Doomed Survivors: A Reconstruction in 2 Voices by Ursule Molinaro

BOMB 41 Fall 1992
Issue 41 041  Fall 1992

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I know I’ve come to Mexico to get myself murdered. By one or several of the local men I sleep or slept with. Whom I outrage when I demand the same one-sided fidelity they demand of me. Of any woman.

They’d be more outraged if they knew that I compare the length/diameter/coloring of their penises the way they compare the slits & tits of all the gringas whose fiancé they claim to be, for each turn of a screw.

My comparisons are more interesting than their boastful inventories. They’re better worded, & I write them down. Miniature profiles of Mexican society, based on parallels between these men’s treatment of me & other gringas & the attention they lavish on their instrument.

Spiced with a touch of humor. Which is considered blasphemy by the priests of phallus worship. They don’t know that I send amusing descriptions of my miserable love life off to friends in New York, but they sense my irreverence, & it fills them with a dark rage.

 

The same primal indignation that may have killed the much maligned Malinche, the native interpreter of Hernan Cortés. Who called her his “tongue.”

Perhaps.

Probably. What but a rub-out killing can explain the silence that suddenly cloaks her life or her death after she turns 24?

After nearly a decade of blatant news coverage.

Not by Cortés, who vaguely mentions una india in his careful letters to his king. Whose immense national debt he was paying off with the spoils from a devastated distant civilization. But Moctezuma’s reporters—her “own” people—depict her tirelessly. Standing beside or behind Cortés—taller and larger than Cortés, i.e. more important than Cortés; to them—pointing an interpreting finger toward intent Aztec messengers who stare at her from the gaping mouths of jaguar heads. Listening to her rephrase the many promises Cortés makes & the many reasons he gives for breaking them during his rodeo conquest of Mexico.

& her command of Spanish is tirelessly praised by the priests & abbeys who accompany Cortés on his Christian mission. & save the Christian conquerors from the mortal sin of copulating with heathens by hurriedly baptizing the native women who are given to them as appeasement presents. Or who are part of the spoils.

The future interpreter is one of 20 such appeasement presents, when he first lands. She is 14, & beautiful. & the only one who speaks Nahuatl (Aztec) as well as Mayan. She learns Spanish el lenguaje divino in two weeks.

 

I refuse to learn Spanish. Why should I learn it? I’m too old for that sort of thing. Besides, not speaking the local language makes me seem exotic. As well as open season.

I learned very proper English in America. After learning very proper French in France. I refuse to become trilingual to make monolingual macho fiancés feel more at home. They might respect me more—become more faithful?—if I could speak Spanish with them, but I’d lose my foreign-lady-traveler mystery veil. I’d become like their own less accessible women. It would accentuate my flaw.

Cortés has his interpreter baptized: Dona Marina. The eloquence of beauty, rising from collective memory on a giant seashell. A brilliant tongue riding an ear.

Perhaps Cortés had his tongue silenced by his faithful captain Juan Jaramillo—the lawful husband he assigned to her after he himself tired of sleeping with her—because he feared her eloquence at his trial in Spain. Before his now-again solvent, most Christian king, who was showing less gratitude than might have been expected. His “tongue” had witnessed every step of his laborious triumph. Every hanging he had ordered. Every burning alive. Every cut-off pair of hands &/or feet. Every gem in his loot.

—Perhaps even the alleged murder of his first allegedly asthmatic wife, whom jealous stay-at-homes rumored he had choked to death.

 

I was flawed as a little Jewish girl during the Nazi occupation of France. My mother walked out on me, into the ovens, after shoving me inside a closet when she heard boots coming up the stairs.

My father was out at the time. When he returned, he rolled me into a blanket, & walked with me for what seemed days, deep into the countryside, to the house of a peasant family who promised to hide me. Because: they said: I was beautiful, & bright, like the Christ child who had also been a little Jew.

 

Malinche survived the devastation of her country as the interpreter of that devastation. & has been accused of malinchismo ever since. A word coined for her alleged betrayal of “her own people” to an alien power-beast. A centaur with hair on his furrowed larva face, whose “whore” she allegedly became.

Who are your “own” people, Malinche? Dona Marina? The Aztecs who took Cortés to be a Toltec god, returning in anger, displeased with the Aztec brutalization of his worship? Which stipulated the number of cactus thorns to be pushed through the tongue of a sinner.

A returning god who killed populations in order to eradicate individual human sacrifice.

Your parents named you Malinali. Which your father caressed into Malinche. The name of your snow-capped northern volcano.

A name of respect which your own people extended to their conqueror, the man they always saw by your side. They called Cortés: Don Malinche.

& they called the Spanish soldier whom Cortés assigned to guard you your 24-hour jailer, who watched you sleep & wash & shit & menstruate; except when Cortés called you to his bed; which he didn’t do right away Juan Malinche.

 

It was winter. I caught a cold that developed into an ear infection. That made me scream so wildly, the peasants feared we’d be discovered. They silenced me with warmed-up gnole (onion brandy), while my father went in search of penicillin.

An illegal shadow, who would be scooped off to the death camps if spotted, trying to buy a scarce new drug reserved for the infections of the occupying conquistadores. By the time he returned, my infection had made a handsized indentation into my left cheek. I’m still beautiful on the right, & scarred & deaf on the left.

& very bright in between. Brighter than he was: my father kept repeating to me. To challenge my self-disgust with the obligation to “survive.”

 

You’re more intelligent than he was at your age: your father tells you. He wants you to study the administration of the land, in order to succeed him as a cacique. Since he has no son. & yours is one of the rare 16th-century communities that lets women be almost the equals of men. It also lets them do almost all the work. But then he walks out on your life, when he dies of a snakebite, when you’re 11.

Your mother teaches you to sew feather capes. The dusty smell of dead feathers nauseates you. She disciplines you for mismatching colors. Because she loves you, & wants to teach you her taste.

After your father dies, you feel like a stranger in the house where you were born.

Still, you’re shocked when your mother tells you that she has made arrangements to sell you into slavery. To which she feels entitled. She made you. You’re her property.

Meanwhile she has also made a son, with your father’s brother. A baby cacique, who is to succeed your father.

You’re flawless merchandise. A 12-year-old virgin. Ideal to have your heart cut out, & offered, still beating, to the sabre-toothed Chac-Mol.

However, human sacrifice is not practiced in your region. Paynala is far away from Moctezuma’s City on the Lakes. Where human sacrifice increases as the prophets announce the return of an angry Toltec god.

Your mother is not particularly religious. She is practical. She needs the cocoa beans she has been offered for you by a Mayan farmer, who is the

cacique of Tobasco.—Where the sauce comes from.

Your new owners welcome you. In Mayan. They tell you that they love you like the daughter they would have liked to have. You quickly learn what they are saying. You need to understand the masters of your life. You please the wife, sewing feather capes. She praises your subtle feeling for color. You please the father, whom you help with the administrative duties of a cacique. He praises your intelligence.

& your beauty, as you please him also in his bed. How can you refuse to please him? You are his slave.

You’re 14 now, & you also please your owner’s son. Who pleases you back. & wants to marry you.

Which does not please your owner. Who also owns his son, & sends him away to fight intruders from a hostile tribe. You wait for his return, until you hear that he has died.

You also hear that alien beast-men with hairy faces have landed on your shores. & that they may be messengers from a dissatisfied god.

The wife who loves you like the daughter she would have liked to have takes you to them. In secret. Behind her husband’s back. She’s giving you your freedom: she tells you: the rest of your life is up to you.

 

I was born unfree, as a Jewish baby in an antisemetic land & time. I’ve never felt free anywhere since, despite my criticized “free” lifestyle.

The peasants who hid me were kind enough. I guess I was a meal ticket, but they were risking their own freedom for me. Their farm. Maybe their lives. The woman even claimed that she loved me like the daughter she would have liked to have. But I was stuck in their house like a prisoner, watched over by the woman’s old father. A toothless skull with frog eyes, above a caved-in torso that made baby motions with its arms & hands.

In America I was hailed as a survivor. & solicited as an object of much tolerance & compassion. A worthy cause. Until I discovered sex, which became my only, if only temporary, relief from survival pains, & my initially enthusiastic teachers began begrudging the refugee nymphomaniac her brilliant grades.

Still, I graduated with honors. & an unsuspecting faculty quickly offered me a job as a teacher. —Who was soon suspended, however, for failing to appreciate that sleeping with one’s students remains a male prerogative.

& Mexico is just another prison. Though of my choosing. Staffed with judges, & censors, & righteous matrons.

This morning I was at the market, buying forbidden fruit—apples, which are supposed to stop diarrhea—when a woman crossed herself at the sight of me. Perhaps because of the blouse I was wearing. Black silk, strewn with white geckos. Geckos are considered good luck here, but they may have looked like ghosts to the woman. The ghosts of little dead children.

Unless, of course, she was crossing herself at the sight of my cheek. Although flaws seem to shock Mexicans less than Americans, or Europeans.

Even the local studs don’t make me feel free. Although I’m their sex vacation. Actually, they are mine. Which I’ve been tempted to tell them sometimes. So far I haven’t.

 

You are one of 20 women & girls led to the beast-men who may be gods. You watch them from behind a cluster of bushes. You see the top part of one of the creatures rear up & jump to the ground. & walk beside the four-footed bottom part, on two very human-looking legs & feet. With the intelligence that surpasses that of your father you deduce that they are two separate creatures. one beast, one man.

Bestial men, perhaps. With hair in strange places. But not all that different from the men of your “own” people. Although they neither speak nor understand Aztec. Or Mayan. You’re not particularly religious, but enough to know that they can’t be gods, because gods speak & understand all languages.

Then you reconsider when you hear one of them saying something in Mayan. But to an Aztec, who can’t understand him. You giggle, & come out from behind your bush to tell the Aztec what the strange man is saying in Mayan. Which you translate into Aztec, your treacherous mother tongue.

You’ve drawn attention to yourself. The Mayan-speaking stranger takes you to his leader. A hollow-eyed man who inspects you with pursed-lipped interest. & finds you potentially useful. He signals another stranger in a robe who pours water over your head. The leader says: Marina. The robed stranger repeats: Ma-ri-na. Ma—ri—na.

Meanwhile, another stranger has been watching you. With a different interest. He looks younger than the leader, especially around the eyes. Which have a touch of laughter as he claims you as his concubine, wet hair & all, & hoists you up on his beast.

Perhaps the laughing Spanish captain Puertocarrero feels like an adventure to you. Rather than a new master. Unlike your Mayan master, whose pleasure was a part of your chores. Or even his abruptly deceased son.

Perhaps.

You’re Marina now. That’s what your new lover calls you. You’re a new person, in a new Spanish dress, which he puts on your body, playfully, as though you were a doll. You quickly learn his language as you ride with him. Or lie beside him during long hours of pillow talk. You point to your hands your nose his mouth, & he tells you the Spanish word, & kisses you as you repeat & retain it. He is proud of you. & of his teaching. You are the only indian to speak el lenguaje divino. Which may have felt like your language of love. He takes you to Cortés to show you off.

& instantly regrets it. With Spanish you have become a real “tongue.” Now Cortés can use you directly, without the intermediary of his only-Mayan-speaking Spanish interpreter. He sends your lover on a mission back to Spain, & keeps you by his side. You are his parrot, obediently repeating your conqueror’s words. You never see your lover again.

Eventually you also share your conqueror’s bed. & make a son with him. Cortés’s first son Martin, named after his father. Later, he makes another Martin, with a legitimate Spanish wife. His second wife, after the choking to death of the asthmatic first one.

By then, you, too, are legitimately married. To your conqueror’s most loyal captain Juan Jaramillo. Who may or may not have strangled you to death, on January 24, 1529. After five years of conjugal cohabitation.

You’re 24, & you’re never mentioned again.

Centuries later, certain historians claim that you betrayed “your own people” out of your mad passion for a brutal genius. They make your brief life into a love story, because sentimentality is the other face of violence.

Or else they claim that you became an ardent Christian. & did what you did because you wanted to convert “your own people” to the true faith you had found. Which you could not have done without “betraying” them first.

Lately, a few are coming to your defense. They call you the great maligned Malinche. A linguist, inadvertently yoked to a maniac, whose words would have been the gesticulations of a deaf-mute, without the help of your tongue.

Which you were in no position to withhold, unless you wanted to die another one of the many torture deaths your conqueror made you rationalize to his victims.

Perhaps you were a survivor.

Perhaps you also took pride in your craft.

 

I have wished many times that my mother had not saved me. For the horrible ear infection at the peasants’ house.

Or that the ear infection had not stopped short of my brain. Saving me for a star billing in this freakshow that is my life.

But I’m a survivor. Against historical odds. & my own half-hearted attempts at sabotage. I hate the word: Survivor. What’s so desirable about more of the same.

The only time I don’t mind being alive is when I have an orgasm. & even then, my survival-programmed mind spoils the precious moment by trying to make it last.

 

The slain body of a foreign woman in her mid-thirties was discovered behind a cluster of bushes by a trucker early yesterday morning, when he stopped his vehicle to relieve himself. The left side of the face was badly marred, but medical examination determined it to be a scar at least 25 years old. There were no signs of a struggle. Police have no motive, or suspects.

 

Author’s note: I remember leaning against the rear wall of an elevator in some public place perhaps the UN, or a publisher’s building when a tall slender woman stepped inside, loudly chatting with two shorter, fatter ones. I remember freezing at the sight of a hand-sized indentation that disfigured the left side of her face like a brown slap. I tried not to look at her, but her eyes found mine & held them during six floors of defiance.

Ursule Molinaro has published ten novels and four collections of short stories as well as numerous translations and fictionalized histories. Her most recent book is A Full Moon off Women: 29 Word Portraits of Notable Women from Different Times and Places + 1 Void Of Course (Dutton). Her The Autobiography of Cassandra: Princess and Prophetess off Troy is being reissued this season by McPherson.

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Originally published in

BOMB 41, Fall 1992

Featuring interviews with Richard Tuttle, Television, Anna Deveare Smith, Jessica Stockholder, YoYo, Donna Tartt, Gregg Araki, Ron Vawter, Lillian Lee, Fabian Marcaccio, and Robbie McCauley.

Read the issue
Issue 41 041  Fall 1992