Much had changed since I was last in the New World. True, many of the old familiar names and places had remained the same, but I felt like a stranger even so as my steps took me back into the City of Light. To my surprise, Technotitlan, the once magnificent, island city of the mighty Aztecs, was now the Spanish center of power in Mexico. I was astonished that the men of Spain would rebuild that city and wield power from the old seat of Aztec royalty, for I had seen what destruction had been wrought on the city years before.
I was not there for the tragic last days when they pulled down temples, destroyed houses, walls and gardens and filled in every canal, waterway and aqueduct with debris and the dead. I was not there for that, and I found myself unable to accept the death of a civilization that I thought might have rivaled ancient Rome.
Technotitlan had truly become a dead city. Sick at heart I had left the terrible, final days of her rape to the conquistadors themselves.
From the ashes, like the Phoenix, the city arose again and lived. Though the waterways were gone forever, the city had been rebuilt over the past five years while I had been in Hispaniola, Cuba and even Spain for a year. In Spain I had renewed my vows, studied and advanced into the Grayfriar sect of the Franciscans. Returning to the islands I assumed the role of a missionary, my mission was to bring the teachings of Christ to the natives, babtize them into the Catholic Church and break them of their tradional heathen practices.
The Indians, the black slaves from Africa and the native slaves of these islands readily took to the cross and were babtized into the Catholic Church. Indeed, the slaves had little or no choice but to accept the yoke of Christianity just as they had been forced into the yoke of slavery. The natives, whose land, language and pride had been taken from them, were resigned to their fate and seemed to almost welcome the cross. I had no doubt that all of them, African or native, practiced their ancient rites at night, in secret, never relinquishing the Gods that they actually believed in, and feared.
Now, in June of 1526, I was twenty five years of age and found my old general at the head of the new government. He had been decreed the Governor of all Mexico, Captain-General of her armies and was also the highest advocate in the royal court, having been appointed as Chief Justice. Yes, it was true, I thought to myself, Hernando de Cortes had done well these past five years.
As I walked through the streets I knew that Technotitlan had been rebuilt with thousands of slave laborers under the lash of their Spanish lords. In place of the giant pyramid of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec’s God of War, now stood a formidable cathedral. I was not surprised that it was the Cathedral of St. Francis, or that there was a large convent and monastery at right angles to the cathedral. The Franciscans were the true preachers of Christianity and enjoyed the favor of the Holy Inquisition. With that backing there was no question where the seat of Catholic power lay in the New World.
Closing my eyes, I recalled another age, another kingdom full of savage vitality and life. This had once been the great square where Montezuma’s and Axayacatl’s palaces had stood. Now, facing the imposing Cathedral of St. Francis, was the enormous palace of Hernan Cortes. His palace rivaled Montezuma’s and was surrounded by high, thick walls and armed soldiers.
The might of Spain had not stopped with their victory over the Aztecs and the valley of the Mexicas though. Every hildago with noble blood that arrived from Spain wanted his own kingdom and within five years more tribes fell before the Spanish and more territories came under their control. Like a giant spider weaving its insidious web, they wrapped much of the surrounding lands into their power.
Besides Technotitlan, a new seat of power had shifted to Panama, that narrow isthmus of wild, dense jungle, swamps, deadly snakes and alligators that had for its saving glory only the fact that it was the shortest route from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific. Guatemala and northern Mexico had fallen to the ever encroaching Spanish conquistadors. Cortes ruled Mexico and any lands conquered within its vast boundaries. But other royal grants and commissions were also handed out by King Charles and the rush for land and power, for gold and glory had never been louder.
I had known it then, when Cortes had finally defeated the Aztecs, that Technotitlan with all its treasure and the death of many thousands were not enough. Spain must have more. More treasure, more gold, more silver, more land, more ports in the New World from which to trade and ship goods, more slaves; it was always more. Our cry was supposed to be God! Glory! And Gold! But I believe the real cry was Gold! Glory! and more Gold!
My steps took me down towards the vast marketplace. Thus far no one had recognized me and I doubted that they would. Years of building churches, tilling fields and building walls, most of that time stripped to the waist, wearing only the baggy, knee length breeches that every slave, Indian and worker wore in the intense tropical heat, had darkened my body to a hue that spoke more of mixed blood than any direct line to Spain. Though I was aware of everyone around me, as yet I had not recognized one person in the streets.
The marketplace was a shadow of what once was. Where once bargained thousands of the many tribes of the Mexicas, now there were less than two hundred Spanish and natives in the diminished market. It was nowhere near its size, I judged two thirds of it gone, the alleys and streets full of stalls and wares from every province were no more. Now the native fishermen hawked their fish from small carts, women screeched to be heard, holding small fowl, many of them diseased, while others marched the streets in a desperate attempt to make a sale. I wondered at the final damage inflicted on a people, on their hearts and souls, for nowhere was there any sign of the magnificent artists that worked their craft in pottery, jewelry, gold and silver such as I had seen on my last visit.
“The prodigal son returns,” laughed a voice at my elbow.
I whirled to see the familiar and friendly face of my giant friend, Estevan. We embraced like brothers reunited after a battle, joyous in the sight of each other, unable to keep the tears from our eyes.
“You wear the robes of a friar once again,” he said, “yet you are as dark as a worker from the sugar cane fields.”
“Ah! I worked the fields, built churches, cut forests back, all in the name of our Lord,” I said, showing him my arms under the robe.
“You could pass as a native!” he laughed.
“What has happened?” I asked. “I wrote you, care of the Spanish governor, but never a word back.”
“I for one never received any letters Marcos,” he said quietly. “No one knew where you had gone after you returned to Cuba.”
“The Church and Las Casas have kept me busy, but I wrote you, Maria and Geronimo often. The Franciscans have a truly spiritual order, the Franciscan Minors, called the Celestines. Las Casas has embraced their chapter and remains in Spain. I was recalled to Spain to study and work for one year. I am now a Celestine myself.”
“You wear a gray robe now,” Estevan shrugged, showing his indifference.
“We are known as Grayfriars.”
“Whether a brown habit or a gray one, you are still a friar, but you will always be Marcos to me,” he said clasping my shoulder in his huge fist. His dark, intelligent eyes searched my own, looking for the man I had tried once again to bury.
“A year in Spain, did you hear of your father?”
“He lives. The local Inquisitor Major was persuaded through the Franciscans to let him live out his life at the monastery at St. Iglussi. I saw him once, it was enough.”
“Once in all these years?”
“Si. The rack and the pincers of the Inquisition have deformed him, he is little more than a cripple. But the worst,” thinking back on it brought unbidden tears to my eyes, “the worse was that he would not speak to me. Not one word. After Spain I was sent to Hispaniola for a year and Cuba for the last three.”
“Why does Marcos still live as a monk?”
“A new pact. I wonder if I had made a pact with the devil himself if I might not be better off,” I said, taking in the new city around us before focusing again on my friend’s steady gaze.
“The Celestines give their life to hard labor and preaching. That is what I have done.”
“By doing what? Building churches? Carving out the soil? Spreading the word of God? Babtizing the heathen?” he said with a wide smile but there was an edge to his voice.
“Si, I did all that,” I replied.
“We were certain you had forsaken your God.”
“I had. I did. But I prayed to him, I swore to him that I would give my soul to him should he give Maria back her life. She is alive because of the holy pact I made with God. I must abide by my word, stay within the order. I have nothing else.”
“Las Verdad! You have nothing else my friend. You once had Maria, who loved you more than life itself. You had friends, companions, even wealth. Now you are correct, you have nothing but your word, and your pact with your God!”
“I have found little solace in my work or my belief,” I said, hearing Maria’s voice in his rebuke. “I broke my back, I worked myself to the bone to forget her but I could not. I can not even honor my own pact.”
“Is that why you came back?” he asked incredulous. “For Maria?”
“Si. No. The Franciscans have sent me as their Holy Friar to the New Adventurers who explore along the southern coast of the Pacific Sea.” I shook my head in anguish, I had once walked these same streets with her, had made love to her in this city. Suddenly Mexico and all its memories were too much. I turned desperate eyes now full of tears to him.
“I cannot forget her, I can live no more without her. I spent five years in Hell, burning inside and out in a prison of my own making to repay God for his gift. I can do no more. So tell me mi amigo, what of Maria?”
Estevan shook his head slowly, both hands gripping my shoulders painfully to steady me.
“Panama. She and Aquilar have gone to seek new fortune with the conquistadors there. Lo siento. I am sorry my friend.”
“Panama? What lies there?”
“Panama City has become the jumping off point for excursions south along the coast of the Pacific. If that is your destination then it would seem you two are fated to meet again.”
“I had thought Technotitlan would be the center for exploration. Not knowing Panama, I came here.”
“Si, every month new expeditions set out from here with the High Alcalade’s consent. To the north they explore, or to Guatemala or Honduras. But tales have been spun, rumors fly like angry bees of the wealth far to the south. They say a great civilization lies there, greater than the Aztecs.”
“I cannot picture it. What stories, what lies they spread of greater fortunes only to gain more men and financial backers!” I said sharply.
A civilization greater than the Aztecs? I couldn’t picture it. There was none, few even in Europe that could rival the Aztec Empire and I shook my head at him.
“Just think Marcos. A short time ago men scoffed at the idea of a great civilization hidden in the interior of Mexico. Who would have believed it? As you and I have learned, stranger things have happened.”
“That’s true enough,” I admitted. I could not argue the fact. My thoughts though were on Maria. “When did they leave Technotitlan?”
“It is now called Mexico City,” Estevan said. “And they left two years ago. Word reached us here that the first expedition left Panama in September of 1524 and sailed down the Pacific coast. Already they have seen the richness of the lands there and signs of treasure, but have not yet seen Piru.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“If it’s true, Piru is the land of the greatest civilization known to mankind. It is the home of the Inca Empire and its prince, the mighty Athualpa, son of the greatest king in the new world, Huayana Capac. The king fights wars on many fronts, his favorite son Athualpa commands his major forces in the north and Huascar, the younger son commands the southern army. We know little else save what word reaches us from Panama.”
“Panama,” I said slowly, picturing an impassable jungle full of wild creatures, birds and tribes of savage, wild natives. “Maria is in Panama. If there is fate, then this is a certain sign of it for I have been assigned there. There is nothing to keep me any longer in this Mexico City of the Spanish.”
“Panama it is then. Well my friend, you have your choice of routes. You can journey overland down through the jungles, or you can retrace your steps and wait in Vera Cruz for the next excursion to embark for Panama.”
“Any other options?” I asked wryly.
“West. Head for the Pacific coast and hope to catch a southbound merchantman. Trade has become a constant now on both coasts. I think that may be the best, but there’s no certainty of catching a ship. You might wait for months.”
“What did Maria and Aquilar do?”
“They signed on with an expedition leaving Vera Cruz, bought passage aboard a ship sailing south, traveled overland and made Panama. The Royal Governor, Pedro Arias Davila, granted them full shares in the venture and gave them passage to the Pacific. They joined the Unholy Trinity there.”
“What is this Unholy Trinity?” I asked, intrigued despite myself.
“Three men Marcos. Only three men, but they possess all the qualities needed for such a venture. Of course they have Davila’s blessing, but they seek a Royal Decree, yet quien sabe? Who knows?”
“Unholy Trinities? Mexico City? And who is Pedro Arias Davila? So much has changed in five years. I feel like I was never here at all.”
“Si, much has changed, too much to talk over out here on the streets. Come my friend, I know a quiet place where they serve chilled wine and few of the good citizens will recognize you. There we can plan our trip to Panama.”
I looked at him and he laughed, his teeth flashing white and his smiling face so familiar after five lonely years that tears welled up once again in my eyes.
He shrugged his massive shoulders.
“Why else have I waited all these years in the city of the dead if not to be here when Sayola finally returns?”
We embraced and I took comfort in his strength, thankful once again for the amazing bond we shared together. He actually knew that I would return one day and remained behind just for that purpose.
What other friend would do that?
He threw one enormous arm over my shoulder and led me along the litter strewn streets. I couldn’t help but think back to the fresh, clean orderly city of Technotitlan. That wonderous city of white had quickly become a European city; garbage and human waste were everywhere in the streets and already there were beggars on the avenues, with the poor hobbling by us in what once was the most prosperous city in the world.
And I wondered about Panama, and the Unholy Trinity and the place called Piru. Mostly though, I wondered what would happen when I met Maria again. I could picture her eyes going from beautiful green/blue to black and her anger unleashing, open and physical as she confronted me. All that, I could endure, I deserved no less, yet a thought had lain like an open wound in my mind, festering in me with its poison all these years.
What if she no longer loved me? In my heart I feared that unknown more than any other the New World could ever offer me.