The Source of Fr. Santiago de Guerra de Vargas' Monstrous Crimes - Part One
By: Robert Masterson
They rode, those who had horses, and they walked, those who did not, south from Mexico, south from the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, brought low. Led by el Caballero Pedro de Alvarado under orders from His Most Catholic Commander Hernán Cortés, the expedition bore letters of marque to explore, locate, and conquer every pagan country to be found. Under the flags of His Holiness Pope Pius IV and His Majesty King Phillip II, every devil, demon, and dybbuk berobed in the drifting ash of that once floating imperial city rode with them and, in particular with the priest de Vargas. Armor and arms glittering in the New World’s sun, banners and streamers afloat from pike and pole, soldiered ranks and mounted gentlemen of adventure, trains of mules and two-wheeled carts baggage laden, the mass of native fighters conscripted, chained slaves and women, and with the religious processioned holding Holy Cross and icon before them, a slow clot of dust loosed into the air to rise and mark their journey. The corridor they laid upon the ground was both deep and broad, ignored the native highways leading who knew where, and would remain after their passing to become nueva carretera for any to follow. The enterprise moved south from the marshy, high plano surrounding the Mexican capital to climb the pass between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre del Sur skirting the snow-capped Pico de Orizaba, the dormant volcano of "pleasing waters," and down, down into the green maelstrom of Yucatán with only two directives: find gold and save souls.
Santiago de Guerra de Vargas returned to his wooden hut after bearing witness to the day’s mass baptisms/executions. He had duly recorded, as was his wont and duty, the number of converted and the number of those propelled to the welcoming arms of their new Savior. Though watching so many people die upset his scholarly tendencies (today’s total was 783 bound heathens sprinkled with the Holy Water that would cleanse their blackened souls before they were hung and then sent straight to Paradise before the opportunity to sin tempted them from the true path of Righteousness), he was compelled to silently rejoice at the bounty of new adherents to the One True Faith, how God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son would smile upon their efforts to induce the growth of the Holy Mother Church in this New World. The voices that droned in his ears were his and his alone, their constant tintination a familiar commentary on all to which he was witness, a devilish, native criticism of all the expedition accomplished. He waved his hand around his head as if to banish flies, but the voices persisted in their Nahuatl interpretation of events.
Unlike other expeditions franchised by His Majesty Charles V, Lord over the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, the Burgundian Low Countries, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and the wonderous New World, this expedition followed the True Cross. They were intent on finding not merely riches, but souls, human souls, to feed the always hungry Church. His Excellency, the Most Revered Bishop Diego de Landa rode his black gelding on the right hand of el Señor Alvarado to lead them all in service to God with plunder a most secondary consideration. To Santiago, the entire troop seemed to glow with the holiness of its mission, to become the beacon of light that would guide these monstrous pagan idolaters to salvation, death, and Glory. And it appeared to be working. Santiago wrote:
Pedro de Alvarado, there to take the heathen enclave of Q'umarkaj, moved forward with 180 armored cavalry, 300 men-at-arms in infantry, 4 barking cannons, and five hundred allied native warriors from the conquered north. Three and twenty friars, priests, and the Bishop himself observed the battle from a nearby hill, and they blessed and prayed for the fighting contingent and its victory in this New World’s Valley of Elah. The assembled force did there meet in the field more than five thousand Mayan warriors in full war display. The profane horde carried mahogany macahuitl glittering with knapped obsidian shards and they voiced Nahuatl chants while costumed in feather cloaks and headdresses and masks of remarkable beauty and form. There followed slaughter as Spanish steel and crazed war-horses engaged the massed pagan horde with cries of "a Dios!" and "Jesucristo!" that overwhelmed the skirling whistles and flutes shaped from human bone and played as Mayan war cry. The befeathered warriors, all from noble Mayan families, fell like ripe wheat under a new scythe. Smoke from the cannon, the harquebus and matchlock drifted heavy over the battle. Slavering dogs of war, horses mad and flailing spiked shoes, Spanish footmen gone blood-mad collapsed the Mayan line, folded in the Mayan flanks. The northern native warriors, all newly converts, exerted and concluded ancient vendetta. Short and brutal, the conflict ended in prolonged massacre. Above the field did fly the banners of Church, its Saints, and God.
Santiago entered his cubicle and prepared to create the day’s document. He enjoyed his work and, with the seemingly limitless supply of blank Mayan paper the expedition had confiscated, Santiago could indulge his propensity toward expansive narrative. He was in love with details, the small sights and sounds and odors and textures, that supported the veracity of his chronicle. Santiago understood the importance of numbers, the exact counts of objects and entities that proved the expedition’s importance and worth. So many miles from Mexico, so many casks of wine in baggage, so many men-at-arms, so much gunpowder and so much shot, so many priests and prisoners and converts. Numbers were the logos of the mission. But the pathos and the ethos lived in the details, and Santiago was dedicated to ensuring the legacy of their endeavors there in the jungle rot and pagan ruin would resonate with readers yet unborn.
The drops of blessed water shimmered in the afternoon sun as they flew from the aspergillum. There in the thick and weighty air of Yucatan, they seemed to pause for a moment, as if to savor their freedom before splashing down upon the brows, thick and heavy, of the assembled savages. Their cleansing and blessing was inspiration to every assembled Christian and the miracle of Holy Communion uplifted even the heaviest heart.
Santiago stopped his pen to reread his writing.
Every Christ-loving soul was swollen with awe when the brothers sang the Auroras for salvation at the end of a rope when the reborn creatures were prodded to the gallows for their triumphant convention at the Throne of God. Many a soldier drew his sword to thrust into the soft earth and knelt to pray before a holy warrior’s cross. Three and eighty and seven hundred cleansed and perfect souls were sent to the outstretched arms of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our miracles are daily and magnificent to behold.
Santiago was moved by his own words. He actually ached toward poetry, to fulfill the lover’s quest of expression, to capture the blinding instant in perfect prose. The Mayan paper, pounded out from the bark of certain trees, seemed to not just take his strokes upon its surface but to absorb the meaning of his words beyond their definition. The voices buzzed angrily in counterpoint to his enraptured prose.
Still, there were details Santiago would not record. How could he write the truth of what he’d seen to then offend His Excellency? The reluctance of the newly baptized to discard their mortality and embrace the Savior. The thin lines of urine that outlined the contours of their legs when they dangled there in the Yucatan sun. The gasping, the gagging, the choking, the struggles both earnest and sincere for even one last gasp of humid air. These were secret images.
The box and the hut, he both had fashioned himself from lumber torn from idolatrous structures. Planks of tropical wood he’d pounded into a frame, some still fragrant with perfumed sap, and a roof of fronds all pointing downward to direct the rain away from the interior, formed his crude abode on the outskirts of the camp away from the bonfires and tents and huts of both church and army. From lighter planking had he fashioned the box, the casket, the repository of his history most secret. A door, no windows, a rope bed, a writing table, a stool, his garments and linens, and the box were his dwelling’s only contents. A stark carven crucifix and a single, fat candle stub adhered to the edge of the table provided the only illumination, day or night, to enter his monastic cell.
He was afraid to devise a lock for his rough door assuming that someone of the party would venture into his chamber. There were, indeed, thieves and brigands among the company and, espying a bolted door, such men would be tempted to think it treasure inside and such men would take the box to a secret place, an unseen place there to open it by force to reveal not gold nor jade but the priceless record of their true adventure. He was afraid to leave it unlocked, and upon this dilemma he fretted almost constantly. Santiago was afraid his words would send him gallows-wise and to there dangle among the newly Christianized, the newly deceased Mayan. Instead, he left it on the pounded dirt floor, but he threw a coverlet upon it. He prayed every night and every morning and, in those prayers, offered with humility and fearful love, he asked the Lord to protect his secret history enclosed in pagan carpentry. He found himself unwilling to venture too far or for too long away from its sight.
They whisper among themselves, these foul and bloodied miscreants, during the ceremonies of redemption, their horrid language all clicks and throaty exhalation. They seem deliberately ignorant of the gift of eternal life, and, instead, accept our blessings as they accept their meals without thanks or recognition.
Their jungle empire is broken, shattered under Spanish steel and cleansing fire, and so, they, too, are broken. They speak of devilish prophecy, a forewarning from their demonic gods, and bow their heads to annihilation. They are disgusting and more deserving of Satan than of Saints, but His Excellency proclaims them bounty for the Church, and so we force the Body of Christ into their clacking maws, pour the Holy Blood across their clenched lips, anoint them, bless them, and kill them all in one stroke.
I think it, though, a kind of madness that justifies murder with Christ’s limitless bounty, and each evening the soldier-hangmen confess their sins and receive absolution to go and sin tomorrow. But, the Inquisition is ever zealous. Every commandment is shattered hourly in drunken, licentious abandon and every soul is whitened through Confession and Communion by sunset. The piles of gold and jade and skillfully worked flints are made small by the mounds of dead converts that smolder constantly to foul the air with the stink of human grease.
And the books. All of them. Satanic by His Excellency’s decree, and every book plundered is thrown upon the pyre to be consumed with their authors. Only God will know what they containlaundry lists or tallies of maize, unholy curses to breach the gates of Hell or songs of love and courage. The flare of their ignition gives brief outline to the skulls upon which they burn. From the gallows and the libraries, we have made another kind of Inferno for ourselves, one that will burn long after these fires have burned away. But my voices keep the Great Library alive, and describe to me the secrets and the spells where once therein they lay. Yum Kaax, the lord of the forest, Chaac, the bringer and the withholder of rain, Yumil Kaxob, who lives in flowers, and great Itzamna, who rules the heavens themselves in splendor and fearsome beauty all are known to me through them, and I feel their torment in my Christian soul. I long to and cannot bear to desire the warmth of human blood and the joy of a beating human heart in my hands as benefaction of dark faith older and more powerful than that of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Beloved Savior.
I am lost.