My lord, the black nahualli is dead.
I went with the brownrobes as
you ordered, saw to it
that the lay brother called Honoratio
got left behind in Petatlán
with a sudden sickness.
Lacking a second white man, then–
an official witness–what Spaniard
would take the word of one
credulous friar, however many
natives he quotes? A foreigner even
among foreigners: he speaks their castellano
worse than I do. And whatever he meant
by “city of gold”–a world-denier
like him–no one thought to wonder.
Coronado’s soldiers hated him
from start to finish.
The nahualli Esteban is dead:
& with him the gravest threat
to the gods of our long-lost cousins
at the Seven Caves.
I escaped their arrows;
they let me live among them
until the governor’s visit.
I taught them the art
of surrender, how to avoid
the yellowbeard’s venom.
To lend him what he asks for
without giving up the title.
At my insistence they kept
their sacred images out of sight, just
as if they were women, or reckless
boys. I recounted the pathetic
tale of Montezuma.
They would’ve killed me
for a witch as well
but I repeated Esteban’s admonitions
in language they’d accept:
You can’t stop a torrent–
but you can stand back, let
your check-dams capture the silt,
the rich litter.
(To be continued.)
Simon Zopeloxochitl is an invented character. He first made his appearance as a participant in the song contest (see Cibola 86).
The idea of an Aztec sorcerer travelling with Esteban and Marcos as an undercover anthropologist/ambassador to “Cibola” is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The Aztec origin myth of Seven Caves and a Place of Herons somewhere in the far north was given new life by the reports of Seven Cities brought back by Cabeza de Vaca, Esteban and their companions, and was partly responsible for fueling the enthusiasm for an expedition of conquest. (The myth lives on to this day, reflected in the name of the state of New Mexico and in local NM toponymns such as Montezuma and Aztec.) In a few years, a native Aztec revivalist movement would spark rebellions and possibly even a Ghost Dance-type attempt at a new religion, according to one scholar (John Bierhorst). The unspecified “lord” addressed here is presumably a disgruntled nobleman or native priest plotting a revolt.
nahualli – In Nahuat belief, a shaman/sorcerer able to transform him/herself into an animal for travel in the underworld; broadly, any skilled magic-worker.
the governor’s visit – Coronado’s expedition of 1540.