Cortez, The Killer
By Kenneth Fox
A thunder of excitement erupted on the deck of the galleon, releasing me from my suspended silence. For the better part of the last five weeks I have existed in this silence, even attempting to thrive in my own thoughts after overcoming the horrible bouts of sea sickness I experienced on the first several nights. Staying confined to my cabin helped with both my sickness and silence, so that is where I breathed day and night, only surfacing to avoid certain insanity. Apparently I don’t have the stomach for these types of things, but what type of journalist would I be to pass up an opportunity to be the first to discover and write about a whole new world just because I have an uneasy stomach. Not to mention that the King of Spain specifically chose me to accompany Captain Cortez on his journey across the ocean and to send a report of our discoveries directly to him… and he promised me riches beyond imagination. Nonetheless, this energetic vibration of the ship was unusual for early dawn and caused my heart to jolt in excitement and fear. I quickly dressed and, with haste, joined the rest of the ship’s crew that had amassed on the deck. Cortez was at his helm, peering endlessly into the distance. I followed his gaze, squinting my unadjusted eyes in order to attempt to discover the source of the ship’s arousal. My heart sank as I was unable to make out the borders of land that I so hoped to see. With this sadness and lack of sea legs, I ran to the edge of the ship in order to relieve my nausea. As I craned over the railing I noticed a flock of white gulls gliding on the surface of the vast ocean underneath, welcoming us to their home, guiding us as we danced across the water.
Not long after, a scream from the watchtower indicated that our treacherous journey had reached its unknown destination. The pureness of the beach was accentuated by the midday sun which loomed directly overhead. Behind it, the shore turned into rolling hills of luscious green and forest. I couldn’t help but wonder what new creatures resided underneath this reaching canopy that distorted my vision, what beings might greet us upon arrival, and what things would wait until the cover of darkness to make their presence known. It was almost hard to imagine that this beautiful, new world was ours for the taking. But over the past few weeks I had plenty of time to let my imagination explore, and it only strengthened my fear of the unknown. I heard a voice call my name from the bow of the ship. It was Cortez, asking if I was ready to accompany him on the first dingy, if I was ready to be the first to step foot on this unknown land. The world around me was closing in, my periphery turned blurry from fear.
I couldn’t wait to get off this godforsaken ship, but in order to do that I had to get on a much smaller one. I squeezed next to one of the first mates who was holding the Spanish Inquisition flag across his lap, another was charged with the flag of Christianity. It seemed as if the first country to put their flags in the ground won. As we approached the beach, I thought I saw a rustle in the bushes farther down. No one else seemed to notice or be worried by this disturbance so I left it up to the power of the wind and my unsettled nerves. I looked down to the water which was now so close that I could reach in and grab at its depths. But, like the rest of this new world, I had no idea what I could touch, what mysterious creatures would clutch my hand and drag me into the abyss. Soon we ran ashore.
Cortez was the first one to jump off, unsheathing his sword almost as soon as his feet touched the white sand. The rest of his mates followed, unloading our supplies from the several rafts that had now landed on the shore. Captain Cortez was handed the flags, which he one after the other drove firmly into the heart of the earth. On the ship he told me to how important this image was to the king and encouraged me to capture the heroism of this act in my report, as if God’s light was shining down upon Cortez as he claimed this land for the divine. But, my focus was averted by another rustle in the bushes. This time I was positive that something was there, whether it be mouse or dragon. Others also seemed to be frightened by the echoes in the dark, forgetting about the rest of our supplies and focusing on unloading the ammunition and guns we had brought in case of conflict. I grabbed one and packed it firmly with powder and a ball of lead. I quickly prayed that the light of God would penetrate deeper into the savage darkness that existed ahead, that He would not abandon us as we made our way further into the unknown. I felt wild eyes tracing my skin and began to scream into the forest.
God answered, and the beings that hid in the shadows slowly, cautiously walked into His light. Cortez stepped forward, sword still drawn. The rest of us waited behind him as we watched a horde of two legged creatures separate from the blackness and step onto the beach. They had been watching us this whole time, likely wondering what these strange white creatures with galleons and guns were doing putting strange things into their earth. Cortez obviously didn’t see it this way, puffing his chest out as the colorful aliens approached. Like ours, their leader seemed to separate himself from the rest of the pack, his power made obvious by the way he carried himself. To my great surprise many of them weren’t naked, instead garnished with clothes of many colors, dressed for their angry gods to see. There were nearly two hundred lords that flanked their ruler, forming two perfect columns behind him, each carrying large wooden bowls that seemed to be overflowing with food and gold. We stood in awe as their massive, dark leader stopped in front of us, motioning for his followers to place the bowls at our feet. Then, the women who existed at the rear of the pack stepped forward, presenting themselves to Cortez and the rest of the soldiers surrounding him. Their women all were beautiful, and their men stood straight and strong. Assuming this to be a peace offering Cortez, for the first time since landing, solemnly returned his sword to its sheath as a way to thank them for their grace. But, he wished to conquer, not to be welcomed.
To thank them for their tangible gifts we decided to enlighten them with Christianity, introduce them to God. Cortez ordered his soldiers to place the scripture at their feet, and called for the priest to read them the tenants of the gospel, the commandments. Their heads began to swivel, looking about in confusion. Noticing their total lack of understanding, Cortez laughed at the unintelligent life that stood before him, telling his lesser to preach louder in order to enlighten the minds that seemed unable to hear him. The tribe began to vibrate in frustration at being yelled at. The bellow of Montezuma silenced the heavens and caused Cortez to shrink into the sand underneath him. Unlike Cortez, their leader seemed to understand that they communicated in a different way and used his hands to motion for us to follow, almost seeming eager to let us into his home. He spun around and walked back towards the blackness of the forest on the edge of the beach, his subjects gathering around him like leaves around a tree. Cortez gathered a group of his officers and myself, the person charged with documenting his journey, and gave our arms to the women who led us in the wake of their leader and flanking lords into the savage wilderness.
It was hard to tell if we were captives or guests but, for the time being, we were free of any bindings or torture, except for the lovely women who caressed and held each of our arms. After only a few minutes of this slow, methodical walk, the forest began to lose the density that made it impenetrable to our weary minds. I felt cascades of sunlight touch me through the cracks in the leaves. I hoped that here God would once again be able to guide us in His light. Through the trees I could see the glisten of water ahead. I wondered if we had just walked in a circle and that this was the same beach we arrived at, or if they wanted to tie rocks to our feet and watch us drown as a form of savage entertainment. But as the space between the trees grew larger, something much greater than even my imagination could have conjured came into view, a hidden utopia, a land of cocoa leaves and pearls, an enormous paradise built from stone and sweat, surrounded on all sides by water. The only way into the city was by way of the bridge that stretched along the large lake. I looked over to Cortez and the other soldiers in time to see their mouths agape, in absolute awe at the beauty and scale of the things presented before them that these creatures were able to create, only to realize that I shared this same expression. This street through the city was another work of art, so wide and straight that you could see clear through to the other side. As we approached the center of the city, the street became lined with those who lived within its walls, acting as a welcoming party, bordering the streets with a variety of colorful garments and gold accents. At the heart of the city, the light of the setting sun was lost behind a great pyramid that seemed to touch the clouds. In front of this temple, Montezuma once again turned to us and raised his hands to the sky as if invoking the wrath of God. He proclaimed “Tenochtitlan,” which could have been a curse put on us or the name of this wondrous place. After reveling for a brief moment, or waiting to see if his spell would take effect, Montezuma once again motioned for us to follow as he took the first step on this stairway to heaven. This great leader was right to be proud of his creation. With their bare hands they raised up what we still can’t build today.
While I did not look toward his face, I sensed a passionate rage growing inside Cortez. He wanted his new world to be the palace in the sun. Yet, here he was, in the shadow of one that already existed.
We followed Montezuma up the steps and were quickly flanked by the dark natives who filled these crowded streets, who were pledged eternally to their leader. Being on a ship with a bunch of drunk soldiers for well over a month doesn’t usually lead to the healthiest lifestyle, and after a few minutes of climbing these steps that seemed to go on forever, I was completely out of breath and basically clawing my way to the temple’s entrance. A friendly citizen behind me, noticing my struggle, grabbed my arm and slung it over his dark, muscular back in order to make sure I didn’t fall all the way back down. I was afraid to look into his face, acknowledge that his gaze was not that different from mine, afraid to thank him in a universal language.
Finally, we reached the pinnacle of our ascent just as the sun passed over the horizon, causing the clouds that seemed to graze my head to turn crimson. Montezuma ordered two of his servants to open the massive entrance doors and proceeded to lead us into the narthex as if we were his honored guests, quickly followed by the rest of the congregation. We followed closely behind Montezuma and the two lords at his side into a spiral tunnel that led to a giant circular theater carved into the stone, where the torches lining the walls were the only form of light. We were led down a number of steps to a front row seat carved into the stone, the row closest to the stone altar. It was clear that there was some sort of spectacle we were about to witness as the rest of the congregation packed the crypt, their shadows flickering over the cold altar. And while I doubted my God would hear me in their temple, I prayed that I wouldn’t be the spectacle.
When the rest of the congregation found their seats, the ceremony was ready to begin. Montezuma stood solemnly and lit the remaining four torches at the edges of the altar. He said something to his people that we obviously couldn’t understand, and almost everyone in the audience rose to their feet, even some of the smallest children. Montezuma surveyed the crowd by slowly circling the altar. He passed Cortez, who was sitting to my left, and came to a sudden but meditated stop right in front of where I was seated. He pointed his hand to the sky, and with fingers outstretched, dropped it like a hammer right over my head. But, he did not complete his motion, stopping in the middle of his swing and training his arm on a man a few rows above me. The rest of the congregation sat down and Montezuma parted his subjects, allowing a path for the man he picked to descend to the altar. The man’s shoulder brushed against the raised hairs on mine as he passed right between me and Cortez, whose eyes were frozen to the stone table in front of him. For the first time Montezuma drew his blade, a large sacrificial dagger attached at his hip. The man disrobed and laid on the cold stone as Montezuma ritualistically roasted his blade over each torch at the altars edge, chanting something so beautiful it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. There were no words to his hymn, because this song was being sung before people had words.
The man who lay in front of me craned his head in my direction and stared into me. I felt a moment of recognition, as if I had some previous bond with him. He could have been the man who helped you up the steps. The screams of the man interrupted this thought as the scorching blade pierced the skin under his left pectoral. As his screams got louder, so did the chanting of the audience who were now echoing Montezuma’s tune. The blade plunged deeper towards his human heart, but Montezuma was careful not to damage this vital organ before it was time. In one swift motion, this powerful leader ripped open a cavity in the man’s chest. As his screams faded into echoes in a stone chamber, Montezuma reached his glowing hand into the man’s chest and pulled out his heart, presenting it with both hands outstretched to the man directly to my left, Cortez. Despite my almost constant nausea throughout this journey and the gore I had just witnessed, my stomach was as cold and still as the stone surrounding me. I watched as Cortez stared blankly, endlessly into the heart that still beat in his hands, pulsing to the rhythm of the cawing native chant. Montezuma then placed the heart into one of the fires and danced around the pyre while the smoke it created reached towards the heavens, hoping to appease the gods, including the one that sat before him.
After the ceremony, Montezuma bid us farewell and had his servants lead us to our quarters for the night. As I prepared to drift into the darkness, I overheard Cortez discussing his war strategy with the rest of his officers in the conjoining room. They would capture Montezuma at dawn and start a continuous siege on the city the same day, giving famine to the people who welcomed them as gods, leveling any building that could cast a shadow. I descended into darkness. Hate came like the echo of a distant tide willowing across the sand, and war was never known.