THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ

 

BOOK FOUR:  THE BOOK of SCIENCE

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

          The mazehualob were burning Idznacab.

          Its sky was gray with smoke, the sun an angry red ball... like that angry snake rolled-up to strike, the yellow sun serpent for whom the month Kan Kin is named in the Maya tongue. Don Antonio's peons were following their ancient custom of a second burning of the fields he rented to them in the days of the full moon; having cleared the scrub brush... which could not, with any accuracy, be compared to the baleful, prolific monte of the territory to the southeast... since the first burning in March. Red and yellow fires gorged themselves on the dead growth, flaring up from time to time like the flames of Hell while a bed of hot gray ashes smoldered underfoot.

          Captain José Macias, less than a month into his retirement in this spring of 1904, glared at this burning sky with its occasional gusts of hot ash that, by a perversity of wind, sometimes carried to the very porch of his father's villa. Four old indian women ringed the house, sentinels with pails of water and brooms of dry straw that, José thought, were as likely to burst into flames themselves as to quell any latent conflagration. A hot, bitter hatred of all this unforgiving land already quickened in his heart, for, though Quintana Roo had been lopped off officially, it resembled nothing so much as a Yucatan hot and wet, instead of hot and parched. The territory had thrown up tigers in his soul. A blanket of pacification was what he sought in the city, any city; good wine instead of the sour beer and aguardiente, lively conversation, the glance of women. A reunion with his family in Merida, a festive round with friends... including a certain lady of Campeche... and then, before the intolerable heat of May and June, a voyage to New York, perhaps, or even Paris. He had obtained three volumes of Balzac and two of the recently deceased Zola, in the territory, along with a small dictionary to refresh his command of the French language during his return on a commercial steamer that had stopped at Vigia Chico on its way north, round Cabo Catouche, to dock at Progreso.

          Deliverance neared. But first, he must endure mortification and all for the foolish superstitions of his father whom, he had observed... dismayingly, since his return... to seem less and less a man of reason with a good income from his estanción, and more and more a country farmer with dirty hands. Don Antonio was obstinate about remaining at the plantation until the first rains, which were due, according to tradition and the unchallengeable authority of the Almanac, on the twenty fifth of April, the day of San Marco. "Five more days," José tallied while the embers of his eagle began to stir within the blowing soot and heat that was the inferno of Idznacab.

          The fulfillment of José's commission had occurred towards the end of March 1904, as Mexico basked in the bounty of the Porfirian peace and prosperity. He had come to the army a youth, a second son of good family... educated, but without experience in the affairs of the world save for those certain incidents occasioned by his other self. He had he left it a man, an officer who had killed and endured the wounds of those who meant to kill him, become master of a hundred useful trades, not the least of which was taking account of the potentialities of other men.

          Would he regret departure? His brother's law practice was already established; Rigoberto lived in Merida, visited the capital frequently or traveled abroad for business or pleasure, and had expressed a willingness to "talk to people, find something to set you up". José had thanked him for the offer, politely, but without intent of finding his place among the flies of politics. Don Antonio was well, but would not always be so and Idznacab was too large a place to leave to the management of a hired mayordomo. Under the energetic Governor Molina, a hundred opportunities awaited of young men of talent and ambition, and... significantly... the Governor's niece awaited José Macias also. General Bravo had personally invited José to his quarters a week before his departure, stating "If I cannot persuade you to stay, I can introduce you to a man who may be useful."

          The future was boundless as this new century, José thought. What reason had he to hitch his dreams to others or to extend his term of enlistment?

          But the smoking winds of Idznacab ruined even his sleep. Awaking from a labyrinth of disagreeable dreams, he had stepped into the red dawn, still acrid from the previous day of burning. Wisps of soot blew past his face as he drank coffee and chewed a hard roll (no better than those of Quintana Roo!) before his father called him forth to make the morning rounds.

          "It is crucial that the peons see us at this time," he said, and went on to speak of things José found somewhat ridiculous and strangely reminiscent of the General, in his most bathetic binges with the cheerfully sinister Colonel Huerta. "I am lord of Idznacab and, strange as it seems to you, they hold that a hacendado has a special relation with San Marco whom, I fear, is less the author of the Gospel which contains his name than an alias for one of their snouted Chacs, the old rain gods whom these people truly pray to. Foolish? Maybe... but when I pass, mounted like a grandee, riding through these burning fields like one of San Juan's four horsemen, they call out my name and wave, and then do their work with twice the energy of the peons of don Pedro, who sleeps the morning away in Merida, leaving the affairs of his estanción to the mayordomo."

          José objected with a glance and his father responded with a weary smile. "Idznacab puts the bread in our mouths, niño, and also buys tickets for steamships and gold for the ladies. So it is my charge to keep the land productive. Unless, of course, you wish to make do on your military pension? As your brother, on his legal fees," the hacendado scowled. "Come now, and let us take a look."

          The estanción thrived with red shadows of the dawn, indians who pushed and shouted at their goats and pigs and chickens in the pink and purplish light while breakfasts was prepared. From the ash-streaked huts the pair passed by came the soft patting of tortillas being shaped, and the hiss of water striking a charcoal fire. Some peons, shivering in shifts of old burlap and rags, huddled round a fire of green wood which gave much smoke but little heat, chewing upon tortillas and muttering in the Maya tongue. Angry shouts, like the barking of excited dogs, erupted from one of the huts.

          "What have you learned of the indian language?" don Antonio inquired.

          José shrugged. "A little of it. Orders to come and go, to stop, to bring food. To lay down your weapon or be shot. Such things are useful in the territory."

          The elder Macias nodded towards the hut. "Than I shall tell you what it is they are saying. As you know, I make aguardiente available at a reasonable price. It warms the stomach, niño, and it dulls the brain which plots rebellion and such tongues, which otherwise may voice complaint. So some fellow has availed himself of the consolation of a drink. Now, as you must also have seen in the Territory, it is the custom of these indians to give their wives power to dispose of the family's income. Thus..." and he gestured to the house of disputing.

          "How do they pay for the aguardiente?" José asked.

          Don Antonio placed one elbow on his saddle and sank his chin in this. "Would you believe they steal from me? Me!"

          Now the congregation by the fire was joined by the older, grayer shadow of Armando Feliz, the mayordomo. As befitted living royalty among a breed of shadows, don Antonio and his son waited on their horses, observing the assignment of work.

          José pointed out two knots of peons who stood apart from the rest. Don Antonio followed the finger of his son towards one and smiled.

          "Chinos," he said. The previous September, two thousand Koreans had arrived at the port of Progreso, where they were taken to Merida and sold to satisfy debt owed on their passage. Time and the tienda de raya had integrated most chinos into servitude as thoroughly as it held the Maya for centuries before them; still, an indian would not look at nor speak to one of the Orientals unless he had to.

          The other newcomers, whom the mayordomo seemed to give special attention to, were Yaqui indians from the north of Mexico, a sullen, uncooperative lot. Deported from their villages, they had been sold for seventy five pesos each, of which sixty five went to the Secretary of War and the rest to the Porfirstas who provided the Yaquis for sale. Feliz singled out four of these men, who were directed to lean over a rail of the corral and don Antonio, keeping his hand near his rifle, shook his head. "A bad lot," he told his son while the mayordomo drew his whip. "They can work, they're strong, but, for the hatred in their hearts, they will not. Their contract permits Armando thirty arrobas, but such whippings make them even less fit for work. Some of them on the other estanciónes have been beaten to death but they like that... it is an opportunity for them to exhibit final defiance. Bad! All bad!" And he shook his head again as the mayordomo's lash began to crack on the back of the first, who grunted, but then turned and cursed Armando Feliz in the Yaqui tongue.

          "If they are no good, why do we buy them?" José asked. "Are there none of our own indians and Koreans to be had?"

          Antonio Macias nodded. "That's a good question but, in other ways, a poor one. You see, when men here in the pay of the President and the Governor pay their respect to you by bringing men to sell, of course one never is obliged to buy. Still, it is wise to take some, even a few you don't need, for who knows what may happen when a powerful official feels that you have slighted his representatives. The Governor's men aren't so bad... they deal in the Chinos, who know how to use a machete for the task for which it was forged, instead of for chopping off the master's head. But the Yaquis... that syphilitic perfumado from Sonora, Corral, has his hand in that." The hacendado leaned over and spat. "Those fools in Mexico want to set him next to the President instead of a good man like Don Bernardo... your brother will tell you all that you need to know of that! Only pray for the health of Porfirio Diaz that Corral never succeeds him. He will bring Mexico to revolt and ruin."

          The Yaquis received twelve arrobas each, which seemed neither to improve nor worsen their disposition. Now began the fagina, two hours of unpaid work… work which would be credited directly to Armando Feliz against their right to living quarters. The paid work would follow, but don Antonio indicated to his son that they had seen and been seen enough and they cantered back to the villa as the first fires of the new day were set and a greasy pallor of gray smoke again crept across the sky to besmirch the sun.

          "What an ugly place!" José thought as he turned his horse over to the groom and followed his father to the patio for breakfast. "So much work," he said aloud, "I think that there would be more a problem with theft."

          Don Antonio nodded. "The mayordomo keeps his eyes mostly on the Yaquis. They are faithless men or, if they have a God, He is far away in the north. The Chinos are reasonable. And as for our own, though we are good Catholics, Armando and I, we do lend support to some of their heathen ceremonies. One offering I favor is to a guardian of the cornfield. Those who steal the corn under this spirit's protection are subject to disease and death."

          "And henequen?"

          The hacendado frowned. "These people do not place such value on the plant as you or I. What has it ever given them... except the ropes that bind them or hang them from trees. Such plants in other parts of Mexico provide an intoxicating liquor, but even this is denied them. The Maya consider it a weed, and do not offer it the respect that they give their corn or even beans. So, much as I dislike them, I shall rent a few more Yaqui from don Alvaro Lopez when the planting begins at the next full moon."

          "What is this fascination with the full moon?" José asked with an air of irritation.

          "Nothing," his father said, "nothing but one of those superstitions better catered to than resisted. On the full moon of the months of March and April, the indians here will slash and burn like ants possessed. For planting, the full moon of May is ordered and, for weeding, those of June, July and August. What causes this to be... lycanthropy? Perhaps... there are more similarities than not between these people's superstition and the beliefs held by Europeans centuries ago, and still to be found in the backward places beyond the Black Forest. Those who do not truly believe in God may affect a false piety, thereby avoiding whippings, but they stand condemned to stare in awe and terror of the sun and stars and moon, for such beliefs are all that they have to distinguish them from lesser animals. They'd rather be whipped bloody than to burn during a new moon.

          "Do you see that man carrying a branch, the one with the old Yankee hat? He's our local Bluebeard, already killed two wives. Actually only the first died of the blows... the second had a wasting illness but he certainly paved her road to the tomb. He claims they were adulterers, which is why he got off with a whipping. That's the custom here now, something picked up from the Yaqui, perhaps... you didn't see such murders ten or even five years ago. What could you expect from moon-worshippers?"

          Don Antonio turned his horse towards a cottage besides the main building of the estanción. "The Norteamericano, Mr. Wilson, should have awakened by this time," he said with no little displeasure.

 

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