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Authors: Carlos Fuentes

A Change of Skin

BOOK: A Change of Skin
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CONTENTS

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Acknowledgment

1.
An Impossible Feast

2.
In Body and Soul

3.
Visit Our Cellars

Books by Carlos Fuentes

Copyright

 

To

Aurora and Julio Cortázar

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

I wish to express my gratitude to the Society of Czech Writers and the Ministry of Foreign Relations of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia for their assistance in arranging my visits—in 1961 and 1963—to the city of Terezin, and my conversations with survivors of the concentration camp and the old ghetto of Theresienstadt, as well as with the rabbis of the Jewish community of Prague.

Carlos Fuentes

1

AN IMPOSSIBLE FEAST

The Narrator ends his narration one September night in La Coupole and decides to employ the moth-eaten device of the epigraph. Seated at the next table, Alain Jouffroy hands him a copy of
Le Temps d'un Livre:

… comme si nous nous trouvions à la

veille d'une improbable catastrophe ou

au lendemain d'une impossible fête …

That finished, the book begins. An impossible feast. And the Narrator, like the character of the ballad, before beginning to sing, first asks permission.

 

Δ   When the four of you entered today all you saw was the narrow filthy streets and the packed houses that are all alike, all of one story, all a blind wall with a too wide door of cracking wood, all daubed yellow and blue. Sure, I know, now and again you passed a dwelling that crowed money, an elegant home with windows that watch the street and boast those touches Mexicans find so irresistible, fancy wrought-iron grilles, projecting awnings of cross-ribbed canvas. But where, Isabel, were the good citizens who live behind those windows? Did they come out to welcome you to town, or did they leave that office to the dust and the filth, the misery crowded around you, the barefoot women with dark faces wrapped in shawls, the heavy pregnant bellies, the naked children, the packs of street dogs. Packs of mongrels that drift everywhere, go nowhere. Some yellow, some black, all lost, listless, strengthless, hungry, scratching at their infestations of sores and fleas, poking along gutters for garbage scraps, crippled, emaciated, with the slanted red and yellow eyes, dripping infection, that betray their coyote ancestry; white-nosed, hair worn off, bare hides splotched with scabs, torpid and purposeless as they whine the slow rhythm of this torpid purposeless town that once upon a time was the pantheon of an ancient Mexican world. Cholula, town of misery today, festering today, this Sabbath the eleventh of April, 1965, with diseased dogs and women with swollen wombs who pad the dust barefoot and laugh silently as they exchange their joking secrets and their secret jokes in voices that cannot be heard, words thinly inflected, fused chains of inaudible syllables.

Hernán Cortés, man of Spain, observes the four Macehuale messengers who have come from Cholula bearing not provender but a dry reply: our caciques regret they're unable to attend you today, Teul. They find themselves ailing, too unwell to travel here and present their gifts. Cortés listens while the four Macehuales mock him and the men of Tlaxcala, formerly his enemy, now his allies, frown and mutter. Beware of Cholula and the power of the city of Mexico, they warn. They offer ten thousand men at arms to accompany him. Cortés smiles. Only a thousand are needed. He will march echoing peace.

Echoing peace, the Spaniards march, making camp at the end of the day beside the river only a short league from Cholula. Their Indians throw up huts for them and join them in standing watch. Sounds in the darkness, the rustle of invisible movement through brush. The cold night. And during the night, emissaries come out from the city with chickens and corn bread that they heap around the fire before Cortés's hut. His hair rumpled and his shirt open at the collar, Cortés directs his interpreters to express thanks. Jerónimo de Aguilar: low boots, cotton trousers. Malinche, who is the captain's mistress and guide as well as his interpreter, with her black tresses and ironic smile.

You saw their children today, Isabel. The women with narrow foreheads, small teeth set in thick gums, hair in short braids, the prematurely old, shawl-wrapped young women whose bellies are big with the next child while the last holds to their hand or sleeps in their arms or rides behind wrapped in the shawl. The men who wear white shirts and drill pants and stiff varnished straw hats and pass slowly on bicycles or walk by with the tools of their labor in their hands. Youths whose skin is smooth chocolate but whose dark hair bristles. Fat men with thin ragged mustaches and worn boots and starched shirts. Soldiers with pistol in belt, cap acock, cheek or temple or throat lividly scarred by a knife gash, toothpick between teeth as they lean their shaved necks back against the columns of the arcade that faces the wide, empty, decaying plaza. The four of you visited that plaza, but you didn't stay long. A garden gone dry. A cacophonic band in the arbor interminably grinding out cha-cha-chas. Didn't you dig that cheerful little band, Pussycat? And when the band rested, didn't you dig the plaza loudspeaker that was tuned in on a local radio disc jockey who played one twist record after another, dedicating each to a local señorita? You moved away past the dreadful statues that stand before the arcade: bronze Hidalgo with the standard of Guadalupe and the legend, Remember posterity; Juárez bathed in gold, his face solemn: He was shepherd, seer, and deliverer.

At dawn the sacred city's forty thousand white houses gleam. They move toward them, crossing the band of rich tillage land, densely populated, that lies around the city. Cortés, on horseback, observes water and pasture that might support great herds of cattle, but he also sees the army of beggars who have come out of the city and troop from dwelling to dwelling, marketplace to marketplace, a barefoot ragged multitude of deformities and outstretched hands, of mouths munching rotten ears of corn. The Spaniards leave behind the plots of chile peppers, corn and vegetables, agave plants, and approach the high-towered city. They are welcomed by packs of starving dogs. Cholula, pantheon city of four hundred towers, oratories, pyramids. From the towers and the esplanades and the plazas rise the sounds of trumpets and kettledrums. They are met now by a procession of caciques and priests wearing embroidered cotton robes cut like tunics and waving censers of fragrant copal. The censers are dropped when the priests see the thousand Tlaxcalans. No, they protest, we cannot allow our enemies to enter. Cortés orders the men from Tlaxcala to camp in the fields and proceeds with only his Spaniards, his guard of Cempoaltecans, and the artillery. The people of Cholula look down from the flat rooftops with amazement and laughter. The horses, those gray and sorrel monsters. The crossbows, the cannon, the firelocks. Kettledrums go on booming.

Now, within the city, Cortés addresses them. They must abandon the worship of idols. They must cease human sacrifice. They must no longer eat the flesh of their fellow man. They must give up sodomy and their other degeneracies, and they must swear obedience to the King of Spain, as have so many other powerful caciques. The Cholulans reply: we will obey your king but we will not forsake our gods. Smiling, they conduct the captain and his tiny arm to great lodging halls.

You walked the length of the paint-flaking arcade, Isabel, Franz beside you, Elizabeth and Javier following. Green, gray, pallid yellow. From a small grocery came smells of soap and stale cheese. Next door was an oyster bar where the owner had placed two aluminum tables and seven wicker chairs out in the open air. But no one sat to eat the oysters in the wide tall jars of gray water. Officialdom occupies the central part of the arcade. The town hall, the treasury, the headquarters of the Third Battalion. Shyster fixers and go-betweens dressed in black. The distant, unworried, coldly smiling faces of the soldiers. Police headquarters behind a red mosaic. Then the general store of the Brothers García: brooms and brushes, sacks, cables, wire, mats, willow baskets, and a placard over the door: Without exception of persons, we do not want gossip.

For two days there is peace. But on the third day food is no longer supplied. Old men come bringing only water and firewood and stating that no food is left. Montezuma's latest envoy arrives and is conducted to Cortés, whom he advises, “Do not come to the city of Mexico.” There are throttled screams, a faint stench of blood as the Cholulans make sacrifices for victory; during the night seven children have been killed on the altar of Huitzilopochtli. Cortés orders continuous alert and has two priests from the great pyramid brought before him. Wearing robes of black-dyed cotton, the priests converse with Malinche, the princess whom the Spaniards call Doña Marina. They reveal Montezuma's orders and the Cholulans' secret plans. The Spaniards are to be seized and twenty are to be sacrificed on the pyramid by Montezuma's direct command; he has sent the caciques promises, jewels, garments, a drum of purest gold. He has dispatched twenty thousand of his Aztecan warriors and they lie concealed in the brushy thickets and ravines around the city, even in houses within the city, their arms ready. Parapets have been raised to protect those who will fight from the rooftops. Deep holes have been dug in the streets and covered over with matting, to impede the Spaniards' horses. Other streets have been barricaded.

None of you spoke as you walked. You had been infected by the living death of the town, a deadness accentuated rather than opposed by the paradoxical racket of the loudspeaker in the plaza. In a bicycle shop three youths naked to the waist and smeared with grease exchanged whispered cracks and presented idiotic smiles as you passed. A smell of sulfur floated from the bathhouse where in the shadow a woman showed her rosy flanks while her open hand paddled a little boy who refused to step into the water. At the register of elections a painter was sweeping his brush across the façade, back and forth, back and forth, slowly erasing stroke by stroke the slogan of the old election,
CROM WITH ADOLFO LÓPEZ MATEOS
, and that of the recent one,
CROM WITH GUSTAVO DÍAZ ORDAZ.
The billiard parlor “Mother's Day” empty behind its swinging doors with the notice: Minors prohibited. An old man in a collarless striped shirt and an unbuttoned vest slowly rubbed chalk on the tip of his cue and yawned, showing the black gaps in his teeth. At the corner, a man sat in a cane chair before the doctor's office where silver letters on a black ground announce: Diseases of childhood, of the skin, venereal infections. Analyses of blood, urine, sputum, and feces.

Cortés calls a council. One voice suggests that they take another route, proceed to the city of Mexico, only twenty leagues distant by way of Huejotzingo. Another advises coming to terms with the Cholulans, then return to Tlaxcala. A third points out that if the treachery of the Cholulans is countenanced, more treachery will follow. We must fight them, destroy them. Square-jawed Cortés decides to make a show of departure tomorrow. They pass the night armed and alert. The slow watches succeed one another, the torches burn out. Late at night, a toothless old woman creeps in and draws Doña Marina aside: Montezuma is bent on vengeance but Malinche can escape, if she will. The old woman will give her a son to marry and she will be safe. As for the Spaniards, they are doomed, everything has been prepared for their death. Malinche thanks her. She asks the old woman to wait while she collects her jewels and clothing. Instead, she goes to Cortés and tells him.

BOOK: A Change of Skin
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