TONY WHITE

Apocryphal Fragment from the Lives of the Conquistadors

Carlos Castañeda once told this parable about the Conquistador Hernán Cortés. He didn’t write it down, so you won’t find it in any of his books or among his papers, but in any case I heard that Castañeda once spoke of a legend about Cortés, one that he in turn perhaps had heard from his own teacher, don Juan Matus. The legend tells that late in his life—but before his final fall from grace-Cortes and his closest allies, maybe his generals and one or two of their mistresses or companions, stopped on the beach in what is now Santa Monica and stayed there for a short time. Their tangled hair and beards would have been bleached by sun and salt, and their breast plates and helmets ‘battle forged’, which is to say rusting and dinted; misshapen by innumerable blows. It is said that among them was don José Francisco Orozco, a bow maker from al- ’Andalus. A loyal friend who had travelled with the great Conquistador for many years, who on their long journeys would gather desert willow for his craft, often working the wood as he rode. That is why in places the desert willow is still known as ‘Pepito’s flower’, for its wood was flexible yet strong enough to be used for the powerful Moorish bows that José Francisco made. These were deadly weapons of Eastern design that in the hands of Genghis Khan’s hordes had swept across the Asian steppes like a scythe, the bearers of which were feared across Africa from the Horn to the Atlas Mountains. These bows were short and light and could be drawn on horseback with a single digit when riding at speed, but were reputed to be able to drive an arrow through a man from a distance of half a mile or more.

The way Castañeda would tell it, don José’s father was a puppeteer by trade, and it was said that he shared his father’s restless hands and his subtle caricaturist’s eye, so not a splinter of the bow maker’s wood was wasted, but every off-cut and shaving, any spare inch of sinew or gut and each feather were saved and put to miniature use, for when he was not making bows José Francisco passed the time by fashioning articulated wooden figurines in the likeness o f his comrades. These were puppets in the ancient style, that could be manipulated by means of a few strings.

A soldier’s life is hard, let alone the life of a great Conquistador, and we cannot know the purpose of their visit—a full decade before Cabrillo’s arrival to claim the land for Spain!—except that history’s silence suggests it was peaceful. Nor can we begin to guess the nature of their interactions with the indigenous Chumash peoples, for there is not one scrap of documentary evidence in either culture that is sufficient to confirm, even that Cortés ever travelled this far north. However, according to Castañeda they came to commune with the Chumash shamans, and he went on to ask why on some warm night—perhaps, after a hard day’s riding and having feasted on roast clams—Cortés’ party should not have sat around the fire until long after the last embers had died down, learning from their cultured and sea-faring hosts, through some complex chain of translations, about the shamanic and other traditions of the area.

Some nights, inspired by the ‘momoy’ or Sacred Datura-based rituals of their Chumash hosts, Cortés and his men might have devised a ritual of their own, that they called La Noche Triste or ‘Night of Sorrow’. But first they would probably have gathered to watch the quick-witted José improvise a clever puppet show based on one or other of their famous victories in the south. Later—once the convulsions and the sickness had passed—each man would certainly have taken responsibility for his own miniature likeness, for they would have known instinctively that there is power in the uncanny mimicry of a puppet. They quickly learned, too, that puppetry could act as a bridge to non-ordinary reality, that it could be used to make manifest those rigid links that tie spirit to body, just as the puppet—however lifelike it may seem—is connected by strings to the one who manipulates it.

Let us assume that the legend is true, and that Cortés was an eager student. One can easily imagine him holding the bar in his sword hand, clumsily at first, lifting one little wooden arm and then the other, hooking a finger around a different string to nod the wooden head, or to make his puppet-self point dramatically westwards! Cortés might quickly forget that it was he who animated the little man. It would be as if he were watching himself with the impassive gaze of a buzzard regarding its prey from some high crag. Or as if he were simultaneously both buzzard and prey.

By now, each of the old men would be lost in his own visions, which might easily have turned to regret, as the thoughts of old soldiers can often do. Simple sadnesses, such as loves lost long ago, or sentimental dreams of childhood games on dusty streets, of a mother’s cooking, or of petty village rivalries and blood feuds of forgotten provenance.

According to Castañeda, it was on a night such as this that Hernando Cortés was thinking with great self pity about what he should have said at his late father’s funeral.

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