The Toltec Arts

When the experiment at Tulan failed, the Creator cursed our endeavor by scrambling the speech of the tribes. Each tribe knew they must flee in all directions and never see each other again. Before they disbanded fully, the tribes were able to agree upon one symbol of their knowledge, which they could use to identify each other in the future, should they happen to cross paths again. That symbol was the twin boys. In our language, they were called Hunahpu and Xbalanque. All of our knowledge led back to that base. Perhaps they were real, most likely they were not, but the boys were a subterfuge that contained hidden truths about the nature of man and the power he could attain if he followed specific steps. We were the Toltecs and we knew how to apply those steps. Now, we were poised to break our secrets open and teach them to the foreign tribes around us. We would teach them about the twin.

Our own tribe had long ago splintered. Recently, we learned that they were still alive and misusing their knowledge to subjugate and dominate the peoples around them. We felt responsible for their continued existence. They worshipped demons disguised as deities. They were idolaters. They were sacrificers of men.

Naualalom, the king, had sent envoys of war to the peoples around us to secure them as allies against the dark ones. Ambassadors and royalty were filing into our city to learn how to protect themselves from our estranged brothers. Pochtecas, landless and itinerant merchants, had also become our allies and were now in our midst. We would make brothers of them all.

So scattered were the original tribes of Tulan that only once had ours heard of the twins from another people. My uncle, the Cabicacmotz, was of a brother tribe. His sister and he had shipwrecked on our shores and been adopted into the tribe. No one knew where he had come from, not even he. Because he was identified as coming from the original tribes of Tulan, he was accepted and welcomed into our society. He became the principal teacher of wisdom as well as the chief advisor to my father, Naualalom.

All children from the noble houses were required to learn with the Cabicacmotz and other teachers. Children from the lower castes would learn alongside us only if an important sign pointed them out as special. My only friends were from the fieldworker’s class. They were Hac and Cham. Their parents had been elevated to landowners, given a new home and a farm with field hands. It was a great honor to have a child being trained to have their genius emerge. For me, it was not left to chance. It was required.

At the Festival of Adults, portents determined that I would learn to smoke the seven-pronged leaf from the Etamanel Evan. He was an odd man who dressed like a beggar and his instruction was to be overseen by his superior the Tzuhunik, since his slovenly teaching methods were under review. The female sentries, the Chuchmox, would teach me gazing. Ahtoobalvar, a sculptor and a master of the double, was my dreaming teacher. The Cabicacmotz and his teammates, the Jaguars, would teach me how to play the ballgame Bateh and I was apprenticed to my father to learn the art of governance. The one that filled me with fright, though, was the Balam Ch’ab.

It was my thirteenth day of instruction in the arts. My appointment was with the Balam Ch’ab. An omen at the festival of Adults had determined that I would learn how to transform myself into a jaguar as he could.

It was early morning and I stood upon one of the temple roofs with the Cabicacmotz and Chahel, my pet jaguar and constant companion. The jungle canopy to the east shaded the barren floor of the complex. The temple tops glinted with a golden hue as if tears of a god had just dripped on them from above. Soon they would come alive like fire. From our vantage point, we could see the fires of the pochtecas as they camped in the fields before the jungle. Chuchmox, female sentries, were at their posts, reclined like statues as they kept watch over our lands. Their bright clothing, reflecting their directions, stood out in the shadowed gloom.

I was so nervous that my bowels felt loose. Once again, I questioned the Cabicacmotz as to why I had to go and see the Balam Ch’ab. The question never changed and the answer never did, either.

“You must go because a pebble lodged in the heel of your sandal.”

It was true and I considered it the feeblest of omens. At the festival, when we were near the Balam Ch’ab’s group, I had to walk on the balls of my feet because of that blasted pebble. The Cabicacmotz explained to me that since the stone had forced me to walk like a jaguar, I was destined to learn that art. Unfortunately, the Balam Ch’ab was the first in his group to see the omen. How I wished the pebble had made me walk on the heels of my feet.

Last night, he had spoken to me at my father’s compound. He did his best to put me at ease, yet I found him too sober and pious. He spoke of many things, such as the Creator and his distaste in hearing that I would have lessons with the Etamanel Evan. Being just a boy; I had no defense against his use of words and logic.

When I expressed my lack of faith in the divine because of murder and other things I disliked about the world, he chided me and told me that I was not searching for the Creator, but for a puppet-master.

He said, “You want a god who will protect you from others who are exercising their freewill. You despise the idea of freewill. People talk about how they love having freewill, but that is a lie. Everyone actually would prefer freedom from choice. At least, freedom from the choices of others. Come to terms with the knowledge that in this world, everything is permitted, but not everything is sanctioned by the Creator. We can do anything we please, but that does not make it right. In this world, savagery is possible, but so also is great good. It is as if he has given us autonomy to see what we make of it. Perhaps only through self-governance can we understand his governance.”

His every word appealed to my reason, yet I still felt guilt and anger at growing up without my mother. My mind was a calm sea, rationally taking in everything he said and my heart was a boiling pot, ready to spill liquid and wrath wherever it could. I felt split in two.

When he had shown up at my father’s home, he had interrupted a lesson that I was to have with the seven-pronged leaf. He disliked the use of plants, but grudgingly conceded a point to me when I countered his opinions with the example of the Tzuhunik, who spoke and behaved in a clear and orderly manner.

He replied, “I’ve mentioned that plants get you from your everyday awareness to another point of reality so quickly that you can never hope to get there again without the help of the plant. The Tzuhunik has my respect because he has noticed a very important point in the whole process. Plants might get one to another point of reality too fast for one to learn how to do it, but that is not necessarily the true role of plants; it is only one of their drawbacks. Their real role is to provide the possibility of another point.”

I forget the rest of his statements about the weed, but when he saw that I did not understand his point, he clarified it by saying, “Do you see, Zaki? Without plants, man might never conceive that there are other possibilities of being. That is why we need plants. Not because they carry us from everyday reality to extraordinary reality, but because we could never conceive that those states of reality even exist, on our own. That is their gift. Possibility.”

It made me feel better, yet I still knew that the weed might make me lax and weak-willed. I also knew that he would watch me closely to make sure that I did not allow myself to become either.

The Cabicacmotz pulled my attentions back to the temple top. He pointed to a parade of figures in the distance. “There is the Balam Ch’ab’s father, the Ahtzic Uinac, the master storyteller.”

I saw a palanquin carried by eight men in the group and asked him what it was. Palanquins were seldom used and usually only by visiting royal women. My father had an entourage of guards, but it was his custom to walk in the open.

“The Ahtzic Uinac is a frail and elderly man. He would not be able to get around at all, but for his attendants. To accompany you to see the Balam Ch’ab is beyond his abilities. The training home is deep in the jungle.”

“Why does he need to come along? I don’t want to force a man out of his sickbed just to walk into the jungle with me. Why can’t you walk me there?”

The Cabicacmotz looked at me as if was a fool. After a moment, his face softened and he said, “I forget you are young, Zaki. You never learned how things were done. This is the story-master’s duty. That man has enough will to get out of bed to accompany a prince to his first lesson with his own son, the great Balam Ch’ab. He would never pass along this duty, not even to his named successor. So be polite and listen to everything he says. His story will hold lessons for you regarding the changing of a man into a jaguar.”

He climbed down from the roof of the altar and helped me down.

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