For a moment he lost sight of the puma, but then moist brown earth trickled down the steep cone of dried soil below the gully and he saw the animal crouching beneath the fallen wild fig tree. He fired when the puma moved forward, bending her spine till her belly molded the soft earth as she slipped beneath the trunk.
“Nacho,” Elena screamed and clutched at his arm as the puma’s back straightened. Her voice ascended, echoing through the gorge after the handclapping of the dying report. Angrily, Nacho thrust her away, seeking to plant his feet firmly on the rubble of the gully bed. The branch above him caused him to totter as he fired again.
“Oh, Nacho,” his wife whimpered, and even in that moment he noted with surprise that she whimpered; he had heard only angry words or hurt words, or words of exasperating patience in the years of their marriage. The she-puma crouched, dragging down the scarlet-blossomed plants over which her body arched. Her mouth opened and instantaneously, as he saw the shining coat of her back flash with the movement of the muscle beneath, he shot. The puma rose on her hind feet, turned and pawed at the fig leaves, losing the grace he had thought she must have in all her movements; then she pitched into the clump of scarlet flowers, shoulder first. He fired again at her back, hoping to break her spine, but the stones shifted beneath his feet as Elena clutched him.
“Still, still,” Nacho shouted, and kicked at his wife’s arm as she put out her hand to grasp his foot. He slipped again and fell upon his back. The puma crouched and a strange noise, half cough and half scream, came from his throat. He flung himself forward onto his knees and, his head at the level of the animal’s head, fired again. The huge .45 bullet must have torn through the intense small globe of brain, for the puma’s head flew back and she toppled over, stiffly, with braced muscles that relaxed as her body settled into the clump of red flowers. Her left fore paw opened and shut twice, thrice; at each opening Nacho saw the claws thrust out and withdraw and then only the clawpoints were visible in the pads. He stood up, glancing quickly at the one live barrel remaining in his revolver and stumbled forward. The crown of the puma’s head was broken out into a huge wound, much bigger than the undeformed bullet could have made. Behind him he heard a rush of stones and a gasp, and turning, he saw that Elena had scrambled to the top of the gully bank and was crouched beneath a fig tree. The golden brown skin of her leg and thigh, exposed almost to her loins, gleamed beneath the varnished leaves of the branch by which she had drawn herself up.
“It was a ricochet. . . . I must have missed,” he said, angrily. Elena released the branch and it flew up and quivered. She stood up and leaped lightly into the gully bed, fear gone and agility returned. Together they bent over the puma. After a while he pressed his fingers around the big teats and said, “She has milk,” nodding his head as he spoke. Suddenly his nods became vigorous and he drew the puma’s shape in the air above her body, repeating it with a flourish, as if he were analyzing the rhythms of a picture. Elena looked up at Nacho’s heavy fleshy face and thick pouting lips; his eyes were burning—that would be from the excitement, she thought—and his lips were parted as he breathed deeply, but she saw in his face the other excitement, which he always showed when he examined a beautiful picture, or when he spoke to a multitude about the revolution, or when he had decided on some new and brilliant adventure. His hand gave a little flourish and he pulled at the light hairs of the puma’s belly, running his hand up to the shoulders.
“Beauty, beauty,” he murmured, and shuddered, gazing at the smashed skull.
“Why did you get in my way?” he suddenly asked, and she shrugged her shoulders. “You ought to have more sense, you were going to catch hold of my foot,” he added angrily, as she was about to speak,
“We must find the path,” was all she said. He fastened the clip of his holster and wiped the sweat from his face, gazing up the gully. The overflowing green of the jungle stopped his vision.
“That must be the buttress we saw just before the puma stood out on the path,” he said, lowering his voice as he spoke, determined to show no sympathy for his wife. The animal had suddenly leaped down upon the thread of path and opened its red mouth and they had pressed sideways through the resisting tangle of creeper and shrub.
“The sacks are lower down,” Elena said quietly.
“I know, woman,” he answered and turned his back on the grey buttress that rose out of the clinging forest. She followed him, stooping a little as he beat his way into the brilliant wall of the jungle edge. They ought to have brought a machete; she had never thought he would persist in his plan of trying to reach Quetzaltotomatlatlan from below. When Laborde’s telegram of instruction had reached them in the city below, they had quarreled because of his determination.
“Come on, woman,” he said, turning his head. A coat of parasite hanging from a piral tree trailed across his face; angrily he brushed it aside.
“We’ve a long way to go,” he said, and she thought of the enormous peaks of the Sierra Madre above them, between two of which they must pass to reach the hanging valley below the central Mexican plateau, upon which the village lay. At least five thousand feet of ascent, and a third of it through this tropical rain forest. It was already nine of the morning.
Again Nacho thrashed his way through the choking green, bearing off to the left, skirting a cone-shaped slope. They must soon come to the path, he thought, because it must necessarily cross the gully into which they had retreated, somewhere below the buttress, now hidden from sight by a grove of mahoganies. Suddenly he came upon the path, lying in a shallow groove. Before they had reached their bundles, which they had flung into the groove from the bank top, Elena suddenly thrust her arms beneath the arch of a fern and began to laugh quietly. Nacho came back a few steps and watched her struggling with something behind the fern. “Come, you pretty little tiger,” she said, and he hurried to her. The puma cub was putting up a comical fight, its tiny paws trying to beat off her hands, its big mouth wide open, brilliantly red, even in that gloom. He caged his hand over the cub’s head and sprawled it upon the ground; Elena grasped it by the belly and lifted it up.
“We must take it up to Quetzaltotomatlatlan,” she said.
“What for?” he protested, half-heartedly. “The Indians won’t want a puma.” He watched her as she tried to imprison the cub’s paws in her rebozo, thinking of the steaming ravine beyond the buttress by which the sepulchral trail climbed to the plains of light and wind.
“They were walking down the path when they heard us, mother and son. It’s no use, woman, what can we do with a puma cub?”
“It would grow up.”
Both of them were silent awhile, thinking of another animal and its big enormous brown eyes and long delicate lashes, the little deer kid kept by the Indian in whose hut they had stayed below in the valley. The kid had tapped the ground in front of them with its astonishing feet, more delicate than carved ivory, and had sniffed first at Elena’s face and at Nacho’s, and the old Indian had delivered a long speech in Huasteca. Nacho opened his mouth and she expected another rebuke for trying to carry the puma cub, but he wheeled about and hurried on. Presently the path, the “senderito,” the Indian below had called it, skirted the base of the buttress and entered the ravine where “man scarce breathes nor the parrots scream,” the Indian had said. Upon a rock outcrop below the buttress they stood gazing at that awful chasm, already gasping at the eddies of hot saturated air, upon which, like almost tangible coils, lay the stench of rotting vegetation and the corrupt fragrance of unnatural blossoms.
The left wall of the gorge, over the dimly visible summit of which the sunlight struck in soft, steaming beams, was a precipice of white limestone, grooved and spired, rising in tiers from the choked floor. The jungle, climbing by the fissures in the lower cliffs, swarmed over the lower terraces, from which creepers of serpent green, with huge, bell-shaped flowers hanging upon their backs, felt their way up the black-stained walls; while massive, brown-cored ropes of green, looped with flowering vines that nearly hid the rock faces, hung down into the lower jungle, along the upper edge of which stood plantain palms, their scissor-frilled, jade-green fans trembling as if they, gasping, sought delivery from suffocation. Creepers and parasites writhed up to the highest boughs of the cycad trees; yellow, bleached parasites reached out from the cliff-festoons and crawled over the tree summits, their leprous flesh-flowers, lips curled back from yellow throats, turning up to the light like spewing mouths. Above the lower cliffs the cycads and the palms did not climb, but every shelf was covered with acacias, rhododendrons, and junipers, and every gully was choked by the ascending malice of the vines. For a thousand feet upwards, the complicated, rococo cliff, bayed and buttressed as far as their sight could penetrate, was smothered in green, so that the pinnacles, cleanly tapering spires or bulging towers of piled blocks, appeared to tear their way through the heavy drooping fabric; but higher still, the cliff rose sheerer and was banded with pink and red earth, and at last merged into the shapeless mists that softened all outlines immediately beneath the rafters of light.
The opposite wall was a heaving forest, an upturned chaos rising to dark pines, through which only rarely the bare rock protruded. Yet this wall oppressed them even more; its vast, idiot shapelessness, its sagging curves and profound hollows, led their gaze on and on into the echoing gloom of the gorge, and they felt themselves lost in that horror of green and black. Curtains of mist, riven through from time to time by movements of uprising and descending air, made mystery of the innermost depths of the gorge. Sharp-edged ridges of rock disclosed themselves at intervals, running down with the contour of lightning flashes into the green-black turbulence of the jungle; or immense slopes of forest, patched with grey cliffs, magnified and steepened, glimmered for a while behind the rising clouds of vapor and slowly disappeared.
At their feet the dribble of trodden path ran down the slope and disappeared into a tunnel of vegetation. Nacho suddenly seized Elena’s hand, and they went down out of the light and crept into the life-leeching jungle. Shoulders bowed, they hurried on, stopped frequently by the vines that overgrew the path; yet, they noted, many must have passed by this path, for keen machetes had slashed through the encroaching branches of trees.
The puma cub lay quiet for an hour, as if it were sleeping, but when Elena lifted it up and peered into its face, it pawed at her eyes and once more struggled to escape. She fell back, not wishing to anger Nacho, and for half an hour she was continually losing sight of him. He would not really wish to abandon the cub, she knew, but only because she had determined to care for it would he be angry. Always it had been so, even before they had married. It was not his anger she feared, but his indifference, broken only by passionate repentance of his cruelty, or a tenderness which he could simulate so perfectly that she was half-content with it. So it had always been. Day after day, for weeks at a time, he had locked himself in his studio, emerging to take note of her when he needed the body of woman, or when moved by those momentary visions of himself which plunged him into embittered gloom. There had been other women, she knew, but they were more helpless with him than she. She did not fear them, and jealousy had long ago burned out. It was his growing indifference that had taken most from her. At one time his violent anger had as suddenly changed into a histrionic and extravagant tenderness that had displeased her. He had seen this, she thought, and had studied his behavior, and had invented innumerable minute rituals of tenderness. Believing them to be but a simulation of tenderness, she nevertheless accepted them, playing her part in them with a mixture of soreness and pleasure, knowing well that though he obtained pleasure from them, she felt that his anger watched like a clawed thing behind the attentive smile and the soft voice. Yet there were moments, she knew, when he was moved more deeply than he had expected to be, and for a morning or an evening the old and unbelievable happiness returned.
Nacho, unwilling to admit to himself his folly in attempting the old path to Quetzaltotomatlatlan, hastened his pace, and as he did so his impatience and irritability increased. He was struggling to put the puma cub out of mind. He knew that Elena could keep pace with him if she wished, but that she desired not to provoke him. He was, as always, angered by his own pettiness, yet her patience was insupportable. Often he told himself that it would be better if she were impatient, but he remembered, unwillingly, that in the old days when she had fought him, when indeed her temper had matched his, he had as much resented her outbreaks as now her leeching patience. She had as much detestable patience as the Indians, from whom she drew half her blood. Yet it was her patience, he knew, that had made her so good a revolutionary. He knew that her work had been good, especially since she had turned to the revolution with new vehemence.
The full meaning of her beauty had seemed revealed to him one cjay when she had been seated at a sewing machine newly given to a village collective, patiently explaining its mechanism to the Indian women. Six hours she had talked to them, and at last they understood, chiefly with the help of a girl of twelve years, who had spent most of her time in gazing into Elena’s face or leaning against her, caressing her breasts with timid hands. How beautiful she had been that evening. He had come back from the milpas, the maize fields, where he had been talking with the schoolmaster about a new irrigation ditch, and she had been seated at the sewing machine beneath a tree with the women about her; the beauty of her black hair, a purple tinge in it from the coppery sun, and her lovely delicate forehead and large eyes, as large almost and as liquid as the captive deer kid’s, and the falling line of her shoulders had shaken him. He had perceived the profound gravity of her beauty that evening, and had called to her, almost timidly, and the women had not welcomed him, but in all their faces there had been repulse. The child leaning against her rich and swelling breast had hidden her long oval face and put her arm round Elena’s neck. Her dignity and calmness had been perceptible then; she had emerged from the anonymity of leeching patience, the burnt residue of her angers and jealousies, her pride and willful sensitiveness. “That is how she really is,” he remembered saying. He had turned aside from the women, who had continued their grave conversation in low voices, and at last Elena had gone by the straw-roofed shelter where he had been seated without even a lift of the hand for salute, a remote smile on her mouth. He had joined the men at the other end of the village.
That night she had wooed him frenziedly and afterwards she had wept so long that he had lost his temper.
There had been another occasion when Elena had been sent to a starved village of the lava wastes, not far from Mexico City, to teach the women dressmaking. At the end of the lesson she had beckoned to an old woman and had given her the dress she had brought as a pattern. “For me?” the woman had said, her eyes, lustreless as lava, fixed upon Elena’s burning eyes.
“Of course, it’s a present,” Elena had said and the woman had stood motionless till suddenly she had sat down upon a tree butt, her knees thrust to one side and both arms hanging stiffly down in front of her thighs like those of a mummified nun. For a while dry croaking alone issued from the old woman’s mouth and then she had said, “Nobody ever gave me anything,” and there were tears on her face.
“She doesn’t even know how to weep,” he had said aloud, unintentionally voicing his thought, and the old woman had wheeled upon him with angry light in her eyes, as if to say “I do.” She had placed her clawlike lava-hued hands upon Elena’s arms and had regarded her a long time. “Nobody . . . nobody,” she had said in a dry voice and Elena had cried also, as had he, though it had shocked him to see that withered and warmthless mummy clinging to Elena’s body. Something in him had protested against this until he had marched away, still weeping but resentful. His resentment had been against the old hag’s clinging to Elena, not against Elena or the woman. It had been completely irrational, just as now, hurrying along the steaming tunnel, feeling in his body the assault of fevers that breathed on him from the jungle, he knew his mounting irritability was shameful. She could catch up with him, he knew, but he was annoyed that she should lag behind. She did not wish to incense him with that damned little cat. He would control himself, he determined, and passed formal judgment against himself. He muttered aloud, “It is irrational to be angry. The puma kitten is not hindering her,” and was irritated to find that she was almost within hearing. “I must be good,” he willed. He halted and turned with a smile. “You are not too tired, querida?” he said. When he began uselessly to wipe the sweat from her face she turned first one cheek and then the other, playing her part in the ceremony of tenderness.
“Now stand still, let me wipe yours,” she said, and he frowned.
“No, no,” he answered, “what’s the use . . . I . . . I’m different, I sweat more than you.”
A moment passed, then, as she expected, the impulse of recompense came into him and he stopped again. “Give me your bundle, darling, the path is beginning to climb.”
A half hour later, in crossing a yellow clearing, he blundered into a bull-acacia. He must have broken one of the horns of the tree, in which ants live, for within a few moments, just as she was about to ask him to return her bundle, he shouted and threw off the bundles. She ran to him and pulled off his shirt and freed him of the stinging insects. Upon continuing, he made no remark when she shouldered her own bundle.
The path began to rise steeply, then to wind through a region of hillocks, though they knew this only by the meandering of the path, for it seemed that the jungle was even more dense. They heard water splashing, as if from a great height, and suddenly found they had lost the path. The ground lost its firmness and shook beneath them, the vines tripped him, and he felt his arms sink to the elbows in black mud. They fought their way back to the path, hands cut by the sharp edges of reeds, faces torn by hooked vines, drenched in their sweat, and shaking with the assault of fevers, against which their blood fought desperately.
“The cub escaped,” she said, standing by her bundle; he sat gasping, blinded with sweat, his head bowed. She saw the blood pumping in his swollen hands.
“Escaped?” He did not look up.
“Yes, when you fell. It struggled free.”
“I’ll fetch it.”
“No, no; it wriggled into the jungle.”
Nacho gazed at the jungle with undecided will, shrinking from it, and then the sweat closed his eyes again. He stood up. “I don’t like to think of that little beast lost in that horrible place.” “I didn’t loosen it, Nacho, it escaped.”
He was silent a while, and then he murmured, “Such confusion, it would drive you mad, if you were lost. You’d never find the way out. Little puma, pobrecita.”
They continued. Midday passed, with the sun directly above the gorge. Big trees, bald cypresses of black and green, began to stand above the smaller ones; air moved in the upper foliage of tall sycamores. In the middle of a great clearing they climbed a craggy hillock. The buttress whence they had started lay far below, diminutive and insignificant. Ahead, towards the plateau, the gorge opened out into a vast amphitheatre, a semicircle of grey-white cliffs and abrupt slopes, above which stood the final precipice and swiftly moving clouds. Huge spires of rock, the ends of perpendicular buttresses, stood around the amphitheatre, bearing up the higher hollows of the gorge. Green domes arose from its forest-matted floor; from time to time these were illuminated by the now oblique sunshafts that broke through the cloud floes. The shafts of light traveled on, or were shut off abruptly, and the domes became dark and barely visible against the forest’s gloomy monotone, or they stood up like black billows over the still lighted sea of forest.
At five of the afternoon, when they looked back from the waste of pink and red stones that lay below the cliffs, the amphitheatre was a hollow of darkness, in which small clouds hovered, rising and falling, or dissolving with uncanny quickness, so that their gaze dropped through to the black floor, far below, as if to another world. As they watched, a pair of eagles soared over the cliffs, crying loudly.
“Listen to their wings,” Nacho said. The fanning of the eagles’ wings, echoing from the cliffs, was propelled outwards over the abyss and the enormous volume of air contained in it responded and trembled to the beating wings of the black eagles.
“Listen, it is like a god passing, or an army of spirits,” Nacho said, and Elena smiled at the extravagance. The sound of the eagles’ wings grew louder, and they listened, rapt by a new sensation, as if the solemnity of that evening had found its perfect symbol, or had awakened into its own life and was breathing softly around them.
The beating sound, now hoarse, now but a hush, was like the pulsing of the mighty landscape. Never had Nacho experienced such a sense of vast volume . . . the abyss, the plunging ramparts, the cliffs soaring red and richly glowing to the swift sky, the brooding canon, all of it was throbbing with the sound of wings. The wings beat like the valves of a mighty heart.
“I perceive Being,” Nacho thought, not daring to speak this to the woman. The quelling sense of vastness and of Being remained with him, even grew, long after the crying eagles had been drawn up by some mysterious force, their wings motionless, to a reddened tower upon the rim of the opposite cliffs.
Pace by pace, their wills pressing steadily, near failing point, they climbed on against the tightening drag of the earth force. The path zigzagged in an almost perpendicular gully that was uproarious with the battering wind. At every grade of that visionary path the unbelievable height and depth of the world was displayed to them. Higher and higher rose the lonely domes, and their gaze ranging about them made their minds drunken with strange and perfect liberty. Their imaginations swelled within them, like the blazing of heroic music, and they dared not speak, knowing by the glittering of one another’s eyes that they experienced the same excitement. Peak after peak arose out of the earth, immense slopes came into view, sweeping up into the gold-stained sky. Through the long reefs of yellow cloud they now perceived the upper ranks of cloud, the light of the rapidly declining sun throwing its moving shadows upon them. Above the red hills, out of the east now deepening into purple, the pale red and the blue peaks climbed into the yellow-green regions of the sky; their dark sides towards the travelers, continents of stone discovered themselves. Suddenly Nacho pointed with a startled cry, and through a gap in the moving vapors they saw, among .he highest, unmoving clouds, a delicate and wavering line of white, melted through in its center by the yellow beam of the vanished sun which displayed its huge, wide-opened fan of shadow above that icy crest.
“It is a cloud,” Nacho whispered.
“No, it is not a cloud.”
A dark lid slid over the gap and the vision was gone.
“It was a cloud,” he said again, but he knew otherwise. They turned and saw for the first time the villages of the hanging valley, standing upon the lower slopes of templelike hills that stood around the floor. High on the slopes, climbing even to the notched and wooded ridges, the villagers had made their milpas, now standing out against the somber earth like yellow-green banners of brocaded silk. “That must be Quetzaltotomatlatlan,” Elena said, pointing to a straw-roofed village grouped round an arched building of whitewashed stone. “They told me it stood on the end of such a ridge.” Behind the clusters of huts the forested ridge ran out over the abyss of the valley they had left that morning, to a cape of rock, around which soft clouds had now gathered.
“Quetzaltotomatlatlan, what does that mean?” he asked, as if thinking of some other thing.
“It means . . . the place where they spread the nets to catch the sacred quetzal bird,” Elena answered.
“Ah, he is blue, very blue, and he flies about the high forests, among the clouds, where the lightning is born,” he answered, nodding his head. They did not hasten as they approached the village, though they saw a man, whom they judged to be the schoolmaster, coming down to meet them. “I was thinking of that little puma, down in the jungle,” he said, just before the schoolmaster lifted his arm in greeting. “He will be crying in the horrible darkness.”
“Yes, he will be afraid.” “Fierce red eyes will be staring at him out of a forest of hissing serpents. Vultures will have eaten his mother. Pobrecito.”
“I am Montes,” the man said. “I got Laborde’s letter three days ago. I’ve been watching the paths from the hill above my school every evening. I had a man watch by day. This will be the senora Elena, compafiero?” The eagerness in Montes’ voice, telling him that Laborde had spoken of her in his letter, stirred resentment in him; that lay behind their conversation as they climbed to the village.
The bird on the little mountain sang on, as sweetly as a flute newly dipped in water, and all the valley of Quetzalto-tomatlatlan seemed to become innocent and a place of laughter. Whenever the bird broke into song Nacho barely heard Montes, the schoolmaster’s soft voice droning on. Each burst of the bird’s song began like the rilling of water over stones, so that he felt himself grow young and golden, and then came the innocent clear notes, that made him stare at the pale golden stain of light falling over the yellow milpas, seeking to define how a sound could resemble a color or a light; for indeed the bird’s song was one with the evening. Montes had said that the priest deceived the sick people of the village by pretending to cure them with spells and touch-ings of a crucifix. “The sick men remained with their maladies and the priest with the fees,” Nacho realized Montes had said when the bird ceased to sing.
The peasants of the ejido began to return to the village, the church bell tolled, and looking down into the square from the cliff where they were seated, Nacho saw many of them go into the church.
“A few of them would still like to give the land back to Don Atanasio. One or two malicious women say he watches them at their work,” the schoolmaster said. Of Don Atanasio, Nacho had heard something, that he had always ridden his horse into church, for instance.
“He was one of the old type, they say, a man after all,” he remarked to Monies. The schoolmaster offered no opinion on the former hacendado, but continued in a light and slightly theatrical voice, Nacho thought.
“Once, during Mass, when the voice of a visiting priest pleased him, he demanded an encore of the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. ‘Encore, encore,’ he shouted, and shook his fist at his household staff and they applauded too.”
“And he got his encore?”
“He always got everything. The priest turned round and said, ‘Don Atanasio, I have sung it once.’ Don Atanasio nodded and took a pinch of snuff. ‘Sing it again, sir priest,’ he said.”
“Quite affably, like that?”
“Of course. ‘Sing it again, God is worth it, don’t you think?’”
Nacho recalled another story of Don Atanasio which he had heard in the city. Don Atanasio and an apothecary of the capital of the state had fought a tedious lawsuit of a nature somewhat embarassing to their lawyers: it was a quarrel, over which of them had paternal duties towards the illegitimate child of a minor canon’s niece. Each claimed to be the father, And having lost his suit, despite his own extraordinary intervention in the hitherto purely legal debate in the state courthouse, Don Atanasio had had made a tremendous pair of spurs and had caused them to be blessed by a priest: the minor canon, for form’s sake, and to keep things in the family, Don Atanasio said. One day, in the sight of more than a hundred people, he had ridden down the apothecary and bloodied the spurs on the body, concluding the ceremony, as afterwards he called it, with a grotesquely obscene remark about apothecaries and the impossibility of their having offspring.
Don Atanasio had always said that a master who allowed a slave . . . and he had no objection to the word, he declared, provided always that it was enunciated with kindliness . . . to starve, was an unchristian man, as was one who failed to provide a requiem for a peon he had ridden down, or had whipped to death.
Of two things, the schoolmaster said, he was inordinately proud. “One, his collection of spurs. He had some fine ones, of the early colonial period. They were all spoiled in the fire.” The burned-out shell of Don Atanasio’s hacienda lay below the bluff on which they were sitting, its black-stained walls overgrown with flowering vines.
“What is the name of that bird?” Nacho asked, as the bird burst into song again on the little mountain behind them.
“It is called acatzanatl, a thrush.” Montes, who spoke Nahua only imperfectly, was proud of his achievement and always sprinkled his conversation with Nahua words.
“Two,” continued Montes, “ah, that was the obedience and the affection of his peons. It looked as if it were true. They never complained, they brought up his bastards as if they were their own children, and when the agraristas under a peasant named Najera came to these parts to dispossess the landlords, they went out against him twice. They captured Najera, and thought up more tortures for him than Don Atanasio. When Najera was being tortured, his body seemed as if it were dissolving in sweat. . . .”
“You were there?”
“Yes. . . .” Montes had spoken in his customary monotone, but now he paused and Nacho sensed that he was speaking under some duress. “Don Atanasio made me hold the scissors. It was after that torture he said to Najera, ‘Seflor revolutionary, are you a Catholic man?’ Najera said, ‘No, senor.’ ‘Excellent,’ Don Atanasio answered and I remember him nodding as if confirming a line of speculation. ‘So this has virtue in it, instead of being merely a personal pleasure,’ he said.
“The killing of Najera was just before Don Atanasio’s name day and at the feast some of his ‘unconditional’ burnt Ndjera’s effigy again. They were drunk, and they did tortures to the straw dummy; I watched them, they were mad with delight in tearing that effigy to pieces. One of them ran for the farrier’s tongs and knocked down his wife and daughter in running. He didn’t even notice the woman and her baby. He cut a slit in the dummy’s belly with his knife because there were no scissors, and thrust the tongs in to tear out its entrails. . . . It really seemed they loved Don Atanasio. Well, there you are.” The schoolmaster jerked his foot in the direction of the burned-out hacienda; a harshness had come into his voice. “The same ones did it; a year and a half later.”
“I know, I have heard the story.”
“Yes, they tell it in the city, I believe, very stylishly.” Montes laughed, and Nacho felt he was being mocked.
“It goes something like this, doesn’t it? One day his peons surrounded the house and set fire to it, without any warning. Don Atanasio came to the balcony, neither surprised nor angry, until one of the peons ran through the smoke and led out the old gentleman’s favorite horse. ‘God damn your piddling soul, burn my horse as well,’ Don Atanasio shouted and shot the peon dead, after which he went back into the house and awaited death comfortably, in his great bed.”
Nacho watched a little flock of birds arise from the piral tree, which is the main sustenance of birds in the Mexican winter. “But didn’t he die in his bed?”
Montes was silent a while, and then he continued, as if bored and irritated.
“Probably, who knows, his half-burned body was found not among the charred furniture of his bedroom, but on the ground floor, in that room where you see the piral tree growing now.”
“Well, he had character, whatever you may think of him,” Nacho said.
“So, he died, at the age of seventy-four,” Montes finished, in a level voice.
A peasant clad in a white blouse and drawers waved his arm to them and began to mount the path. The schoolmaster made a gesture and stood up.
“Let’s go, they want you. Some of the peasants still say he rides about on his horse at night, swearing. That’s about the only likely detail to their story. The others don’t care if he does ride, they’ve got his lands. Or rather, they’ve got their own lands back again.”
“They still remember that . . . I mean, did they always remember it had been theirs?”
“See here, on August sixteenth, they’ll all go up this hill, to the chapel in the wood where the bird was singing. Even the non-Catholics will. They’ll be celebrating the Annunciation of the Virgin; of course. But they won’t all stay up at that shrine. I know, because they come back with herbs and plants that don’t grow at this height or anywhere near it, but down in the gorge.” Nacho felt that the schoolmaster, Communist as he was, was diffident about recounting this.
“In the jungle?”
“No, not so far down. There’s a great hollow, you remember? You must have passed through it yesterday. Well, they take flowers down. I hid in the rocks at the top of the Gully of the Winds once to see where they went with the flowers. I saw them go along the ridge and then I lost sight of them for half an hour and then they were below the cliffs. There’s another way into the gorge, I’ll show it to you. Anyway, they had bunches of flowers when they went down and nothing, unless it was herbs, when they came back. There’s a temple or a sacred place or something in that style down there in the forest, but I’ve never looked for it.”
Despite his lack of intellectual equipment, Montes, Nacho knew, was compiling a record of the Quetzaltotomatla-tlan valley, noting down accounts of diet, levels of production, and so forth, inefficiently and with sorry lack of system, It was a pity the man could not be trained, though he was probably too old for fresh learning. Montes was patient, almost to the point of cynicism, it had seemed at first to Nacho, but the building of the school ruled out cynicism. The schoolmaster, shortly after joining his political party, had been asked to do something to improve education in his village and this he had interpreted to mean that he must build a school, since there was nothing but the erection of poles covered with straw which had served during Don Atanasio’s time. He had gathered the peasants together one evening under the great tree in the village square and had made a speech to them about the necessity of building a school, at the end of which he had said, “Let us begin,” and then and there they had begun, by selecting a site. Three dry seasons of enthusiasm had almost completed the building, without a centavo of official money, and with no outside labor. Then he had borrowed a mule and had set out for Mexico City, where he had haunted corridors and ministerial waiting rooms, till he had obtained a grant for equipment. The school was finished and since children of three villages attended it, he had obtained an assistant.
“The horses are ready,” the white-clad Indian said, lifting his hat.
“The horses, what is this, Sebastian? The compafieros are not going away tonight i”
“It was said they were going away to the next village.” It seemed to Nacho that the man was not at his ease in speaking. Sebastian was the name of the assistant commissar of the ejido, Nacho knew. “They must go away.”
Montes was puzzled by this behavior. “Well, they are not going,” he said, a little shortly. “They have work to do here; they are going to stay a fortnight.”
“I am sorry, maestro, but as it was said the sefiores were going I had their bundles packed on the mule.” Nacho caught at the word “sefiores.” It might only be courtesy, or the subservience so difficult to eradicate after four centuries of oppression, yet there had been a hostile ring in the man’s voice.
“Unpack them at once, then, you’ve no right to touch the compafiero’s sacks.” So Montes too had remarked Sebastian’s term of address.
“That is an impossible mistake to have made,” Nacho said when the assistant commissar had gone. Montes frowned; there was a perplexed expression on his face.
“It was, but it can’t have any meaning. . . . The people like you, I think . . . and they love the sefiora Elena. . . . Besides, Sebastian is a good man.”
Nacho experienced some jealousy, and some pride, at hearing the village judgment on Elena. He had noticed as much; they had been in Quetzaltotomatlatlan only a day and the women had accepted her. He knew that partly because of her attitude towards him; she had not seemed to hang upon his word, to depend upon him. He had barely seen her all day.
“No . . . it was a mistake, and he was awkward before a city man,” the schoolmaster said. A city man, Nacho repeated to himself. They had discussed the theme of city versus village. Remembering that conversation he looked up at the little mountain; deepening twilight almost hid the rock. The schoolmaster had said he was a city man once before and it had been Nacho’s expressions of delight in the valley’s splendor that had provoked Montes’ comment.
“Then you do not feel the beauty of this place?” he had asked. “It is the most beautiful place in the world. Why, I couldn’t even eat, the four days I was in the city,” Montes had replied with quiet intensity. In the controversy which followed it soon appeared that to Montes the city was principally the exacter of tribute.
“Here comes the sefiora Elena,” Montes said. Nacho regarded her; a contented smile played upon her broad mouth, she looked at him squarely in the face, without her usual look of patient appeal. “Good evening,” she greeted him tenderly, yet with a curious air of indifference. “Compafiero Montes, may we have the school hall for our meeting tonight?” she asked.
“Why, yes, Elena. . . .” There was surprise in Montes’ voice, that she should ask this permission. She left them and rejoined the group of women with whom she had been walking. They hurried in the direction of the school. “A marvelous woman, with your permission,” the schoolmaster said. “What fortune you have!”
Avellano, the assistant schoolmaster, approached and waved his hand to the visitor, ignoring Montes. “Hola, Nacho; I’ve brought the children’s paintings that I spoke about. Let’s go to the school and look at them.” Nacho at once felt a minute objection to going to the school; Elena was there and he did not wish her to think he was intruding.
“The women are in the school,” Montes ejaculated bluntly, and the assistant schoolmaster shrugged his shoulders and a blush slowly spread over his face. Nacho sensed hostility between the two men.
“I didn’t know. Well, we’ll look at them tomorrow by daylight,” Avellano mumbled, thoroughly abashed. He strode away in anger, or he strode to give himself confidence, Nacho thought.
“We could have gone into another classroom, compafiero,” he said, and was astonished at Montes’ outbreak.
“He’s an upstart . . . a know-all . . . he imagines he is the possessor of all knowledge. . . .” The schoolmaster stopped suddenly, though anger burned fiercely in him. Nacho had had but one conversation with Avellano, and that about painting, but it had seemed that the assistant was an intelligent and industrious young man. Despite the fact that the senior man had demanded an assistant, Montes no doubt resented the man’s coming into the village, after he had so sacrificed himself to build its school.
Later that evening Nacho asked the dour little Rodriguez, the mestizo commissar of the ejido, what was the origin of Montes’ dislike. The Indian put his head on one side and spoke with a harsh voice.
“Avellano disapproves of compafiero Montes’ way of teaching, and they quarreled; Montes took the children away from him and gave him his own class, and then he took them back.”
“But Avellano teaches well, doesn’t he?” “Quien sabe? He teaches in a new way. I cannot say . . . I’ve only been in the big city once in my life, and know so little of schools.”
“Do you think we could get them to settle their differences, you and I?” The commissar was not startled at Nacho’s proposal, but he shook his head slowly.
“Montes built the school, Montes organized the ejido, Montes has defended our village in the days of bad governments, Montes has done everything.”
There was a hint of sadness in Rodriguez’s voice, as if, while he sided with the old schoolmaster, he did so reluctantly.
“But no man can possess a revolution for himself, nor any part of it,” Nacho insisted and the commissar agreed.
“But the young ones often talk as if they made the revolution,” he added. Although there was no bitterness in Rodriguez’s words, Nacho suspected that perhaps between Sebastian and his senior there might be a similar discord.
“You have heard that Sebastian wished to push us off out of the village this evening,” Nacho said jokingly.
“No!” The commissar had not taken this remark as a joke, Nacho saw; there was momentary alarm on Rodriguez’s face and he looked around sharply. “You have told this to Montes?”
“Montes was there. He was displeased. What are you thinking, compailero? I was not offended; no doubt it was merely a mistake.”
“Montes was displeased?”
“What are you thinking, tell me!”
Rodriguez was silent awhile, but not from hesitation, Nacho saw. He was weighing carefully the justice of talking to an outsider.
“Sebastian was Montes’ nominee for the post of commissar. The people chose me. It is the only time they have ever opposed him.” He was silent, and Nacho, feeling that Rodriguez had intended to say more, sought about for a means of provoking speech. He found none, but Rodriguez continued, “You will see how difficult it is for me to interfere between Montes and Avellano. Besides, Avellano has sided with me in the arguments about the Agrarian Reserve. Montes and Sebastian do not want our peasants to be armed. What makes it so difficult is that four of the men have joined.”
“Montes is opposed to that? Why, whatever reason can he give?”
“It is because . . . because he is now the chief authority in the village . . . he fears that a new authority would be created. Compafiero, no man should try to possess a revolution. I should not say this, I think.” Rodriguez’s face had become impassive, yet there was a deep-lying passion in his next remark. “Montes says that Avellano is afraid . . . afraid to be out here in the countryside, away from the city, and so he wants the men to join the Agrarian Reserve and get rifles.”
“Oh, that cannot be true!” Nacho exclaimed.
“Yes, it is true enough that the young master is afraid. The wild deer fears the puma, yet she dwells on the hills of her birth.”
“You mean . . . what do you mean?” “That Avellano is afraid is nothing to the point, that I can see.”
“Why is Sebastian opposed to the men having rifles?”
Again Rodriguez looked up sharply, and this time Nacho was sure that the old commissar had reserved his full thought; the reason Rodriguez gave was so obvious, yet he hesitated long before replying. “Oh . . . he is Montes’ friend, no doubt it is for loyalty.”
About nine o’clock, as he was walking to the school to meet Elena, Nacho saw Sebastian returning on horseback, by the path which led down to the bridge across the torrent bed. He did not greet the assistant commissar, but it seemed that the man swerved aside between two huts at just that moment when Nacho would have become recognizable. He thought of telling this to Rodriguez, whom he saw standing in the school hall, talking with Montes. Elena came out, however, and quietly kissed him, and he led her away to Montes’ hut.
An hour later he heard the schoolmaster and the commissar conversing, in short and interrupted sentences, under the tree of the village square. He heard one of them go over to the fountain and drink water; the water bubbling from the spout stopped a moment and continued, then there was a splash of water, and Rodriguez’s voice sounded a little louder. . . . Yes, he had gone to the fountain for a drink, the water bubbled out of a stone monkey’s mouth, a monkey of smooth black stone, and Rodriguez went over and there was a red light burning beyond the great tree and shouts. . . . Nacho sat up, startled; there was a tawny light in the outer room, men were shouting, a child was crying. He blundered into Montes, who was kneeling in the dark over a chest. Nacho swore as he fell. He could hear Montes sobbing as he searched in the chest.
“What’s happening, Montes, what’s happening?” he exclaimed.
“They’ve come . . . they’ve come,” Montes sobbed, and there was rage in his sobbing.
“Who, what is it, man?” Montes stood up suddenly, pushed his way past Nacho; Elena came out of the inner room and ran against him. The tawny light died down but there was a rifle shot from below the village, and the thudding of hoofs.
“Get the women into the school,” Nacho shouted as Elena ran through the doorway. He joined Montes outside and the schoolmaster began to blow a whistle.
“It’s the reactionaries, they’re burning the milpas.”
“Ah, give orders for the armed men to go to the school.”
“There are only four.” Montes spoke savagely, in self-re-buke.
Nacho drew away from the man, understanding the torment of self-reproach that must be raging in Montes. “To the school,” he shouted as a group of Indians, carrying children, ran up appealing to him volubly in Nahua. The Indians ran away; flames broke out again at that moment and he could see they were carrying their bundles upon their backs. Nacho decided to go to the school, to begin organizing its defense. Rodriguez, mounted on his horse, dashed out of a turning and nearly rode him down. “To the school,” the commissar shouted; he added something in Nahua which Nacho could not understand. Another rifle shot rang out and a long scream, and a crowd of quietly weeping old women, dressed in black, swept round him. “To the school,” he shouted, hearing Elena’s voice calling from the school steps. A little girl seized his hands and flung herself down before him, shrieking in Nahua; she seemed to be pointing back towards the square.
“In Spanish, girl, what is it?” he demanded and she repeated the same phrase again and again in the language of her race.
“In Spanish, child,” he shouted, kneeling down; the flames rose again, and a thin stream of sparks whirled over the village and more hoarse cries of fear arose. The lights of the school went on and were at once extinguished before the oath was out of his mouth. The girl began to beat her head with her fists, and threw herself from side to side, wailing only one Nahua word.
“Speak to me, speak to me, what is it, child,” he pleaded, patting the girl on the back, trying to calm her wild fear, but she only sobbed the word. Never had he heard such despair as that soft, wailing voice crying, “Notehueltiuh, notehuel-tiuh,” in desperate sorrow.
“Lead me,” he said and put his hand in hers and pushed her away from him. At once she understood and he followed her to the tree, where she began to drag him into the darkness. Montes shouted to them in Nahua and the girl cried, “Amo, amo,” in her tongue, and this word, “No,” was the only one he had understood. The light of the flames diminished and he could not see the girl, who was calling to him from the dark lane; then the flames shot up again and she was kneeling beneath garish banana palms . . . holding out her hands, her head to one side. Seeing him she flung out her hands in a frantic gesture of supplication. Montes ran over. “Go on up to the school, the riflemen are there.” He was carrying a small pistol, Nacho saw.
The girl still knelt beneath the banana palms, but no intelligible words came from her. Terror, of what he knew not, came into him. “She keeps saying, ‘Notehueltiuh,’ something like that,” he exclaimed.
“Her elder sister! Yes, she is blind. Go to the school. I’ll carry her, she will never walk at night.” Without speech Nacho hastened to the school, his excited mind hearing the one word repeated again and again . . . the voice of the child, ‘Notehueltiuh.” It meant only “my eldest sister,” but it had seemed to contain in itself the sharpest essence of human sorrow. As always when he was excited, he began to imagine pictures. He would paint a dark and terrible canvas, with the child kneeling among menacing shadows, her eyes closed and head tilted, holding out her hands. He would call it Notehueltiuh, he would ask Elena to spell the word for him. Meeting his wife in the school hall, as she was trying to calm the women, he saw that he had painted her face into the imagined picture.
Nacho made his way to the classroom in which he heard Rodriguez shouting. Avellano was sitting upon one of the benches, his face in his hands. The commissar was passing review of the arms and ammunition. There were four rifles, two shot guns, three pistols, one of which, belonging to Montes, was of small caliber. In all there were two hundred and thirty rounds of ammunition. Besides these arms there was Nacho’s Colt.
“You’ll go out to them, companero,” Nacho said, glancing at the peasants.
“We can’t, there’s a hundred or more of the enemy, they’re mounted.” “But they’ll burn the milpas.”
“We shall have to defend ourselves here, we can’t leave the women and children alone.”
Nacho was not convinced, but there were so few arms that the villagers had no spirit. So much he had comprehended as he rushed into the schoolroom. The reputation of the Cristeros, the fanatical reactionaries, had terrified the Indians of Quetzaltotomatlatlan. Not so many years ago the Cristeros had derailed a train and cut the throats of every one of the passengers. Scores of schoolmasters had been assassinated by them, as a protest against the revolution. It was hardly possible that these marauders were Cristeros, who were not known to be within a hundred miles of the valley, but their intention would be the same. Three shots, in rapid succession, in front of the school, caused the women in the hall to scream. “Ay, ay, ay,” they wailed; Elena’s voice could be heard as she tried to comfort them. The parish priest, a little grey-haired mestizo, timidly entered the classroom and they were silent. He stood fumbling at his girdle, in great fear of Rodriguez, whose face had grown hard. “Out there with your friends,” he said grimly. “Go and set fire to the corn.” The priest did not move, but with trembling lips turned toward Montes.
“Get out of here,” the commissar shouted and Nacho pushed the resisting priest out into the hall.
“Stay with the women, nobody will hurt you, don’t try to come in here.”
Rodriguez began to dispose armed men about the building. In the front of the building there were three low windows and at each of these he placed one rifle; another, the most determined of the Reservists, he sent to keep guard by the water tank on the slope above the school. The rest of the male villagers, armed only with machetes and knives, were placed nearer the door, and around the walls. Nacho and Sebastian, who carried a .36 revolver, were placed at the hall window. “Everyone lie flat on the floor. Elena, keep them down whatever happens,” Nacho ordered. The dark forms lay down at once and were motionless, many were sobbing. More flames were springing up across the torrent bed; but these did not brightly illuminate the village, as had the burning straw barn, the flaming of which had first given the alarm. The sentry at the rear door ran in and shouted that fires had broken out on the high milpas behind the school. Nacho picked his way through the prostrate women to tell Rodriguez. “Make way, make way,” he urged, pushing their bodies with his feet. As he entered the classroom he heard Rodriguez ejaculate, “There 1” and at once the commissar fired; answering shots came from the road, within fifty yards of the school; the window was smashed by two bullets.
“They’re at the back as well,” Nacho whispered.
“I know, they’re all round the village . . . though most of them are out there where the fires are, across the torrent. There was a group of them down the path towards the bridge.”
“You can’t let them do it, Rodriguez, they’ll lay everything waste, man, let’s go out there!”
“We can’t, we can’t. We shall be lucky to keep them out of here.”
“They may not come.”
“They’ll try to burn the school.”
A single shot rang out in front of the school; the bullet embedded itself in the wall beside the window.
“It’s your white blouse!” Nacho said. “Get a rebozo or a shawl from one of the women!” The commissar crawled away and fumbled in the corner. Presently he returned with a dark-colored serape, the tuniclelike blanket of the Indian peasant, thrown over his shoulders.
Returning to his post on hands and knees, Nacho’s groping hand came into contact with a male body. He seized the arm firmly. “I’m Sebastian,” a voice murmured.
“Why aren’t you at the window?”
“I was talking to my wife, she’s here, on the floor.”
“Get back to the window.” A shot rang out on their right, but there was no answer.
A little later the straw barn, a thatched erection of poles raised from the ground, collapsed and the flames leaped up, and a canopy of sparks burst open and fell in a red rain. The light was sufficient for them to see a group of the enemy crouched low against a fence of organ-pipe cactus that bounded a garden. “Fire,” Rodriguez yelled, and the riflemen and the men armed with pistols opened fire on the group. Nacho saw two of them pitch forward, and a third attempting to rise swerved and crashed against the wall of an adobe hut. One only escaped, madly breaking his way through the organ-pipes. Nacho rushed to the door, and joined the tumbling men in the porchway.
“Now then, out and get their arms. Come with me, three or four of you.” Half a dozen of the machete bearers followed him out; no shots greeted them. There were fierce ejaculations in Nahua, as two men wrestled for a rifle. Another ran noiselessly to the adobe wall. They heard a quiet but terrible cry of pain and then the peasant returned, carrying a rifle, and a belt of ammunition, and a holster belt and pistol.
When Nacho returned to his post. Sebastian had gone, with his rifle; he at once questioned the women but it was several minutes before a girl’s voice answered, quite near to him, “He went out with you.” He recognized the voice.
“Is your eldest sister with you?”
“No, she is with the sefiora Elena. She was frightened.”
“Why wouldn’t she come with you?”
“My eldest sister, who is blind, never walks at night; she says there are people around her even when there is no one near her; my eldest sister would not come.” The soft tones and delicate intonations of the girl’s voice, her correct but clumsy Spanish, awakened Nacho’s affection and he said, “Where are you, child, give me your hand.” There was a movement and then the girl lightly touched his arm.
“I am here,” the voice said and then he felt the girl’s arms go round his shoulders. She laid her face by his and remained still, making not the slightest movement.
“You speak Spanish. Why did you not speak to me in the road?”
“I was frightened; the women . . . going by . . . I was frightened.”
It was not only the girl’s voice and her affection that moved him deeply. He still heard the girl’s sorrowful crying of the word, “Notehueltiuh,” amid the rush of terrified people. He felt again the terror she had caused in him when the burning corn had illuminated her, kneeling, eyes closed, and pleading beneath the banana fans. That had been a terror unlike any other he had known. It was not of pain, it was not of death, his own or of any of the villagers. He had seen in the girl a vision of loneliness, not the child’s loneliness, or his own, in which he now recognized that he lived, but of the dark affliction of man’s race. It seemed now, looking back on that moment, or staring at the illuminated locality of his mind in which the girl still cried “Notehueltiuh,” that the vision of the girl had stated the truth about man’s life; that it was loneliness and desolation, that it was the life of the weak and the hunted; that at any moment, out of the hostile darkness, horror and woe might strike, and that against it there was nothing man could oppose, save companionship in sorrow. He drew the girl closer to him now and she responded, and the sound of her breathing and of her minutest movements so deeply stirred him that it was pain to him. It was the girl’s pleading with closed eyes, into the blind night, that had shaken him; she had become a symbol of the mortal extremity of man’s distress,. And at this moment it was not an Indian child he was embracing, for the girl still had the significance he had given to her, embodied in her personality, so that he was almost in awe of holding her in his arms. And this was not intellectual perception, but an impression that endured throughout many moments, overpowering the ordinary habit of mind. And the word “Notehueltiuh,” even though he knew its unimportant meaning now, was still the word of uncomprehended appeal; it was the appeal of man cut off from man, in his need crying out, unheeded, because not understood. Then, suddenly, the girl was a breathing child, and not a symbol. She had begun to stroke his face, and to press against him. What remained of that experience was a sense of the infinite value of the girl’s being.
Across the torrent there was a shout, then a series of shouts, and after a silence, a masculine wail of pain. The wail of pain sank, curving like a terrible melody, and then rose to high notes that broke into a scream, often repeated. When it seemed that the man’s lungs could tear no more sound from his throat, the scream became more intense, bursting from him in gasps, as if the torture he was suffering departed and returned like a bird of prey. In the school hall the women began to lift themselves from the floor and to murmur, swaying upon their stiffening hands. The scream curved down to a wail again, and the wail began to subside, as a melody seeks its final note, rising now as the pain returned, its rhythm changing as dread came into the sufferer that the torture was to be applied again to its full extent, choking in the throat, breaking loose, and for a moment rising to a harsh scream of pain. At last the melody of pain sank to a moan, as near to silence as that insane singer of pain could achieve, before death would leave the quivering organs of utterance contracting and expanding in vain.
A woman among the villagers began to sob, and when suddenly the singer of pain thrust a harsh and even more terrible scream from his body, all the women began to lament, quietly at first, throwing up their arms and clutching one another in the darkness. Rodriguez came out and shouted to them roughly, and as they took no notice he cuffed two of them in the head, but as the screaming rose and fell across the torrent, they responded, ignoring his blows. Rodriguez came over to Nacho, and feeling for him, touched the girl’s head. She had now crouched down, pressing her face against his thigh, trembling in all her body, but not crying.
“Make a light,” Nacho said. “We must have a light,” and Rodriguez made his way to the switch.
“Ay,” gasped Nacho, as the light went on. Just such a scene had he painted years ago, on a house wall in the center of the city, in the days when the revolutionary painters were a vital force in the life of the country. Thousands of people had stopped suddenly before that Lamentation and gasped, “Ay.” These women were turning up their fear-contracted faces, wringing their hands as they had done in his mural. And though they were now grouped before the blank wall of the school instead of the cruel cactus forms of his Lamentation, their forms composed just as he had foreseen they would. Suddenly the living picture changed its character; a woman began to scream Nahua words, whereupon all the other women and Rodriguez shouted, “All,” and the commissar started forward. Even the girl lifted her head from his thigh to gaze at the woman who had shouted, from whom the other women drew away. Presently she leaped to her feet, and holding her head in both hands she ran wildly to the door, screaming, “Sebastian, Sebastian!”
Rodriguez returned and said, “That woman was his wife. She recognized his voice when he was being tortured and at last she cried out that he should not have brought them to the village. He was a traitor.” The wailing had stopped now, and the women were conversing excitedly.
“They must have killed him because of our resistance, they must have thought he betrayed them. They would think that. The man who escaped will have told them of the three we killed.”
Montes came out of the classroom. “Let us go out there,” he said, bitterly, but Rodriguez opposed the idea.
“There’s no need for us all to go out,” Nacho argued. “Montes and I will go out with two rifles; we ought to be able to pick off ones and twos; that may be sufficient to stop them.” He became excited and pleaded with the commissar. “There’s little danger for us and it would unnerve them, to be shot at out of the dark. Montes knows the fields and paths; they don’t. If they hunt us it won’t do them any good. They’ll be setting fire to the milpas and we ought to see them easily enough.”
Montes spoke again, eagerly, seeking to persuade Rodriguez to give them leave, Nacho noted.
“If they attack the school, we can pick them off from the Beehive Cliff,” he concluded.
“Esta bien,” Rodriguez said at last. “I shall stay here, at the same window.”
Nacho and the schoolmaster climbed a hundred feet up the mountain on which the thrush had sung, and gazed around. On that slope only a few red eyes of smoldering milpas stared at the valley floor, where in their large fields, flames were pressing through the dry maize stalks like runners through a crowd.
“The wind has fallen,” Montes muttered. “They’ll not do the damage they hoped. What is your plan?”
“I don’t suppose there’ll be any of them on this hill, the group we killed will be those who set fire to the milpas; they’re all near the village.” It was difficult to judge the exact distance of the red eyes, for the light wind caused them to glow and to fade as if the mountains were opening its lids, and this destroyed perspective. Nevertheless he remembered that only a few maize patches lay on this slope.
“Yes, those that are burning are all on the other side of the river.”
“Then they must be going to attack the school; they don’t want to fight among flames. We must go down to the torrent, they’ll be sure to come within range.”
Nacho followed the schoolmaster by intricate paths through cactus hedges and over terraced milpas until they came out upon the torrent bank. A few moments later flames sprang up across the ravine, and a figure was clearly visible, running past the thin palisade of maize stalks, carrying a torch. Nacho lifted his rifle but Montes, whose arm was trembling, pushed aside the barrel, and without speaking ran along the torrent bank. Nacho followed. Flames sprang up again, some fifty yards away and on a higher level.
“Ah,” exclaimed the schoolmaster quietly, and lowered his rifle, and as Nacho, catching sight of the incendiary, prepared to take aim, Montes again prevented him with an angry movement; yet he did not speak. Now they were able to follow the incendiary’s course by his torch, which wavered along the torrent rising bank and then halted. “Esta bien,” Montes whispered, as if the halting of the torch had confirmed an argument. Again the torch was carried into the maize, high above the cobs, and then suddenly it was thrust down among the dry leaves. Still Montes did not lift his rifle, and the torch was carried hurriedly back towards the middle jungle of flame, now steadily spreading towards the third and highest conflagration. As the light of the burning corn shone upon the incendiary, Montes lifted his rifle and fired. The enemy flung up his hands, hung a moment, and then his body pitched forward. For a moment, as the incendiary remained upon his feet, Nacho was reminded of the painted carvings of sinners in red purgatorial flames that were to be seen in the streets of Mexico upon the walls of churches.
“You didn’t kill him,” Nacho said. He heard Montes’ breath, quick and deep with passionate hate.
“You didn’t kill him,” he repeated.
“I aimed at his hip, the flames will kill him for me.” The man’s voice, grinding and harsh, made Nacho shudder; he understood that Montes had deliberately planned merely to wound the man, between two fires. A long smothered cry broke from the incendiary and Montes laughed.
“Kill, yes, man; but there’s no need for that,” Nacho said, his temper rising.
“No need? Hal You disapprove of torture!” Passion entangled Montes’ speech for a moment and then he burst into a wild harangue. “I mustn’t do such things, eh? But what are they doing to me? What have they done? It’s just another village to you, but this is something I made. The man who owned this place . . . he kept me in misery . . . he showed me how to inflict pain, because he hated me. Do you hear? He hated me because I tried to teach . . . and he picked me out of the crowd, and gave me the scissors and told me to use them on Najera; me! me! he chose, and there were half a dozen of his own drunken devils standing round, sick with the lusting cruelty in them, trembling and sweating to twist and pick at the nerves of Naj era’s body and he had me dragged out of the crowd and he told them to hold guns to me till I took the scissors. . . . And now I must shoot to kill, mercifully, eh? . . . That was the man you tell stories about, and you laughed when I told you more, and you say, ‘At least he was a man, one of the old time tyrants, with character,’ you said. That’s how it would seem to you, in the city, where there is nothing to do but plot and play politics and paint pictures of our suffering . . . and urge us on to revolution; and then you shrink back and hold up your hands when we inflict pain. And when I threw the scissors down . . . the blood on my hands made me sick, he asked Najera if he were a Catholic man and Najera . . . Najera . . . you’d be screaming mad if you suffered a half of what that man was suffering then, senor, but Najera said, ‘No, sefior,’ as if courtesy was all that he must put thought to . . . and I was made to watch him die, senor, and I mustn’t use cruelty upon them, senor, eh sefior?”
Nacho put his hand upon Montes’ shoulder, in sympathy, wishing to abandon the argument, trusting that when the schoolmaster’s passion had spent itself, he would assent to Nacho’s affirmation. But Montes shook off the hand.
“It’s a village to you . . . ha! And you have believed that idiotic lie about Don Atanasio, that he went back to his bed to await death. Well, senor, he didn’t, he stood on the balcony and he screamed and waved his arms like a woman, and a dozen bullets missed him and one broke his arm and he ran in through the window. . . .
“He showed me how to inflict pain, your senor of great character, because I gave care to the children of a man he had had thrashed to death. ‘Ah, gentle sir,’ he said when he gave me the scissors. . . .” The schoolmaster sat down, and then, exhausted, he put his head to the ground. He spoke with difficulty.
“He picked me out because he knew I hated cruelty . . . and I hate it, I hate it, companero . . . oh, I was mad, go back and kill him. . . .”
Nacho bent down and laid his arm over Montes’ back. “Brother,” he murmured, and the word brought with it memory of the word, “sister,” and he heard again the Indian girl, in desperate sorrow crying, “My eldest sister, Notehueltiuh,” and his arm tightened around the schoolmaster’s shoulders. It was as if the girl were pleading with him on behalf of this man, and Nacho, ashamed that the man’s accusation, contained in the words “another village,” was true, knew no way of expressing his suddenly awakened affection for Montes.
“It was my anger that made me disgrace myself,” Montes suddenly began. “I made this place. It is true, compafiero, it is true, I made it, with Rodriguez. If I had listened to him about the Reserve, and about that traitor. . . .”
A horse neighed on the opposite bank and they heard the hoofs of many animals.
“Quick,” Montes whispered, “there are rocks just along here.” They scrambled into position behind the rocks and the schoolmaster drew Nacho’s head towards him.
“The light will fall on them when they reach the rise in the path. They’ll have to turn back, like the other, there are steep rocks at the top of the long milpa.” “One . . . two . . . three. . . .” Nacho whispered as the figures were silhouetted against the red glimmer of the burnt-out maize. “Four . . . five. . . .”
“When they turn back, companero, you take the leading two; I’ll get the others.” The sweat broke out on Nacho’s face before the horsemen turned.
“Now,” Montes shouted and they fired. The leader dropped out of vision but Nacho’s second bullet appeared to have missed. A horse reared, and fell crashing into the ravine. Three times Montes fired, and then Nacho, getting a clear view of a man struggling to free himself from a fallen horse, fired again and the enemy lay still.
“Glory be to God, I have killed three,” exclaimed Montes, and Nacho heard, in his tone of wild triumph, the ferocity that he had thought had burned itself out. A sound of feeble effort came from among the boulders of the ravine and Montes crouched and moved from behind the rocks.
“Companero, for God’s sake,” Nacho exclaimed in anger, and the schoolmaster turned, breathing deeply. “Esta bien,” he said and leaned against the rock. The reek of smoke made Nacho cough, and a voice rang out on their side of the river.
“Ah, they were going to flank the school,” Montes exclaimed and dragged at Nacho’s coat. They heard the movement of men on their left, before they had crossed two fields.
“They’re on the path that goes below the Beehive Cliff. Come,” Montes whispered fiercely. Three minutes later they were panting on the steep and slippery incline that led to the grassy saddle behind the cliff.
“We shall see them as well as hear them,” the schoolmaster said. “See, the path, it is made of white stones.” Five minutes passed and then a black shadow crossed the path and disappeared. Montes put out a hand but Nacho had understood. Presently another figure crept up the path and disappeared from view beneath the cliff.
“Look,” Nacho whispered. A long blotch of shadow was slowly crawling up the path. A stone rattled. Montes laid his rifle on the ground before him and looked along its barrel. Nacho knelt upon one knee. The crawling shadow halted, and another shadow came into view, returning from below the cliff. The shadows began to move quietly towards the school. Both men fired together, but Montes fired three times before Nacho had closed his bolt behind the second cartridge. Then the scattered enemy opened fire from the wall at the side of the path. There was shouting below. The bullets flew wide, above them. Many must have smashed into the beehives that stood upon the lower ledge of the little cliff.
They rose to their feet and raced towards the school. Montes shouted in Nahua as they approached the water tank.
“What happened?” the startled sentry asked, but Montes pushed him towards the school door.
“Rodriguez,” he shouted, “they’re coming, the Beehive path.” Almost at that instant a body of the enemy opened fire from directly in front, ceasing abruptly. At the moment the defenders did likewise, a section of the enemy charged into the porch; the two machete bearers hiding behind the door attempted to flee, but could not enter the hall and were shot down. Montes ran stumbling through the panic-stricken women towards the door, Nacho left his window and joined him.
“Now then, 111 shoot any man who doesn’t follow me,” Montes shouted in Nahua. “Lend me your revolver,” he said to Nacho in Spanish, and breaking the glass pane of the swing door he fired into the vestibule.
“Now,” he yelled and flung open the inner door. Half a dozen followed him. Revolvers crashed, an Indian screamed; Nacho’s rifle strap became entangled in the door handle and was torn from his grasp. He stumbled in recovering it and a peasant collided with him and thrust him against a struggling body at the base of the wall. Nacho’s hands touched a leather jacket; the man’s legs were encased in tight trousers; he shouted an oath, and amid a wild brawl of yelling peasants, got a grip of the enemy’s hair and thrust his head violently against the wall. Montes began to shout that they must go inside. The enemy had fled and the outer door would not hold off bullets. A stream of bodies seemed to trample over Nacho, the women screamed, and rifles began to bang from the school windows. Rodriguez had seen the assault party flee and had thought, as had Montes, that the group in front would open fire. His volleys were not answered. Meanwhile Nacho struggled with the horseman, who appeared to have no weapon. Nacho began to call for help, and Montes dashing through the swing door flung himself down upon the struggling pair, receiving a blow in the face from Nacho’s knee, “Nacho, Nacho,” Montes yelled.
“Here,” he gasped. The enemy suddenly cried, “Ah,” and began to whimper.
“Inside,” Montes shouted and they scrambled through the swing door and rested on the floor for half a minute, after which the schoolmaster crept into the vestibule. He returned with two more rifles and a revolver. Then he ordered two peasants to go out and cut loose the enemies’ ammunition belts. There was a wounded villager in the vestibule, he added; it was the village marimba player. The bass guitar player at once went out to bring in the wounded man. Elena came over to say that a woman was also wounded by a bullet that had penetrated the swing door in the enemy’s final rush.
“Esta bien, clear a space, a corridor in front of the door,” Nacho said, “and make a place for the wounded. Elena, you look after thatl”
“Over there, by your window, Nacho,” Montes said. “We shan’t have to carry them across the room.”
In Rodriguez’s room a rifle spoke once but there was no answer from without. Light began to glow at the other end of the village; second by second it became brighter. “Ay, ay,” the women wailed, and the men cursed. For bandages Montes brought them embroidered clothes and rebozos which the school pupils had made.
Rodriguez came out and called for attention. “Listen, these are your orders. Keep those swing doors open. If they charge again and get into the vestibule, two of you will open fire. You’ll fire two shots each. Juanito, where are you?” “Present.”
“You’ll be one. Where’s Felipe?” “At the water tank, where you put him.” “Good. Is Miguelito here?” “Present.”
“Juanito, on the left; know which is your left? Miguelito, you will be on the right. You understand, if they get in you fire two shots each.
“Listen again. Four of you will stay on each side with your machetes. As soon as the two have fired you men with the machetes are to charge. I shall turn the lights on the moment Juan and Miguel have fired. Then you rush them. Pick out your man. If they run, don’t follow them; come straight back and take up your positions.”
By now the flames were brightly illuminating the road in front of the school, and Rodriguez, visibly disturbed, came over to Montes and Nacho, who were conversing by the window.
“They won’t rush again, with that light.”
As Montes protested, “We can’t let them burn the village,” the enemy opened fire and the schoolmaster collapsed, with a bullet in his shoulder. The enemy, profiting by the light, had aimed at the open windows. It was impossible, in the face of that volume of directed fire, to show themselves at their posts. Rodriguez dashed to the switch, and as Avellano ran, screaming in panic, from the classroom, the commissar swung his fist against the man and sprawled him among the women. The outer door was flung open and small arms, automatic pistols, Nacho judged by their speed of fire, poured a stream of bullets across the hall. It stopped abruptly as Juan and Miguelito retaliated.
“Now,” screamed Nacho, Rodriguez, and all the other men, and as the light went on, the machete men rushed madly at the enemy, of whom only three had held their ground in the vestibule. One of the villagers lay writhing on the floor beneath the trampling feet.
“Montes’ rifle,” Nacho yelled at Elena and frantically she held out the weapon, and grasped the revolver he thrust towards her. “Fire low, bless you, my girl,” he shouted, and half-closing his eyes and bunching his shoulders, flung himself into the window and worked the bolt and trigger frantically, aiming at the base of the organ-pipe cactus. Her head above the sill, Elena pulled the trigger of the Colt, her bullets flying to the right and left, and high and short, with the recoil of the heavy weapon.
“Down,” he yelled, as he loaded the weapon. There was a stampede of men, led by Rodriguez, to the rear door, where above the reports and the shouting they heard wild laughter. Again Juan and Miguelito fired into the vestibule, and this time, the machetes met unyielding fire, and in the darkness two went down before the others closed with the enemy.
“In after them,” Nacho ordered, rushing to the switch; as the light went on more villagers forced their way into the vestibule, holding the great blades low to hack with short, gouging strokes at the kneecaps of the enemy. No fire was coming through Nacho’s window, but he called Elena’s name and she scrambled to her knees and loosed the heavy bullets against the organ pipes. Snatching his rifle, he was thinking of climbing through the window when he heard the stamping of horses’ hoofs, and a great burst of shooting from the other end of the village.
“Hold it,” he shouted, pushing her aside, as she rested the revolver barrel on the sill. The machete men rushed in from the vestibule.
“Put out the light,” Nacho called repeatedly. A girl ran to the switch. A terrible wail came from the rear door and then Rodriguez was heard placing men according to the plan which had succeeded in the front vestibule. A woman called to Elena that there were two wounded men in the vestibule, and Elena got to her feet.
“Good girl,” Nacho said, and catching her by the shoulder pulled her towards him and said, passionately, “If we get through this, it’ll be all right, Elena.”
“Oh Nacho, Nacho,” she whispered and ran, already weeping, to the door. Montes dragged himself on his knees to the window and picked up the revolver, which she had dropped when Nacho had spoken to her. The trampling of horses’ hoofs suddenly became rhythmic.
“They’re coming, Montes,” he shouted as the schoolmaster sagged. Rifles crashed from the three windows, and Montes, resting his head against the sill, fired blindly as the horsemen dashed past. “They’re going, Christ, they’re going,” Nacho cried. As the next group of horsemen dashed by, bunched together and jostling for leadership, they both fired. A horse staggered through the organ pipes, bringing down half the rank which closed in the garden.
“Out, out,” Rodriguez was shouting. Now the villagers, maddened by victory, ran out into the road and knelt to fire at the cavalry charging through the swirling smoke. Indians went down before them, but two horses pitched headlong, and other villagers pounced upon the riders, screaming, their machetes lifted above their heads. The school lights went on and Nacho flung himself back against the wall as a horse reared over him. A villager, holding his machete in both hands, ran headlong, eyes shut, at the animal’s belly. As the horseman leaned over to shoot at the frenzied man, Nacho pulled his rifle trigger, without aim, and the enemy toppled over upon the villager. The horse, its hind hoofs lashing, staggered sideways and knocked down another Indian. More cavalry arrived and swerved off the street through the gap, blundering against lacerating maguey hedges and adobe walls towards the smoldering cornfields, about which rifles and shotguns at once began to crack.
Rodriguez, weeping, had flung off his serape the better to swing a machete, and now he came panting through the dense smoke, his white blouse dabbed with blood. “Nacho, get the men in from the Beehive path. . . . We’ve cornered them down there in the church garden.” “What happened?”
“Xagaytepec has sent its Reservists, the Naopa men are down by the bridge, waiting. They saw the fires. Tlahuil-tepa is coming, they say, and Ixtlatlan.”
Nacho dashed to the Beehive path, where the commissar had posted two riflemen to pick off the fleeing horsemen. A bullet whizzed by and he stopped and shouted to them. “El pintor, soy el pintor. . . . I’m the painter, come down.” As he ran back to the square he saw Elena standing outside the school, over the assistant schoolmaster, whom she was trying to coax into the hall.
She waved to him and he flung up his hand in salute, his heart swelling with happiness. “Oh Elena, Elena,” he cried to himself as he ran, through the smoke. “Beautiful woman, Indian woman, oh beautiful Elena.” His eyes wet with tears, he leaped to Rodriguez’s aid, and as a horseman wheeled upon him out of the lane where the girl had pleaded with closed eyes, Rodriguez flung himself down behind a broken adobe wall, and an Indian horseman, in white tunic, ran at the enemy and brought his machete down first through the man’s bicep and then back at his neck, breaking through the brittle maize-stalk of his nape.
The killing of Rodriguez’s assailant in the square was the end of the fighting; about the fields rifles and pistols banged, and shouting men ran, leaping from terrace to terrace, stamping up a red wake through burned-out milpas. Presently Rodriguez, returning to the school, found Montes upon his knees in the road, among wounded and lashing horses, one hand upon the ground, still clutching the empty revolver.
He called for women to aid Montes, and seizing the schoolmaster’s whistle, blew long and steadily for the villagers to return.
Early the following morning, as Nacho was going to the school, he was approached by Avellano, who rose from the broken abode wall in the square with nervous decision.
“I want to talk to you, Nacho,” he said, with fear and hope in his face.
During the night, as they had sat in Montes’ house, listening to the old man’s muttering, Elena had told him how the assistant schoolmaster had come to leave the school at the very end of the fighting and why she had coaxed him to return. Avellano had suddenly announced, with harsh but trembling voice, that he was going out to fight. She had tried to dissuade him, saying that not every man, not every revolutionary was built for combat, that there were other ways of serving, and that he had other gifts to place at the disposal of the ejido. Avellano had listened impatiently, believing her, and indeed knowing that she was right, yet aware that had it not been so she would have said the same. He had rushed with empty hands into the road, and had looked around him for a moment in the beam of the hall lights, and then he had stooped to take a machete from beside a dead villager. He had lifted the machete, and had flinched at the sight of the huge blade. Then he had stared at the body, and begun to sob hysterically. It was the blade, not the dead villager, which had first unnerved Avellano.
“Come with me,” Nacho said and took the young man by the arm and to give the conversation reality, he added, “If I were you I should ask to be transferred to a city school.” Avellano exclaimed at this, but Nacho hastened to say, “I don’t mean Mexico City; there are plenty of provincial towns where good teachers are wanted.”
“If I were sure of being a good teacher,”
“But you are sure. Now listen, no postures, compafiero, tell me the truth, you are a good teacher, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Momentarily Nacho was about to say, “Why did you say you were not sure,” but he checked himself.
“I haven’t the gift of persuasion, I’m afraid. I know I’m right, I know my methods are the best. You see, they’re not my methods, I have studied the European ways of teaching and my professor and I have adapted them to our problems. They work; you have only to examine the work the children have done under me. It’s not only in the arts, in drawing and painting, because almost any child can produce beautiful paintings if you leave it alone.”
“So, painting’s a childish pursuit!” Nacho laughed, and this was indeed his own opinion. To him painting and the contemplation of painting was a fiery passion, at such times as he needed it, for Nacho often spent six months away from his materials, eventually to return to them with a vehemence approaching fury. His need of art was all-consuming or non-existent, and at this time he knew that the need of expression was about to spring upon him again. It was, he thought, something like a sharp-clawed animal that leaped upon you and somehow dissolved into your being.
“I did not say that; but I have noticed that most children make delightful pictures if you don’t interfere,” Avellano said.
“And then the power leaves them as they grow up.”
“Yes, that’s true.” Avellano was interested in the discussion now and nervousness had left him. “I’ve never had a chance to test that in a village, however, where the children’s taste is not corrupted by the things they see around them.”
“They’d lose the power just the same,” Nacho said.
“Why should they? Some people keep it, the painters, for instance; you are a painter. . . .”
“Ah! You and I like children’s drawings because we’ve been trained to like them, by the modern movement in painting, But the child is not seeking to be a child, as many painters are; and so he tries to improve his painting, as he says, and that means, to make it more ‘real.’ He tries for better perspective, greater photographic likeness, and he spoils his painting for us. It’s the same with all art, the history of painting. . . .” “Then, you think. . .
“I think Raphael is immeasurably finer, immeasurably more admirable than Giotto. But there’s something in me that makes me want to clap my hands and run around like a dog or a child and kiss people when I look at a Giotto. It’s different . . . I am a child, I suppose, so I like such paintings.”
“A very extraordinary child i” Avellano was thinking of the Lamentation, which he had seen in photographs only, of writhing women seated before the magueys. A child fascinated by pain, and full of pity!
“Ah . . . people say about me that it is politics that take me away from painting . . . as they say it of our revolutionary writers . . . but it isn’t true. The Giotto child in me is overawed by the philosopher Raphael. I get fits of longing to be able to paint in that cold architectural manner, to be serene, to float above my emotions like that peak above this damned smoke. For that painting is truly great. Sometimes I look at my paintings and they are crude, not simple; they’re childish, not childlike . . . and I am ashamed. My doubt spreads inside me and I am dismayed by everything, I get bored with the revolution, because I lose my belief in it. I say to myself, ‘Ha! the revolutionary view of life is a child’s view, it is like my painting,’ and so I drink for awhile. Then I do worse, the worst of all possible shames; I say to myself, ‘Oh well, I’ve got to get a living, so I’ll make rubbishy watercolors and ridiculous portraits for American tourists, like Diego Rivera does nowadays’ ; oh yes, I made such a watercolor once, but it made me angry and then it made me laugh; companero, how I laughed, I laughed myself back into good sense and began painting again. . .
“The Giotto boy began painting?”
“Yes . . . I ran around like a dog, wanting to kiss people.” He paused, remembering that he had dashed out to the ejido where Elena was working and had insisted that they set up house together again. He had painted well; but the thrill and the warmth that the memory of that past reconciliation gave him, he noted, was greater than that created by the impulsive coming together of the preceding night. A minute, but inescapable pain of dismay pricked him. A moment later he saw that in that now-remembered reconciliation, when he had dragged Elena in from the ejido, he had been egotistical and selfish and he condemned himself for it, and was filled with lively shame. Then dismay at the pre-cariousness of their coming-together reentered him, and mingled with his shame. “I must be good to her,” he thought, and he longed to do some tender thing for Elena. She would accept it, with curious pleasure, being persuaded by her love into half-believing it, though he knew that she thought his tenderness was simulated. All, she did not know by what route of experience, of emotion, he arrived at an act of tenderness. . . . She did not know in what manner he loved her. The thought arrived in his mind with precisely that clarity.
“Did Giotto run about like a dog or kiss people?” Avellano was saying.
“No, no,” Nacho answered rapidly, searching about for his thought. “No, no, but I’m sure that when the joy of painting came into him he flung himself down and prayed for people. They were remarkable prayers, I expect. ‘O Lord, look at that perfectly lovely donkey and Our Lady’s blue robe and bless 0 dear Lord the little girl who just brought this splendid bowl of salad and never let her cry at night for fear. . . .’ Ah,” he exclaimed to himself, seeing the image of a girl kneeling beneath the banana palm. He must paint Notehueltiuh soon, by the Lord God, he must paint that picture. . . . The darkness of the night and the tawny flames came over his imagination and the earth forms at the back of the terrible night menaced him, like beasts, like mythological terrors. The girl’s face was beautiful, beautiful, in desperate sorrow, and with her head upon one side in a dark night-blue rebozo and her hands held out. . . . She would plead, not only for her eldest sister, but for her people. . . .
“Whereas you believe in the revolution again, eh Nacho?”
“The same thing, compafiero. It’s the innocent way, the believing way.”
“You make me wish I could stay in Quetzaltotomatlatlan, Nacho.”
“Ah, so you have decided to go! Why did you ask my advice then?”
Avellano hesitated long; several times he opened his mouth to speak but was silent.
“I feel I could never persuade Montes . . . and he’s a grand fellow. He has a right to this place, it seems, for he built the school.”
“No man must try to own a revolution,” Nacho said with a little anger, but unaccountably he remembered Elena’s face, and then there came the memory of the time when he had forced her to abandon the ejido. He shook off the memory with exasperation, she was obsessing him at this moment.
“And we have been talking about painting,” Avellano muttered, staring ahead. They were at the top of a bank of earth, and between the huge maguey cactus they saw Rodriguez standing over a dead man, beside whom a woman was crouched.
“We’ve been talking about painting,” Avellano repeated, sneering at himself and Nacho.
“Yes, we’ve been talking about painting. And I am going to paint,” Nacho answered with angry affirmation. “Why shouldn’t we talk and paint with death around us? Tell me! Why should we be idle when torment is done?” Avellano stared at his flaming anger, in astonishment, and shrugged his shoulders.
“This is going into me, cleansing me, yes, twisting and screwing up my soul like this.” The bones and sinews stood out on the back of Nacho’s hand and he spoke as if forcing the words from himself. “It’s pain, pain like fire, like the fires and the agony of the men who died last night, and it knifes into me! The pain is a press that squeezes . . . like remorse for an evil thing done . . . squeezes all the pus out of my rotten soul and I’m going to paint. . . . I swear it . . . it burns here,” Nacho beat his temple with his hand. “This suffering has cleansed me, I say, and I have vision, vision, do you understand?”
Avellano stood back as Nacho’s massive body became tense, as if a barely controlled anger felled him.
Suddenly Nacho turned and plunged between the fierce brown spines of the maguey.
The woman beside the body did not look up, but her eyes were not upon the corpse; nor was Rodriguez gazing at it, and Avellano, catching sight of it, gasped and ran back up the slope, tearing the backs of his hands upon the thorns.
Before them was the body of Sebastian; the woman was his wife. Over all his bared torso was a dull red cross of naked flesh. The knife of the flayer had incised the flesh deeply in drawing the terrible symbol upon the living traitor’s breast; the skin had been torn away cleanly. Nacho’s mind contracted violently, holding his gaze upon Sebastian’s body, though he struggled to close his eyes and turn away. The woman rose and made the sign of the cross upon her breast and wept silently. Presently two Indians with an old woman came over the bank, leading a mule. One of the villagers threw a cloth over the cross. The old woman took the rosary from the widow’s hands and laid its black crucifix upon the body. The villagers lifted the body onto the mule’s back and the crucifix fell to the ground.
“No, no,” wailed the dead man’s wife and Rodriguez sighed and turned away.
“Where shall we bury him?” he suddenly asked Nacho.
“The men will not let him be buried in the church cemetery among their dead, nor anywhere in the village.”
“Where are you burying the enemy dead?”
“They won’t give them burial . . . we are throwing them over the cliff, yonder. . . .” Nacho imagined the stiff bodies, taken by their clothing, and hurled out into the enormous abyss of the gorge.
“That will be clean,” he murmured, and glancing in the direction Rodriguez had pointed he saw the vultures wheeling above the cliff top.
“What shall I do?” Rodriguez asked again. “The men will not have him among their dead and they are only preparing six places.”
The widow, clasping her face in her hands, spoke to Rodriguez in Nahua.
“She demands Christian burial for him, in ground blessed by the church.”
Nacho shrank from the problem. The woman’s face, weary with watching beside the terrible cross, was turned upon him, with no expression of pleading. Everything had been torn from her, he saw, and there was nothing more in life she desired than this safe burial for her husband.
“Give her a mule, and money for the priest’s fee, and for a coffin, and let her take the body to another village for burial,” Nacho said at last and Rodriguez sighed with relief and addressed the woman in Nahua. She spoke only two words in reply and he understood before Rodriguez said, “She is content.”
Rodriguez and Nacho walked side by side towards the bridge, which the enemy had damaged. It was while they were discussing what repairs were needed that Nacho saw the horses.
“Look, they will be the mounts of the men killed last night.”
“Enemy horses,” Rodriguez said and called to a group of villagers. “Get your animals and let’s see if you can catch those beasts.”
The commissar returned to the village, but Nacho remained at the bridge, and for more than half an hour he watched the peasants vainly try to round up the horses. They began by riding to the edge of the pine groves which ran in a long ribbon from the wood below Naopa almost to the edge of the cliffs. Thence the villagers descended in a crescent formation towards the torrent ravine. Twice they stampeded the horses, and the light brown animals, young and glossy-skinned, galloped down to the ravine, and finding the steep escarpment of the torrent bank before them, reared up and whinnied, turned and fell lightly upon their fore hoofs and galloped through the crescent with ease. They were beautiful creatures, they glistened in the morning sun, and they would not be caught. The third time the villagers attempted that maneuver the young horses wheeled and slipped through the semicircle, with lazy, unhurrying grace, as if contemptuous of the trick. They trotted into the strip of forest, and whinnying, galloped away to the edge of the cliff, where they stood, gazing out over the canyon.
Nacho returned towards the village, and learning that a doctor had arrived, hurried towards the school, to which most of the wounded had been brought under Elena’s care. A brawl, it seemed, was proceeding in the garden behind the fallen organ pipes, and he strode through. An Indian was swinging an axe in wide and dangerous curves, mouthing unintelligibly in Nahua mixed with Spanish. His wife and children stood by at a safe distance, unprotesting. Pulque, thought Nacho, seeing the drunken animal expression on the Indian’s face. The Indian, staggering, aimed a circular blow at the door post of his hut. The heavy steel smashed through two of the lighter poles to the side of the door post.
“What is the matter, Senora?” Nacho demanded.
“He is breaking the house,” the woman answered in a monotone of resignation.
“As I see. Why?”
“The garden, it is trodden upon and destroyed.”
Last night’s fighting had trampled down the Indian’s garden, Nacho saw; on this side of the organ pipes the ground had been dug out to a lower level than the road, and the marauders had used the depression as a shelter against the defenders’ fire. Two of the enemy had been killed there.
“He has drunk pulque and he says all this world is profitless and a valley of tears.”
“So he will destroy the house accordingly,” Nacho muttered, watching the axe head.
“It is the pulque in him.” The woman sighed and gathered her two youngest children against her skirt. As the axe head rested upon the ground Nacho ran at the Indian, and leaping, brought his right foot down upon the shaft, breaking it from the man’s grasp. Going behind the Indian he put his arm around his neck and pulled him upon his back. “Fetch Tomas, he’s outside the school,” Nacho said to the wife and she sighed again and obeyed. Between them they bound the Indian’s hands behind his back. He did not resist, and did not even struggle when they carried him into the shade of a banana palm and passed the rope around its base. Sweating, eyes closed, he lay upon his back and mouthed at the sky.
“You will have your house, sefiora,” Nacho said. “Watch over him, he will come to no harm.” She did not reply but slowly brought a stool from the house and sat down with her children near her husband.
Nacho found his wife in the school hall, in which she had organized a hospital. The doctor, a young man and regional vice-chairman of the Party of the Mexican Revolution, was working in the classroom.
“How is Montes, did you have him brought up here?”
“No, he is weak from loss of blood. The fever has gone down. The doctor thinks he will soon be well; he may need a transfusion. How do you find the villagers, Nacho?” She looked into his face, her own glowing with her new love for him. Knowing its precariousness he could not bear the sight of her happiness, and turned his eyes away.
“They are no worse than I expected; we must get them together after the requiem Mass and get them to plan new works.”
“And you, Nacho, oh Nacho,” she pressed against him, resting her forehead upon his upper arm. He was near to crying, yet he caressed her breast and kissed her upon the forehead.
“I am going to paint; better than I’ve ever painted in my life, Indian woman.” She made no remark, but stood utterly still beside him, her head rested against him. He knew what she was thinking, that he would need her less in his awakened creative mood, and he understood that this hurt her, though she would not confess it. It angered him that she should be hurt, and he stood erect and unsympathetic for a full minute, Then, he took a lock of her hair and pushed it behind her ear and she smiled sadly, and turned that side of her head towards him.
“No, now you are thinking wrong, querida,” he murmured, and she gazed at him in astonishment.
“What was I thinking?” she asked. She had been thinking that this was only a pretense of tenderness, though it was a tender pretense. He was irritated at her refusal to confess, and dismayed too. He had thought, during the fight, that their participation in that experience would surely unite them, and sweep away all the obstacles, sharp-edged as a cactus hedge, which lay between them. Now he perceived with sorrow that not even so vital a thing as the confronted peril of death could unite them. Yet this brought no cynicism with it, nor despair, and from this he agreed with himself to extract some comfort. He had been swept by joyful passion during the last stages of the fight, and had seen clearly that there could be no other woman for him. She was beautiful, her body was filled with warm, throbbing life, she was brave and very tender, and though he held unshakably the secret masculine belief that all problems in marriage come about because the man tires of the woman, he knew that he would never find another like her. Looking down at her black hair, and running his fingers along its parting, he knew that if he took another woman he would tire of her in a few weeks, as he had always done. What then? Live alone? Impossible. Then go from woman to woman? He did not even consider it.
Avellano came to the classroom door and called Elena to assist him in aiding the doctor. “I am going to stay, Nacho,” he said. “I was afraid.” Nacho held her a moment and kissed her mouth and her sudden contentment set him at rest. Surprised at Avellano’s presence he entered the operating room and found the young teacher holding a villager’s arm across the master’s table, while the doctor probed.
Nacho sought out Rodriguez and found him in his hut, laboriously trying to calculate how much maize would be left to them. Other figures in the book before the commissar were in Montes’ hand.
“It would be good to get the school going as soon as possible,” Nacho said and Rodriguez nodded.
“I’m going to tell Avellano to take them in the square this afternoon. I shall go to the capital for another teacher, to help Avellano.”
“I will do that for you, I’m leaving as soon as possible, to see if I can get a loan for you. But hadn’t you better talk school affairs over with Montes? This about a new teacher, I mean.”
“Montes! I’ve listened to Montes long enough,” the commissar exclaimed.
“But Montes will be well in a month. You know what he is like, he’ll be teaching in a few weeks, and he is still the headmaster.”
“For the future. . . .” began Rodriguez and his eyes narrowed.
“You cannot be thinking of making Avellano the headmaster.”
Rodriguez was silent; and Nacho saw that the old problem of the village still existed.
“You cannot do it. Besides, appointment is made by the ministry. I know Avellano is a better teacher. . . .”
“I know nothing about that.”
“Then you ought,” Nacho answered sharply. Rodriguez looked up, in surprise, and in hurt, also.
“Forgive me; now listen, Enrique.” It was the first time he had used the commissar’s given name. The man put out his hand and Nacho took it. “No man must try to possess the revolution,” he continued. “Do you see what I mean? Montes was wrong about the Reserve and about Sebastidn.”
“I knew he was no good, I thought he was planning something, though I didn’t know what. That’s why he wanted you out of the village.”
“One man doesn’t make all that difference in a fight.”
“They didn’t mean to fight. They were going to burn the milpas and the school, but they thought you’d start a fight, or perhaps go back to the city and bring out soldiers. He must have told them you were in the village and they sent him back to get you out. They think we are all stupid, but it is they who are stupid.”
The ridiculous maneuver no doubt had its origin in the reactionaries’ contempt for the Indian, Nacho agreed.
“Then we shall talk about the school with Montes and Avellano?” he asked.
“Yes.” Rodriguez’s assent was still only a grudging one.
“You must plan to make more fields. There’s room on the valley floor, as well as the hillsides,” Nacho said, believing that there the commissar would find outlet for his ambition. Until a Mexican party were built, the revolution would have to rely upon such as Montes and Rodriguez.
“We have no money to buy tools. It might be good if you could get that loan,” Rodriguez said. Nacho saw that the commissar’s will had been weakened. “We made fifty more fields with our loan and we repaid nearly all of it.” Nacho nodded. The problem of Quetzaltotomatlatlan was that of all Mexico.
A score of children went by, carrying armfuls of flowers and green leaves to decorate the school hall and comfort the wounded. “If only the sefiora Elena could stay with us,” Rodriguez said, sadly.
“She can return, Enrique, often.”
“Our women know nothing, and care about nothing, not one of them.” Rodriguez spoke bitterly, after which he continued. “At Ixtlatlan there’s a barranco that floods the mil-pas every year. It’s done so for eight years running; they could turn the water aside with one winter’s work, but they won’t. We worked four winters on our school and all the Sundays of four years. The Ixtlatlan women say that the floods are God’s punishment for killing Don Atanasio and taking his land. Our women aren’t much better. The sefiora Elena’s going to bring two sewing machines, though.” For a moment bright hope came into the commissar’s face. Nacho was filled with affection for the mestizo and gazed at his broad, almost stupid face and matted hair, searching in vain for an exterior sign of his quality.
“Ixtlatlan needs a Rodriguez, or a Montes,” Nacho said, and his sincere admiration was mixed with pleasure that the commissar had recognized Elena’s worth.
It was not until the following day that Nacho was permitted to talk with Montes, and then the old man was more anxious to explain his deliberate wounding of the counterrevolutionary between the encroaching fires.
“Believe me, compafiero, I understand; it is nothing,” Nacho protested, but Montes, his grey face showing his condition, pressed explanation upon him. “I suppose I have never stopped hating Don Atanasio. . . . Oh, I’m not ashamed to hate, I hate him now when I think of Najera. But he is dead, and I saw that enemy burning our maize and I took my revenge on him, for what Don Atanasio did . . . the scissors. . . . It was cruelty, and I’ve always hated cruelty.”
Go straight to the point, Nacho thought, and he held up his hand.
“Esta bien. It was wrong,” he said, but Montes broke in, “I was like a serpent, I wanted to strike at him. The rifle was part of me, part of my body and mind.” Montes lay still, an expression of loathing on his face. Nacho decided he would advise the schoolmaster to balance his wrongdoing with a new merit.
“You have made the village what it is, with Rodriguez’s help, now improve it with him.” Ah, he would impose on Montes as his penance . . . the duty of teaching better. Nacho was in fact thinking of the church’s sacrament of penance. He was led into reverie, of his boyhood, when he had gone to the confessional, passing below the stone carving of sinners being cleansed of the stain of sin in the red fires of purgatory, waving their arms in supplication to the passers-by. “If ye have pity on our woe, pray that we be released, 0 Christian folk,” the letters beneath the carving had spelled. For weeks, for months, he had regularly prayed for the roasting sinners, suddenly to forget them. Then, his conscience touched, he would think of them again, adding some special impetration of his own on their behalf. He had brought flowers to church and held up the bunch before the Virgin, in a rite of tenderness, not so much for all the holy and anonymous dead as for the naked man and woman holding their arms out of the red flames on the wall. One day two Indian children had stopped and prayed by his side and he had spoken to them. . . . Another day he had looked down from the nursery of his home on the enclosed waste plot, heaped with refuse, broken adobe, and glass, that lay behind their great house. Three Indian children were silently tripping round and round, one behind the other, playing with a solemn and silent happiness. Always lonely as long as his mother was alive, for she was a beata and half-crazed with duties and devotions to the Sacred Heart, he had gone downstairs and climbed over the wall into the waste plot, dread region of rats and crawling things. The three children had stopped and stared at him with wide brown eyes, silently. The smallest had crept up to his sister and held her torn and filthy dress in her hand. They had crept away into their miserable jacal, a hovel of maguey leaves, discarded adobe bricks, and beaten-out cans. He had been unable to climb back over the wall and had gone to the jacal, and the three children were standing in its gloom, staring at him, and he had held out his hands to them, and they had not responded. The word “Notehueltiuh” sounded in his imagination, and it had not lost its strange power. Ah, that there should be barriers between men! That pride or false consideration of manners and customs should prevent contact of man with man!
“You have made this place, now make it better,” he said, taking Montes’ hand.
“As you say.”
“In any case, you were disobeying your own party in keeping the men out of the Reserve.”
“I know . . . well . . . shall I be expelled, Nacho?” Montes asked, mournfully.
“Not if I can help it! Of course not, man. Then Rodriguez and Avellano . . . the four of us, we shall talk together about the work here?”
“And the sefiora Elena,” Montes said, and it seemed to Nacho there was sudden hostility in his voice.
“You will talk with Avellano soon, compafiero?”
“Esta bien.” The reply, shortly uttered, told Nacho that when he had recovered, Montes’ old pride would once more assert itself. It would not be soon that the animosity would be forgotten. Nevertheless, Avellano must have weighed all this before deciding to stay, and in that there was hope. Nacho, still annoyed at his ready acceptance of the literary tradition concerning Don Atanasio, debated with himself before asking Montes the truth about Ndjera.
“There’s one thing I’ve wanted to ask you. It seems we have our false traditions also. Did Najera really answer, ‘No, sefior,’ in a courteous fashion when he was being tortured?”
“No! Not false! He didn’t say ‘No sefior’; he just stared straight at Don Atanasio, and that tyrant did say what I told you.”
“Keep calm, companero, I meant no harm by my question.”
“Don Atanasio did say, ‘So this has virtue in it.’ Man, I was there, there, he made me take. . . .”
“All right, please be quiet, you’ll get me into trouble with the doctor.”
A step sounded on the stone flag outside the porch. Elena entered, and seeing the old man’s pleasure, Nacho went out into the fields to talk with the villagers. They must propose to their leaders that more fields be made, and new gardens. It would be difficult, he knew, as he regarded their dispirited faces and listless movements. The burning of the corn, more than the killing of six of them, had deprived them of courage, and they were once more a submissive and broken race. Ah, that was the work of Don Atanasio’s lash, and his pulque, his fiestas, and his geniality. The old man still rode these fields as some of the villagers said. But he would not ride them down. Nacho determined to return, with Elena; the five of them would reanimate Quetzaltotomatlatlan.
Two days later Nacho and Elena began their return to the city; Elena was to persuade two sewing machines out of one department or another and he determined to approach Cardenas himself for another loan to the ejido. He would pour out a flood of vehement words, and Cardenas would listen, and he would not know from an exterior sign on that dignified, half-Indian face whether his words had had effect.
How well Nacho remembered his last visit to the President. He had gone through the narrow door from the office and down the steps and Cardenas had been waiting under a tree fifty yards away, and he had had to walk into that searching and enigmatic gaze, trying to keep his composure through sixty paces. “Let us go and see the village,” Cardenas had said when Nacho stopped speaking. The dam he had demanded had been built.
Preparing his appeal, he was quiet for a long time, until Elena asked him about his sortie with Montes on the night of the burning of the corn. She was seeking to reawaken in him the emotions he had experienced that night, he knew, and was saddened. By and by, when they came to a ravine through which water was flowing, he turned aside from the path.
“I am going to bathe,” he said, entering the ravine, and she followed him to a pool where smooth, fluted slabs slid gently into the water. A group of piral trees stood upon a tiny promontory. Steep yellow banks rose from the far side of the pool, drawing the sharp profile of their crest against the intense blue sky. He stripped and waded into the water, going a little way up stream. Presently he heard a little cry, and looking back he saw that in wading over a slab Elena had cut her foot. When she lifted her head she was standing in that pose he most delighted to see her adopt, with one knee thrust a little forward and her arms hanging straight by her side. Standing thus her dignity was unapproachable and her body’s loveliness serene and cold. Yet she was crying, he saw. Suddenly the emotion surged in him and he dashed through the shallow water to her.
“Elenita, Elenita,” he cried and she came within his arms, and in a little while her own desire awakened.
“Nacho, let us make a child,” she whispered.
Rapidly he felt the passion go out of him and he let his arms fall and drew away, sick at heart. Silently she took her clothes into the piral clump.
Horses’ hoofs thudded upon the bank top and looking up he saw white-bloused Indians of the village riding along its crest, sharply presented against the sky. Two of them were riding young horses of glistening chestnut color; they were the captured mounts of the milpa-burners. Seeing him seated on the slabs below they drew rein and called to him, “Nacho! Nacho!”
“My senora is bathing, compafteros,” he replied.
“Ah, forgive us,” they said, and throwing up their hands in salute, rode away.
Now, as they strode quickly without spirit over the dazzling cactus lands and the thin-soiled fields of the plateau, they could neither evade nor comfort one another with mere tenderness. Hour after hour he grew more and more embittered against Elena who would not let him go; until at last, when they were within sight of the high road and passing beside a milpa, he turned upon her and shouted, “Hurry, woman,” and was at once repentant.
“Sit down, child,” he said and when she did so he drew her head against his legs. There was nothing he could say; so it would go on, year after year . . . until they were . . . no, they could never separate, he knew. Made desperately nervous by his own silence he said, “That must be Ixtlatlan over there,” and she answered as if taking a cue, “Then Quetzaltotomatlatlan must be down there.”
“Ah no, over there.”
“No, that way, Nacho,” and they were quiet, staring into the shimmering light across the red brown cactus desert. The wind of the great highland rustled the dry maize leaves.
“What does Ixtlatlan mean, Indian woman?”
“It means the white place, Nacho.” The white place, and Quetzaltotomatlatlan means the place where they spread the nets to catch the sacred bird.
He stooped over her, trembling a little. “What is it, querida?” “You don’t have to love me very much. . . .” “But . . . I do, India.” “Only be a little kinder, Nacho.” “Yes.” He began to put a lock of hair behind her ear and she turned that side of her head towards him. “Try, Nacho.”
“I’ll try, I’ll try, you know I will,” he burst out and threw his arms around her. “Indian woman,” he murmured. “Beautiful Elena, you’ll try also,” and she nodded and burst into tears.
“The bus is coming, or a truck,” he exclaimed, releasing her.
“It’s the bus, listen to the way it rattles.”
“Viva Mexico,” he laughed, and lifted her to her feet.
Afterwards, as they went rattling down the highroad towards the far-off city and voices chattered busily or cheerfully around them, and villagers called loudly in salute, or in farewell, it seemed impossible that Quetzaltotomatlatlan existed. But there was a new content in Elena’s face, Nacho saw; and he grasped her hand.
“Will you get two machines, do you think,” he shouted as the bus rattled over a sidetrack.
“I must, Nacho. You ask for one, and I’ll ask for another, eh?”