For years my city gave the hearts of maidens to the corn-man to awaken him, but on the day I came to him I was no longer untouched by man. The priests were careless; they had checked the previous morning, but did not check again. Their mistake, and mine, for I had made love to a warrior on the evening before, out of pique, out of a desire to defy them for the last time before they took my innocence away. I was not thinking of the consequences at the time.
The corn-man was in a room at the top of the largest pyramid temple. I came in, half-carried by two warriors, to gaze on row upon row of expectant faces. Dozens of priests had gathered to watch the last sacrifice—mine. I could not breathe; fear constricted my chest with each step. Fear of pain. Fear of loss.
The effigy of the corn-man stood propped against the wall farthest from the door. It was tall, human-shaped, with a body made of twined leaves, and with the hints of corn tassels all over it. Priests crowded around it to renew the preservation spells. Blood had congealed on its lips, as if the last maiden had been sacrificed only the previous day. I tried to imagine my heart in that mouth, my heart devoured by those lips of corn sheaves, and I thought I would retch. Only the warriors by my side prevented me from running away.
They stretched me out on the altar, bared my chest with expressionless faces. Their hands on my ankles and on my wrists kept me from moving. It will not last, I told myself. It will soon be over. But when the priests bent over me with their knives drawn, I struggled to avoid them, tried to roll away from the altar, all in vain.
I felt the first cut like a violation. Pain burst in my chest, would not cease. I screamed and screamed until my voice was raw. No. No. I never asked for this! I saw a priest lift out a bloody, pulsating thing dizzyingly high above me, and a sensation of emptiness spread from the hole in my chest and swallowed me.
The priests placed my heart, still beating, in the mouth of the effigy. One of them spoke the healing spells over me. I rose, shaking, numb all over, stared at the corn-man.
His eyes opened.
I saw nothing but those pupils the yellow of corn kernels, a gaze with the innocence of newborns. And a sense of wrongness strong enough to send a chill through me. A shadow, nothing more, I thought. I was weak and prone to imagining things. Nothing was wrong.
“My lord,” one of the priests said. The warriors had let me go, all bowing before the corn-man. I turned away from them, shivering, and left the room with my bloody shift wrapped around me. Their voices followed me across the platform of the pyramid temple, but all I could see as I descended the steps towards the city was the corn-man’s eyes.
At the bottom of the stairway something was thrust into my hands: a jar of clay, dyed the color of blood and closed with the seal of the Rain God. I looked up, startled. A novice garbed in the cotton robes of the priesthood stood watching me.
“Drink this,” he said. His face was gentle.
I shook my head, made as if to push him away.
He said, “Metlicue, you need something to replace the blood in your body. We put a spell in this, to make this potion flow in your veins as if you still had a heart; come to the temple in two years’ time, and we will renew the spell. In the meantime, drink this twice a day until there is nothing left in it.”
I took the clay jar, for what else could I have done? I drank from it that same night, and the draught tasted as bitter as cocoa paste, and it warmed me not at all.
I never saw so many priests after that. To them I never meant anything more than a beating heart. By sending me to the temple when the choice of the priesthood fell on them, my family had done nothing but their duty; in the priests’ eyes I, too, had only given what was expected of me.
Once bereft of my heart, I had no value, no part to play. The priests forgot me, as they had forgotten the other numb, heartless women who had walked away from the temple after their sacrifice.
The corn-man is not often made. It takes fifty-two years to awaken one into full life, and as many maidens’ hearts.
Legends say the corn-man’s life is that of the land, and his thoughts those of the girls whose hearts the priests stole to make him. A corn-man is an innocent, a born fool. Only with that purity may he intercede for us before the gods; only with the pain of the land can he ask for rain and be answered.
The priests made our corn-man king. He was our luck, our prayer to the heavens; and when he ascended the tallest pyramid of the city to claim his crown, rain-clouds gathered over the city, and the first drops of water pelted the parched fields.
But it did not last. The rains were slight, not enough to keep the corn growing, and the first seedlings to spring from the furrows were weak and stunted, twisted out of shape as if by the hands of the gods. The priests paid little heed to this; they kept telling us that the harvest to come would be glorious, more bountiful than we could imagine, and we believed them. Why shouldn’t we have?
I found out I was pregnant. It did not bother me, save that thinking back, I realized that the child had been planted in my womb by Paletl, my warrior lover, on the evening before the corn-man awoke.
When my pregnancy became visible, I told everyone that I had made love to Paletl two days after the sacrifice. It was well known that other maidens had lost their virginity soon after the loss of their heart, in an effort to banish the cold that would not cease. So they despised me for my weakness, but they believed me.
Not long after that, two warriors came to the door of our house and asked for me. I came, shivering, and stood in the doorway, staring at the mud-stained jaguar skins they wore as cloaks.
“I am Metlicue,” I said. They both looked at my belly, slightly protruding from under my tunic. I did not move.
The eldest of them spoke at last. His words seemed to have been dragged one by one from his throat. “So he did tell us the truth,” he said. “I am sorry.”
I knew what they had come for, then.
The youngest warrior looked at me, waiting for me to speak. I could not think of anything to say, of any words of grief to give him or his companion. In the silence that followed, he said, “He ran after a thief, and the thief stabbed him. The wound went bad.” He shook his head, a quick, angry gesture. “To die like this, over a few kernels of corn.... As if there were not enough to feed us all.”
His companion’s grave face told me he disagreed, though I did not know why. “Forgive Mazatl,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy for us, either.”
“I understand,” I said, to fill the silence.
“He felt responsible, for the child. He wanted you to have this.” And he handed me a cotton bag. Within were three cloaks, one of ocelot skin, one of eagle feathers, and the last of shimmering green quetzal feathers. The sale of each of them would enable a commoner to live for at least two years.
I knew it was only a matter of time before my family disowned me for becoming pregnant without a husband. Paletl had known it too, before he died, and had given me enough to live alone and raise his child. I needed not fear the future.
I held the cloaks in my hands, felt their silky touch. Paletl was dead. I should have wept, for he had thought of me, at the end, had wanted to care for me. Instead, I was numb, as if I had been standing outside all winter, and the chill spread into my blood until nothing more could be felt.
I tried to weep. My eyes remained desperately dry. What have they done to me? I cried in my mind, but there was no answer.
In the end I bowed to the warriors, and as I did the baby moved within my stomach. I felt no joy. Neither then nor later.
The eldest of the warriors laid a hand on mine, before he left. “Keep them well,” he said. His face was grave. “Hard times are coming, and you’ll need to keep both of you well fed.”
I wondered what he had meant, but not for long: the harvest came, and the corn from the fields was dry and brittle, and the kernels all shriveled inside; and the food in the imperial granaries soon was traded at extravagant prices. My family had never been poor or miserly, but now they struggled to feed us all—and looked at me askance, as if trying to guess how much the baby would cost them. I had been a disgrace already; now I was starting to be a burden.
I took the cloaks, then. I went out and bought a house of my own with two of them—and wrapped up the last of them in a wicker chest, setting it aside for the future.
I gave birth in that house, on a stifling day nine moons after my return from the temple. My family had all but disowned me, but still they sent two priests for the birth, out of some strange notion of loyalty. I could no longer claim to understand their acts.
On the day of the birth, the tightness of the air seared my nostrils as I fought against the pain. The priests had lit a fire in the hearth, but I was still cold. When they severed the umbilical cord from me and showed me the child, I stared at it vacantly. It was covered in blood, and what little skin I could see was red and raw, sagging in wrinkles like that of an old woman.
“Metlicue, see your child, born on the day Ten Snake,” one priest said. “The Goddess of Rivers and Lakes shall be his protector, the jaguar shall hold his luck. Now give him his name, which shall be recorded in the books of the gods until the end of this Age.”
No name would come into my mind. Nothing. “Paletl,” I said at last. His father’s name.
They nodded, both of them, and left in the morning. Through the haze of sunlight, I watched them leave, holding my newborn child against my chest, my whole being hollow.
I raised Paletl on my own, weaving in the solitude of my home the ixtle, the cloth of cactus fiber that all commoners had to wear, and bartering my makings in the market for what little food I could get. Corn had never been so dear, or so rare. I had barely enough to feed both of us and to keep him warm at night. I took care of him, because it was what I would have done had I still had my heart.
The corn-man was becoming restless. He roamed the streets and the markets, snatching from the stalls and the kitchens and hoarding his possessions in his temple like treasures. At first, it was only small things: dried chilies, amaranth stalks, pepper grains. Then he took living beings: frogs, parrots, monkeys, seized from their wrecked cages and carried away, their forlorn calls echoing through the deserted streets.
The priests told us not to fear, even though we all cowered in our houses. They consulted the gods, offering sacrifices of blood, animals and humans both; but it was all to no avail.
I tried not to think of my single night with Paletl, or of the corn-man’s eyes, opening and staring at me with such a sense of wrongness. But there was no connection, surely. Surely, the magic that had made the corn-man was strong enough to withstand my pathetic act of defiance. It had to be.
Five months after his birth, Paletl fell ill. “A fever,” the doctor in the market said, with a dour face. She raised Paletl’s hands, staring at the bones outlined through the translucent skin. “He’s too weak to fight this off.”
I spread my hands and said nothing. I wasn’t the only one going hungry; not the only one with my belly going hard from lack of food, and a baby at my breast that could only suckle my transparent milk, growing weaker and thinner day by day.
But there was no corn left, no food anywhere; even the sale of Paletl’s last cloak would bring me no more than a few withered grains.
Finally, the doctor gave me some berries, but I could see in her face that she expected Paletl to die.
I went home. The streets were filled with the hot air of the marshes. I had closed the shutters of the window against the heat earlier; now I set Paletl in his crib and forced him to swallow the berries. His skin was burning, pulsing beneath my fingers.
I sat near the window, hearing Paletl scream his pain. I should have felt fear, panic, grief. Anything. But such things were gone from me. I should have run away. Anything rather than this. But the very words in my mind were dry.
And then I saw the eyes behind the shutters: yellow, like corn cobs, like ripe stalks swaying in the wind. I sat bolt upright, and before I could think I slammed the leftmost shutter open. I heard a cry of pain, and the shutter swung back against the window. The eyes vanished. By the time I opened the door I saw nothing but a few corn grains scattered on my threshold and stains of blood on the shutter.
“What do you want?” I asked, to the night, to the unfeeling gods. There was no answer. The air was crisp and smelled of marigolds and steam baths. “What do you want?” I shouted, and remembered the day they had taken my heart from me.
I went after him, into the deserted streets. I did not know where he had gone, but that mattered little. He had looked in—into my house, where my son slept. The shutter had frightened him, but he would be back, as surely as the sun rose in the sky.
Perhaps something in my blood still remembered where my heart had been. Or perhaps some god, watching me, took pity. All I knew was that deep within the emptiness of my chest, I felt something rise, and the further I went the stronger it rose, until it filled me to bursting. I dared not speak for fear of destroying everything.
In the end I stood, silent, in a street on the outskirts of the city, far away from the stone temples and the prayers of the priests, watching a dark silhouette standing behind the shutters of a window, looking inside the house. What little light came from inside threw him in shadow, made him seem like something made of darkness to destroy us all.
“My lord,” I called.
He turned, looked at me. “Metlicue,” he said. “Come.”
And without looking back he took one, two steps away from the house and vanished into the night. I ran after him. He walked, but each stride he took seemed to be greater than the previous one, as if he drew power from the earth under his feet. Still I followed, until my breath burnt in my lungs and my ribs ached.
He stopped at last in a field, away from any human dwelling. I waded through withered stalks of corn and joined him.
“Here there is no one but us,” he said. His voice was the sigh of the wind through ripe stalks, the crackling sound of corn kernels in the pan.
“What do you want?” I asked.
He did not move. “You know what I want.”
“No,” I said.
He turned to look at me. His eyes, shining yellow in the night, were the ones I remembered from the day I had lost my heart. The slyness in them disturbed me.
“I unmade you,” I whispered, at last, understanding why the harvest had gone bad.
“You came to me tainted, knowing love and lust. You came to me no longer innocent, with a child in your belly, and the heart you gave me was impure.”
What had I made? What monster, born of my defiance, to consume us all? There had never been any innocence in him, only that core of malice hidden deep within, like the corn cob is hidden by the leaves. “Leave me alone,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I cannot call the rains anymore.”
“You are no longer the corn-man.” I would have wept if I had still been able to shed tears.
“I am no longer a fool.” His voice was wistful. “I must regain my innocence.”
“How—?” I asked, and stopped, remembering the animals he’d taken from their cages, remembering that he had been roaming the streets, searching for something.
And tonight, he had found it. “No,” I said.
“I found him at last, Metlicue. He belongs to me. One more heart,” he said, his eyes glittering. “The one you denied me. A heart unmarred by physical desire.”
“He is not yours. Will never be.”
“You came to me bearing him. He is mine as much as he is yours.”
“No,” I said, knowing that if I surrendered Paletl to him I would acknowledge, once and for all, that he had won, that my heart was truly gone, and that all that remained was a pitiful husk kept alive by spells and potions.
“You have no choice,” he said. “Give him up.”
“One day I will come for him, and you will not be able to answer thus. Things will end quickly enough.”
I did not see him leave. I was staring straight ahead, seeing only the moment when I had lost my heart, when he had opened his eyes and I had seen the darkness within.
I came home with a shiver that would not go away. Paletl was sleeping peacefully in his crib, his fever gone, banished by the corn-man’s magic—kept pure and healthy, just as I had been for my own sacrifice.
I was filled with a cold fury that the corn-man should claim my son, that he should think I would accept the loss of my last scrap of humanity. Nothing of heart in that: only fear and greed, which do not need a human heart and blood to exist. And yet I knew I was to blame for this: that my tainted silence was the cause of this, that I was sole responsible both for the withering of the harvest and for the corn-man’s claim on Paletl.
I could have let him kill Paletl—I could have let the rains come, let the harvest be bountiful and the granaries overflow with corn. I could have let my sin be atoned for.
But Paletl was my son, and I would not, could not let him die. No mother could.
I had been silent long enough; now was my time to act.
On the following morning, I went to the market with the last of Paletl’s cloaks and traded it for an obsidian knife, a parrot, and two hummingbirds.
I went to the temple with that knife and sacrificed the parrot on the altar, opening its chest in a swift flower of blood and removing the heart as an offering of true power.
I laid the knife on the limestone altar. The blade was slick with blood that was not mine; its edge was still sharp.
In the silence of the sanctuary, I prayed to the gods for the death of the corn-man, and for the salvation of my son.
I drew wards around the house in the blood of the hummingbirds, to keep the corn-man at bay, and walked the streets looking for him, my knife always thrust in the belt of my tunic.
It was night when I found him again. Night and a stifling heat, the air as heavy as before the answer to a prayer. I followed his trail through the gardens and the fields, until at last I stood in the shadow of ripe corn stalks. Everything was silence around me.
“Show yourself,” I said, drunk on my prayers to the gods. I held the hilt of the knife in my hand.
Nothing but the rustle of wind, the gaze of the moon on me. “I know where you are.”
“What do you think you will do, Metlicue?” His voice echoed all around me, as if the very corn had spoken his will.
I clutched the knife-hilt. “What needs to be done.”
“Nothing needs to be done,” he said. I saw him, then, standing amidst the stalks that had bent around him, framed with his true crown of corn tassels, a king that was not ours anymore. Because of me.
“You are no longer the corn-man,” I said. “No longer do the rains fall at your command. I come to make things right.”
“There was another way.” His voice was sad.
I could not afford to dwell on that other way. “No,” I snapped. “Your innocence is lost, beyond recall, and not even a child’s death will make you regain it.”
He laughed, without joy. “Perhaps.” He moved closer to me. His eyes bored into mine. “You have made your choice, and I mine.”
I said nothing. Watched him, watched his eyes, which were dark with the knowledge of what he was, of what I had made him. “There is only one way,” I said.
And then his full weight was on me. I struggled, managed to throw him off. I reached for my knife, but his hands were going for my throat, already tightening. I heaved, pried the hands off, knowing him to have no true strength. His innocence should have been his shield; he had never had any. My throat was burning. I heaved again, felt him fall.
I stood over him, drew my knife. “It is over,” I said, watching him.
“Strike if you must.”
In that instant before my knife parted the sheaves of corn, I saw what it must mean to be the corn-man, the born fool, innocence wrapped around fifty-two bleeding hearts. To ask, day after day, for rain, until all the leaves had parted and only the core was left. The core that I had tainted with darkness. With the fear of death, and with the fear of partings, with what made us all human. With all that he could never understand: love and lust, fear and wrath, a darkness deeper than all he had ever been meant to know.
No wonder that in that last moment he did not struggle. No wonder, as I opened his chest in the same movement that had opened mine, I saw him smile and his lips part to reveal teeth the color of ripe corn.
Inside his chest was his heart, and it was made of red corn grains. It pulsed softly between my fingers as I lifted it free, and I heard overhead the first peals of thunder. No matter the source, blood spilled in the name of the gods is still blood, and he had the blood of fifty-two sacrifices inside him.
It started raining as he died. My whole being was cold, as it had been since the day of the sacrifice. The only warmth was the beating thing between my hands. I remembered the priests lifting my heart high above me.
He had been fed my heart to bring him to life. He had partaken of my flesh. The heart between my fingers was dying, its beat more and more sluggish.
I lifted the heart again, to my mouth. Blood ran down my throat, and it had the salty taste of tears.
I ate it to the end. It tasted not of flesh but of grains and earth, like a harvest of corn. Of darkness, and fears that were not mine, fears that made it pulse all the way from my throat to my stomach.
Standing amidst corn stalks, I felt tears run down my cheeks, like trails of blood down the altar of sacrifices. I have made things right again, I thought, but I knew this was beyond amends. The corn-man’s darkness was mine to bear for as long as I lived, a price paid to the gods I had sought to cheat.
I left the body lying in the fields of stalks and went home under the stormy skies.
As I opened the door of my house, I heard Paletl’s cries. We would have to move, to leave for another city, before they found the corn-man and someone remembered the knife I had bartered for.
I took my son in my arms, nursed him against me. His flesh was warm against mine; he snuggled close to me, knowing nothing of pain or of sacrifices. I thought I would weep again. Instead, I was startled to feel my heart, my stolen heart, beat so quickly out of fear for him that I thought it would burst through my chest.