Beneath the Mask

Issue #8

“He’s in here,” Huchimitl said.

I stood in the courtyard of her opulent house, amidst pine and palm trees, breathing in the smell of dust and fallen pine needles. Just outside, a few paces from me, was Coyocan, one of the busiest suburbs of Tenochtitlan; but the bustle from the crowded streets and canals was barely audible, cut off by the walls of the courtyard. Around us were several doorways, closed by coloured entrance-curtains; and it was before one of those that Huchimitl and I stood.

Not for the first time, I wished Huchimitl wasn’t wearing that accursed ceramic mask—so I could read her face. Or, failing that, that she’d at least tell me why she was wearing it. The only people in the city I’d seen wearing that kind of mask were disfigured warriors. But I’d asked the question twice on my way there, and been met with silence.

“I’m not sure I can do anything—” I started, but Huchimitl cut me off.

“Please, Acatl. Just take a look at the man. And tell me whether he’s cursed.”

Curses, unless they were from the underworld, weren’t really my province. If I’d had any sense, I’d have refused Huchimitl when she’d arrived in my temple.

But she’d been wearing that mask, hiding her face from me. Surely….

Surely the girl I remembered from my childhood, the one who’d turned the heads of all the boys in our calpulli clan—including mine—couldn’t possibly be injured?

I couldn’t bring myself to believe that. There had to be some other explanation for that mask. And I had to know what it was.

Huchimitl was still standing before the door, waiting for my answer. “Acatl,” she said, shaking her head in that disturbingly familiar fashion, halfway between exasperation and amusement.

My heart twisted in my chest. In truth, I’d never had been able to refuse her, and even though it had been years since we’d last seen each other, it still did not change anything. “I can’t promise you much,” I said, finally.

Huchimitl shook her head—sunlight played on her mask as she did so, creating disturbing reflections on the ceramic, like a breath from Mictlan, the underworld. I fought an urge to walk up to her and tear off the mask. “Acatl, please.”

Gently, I drew aside the hanging mat that closed the door, trying not to disturb the bells sewn into it. I paused halfway through, stared at Huchimitl. She stood unmoving, the mask drinking in the sunlight.

“I’ll wait for you in the reception area,” she said.

I sighed and entered the room.

Its walls bore frescoes of Patecatl, God of Medicine, holding a drinking cup and an incense brazier, and of Quetzalcoatl, God of Creation and Knowledge, who stood with the bones of the dead in His outstretched hands. A strong smell of herbs rose from the back of the room, where the sick man lay on a reed mat. His legs were curled in an unnatural position.

He did not move as I came in, save that his eyes opened and stared straight at me. It was the gaze of a strong, shrewd man.

Citli, Huchimitl had called him. A warrior captured by her son on the battlefield: a strong, healthy sacrifice who would be offered on the altar, for the glory of the gods—and for that of his captor.

That was the way it should have worked. Someone, obviously, had had a different idea.

“A priest. So she’s brought you into this, too?” Citli’s voice was reedy and thin, on the verge of breaking with every word. But still, the humor came through, a sign that whatever had affected his body had not yet reached his mind.

“I am Acatl, priest for the Dead,” I told him.

Citli made a thin, rasping sound, which I realized was laughter. “I’m not yet dead, priest. Save your rituals for those who need them.” He fell silent for a while, and then said, “I am Citli, warrior of Mixteca.”

I nodded, acknowledging the introduction. I had already gotten a good look at him, and what I had been half-expecting—the green aura that was the mark of the underworld—was not there. But there was something—a shimmering in the air, a hint of a coiled, alien power around him—something that did not belong. Huchimitl had been correct: he was cursed.

Citli was staring at me. “You’re not like the other priests.”

“You’ve seen many priests in Coyoacan?” I asked, moving away from the reed mat and searching the room, overturning wicker chests and ceramic pots.

He laughed again. “Priests are the same everywhere. But you—you don’t have dried blood in your hair, or thorns in your earlobes.”

I shrugged. “I had them, once. But now I only perform sacrifices for the Dead.” My search of the small room had revealed nothing useful. My only recourse lay in speaking to Citli, and hoping he would know something of importance. “How long have you been sick?”

The humor left his eyes. “Thirteen days. A full week. Why does a priest that sacrifices to the Dead worry about that? They told me I would be healed in time for the ceremony.” There was fear in his voice, now. I knew why: if he did not die a warrior’s death on the altar, he would not go to the Sun God’s Heaven with his peers, but be condemned to the ignominious underworld.

“I’m not here for the last rites,” I said. “Huchimitl thought perhaps I could determine was wrong with you. Do you have any idea of what’s ailing you?”

His voice was sullen. “No. All I know is that I want to be healthy for the ceremony. I won’t be cheated of my glory.”

“You don’t know why? Huchimitl says her son is not popular among the warriors—” She hadn’t said much in truth, just hinted that Mazahuatl might have made some powerful enemies. And I’d been too busy worrying about the mask to ask the proper questions.

A mistake. How could I help her, if I couldn’t control my own feelings?

Citli’s upper body moved slightly, in what appeared to be an attempt to shrug. “Her son Mazahuatl is young and arrogant, and an upstart. But he is my beloved war-father, the one who captured me on the battlefield, and he will make me ascend to the Sun’s Heaven. The rest shouldn’t concern me.”

“Shouldn’t it? If Mazahuatl has enemies, they’ll want to strike at you as well,” I said. “They might have cursed you, just to make him look like a fool.”

“Making his beloved war-son unable to walk to his sacrifice?” Citli’s voice was bitter. “They’re cowards, all of them.”

“I know. But until we know who they are, they can’t be punished.” I paused, then asked, “When did you first notice something was wrong?”

“It started with my legs. Now I have no feeling anywhere in my body, only above my neck.”

I was no healer; his affliction, if it had no magical cause, would truly be beyond me.

“And you have no idea why?” I asked.

He shook his head, forcefully. “No. Look. I wasn’t here a month ago. Whatever is going on, I have no part in it.”

I could see that; clearly he was not lying, and equally clearly he didn’t know anything.

Which wouldn’t get me, or Huchimitl, anywhere.

Curses.

“Do you have people who take care of you?” I asked.

Citli looked at me, almost offended. “Of course,” he said. “Mazahuatl knows the proper care for a prisoner.”

Warriors. Always quick to take offence. It would have been amusing, had the situation not been so serious. “And they noticed nothing?”

Citli shook his head. “You might ask them,” he said. “There’s an old woman named Xoco. She brings food, and gossip, and whatever I cannot get, lying here.” He was angry again—for a young, energetic man, falling ill and being confined to a bed must have been the worst of fates.

I finished my examination of him, which didn’t yield anything more. He was indeed paralysed; and the curse seemed to spread as time passed. But I couldn’t determine its cause—nor reassure myself that whatever had struck Citli down wouldn’t strike again within the house.

I took my leave of him, with no answers, just a growing feeling of unease in my belly.

What was going on? What was Huchimitl embroiled in?

Finding Xoco wasn’t hard: I asked the slave at the gates, and he pointed me to the other end of the courtyard—to a door closed with a simple, unadorned cactus-fibre curtain. In front of that door, an old woman was kneeling, grinding maize in a metate pestle.

Xoco looked up when I arrived; her eyes widened. “My Lord….”

I cut her off. “I’m just here for a few questions. Citli thought you might know something.”

“Lord Citli?” Xoco nodded. “About his illness?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I’m not sure I can help,” Xoco said, with a slight grimace. She laid aside her mortar, and rose, keeping her gaze to the ground. “It was sudden, that thing. One morning he couldn’t rise anymore.”

“You didn’t notice anything?” I had a feeling I was just duplicating my conversation with Citli—running around in circles.

“No. I’m just a slave woman, my Lord. I can’t see magic, or converse with the gods, as you do.” Xoco’s voice radiated the awe most common folks had for priests—something which wasn’t going to facilitate my task.

I sighed. I’d learn nothing new here; I might as well go back to Huchimitl and question her further.

But then I remembered the mask. “Have you been here long?”

“In this household? Five years or so. I was a gift, for the master’s marriage.”

“You know them well, then. The master and mistress of the house,” I said, and bit my lip. It had nothing to do with the investigation, and it was a prying, improper question to ask. But I couldn’t get that mask out of my head. “When did Huchimitl start wearing that mask?”

Xoco was silent, for a while, and then she said, “It started four years ago. When they found Master Tlalli dead in his room.” Her voice was a whisper now, and she kept her head bowed to the ground, making her expression unreadable. “He was a generous man, but she only married him for his prestige.”

I wished I could have denied the accusation. But I remembered the morning Huchimitl had told me she was marrying Tlalli—just after I’d come back from the calmecac school, bursting with joy at the idea of sharing my experiences with her. I hadn’t expected her to be angry. I hadn’t expected her to fling her future husband’s feats of glory in my face, or to mock me for choosing the priesthood.

But she had been a little too proud of his prowess—a little too forceful. Later, when I had cooled down enough to think, I remembered how she used to come to me, always standing a little too close for propriety—and the day when she’d danced for the Emergence of Flowers in her white cotton shift, swaying to the rhythm of drums, fierce and beautiful, unmatched by any of the other dancers. It was you, she’d said, when I congratulated her. I only did it because you were here.

How could have I have been so blind?

Her marriage…. Why should it have been happy, if she’d contracted it out of disappointment, out of spite?

“They fought all the time,” Xoco was saying. “She’d always reproach him, always nag him for not being good enough, brave enough. There’d be bruises on both of them, come morning. On his arms, on her face. Except that night, it went worse than usual. Something happened. Something—”

Her fear was palpable—radiating from her to settle in the growing hollow in my stomach.

“I don’t know what exactly, my Lord. I wasn’t there. All I know is that they found him dead, and she shut herself in her rooms and wouldn’t let anyone close to her. Afterwards, she started wearing the mask, and never took it off—they say it was to hide what he’d done to her.”

The hollow in my stomach would not go away. For years I had told myself that Huchimitl had found happiness with her husband, that if I came to her house I would only intrude on her.

Lies, all of it. Useless lies.

They’d fought. Every night, perhaps. They’d hit each other, and left traces—bruises.

But it wasn’t only a few bruises Tlalli had given her, was it, if Huchimitl was still wearing that mask?

“So the master is dead.”

Xoco looked at me, and her eyes shimmered in the sunlight. “Yes. Gone down into Mictlan with the other shades, and not coming back.”

“I see,” I said.

She shook her head, as if finally remembering to whom she’d told her tale. “I wasn’t there. I couldn’t do anything. But—” Her face twisted again, halfway between fear and hatred. “But I know one thing. They said Master Tlalli died of a weak heart, but I don’t believe that.”

“The physicians ascertained that,” I said, quietly, not liking what she was telling me.

Xoco looked down again. “She never loved him. Not truly. And there are poisons….”

This time I cut her off before she could voice the hateful words. “Yes,” I said. “I understand. Thank you.” Xoco was sincere; and that was the worst. She really believed that Huchimitl had killed her own husband.

But that was impossible. Huchimitl would never do such a thing.

The girl I remembered, no. But the woman she had become—the woman I had scorned in my blindness?

Xoco waited until my back was to her to speak again. “The house hasn’t been right since, my lord. Never. The mistress will say what she wants, but it’s never been right since Master Tlalli died.”

“It’s empty,” I said, turning back to her. “Without a master. That’s all.”

She shook her head again. “No. I’ve been in empty houses. This one isn’t empty. There’s something in it. Something that will suck the soul out of you. Be careful, my Lord.”

Xoco had unsettled me more than I had thought possible. To calm myself, I walked through the courtyard.

Huchimitl hadn’t loved her husband. They’d quarrelled, often and bitterly: a loveless, angry marriage. Xoco had been right in that respect at least.

After that fateful morning, I’d never spoken to Huchimitl again. Something had broken between us. Her betrothed was a tequiua, a warrior who had taken four prisoners and was entitled to tribute and honors—I remembered Huchimitl’s angry gaze when she’d flung his feats of glory at me. Only later did I understand that it had not been anger, but unrequited love, that had made her so forceful. By then, it was too late. My meager gifts of apology were returned intact; when I came to her father’s house, her family would not speak to me, and Huchimitl herself was never there.

Would things have been different, I wondered, if I had understood her that morning? For years I had told myself that it would have made no difference—that it was the gods that I wanted to serve, that Huchimitl did not matter. But I knew she did.

I looked at the house again. Why had Xoco been so frightened of it?

It was a normal house for an affluent warrior: a courtyard enclosed by adobe buildings, with a few pine trees and a pool in the center. The entrance-curtains to each building were elaborately decorated, but the walls themselves were not painted: odd but not sinister. It was, to be sure, a bit unsettling to see adobe stark white, shining under the sun as if it held some secret light, but—

My eyes had started to water, and there was a throbbing in my head that had not been there before, a throbbing like some secret heartbeat uniting the earth beneath my feet and the buildings scattered on its surface. And then I realized that the throbbing was the beat of my own heart, rising faster and faster within my chest, singing like pain in my whole body, sending waves of heat until my skin was utterly consumed, and everything beneath it was revealed, blistered and smarting….

No. I tore my eyes from the house as fast as I could, but it took a while for my heartbeat to calm down. I had seen enough strange things in my life to know this was not a hallucination. Xoco was right. There was something about this house. Something unpleasant, and it was spreading—from the house to Citli, and the gods only knew where it was going to stop.

I didn’t like it. It meant that everyone could be struck down.

Everyone.

After that experience, I was not keen on entering a room in the house again, but Huchimitl was waiting for me inside—and I would not leave her alone in there, if I could help it. I asked the slave at the gates where the reception area was, and he showed me through another door into a large, well-lit room.

The brightly-colored frescoes adorning the room were a relief after the blank adobe of the outer walls. All of them represented sacrifices to the gods: young children weeping as their throats were slit to honor Tlaloc, God of Rain; a maiden dancing to honor Xilonen, Goddess of Young Corn, later replaced by a priest wearing her flayed, yellow skin; a warrior, his face thrust into burning embers as a sacrifice to Huehueteotl, God of the Hearth.

Again, those were not unusual. I well knew that only human blood and human lives kept the end of the world at bay. I had abased myself before gods, offered them what they needed, from human hearts to flayed skins; I had wielded many obsidian knives myself in many sacrifices. But the concentration of images in that room seemed almost unhealthy.

I found Huchimitl sitting on the dais in the center. She turned her masked face towards me. “So?”

“Something is wrong.” I looked at her, sitting secure between her walls, never suspecting about the curse affecting more than just Citli. “The house is wrong.”

Her gaze rested on me, and would not move away. “An odd thing to say.”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it.”

For a moment I thought I had convinced her. And then she spoke, sinking her barb as deep as she could. “Not all of us are fortunate enough to have gone to calmecac, and become a priest.”

Now that I had seen where she lived, the oppressive atmosphere of the house, more than ever I regretted not coming to visit her. I should have insisted when her family rejected me. I should have done something, not turned away like a coward. So I kept my peace, and said only, “They say your husband died in odd circumstances.”

“How would you know?”

“Does it matter?”

“The servants told you,” Huchimitl said, with an angry stabbing gesture. “They talk too much, and most of that is lies.”

I kept hoping she’d give me something, anything I could use to understand what was going on. “Do you deny that his death wasn’t normal, Huchimitl? All I have to do is ask the slaves, or check the registers—”

“There was nothing odd about my husband’s death,” she snapped, far too quickly.

Nothing odd? The hollow in my stomach was back. Had Xoco been right about Huchimitl’s guilt? “Why do you say that?”

“Because my husband’s death has nothing to do with Citli’s illness. Tlalli had a weak heart. He exerted himself too much on the battlefields abroad; and he died of it. That is all.”

“They say you quarrelled.”

Huchimitl nodded; the reflections on the mask moved as she did so. I felt queasy just seeing that. “We did, often,” she said. “Do you want me to lie and say it was a happy marriage?”

“No,” I said. “Though I truly wish you’d found happiness.”

“We don’t always get what we wish for,” Huchimitl said. “Acatl. Trust me. I saw Tlalli die. It was a heart failure. This has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with Mazahuatl. He has enemies—”

“You told me that already,” I said. She had sounded sincere when swearing to me it had nothing to do with Tlalli’s death, but I could be mistaken. “Why did you come to me, Huchimitl?”

Her voice was low, angry. “I thought you could do something. I thought you could help. A curse, after all, is easily lifted. But it seems you cannot manage even that.”

“I—” I said, but words had deserted me. I remembered a time when I could read every one of her expressions, could guess her thoughts before she uttered them. I knew I no longer could do any of that. I suspected I could not help her, and it made me angry at myself for being so incompetent—for failing her.

“I am no worker of miracles,” I said.

“Clearly not,” Huchimitl snapped. “I thought you would—” And then she stopped, as if she had uttered too much.

“Do what? You tell me nothing. You hide yourself from me, under that mask. You lie to me.”

“No.” The mask turned towards me, expressionless.

“Then tell me what is under that mask. Please.” Talk to me, I thought, silently, desperately. Don’t hide your secrets from me, Huchimitl. Please.

“Nothing,” Huchimitl said. Her voice was quiet. “Nothing that concerns you, nothing you can repair, Acatl. I am beyond help. My son is all that matters.”

“Then tell me more about your son.”

“Mazahuatl talks little of his life among warriors.” There was longing in Huchimitl’s voice, clear, unmistakable. “But I’m no fool. I can guess that things go ill. That he is not liked. That some would like to see him fall. But I have no names.”

“I see,” I said, and rose to leave. “I’ll ask Mazahuatl, then. Where can I find him?”

The mask moved towards me with the speed of a pouncing snake. “It’s not the solution.”

“Then tell me what would be.”

“No.” Her voice was fearful. I could not help remembering the girl I’d played with, the girl who had once climbed the festival pole and stood at the top, laughing, daring me to come up and catch her. Not once had she shown fear.

“Huchimitl—” I said, but she shook her head.

“You’ll find Mazahuatl on the training grounds,” she said. Her voice was emotionless again—an unnerving change of tone.

Mazahuatl was on manoeuvres with his regiment. I walked to the training grounds, my mind filled with memories of Huchimitl and of my days as a boy—of all the races we’d run through the fields of maize around Coyoacan, of all the quiet moments when we’d dream of our futures.

Had I loved her?

For years I’d told myself that I had not. But I knew now that I had always cared for her. I knew that even though I had felt no regrets on entering the priesthood, still I had left something behind, something infinitely precious that I could no longer recover.

On the training grounds, the warriors were fighting each other wielding maquahuitls, wooden swords with shards of obsidian embedded in the blades.

Several warriors had finished, and stood to the side, their bare arms gleaming with sweat. I walked up to them and said, “I’m looking for Mazahuatl.”

One of them gave a short bark, and the others snickered. “Are you now?” he said.

The warrior’s face was heavily scarred, and he wore the quetzal-feather tunic and braided leather bracelets characteristic of tequiuas, those warriors who had taken more than four prisoners and been ennobled. He had their arrogance, too. I said, “Yes, I am looking for Mazahuatl. In what way would it concern you….”

“Yohuacalli,” he said, curtly. “I’m in the same regiment as Mazahuatl. Tell me, priest, why would you be looking for him?”

Yohuacalli had a faint aura about him: a talent for magic, though whether sorcerous or not I could not tell. Still, he looked dangerous enough—as dangerous as a coiled snake.

“Tell me why it should matter to you,” I said.

He turned to me at last, transfixing me with a gaze the color of the sky at noon—an uncanny shade for a Mexica. “Mazahuatl is not a true warrior.” I heard depths of hatred within his words. “His father was tequiua, and Mazahuatl never lets us forget it. But his prowess in battle is non-existent. He has no right to such arrogance.”

“He took a prisoner.”

Yohuacalli shrugged. “A sick, infirm man? Such a feat of arms.”

“The man has been cursed,” I said, waiting for his reaction. “After he was taken prisoner.”

“So they would have you believe. I know the truth.”

“So do I.” I looked him in the eye. “Surely it would be no great matter for a determined warrior to take a dead man’s hand, and bury it into the earth before your enemy’s house, and speak the spell to make him fall from grace.”

Yohuacalli flinched, but soon rallied. “I have no talent for sorcery.” His eyes would not meet mine, and I knew he was lying. “There is Mazahuatl,” he said, pointing to a warrior who was leaving the field.

Yohuacalli was obviously in a hurry to change the subject, but I let it go. I looked at the warrior designated as Mazahuatl: he was no longer a boy, yet he still wore the braid of the untried warrior—the sacrifice of Citli would enable him to shave his head. His face was flushed with exertion, but even then I could see past that, and make out Huchimitl’s traits, Huchimitl’s beauty. He looked so much like her that my heart ached.

Had things gone differently, he could have been my son, not Tlalli’s. It was an odd, uncomfortable thought that would not leave my mind.

When I approached him, he looked at me with contempt. “What do you want?”

I introduced myself and explained that his mother had sent me, whereupon his manner grew more relaxed. He took me away from the training grounds, out of earshot of his fellow warriors, before he would talk to me.

I had observed him carefully during our small walk. If Citli, his beloved war-son, had an aura of coiled, malevolent power about him, Mazahuatl was cursed, though not by the underworld. It was small, barely visible unless one stopped and considered him, but he did have an aura. And it was dark and roiling, like storm clouds bursting with rain—an odd kind of curse, one I had never encountered.

But it had touched him, as it had touched everyone in the house. I thought of the mask again. That had to be why Huchimitl was wearing it—because she’d been disfigured by the curse, just as Citli had been paralysed.

But the most worrisome thing was that the curse was still spreading. Citli’s paralysis wasn’t stopping—and I didn’t think Huchimitl was safe, not for one moment. The curse would not stop. Not until I found out what was truly going on in that house.

“How long have you been cursed?” I asked Mazahuatl, and saw him start.

“You know nothing.”

“I’m a priest. I know enough, I should say.”

He turned away from me. “Mother sent you? Go away.”

“She thinks you have enemies,” I said, softly. “And I’d wager Yohuacalli is among them.”

He would not meet my gaze. “Go away.”

“Do you care so little about your reputation?”

“Mother cares,” Mazahuatl said. “I’m no fool. I know I won’t be raised within the ranks.”

“You captured a prisoner,” I pointed out. “Single-handed. There is no reason it shouldn’t happen.”

He laughed, a sick, desperate laugh. “That’s what I told myself at first, trying to make myself believe. But of course it won’t work. Nothing ever does.”

“That’s the hallmark of a curse. Won’t you tell me anything?”

“No,” he said. “Just go back, report to Mother that you’ve failed, and stop bothering us.” And he would not talk to me any more, no matter how hard I pressed him.

I did two things before coming back to Huchimitl’s house: the first was to stop by the registers and check on the death of Tlalli. There was not much to go on. The date of death was listed as the seventeenth day in the Month of Izcalli or Resurrection, in the year Thirteen Rabbit—four years ago. An ironic time to die, if nothing else, for Izcalli is the month when the plants are reborn from their winter beds, and a time to rejoice in the coming of spring.

Search as I might, I found no additional mention of that death, which meant that it had not been found suspicious. I exited the registers in a thoughtful mood—for, in spite of what I had just read, I didn’t think Tlalli’s death was irrelevant. It was too much of a coincidence that the curse on the house had started just after his death.

Which left me with the second thing: if no one was going to tell me what had happened four years ago, I was going to have to look into the past myself.

I stopped by the marketplace and made my way through the crowd to the district of animal-sellers. There I bartered for a peccary and the hide of a jaguar—a transaction that had me hand over most of the cacao beans in my purse to a beaming vendor. It did not matter. Though not wealthy in the slightest, I’ve always lived comfortably on the gifts the families of the dead make to me.

The peccary was small: barely reaching my knee, it followed me docilely enough on its leash, but kept rubbing its tusks with a chattering noise, an indication that it was unhappy. Peccaries were aggressive; I did not look forward to sacrificing this one, but it was necessary for the ritual I had in mind.

The slaves in Huchimitl’s house had been given instructions to let me enter; the tall, sturdy individual who stood by the gate raised his eyebrows when I passed him, but said nothing.

I went straight to Citli’s room, deliberately avoiding Huchimitl—the last thing I needed was her trying to prevent me from investigating her husband’s death.

On my first visit, I had noticed a small hearth by the bed; it was by that hearth that I settled down. From my belt I took three obsidian knives and laid them on the ground. I threw into the hearth a handful of herbs that soon filled the room with a sharp, pungent smell; I laid the jaguar hide on the ground and coaxed the peccary onto it.

Citli watched me with interest but did not speak. I said, all the same, “I need to do this if you want help.” He may have nodded, but it was hard to tell with the smoke that had filled my eyes.

As I had foreseen, the peccary attacked me when I raised my knife; I narrowly avoided the sharp tusks, then buried my blade deep into its throat. Blood fountained up, staining my hands, pooling on the jaguar’s hide. I spoke the words of the ritual, calling on Quetzalcoatl, God of Creation and Knowledge:

“I sit on the jaguar’s skin

And from the jaguar’s skin I draw strength and wisdom

I have shed the precious blood

The blood of Your servant

Lord, help me walk the circling paths backwards

Help me look past the empty days

Help me look into the years that have died.”

The throbbing in my head that I had first experienced in the courtyard resumed, growing stronger and stronger until my world seemed to have shrunk to that beat. The smoke grew thicker and thicker, billowing around me like the aura of Mazahuatl’s curse. Now was the time I could seize control of the spell, and turn the years back until my visions showed me the day of Tlalli’s death.

But the spell would not yield to me. Years of visions passed by, showing me tantalising glimpses of the past.

…a man’s angry voice, and a man’s shadow, raising a hand to strike at something I could not see…

…a warrior stumbling in combat…

…a girl with the wooden collar of slaves, her cheeks flushed with pleasure…

…a mask of ceramic inlaid with turquoise—Huchimitl’s mask, gradually materialising to cover the girl’s face….

And then nothing.

I came to myself, crouching on the blood-stained jaguar’s skin, the smoke from the herbs since long gone. Outside, it was night, and the Evening Star shone in a sky devoid of clouds. Citli was sleeping, racked from time to time by a coughing fit. I lifted the curtain, wincing at the small tinkle of bells, and went out.

One thing would not leave my thoughts: the slave girl’s face, a face that seemed oddly familiar.

I walked up to the slave by the gates, and asked, “There is a girl slave, in this house?” I described, as best as I could, the face I had seen in my vision.

The slave shrugged. “There are many girls in this house. Maybe the others will know—”

“Yes,” I said. “Please.”

He led me into the slaves’ quarters. I found myself in a series of smaller rooms, adorned with faded frescoes. Within, several men were playing patolli, watching the game’s board intently as the dice were cast—no doubt they had bet heavily on the outcome.

One of the players looked up, quivering to go back to his game. I described, once again, the face of the slave I had seen in my visions, and he shrugged. “Ask Menetl. She’s in charge of the female slaves.”

I found Menetl in the girls’ quarters, watching a handful of giggling girls as they painted their faces with yellow makeup. She was a tall, forbidding woman who clearly looked upon me as an invader in her little world. I was about to repeat my question to her, when I saw Xoco, crouching at the back of the room.

Now I knew where I had seen the girl’s face. It was there, in the old woman’s features, tempered by age, by the glare of the sun, but still close enough to be recognised.

“So?” Menetl asked.

“I want to talk to her,” I said, pointing to Xoco—who rose, fear slowly washing over her face.

“My Lord?” she asked.

I motioned for her to follow me out of earshot of the others. We walked out of the slaves’ quarters and back into the courtyard, which now was deserted.

“I have something more I want to ask you.” I watched the way she shrank back into herself, and remembered how angry Huchimitl had been when she had guessed one of the servants had been talking to me. No doubt she would have reprimanded the slaves for that offence. “It’s not about what you told me earlier.”

Xoco looked at me, her hands falling to her side. Waiting.

I said, “There was a girl slave, in this house. Four, five years ago?”

“We see so many girls.” Her voice shook.

“Don’t lie to me. You know who I am talking about. Who was she?”

The old woman stared at the ground for a while. “She was my daughter.” Her voice was low, dull. “Yoltzin. She used to run in the courtyard, daring me to catch her—it was when the master was still alive—he was always generous with his girl slaves—” She looked up at me, her eyes wide. Even in the dim light I could see the tears in them. “Such a pretty child,” she whispered.

“Yoltzin. What happened to her?”

“She’s in the heavens now,” the old woman said.

“In the heavens?” Only warriors dead in battle, women dead in childbirth, or sacrifice victims ascended into the heavens. The rest of us fell into Mictlan, the underworld, to make our slow way to the God of the Dead, and to oblivion.

“They chose her,” the old woman said. “Five years ago. The priests of Xilonen came here and took her, to be the incarnation of the Goddess of Young Corn on earth and bless the fields. The High Priest wore her flayed skin for twenty days afterwards, and the rains came sure and strong that year,” she said, and there was a note of pride in her voice.

The priests of Xilonen—looking for a maiden sacrifice, as innocent as the Young Corn. And the girl. Yoltzin. Little Heart.

Her image would not leave my mind—her face with such bliss on it, but it had not been the bliss of sacrifice. “You said the master had always been generous with his girl slaves,” I said, slowly. “How generous?”

Xoco would not look at me.

“Xoco,” I said. “What happened four years ago has tainted everything in this house. You can’t pretend it hasn’t.”

For the longest while, she did not speak. “They came,” she whispered. “A procession of priests like you, with feather-headdresses and jade ornaments. They asked if she was a maiden. Who was I, to shame her, to shame the master in front of the whole household?” Tears, glistening in the starlight, ran down her cheeks. “She was my daughter….”

“I see,” I said, finally, embarrassed by such grief. “Thank you.” I watched her retreat inside the slaves’ quarters, leaving me alone in the courtyard.

The priests had checked Yoltzin’s innocence, but there were ways, if one were prepared, to make it seem as though the maidenhood was intact. They were more commonly used before a wedding, to fool the go-betweens, because cheating the gods was a grave offence.

The sacrifice had been a sham. Rain had come, because the gods can be merciful, and because Yoltzin had not been the only maiden in the Empire to be sacrificed to Xilonen on that day. Rain had come, but the sin had not been forgiven.

With a growing hollow in my stomach, I thought of Huchimitl, alone in that house, with only the memories of her husband to sustain her—memories that were not happy or comforting. It did not look as though Tlalli had had much regard for her at all. It did not look as though she had ever been happy.

I had been such a fool to let her go without a word. I had been such a fool to abandon her.

I rose, came to stand at the heart of the courtyard. The buildings of the house shone under the light of the stars, white walls shimmering as if with heat, and once more I felt myself on the verge of vertigo. Once more the throbbing rose within me, the slow, secret rhythm linking the earth to the buildings, but this time I knew it to be the song of the corn as it slept in the earth. Pain sang in my bones and in my skin, and I knew it was the pain of a flayed woman, waiting for her skin of green maize-shoots to grow thick and strong.

I whispered Her name. “Xilonen.” And Her other name, the one we seldom spoke: “Chicomecoatl.” Seven Serpents, the earth that had to be watered with sweat and blood before it would put forth vegetation.

In my mind’s eye I saw Her, coiled within the house, feeding the buildings with Her light. Gradually, She coalesced at the heart of the courtyard: a monstrous human shape with translucent skin the color of ripe corn, with hollow eyes that swallowed the light and gave nothing back.

“Priest,” She said, and Her voice, echoing around the walls, was amused. “You are clever.”

“Not clever enough. I should have guessed that a curse that did not come from the underworld had to come from the heavens.”

“Humans could have done this,” Xilonen said, still amused. “But they did not.”

“Why do you punish them? They did not cheat you of your sacrifice.”

Xilonen smiled, an utterly inhuman expression. “Let the sins of the beloved father fall on the beloved son, and onto his beloved war-son, and the sins of the husband be taken up by the wife. I was cheated of My revenge.”

So Tlalli had died a natural death after all. “And is there nothing they could offer, that would make you forget?”

Xilonen shook Her head. “They are Mine. They amuse me: Mazahuatl, that pathetic excuse for a warrior, refusing to acknowledge his bad luck on the battlefield. That arrogant, misguided mother who thinks they can fall no lower. Who thinks I have punished them enough, that I would not dare touch her son’s prisoner. My son has enemies,” She said, mimicking Huchimitl’s voice with a chilling, contemptuous precision. “They have no enemies but Me. And you think to bargain for either of them, priest? You serve no one.”

“I serve Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead,” I said, drawing myself to my full height.

The goddess recoiled at the mention of Mictlantecuhtli, He in Whose country nothing grows. I pressed my slim advantage.

“There are rules, and rituals.”

“They offered Me a tainted sacrifice.” Xilonen was growling like a jaguar about to pounce. “They cheated Me of my proper offerings. And you dare bargain for them?”

“There is such a thing as forgiveness. Such a thing as ignorance.”

“Ignorance is not innocence. I will not be cheated, priest, whether knowingly or unknowingly.” Her head, arched back, touched the sky; Her feet were rooted in the earth of the courtyard. She was utterly beyond me: wild, savage, cruel. She could have crushed me with a thought, had I not belonged to a god She had no mastery over.

It had been a long time since my days in calmecac, a long time since I had learnt the hymns for every one of our gods and goddesses. I searched through my faltering memories, and finally said,

“I will offer You sheathes of corn taken from the Divine Fields

Lady of the Emerald

Ears of maize, freshly cut, green and tender

I will anoint You with new plumes, new chalks

The hearts of two deer

The blood of eagles—”

Xilonen was crouching at the heart of the courtyard, watching me, but Her face had taken on an almost dreamy expression.

I went on,

“Let me fill Your hands with snake fangs

With white flowers still in the bud

Turquoise mined from the depths

Goddess of the Barrel Cactus

Our Mother

Our Protector.”

She was smiling at me now, the contented smile of a child. I was not fooled. There is a reason for all those rituals, for all those hymns. They know what things are pleasing to the gods, what things will appease Them. But it had been a great wrong Tlalli and Yoltzin had dealt Xilonen; and still She had quickened the seeds; still She had made the corn grow. She felt entitled to some compensation.

“Will You bargain with me, Lady?” I asked, kneeling before her in the dirt.

Her smile widened—though I could barely see Her, I could feel Her amusement quivering in the air. “You are tenacious, priest—and not unattractive.”

To Chicomecoatl, who was also Xilonen, we gave the hearts of beautiful girls and boys, that they might forever serve Her in heaven. “Is that the price?” I asked.

She smiled. “It is tempting, priest. But not enough.”

“What else would you want?” I asked. “I have nothing else to give but myself.”

“I know that,” She said, reaching out with Her gigantic hand. It shrank as it came near me, until it was only twice the size of mine. She cupped my chin in Her palm, and raised my face to look into Hers. Her touch was warm, slightly moist, like the earth after the rains. Her eyes held the depths of the night.

I held on to my memories of Huchimitl, to what she had meant, and still meant, to me. For too long, I had preserved myself; for too long, I had denied my feelings for her. Now was the time for a true sacrifice. “Is that the price?” I asked again, through lips that seemed to have turned to stone.

Xilonen’s smile was that of a jaguar given human flesh. “Such a beauty,” She whispered. I saw myself in Her eyes, as I had been in my youth, tall and beautiful and arrogant, and then as I was now, older and greyer, kneeling before Her in abject obedience. “Yes,” She said. “It is most satisfactory.”

My skin started itching, as if sloughing away, and then the tingling sensation became stronger and stronger, and I realized what I felt were hands, stroking my back, my chest, the nape of my neck; lips, slowly caressing my fingertips and earlobes until my whole body ached with a desperate need. It was not an unpleasant feeling; although some part of me, clamoring at the back of my mind, knew that it was not natural, that I had just sold myself away.

“Acatl? No!”

The sound pierced my torpor, and I realized it was a voice I knew, calling my name. Xilonen released me; I became aware of the dampness of the ground, crawling up my legs; of the light of the stars above.

Of Huchimitl, who stood before the main doors, her mask glimmering in the cold light. It was an effort to raise my head and look at her.

“He is not Yours,” she said, anger in her voice.

Xilonen laughed. “He offered himself. Freely, to undo the great wrong your husband did to me.”

“He is not Yours,” Huchimitl repeated.

“Whose would he be?” Xilonen asked, mocking. “Yours? You could not hold him.”

“No.” Huchimitl’s voice was toneless. Calmly, she walked forward, until she stood before Xilonen. “If a life has to be sacrificed, let it be mine.”

“Yours?” Xilonen laughed. “You denied yourself to Me all those years. You hid yourself from My face, cowering in your house, for fear that others would catch a glimpse of you and be forever marked. And you think you are a worthy sacrifice?”

I could not speak. I could not drag myself upwards, to shut Huchimitl’s mouth before she said the irreparable. I could just remain where I was. Watching. Listening. Unable to affect anything.

Huchimitl’s voice, when she spoke next, was very quiet. “You made me a worthy sacrifice,” she said. “You removed me from the human world.” And slowly, deliberately, reached upwards with both hands, and took away her mask.

I heard it clatter to the ground. But it mattered little. I had thought it hid the ruins of the curse, that it would be the face of some monster, painful to look at.

In a way, it was worse.

There was a face, under the mask. It was no longer human. Every feature, transfigured, gleamed with a merciless light. The skin was the color of burnished copper; the eyes shone like emeralds. The cheekbones were high, ruddy in the starlight, the lips parted to reveal blinding-white teeth, each like a small sun, perfect, searing. If it was beauty, it was the kind that would burn away your eyes: nothing ever meant for human minds to hold or comprehend. My eyes had started to water with that mere sight, and I knew I would be blinded if I had to endure it for much longer. No wonder Huchimitl had not been able to bear that face.

Xilonen turned to stare at Huchimitl, Her head cocked as if admiring Her creation.

“Am I not beautiful?” Huchimitl asked, throwing her head back. Even that mere gesture was alluring. I could not look away, even though my eyes kept burning, burning as if someone had thrown raw chilli powder into my face. “Am I not desirable?”

Xilonen did not answer. Huchimitl came closer, hands outstretched, and laid her fingers on the goddess’ arm. Even I felt the thrill that raced through Xilonen, making the whole world shudder.

“My life for my son’s, and his beloved war-son’s,” Huchimitl said. “Is that not a worthy bargain?”

Xilonen stared at her. She said, at last, “You are not amusing any more. You have accepted My gift.”

Huchimitl cocked her head, in a gesture reminiscent of her creator. “Perhaps,” she said. “Do we have a bargain?” She gestured towards me, contemptuous. “He is nothing.” And this time I knew she was lying.

Xilonen smiled at last, and the feeling of that smile filled the courtyard like a ray of sunlight. “Yes, he is nothing. But do not think you have fooled me into thinking you do not care either.” She laughed. “Nevertheless…we have a bargain.”

The light around Huchimitl grew stronger and stronger, sharpening her features. I kept on looking, even though I knew that my eyesight would be forever dimmed. I kept on looking as she and the goddess vanished from the courtyard, taking away the unearthly light. I thought that, at the last, Huchimitl looked towards me, and that her lips mouthed some words. Perhaps, “I am sorry.” Perhaps, “I love you.” Something, anything to help me bear the grief that now burnt through me.

The buildings were adobe, no longer stark white or wavering; the feeling of oppression had disappeared. I pushed myself to my feet, and met Mazahuatl’s gaze. The young warrior was standing in the doorway, staring at the place where his mother had disappeared. Even with the memory of Xilonen’s light clouding my sight, I could tell his dark aura had vanished. I could guess that Citli would walk to his sacrifice and join the Sun God in the heavens, and that Mazahuatl would receive his promotion.

I did not care.

“Mother?” Mazahuatl asked.

“Remember her,” I said.

I made my unsteady way through the courtyard, passed the gates, and found myself in a deserted street. It was not seemly that a priest for the Dead should grieve, or have regrets. It was not seemly to cry, either.

I stood alone in the street, staring at the stars, and saw them slowly blur as tears ran down my cheeks.


Read Comments on this Story (4 Comments)

ShareThis with Friends

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. In between bouts of coding she writes speculative fiction: her Aztec noir fantasy Obsidian and Blood is published by Angry Robot, and her short fiction has appeared in venues such as Clarkesworld, Asimov's, and various anthologies, as well as multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She has won a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, and been shortlisted for the Hugo, Sturgeon and Tiptree awards. Her latest release is the Hugo and Nebula Award-shortlisted Vietnamese space opera novella On a Red Station, Drifting. Visit her at aliettedebodard.com for writing process, book reviews, and Franco-Vietnamese cooking.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Thieves of Silence” by Holly Phillips
“Blighted Heart” by Aliette de Bodard

Return to Issue #8

Comments & Scrivenings
4 Comments on “Beneath the Mask”

4 Responses to “Beneath the Mask”

  1. adunsby says:

    01-21-2009, 11:05 AM
    adunsby

    This is a very good story. The ending is powerful and well-executed. (Having written on the cocoa industry I appreciated the reference to cacao beans used as currency.) It did seem to me though that maybe there are a few to many issues or characters introduced. There were times in the first half when I was wondering what the story was actually about. It resolves well, though.

  2. Scott H. Andrews says:

    01-21-2009, 09:53 PM

    Thanks very much for commenting–I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

    Originally Posted by adunsby It did seem to me though that maybe there are a few too many issues or characters introduced. There were times in the first half when I was wondering what the story was actually about. It resolves well, though.

    For me, this is the Catch-22 of short stories with a mystery plot.

    Readers, especially in short fiction, are always looking for any clue to the mystery, any possible suspect. If there are only a few issues or characters, I find it’s often too easy to spot the clues or guess who the murderer is. If there are lots of issues or characters, it can seem cluttered, but to me that wider array of possible clues and suspects feels more like the wide array of clues in real life and keeps a mystery-plot story interesting for me.

  3. Guest says:

    03-04-2009, 12:31 PM
    Guest

    Excellent. Evokes the culture in an intriguing way. This story really worked.

  4. Aliette de Bodard says:

    03-05-2009, 03:48 AM
    Aliette de Bodard

    Thanks very much–glad you liked it!

Leave a Comment on “Beneath the Mask”