Short Story: The Sad Night
On 22nd April 1519, after long months of travelling through oceans, a halt in Cuba and several tempests, we finally catch the sight of land. I can exit this wretched boat and step on the ground. The ten other caravels reach us one by one. As soon as the first ones got off the ship, they started unloading stocks, animals, arms and of course, humans. Juan, one of my compatriots, uses his strength to help the weakest, the ones that were not spared by the trip. He then helps me disembark the boat. The heat of the sun warms my head but my feet in the ocean offer me a pleasant contrast. I have never seen such clear waters, I can even see my feet touching the sand! I feel the joy filling me after long months of boredom. I am the only child in the group and I am 11 years old, I was nine when we left Spain. Juan is my uncle, he had to take me on this adventure after the death of my mother. Nobody could look after me back in Spain and these boats were my only solution. I was told that we were searching for a mysterious land beyond the oceans but the only thing I saw for days was water. I spent days locked down in my cabin, staring at the horizon and counting the clouds. Therefore, stepping out of this boat is a bargain for me. I can finally raise my eyes and I am dumbstruck by what I see around me, this new land, this new country. This turquoise and this green mixing up, these palm trees breaking the horizontal lines, these waves slowly smashing over the thin white sand. The landscape is idyllic. I tell myself that the trip was worth it. The sun and the sky are only one, never detached from each other except during the night when the sun loses its radiance. For somebody like me who lives along the northern Spanish coast, where it is cloudy three hundred days in the year, this is somewhat unusual.
Despite the beauty surrounding us, my hundreds of traveller comrades are exhausted and close to starvation due to the constant decrease in resources we suffered. Therefore, they take advantage of the beach to rest, one day, two days, one week. Nobody wants to leave anymore. Slowly, trees are being cut off, shelters are being shaped up along crowded paths. A city is springing up from the ground, like a spare part of Spain. I must say that I start to feel at ease and find some activities to keep myself busy. I swim in the morning, pick some cocos up in the afternoon and savor their juice… However, I terribly miss my beloved Spain, I keep feeling uprooted, disoriented, as if a part of me is missing. I am lost but I keep flourishing with the hope to grow accustomed to this place.
The sun rays are warming my eyelids, as I wake up. My back hurts because of the straw I have been sleeping on for more than two weeks. My bones crack and tiredness takes me over. The sun dazzles me as I step out of my house and suddenly collide with somebody I had not seen before. A group of individuals are standing in front of me, and I don’t have a single clue about who they are. They definitely look different from us. I am astonished by their darker colored skin and their height, they are barely taller than me! I cannot decipher any sound coming out of their mouths and my first reaction is to run back into my house and spy them through a little hole between two wood planks. I am amazed by the colors of the strangers’ clothes, red, yellow or blue, black does not seem to have made its way up here. They sport wonderful hats that compensate for their short size, but the shapes are out of the ordinary: square, lofty and they do not protect from the sun. Everyone seems somewhat concerned because the agitation is at its height. I now recognize some of my compatriots and I catch some Castillan words amidst the ambient mess. I catch a glimpse of Juan who is making ample motions, pointing out the other side of the ocean to a stranger, who tries to decode this improvised sign language. Ignacio, Juan’s distant relative and our flock’s leader, has its eyes glued to a woman, for whom he is clearly burning up. He does not seem very concerned with the surrounding events. He presumes that he tries to communicate with her because he is moving its lips but she looks away, with perplexity. The ambient noise keeps growing until an individual starts to yell, raising its sword and threatening his opponent, but Juan shows up to calm everybody down using his height to look menacing. We traversed eleven thousand kilometers of ocean to arrive here, so being cut off by ten strangers was not part of the plan. Thanks to his gestures, Juan makes it clear that Spanish will flee, and he confirms it to me right away.
We must withdraw the town at the night. Apparently, five of my compatriots are being held hostage until we leave. Although this decision disappoints me because swimming every morning dragged me out of boredom. I secretly hope that we are going to embark the boats headed for Spain. Everybody pack their stuff up in silence, doubting over what’s next. Ignacio gathers everybody when the sun starts hiding behind the clouds and the night settles. My hopes wash away when he shouts us that we must not lose faith and that abandoning is not in his genes and that he does not feel like returning home anyway so we are going to walk up west. To my great astonishment, the foreign woman coveted by Ignacio stands next to me, willing to accompany us and carry her stuff all the way long. We try to communicate with our hands and she already knows some Spanish words. She tells me: “me llamo Marina” and she teaches me “Notoka Alberto”, which means “I am Alberto” in her language. I still can’t figure out her motivation for following us but I will find it out as soon as she learns Spanish.
The group sets off and walks for days without meeting up with anybody but lost animals. The despondency starts to take over some of us but we don’t have any other option than moving forward since we are lost in the middle of an immense and totally unknown territory. We must walk, stepping a foot in front of the other despite fatigue, hunger and thirst. After more than two weeks, a village appears, hoping for a little rest, but Ignacio’s expectations are elsewhere. He maintains a real objective: allegedly, there would be a magnificent city hidden between the mountains. But I don’t believe him because he seems as lost as us. Every village we cross is an opportunity for us to load the provisions and rest our legs. Juan communicates with the local inhabitants with the help of the foreign woman, Marina. I must say that we start to get along, she helps me get out of my head and kill time. Sometimes, they convince inhabitants to join us, which is incomprehensible to me. Why do they bother coming with us only to walk hours through forests and deserts and not seeing anything at the end? Adults are weird, they like odd things.
Through a narrow hole of light between branches, I catch a glimpse of a colossal mountain, weirdly painted in white on its peak. I am told that it is named a “volcano”, a mountain that would spit an effervescent red liquid. The volcano stands for a barrier on our way but Ignacio seems determined in his idea of climbing it to descend behind. I don’t want to sound lazy but it looks quite high for me. And the reality bears out my initial impression: the ascension turns out to be interminable. Tiredness and the lack of breath are more and more intrusive while my legs are practically cut off. I try to cling to the view of the summit but I can no longer figure out if it is approaching or drawing away. Marina distracts me by teaching me the name of this volcano: Popocatépetl. She also indicates me the volcano Ixtaccíhuatl, imposing itself on our right. In mythology, Iztaccíhuatl was a princess who fell in love with one of her father’s warriors, Popocatépetl. The emperor sent Popocatépetl to war in Oaxaca, promising him Iztaccíhuatl as his wife when he returned. However, Iztaccíhuatl was falsely told that Popocatépetl had died in battle, and believing the news, she died of grief. When Popocatépetl returned to find his love dead, he took her body and kneeled by her grave. The gods covered them with snow and turned them into mountains. I find this story bizarre, how can human beings become as tall as mountains?
After a few more days of torture, we finally reach the summit. What a relief! The wind is freezing my nose, and I have been sensing neither my fingers nor my toes for the past two days. Tears are trickling along my cheeks without knowing if it is from sadness or cold. My eyes sting when I look up to observe the valley ahead of us. An enchanting view is facing me, the city that I had been promised for so long was not a lie. Marina names this city Tenochtitlan, it is meant to be the final point of our exploration. After hell, comes heaven. I am blown away by the view. There is no doubt, it is the most fascinating thing I have ever seen in my life. Tens of islands are floating on a vast lake, like anchored boats which found their destination. Shaped like a star, this constellation of islands shines around the mountains and blinds the viewers. Upon these islands, temples are so tremendous that they are visible from above the volcano. Rafts are navigating between temples, in an infinite sensation of calm and peace. A place cut off from the world’s fury, where Gods would come to relax. As we descend the volcano and approach the city, it reveals more of its beauties and sights. A fantastic road connects the city with the lake’s banks, bordered by trees full of colorful and unknown fruits. As we enter the city, I realize that temples are entirely painted with incomprehensible representations, staging terrifying winged animals. Local inhabitants look surprisingly similar to Marina but speak a different language. They fix their gaze on us with perplexity as if we just arrived from another planet. Ignacio ignores them and progresses with an unfailing determination, bounding to the highest temple located at the city’s center. He affirms his desire to personally meet somebody but I don’t understand who. All I want is some food and a drink, as we have not stopped ever since we left the volcano’s summit.
We have now been living in Tenochtitlan for a little more than six months and I must say that everybody acclimatized to local life, beyond the differences. Personally, I started enjoying my new life here. I’ve learnt the local language, called Nahuatl, even though my accent still betrays me on my origins. I’ve also learnt a weird game they play here, where two teams throw a ball back and forth. Spanish and foreigners are getting along. Even though they live in separated parts of the city, they launched common activities and shared their customs. We found out that the foreigners always eat an odd tortilla, thinner and blander. I grew accustomed to it and it goes well with all of my meals. As for me, I didn’t quite know how to behave with the local young people at first because I hadn’t interacted with anyone of my age for a long time but, over time, I met a lot of friends with whom I spend most of my days. I am slowly becoming a little local attraction since I am the only white child. The only disturbing thing to me is when the locals sacrifice prisoners of war on the summit of their temples. Accompanied by specific dances and songs, these ceremonies are their main rituals. Even if I was explained that it enables the world to run smoothly, I cannot handle it and I hide every time it occurs.
One night, during one of those ceremonies, I see Juan with an angry expression and a sword in his hand lurching at the locals. He looks determined to attack and cut the throat of one of my friends’ father, for what reason I don’t know. He is followed by some Spanish on their horses. A tense conflict then starts, and I see people fighting and dying all around me. Six months of interiorized tensions explode, I understand, and in both sides, rancor overtakes reason. Sliced heads and holed stomachs, broken limbs and brain liquids are lying on the floor. I cover my eyes to avoid these horror visions but even the sounds are terrifying. I feel Marina’s hand pulling me to escape. We run as fast as possible in towards East, where we saw other Spanish fleeing. The strangers are unrelenting and more numerous, drastically reducing our chance to get out of here alive. We jump over corpses and avoid the swords. All the Spanish are now escaping, given that our likelihood of winning is extremely low. When I start running out of breath, we finally reach the lake’s bank where I can sit down under a tree. I am stunned and I try to process what just happened. I nervously cry with overwhelming sadness and I don’t understand why adults are so violent. They always need to fight with somebody, and I think they often don’t even know the reason behind it. Or maybe boredom is the reason that pushes them to commit such atrocities. Or stupidity. Or both. Personally, I don’t see any other valid reason justifying a three years trip through oceans, forests and volcanos just to end up drowned. “Que noche triste”, Marina whispers to me. What a sad night indeed, the saddest night of my life.
©️ photo from Unsplash.
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