Friday, December 13, 2013

Eztli and the Tlahuelpuchi

Bobby Derie

On her mat of woven reeds, Eztli listened to the breathing of the night. In the corner, her mother and father snored next to one another; beside her the twins Tupac and Coyotl breathed loudly through their mouths, as boys are want to do; and by the coals grandmother sat nodding. Outside the insects made their music, and bats fluttered between trees, and the jaguar walked in silence. Yet Eztli was awake, listening and waiting as the insect-chorus died and the clouds covered the face of the moon, and the pitter-patter of the first raindrops struck the earth. Then Uncle Ichtaca came out from the next room.

No one save the family knew of Uncle Ichtaca, and father and mother had forbidden Eztli to speak of him to anyone. He stayed inside during the day when the others worked, stringing beads and sharpening tools. In the half-light of the night he seemed lean and wild, for all that grandmother tried sometimes to comb out his hair, and he wore Eztli's father's old clothes. Eztli did not move as he stalked passed the children, not even turning her head, but kept her eyes narrowed to slits to watch him as he stood at the door and sniffed the night. When he stepped out into the rain, Eztli counted to five, then got up and slipped on her sandals and followed him into the midnight rain.

Eztli could not see well in the darkness, but there were few enough houses nearby, and only two with small children. She ran down the road toward the nearest neighbor. By the time she got to the house, the pattering rain had given way to the fine almost-mist that brought the sweat to the skin and stood heavy in the lungs. Something fluttered overhead, and though she could not see it her eyes caught the trailing glow, like the afterimage behind your eyelids when you look at the heart of the fire. Shaking her eyes, she crept up to the window and looked in.

The babe was just off the teat, and even by the dim light Eztli could see the tiredness in the eyes of mother and father; this might have been their first solid night's sleep since the child was born. Uncle Ichtaca crept forward on his knees and eased the child away from the mother with long practice. It was naked, and stirred slightly in his arms, but he rocked it gently into deeper slumber, swaying his body to and fro, every time his head dipping closer and closer to the child. Eztli saw his lips latch on to the nipple on that tiny chest, the cheeks hollow and bellow.

It might almost have been a playful kiss, save for the bruise left behind, and the bloody tongue that Uncle Ichtaca ran over his lips before he lay the babe back down. Eztli remembered the same strange kisses, until she had grown too old, and how her brothers would wake crying at night. She watched him waddle back to the window, still on his knees - and as he neared it she saw clearly that he had no legs below the knee.

He made a kind of leap, and the fire-echo seemed to flash before Eztli's eyes again. There on the windowsill was a turkey, the tlahuelpuchi, blood dripping from the beak of its blue head, a hazy aura hanging about its body. Eztli had always thought the bird looked like a rainbow trapped in darkness, the strange-colored feathers a sight of endless fascination. Without a word, the glowing bird flapped its wings and disappeared into the night. As it left, the babe gave out a wail, and Eztli slinked off into the night as the parents roused themselves.

Uncle Ichtaca had not left in the direction of their house, so Eztli took her time returning. She found her uncle's legs by the door to the house, right next to a pair of her father's sandals. Eztli picked them up and took them with her into the house. Everyone still snored, even grandmother, who had finally laid down on her side. Eztli picked her way through the darkness of the house, and found the obsidian knife her mother used to scrape skins and meat. Then she went and sat by the door to wait.

Uncle Ichtaca would have a territory, she knew; a hunting-ground where the other tlahuelpuchi would not come. He rarely spoke to his niece or nephews, save sometimes in the evening after they had all shared a meal and were ready to sleep. Then he would tell them of the tlahuelpuchi in other places, and how they would meet at night to do their business and resolve their differences. He had spoken of the tlahuelpuchi as the priests might speak of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and how they might deal with the aluxob and wayob, and even the terrible xtabay. Always, always the clever and powerful tlahuelpuchi got the best of the nagual and other monsters, a hero in the night.

Outside the rain had stopped, and Eztli heard the flapping of wings and caught the flicker of his glowing feathers. She rushed outside to find the great turkey agitated, pecking about her father's sandles, looking for his legs. Eztli caught his neck with her one hand, and brought the glassy black blade down with the other. The blade cut deep, stolen blood spurting hot and thick on her hand, and Eztli brought the blade down again and again until the pale blue head fell to the mud. It was not the first time she had killed a turkey.

Grandmother's wail woke the house.

The old woman came forward on hands and knees, cradling the body of the bird that had been her cursed son to her chest. Eztli's mother and father were next to come out, but their grief was expressed in angry words; the twins crowded around their knees to see what was going on.

Eztli wiped the obsidian blade off on her shirt, and looked out at the night with different eyes. She remembered the night Uncle Ichtaca had been drinking with her father, and the two had quarreled, as brothers sometimes do. It had gone so far that her father had drawn his knife and held it at her uncle's throat, but the tlahuelpuchi had just smiled: for if a family member killed a tlahuelpuchi, then the cursed passed on to them. Now Eztli smiled as her belly rumbled, for now it was time to find out for herself if her uncle's stories were true.


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