This is what we remember: the stillness before the battle, the Jaguar Knights crouching in the mud of the marshes, their steel rifles glinting in the sunlight. And the gunshot—and Atl, falling with his eyes wide open, as if finally awakening from a dream....
It’s early in the morning, and Nezahual is sweeping the courtyard of his workshop when the dapper man comes in.
From our perches in the pine tree, we watch Nezahual. His heart is weak and small, feebly beating in his chest, and sweat wells up in the pores of his skin. Today, we guess, is a bad day for him.
The dapper man, by contrast, moves with the arrogant stride of unbroken soldiers—his gestures sure, casual—and he has a pistol hidden under his clothes, steel that shines in our wide-spectrum sight.
We tense—wondering how much of a threat he is to Nezahual. His manner is brash; but he doesn’t seem aggressive.
“I’m looking for Nezahual of the Jaguar Knights.” The dapper man’s voice is contemptuous; he believes Nezahual to be a sweeper, someone of no importance in the household.
What he doesn’t know is that there’s no household, just Nezahual and us: his children, his flock of copper and bronze.
Nezahual straightens himself up, putting aside the broom with stiff hands. “I am Nezahual. What do you want?”
The dapper man shows barely any surprise; he shifts his tone almost immediately, to one of reluctant respect. “I’m Warrior Acamapixtli, from the House of Darts. We had hoped—you could give a speech on the War to our young recruits.”
Nezahual’s voice is curt, deadly. “You want me to teach them about war? I don’t do that.”
“Your experience....” Acamapixtli is flustered now—we wonder how much is at stake, for this speech to be given.
“I went to war,” Nezahual says. He’s looking upwards—not at us but at Tonatiuh the Sun-God, who must be fed His toll in blood. “Is that such a worthwhile experience?” His heartbeat has quickened.
“You don’t understand. You fought with Warrior Atl—with Chimalli—” Acamapixtli’s voice is disappointed.
Atl. Chimalli. The names that will not be spoken. We tense, high up in our tree. Beneath us, Nezahual’s face clenches—a mask to hide his agony. His knees flex—in a moment he will be down on the ground, clutching his head and wishing he were dead. “Atl. I—”
His pain is too much; we cannot hide any longer. In a flutter of copper wings, we descend from the pine tree, settle near Nezahual: the hummingbirds on his shoulders; the parrots on the stone rim of the fountain; the lone quetzal balancing itself on the handle of the broom.
“Leave him alone,” we whisper—every mech-bird speaking in a different voice, in a brief, frightening flurry of incoherence.
Acamapixtli’s hands turn into fists, but he doesn’t look surprised. “Your makings.” His voice is quiet. “You sell them well, I hear.”
We are not for sale. The other mech-birds—the copper hummingbird who leapt from branch to branch, the steel parrot who mouthed words he couldn’t understand—they were born dead, unable to join the flock, and so Nezahual sold them away.
But we—we are alive, in a way that no other making will be. “Leave,” we whisper. “You distress him.”
Acamapixtli watches Nezahual, his face revealing nothing of what he feels. His heartbeat is slow and strong. “As you wish,” he says finally. “But I’ll be back.”
“I know,” Nezahual says, his face creased in an ironic smile.
When Acamapixtli is gone, he turns to us. “You shouldn’t show yourselves, Centzontli.”
He does not often call us by our name—and that is how we know how angry he is. “Your heartbeat was above the normal,” we say. “You were in pain.”
Nezahual’s face is unreadable once more. “Yes,” he says. “But it will happen again. That’s of no importance. That’s not what I made you for.”
Nezahual made us to remember—to hold the images that he cannot bear anymore. And for something else; but no matter how hard we ask, he will not tell us.
This is what we remember: the dirigibles are falling. Slowly, they topple forward—and then plummet towards the ground at an impossible speed, scattering pieces of metal and flesh in the roiling air.
We stand on the edge of the ridge, the cool touch of metal on our hips. Atl is dead. Chimalli is dead—and all the others, piled upon each other like sacrifice victims at the altar of the Sun God.
What have they died for? For this... chaos around us?
“Come,” a voice whispers.
Startled, we turn around.
A man is standing over the piled bodies—his uniform crisp and clean, as if he were just out of his training. No, we think, as the man draws closer.
His eyes are of emeralds, his lungs of copper, his heart of steel. “Come,” the mech-man says, holding out to us a gleaming hand. “Your place isn’t here.”
We remember a war we never fought; deaths we could never have prevented; but this, we know, has never happened.
This is a vision, not memories
It cannot be real.
“Come,” the mech-man whispers—and suddenly he towers over us, his mouth yawning wide enough to engulf us all, his voice the roar of thunder. “Come!”
We wake up, metal hearts hammering in our chests.
Nezahual has shut himself in his workshop. He’s making a new bird, he’s said, moments before closing the door and leaving us out in the courtyard. But his hands were shaking badly—and we cannot quell the treacherous thought that this time, the pain will be too strong, that he will reach out for the bottle of octli on the back of the shelves, hidden behind the vials of blood-magic.
The youngest and most agile among us, the newest parrot—who brought memories of the blood-soaked rout at Izpatlan when he joined us—is perched on the window-sill, his head cocked towards the inside of the workshop.
We hear no noise. Just the swelling silence—a dreadful noise, like the battlefield after the dirigibles fell, like the hospital tent after the gods took their due of the wounded and the sick.
“Nezahual,” we call out. But there is no answer. “Nezahual.”
Footsteps echo, in the courtyard; but they do not belong to our maker. The second hummingbird takes off in a whirr of metal wings and hovers above the gate—to watch the newcomer.
It’s Acamapixtli again, now dressed in full warrior regalia—the finely wrought cloak of feathers, the steel helmet in the shape of a Jaguar’s maw. “Hello there,” he calls up to us.
We tense—all of us, wherever we perch. None of Nezahual’s visitors has ever attempted to speak to us.
“I know you can speak,” Acamapixtli says. “I’ve heard you, remember?” He lays his steel helmet on the ground, at the foot of the tree. His face is that of an untried youth. We wonder how old he really is.
“We can speak,” we say, reluctantly. The quetzal flies down from the tree, perches on the warmth of the helmet. “But we seldom wish to.”
Acamapixtli’s smile is unexpected. “Would that most people were as wise. Do you have a name?”
“Centzontli,” we tell him.
“‘Myriad’,” Acamapixtli says. “Well-chosen.”
“Why are you here?” we ask—uncomfortable with this smalltalk.
Acamapixtli doesn’t answer. He runs a hand, slowly, on the parrot—we let him do so, more amused than angry. “Fascinating,” he says. “What powers you? Steam? Electricity?” He shakes his head. “You don’t look as you have batteries.”
We don’t. In every one of our chests is a vial of silver sealed with wax, containing twenty drops of Nezahual’s blood. It’s that blood that makes a heartbeat echo in our wires and in our plates, in our gears and in our memories. “Why are you here?” we ask, again.
Acamapixtli withdraws his hand from the parrot. “Why? For Nezahual, of course.” He shrugs—trying to appear unconcerned, but it will not work. His heartbeat has quickened. “We—got off to a wrong start, I feel.”
“Does your speech matter so much?” we ask. And, because we cannot help feeling sorry for him: “You know what he will say, even if he comes.”
“I’m not a fool, Centzontli,” Acamapixtli says. “I know what he’ll say. But I’m not here for what you think. I don’t want Nezahual to teach the recruits about courage, or about the value of laying down one’s life.”
Acamapixtli’s voice is low, angry. “I want him to teach them caution. They’re eager enough to die—but a dead warrior is of no use.” His eyes are distant, ageless. “We spend our youth and our blood on conquest, but we have more than enough land now, more blood-soaked earth than we can possibly harvest. It’s time for this to cease.”
Do you truly think so? a voice asks; and, with a shock, we recognize that of the metal man.
The sun above the courtyard is high—pulsing like a living heart. Do you truly think so?
What in the Fifth World is happening to us? Our nights, bleeding into our days? Our memories—Nezahual’s memories—released by our minds to stain the present?
This is not meant to be.
Acamapixtli hasn’t heard anything. He goes on, speaking of what the warriors who survive can build—of steamships and machines that will do the work of ten men, of buildings rising higher than the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, and of a golden age of prosperity. Gradually, his voice drowns out that of the metal man—until once more we are alone in the courtyard.
But we have not forgotten. Something is wrong.
Nezahual doesn’t come out, no matter how hard we wish that he would. At length, Acamapixtli grows weary of waiting for him, and takes his leave from us.
The sun sets, and still Nezahual hasn’t come out. The hummingbirds and the quetzal beat against the window panes, trying to force their way in, but the workshop is silent—and our wide-spectrum sight is blocked by the stone walls.
We perch in the pine tree, watching Metzli the Moon rise in the sky, when we feel the shift: the gradual widening of the world, so strong we have to close our eyes.
When we open them again, we have a new point of view—a hummingbird’s, cradled between Nezahual’s bleeding hands—carrying the memories of the fording of Mahuacan, of going side by side with Atl listening for enemy voices in the marsh.
“You’re hurt,” we say, and the hummingbird’s voice echoes in the silence of the workshop.
Nezahual waves a hand, curtly. “It’s nothing. What do you think?”
He opens his hands. Tentatively, we reach out, and the hummingbird starts flapping its wings—accelerating to a blur of copper and steel.
“Beautiful,” we say, though we are more worried than we will admit. “Acamapixtli came back.”
“I know,” Nezahual says. He walks to the entrance-curtain of the workshop, pulls it away. “Come in—all of you.”
We perch where we can: the shelves are crammed with blood-magic vials, alembics, and syringes, and the table littered with spare metal parts.
Nezahual is cleaning his hands under the water of the sink; he barely looks up. “I knew he would come back. He’s a stubborn man. But so am I.”
“It’s not what you think,” we say, and explain, as best as we can, the vision Acamapixtli has for the future. We can hear, all the while, the metal man laughing in the room—but we do not listen.
Nezahual wipes his hand with a cloth of cactus-fibers. “I see.” His voice is stiff, careful—as if he were afraid to break something. “Do you think he will come back?”
We are certain he will. Acamapixtli is a driven man. Much, in fact, like Nezahual must once have been—before war and the drive for bloodshed reduced him to, to this.
No. We must not think about it.
This is what we remember: in the silence after the battle, we wander through the mangled field of battle. We see—bullet-torn limbs, sprayed across the blood-stained mud; eyes, wide open and staring at the smoke in the sky—pain and death everywhere, and we can heal none of it.
Near the dirigible’s carcass, we find Chimalli, his steel shield and his rifle lying by his side. We kneel, listen for the voice of his heart—but we know, deep inside, that his soul has fled, that he is with the Sun God now, fighting the endless war against the darkness.
And we feel it, rising in us: the burning shame of having survived when so many have given their lives.
“Now you know,” a voice hisses.
We turn, slowly. The metal man is standing near us, wearing the face of a younger, eager Nezahual. It jars us, more deeply than it should—to see our maker rendered in soulless metal, his face smooth and untouched by the war.
“You don’t belong here.”
“We don’t understand,” we say.
He points a clawed hand towards us—and our chests burn as if heated by fire. “Don’t you?” he whispers, and sunlight, red and hungry, flickers around him. “I won’t be deprived of what belongs to me.”
“We took nothing...” we say, slowly, but we know it’s not about us. “Nezahual....”
Malice has invaded the metal man’s voice. “He was a coward. He didn’t die. That was his punishment—to survive when others had not. And I will not have him and that fool Acamapixtli frighten my warriors out of dying.”
“Who are you?” we whisper.
“Don’t you know?” the metal man asks. He straightens up—and his head is the clouds and the stars, and his hands encompass the whole of the battlefield, and his voice is the moans of the dying. “Don’t you know my name, Centzontli?”
Tonatiuh. The Sun God. He who watches over the Heavens. He who drinks the warriors’ blood.
This cannot truly be him.
The metal man laughs. “Oh, but I am here,” he says. “Here and alive, just as you are.”
We are alive. Not flesh and blood, like Nezahual or Acamapixtli—springs and wires, copper and steel—but alive enough.
And to this god, who is not our own, we have no blood to offer. “What do you want?” we ask.
The metal man extends a huge hand towards us. “Come,” he says. “Leave him.”
“We do not worship you.”
“You must. For, if you do not, I will tumble from the sky, and the world will come to its last ending,” the metal man says—and his voice is the thunder of the storm, and the vast echo of rockfall in the mountains. “Is that what you truly wish for? I cannot be denied forever.”
We wake up in the silence of the workshop and stare at the white eye of the moon, wondering what Tonatiuh wants of us.
Acamapixtli comes back on the following morning—still in his regal uniform. Nezahual is waiting for him in the courtyard, his face impassive, his heartbeat almost frantic.
“I apologize,” Nezahual says, stiffly. “It seems we misunderstood each other.”
Acamapixtli’s face goes as still as carved jade. “We’re both responsible.”
Nezahual’s lips stretch into a quiet smile. “Come,” he says. “Let me show you my workshop. We’ll talk afterwards.”
Nezahual shows Acamapixtli the spare parts lying on the table; the vials of blood-magic and the wires and springs that make us up. He talks about creating life—and all the while we can hear the pain he’s not voicing, the memories hovering on the edge of seizing him.
We wish we could take it all away from him, drain him as dry as a warrior sacrificed to Tonatiuh—but we cannot.
They speak of dirigibles made of steel and copper, of machines that will reap the corn from the fields—and we think of the metal man, filling his hands with the harvest of battle.
We hear his voice within us: I will not be mocked.
And we know that Acamapixtli’s dream will have a terrible price.
This is what we remember: the silence of the infirmary, broken only by the moans of the wounded. We sit on our bed—trying to feel something, anything to assuage the pain within.
We are not hurt. Blood from the battlefield covers us—but it’s not ours, it has never been ours.
Beside us, an Eagle Knight with a crushed lung is dying—his breath rattling in his chest, a horrible sound like bone teeth chattering against one another.
We try to rise, to help him, to silence him—we no longer know. We try to move; but our hands are limp, our fingers will not respond.
We watch—even our eyes cannot close—as the man’s face becomes slack; and by the bed is Tonatiuh, his steel hands reaching for the dying man, enfolding him close, as a mother will hold a child.
He looks up—and smiles with golden, bloody teeth. “So he will make his speech, won’t he?” He shakes his head. “Does he not know what happens to those who defy me?”
In a single, fluid gesture, he rises from the man’s bed and reaches out towards us, his hands extending into steel claws—pricking the flesh of our metal skin.
We watch. We cannot move.
♦ ♦ ♦
The morning of the speech grows bright and clear. For the first time, we wake up after Nezahual, our blood-vials beating madly against our copper chests. We still feel the steel fingers reaching for our chests—to tear out our hearts.
Nezahual is sitting in the workshop, his head between his hands, dressed in his best clothes: an embroidered cotton suit, with a quetzal-feather headdress. He is shaking; and we can’t tell if it’s from fear or from anticipation.
We hop to the table and perch by his side—the quetzal cocking its head, making a soft cooing sound.
Nezahual forces a smile. “It will be all right, Centzontli.”
We fear it won’t. But before we can speak, a tinkle of bells announces the arrival of Acamapixtli—still in full Jaguar regalia, his steel helmet tucked under one arm.
“Ready?” His smile is eager, infectious.
Nezahual runs a hand in his hair, grimacing. “As ready as I will ever be. Let’s go.”
He is walking towards the door of the workshop—halfway to the courtyard—when we feel the air turn to tar, and hear the laughter from our dreams.
Did you think I could be cheated, Nezahual? Tonatiuh’s voice echoes in the workshop.
We rise, in a desperate whirr of wings—and in our fear, our minds scatter, becoming that of five hummingbirds, of one quetzal, of two parrots, struggling to hold themselves together.
I, I, I—
We have to—
Nezahual has stopped, one hand going to his sword—his face contorted in pain. “No,” he says. “I didn’t think I could cheat you. But nevertheless—”
Tonatiuh laughs and laughs. You are nothing, he whispers. Worth nothing. You will not make this speech, Nezahual. You will not make anything more.
Behind us, the table shakes; the metal scraps rise, spinning in the air like a cloud of steel butterflies—all sharp, cutting edges, as eager to shed blood as any warrior.
Nezahual stands, mesmerized—watching them coalesce into the air, watching them as they start to spin towards him.
We watch. We cannot move—as we could not move in the vision.
Acamapixtli has dropped his helmet and is reaching for his sword; but he will be too late. Nezahual’s knees are already flexing—welcoming the death he’s courted for so long.
The thought is enough to make us snap together again: our minds melding together, narrowing to an arrow’s point.
“Nezahual!” we scream, throwing ourselves in the path of the whirling storm.
It enfolds us. Metal strikes against metal; copper grinds against the wires that keep us together, all with a sickening noise like a dying man’s scream.
I have warned you not to interfere, Tonatiuh whispers. The sunlight, filtered through the entrance curtain, is red and angry. You are a fool, Centzontli.
Something pricks our chests—the claws from the visions, probing into our flesh.
We have no flesh, we think, desperately—but the claws do not stop, they reach into our chests. They close with a crunch.
Within us, glass tinkles—and shatters into a thousand pieces. Our blood-vials. Our hearts, we think, distantly, as the world spins and spins around us....
Blood leaks out, drop by drop—and darkness engulfs us, grinning with a death’s head.
This is what we remember: before the battle—before the smoke and the spattered blood, before the deaths—Atl and Chimalli sit by the camplight, playing patolli on a board old enough to have seen the War of Independence. They’re arguing about the score—Atl is accusing Chimalli of cheating, and Chimalli says nothing, only laughs and laughs without being able to stop. Atl takes everything much too seriously, and Chimalli enjoys making him lose his calm.
They’re young and carefree, so innocent it hurts us—to think of Atl, falling under the red light of the rising sun; of Chimalli, pierced by an enemy’s bayonet; of the corpses aligned in the morgue like so much flesh for barter.
But we remember: our curse, our gift, our blessing; our only reason for existing.
♦ ♦ ♦
Our eyes are open—staring at the ceiling of Nezahual’s workshop. Our chests ache, burning like a thousand suns.
We are not dead.
Slowly, one by one, we rise—and the quetzal dislodges a pair of bleeding hands resting over its chest.
Nezahual. You’re hurt, we think—but it’s more than that.
It’s not only his hands that bleed—and no matter how hard we look, we cannot see a heartbeat anywhere. His chest does not rise; his veins do not pulse in his body. Metal parts are embedded everywhere in his flesh: the remnants of the storm that he could not weather.
We are covered in blood—blood which cannot be our own. We still live—a thing which cannot be.
“Come,” whispers Tonatiuh.
He stands in the doorway of the workshop, limned by the rising sun—metal lungs and metal hands, and a pulsing metal heart. “There is nothing left. Come.” His hands are wide open—the clawed hands which broke us open, which tore our hearts from our chests.
“Why should we?”
“There is nothing left,” Tonatiuh whispers.
“Acamapixtli—” He is lying on the ground, just behind Tonatiuh, we see: his heart still beats, albeit weakly. We struggle against an onslaught of memory—against images of warriors laughing at each other, sounds of bullets shattering flesh, the strong animal smell of blood pooling into the dark earth.
“Do you truly think he will make a difference?” Tonatiuh asks. “There will always be dreamers, even among the warriors. But nothing can change. The world must go on. Come.”
There is nothing left.
But we know one thing: Nezahual died, and it was not for nothing. If Acamapixtli could not make a difference, somehow Nezahual could. Somehow....
“It wasn’t Acamapixtli,” we whisper, staring at the god’s outstretched hands. “It was never Acamapixtli—it was what Nezahual made in his workshop.”
Tonatiuh doesn’t answer. His perfect, flawless face is devoid of expression. But his heart—his heart of steel and wires—beats faster than it should.
Mech-birds. Beings of metal and copper, kept alive by heart’s blood—and, even after the blood was gone, kept alive by the remnants of the ritual that gave us birth, by the memories that crowd within us—the spirits of the dead keening in our mind like a mourning lament.
“You fear us,” we whisper, rising in the air.
“I am the sun,” Tonatiuh says, arrogantly. “Why should I fear birds that have no hearts?”
“You fear us,” we whisper, coming closer to him—stained with Nezahual’s dying blood.
His claws prick us, plunge deep into our chests.
But there is nothing there. No vial, nothing that can be grasped or broken anymore. “You are right,” we say. “We have no hearts.”
“Will you defy me?” Tonatiuh asks, gesturing with his metal hands.
Visions rise—of bodies, rotting in the heat of the marshes—of torn-out limbs and charred dirigibles—of Atl, endlessly falling into death.
But we have seen them. We have fought them, night after night.
We are not Nezahual. War does not own us; and neither does blood; neither do the gods.
We do not stop.
“I am the sun,” Tonatiuh whispers. “You cannot touch me.”
“No,” we say. “But you cannot touch us, either.”
We fly out, into the brightness of the courtyard—straight through Tonatiuh, who makes a strangled gasp before vanishing into a hundred sparkles—the sunlight, playing on the stone rim; the fountain whispering once more its endless song.
We would weep—if we had hearts, if we had blood. But we have neither, and the world refuses to fold itself away from us, and grief refuses itself to us.
A shuffling sound, from behind—Acamapixtli drags himself out of the workshop on tottering legs, bleeding from a thousand cuts—staring at us as if we held the answers. “Nezahual....”
“He’s gone,” we say, and his bloodied hands clench. We wish for tears, for anger, for anything to alleviate the growing emptiness in our chests.
Acamapixtli smiles, bitterly. “All for nothing. I should have known. You can’t cheat the gods.”
We say nothing. We stand, unmoving, in the courtyard—watching the sunlight sparkle and dissolve in the water of the fountain until everything blurs out of focus.
This is what we see: a flock of copper birds speaking to the assembled crowd—of machines, of arched bridges and trains over steel tracks, of the dream that should have been Nezahual’s.
This is what we see: a city where buildings rise from the bloodless earth, high enough to pierce the heavens; a city where, once a year, a procession of grave people in cotton clothes walks through the marketplaces and the plazas of bronze. We see them make their slow way to the old war cemeteries and lay offerings of grass on the graves of long-dead warriors; we see an entire nation mourning its slaughtered children under the warm light of the silenced sun.
This is what we wished for.