Miracles are retellings in small letters of life stories
which seem too large for us to grasp. -- C.S. Lewis
This will be the day unholy. He knows that this must be. -------- The young man's name is Juan Jose da Brava Lander. He stands seventy-two stories up from the earth behind a spotless and impossibly large pane of thick glass -- it substitutes for one complete wall in his father's spacious executive office -- and it protects him from a vast toxic bubble of noxious and grimy ozone that settled down long ago like a smothering pillow over everyone and everything in the capitol. Lander is very close to the window, his outstretched fingers record oily prints on the translucent surface as he tilts forward and his warm breath leaves an irregular gray dot that will soon fade from sight. Up here he is high above the predator birds that slice through the polluted air, above the sharp pinnacles of dozens of tall commercial buildings and modern hotels, and above steaming streets crammed with scurrying people and eroding ancient cobblestone alleyways that crisscross the jittery hive that is Mexico City.
Lander's friends back home in the States, far removed from his father's birthplace and culture, call him Johnny. He allows himself a thrilling rush of fear, an uncontrolled and sickening dizzy senssation, as he peers all the way down to the Calle Real where it bisects the the granite surface of the Calle Gran Via. How long would it take, one thousand-one, one thousand-two, one thousand-three . . . to plunge through the grime thickened air, like a wingless eagle, unable to alter now chosen fate, and discover the secrets of rock bottom, he wonders. How would the impact feel?
Lander leans back and stands up straight. His body posture has been deteriorating, he fears, he looks down a lot at the ground before him, since recurring boundless and bottomless waves of depression have afflicted his mind, his heart, his outlook on existence. He looks out toward the far away northern perimeter of the rampant, multicultural ciudad, past the legendary central plaza called the Zocalo with its mysterious eight pathways shaped like a North Star -- the energetic locus of the great city, a practical gathering place since the days of the ancient Aztecan society, and in the direction of the legendary Tepeyac Hill, and on toward a horizon where wiggling solar heat waves rise up across the vista like fiery, waist-high fence posts and where the crispy crust of Mexican earth, once known as New Spain, curves down and away gravitationally to disappear from sight.
Once he had settled on the plan that would take him into the darkness of forever, Johnny felt a stirring inside. He wished to see his father one last time, so perhaps that inexplicable inner sensation was a longing for reconciliation between them or perhaps it was just a longing, on Johnny's part, for an apology from his parent. The great chasm between father and son had troubled Lander greatly as he exited his adolescent years and moved into early adulthood. So, since money was never a concern, Lander had flown back to Mexico City -- to say goodbye one way or the other. It upset him that DaBrava-Lander was nowhere to be found. It was the nature of his cloaked and serious business, these prolonged and unexplained absences, the boy had been told on many occasions. Lander settled in at the big house that his father owned, when necessary made a few purchases on several familiar teeming and tawdry streets in the shadows of the old city, waited for his father's return sometimes at the office instead of the DaBrava's palatial hacienda, and surrendered once again to the prickly temptations of Patron tequila shots, regretfulness, and an angry sense that lander could not shake that nothing made sense at all. After some days of isolation, moving from one station to the next completely on his own, coming and going at will from the house to the office to the streets, not caring at all what time or what day it was, Lander's still young brain had been baked again -- it had happened before -- into a lifeless adobe brick. His eyes burned like red coals and felt seared into their sockets. His lips were cracked and stinging. The tender membranes in his nose and upper throat were scalded. For the plentiful peyote from the streets -- for the mescal boosts and the array of other drugs that he craved -- he was once again handing over to his demons a painfully high price.
Lander glanced at his glittering, ridiculously expensive wristwatch, an 'I feel guilty again' gift that had been delivered by UPS Overnight from his father, purchased no doubt by some DaBrava Enterprises underling with funds drawn from one of the Senor's many illegal and wildly profitable escapades. Date and time, the young man noted, were December 9th and 2:00 PM -- a warm and humid, late-year moment even for Mexico City. Lander planned to take a speedy express elevator straight down to the airy and expansive third floor mezzanine in a matter of minutes. The elevator was slim and tight -- there was just enough room for 2 or 3 normal adult bodies to be crammed in uncomfortably -- and it was slickly disguised, hidden in case of emergencies, as an ornate closet door adjacent to this father's private washroom.
Looking left, Lander smiled wanly at Marcolino, a powerfully muscled and loyal body man in a sleek sharkskin black suit, starched white shirt and darkly rich red tie, perched noiselessly on a straight-backed wicker side chair. Marcolino's ominous presence, gun at the ready, always close on orders from the big boss, Miguel DaBrava, was meant to be reassuring to the young man. Lander was glad he was guarding the office door and the massive bullitt-proof pane of glass that enwrapped the large office suite. Then the gang boss felt a pang of sadness, as a heartlander and dark philosopher, for so, so many millions of little mestizos, and cowering natives, and unwanted children, dusty earth bugs crawling through life's passageways without compasses, navigating about weather-worn city grids, sneaking into the ancient alleyways for commercial goods to steal, fending off desperate denizens lurking in shadows ready to pounce, just to have something to accomplish, seeking some secret to it all, some secret, so piercing that when understood all things will forever change.
Early on in the rough trade, once they had all reached the interior of the Mexican states, his superiors and compadres gave Lander a nickname, Juanito. His real first and last name were never spoken again. He rubbed his eyes. During the dark night before, he had again seen in a dreamscape the innocent face a young Nahautl girl, a native of this region. A soft, wavewring glow emanated from around her head. He was certain that she was trying to say something, an important message, to him but her lips could not part. Over this Lander felt despair and a lagging sense of power. He felt that his time in this world, particles of sand slipping down through a smoky hourglass, was slipping away. Not only had he ruined thousands of other lives with the fruits of the agave, the liquid torment of mescal, now he was in turn ruining himself. Perhaps she was laboring to tell him so.
Lander's drug-fueled visions of the senorita had led him to curate a parallel personal habit both arcane and superstitious. He began to repeat it compulsively, like an addict will.
When he was haughty, young, and a zealous daredevil, in no manner needful of religious piety nor the hidden patron, El Senor en el cielo, whence time passing and calendars were of no concern,
because he fretted incessantly (as Mexican clocks ticked and tocked without mercy, as he kept glancing at all hours of the daylight while in his work suite, through that impossibly sturdy and bulletproof pane of tempered glass toward the towering timepiece on the government highrise out to his left, to the point of taking mild (so his circumspect physician had said) sedatives by day and through the black unknowns of his often lonely nights at his glorious hacienda, the finest that drug monies can build and buy, on the edge of Mexico City, a guilty response ridden with fears that usually led to spurting bloodlines in Lander's never restful and easy imagination, that involved the Virgin of Guadalupe. This why Lander's confused and guilt-wracked face had likewise turned so many times during times recent toward the fabled Tepeyac Hill on the northern rim of the bustling but twisted metroplex and why he, in the deep-dish privacy of his enviable decorated office, when he was secure in his belief that no one ever would enter, that he ran his right palm as delicately as he could imagine over the perfectionistically painted little statue of La Virgen with her linen, creamy veil in place over her expressionless visage -- with her symbolic black belt and slight baby-bump so obvious -- the long-standing redolent, rosy cheeked queen of the Indian natives, the treasured little work of Mexican art and plaster and paint that was planted in the grasp of his lined, slightly trembling left hand. Lander knew that he was going to die soon. With all his riches gleaned from his hard fought scramble up and through the honeycomb of the drug trade and the ruthless cartel, for all the worldly powers that he had taken for himself and his gangster compatriots as the unrelenting boss, who all sadly but certainly were now mostly extinct, moldering, and buried without ritual or ceremonies in plots unknown, and that he had murdered innocent and guilty others for, Lander remained confused because his rich but bloody means and ends seemed so irrevocably tied, almost but not quite yet dead to earthly life, to this religious image of an existence eternal, the hidden truths if any of the Tepeyac Hill long, long before the city became the sprawling, enormous, grinding and bussing Mexican metropolis, and the Virgin's little secret that, in time and church matters, became so luxuriantly (but perhaps bogusly) cleverly symbolized by wintry December roses, of all things unlikely and most unnatural.
His stalkers, shapeshifting night crawlers as Lander saw them vividly in dreams, cannibals actually in Aztecan mythological tales, were coming for him and he would probably die hideously, shot dead, cut up, and eaten lustily by these dark night-dancers, if he did not flee with hasty dispatch, Lander worried. In his mind's eye, he was a resourceful compadre, good fellow, once an immortal youthful man who sprung from the impervious and conquering States, and a storied villain in modern legends told throughout Mexico's barrios. Many locals, Lander among them, feared that the benighted shapeshifting soldiers who came from the dark place were ruled by the hideous Aztec god of the underworld and keeper of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli -- or Mictlanti -- and from his mythic burgeoning, pierced heart and unflagging spirit they would slither into your private quarters unfettered, into your restless, sweaty hours and dreams in the dark, and even into your bed clothes. The few victims who had seen the Aztecan shapeshifters and yet survived swore that at the moment they struck with vengeance they seemed like agile snakes who had been sent from crusted, blood-soaked sands now cupped under the dried bed of Lake Texcoco on which Tenochtitlan, island home first to Nahuatl tribes who emigrated from Atlan (the rumored cradle of human community on earth) and later the stout, wide-spreading precursor to the contemporary ciudad muy grande, positioned in the rich Valley of central Mexico. Perhaps this virgin girl would help him in his corrupt anxiety escape this ugly fate after all and the ruthless blood oath that his enemies, organized and unstoppably brutal and rapacious, had sworn against him, Lander thought ruefully.
|Mictlantecuhtli, God of Death|
Once again, with a softness and delicacy, he stroked the statue from top to bottom. He glanced toward the gold vase of fresh and fragrant red roses that he had had delivered daily to the hand-crafted wood desk in his polished office suite, during early morning hours, just after dawn, before his secretive arrival in the basement garage via his black and impossibly shiny Rolls Royce limousine, windows tinted as black as his unforgiving night-times at his cloaked but gorgeous hacienda. The only ones he lived under the hacienda roof with were the limited coterie of reverent and quiet little, superstitious housekeeper peasants, even today so much like the legendary servant of God, Juan Diego, said to descend from a local and spiritualistic Nahuatl tribe, illiterate and tongueless, thus unable to speak to anyone mythic or real (by his cruel fiat), and also fully locked-and-loaded and fatalistic bodyguards constantly on the watch -- with ready semi-automatic weapons and stacks of lethal ammo, at all entrances and exits so that no one could pass through, not even the ghostly and snake-like shapeshifters sent by Mictlanti, the skeletal god dispatching from the dried lake bed, to get at Lander. These vigilant and loyal hombres prepared ceaselessly to spirit The Boss quickly away, like a fleeing and desperately frightened little mob of native peoples fleeing an eclipse of the sun, within the armored limo, and the armored quintet of steely Hummers, and onto the mythical, disappearing dirt trails that forged their way into Mexican hillside hazes.
It was a painful and difficult life that he had chosen, Lander thought, so help me, God. At that thought he smiled, his heart cranked up with a hard jolt of cynicism. Maria, la madre de Dios, la virgen de las Americanos, was symbolically within Lander's grasp, right in his right hand, but he in his guilt and cognizant of his most ruthless history, could not yet grasp the secret, the key to a meaningful and happy existence, that this oddly demure, native girl and yet striking Mother Earth goddess had wished to impart, in a cold whisper, to the lonely man who knelt cowering before her, her breath lightly fogging the chilly pane of reality and fantasy that kept these two entities from touching and which seemed to extend up and into eternity. One of the two would have appeared, there at the foot of Tepeyac Hill, under a thick canopy of gray clouds, to casual passersby to be a humble, brown-skinned little Nahuatl descendant, a pietistic believer bowed and wrapped in his warm serape, down on his skinned knees, who went on from that strange encounter in December 1531 straight to becoming a changed and committed servant of God, who submerged his real name, his native identity -- his most precious possession, all this in the name of the Savior of the world, and who was christened Juan Diego. The other would have been seen as a gentle peasant girl yet somehow so lofty, shining, and present -- like the long-reverenced female deity Tlalcihuatl, goddess of the earth, flowing daughter of the most high god of will, Huitzilopochtli. It would have been a tableau colorful and worthy of El Greco and other refined Spanish artists. But that legendary pair of bodies in that storied encounter, on the north rim of the ancient island community of Tenochtitlan, in fact were never really there at all, nor was the lady's frosty breath, nor Juan Diego's protestations of faith, not any more than fresh roses or a tacky paint palette and brush would have been.
. . . While stroking the statue of La Virgen, Lander looked through the gleaming bright window to the north -- what if I had never been here at all as well? Where does someone depraved and lost like me turn, corrupt in my heart and essence, at such moments, he thought, feeling ready to lay down and decompose, his tarnished mind goading him about ghostly and lethal shapreshifting stalkers as if it were full of sharp and curling waves crashing along unknown shores, overflowing its natural boundaries, an unrecognizable and turbulent sea, or jammed to its bursting points with pointy nails and harsh irony.
|The Aztec Calendar|
Zocalo central, main plaza in Mexico City (Templo Mayor, 1521)
Hernan Cortez 1521
Palpably haughty with a hint of angst
If I were a psychologist, or at least a smarter man, I would love to write (in a psychologically-sophisticated manner) about what really happened, if anything at all, on Tepeyac Hill, which is to be found on the near-north edge of today's Mexico City, on the rumoured winter-chilly sunrise of December 9, 1531.
It's a fascinating, legend-worthy piece -- a movie-thriller in its origins -- the story about the mysterious Tepeyac occurrence, which stars a dark and whispering virgin, plus a humble lonely (and recently widowed) little man. It might even be classified a medieval, mythological morality play, by some who hear it. To a semi-knowledgeable, coffee-table psychologist like myself, the religiously-pregnant symbolism and the sharply-drawn shadow images, in a purely Jungian sense, within this questionable Mexican myth-telling of the highly unlikely, make me eager to know more. If only at least one of us -- you or me -- could fly timelessly back to 'the rest of the story,' now, that would be a miracle (that is, you see, if anything happened at all on that hillside in late 1531 . . .) because the whole unlikely plot has been mired in sticky pools of religious doubt, by many among the world's spiritual intelligencia, for centuries. Yes, literally, centuries.
Headline: John Paul II Makes 'Juan Diego' a Catholic Saint in 2002
Some of the wise ones among us earth-bound folks claim that miracles happen inevitably to those who believe in them.
And, so, ancient Mayan and Christian-Mexican legends have it that a dark-skinned female apparition -- a suddently-there vision of a teenaged young lady (obviously a Native American and Mexican-bred), say about 14 or 15 years old, seemingly an Indian local's imaginative take on the famous Mary of Nazareth, La Virgen, began calling out -- in a dark and whispery voice -- from a rolling, pastoral hillside, early on a painfully-cold December morning, the 9th, in 1531. The little lady endeavored to get the attention of a preoccupied, simple, illiterate -- but deeply bereaved and religious -- widower, born and raised as Talking Eagle (real name: Cuauhtlatoatzin -- later called Juan Diego after his Christian baptism by some Franciscan monks from Spain) as he made his way to church. She said she had an urgent message for the world, utilizing a kind but mysterious demeanor (or so it says in the books about her), just like she usually has whenever she has broken briefly back -- at other locales, in other eras -- into the unfolding history of the human drama. To date, there remain many who seriously question if ever there was a lonely widower named Talking Eagle, or a Juan Diego, or a dark and kind-hearted female vision in a blue serape, who is now known as La Virgen de Guadalupe, but at least we can acknowledge that there is a real Tepeyac Hill sitting out there in the Mexico City 'burbs of today, but the hillside frankly is not telling us what really took place, if anything happened at all.
Looking at the reputed big picture of events, centuries later, the young lady's clear message ('build a religious shrine here on Tepeyac and convince the homeboy Catholic bishop, and all of your peeps, that I am real') does not seem so hill-shaking, faith-enhancing, telegram-urgent, or church-rattling. It's kinda pedestrian 'been there done that' apparition fare, if you ask me. No 'you ain't seen nothing yet!' No big pop; no blinding flash. Apparently, it (the divine revelation that the humble La Virgen Pequena spoke to a stunned and shaky Talking Eagle, causing him to jump out of his rough-hewn sandals) simmers down to an age-old storybook lesson (one that's been told many many times over, starting with the Book of Genesis), one that is absolutely cherished by much of the human race; and it appears to be this: an unchanging Creator loves his simple little creatures, which would be us homies, yes, us human beings, and that said Creator continues to reach out to us, affectionately, in all of our free-will folly and stupidity and stumbling with a heartfelt divine longing. This is so He can gently nudge us back on the murky path when we idiotically (repetitiously) cause things to go spinning wildly in really bad directions. Only, you see, there was a fun, divinely-playful, all 16th Century twist to the oft-repeated divine lesson that was delivered from the Heavenly (perhaps) on December 9, 1531, in barely tamed old Mexico. On that fateful sunrise, or so the legend says, God happened to dispatch his Mom (Mary of Nazareth -- yes, actually a poor Jewish girl -- looking like a brown-skinned, hardly regal, common indigenous peasant), instead of His larger-than-life male Godself, to caution God's stumbling creatures, 'cuz perhaps He was occupied with big trouble elsewhere with other earthlings @ the time, or perhaps He was ironically enjoying an early yuletide break, or because He figured sagely that 'if these boneheads won't listen to Jesus, or the Dad well, then maybe they'll take a clue from his Mom.' In this take on the J.D. narrative, very much like the timeless Nazareth manger story, the Godly proves to be upsetting to legions of rich and famous, and powerful, because it looks like a commoner, sounds just like a commoner, dresses like a commoner, and worse, to cultured but misguided Christians, like a dark-skinned Mexican -- like a power-Mestizo portrait of the Heroine of the kiddies' classic Runaway Bunny.
So, the unplanned reports of all this these mysterious goings-on between Talking Eagle and The Lady, and his disbelieving Franciscan bishop, must have come as quite a shock to the systems of the pure-blood, pure-bred Spaniards who were (a) over-powering the post-Colombian landscape, and (b) others who were passing their time back in Europe --like, say, the narrow-minded racial and social bigots running Arizona today -- since (as far as they, the Europeans, fallaciously believed) God the Almighty, the Creator of all, was firmly on their side of the equation, not those humble little folks, 'natives' that had been found running around that (possibly) gold-bearing answer to all of humankind's desires -- the rumoured El Dorado.
[For a minute or so, take time to consider the context of the early 1530s in old Mexico, birthplace of Talking Eagle and his extended Mayan neighborhood. It had been slammed by a vicious, resident-slaying occupation army belonging to the Spanish conqueror Cortes and his King; it tingled with the sultry temptations of wealth and power and European values, a whole new set of concepts for the indigenous -- Dios mio, look at those glitterly gold swords and breastplates and knives!; and it was made toxic via a bushel-basket full of unsavory white-person values (plus communicable diseases, of course) that had been slammed down into the verdant and innocent, and agrarian, culture of Native Americans by the Spaniard Christians. Sadly, it is taught that the wife of Talking Eagle (she was baptized with the name Maria Lucia) eventually lost her life thanks to one one of those ship-born, deadly viruses. So, as Mark Twain was to claim sardonically, some centuries later, about the French adventurer Cavalier de LaSalle's claiming of primitive Louisiana at the foot of the Mississippi -- 'The whole territory thereabouts was claimed by the bold explorer, who came from lusty Europe, at the bidding of his powerful King and homeland; then the Church-worthy chaplain/monk who was also on the unsavory journey celebrated the bald-faced and abominable robbery with a hymn and a Mass.']
An Unsolved Mystery (Mexico City Edition)
Nobody in Europe, or elsewhere that we can tell, wrote officially, or even creatively, about Juan Diego y La Virgen until about 1650. Thus, before our mass communication era, during this 120 actual years or so (1531-1650), roughly, an eon went on by -- during which mythologists, Mexican storytellers, Mayan lovers, and Christian believers, and all manner of other storytellers could go to work, elaborate, make stuff up, manufacture evidence, and cook up clever and catchy 'did you know's' about a lonely, childless, grieving peasant-widower who was, unexpectedly, called to by a comely and young (perhaps pregnant) native girl, covered by a blue serape, from up on a beautiful Mexican hillside one chilly December morning.
Admittedly though, whatever went on there, if anything at all, it makes for a compelling psycho-thriller and a very classy plot, the stuff movies are made of, if you just fill in some details in between the paper-thin script lines. Did you happen to know, for example, that while the Catholic Spaniards were scooping up big gobs of those golden, delicious New World treasures, there in the mid-1500s, back in the oh-so civilized world of Iberia and other European turfs, just about everyone was freaking out, yes, going totally psych-out haywire, over the heretic Luther's bold assertions and the flashmobs of the Reformation that were rocking the casbah? Can't you wonder in faith, or at least simple amazement, how a timely miracle in the New World -- which clearly proved that grand heretical miscues were taking place in Germany and elsewhere -- came rolling like thunder out of the untamed West, like an unsolve-able mystery, at such a critical juncture of Western Christian history? (Here's another metaphor for you to contemplate about those times: cue the actor Robert Stack; he is wearing a Mexican trench coat and a jaunty gentleman's sombrero; he walks out of the cacti and shadows on a darkling slope of Tepeyac Hill; she strides upright into a well-lighted patch of ground; Stack stares earnestly into his camera shot, then intones in a breathless voice, 'It's one of the great unsolved religious cases of all times, set in ancient Mexico -- an unsolved mystery of the 16th Century. And it contains, for some, a timeless spiritual message . . . . like no other!!' The TV picture blends slowly to a stark black-and-white screen, as a lonely little man -- apparently a Mexican native -- in a rather-nice tan serape and sandals, makes his way down a rough and rocky path. Winds blow. Morning snowflakes fly. Suddently he hears a voice shouting . . .
Now, This Is as Far as We Go
If I could, I would now have you access an audio-file brimming with the smooth voice of Mr. Paul Harvey, the radio legend. He would read, on that file, "Well now, we've all heard the religious story about a simple, grieving, and lonely Mexican peasant who, one unseasonable and chilly December morning somewhere near to today's Mexico City, on his way to an uncommon Saturday church service, met an attractive young senorita in blue who called to him, gently, kindly, but quite assertively, from a pretty rolling hillside. Then, because this faithful peasant could not in his right mind believe her fantastic message, she somehow perfectly imprinted her colorful portrait on his strangely, way-too-expensive cloak, and also (to prove her point) stuffed it full of a big bunch bee-yoo-tee-full . . . red. . . . roses! Yes, That man, Talking Eagle, by name, was perplexed because she had claimed . . . When he was done (after being interrupted once for a cheerful Cream of Wheat or Denture-Paste commercial), Harvey would sum the questionable Juan Diego y La Virgen script for all it was worth -- dramatic pauses admirable -- capping with iconic, upbeat capper: "Annnndddd now! You know. . . . Good. Day!"
Only, to be truthful, we do not know it -- that is, the rest of the story. More details would simply be fiction; in fact, that's what some people will say I have added above. So only the Lord God knows what really happened on that December day. If anything. And unlike his Mom, in December 1531, God is not talking about it.
Since I'm not a psychoanalyst, nor even a decent coffee-table shrink, I have to grab at flashing-light unsolved mysteries as best I can. Were I to be challenged to pen a contemporary script of the new Juan Diego and the Dark Lady dvd -- I'd probably wind up casting Johnny Depp as Talking Eagle and Ellen Page (who played the cheeky, pregnant Juno) as the Apparition. Page one of the script would begin:
"December 9, 1531 -- it is a glistening and coldly dewy morning in the primitive Mexican 'burbs as warmly-cloaked, fully-armed Spanish soldiers and shivering, poor local peasants begin to stir. Pale yellow sunrays peak over the hilltops. Then . . . . "
As wise men and women assert, miracles occur to those who believe in them. Now, go, you write the story. At least think about this medieval tale as if Stephen King or Dean Koontz had penned it not so long ago. That's right, imagine. Now you've got it rolling. --
(Post-Script: It's unthinkable almost, but Talking Eagle, a.k.a. Cuauhtlatoatzin -- is improbably pictured above this actual blogpost. He has somehow misplaced his peasant and Mexican-Mayan looks, in the mists of time, so that he could forever resemble a mannerly, European gentry born in a province of Spain. Unthinkable. Unlikely. But, as the writers of history and fiction often point out, the victors collect the mythologies. Those who win the wars and conquer foreign peoples write the history books and paint the official portraits. And, in the end, a key lesson here is that power and money conquer most things, and those who possess them get to tell their version of the tale that captures the imagination.)