For weeks there is a power vacuum in the village. Malinalli’s father’s clerk takes over temporarily as the people there and in the surrounding territory are in shock at the news of their chief’s early demise. By all appearances he died a natural death since there was no trauma on the body, but he was still in his prime so it makes the situation more difficult to accept. How could a young man die suddenly? Perhaps the gods had some role in it?
Finally the people settle down and elect a veteran Jaguar warrior the new chief. After his confirmation by the Empire, one of his first official duties is to visit Malinalli’s home. In fact their estate and their servants are reserved for the chief—a law instituted by the Empire so that the leadership has no need of temptation or corruption. The new chief benevolently informs her mother that they may continue to live there for the short term until they can find suitable quarters.
Malinalli takes an instant dislike to her father’s replacement despite his outward kindness.
“Mama, I don’t understand—we have to move?”
“This estate belongs to the chief of the village. It is only because of your father’s position that we live here.”
“It’s not fair. What will we do?”
“Perhaps the gods will show us the way. You should pray and make an offering to your Feathered Serpent.” Her mother suggests, but Malinalli senses something else in her tone. It is the first time in weeks she sees a slight softening in her features.
Within a few weeks Malinalli learns why: the new chief and her mother seem to be spending a lot of time together. In fact tongues are already waging in the village.
After yet another evening when the new chief shares dinner at her home, she confronts her mother.
“Why is he here again?”
“Hush daughter, it’s none of your business.”
“But daddy has only been gone for two months…”
“Don’t questions your elders! Besides you want to stay in this house don’t you?”
“What do you mean by that?” Malinalli asks, suspicion building.
“If you want to maintain the life we had then you will be silent and respect him! Don’t ruin this by your whining. Your father is gone. If you were older you would inherit his title and power, but that cannot be for many years. So I must find a way to provide for us.”
Malinalli studies her mother. For the first time she recognizes they are cut from the same mold, her mother is slender and tall of stature, unlike most of the women in the village, and she is lighter skinned and well, pretty.
“You intent to marry him?” Malinalli asks with a shocked tone, but she already knows the answer…
Thankfully Malinalli has something to take her mind off the situation: she is accepted into the temple and begins spending day and night there, only returning home on the weekends. This is required both as a means of intensive immersion and due to the long journey from her village of Paynala.
The temple of Feathered Serpent is almost exactly as Malinalli imagined it: light and airy and surrounded by flowers. As she approaches the first day a woman in a white robe bids her inside.
“I am called Eréndira and I will be your teacher and guide in your journey to understanding.” She motions Malinalli to sit cross-legged face to face on the stone floor and the girl instinctively likes her.
“I am Malinalli.” The girl replies politely.
“Yes Malinalli, you were born under the sign of Grass. This day signifies tenacity, rejuvenation—that which cannot be uprooted forever. Malinalli is a day for persevering against all odds and for creating alliances that will survive the test of time. It is a good day for those who are suppressed, a bad day for their suppressors. It is a good and powerful sign.” Eréndira tells her.
They are briefly interrupted by a brilliant yellow butterfly flitting around the temple.
“Perhaps a sign.” Eréndira smiles at the pleasant intrusion. “You know that your birthday is governed by Patecatl as its provider of life energy. He is the Lord of Healing and Medicines. He is the husband of Mayahuel.”
Malinalli nods seriously, paying rapt attention.
“But did you know that Feathered Serpent himself took Mayahuel from her grandmother and the fearsome star demons in order to protect her? But the demons caught her and tore her to pieces. Feathered Serpent then buried her remains from which the first maguey plant grew so the people would have drink, rope, and sweet syrup.”
Malinalli is torn between delight and horror at this information, but says nothing.
“I am very pleased you have chosen Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, to whom to dedicate yourself. Did you know that all noble born, such as yourself, are considered to be his descendants?”
“Please tell me about Feathered Serpent. I want to know everything.” Malinalli asks excitedly.
“Feathered Serpent is a giver of life and bringer of knowledge. Feathered Serpent and his three brother gods created the sun, the heavens, and the earth. Feathered Serpent’s battles with Smoking Mirror brought about the creation and destruction of four suns and earths, leading to the fifth sun and today’s world.” Eréndira spoke with a strong but calm voice, looking the young girl in the eye.
“At first there were no people under the fifth sun. All the peoples of the four worlds had died, and their bones littered Hell. This sorrowed Feathered Serpent greatly because he felt responsible. So he and his twin brother journeyed to Hell to find those bones, but once there aroused the fury of the Death Lord. As he fled from the underworld, Feathered Serpent dropped the bones, and they broke into pieces. He gathered up the pieces and took them to the goddess Snake Woman, who ground them into flour. Feathered Serpent pierced his manhood, his penis, and moistened the flour with his own blood, which gave it life. Then he and his brother shaped the mixture into human forms and taught the new creatures how to reproduce themselves.” The priestess gestured with a delicate wave of her hands at the sky and the ground as the young girl hung on her every word…
While Malinalli enjoyed her education at the temple, each time she returned home she found the chief already there, as if he had taken up residence. Three weeks later her mother took her aside and told her the news: She was getting remarried—to the new chief. This did not sit well with Malinalli who began to use her time at the temple as an escape from this depressing situation.
She endured the wedding ceremony only by thinking of how soon she could get back to Eréndira’s teaching. To make it worse, there were the ugly rumors about her father’s untimely death: perhaps her mother had somehow ‘helped’ it along? Had she poisoned him somehow? This was too much for Malinalli who hurried back to the temple the very next day after the marriage.
“But why did Lord Feathered Serpent leave us? I have heard stories at the village school.” Malinalli asked Eréndira, with her own feelings of abandonment by her father whirling in her head.
“Lord Feathered Serpent’s departure from our world was the result of his old enemy, Smoking Mirror, who was disdainful of Feathered Serpent’s kindness to us humans and jealous of our adoration for him. Smoking Mirror tricked Feathered Serpent by getting him drunk and then holding up a magic mirror. Instead of himself, Feathered Serpent saw Smoking Mirror’s cruel face. Believing that he was looking at his own cruel image, Feathered Serpent decided to leave the world and sailed east into the sea on a raft of serpents. But Feathered Serpent missed his creations, we humans, so much he threw himself onto a funeral pyre. As his body burned, birds flew forth from the flames, and his heart went up into the heavens to become the morning star Venus.”
Malinalli was on the verge of tears at the story.
“Do not fret child, you may see our Lord Feathered Serpent each summer day in the morning sky as he watches over us.” Eréndira assured her kindly.
“But will he return to help us?” Malinalli asks.
“It is prophesied that our Lord Feathered Serpent will return in One Reed, eight years from now…”
But eight years is a long time for someone so young and the next thing Malinalli knows her mother is pregnant! And by the end of her first year at the temple, her brother is born.
Although her step father treats her decently enough, it is blatantly obvious that he and her mother favor their new son. Her mother has finally gotten what she wanted all along—a boy. Malinalli no longer feels welcome in her own home.
She misses her father, misses him saying good night. As she remains cut off from friends thanks to her mother, she has no one but Eréndira.
A few weeks later Malinalli is summoned home for a ceremony for her brother. After a trying day and restless evening she finally falls asleep—only to be jostled awake by rough hands in the dead of night. Someone puts a coarse bag over her head and clamps a hand over her mouth and lifts her from her bed. Before she knows it, Malinalli is carried off.
They travel a long way. Malinalli squirms and struggles but here are at least two of them—against which a nine year old girl has no chance. At some point she dozes off and the next thing she feels is the warmth of the morning sun. They stop and she is dumped on the hard earth. The sack is removed, blinding her for several minutes.
Someone shoves a cup in her hands, which she realizes are bound with rope.
“Drink!” An old man’s wizened face swims into view. His wicked grin is missing several teeth.
Malinalli looks around and sees there are four men—all dressed in tattered filthy clothes, and she knows they are not Aztec but probably Mayan. She also does not recognize the area which means she is far from the village.
“Why am I here? My father is chief of Paynala and my mother is noble born. You will be punished.” Malinalli cries.
“You foolish girl! Your mother sold you to us—for a good price I must say—so that you wouldn’t be around to inherit your dead father’s power and wealth.” The eldest of them yells her, his face so close she feels the spittle flying from his lips.
“That can’t be!”
“Of course it is, her and her new husband want their boy to succeed to the title of chief and the estate which is rightfully yours.” The vile man laughs evilly.
“People will miss me; my teacher priestess Eréndira will miss me.” Malinalli reasons, almost to herself.
“No one will miss you! Your mother buried another girl, a convenient result of her slave’s child’s death, and told the whole village it was you. No one will ever look for you; you’re mine, my slave, and my property now. And I hope to get a good price for you though you’re skinny and frail looking.”
Malinalli is in the hands of slave traders; her own mother sold her out! Tears fill her eyes at the pain in her heart.
“Consider yourself lucky you still live, another mother would just have drowned you in a river.” The old man tells her and then shouts something to the others in a language she doesn’t understand. One of them puts the sack over her head and lifts her over his shoulder and they are off again.
Several hours later they stop again and when the sack is removed Malinalli sees she is in a large city, much bigger than her own village. She is carried to a square in what must be the marketplace. The old man places a noose around her neck and she is led like a dog on a leash to a group of other people, most of them dirty and nearly naked. Although the language is foreign and she doesn’t understand what is happening, the bidding has begun.
One by one the other people—men, women and children like her, slaves she realizes, are marched off after an exchange of cocoa beans or jade pieces. Then it is her turn.
A few men feel her arms, and force her mouth open to look at her teeth and comment in their unknown tongue. Then a tall man with no hair and the biggest arms she has ever seen speaks at length to her captor.
The old slave trader turns to her.
“Can you spin and weave?”
The men exchange more words, heatedly it seems and then the tall one passes over a few pieces of jade. The slave trader hands him her leash and he pulls her out of the line.
He leads her a few steps to an old woman who has several other slaves with her and hands her the rope tied around Malinalli’s neck. Before long they are all walking eastward until they come to a large stone house, one of the finest Malinalli has ever seen.
But the slaves are shoved into one of the outbuildings to lie on a dirt floor as darkness falls. There is almost total silence; no one speaks out of fear and confusion.
That night Malinalli’s eyes burn with tears as despair pierces her heart. Her own mother had not only abandoned her, but gave her away to slave traders. As she tosses and turns fitfully on the hard ground, Malinalli wonders what will become of her and prays to Feathered Serpent for some guidance or sign.
Hours later, a Goddess came to her in a dream. She is a beautiful lady, not unlike a young Eréndira, dressed in pale shades with a light filling her face framed with flowing earthen locks.
“Child, why do you weep so? Look inward and imitate the strength of which you are named. Do you not know the grass cannot be tamed? See it bend with the wind and then stand upright. See it trampled under the feet of men and then straighten. See it guard the soil from blowing away in the storms. See it hide and protect the many creatures that live in its midst. Do not fear your future my child, for you are far stronger than you think, and like the grass for which you are named, you will prevail.”