“It looks like old Citlallatonac is very sick,” the priest said in a low voice while he checked the barred entrance to Chimal’s cell. It was sealed by heavy bars of wood, each thicker than a man’s leg, that were seated into holes in the stone of the doorframe. They were kept in place by a heavier, notched log that was pegged to the wall beyond the prisoner’s reach: it could only be opened from the outside. Not that Chimal was free to even attempt this, since his wrists and ankles were tied together with unbreakable maguey fibre.

“You made him sick,” the young priest added, rattling the heavy bars. He and Chimal were of the same age and had been in the temple school together. “I don’t know why you did it. You were in trouble in school, but I guess we all were, more or less, that is the way boys are. I never thought that you would end up doing this.” Almost as a conversational punctuation mark he jabbed his spear between the bars and into Chimal’s side. Chimal rolled away as the obsidian point dug into the muscle of his side and blood ran from the wound.

The priest left and Chimal was alone again. There was a narrow slit in the stone wall, high up, that let in a dusty beam of sunlight. Voices penetrated too, excited shouts and an occasional wail of fear from some woman.

They came, one after another, everyone, as word spread through the villages. From Zaachila they ran through the fields, tumbling like ants from a disturbed nest, to the riverbed and across the sand. On the other side they met the people from Quilapa, running, all of them, in fear. They grouped around the base of the pyramid in a solid mass, shouting and calling to one another for any bits of news that might be known. The noise died only when a priest appeared from the temple above and walked slowly down the steps, his hands raised for silence. He stopped when he reached the sacrificial stone. His name was Itzcoatl and he was in charge of the temple school. He was a stern, tall man in his middle years, with matted blond hair that fell below his shoulders. Most people thought that some day he would be first priest.

“Citlallatonac is ill,” he called out, and a low moan was breathed by the listening crowd. “He is resting now and we attend him. He breathes but he is not awake.”

“What is the illness that struck him down so quickly?” one of the clan leaders called out from below.

Itzcoatl was slow in answering; his black-rimmed fingernail picked at a dried spot of blood on his robe. “It was a man who fought with him,” he finally said. Silence stifled the crowd. “We have the man locked away so we may question him later, then kill him. He is mad or he is possessed by a demon. We will find out. He did not strike Citlallatonac but it is possible that he put a curse on him. The name of this man is Chimal.”

The people stirred and hummed like disturbed bees at this news, and drew apart. They were still closely packed, even more so now as they moved away from Quiauh, as though her touch might be poisonous. Chimal’s mother stood in the center of the open space with her head lowered and her hands clasped before her, a small and lonely figure.

This was the way the day went. The sun mounted higher and the people remained, waiting. Quiauh stayed as well, but she moved off to one side of the crowd where she would be alone: no one spoke to her or even looked her way. Some people sat on the ground or talked in low voices, others went into the fields to relieve themselves but they always returned. The villages were deserted and, one by one, the cooking fires went out. When the wind was right the dogs, who had not been watered or fed, could be heard barking, but no one paid attention to them.

By evening it was reported that the first priest had regained consciousness, but was still troubled. He could move neither his right hand nor his right leg and he had trouble speaking. The tension in the crowd grew perceptibly as the sun reddened and sank behind the hills, ( Once it had dropped from sight the people of Zaachila hurried, reluctantly, back to their village. They had to be across the river by dark — for this was the time when Coatlicue walked. They would not know what was happening at the temple, but at least they would be sleeping on their own mats this night. For the villagers of Quilapa a long night stretched ahead. They brought bundles of straw and cornstalks and made torches. Though the babies were nursed no one else ate, nor, in their terror, were they hungry.

The crackling torches held back the darkness of the night and some people laid their heads on their knees and dozed, but very few. Most just sat and watched the temple and waited. The praying voices of the priests came dimly down to them and the constant beating of the drums shook the air like the heartbeat of the temple.

Citlallatonac did not get better that night, but he did not get worse either. He would live and say the morning prayers, and then, during the coming day, the priests would meet in solemn assembly and a new first priest would be elected and the rituals performed that established him in that office. Everything would be all right. Everything had to be all right.

There was a stirring among the watchers when the morning star rose. This was the planet that heralded the dawn and the signal for the priests to once more beg Huitzilopochtli, the Hummingbird Wizard, to come to their aid. He was the only one who could successfully fight the powers of darkness, and ever since he had brought the Aztec people into being he had watched over them. Each night they called to him with prayers and he went forth with his thunderbolts and fought the night and the stars and defeated them so that they retreated and the sun could rise again.

Huitzilopochtli had always come to the aid of his people, though he had to be induced with sacrifices and the proper prayers. Had not the sun risen every day to prove it? Proper prayers, that was the important thing, proper prayers.

Only the first priest could speak these prayers. The thought was unspeakable yet it had been there all the night. The fear was still there like a heavy presence when priests with smoking torches emerged from the temple to light the way for the first priest. He came out slowly, half carried by two of the younger priests. He stumbled with his left leg, but his right leg only dragged limply behind him. They took him to the altar and held him up while the sacrifices were performed. Three turkeys and a dog were sacrificed this time because much help was needed. One by one the hearts were torn out and placed carefully in Citlallatonac’s clasping left hand. His fingers clamped down tight until blood ran from between his fingers and dripped to the stone, but his head hung at a strange angle and his mouth drooped open.

It was time for the prayer.

The drums and the chanting stopped and the silence was absolute. Citlallatonac opened his mouth and the cords in his neck stood out tautly as he struggled to speak. Instead of words he emitted only a harsh croaking sound and a long dollop of saliva hung down, longer and longer, from his drooping lip.

He struggled even harder then, writhing against the hands that held him up, trying to force words through his useless throat, until his face flushed with the effort. He tried too hard, because, suddenly, he jerked in pain, as though he were a loose-limbed doll being tossed into the air, then slumped limply.

After this he did not stir again and Itzcoatl ran over and placed his ear to the old man’s chest.

“The first priest is dead,” he said, and everyone heard these terrible words.

A wail of agony rose up from the assembled mob, and across the river in Zaachila they heard it and knew what it meant. The women clutched their children to them and whimpered, and the men were just as afraid.

At the temple they watched, hoping where there was no hope, looking at the morning star that rose higher in the sky with every passing minute. Soon it was high, higher than they had ever seen it before, because on every other day it had been lost in the light of the rising sun.

Yet on this day there was no glow on’ the eastern horizon. There was just the all-enveloping darkness.

The sun was not going to rise.

This time the cry that went up from the crowd was not pain but fear. Fear of the gods and the unending battle of the gods that might swallow up the whole world. Might not the powers of the night now triumph in the darkness so that this night would go on forever? Would the new first priest be able to speak powerful enough prayers to bring back the sun and the daylight that is life?

They screamed and ran. Some of the torches went out and in the darkness panic ruled. People fell and were trampled and no one cared. This could be the end of the world.

Deep under the pyramid Chimal was awakened from uncomfortable sleep by the shouting and the sound of running feet. He could not make out the words. Torchlight flickered and vanished outside the slit. He tried to roll over but found that he could barely move. At least his legs and arms were numb now. He had been bound for what felt like countless hours and at first the agony in his wrists and ankles had been almost unbearable. But then the numbness had come and he could no longer feel if these limbs were even there. All day and all night he had lain there, bound this way, and he was very thirsty. And he had soiled himself, just like a baby; there was nothing else he could do. What was happening outside? He suddenly felt a great weariness and wished that it was all over and that he was safely dead. Small boys do not argue with priests. Neither do men.

There was a movement outside as someone came down the steps, without a light and feeling the wall for guidance. Footsteps up to his cell, and the sound of hands rattling at the bars.

“Who is there?” he cried out, unable to bear the unseen presence in the darkness. His voice was cracked and hoarse. “You’ve come to kill me at last, haven’t you? Why don’t you say so?”

There was only the sound of breathing — and the rattle of the locking pin being withdrawn. Then, one by one the heavy bars were drawn from the socket and he knew that someone had entered the cell, was standing near him.

“Who is it?” he shouted, trying to sit up against the wall.

“Chimal,” his mother’s voice said quietly from the darkness.

At first he did not believe it, and he spoke her name. She knelt by him and he felt her fingers on his face.

“What happened?” he asked her. “What are you doing here — and where are the priests?”

“Citlallatonac is dead. He did not say the prayers and the sun will not rise. The people are mad and howl like dogs and run.”

I can believe that, he thought, and for a few moments the same panic touched him, until he remembered that one end is the same as another to a man who is about to die. While he wandered through the seven underworlds it would not matter what happened on the world above.

“You should not have come,” he told her, but there was kindness in the words and he felt closer to her than he had for years. “Leave now before the priests find you and use you for a sacrifice as well. Many hearts will be given to Huitzilopochtli if he is to fight a winning battle against the night and stars now when they are so strong.”

“I must free you,” Quiauh said, feeling for his bindings. “What has happened is my doing, not yours, and you are not the one who should suffer for it”

“It’s my fault, true enough. I was fool enough to argue with the old man and he grew excited and then suddenly sick. They are right to blame me.”

“No,” she said, touching the wrappings on his wrists, then bending over them because she had no knife. “I am to blame because I sinned twenty-two years ago and the punishment should be mine.” She began to chew at the tough fibers.

“What do you mean?” Her words made no sense.

Quiauh stopped for a moment and sat up in the darkness and folded her hands in her lap. What must be said had to be said in the right way.

“I am your mother, but your father is not the man you thought. You are the son of Chimal-popoca who was from the village of Zaachila. He came to me and I liked him very much, so I did not refuse him even though I knew it was very wrong. It was night time when he tried to cross back over the river and he was taken by Coatlicue. All of the years since I have waited for her to come and take me as well, but she has not. Hers is a larger vengeance. She wishes to take you in my place.”

“I can’t believe it,” he said, but there was no answer because she was chewing at his bindings again. They parted, strand by strand, until his hands were freed. Quiauh sought the wrappings on his ankles. “Not those, not yet,” he gasped as the pain struck his reviving flesh. “Rub my hands. I cannot move them and they hurt.”

She took his hands in hers and massaged them softly, yet each touch was like fire.

“Everything in the world seems to be changing,” he said, almost sadly. “Perhaps the rules should not be broken. My father died, and you have lived with death ever since. I have seen the flesh that the vultures feed upon and the fire in the sky, and now the night that never ends. Leave me before they find you. There is no place I can escape to.”

“You must escape,” she said, hearing only the words she wanted as she worked on the bindings of his ankles. To please her, and for the pleasure of feeling his body free again he did not stop her.

“We will go now,” she said when he was able to stand on his feet at last. He leaned on her for support as they climbed the stairs, and it was like walking on live coals. There was only silence and darkness beyond the doorway. The stars were clear and sharp and the sun had not risen. Voices murmured above as the priests intoned the rites for the new first priest

“Good-bye, my son, I shall never see you again.”

He nodded, in pain, in the darkness, and could not speak. Her words were true enough: there was no escape from this valley. He held her once, to comfort her, the way she used to hold him when he was small, until she gently pushed him away. “Go now,” she said, “and I will return to the village.”

Quiauh waited in the doorway until his stumbling figure had vanished into the endless night, then she turned and quietly went back down the stairs to his cell. From the inside she pulled the bars back into place, though she could not seal them there, then seated herself against the far wall. She felt about the stone floor until her fingers touched the bindings she had removed from her son. They were too short to tie now, but she still wrapped them around her wrist and held the ends with her fingers. One piece she placed carefully over her ankles.

Then she sat back, placidly, almost smiling into the darkness.

The waiting was over at last, those years of waiting. She would be at peace soon. They would come and find her here and know that she had released her son. They would kill her but she did not mind.

Death would be far easier to bear.