are hard. I would not want to stand before Him, and have Him scowl at me and say ‘Is that all?’ I love your words. I want them. I want them all. Each and every one of them. Do not give a strong man just a single straw to carry. Give me a full load, one that I can be proud of.”
I gave Itzel a long look. I knew of people in England who had memorised the Bible in its entirety. There were people who could recall every single plant in the Western hemisphere, complete with their names in Latin, English, French, the shapes of their leaves, and the number of petals on their flowers. At that moment, I wanted to take wings and fly with Itzel back to England, and satisfy her hunger for knowledge from the interminable libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, even Ipswich. I wanted her to amaze the professors there with the power of her incredible memory. Suddenly, I laughed with her, then raised a finger.
“‘t Was brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.”
I raised an eyebrow. Well?
Itzel repeated the first line of Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem, perfectly, beautifully.
“I can tell this is different from the others,” said Itzel. “What does this mean?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing at all. These words are just there to be themselves, and beautiful. And I wanted to hear you say them.”
Itzel settled back in her chair.
“Give me more,” she said.
The days went by far too quickly, and I gave Itzel the heavy load she asked for. Without fail, she repeated back to me questions on metallurgy, on chemistry, on the mechanics of firearms. At the end of each week, she would repeat back to me all that I had given her to memorise. I never did catch her on any mistakes, not even a single one. In the beginning, not all of my questions made sense. I did not expect answers to them, so as long as Itzel felt she was helping her people, all was well. As time went on, though, inevitably my experiments into rocketry, weapon production and chemistry faltered, I found myself asking her things that I really wanted to know. The distinction faded away between a ruse for poor Itzel’s comfort, and my own desires for knowledge. One evening when Itzel had retired to her bed, I realised that I was actually working with her, as though each one of my words would truly reach the ear of the gods, and in some impossible way the answers would return to me. I sat down on the side of my bed, and once more racked my brain for a way in which I could escape with Itzel. One look at my misshapen body was enough. I had climbed mountains to come here. I had swum rivers. Things I was now utterly incapable of. I had no fit body, and I did not know the way. Could I convince the King that I had not yet asked all of Itzel that I needed to know, and put off her death to the next cycle? No. Could I denounce her as incompetent? No. Her work was beyond reproach, and at any rate, it would not prevent her from being sacrificed. And the one thing that I could not solve, even if I were magically to overcome all the other obstacles, was this: Itzel would not want to leave. Her resolve, her courage, her dedication to the task before her, was what made her the formidable woman that she was.
That evening, I put my head in my hands, and wept quietly.
Even with my limited knowledge and tools, I was not without my successes. Using the cire-perdu or lost wax method, I was able to produce a primitive small iron cannon, and fire a cannonball with it. The shot destroyed one of their hideous statues, much to the King’s delight. But that was the limit of my abilities. I kept myself busy, producing mostly entertainment for King Ilhicamina, and things to remember for Itzel, to distract her from thinking about the looming day of her departure.
Yaotl, my hulk of a man servant, proved more useful with time, and he would no doubt become a competent blacksmith in his own right some day. Already some of the palace guards were wielding battle axes that he had made to my designs. He had also made a metal axe to match his own stature, and could be seen walking about town with it. It was more than up to the task of splitting the skulls of the insufficiently devout.
Except for Yaotl, and the servants who brought me food and tidied up my workshop, I never got to know most of the servants who moved my things around, worked the bellows, or mined for the minerals I needed. They were afraid of me, and I saw no need to engage them in conversation. Towards King Ilhicamina, I affected a servile and fawning demeanor that sickened me, but seemed to convince him that I was his unwaveringly loyal servant, ready to aid him in removing the Spaniards from his beloved homelands with fire and sword.
Autumn drew to a close, and the month of Quecholli drew to an end. The first day of the next month, Panquetzaliztli, would see the great festival in honour of the god Huitzilopochtli. At this point, I had nearly convinced myself that Itzel’s faith was true, and that the spark of sunlight that was her life would truly travel to the Gods, to convey my messages to them. There was in her eyes a sense of anticipation, an eager desire to set off on a difficult journey to the unknown. We rehearsed the long list of questions I had asked of the Gods, and she repeated them without fail, without a syllable out of place. She looked at me with a proud gleam in her dark eyes, and my heart beat faster. I took her hand between mine.
“Itzel,” I said, “you are perfect. No one else but you could have accomplished this. When you meet… Him, stand before him with your head up high. You have earned it.”
“Do you have more to give me?”
I shook my head. “I have given you all I need, and more. Have no fear. The people of Anctapolepl will rise from the shadows. Their tomorrow will be a brighter one, and you will see it from the seat of the Gods.”
Itzel closed her eyes, and bowed her head. I could see tears trickle down her cheek. “Thank you, Philip Tennant.”
It was the last day of the month. Tomorrow would be the day of fate. I no longer thought of escape for Itzel. It was not possible. I would gladly have given my own life so that she could live, but that life was no longer mine to give. I had pledged it to the King, and to his people. On the last night, I could not sleep. I sat in my bed, looking at the distorted green moonlight through the opaque window of my chamber. There was the noise of the beaded curtain, and she entered, quiet as a shadow. I could not find any words to say to her, and simply looked at her.
“I have a final gift to give to you, but I will want something in return.”
“Anything that is mine to give, is yours.”
“Good.” Itzel smiled. She pulled open her dress, and with a shrug of her shoulders, it fell to the floor. She stood before me naked, green moonlight shining on her brown skin, beautiful beyond compare.
She sat down on the bed next to me and took my hand. “From the day I was captured in the Flower War, I have been the comfort of others. The Gods will see to their needs because of me. I have been a nurse. I have been a priestess. I have walked the streets as the image of the Gods. But I have not been a woman. I wish to be a woman one more time, and that will be your gift to me.” Itzel bent over, and put her hand on my stunted knee under the blanket. For all the beauty of her naked body, I could not look away from her eyes. “And you, Philip Tennant of England, no longer think yourself to be a man, because of what you lost. We have healed your wounds, but we have not healed you of that. I will show you that you are a man, and that will be my gift to you.”
She gripped my hand tighter, and put it to her warm breast. In all the time since I met her, I had never once looked at Itzel with lustful intent. Not because I am a particularly virtuous man, but because she was right. Lying with her was a mis-matched concept like eating a cloud, sitting on a line from a poem.
I looked at my hand, then into her eyes, and dared to move my fingers a little. I could hear her breathe in. Felt her move under my hand. I reached up to her face, ran my fingers through her hair. She pulled away the blanket and lay down, half next to me, half on top of me. I put my arms round her, and we kissed.
We made love that night, starting out carefully, not wanting to break the spell, startle the other into retreat. Then, when that notion disappeared, hungrily, urgently, gripping each other tight. We left nothing untried, not an inch of skin untouched, no notion unacted-upon, no pleasure ungiven. Finally slowly, softly, tired, not wanting ever to stop. I looked up at her, her long hair sticking to her skin, gleaming and salty with the exertion. She lay down on top of me, kissed me one more time, then lay down next to me, put her head on my shoulder, and closed her eyes.
The next morning, Itzel was gone, and servants came to help me dress in rich garments, worthy of the King’s Sorceror, or perhaps his fool. For the occasion, I was carried in a wooden chair by two warriors. My absent leg throbbed with pain as I entered the cavern with the temple inside. At mid-day, the light of the sun would strike the altar, and the sacrifice would begin.
At the foot of the stairs sat the King and certain of his functionaries on a throne. My chair was set down at his right hand, and at the sound of a horn, the rituals began. Priests slowly, solemnly, climbed the stairs and stepped into the altar room, chanting their eerie prayers to the Great Warrior Huitzilopochtli. The chanting raised to a crescendo as the first light of the Sun touched the top of the pyramid, then suddenly stopped. I heard the sound of voices coming from the tunnel through which we had entered. Flanked by soldiers, the long line of sacrifices walked into the cavern. Yaotl was doing his usual duty of watching over the line of supplicants, searching for any faltering heart. On this occasion, there were none, least of all the proud figure leading the queue. She was dressed in the purest white. Gone was all her jewellery. In her hands, she carried a single flower. She was singing in Nahuatl, a hymn that to this day I have not been able to banish from my memory. As she walked past, she looked up to me, and smiled. I smiled back, and held out my hand to her. Itzel closed her eyes, then stepped forward, pride in her bearing, to the stairs. There were several dozen sacrifices, men, women. I did not look at them. Only one had my interest. Her steps on the stairway were steady and proud, and not once did she falter or hesitate. When she reached the top of the stairs, she raised her hand high, then dropped the flower on the floor. Itzel entered the altar room.
The priests in the room now raised their voices, a loud harsh noise echoing through the whole cavern. There was a moment of silence. Then, I heard the sound that I still hear in my worst nightmares.
I started to shake, hoping beyond hope that something might have gone wrong, that the sacrifice would not have continued. But my hopes and prayers were all in vain. A few torturous moments after I had heard Itzel’s voice, two priests came out of the altar room carrying a red-stained bundle of cloth and flesh and bone. With a heave they tossed it onto the giant’s stairs, and it came tumbling down, down, until with a sickening thud it landed on the apetlatl. Thank God, I was too far away to see in detail Itzel’s lovely face, misshapen into a mask of dread, her arms and legs broken from the fall. I could imagine them well enough, and almost I fainted. From above, more cries were heard, and with the frightening regularity of an abbatoir, more bodies, empty husks, came tumbling down the stairs. I absently noticed Yaotl charging into the line, grabbing one of the miserable men whose courage failed him. He threw him roughly to the floor, put a large foot on his throat, then swung his axe and smashed in his skull. Then, he grabbed his leg and dragged the corpse away.
I closed my eyes, and the shell of faith that I had carefully constructed for Itzel’s sake shattered into a thousand pieces. Gone was my conviction that Itzel was speeding towards her God. All that remained was the realisation that a beautiful, gifted, and kind woman was now dead.
There was a hand on my shoulder, and I looked up into the face of the King.
“She is flying to Huitzilopochtli now,” said King Ilhicamina, with a sickening tone of satisfaction in his voice. “Soon, you will know all that you need to know, and my people will rise again.”
“Yes, your Highness,” I said. “I hear her speaking even now.”
In that moment, I swore the most terrible oath that I have ever kept. I swore upon my faith, upon my very life, and upon the memory of my beloved Itzel, that I would make the King his weapons. I would make the King his tools of war. And then I swore with all the force left in me. I swore that I would leave no stone of that thrice-accursed city standing upon the other.
I swore that I would bring it down.