Friday, July 21, 2017

Flashback Friday: The Red Scorpion, Revisited

I don't know if all writers feel this way, but I know that many do. The process of creation is energizing and exceedingly rewarding. On the other hand the process of marketing what we've done afterwards is much less so, and at times even odious. Here's a quote I saw the other day about this conflict: "I feel like the wretched employee of my former self. My former self being the happily engaged novelist who now send me, a kind of brush salesman, out on the road to hawk this book. He got all the fun writing it. I'm the poor sap who has to go sell it."

Funny thing is, I've had a career in marketing and actually relish the whole game of planning and executing marketing campaigns, and all the problem solving that accompanies it. So it's a strange thing to see this other self pushed out the door to "make something happen."

Last night I produced an intro to a new story, made progress on a couple other articles, and added a new page on my Many Faces art blog, no doubt all of it a form of procrastination from doing this, attempting to draw attention to my YA novel that's been an eBook since 2011. The idea of it, here, is to give five or so chapters and see if I can get a couple new readers hooked.  

In this opening section of the book I try to capture a wee bit of my own feelings upon visiting Cuernavaca, on the south face of the mountain that serves as a pedestal for Mexico City. This was the setting for Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano as well as the John Huston film based on that book.  

The Red Scorpion
A Haunted House Story with a Supernatural Twist

BOOK ONE
Based on the Private Journal of Dr. William Comstock, Ph.D
Late 1940s

-1-

He woke abruptly, jostled to alertness by the screech of brakes and final recoil as the bus jerked to a stop. He was surprised to find that he had managed to fall asleep at all. The crowded bus included peasants with chickens, crying babies and a crush of people from all stations in life.

Dr. Comstock, glancing out the window, was dismayed to find the bus had not yet reached its destination. It was picking up more passengers, even though the aisle was now full. Several villagers squeezed up onto the steps, some hung out through the doors which had been left open. The bus lurched forward, gears grinding.

A small boy eating a mango placed a sticky hand on the rail in front of Comstock’s knee. Comstock smiled at the boy, but the boy turned his face away. Comstock was a stranger and a foreigner. The boy had been trained not to trust him.

Once more the bus screeched to a stop. This time he could see they had arrived. It was the last leg of his journey, descending to Cuernavaca from the high altitudes of Mexico City. He was eager to begin his work.

Dr. Comstock, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, had come to Mexico to locate the final resting place of Quetzlcoatl, the plumed serpent of Aztec legend. This was Comstock’s second research expedition in Mexico. He intended to develop contacts that would enable him to obtain funding for a longer trip the following year. Being Christmas break back home at the University, he could think of nothing better than being in Cuernavaca. While arctic winds chilled the Minnesota countryside, flowers remained perpetually in bloom here in the land of Eternal Spring. Red and coral bougainvillea, lavender jacaranda, flaming poinciana, and golden geraniums splashed the air with color and fragrance. The floral tapestry delighted his eyes in every direction that he looked.

His wife Adele had wanted to join him, but he balked at the idea. Her presence would interfere with his work, he said. He promised she would accompany him on next year’s trip if they could find caretakers to run the Eagle’s Nest, the bed and breakfast they owned and operated.

Comstock had an angular face with deep set eyes and thick, dark eyebrows. He wore his hair cropped short. He felt he looked too British to pass for Mexican, though occasionally it worked out that way because he tanned easily and well.

Exhausted from the journey and relieved to have arrived at all, he carried his baggage the two blocks from the bus station to the hotel.

-2-

Comstock sat at an outdoor cafe adjacent to the main plaza, El Zocalo, sipping a large concoction of jugo de tamarindo, a sweet thick juice squeezed from the brown, beanlike fruit of the tamarind tree. His third day in Mexico, he had become increasingly aware of the passage of time. He spent his first two days in leisurely excursions about the city, consumed with a curiosity similar to a boy turning over fallen logs in the woods seeking salamanders and snakes. Now he was becoming anxious about how to achieve his objective. The days would pass quickly. He berated himself for having already wasted two.

A small band of peasant musicians playing an assortment of primitive flutes, whistles and drums had gathered in the street in front of the cafe. A group of children began marching around in circles making whimsical movements, whimpering and bouncing like puppies overeager to see their masters. Another group of boys was working the tables selling Chiclets to the tourists.

Comstock recalled how the incessant begging had disturbed him during his first trip south of the border. By the time he left he had grown weary of the burros, mongrel dogs, roosters, strange smells, gritty eyeballs and clashing colors that seemed to throw themselves at him from every side. He was tempted to think that first trip had been a mistake and a preposterous waste of time.

Afterwards, however, Comstock missed Mexico immensely. He knew intuitively that one day he would return. He only needed an excuse. He found it in the legend of Quetzlcoatl, the plumed serpent.

According to native mythology Quetzlcoatl, also known as Yoalli ehecatl, was the third son of the Lord of Fire and Time. He was given to bring hope and light to the Nahuatl people in the same way his three brothers were given to three other peoples. When he betrayed his father, he was to be banished forever.

Comstock’s intent on this journey had been to find contacts who would be useful guides to the actual places where Quetzlcoatl was born, grew up, lived and died, even though legends said that the god/man simply “went away” and never died at all.

-3-

He was eighteen years old. Though his chest had yet to fill out Chuchui had reached his full stature, little more than 5 feet 6 inches tall like the other men of his tribe. He had light brown skin and the typical Aztec face with a prominent, hooked nose and dark brown almond-shaped eyes. His coarse, black hair had been cut with a fringe over the forehead. He allowed his hair to grow a bit longer in the back and on market days he tied it in a small pigtail with a piece of red twine.

Long before the crimson sun had burned the haze off the moist hills encircling his home, he had begun the trek to the marketplace in Cuernavaca, to sell the strips of beef jerky, leather goods and black pottery that were the commerce of his village.

Though but a youth, he'd seen much and thought much about what his life was about. He was not like his peers. An experience six years earlier had awakened in him a keen interest to embrace more of life than was offered in this remote village. The following summer, despite his father’s disapproval, he taught himself to read Spanish, even though it was not his native tongue.

“To be a Nahuatl is to be noble. We do not need the words of foreigners,” his father said on one occasion. On other occasions his father reminded him that he had a “call” on his life. “You belong to the Colos. You are too young to understand what this means. One day you will know that there is no higher calling.”

Chuchui took care to hide his books, but continued to read and to study the ideas outside his village.

When he was sixteen two men came to his village who called themselves communistas. They brought pieces of paper with words on them. No one could read the words on the paper except Chuchui and he read aloud the statements on the papers to the village elders. His father and the village leaders cursed the communistas, but Chuchui wondered at their ideas.

“A fool does not see the same tree that a wise man sees,” his father told him.

For years his mother grieved because she sensed that one day he would leave their village. The day Chuchui read these pamphlets from the communistas she knew that she had already lost her son.

-4-

From childhood Chuchui had been accustomed to hard physical work. Walking great distances to the marketplace, following the men and womenfolk and carrying a share of the goods as well, Chuchui had learned responsibility.

Chuchui’s father was a very proud man. He took great care to be deliberate in all his actions and always tried to move gracefully. His gestures when speaking were likewise grand and dignified. Chuchui observed all of this, and came to understand that for his father there was no greater achievement than to be a Nahuatl.

One day, Chuchui became ill and began to weaken. He tried to conceal his illness, but as the party of Indians padded down the hillside toward the city, the perspiration spread over him and his eyes began to glaze. When he could walk no further he squatted to rest. “What is it?” his sister Lanti asked.

Chuchui stared ahead as the small party of merchants continued away from them.

“You’re hot!” Lanti said abruptly, having placed her hand on his forehead. “How long have you been --”

Chuchui cut her off. “I will go to the market. It is not my place to be weak.” He stood uneasily, and they continued on toward the city.

When they reached the outskirts of Cuernavaca he stooped once more. “You go. I will follow soon,” he said to his sister.

Lanti had always been kind to him, but she was simple. He had no brother and there seemed no one with whom he could share his confused and burdensome thoughts. At times he wondered whether it were he or the gods who were blind. Nahuatl life was like the gouge a heel makes in the sand which is so soon washed away by the rain, leaving no mark. Twenty years or eighty, what matters when the mark is gone?

* * * * *

The marketplace was teeming with activity behind Cortez’s Palace. Dr. Comstock looked like a conquistador on the prow of a ship as he stood atop a thick wall there, feet planted the width of his shoulders, watching the orderly chaos. The large triangular scene resembled a flea market of sorts, but without the tables. The variety of goods exceeded comprehension -- food, clothing, poultry, medicinal herbs, eyeglasses, jewelry, pottery, trinkets, antiques, piňatas, crafts, toys, leather goods, shoes -- a little bit of everything, useful and otherwise. He glanced down at a rooster tied by one leg to a wooden crate. Normally it would have amused him, but today it depressed him. In some way he felt a little like that rooster who at first appeared to be free, but was bound.

Comstock watched the peasants set up their little booths and spaces for selling or trading wares. He was attracted to the dignity and cleanliness of the Nahuatl villagers in their distinctively simple white outfits. But his thoughts were elsewhere.

On his first trip to Mexico he had visited Taxco, and several of the other places where Quetzlcoatl had supposedly lived and ministered. Comstock had gone to the place where Quetzlcoatl had been baptized. He had even managed to locate a place where Quetzlcoatl had reputedly performed a miracle. But where was he last seen? Where had he died? Comstock could not get away from this question, nor could he find anyone who knew its answer.

Comstock turned away from the marketplace, pondered his next move. He walked north and turned left toward the main square. By the time he reached the Zocalo he was feeling very depressed. He didn’t have a plan. He’d thought he could just wing it, and was now fully conscious of his folly.

At that very moment, as he was feeling his lowest, a peasant Indian fell unconscious at his feet. “Borracho,” someone chuckled from behind him. (Borracho is the Spanish word for drunkard.)

The so-called borracho was dressed in the native whites of the Nahuatl. Comstock looked about, his expression an appeal for help, but the passersby avoided making eye contact. Comstock knelt and rolled the man over to make sure he was breathing. The native looked to be no more than a youth and had badly skinned the bridge of his nose. The native’s face was unpleasant to look at, moist with sweat, made filthy by dirt and grime from the street and the oozing blood from his scraped nose.

Comstock looked about once more but no one even seemed to be paying much attention. There were benches nearby where seated tourists were watching a scene in the park. A group of mariachis was gathering. An old man with a trumpet had now joined them.

Comstock called to a vendor from the nearby gazebo and asked for a glass of ice water, which the vendor remarkably brought right over. Comstock rubbed the native peasant’s nose with an ice chip and shook him gently. His head fell limp to this side and that, until the professor threw the glass of water directly into his face. The youth coughed once, then opened his eyes, sputtering words the American could not understand.

“Are you all right?” Comstock said.

Chuchui looked at him attentively, but cautiously, without making reply.

Comstock helped Chuchui to his feet. “Thank you,” Chuchui said in almost perfect English, whereupon he turned, walked briskly away and disappeared in through the door of a hacienda.

Comstock, looking confused, turned round in a complete circle, then sat down. Suddenly, he leaped to his feet and followed the young Nahuatl inside, but Chuchui was nowhere to be found.

“Have you seen the native,” Comstock asked one and then another hotel employee, but no one had an inkling what he was talking about.

That evening, while walking along the pasado that leads back to the park, Comstock saw him again. He recognized the skinned nose, the flat looking face. Comstock ran up to him and said hello. Chuchui frowned and turned away. “Where are you from?” Comstock asked, following him. Chuchui did not answer and Comstock kept on his tail. “What is your name?” Chuchui turned and squared off, facing the persistent American. “I no speak English.”

It was apparent Comstock had misjudged him. Chuchui’s “Thank you” earlier in the day had thrown him off. It was something he learned to say when doing business with Americans in the course of his work.

Undaunted, Comstock began to address him in Spanish. “Donde vas,” Comstock said, which means, “Where are you going?”

Chuchui shook his head, tried to speak but no words came. Suddenly his voice broke and he began to cry. This was not something Comstock had expected. Chuchui placed his palm on Comstock’s arm while his eyes scanned the square, darting here and there, as if he were afraid of something.

Comstock sensed the youth’s uneasiness. “I am from the United States. I am called William. How are you called?”

“I am Chuchui,” the youth said, nodding his head slightly as he said it. “We must talk now.”

-5- 

The American could see that the native, eager to talk, was also frightened. “Let’s go back to my hotel. Are you comfortable with that?”

Chuchui nodded and the two made their way back to the Posada Arcadia where Comstock had a room.

Once alone together, the native spoke with purposefulness. Comstock learned that Chuchui was not drunk, as passersby imagined, but had had a fever. He had been dizzy and ill for about a week. Strangely, the fever left him the moment he was awakened.

“Why are you in Mexico?” Chuchui asked the American.

“I teach at a university. I am here on a research project.”

There was a long pause. They were like card players. Chuchui held a card Comstock needed, but Comstock was unaware of it. At the same time, Chuchui hoped that Comstock held a card that he needed. Both were reluctant to show their hands.

“Do you believe in Fate, Mr. William.”

“William. Call me William.”

“All day I have pondered how it is that I came to fall into your hands. When the fever left me I was... confused. Today I have caused trouble to my family. I did not return to the marketplace. I have been walking and thinking. All day I have wondered.” He stopped.

“Go on,” Comstock said. There was something fragile about the boy standing here in this room, yet a disturbing depth and toughness as well. Comstock could not shake the impression that beneath the surface of this encounter there was some kind of treasure, something of value to be discovered, that the encounter may have been Providential.

“Do you know who I am?” Chuchui asked.

“You have told me. You are called Chuchui. You live here in Mexico. Your family trades in the marketplace.”

“Yes, but do you know who I am?”

“I am not sure what you mean.”

“At least you are honest. I am the last living male in a clan called the Colos. Have you never heard of the Colos?”

Comstock slowly shook his head.

“Of course not. How could you? You teach at a university and have so much knowledge, but do not know things that our people have known forever.” As he spoke his eyes glistened and his voice gained strength.

“And what is it you know, truly?” Comstock asked pointedly.

Chuchui avoided the question. “How much money do you have with you?”

Chuchui stood in the middle of the room facing Comstock who had seated himself on a corner of the bed. Alone in this room he suddenly feared becoming the victim of a robbery or an assault. Without changing his expression, Comstock sized up the native to determine if he could overpower him in a tussle.

“You have money?” Chuchui asked. “If I give you something valuable, you must give me something in return.”

“I have money,” Comstock said reluctantly.

“You must not be afraid of me. I am the one who should fear.”

Comstock sensed the truth in the youth’s words.

“Do you want to tell me about the Colos?”

“The scorpions?” Chuchui laughed as if he had made a clever joke. The name of his clan was the Colos, which means scorpions in Nahuatl.

Comstock didn’t get it.

Chuchui asked why Comstock had come to Mexico and the American said he was doing research on the life and death of Quetzlcoatl.

“Such a strange notion,” Chuchui jeered. “And what have you learned?”

“I believe there was a man who once lived among the Aztecs, who called himself Quetzlcoatl,” Comstock said. “I cannot believe he was a son of the gods, but I do believe there was once someone powerful, someone who lived in these parts who went by that name, or was given that name.”

“Go on,” Chuchui urged.

“He was called the Feathered Serpent, perhaps because he wore feathers and garments of snakeskin or something like that. In some legends he is called Our Young Prince. In most legends he betrayed his father somehow and was banished from his homeland. It was supposed that he never died, and promised one day to return to liberate his people from the power of death.”

“Interesting stories,” Chuchui said. “Do you believe all these things?”

“No. No, I do not believe these stories. I believe there was someone very important, and the evidence of it is deep in the culture here. I am confident that if one knew where to look they would find evidence that he has passed on.” Comstock unbuttoned the topmost button of his plaid shirt.

Chuchui stared at him without blinking. “You have heard many things and studied well. Do you recall hearing of a place called Mictlan?”

“Certainly,” Comstock said. “Mictlan is the place of the dead. Or at least one of the places people went when they died, according to the Aztecs. Warriors went to the sun, and some went to the rain god’s mountain.”

“Quetzlcoatl went to Mictlan,” Chuchui said matter-of-factly.

“Then it’s true, he’s dead.”

“I did not say he is dead. I only tell you that he went to Mictlan.” Comstock attempted to speak, but the youth waved his hand. “Silence!” Then he told how all the legends about Quetzlcoatl were a cloud of mists designed to frustrate outsiders from learning the truth. Chuchui said that only a small handful of Nahuatl know the real truth, that a single clan has been entrusted with the secret truth regarding the bones of Quetzlcoatl. This clan, his clan Chuchui says, is called the Colos, which means Scorpions.

Chuchui shared how many of the places came to be named as they were. For example, the suffix “tlan” means “place near an abundance of.” Acatlan, therefore, means “place near an abundance of reeds,” because the word for reed is “aca”. Mazatlan means “place near an abundance of deer.” Chuchui’s village was called Colotlan, “place near an abundance of scorpions.”

The professor leaned forward, interrupted again. “You mean the Nahuatl deliberately tell lies about Quetzlcoatl to confuse historians, to hide the truth?”

“It is not the Nahuatl who tell lies. It is one clan of Nahua peoples. My clan, the Colos. We lie to preserve the truth. It is our mission.”

Comstock stood and began to pace. Of this moment he later wrote in his journal, “No wonder it is so difficult to know what is true and what is pure fabrication with these people.”

“Why have you come to tell me all this?” Comstock asked casually, taking great pains to restrain his excitement over these things. Questions were zinging through his head like bottle rockets the little boys had been firing in the street the night before.

“I am taking a great risk, you must understand.” Chuchui narrowed his eyes so that they became slits. Explaining it seemed impossible to him. It was the wrong question, because the answer was too complicated. Whether today, next month or next year, one day he would leave his people. Perhaps Comstock was not the one who would help him, but he refused to let the moment pass without making some attempt to try. If Comstock could not help him, perhaps the next American might.

He once read that each man who longs for a thing with all his heart obtains the thing he longs for by sheer force of desire. Is this how the gods answer our prayers, he wondered, by putting longings in our hearts and granting their fulfillment?

Their encounter had been a strange one. He had been delirious, fell unconscious in the street. Upon waking, he saw this face directly before him, this foreign face. It was not difficult for him to believe that fate had had a hand. As a consequence, he acted on this conviction. It was an intuitive leap.

“Tomorrow I will bring you to the place of the dead,” the youth stated simply. “I will meet you in Tepoztlán. From there we will go to see the scorpions.”

“What do you mean, see the scorpions?”

“I cannot say more than this. When you come, you will see and experience imatini.”

“What is.... imatini?” Comstock asked. The game was beginning to annoy him.

“It is our word for knowing. I can tell you stories, but they mean nothing. For the Nahuatl what matters only is imatini; first hand knowledge.” Chuchui spoke as if he had just shared a sacred truth.

“How will I find you?” Comstock asked.

Chuchui turned. While opening the door to leave he said, “I will be waiting at the monastery.” The door closed with a clack. Comstock scratched at his chin, then slowly unbuttoned his shirt, loosened his belt and began preparing for bed.

* * * *

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Open your eyes!

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