From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

A Song to Greet the Sun

i.

Will her brothers mourn
the loss of their jeweled seed?
Her mother has baked all night
dead silent in the kitchen.
The ashes are bitter as cacaotl grounds
But give no liminal visions.
Sunrise: the bread is dense, each slab gray as evening moss.
The father will not eat his slice—
It’s salted with his tears.

He used the natleoc, the stick of thorns covered in dust and spores above his doorway, for that was what the priests prescribed and he would have this done as the gods demanded. She did not cry when the sharp points broke her skin, and so he hit her a second time. They both stared at the blood coursing down her arm and breast, astonished and a little afraid at the beauty of the forbidden liquid.

“Father?” she said, just like that. Mild and trusting, and he recalled when she had been younger, a child, not the disobedient strumpet before him, and a red cormorant had stolen the choicest wood-ear from her basket.

“Father?” she had said, and he’d given her two of his own, and she’d smiled.

As she’d smiled for that barbarian? That bare-chested metl?

The sun god shalt not suffer a disobedient daughter to live. And his priests shalt not suffer her father to receive the twelfth district tax appointment, the one for which he had slaved these more than twenty years, without extreme repentance.

“Father?” she said again, as the blood dripped onto his floor, marking his house with his spilled honor. Condemning her to death. There had been spores on the natleoc, more than enough to poison her blood, even without the miasma of river air. But she didn’t seem to understand.

He must finish it. They said he must, to reclaim his family’s honor.

But he could not speak. So he hit her again, across her cheek. The thorns bit deep, and this time she did cry out. She stumbled to her knees.

“Is this about Colqi?”

The whole district already knew. He was a laughingstock. His friend Ollin, the twelfth district constable, had told him of his daughter’s disobedience and recommended he see the priests. “Your daughter has been seen by the river, holding hands with a metl. The one who plays reeds in the cacaotl house.”

And the priests had given him a feather, yellow for vengeance, and told him to break her skin. He would dye it red with her blood and bring the proof back to them, and by such measures would his shame be expiated.

He killed her then, closed his eyes to the sight of her blood, his ears to the sound of her sharp breaths.

“Father,” she said, “you have killed me.”

So he shattered her jaw and she could not speak.

So he crushed her windpipe and she could not weep.

And in her lips, he put a wizened wood-ear, because he remembered she had loved them, and went off to fetch his wife. His sons were good boys; they had held back their mother long enough.

ii.

His legs are long, lithe with unearned grace
His fingers dance like caterpillar legs
Over the reeds of his pipes
He hides from the sun
But the river hears—it loves him as she does.
She, the sun’s daughter, by conquering fathers forbidden
To keep her heart in the basket of his reeds—
Fragile beneath the one-eyed god’s stare.

Constable Ollin is out traveling. So the girls whisper and laugh at Number 12, the cacaotl house where he and the other petty bureaucrats of the twelfth district like to partake in the evening. Zorrah regards him with mild curiosity between her sets. It’s not like the dour constable to order such fine mushroom grounds in his cacaotl—he is known to enjoy less stupefying brews.

She’s dressed in little but her cochineal hair and clacking castanets. When she dances, Ollin stares along with the rest, but who knows what music he sees, or what rainbows he hears.

“Her hair sounds just like morning,” Ollin says, late in the night. Another patron, deep into Number 12’s legendary Quetzal brew, nods in complete understanding.

The rumor of what happened to that girl, that daughter of the crabbed tax collector Mazatlin, spreads through the tavern like the bitter resin of grounds steeped overlong in a brew. She hadn’t been very pretty, Zorrah remembers, but she had a smile that could coax the sun to love the moon.

An honor killing? That little man? That beautiful smile? “Old Miq had better retire soon, else Mazatlin might honor kill him too!” one passably bold wit offers, but the constable merely nods his head to unseen music. The others laugh nervously. Old Miq, the twelfth district comptroller whose job Mazatlin so violently desires, has been known to deny favors to those with indiscreet tongues.

Halfway through the night, the piper Colqi seems to choke on his reeds. He’s metl, but it’s a lax crowd at Number 12, more concerned with the potency of the brew and the tapestry of the music than the fickleness of imperial policy. That’s just their day job. Still, the jeers as he stumbles off the stage have a cruel aftertaste, a privileged savor.

“Your mother teach you to suck like that?”

“What can you expect? Bunch of lazy monkeys.”

“Leave him be!” shouts Zorrah, and they all do. Cochineal hair commands respect.

The music resumes, absent silent pipes. The metl goes traveling, hunkered down in the shadows like a wood-ear on the underside of a rotting log.

From the muddy banks of the Nanacoal,” says the constable, a vague quotation, involuntarily uttered.

The metl has heard. “I have gathered the reeds,” he says, finishing the line.

The constable: “I wove them tightly enough for a desiccated heart.”

And oh, the metl’s voice is suddenly like that of his reeds, dark as silt, turbulent as the river:

Not yet have I found you.
And I am left with this basket of the river’s weeds
Filled only with my longing
And the one-eyed god’s flesh.

The constable begins to weep. Everyone sees, but no one makes much of it. He’s traveling, after all.

“I saw you smiling by the river,” the constable says. “You touched her arm. That smile could greet the sun!”

“That’s not how it goes,” giggles one of the other girls as she comes up behind him. “Don’t you know your Ilticloc? Maybe someone should refresh your memory.”

The constable follows her lead, stumbles up the stairs.

The metl travels alone.

iii.

The reeds are a safe place to hide a heart
Says Ilticloc, and who are we to argue?
Where can the moon and sun love, but in the shadows?
But she steps beyond their fall
To the one-eyed god’s embrace—fierce and fleeting.
My love, says the moon’s son
Caterpillar fingers dancing along her breast.
Stay by my side, and we will always sing the brightest colors.
My love, says the sun’s ward
Her smile a tongue of its flame.
I would put the pomegranate seed between your lips,
I would strike my shells to the beat of your heart,
Were my will my own.
Sweeter than any jeweled seed, that kiss
Emboldened by her fickle sun.

High above the riverbank, the constable—
Who has longed for her symphony these many years—
Sees all.

We loved her, never let them say otherwise, in all the ways brothers can love a sister. Every summer, at high sun, she would spend all night gathering wood-ears and glow tongues to weave into wreaths. The best in the district, and she made them for both of us, so the girls would look as we walked along the river, and wonder if we might ask their fathers for permission.

To our mother, she gave the best of all, with the reds of wild soma and the blues of poison nightshade. At night, mother would glow like the empress, and our father was proud.

We loved our little sister, you see, but our father is our family’s sun, his word a surrogate for the god’s, and she had defied him. We had no choice; there will be war at the end of the rains, and we will make our names in it, so long as we may bear our father’s sign and his grace.

Our mother did not understand. We held her arms as she wept and cursed, and though we spoke to cover the sound, we all heard our sister’s cries, blue as the poison nightshade she’d once wreathed around our mother’s neck.

“Do you remember, mother,” we said, “when our sister was ten and father lost her in the streets by the palace? How we all looked for hours, calling her name, peering inside every door? And do you remember that night, after the moon had risen and ascended its heights, a woman leaves the palace by a side gate. Her hair is silver with blight, her eyes reflective as a cat’s. And she is holding our sister’s hand, and they are talking like the moon to the stars? The woman was princess Xocotzin, mother, do you remember? Before the emperor banished her to that convent.”

“Yes,” our mother said, when we had thought fury sealed her lips. “ ‘She’s a bold one,’ the princess told me. ‘I pray the sun won’t burn her.’ And now I sting at the reproach in her eyes that day, the sorrow of the blight and of each year’s first morning.”

Our mother fell silent, and in that moment we all three realized the house was still. An ominous absence, colored gray as slate after the rains.

Below us, no one cried. Then our father’s footsteps, heavy on the stairs.

“It’s done,” our mother said, and held us so we could weep.

iv.

If the sun cannot mourn, the moon will.
If the moon cannot mourn, the earth will.
If the earth cannot mourn, may the river?
And if not the river, at least the hollow reeds
Whistling along its banks.
Leave him be, the one who whispers hoarsely there.
You have forsaken his joy,
You have buried his heart in the river’s clay.
What is left to him now but the memory of a song
The sweet red seed never tasted?

The years had twisted my husband, my Mazatlin, the way an oak tree will grow gnarled and hard around the persistent flowering of honey mushrooms. But I had always thought of his heart, like that of the oak, as strong and unblemished. I had not thought the rotting threads reached so deep. Now, I recall the heartsblood, the dreaded spore that shoots its threads through our veins, reaching blindly and steadily for the heart. And when it arrives, it takes root. It grips like a choke vine and when it grows, it blooms.

A fortnight, a death’s face, the saying goes. And I have never seen the heartsblood bloom, but he had. He told me the misshapen floret of that deadly mushroom does resemble a face, never revealed until the host’s life has fled. It bursts through the chest wall at the very end—a stranger’s face to bring you to death.

He had seen his uncle die like that, when he was a child. He understood why the gods enjoined us to never break the skin, to never profane our hearths with blood.

And yet he sliced her with the natleoc, he made her bleed before he killed her. The priests told him to, he said, as though I should congratulate him for his careful adherence to their instructions.

I told him I was leaving.

He had not stopped weeping since the moment her cries finally ceased, but he did then, his face frozen with shock.

“You too?” he said, as though our daughter had wanted to have her blood spilled, her throat crushed.

I saw our wedding in his eyes, heard the singers’ twining harmonies as we walked through the streets. I saw the nun break the pomegranate, scattering it seeds.

I put the jeweled seeds between your lips,” my love had said, because he was no fool or illiterate, ignorant of his Ilticloc.

Oh, to be the ruby in your lips,” I said.

The longing and the light on your tongue.”

And so we had kissed, and if the seeds that day were bitter, I did not notice. I named my daughter for them.

“Where can you go, woman?” my husband asked, arm raised as though he would strike me, too. “Who would take in a disobedient wife?”

“The lady Xocotzin,” I said, for I remembered the story my sons had told me and held it like one of my daughter’s wreaths.

“You will shame me. We could have so much, soon.”

I shook my head. “They will never give you that post, Mazatlin. It was always meant for Ollin.”

The lady Xocotzin has welcomed me, and lets me share in her cacaotl. Each time, I pray for visions of my daughter, but I see nothing but heartsblood, a man rotting from within.

v.

The nochtli cactus-pear is orange for a princess
And white for the gods.
Merchants hawk their fruit like jewels, this Liminal Night.
But the girl who walks alone has no care for her belly.
Ayamotli lingers like pepper on her tongue.
What sound is that, what skillful notes
Draw her closer to the shadows?
It is the metl, laughing with his kind,
Feasting on Liminal visions, and each bite a song.
Her questions float between them—

After all,
They are traveling together.

The first time she finds you, it’s the Night of Liminal Dreaming, at the start of carnival. You have never met her before, and she is asking for a song.

“Sweet and sticky and rich, like a pear tart with curds and honey,” she says, and because it’s the first night, you understand. A few hours ago you too drank the ayamotli, the nectar of the gods, and in a few hours you too will be traveling.

You lift the reeds to your lips, and they are as familiar to you as your fingers and your breath. You play as she asks, a song of your people and of your childhood. “How far the sun?” cries the flute. “Near as your heart, far as your love’s.” She doesn’t know the tune, but she smiles, for it goes down sweet and sad, just like she wanted.

She is alone this first night, or has slipped away from a parental gaze occluded by visions of gauzy heavens, of powers only annually accessible.

And because it’s a Liminal Night, because the ayamotli has turned words to colors, smells to symphonies, songs to braided carpet, you ask her to go traveling with you. You know you shouldn’t, that hands so soft and hair so dark could only belong to one of them. They have taken your people’s land, outlawed your customs, sacrificed your children to their flaming god. They have shunned and exploited you, and they may kill you if they see you corrupting one of their daughters with your song.

But it is carnival, with more powers abroad than even this insatiable empire can constrain. You look at her clear, enchanted eyes—they are like the river, and she floats upon it. Concentrate, and so can you. You touch her hands and you both hover a few impossible inches above the mud brick pavement.

“Will you write a song for me?” she asks. “For the carnival and the river and the forbidden streets where your people live?”

“Now?” you say, startled.

She won’t meet your eyes. “I cannot stay long from my family. But songs remember where they were born—even on my side of the river.”

Just like one of them, to demand something so precious and pretend to have some right to it. Your fury boils the air around you yellow and green. This means nothing to her. You’re the ball in her game, the carnival is her field.

Her sandals smack the pavement. She’s lost the ayamotli’s grip. “You hate me,” she says.

“No.” And it hovers somewhere near the truth.

You imagine everything this girl represents, every wrong her people have committed against yours, every barbed boundary between your world and hers.

“What’s your name?” you ask.

She tells you as you both float away.

vi.

Only the mother wears mourning red.
Within convent walls, she does not see
The father, passed over and lonely
Finding no solace among the colors of the earth.
The brothers have gone to war—
One wears his sister’s token against his breast
One will die on the sun god’s mountain.
The metl has made a new song:
Yellow, for anger
Blue, for memory
Black, for oblivion.
On the banks of the Nanacoal,
A boar has trampled the reeds.

Father! His beauty is deeper than the sky! He sings, and he will weave a song for me when we marry. His eyes are so light, his hair so sleek. And we have flown through the city, over merchant’s courtyards and temple pyramids. We have slept with our heads pillowed on the waves, we have sunk to the bottom of the ocean and seen great volcanoes on the edge of a monstrous lake. We have sat by the river and stared at the sun and I have understood every song ever written.

Oh, Father! May you bless me, for I am his.

johnsonAlaya (rhymes with “papaya”) lives, writes, cooks and (perhaps most importantly) eats in New York City. Her literary loves are all forms of speculative fiction, historical fiction, and the occasional highbrow novel. Her culinary loves are all kinds of ethnic food, particularly South Indian, which she feels must be close to ambrosia. She graduated from Columbia University in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures, and has lived and traveled extensively in Japan.

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