The first time he saw the tree, he was so overawed by its size and shape that he stared at it until people around him began to ask each other what the gringo could possibly find so interesting in that old wreck of a tree. To most of them it had no beauty at all, but to him it looked like a mountain in a Chinese painting. Towering and ancient, its sides craggy and its top covered with the green of trees, some in groves, others spilling down its sides, it was far beyond any tree he had seen. Its massive scarred and gnarled trunk looked as though it would take thirty or more people standing side-by-side to ring it round. About fifteen feet from the ground, the trunk divided, forming a half arch from which three slender branches rose like new trunks. He had no idea what kind of tree it was, only that it was massive and ancient. Walking up to it, he touched it with the palms of his hands, caressing the roughness of its bark and its creased and crannied trunk. How old it was and who had planted it, those things he didn’t know until later when the old shaman Gerardo Pulido de los Dios told him.
“It is an ahuehuete tree,” he said; “a Mexican cypress. The old stories say it was Moctezuma who planted it when he was a boy. Some say it is five hundred years older. No one knows for certain, not even me. But when Moctezuma was a boy, this tree was already here, sturdy and tall. An old legend calls the ahuehuete the ‘Tree of Life’ because when the great flood came, the last man and last woman on earth climbed to the top of an ahuehuete tree and saved humanity from destruction. But I wonder,” he mused, pulling a wry face, “if that will be enough to save us from our foolishness today.” He ran his hands over the ancient tree’s trunk. “She has seen so much in her lifetime, señor Manning. Once there were many trees like her throughout this great park that was built for the Aztec kings who had their castle on the top of the hill. Then the Spaniards came with their horses and guns and destroyed the beautiful city, the jewel of Texcoco, tearing it down stone by stone. This tree, Joseph, it has seen so much tragedy, suffered so much pain, been abused beyond measure. When the Spaniards came, they used this arching branch to hang my people. Very convenient, no? The last person to be executed here was when Porfirio Diaz was overthrown. Or do I have that right?” He squinted up at Joseph Manning and cocked his head. “Perhaps not. Perhaps it was during the aftermath, when so many competed to replace Diaz’s reign with their own.” He shrugged. “But still she survives, still she lives,” running a hand over the old tree’s gnarled trunk, “as we all must do.”
* * *
When he was a boy, Moctezuma often sat under the tree, leaning against it, watching people come and go. Sometimes his friend Acampichtli joined him, the two of them watching and listening to the birds singing amongst the old tree’s many branches. At other times it was Ecatzin, Mazatl, Citlali and little brother Cuitláhuac who would join them, all six of them racing through the big royal park, each trying (and not succeeding) to outrun Mazatl, who could run as fast as a deer. When they finally caught up with him they were out of breath, with Mazatl, breathing easily, leaning against a tree waiting for them.
“You guys are so slow,” he’d say; “You need to learn to run faster.”
“You run faster because you’re named after a deer,” Ecatzin or Acampichtli would reply.
Mazatl’s reply was always the same: “Then why does Citlali always beat me in long races?”
He was right; Citlali could run faster and farther than any of them. Moctezuma remembered something his father had said after watching Citlali and other young men run: “Citlali can run faster and farther than any of our young men. He will be a great asset in troubling times.” But there had been no troubling times since grandfather’s day. Tenochtitlán had strong alliances with all its neighbors, which had created peace all around Lake Texcoco and as far as anyone could travel in a few days time. Those who might challenge his uncle Ahuitzotl’s power and authority were intimidated into grumbling dissatisfaction, but dared do nothing.
Moctezuma looked around him and smiled. It was peaceful in beautiful Tenochtitlán scattered over its islands in Lake Texcoco. He liked walking to the city’s center with his friends, visiting the central marketplace near the main temple where people from all over sold their vegetables, meat, fish, baskets and other wares. Often leaving his friends behind, he would walk alone to the city’s main temple and return home late in the afternoon, receiving a scolding from his mother, worried about his being gone so long. He liked spending time in the temple precincts, with its grand pyramid and twin temples honoring Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and Tlaloc, the god of rain and visiting with his teacher, the high priest Nopaltzin. For Moctezuma it was a happy, fairly carefree life, these early days. When he became king, Tenochtitlán prospered under his leadership, and the ahuehuete tree grew in girth and height; one section of its trunk curving outward in a thick, upward-thrusting arch from which branches rose straight up toward the sky. Walking past with members of his retinue, Moctezuma would look up at the old tree and smile. Tenochtitlán also had an outward-branching trunk that spread southward by way of conquest and alliance into Mayan lands. Moctezuma thought of the old tree’s branching trunk as a good omen, but Nopaltzin was not so certain. “There will be strange white men appearing over the horizon from where the sun rises. They will bring strange beasts and weapons that shoot fire, and some among them will wear black robes and speak of a god we do not know. Do not think that they are sent by Quetzalcóyatl, because they are not. Be wary of them, Moctezuma. They may be few, but they are rapacious and mighty. They will offer friendship, but they are not to be trusted, for they are interested only in conquest.”
Moctezuma smiled, thinking of his latest conquest, and set Nopaltzin’s advice aside.
Then the white skinned strangers arrived with their horses and exploding weapons and black-robed priests and destroyed the beautiful city, killing its rulers and its people. They removed the gold and other stored treasures, threw the temple stones and images into the lake and used what was left to build their own houses and temples.
One day two men stood gazing at the ahuehuete tree’s strong trunk and canopy of leaf-laden branches. One, a black-robed priest named Diego Castillo, looked at the thick arch that jutted out from the trunk and said: “It is a good place from which to hang a lantern to light the way.”
His companion, the man named Hernán Cortéz turned toward him and, smiling, replied: “Or a man.”
“A lantern to light the way would be better,” padre Castillo replied, looking long into his companion’s eyes. Raising one eyebrow, Cortéz said nothing. “What of the High Priest, Nopaltzin?” padre Castillo asked, changing the subject.
“Disappeared,” Cortéz said; “He’s either dead, which I hope, or wandering. Either way,” shrugging, “he and his devilish superstitions are finished. I would have liked to hang him from there,” pointing to the tree’s broad arch, “or worse.”
* * *
And so it was that many men were hung from the ahuehuete tree over the years. The hangings filled the tree with sadness. It preferred the laughter and play of children to the violence of men. Yet when violent men looked at the broad arch of its trunk, all they saw was a place from which to hang their enemies. Now, in 1973 its leafy canopy was sparse as it struggled for breath in the smog-laden air.
The old shaman looked up at it. “You can still see some of the scars bullets have made in her trunk,” he said, touching a deep, discolored scar with a gnarled brown finger. “She is nearing the end of a long life. In Tula, where there is a tree that is older, larger and in much better health, perhaps she would live far longer, as the air is not as polluted in Tula, and the battles there have never been as fierce as they have been in Mexico City since the Spaniards arrived. So, señor, be sure to spend time listening to her. You will learn much, but only,” cupping a hand to an ear, “if you learn to listen to what she has to tell you.”
“How does one listen to a tree?” he asked.
“Open your heart, and you will hear. Watch, open your ears, and listen.”
“I sometimes think, señor Pulido,” looking into the old man’s eyes, “that because you have lived here for so many years, you know without listening because you’ve experienced it all.” Looking up at the tree again, he said: “I will listen to whatever this old tree has to tell me. That I promise I will do.”
The old shaman nodded. “You will learn much, Joseph,” he said before turning and walking away into the park; “Learn all you can in the years you are here.” Surprised by the old shaman addressing him for the first time by his first name, Joseph Manning stood and watched as the shaman made his way down a walkway and disappeared into a crowd of late morning visitors.
Much later, sitting on the stonework surrounding the ahuehuete tree, he was reminded of a poem:
Did you hear your name
in the forest?
in the ancient boughs?
in the green gossip?
Spirit song: the day’s lyric
calling, calling, calling
We have known you so long
will you stop to listen?
It was what the old shaman, the ancient ahuehuete tree and the city itself were asking, that he and others stop long enough each day to listen to what the tree, the city and its people had to say. Later, as he walked in the forest, he was reminded of a poem he had written after walking in a woods in Minnesota during a rain storm.
I understand how it is that
thought the woods were full of spirits,
with the wind,
a phalanx of spirits
rushing toward me through
the treetops. I see
individual spirits, too,
stepping from tree to tree
as I sit here. Raindrops
strike leaves like fingers
hitting keyboards, and leaves
around me glisten with
wetness and shake themselves.
Above, the sky has begun
to rumble, and I hear the whoosh
of great, gray wings
pulling the sky down.
I get up, take heavy slow steps
that sink into the moss and
dead leaves and carry me out
of the woods and to my car.
From inside, I watch as the
wind rushes from the woods
and across the field, and
the rain pounds down
in thunderous torrents.
The great gray wings
lift up, raising the sky
and rush north, and in the
woods the trees shudder,
sending showers down,
and the earth smells new.
He looked up into the old tree’s sparse canopy again, then pressed the palms of his hands against the gnarled bark of its trunk. “I will listen,” he murmured; “I will listen to you and to the others.”
“Listen to the people too,” he heard the old shaman say from somewhere nearby. “Listen with all of your senses open.”
* * *
All the ahuehuete tree had ever wanted was to be a blessing to those who sat under the shade of her canopy of spreading branches, and the children who played around her capacious trunk. The old tree sighed, remembering how children had swung from the arch, making it stronger. Then the white men came and swept everything away. And from the ashes, a new city and a new life was born. What would its future be?
~ ~ ~ ~
This is a chapter from my novel “The City Has Many Faces”, set in Mexico City.