La Noche Triste
is a Latino author of speculative fiction living and working in Southern California. When not writing, he enjoys cooking, hiking, playing video games and watching movies. You can find his previous works in Brave New Girls, HyphenPunk Magazine and Alebrijes Review. Check out his Twitter. @J_R_Rustrian
Chimalli’s heart pumped as fear gripped him like an anaconda’s embrace. The last patrol nearly spotted him and was saved by jumping into a tiny alcove nestled underneath a destroyed house. The streets were dangerous, choked full of smoke, embers, and the rumbling moans of a dying god. Chimalli struggled to hear the lament in the din of wanton looting and pillaging. He rubbed his eyes, desperate to keep the soot and tears at bay. The cobblestones in the streets churned up sharp rocks, cutting his feet the entire trip from his house. He calmed himself and listened to the moans. They were close, but in this nightmare, they might as well be miles away.
It had been only a few hours since the invaders from across the sea ravaged their way into Tenochtitlan, the jewel of the Aztec Empire, spearheaded by those tribes long oppressed by the ruling Mexica tribe. Inside the city, they encountered the battered, weak, and frail remnants of the city garrison, using pieces of rubble, smashed carts, and even dead bodies as makeshift barricades, protecting what precious little remained of the civilian population. So many had perished in the siege, the marauding intruders were hard-pressed to find a person who didn’t know a family member dead from hot lead or razor-sharp obsidian. Those still alive sat idle, too weak to move, or they lay face down afflicted by horrifying diseases that spared none, even the children.
None of this deterred the invaders, as they turned the grand plazas and palaces of the city into hunting grounds, killing without regret or remorse. The great stone temples, no stranger to blood and gore, wept bitterly at the brutality as they were overtaken by fire and ravaged by cannonballs. The great market of Tlatelolco, a place of trade, commerce, and bliss, which held up to over forty thousand loyal subjects, morphed into killing fields by bloodthirsty Tlaxcalans eager for revenge on their overlords. Majestic canals, once critical arteries which crisscrossed Tenochtitlan, turned into red streams of death as they were overflowed with the bodies of the slain.
The invaders, stoic but bloodthirsty, patrolled casually through the scorched houses and palaces, taking anything deemed treasure and stuffing every single crevice their pale, sickly bodies could hold with loot. Behind them, Tlaxcalans, dressed in feathers and skins, long since oppressed by the Mexica, killed anybody who would even have the stench of the ruling tribe on their person.
Chimalli kept a silent vigil on these crazed invaders from the safety of the shadows. They were tall, white as the moon, with brown, dirty beards smeared across their faces. Their bodies were adorned in gleaming armor and frilly red cloth with some looking majestic while others looked like they had not even looked at a meal in days. The subjects of the cross, the Spanish as they called themselves, lumbered on their beasts of burden, directing the Tlaxcalans to seek out and capture any remaining citizens that may yet be hiding wealth that the Spanish so self-servingly deemed to be rightfully theirs.
After a few minutes, they wandered off to plunder more in another part of the burning city. Chimalli, seeing that it was clear, stepped onto the bloodstained streets. It was quiet, save for the orchestra of atrocities and death that played in the background. He stuck to the shadows, his footsteps adding to the horrible cacophony of pain which played all around him.
Chimalli stopped in an alcove near the once magnificent marketplace of Tlatelolco and found it wrecked, full of destroyed stalls, splintered tables, and the dead stacked on top of one another in a vain attempt to keep the intruders at bay. He swallowed. What had happened here? His mind wandered back to years ago, to carefree days spent with his wife and daughter, picking out flowers and scents with which to adorn themselves. His young daughter, Amoxtli, would ask endless questions of the shop owners selling lavender incense with boundless energy while her mother, Yaotl, would smile and sigh.
A low moan snapped Chimalli out of his dream. It was louder now and more haggard. The goddess was nearby, sitting and waiting in her temple. It was just another quick dash across the market and then a short trek underground. Chimalli turned towards the destroyed market and tiptoed through the sea of wrecked stalls.
He was almost to the other side when he stopped dead in his tracks. The strange tongue of the Spanish invaders filled Chimalli’s ears, along with the coarse dialect of Tlaxcala. They laughed, having surrounded a group of noble Eagle Warriors, beaten and bound on their knees. The injured were covered in shredded eagle feathers, torn leather skins, and stained with blood. The look on their faces was one of sheer defiance.
One of the Tlaxcalans raised his macuahitl, a wooden war club studded with razor-sharp pieces of obsidian, and brought it down upon one of the warriors’ heads, shattering the glassy blades and ripping the head apart into a pulpy, bloody mess. The others quickly followed suit with their prisoners. The sickening sound of sharp blades cracking and slicing through human flesh echoed throughout the market. Blood splattered on stained cloth and burnt stones. The Tlaxcalans congratulated each other on a job well done as the Spanish stood apart, more concerned with counting their spoils than the brutality behind them.
Chimalli gasped and crawled to his right, bile rising in his throat and praying that he wouldn’t be seen. He silently exited the market and crept among the pillaged neighborhoods. He heard the moan again, louder this time and with a tinge of desperation. Chimalli caught his breath and walked down the street.
He turned left and faced a narrow, dank alley; dirty and covered in grime. It was packed wall-to-wall with sick residents, some lying on the ground, some facing up staring wide-eyed at the smoke-filled skies. Others coughed and scratched their open sores, stricken with the horrible illnesses that the invaders brought with them.
Chimalli felt a hand brush past his knee. An old man reached up at him, his eyes crimson with tears and mucus and his body hopelessly covered with sores and boils. The little clothes he wore were studded with jade and burnt green peacock feathers. By the look of them, he used to be a noble, a member of some higher-class family.
“Please, my son...help me...I feel unwell,” the old man pleaded with him. He coughed into his hand and reached out again. Chimalli backed away and stepped on an emaciated woman, her skin sunken to her bones and blood dripping from her nose. She looked up at him with melancholy eyes and then looked away.
“I’m sorry. I cannot do anything for you. Any of you,” Chimalli said. He turned away and quietly walked down the alleyway, trying to keep as much distance as possible from the sickly people.
“Please...why have they forsaken us? Make it all go away!” the old man cried out. Chimalli kept the contents of his stomach at bay from the sights of the sick old, noble, and malnourished woman. His eyes filled with tears. His grandfather was one of the first to die when the invading Spaniards had entered the city to fanfare and gifts. What little he knew then, Chimalli thought to himself, what little did we know about our world at all?
His grandfather died in agony, followed closely by his grandmother, then his parents succumbed to the mysterious illness of sores. Chimalli’s brother was then next to fall sick, but he survived because he was given remedies made of maguey and agave. The change was terrible, however, and he was left heavily scarred and nearly blind. It would’ve been a mercy for him to die, as he walked into a raging inferno a few days ago, never to be seen again.
Chimall ignored the surge of memories and stopped at a small shrine at the very end of the alleyway. There, underneath carved wooden idols, lay a small door no wider than three feet. Above the door lay a small sign which read, “Enter Tlillan. Bless her mercy and guidance.” Chimalli fearfully poked his head inside.
The loud moan blasted from the door, causing Chimalli to stumble back. Every inch of his being told him to run away. He was tired, hungry, and full of fear. His fingers gripped the flat stones underneath his feet. What would his wife and daughter say of him if he returned a coward? He took a deep breath and crawled inside the dark hole.
The tunnel was pitch black and drenched in years of dust, cobwebs and dead insects. The sound of leaves crunching underneath his hands and feet accompanied him as the tunnel narrowed. Chimalli swallowed. This was no time for fear, he told himself. He crawled for a few minutes and spied a low, blue light at the very end of the tunnel. He blessed his luck and crawled towards it quickly.
The end of the shaft deposited him inside a massive stone chamber, covered wall to wall in snakeskins and feathers. A rancid breeze greeted him, causing him to nearly retch even more so than at the sight of the dying noble. Chimalli covered his mouth and nose. It was a place of miasma. A place of illness. A place of death.
Tlillan, in its heyday, used to be a temple for those expecting and for those mourning. His grandfather, bless his spirit, told him one could come here to experience one last day with a departed loved one. The temple, in all its serene beauty and solemn majesty, was very popular back in its heyday, before it became a place for the less fortunate to gather, keeping away the high members of Tenochtitlan’s society.
Chimalli would come here when he was a child during its twilight years. He remembered the poor, the sick, and the hopeless coming here, gathering in an attempt to curry favors by offering small sacrifices. Even during that time, the temple radiated a small amount of comfort to the young Chimalli. He could feel the love, warmth, and hope that a single prayer inside would bring him. As he grew older, he devoted his time to schooling and trading, the trips became less frequent as stopping altogether around the age of ten. The temple stayed where it was, decayed and rotten, becoming a place of legend and mystery to the younger and more gullible population.
As he grew older and he devoted his time to schooling and trading, the trips became less frequent, stopping altogether around the age of ten. The temple stayed where it was, decayed and rotten, becoming a place of legend and mystery to the younger and more gullible population.
He never forgot the patron goddess, the blessed earth mother Cihuacoatl. The herbs her grown in her presence healed many injuries he or his family had suffered. He had gotten married under her blessings of fruit and incense. Chimalli would always make it a tradition to lay out an offering of flowers and earth next to his daughter’s bed in order for the goddess’ blessing to be with her always. In a sense, Chimalli thought, she was always there when he needed her.
Everywhere he looked, melted candles adorned the painted, peeling walls, and the green of the earth found its way through the cracked stone walls of the temple. Most of the floor was wet with mud and clay, a testament to the lake forcing its way back into the island city. In the darkened corners, insects scurried away on grime-covered stones from the sound of his footsteps, unused to the presence of people.
He heard the moan again, this time from just outside in the main hall next door. Chimalli approached cautiously and pressed his head against the wooden door. He could hear heavy, haggard breathing and lips smacking against one another. Chimalli sighed. He wasn’t supposed to be here, like a trespasser on the grounds of a noble. Cautiously, he backed away from the door.
“I can smell you, child. You reek of sadness and desperation. Come in and bring me a pail of water,” a low, pained feminine voice called out to him.
“Who is that?” he asked, startled.
“Come in, little one. Is it not I whom you seek?” the voice said.
Chimalli pushed through the door and entered a stone-lined palace hall, half of which lay caved in and crumbled, the other half flooded with waters from Lake Texcoco. He looked around in the low light coming from an opening in the ceiling. In the corner to his left, lay the goddess Cihuacoatl.
She was over twenty feet tall, covered in feathers, animal skins, jade jewels, and piercings, all of which covered the great gashes and lacerations cut deep into her scaled skin. The scales were a dull green and covered in sores and rashes; the color sapped from all its brilliance and vigor. Her body lay uncomfortably among a combination of stone rubble and dirty linens.
“Step forward, child. I cannot see you in the dark,” she said.
Chimalli approached cautiously. Her snake-like eyes followed him and blinked, causing more tears and mucus to roll down her cheek. She smirked and coughed.
“You are...uh...yes, you are the goddess Cihuacoatl?” he asked, trying to keep a distance.
“Ha, you are a perceptive little man, are you not?” she said, “What is your name, little one?”
“My name is Chimalli, my Lady.”
“And what do you seek of me, Chimalli?”
He swallowed, uncomfortable in her presence. “My Lady...I...I...I seek merely an audience with you.”
“And what grand offering have you brought me?”
“F-F-Forgive me, My Lady. I have brought nothing for you,”
Cihuacoatl leaned forward, groaning as she did. “Do you really waste my time like this, you little worm? I can eat you with a snap of my jaws. I will swallow you and your whole family in one gulp!”
Chimalli looked away. “Most of my family is dead already.”
The goddess leaned back down and sighed. “Forgive me, Chimalli. I forget the situation at hand. As you can see, I am not in the most powerful of positions right now.”
Chimalli approached. His fear started to dissipate. What did he have to fear from a sick dying creature such as this?
“My Lady, what has happened to you? Why have you and the rest of our gods forsaken us?” Chimalli pleaded. Cihuacoatl looked up at the ceiling, gulped and turned her serpentine gaze back at him.
She was beautiful, even in this sickly state and the terrible lighting of the wrecked temple. Chimalli imagined she would be even more so in her prime. Cihuacoatl emanated an aura of regality and of majesty. Most importantly, she was the patron god of motherhood. Legends would say her presence was nearby if you felt warmth and comfort in times of great stress, something that Chimalli could feel standing inside the temple.
“We were too greedy, little one. We demanded too much blood. At first, we were satiated with the small sacrifices, but like most things in life it was never enough, so more and more of your brothers and sisters had to die.”
“But that is what kept our world going, my Lady,” said Chimalli.
A tear rolled down Cihuacoatl’s cheek. “I will tell you a secret, little one. Not all of us required blood to survive. After years, it became an addiction. Something I am guilty of as well.”
Chimalli swallowed. He placed his hand on her injured left claw. It was warm, despite the thick scales that covered it. Cihuacoatl whimpered a little bit. After a moment, she gently wrapped her claw around his hand. How long has it been since she had somebody touch her?
“We thought we would be fine if we took a little more, so we directed your tlatoani, your emperor, to get us more blood. We never even considered the consequences of our excess. Even now I can hear vengeful Tlaxcalans killing and maiming on the streets above.”
The goddess rose up again and stared at the tiny holes in the ceiling. She gripped Chimalli’s arm tighter now. He fought against his own inclination to pull away. Somehow, he thought she needed this.
“Then why abandon us at our moment of need? We were giving you our blood, our sacrifices,” said Chimalli with a bit of anger rising within him.
She looked back down regretfully at him. “The moment I saw that cross, I knew we were never going to be the same. We resisted as best we could. I saw many of my own brethren die in glory on the battlefield, but we underestimated their power and resolve. In his last moments, my brother Huitzilopochtli threw me down here upon seeing my injuries, just as the followers of the cross swarmed into the city.” Cihuacoatl shifted on her ruined throne and leered down at Chimalli. She stretched out her scaly, blood-soaked arm and pointed down at him. He stepped back, a bit of fear creeping back into his mind.
“But you did not come here to listen to me rave and lament, correct? You needed something from me. Speak up, little one, I cannot hear you over the howls above,” she said, attempting to look majestic. The sweat on her brow and the quivering of her limbs suggested otherwise.
“Oh, great goddess of the earth Cihuacoatl! I humbly make one request! Save my city! Muster whatever power and courage you have left and rescue our people!” Chimalli yelled.
Cihuacoatl chuckled and bent down to meet his desperate gaze. “Child, our city and our people are already lost. I cannot give you what isn’t in your possession,” she said sternly. Chimalli looked down defeated. It was all for naught, he thought to himself.
“Is it vengeance you seek then?” she said with a sly smile. Chimalli looked back at her and remembered the old man.
“Vengeance? How so?”
“A curse. To destroy the intruders, the traitors, and their false god. Like a poison in their minds. Is this what you seek?”
Chimalli’s heart skipped a beat. Could she actually do something like that?
“How...would it work?” he sheepishly asked.
“Slowly, painfully. Destroy them from the inside. Turn them against one another. It would be so thorough that in years’ time, there would be no trace that they’d ever lived here. What do you say, little one?”
Her words rang inside his mind. No trace that anybody had ever lived here.They would be gone, after many years. Chimalli imagined the sickness above, the killing, the blood spilled. There was too much of that already. He couldn’t shake the image of the dead Eagle Warriors. How could he have the image of thousands more dead on his mind?
“No, not vengeance, my Lady. There’s already more than enough right now.”
The goddess arched her eye. “Then?”
Chimalli stepped back just as a rumble shook the temple. Cihuacoatl coughed and heaved. In the dim light, she looked even more emaciated and sickly. The temple was collapsing, and the city was burning into ash by the minute. Panic set in. He felt the full weight of responsibility weighing him down like a stone.
“Take your family away by canoe, young one. Go under the cover of night towards the North and escape back to your ancestral homelands of Aztlan. Seek refuge among the tribes there and live the rest of your life in peace. Leave your people behind. There is no saving them.” Cihuacoatl winced in pain and fell back down onto the rubble. Her breathing quickened and her sharp fangs cracked. Chimalli could see life escaping her.
Pity overtook him. Cihuacoatl, mother goddess who had given birth to his world, his people, and his customs lay here in her own filth, dying sad and alone. He had abandoned the people on the street, his family members at their worst, and his community. Here, somewhere beneath Tenochtitlan, he wouldn’t make the same mistake. Chimalli softly gripped Cihuacoatl’s clawed hand once again.
She smiled through the pain. Her heartbeat slowed. The once calming warmth began to fade from existence. Chimalli cried. What else could he do?
“My Lady, I know you are in pain, but grant me this one last wish: let my people live on as a memory. Through our accomplishments, our customs, our language so that we may never die.”
It was silent for a moment. A smile crept up the goddess’ face. She placed her other claw on his hands and gripped him hard. Chimalli looked up at her resting face.
“Go, little one. It is done. Now, run off and take your family away from this cursed place. Watch for me in the southern skies. Farewell, Chimalli of Tenochtitlan, and take care.”
Chimalli slowly stepped away. Cihuacoatl’s body went limp. Overhead, more pieces of stone fell into the dark temple, splashing loudly in the brackish water. The sound of hooves grew louder. He took one last look at Cihuacoatl and murmured a quick prayer, before escaping into the narrow tunnel.
Fires raged even brighter and hotter than before, completely engulfing anything wooden and scorching the stone facades of temples, palaces, and common homes. Chimalli raced back home, narrowly avoiding errant patrols and sleeping soldiers. He swept up his daughter and wife into his arms and hugged them so hard that he nearly broke them in half.
“The goddess?” asked Yaotl.
“It’s all been taken care of, my love, but we need to escape quickly. Onward, towards the shoreline.”
“I don’t understand, Chimalli. What did you two speak of?” she asked with fear in her voice.
“I will explain everything in due time, I promise, but we need to go right now.”
They waited until all was silent and then dashed towards the northern shore of the island. In the lake surrounding the city, massive boats built by the marauders sat idly by, their barks of flame finally put to rest as the city capitulated . The smaller canoes had docked on the shores of the island in order to join in on the razing of the city.
Chimalli, Yaotl, and Amoxtli crept into a canoe and rowed away from Tenochtitlan, leaving behind the scenes of utter chaos of what was once their home. They rowed in silence, save for each dip of the wooden oar into the water, causing each one to be as loud as gunfire out among the desolation of the lake. The darkness was thick and heavy with the smoke from the battle mixing with the fog over the surface of the polluted lake. Yaotl prayed quietly with her daughter, hoping no one would see them.
The sun broke over the eastern mountains as the canoe struck against the mainland. They sat there for a moment, tired, scared, and hungry. In the faint sunlight and through the dissipating smoke, Chimalli viewed the cracked and burnt remains of the city, on display for the entire world to see. A lump formed inside his throat. He sighed and turned towards his family.
“Let us go, my loves. Time is of the essence,” he said as they disappeared into the jungle.
* * *
Chimalli led his family north, walking for hours on end and keeping a low profile so as to not bring attention to themselves. The sun baked their backs and drenched them in sweat and swarms of flies. Their solemn, solitary march led them to a small trade route winding north towards a small village no bigger than eight wooden huts.
The family collapsed outside the first dwelling they reached, exhausted and hungry. The villagers there took pity on the ragged family and offered them an assortment of berries, corn, and freshwater. It was the first food Chimalli had eaten in over a day and his stomach certainly thanked him for it. He rested outside in the shade of one of the small huts. His wife, not wanting to stay sedentary, assisted the villagers in preparing more meals while his daughter played with the local children.
Chimalli sighed and took a nice, long sip of water. He looked up south towards the direction of Tenochtitlan, watching the clouds float silently by. Then, a small blue wisp exited a large cloud and blinked in succession several times. Chimalli squinted his eyes and focused on the light.
The wisp floated silently, as if to signal its presence to him, and then shot off high into the sky. Chimalli sat back and smiled. She will be okay, he thought to himself. He took a handful of brown earth, making a small hole next to the hut. Inside, he placed a small piece of limestone taken from Tlillan and covered the hole. Chimalli prayed that the stone might be a seed and maybe, just maybe, it would blossom into a new way of life for himself and especially, his daughter.