Philip Tennant: You cannot get there from here

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From one dream into the next – The King and I – Messenger to the gods – The only thing I can do

It has often been stated that there is no such thing as a
man’s work or a woman’s work in a civilised society. And yet,
there is no denying that men and women are, physically and
mentally, different from each other. This must unavoidably
lead to women being better at some tasks than men, and worse at
others. Research has shown that this is in fact the case, but
then again, the differences between our psyches are not so large
that a man cannot possibly do a woman’s job. Likewise, we cannot
but accept the difference in our physical build, but that does
not mean that we men are unavoidably destined to be pack animals.

There are those who vehemently speak against this, even going so
far as to argue that a man’s superior body strength is the result
of social conditioning, or even sub-conscious under-feeding of
females. When people ignore the evidence in front of their eyes
to such an extent, be sure that they have intentions that have
nothing to do with reason. Our goal must be to transcend our
differences to the benefit of all, rather than deny that these
differences exist with the dogmatism of a young-earth creationist.

But be that as it may, I have never allowed my children to
shirk a task that was not traditionally assigned to their
gender. Alexandra would carry her own things on expeditions,
Carl would take his share in the cooking and repair his own
clothes when they became damaged. In an expedition, as we learnt
to our loss, nobody is immune to the hand of Fate, and the full
load of tasks, no matter who they are traditionally assigned to,
can come to rest on any of our shoulders.

— Philip Tennant, “Parenting for explorers”


My first few weeks in the city of Anctapolepl were spent in a laudanum-induced stupor. My absent leg was hurting, strange though that may seem. The physicians call it phantom pain. Laudanum is a mixture of opium and alcohol. Its use, even in severe cases, is no longer recommended. As the dosages slowly decreased, the unreal, dream-like quality of my surroundings slowly gave way to something resembling reality. The under-sea quality of the light was explained by the green window that let the sunlight in. The angelic creature who was tending me turned into a normal human woman. Her kindness, and also her beauty remained, as did the marvellous clothes and jewels she wore. Her name was Itzel. All that I could find out in those early days was that she was not from this city, and that she was a widow, her husband having died in one of the wars in these areas. She taught me a few words of Nahuatl, and we conversed in a combination of Nahuatl, English, a few words of Spanish and sign language. I could see that speaking Spanish made her uneasy, so I tried to avoid it where possible. Nahuatl is not a very difficult language to learn, once you get used to all the prefixes and sufixes you add to the base words. For instance, “house” is “kal-li”. “My house” becomes “no-kal”. “In the house” becomes “kal-pan”.

I was in the house for most of the first few months as my wounds healed. At times, a doctor would visit me, examine my leg stump, give Itzel some instructions and leave again. Itzel was a complete mystery to me. At times, people would come, dressed in clothes much more plain than hers, and speak to her for a while. Then, they would leave, smiling. They would speak only softly, and I could only occasionally hear the name of one of their gods, Huitzilopochtli. By the respect they showed her, I would appear that Itzel was a priestess of some sort, and of a high rank within the city of Anctapolepl. But why then was she acting as a nurse for a lowly explorer? Surely, such a task was far beneath the dignity of a high-caste member of the Anctapolepl clergy? Itzel herself would not be drawn on the subject. After every consultation, she was quiet, withdrawn, even looking fearful. She would recover quickly, and return to me, putting a pair of crutches in my hands and telling me to practice.

When I was able to move around with ease on my crutches, Itzel took me to see the King of the realm. His name was Ilhicamina, a name that means, roughly, “He shoots arrows at the sky”. He was named after a famous king of old. In those days, Ilhicamina had precious little left to be King of, after their lands were ravaged by the Spanish Conquistadores.

Itzel bowed to him, and indicated that I should do likewise. The King waved us forward.

“Greetings, Philip Tennant, and welcome to the Kingdom of Anctapolepl. I trust your treatment is satisfactory?”

“Yes, your Highness,” I said. Itzel had taught me the proper address for the King in Nahuatl. “Itzel has been most kind to me, and your healers have seen to my wounds. I am content and grateful.”

“Good, good. It is well, because I have plans for you, Philip Tennant. You are one of the white men, and yet do not belong to the Conquistadores.” He spat out the last word as though the sheer taste of it disgusted him. “I hear that your people have been in many bloody was with the Spaniards, you must hate them as much as we do.”

That was a slight overstatement. The Anglo-Spanish wars, on the other half of this Earth, were many years ago, and any bitter wars between the Spanish and the English are now fought on the battlefield of commerce. There were many English families who retired to Spain, creating small pockets of England in the rural areas of Spain, often much to the annoyance of the locals. But it doesn’t do to disagree with a King. I reminded myself of the viciously overpriced and foul tasting tea I had once had in Madrid.

“That is true, your Highness. The Spanish have caused us great losses. There is no love between the English and the Spaniards.”

“Good,” said King Illhicamina. “Together, you and I will bring down the filthy Spaniards, and restore the Kingdom of Anctapolepl to its former glory.”

I simply bowed my head. How the King intended to bring down people who were by now an integral part of Meso-american society, I would no doubt learn later. What I could contribute to his plans, I couldn’t possibly fathom. The King must have noticed some of my doubts.

“You come from the lands over the Great Sea,” he said. “The knowledge that is in your head is a treasure to us greater than gold or jewels. It is by their knowledge, not by bravery, that the Conquistadores defeated us till now. You will provide what knowledge I need. How to make swords of metal, how to make the weapons that kill the bravest of warriors at a hundred paces. These were the things that defeated us, and these are the things that we must have.”

With no small effort, I managed to keep my face straight. Did the King expect me to bring about an industrial revolution? I could recognise iron ore. I had even smelted a small ingot of iron myself as a school project, under careful supervision of my teachers. But the fine details of metallurgy were a closed book to me.

The King laughed. “You think you are not up to the task? Do not fear. We are not alone. Our Gods will help us. Itzel will help to bring you the knowledge that you need.”

“Itzel?” I looked at her. She looked back at me with a little smile on her face. “How can she help?”

King Illhicamina held out his hand and Itzel approached.

“Itzel is our messenger to the great warrior Huitzilopochtli. You will tell her what knowledge you need. She will speak for you.”

“Does Itzel have the ear of your god?”

King Illhicamina smiled, and pulled open Itzel’s robe, exposing her breast. He put his hand just underneath. I could see Itzel’s smile harden, become nervous.

“On the first day of the month Panquetzaliztli, she will walk to the top of the Great Pyramid of Anctapolepl. The priest will take the tona from her body, and offer it to the God Huitzilopochtli. The spark of the Sun’s heat that drives us all will return to those who gave it to us. Itzel will be the first of many to ascend and carry our voices to the Gods.”


We returned to my quarters. Itzel helped me back into my bed as she had done so often these weeks, putting a blanket over my knees, more to hide my leg than because of the cold. She sat down on the bed next to me, looking at me.

“Philip Tennant, it is time to tell me what knowledge you require of the great Warrior.”

“Itzel… Why do you need to go through this?” I looked into her dark eyes. “Why must you die?”

“I won’t die,” said Itzel. “I will walk the path by which the Sunlight reaches us, and dwell at the side of Huitzilopochtli forever.”

She said this as though she were stating a simple fact, such as the boiling temperature of water at sea level. Impossible thoughts came to me. I would take her away from this cursed city, run with her through the jungles of America, deliver her from the terrible fate that awaited her. As I looked at the blanket over my knees, I saw the folly. I would not be running anywhere, with or without her. I wanted to ask her: What if I refuse? But the answer to that was obvious. We would both die.

“It is impossible,” I said. “You are not a metallurgist. The questions I need to ask of you… you will not understand them. Your god will learn nothing from you.”

“Huitzilopochtli will know,” said Itzel. “I will remember your words to the very last syllable, English, Nahuatl, Latin, or even Spanish. This was the gift of the Gods to me when I was born. I recall perfectly every word that the people of this city have told me to ask of the Gods.”

“But… Even the slightest mistake could be fatal! You cannot possibly…”

Itzel put her hand on my shoulder.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” Itzel started, and continued the whole of the prayer. I could even recognise my own voice, the pain, my very accent, in her words. I only remembered saying that prayer once, to bolster my spirits while I mourned the loss of my leg.

“Do you know what that means?”

She shook her head. “No. but you do, and so do the Gods. Have no fear. I will carry your voice truly.”

“But how will I receive the gods’ reply? I do not pray to them! I am a Christian!”

“The knowledge will be given to you. When you need it, it will be there. You will deliver our people from harm, Philip Tennant. Of that, I am certain.”

“But…” I reached out, put my hand on her chest, just underneath her breast. “This body will die. You will die. There is so much more that you can do for your people by staying alive.”

Itzel looked away, breathed in deeply. Then, her eyes turned back to me.

“Philip Tennant, I believe that you were sent to carry these people to glory once more. It will not be an easy path, that you and I must tread. Your path was not easy, and still you are here now.” She smiled at me. “You are glad to be here, are you not?”

“I…” I looked at her, and felt my heart beat faster. In the space of a few months, Itzel had become dear to me, not replacing Iris in my heart, but living comfortably next to her. Iris would have liked her, with her eyes filled with the glow of fervour and the faith of her people. I did the only thing I could in the circumstances.

I believed her. I knew in my heart that kind Itzel’s immortal soul would sit beside her gods, repeating my every word to her, more faithfully than I even could myself. I took her hand in mine, looked deep into her eyes.

“We have work to do,” I said.

Next: Philip Tennant: Travel fast, go alone. Travel far, go together.

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