Bess and myself were eating chicken flautas at Blanco's when I noticed the poster selotaped to the window - the familiar serpent devoured by an eagle, the national symbol of Mexico, and The Vision of the Lake: Mexico-Tenochtitlan with a date and a venue in smaller print. I had a closer look while my wife paid at the till. It was Sunday lunch time, and this Vision of the Lake could be seen at the University of the Incarnate Word at six the following evening.
'Did you see that?' Bess asked, indicating the serpent devoured by the eagle as we left.
'Yes. I was trying to work out what it might actually be.'
'Maybe we should just go. Monday is our night and it looks like entrance is free.'
So we went. Junior was with his father. His father had phoned to inform my wife of the boy having his Arrow of Light ceremony that very evening, but we usually need a little more notice than it's happening in ten minutes - I'm stood outside right now. The Arrow of Light ceremony is held when a Cub Scout becomes a Boy Scout, a sort of graduation deal. I was never in the Scouts, having learned early on to avoid joining in, becoming a team player, or otherwise volunteering myself for anything at all. It sounded mysterious to me. My friend Eggy had been a Scout, or at least he had been a Sea Scout, which may be something different and was in any case back in England. It wasn't something which Eggy had deigned to discuss with the rest of us in any detail.
The University of Incarnate Word, I realised, is chock full of nuns, it being a private Catholic university. This wasn't a problem for me, although as we entered the smell of overcooked food assailed my nostrils - and that's probably the first time I've ever used assailed in a sentence. Father Jack, the terrifying alcoholic priest from Father Ted loomed up from my imagination to scream Nuns! in apoplectic panic.
We were directed to the place we needed to go. The room was full of very, very old people, and there was a projector screen in front of which the speaker was setting up her laptop. We were handed a sheet of paper informing us that The Vision of the Lake: Mexico-Tenochtitlan was the second of ten presentations in a series called The Wisdom of Ancient Mexico: Anahuac, a lecture with slides, which was roughly as anticipated on account of the venue.
I've visited Mexico on five separate occasions, and have been studying its pre-Colombian culture on and off since 1995. It's the one subject about which I can claim to be informed in any meaningful sense. This isn't a boast, because I'm not really bothered as to whether or not it impresses anyone, but it means I am at least sufficiently armed for kicking arses with authority whenever some facebook dwelling clown begins a sentence with the ancient Aztecs used to believe that...
There was a vague possibility that I had come to The Vision of the Lake: Mexico-Tenochtitlan for the pleasure of shaking my head and growling no no no no no every few minutes, sort of like Dennis the Menace pulverising Walter the Softy for the sake of exercise. For some reason, my wife derives a weird sense of pleasure when I do this, and I imagine my contempt may serve to turn me into something approximating a retired colonel and that she enjoys the excess of Englishness. There was a vague possibility that I had come in order to take umbrage, but it was not a conscious decision, and as we occupied our seats I entertained high hopes, expecting either that I might learn something or else would enjoy revisiting familiar names and places.
The assembled octogenarians mumbled amongst themselves about trips to Cancún, and our hostess began, musing over how little any of us really know about our Mexican neighbours. I knew plenty about our Mexican neighbours, but it seemed too early to pick a fight so I kept my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. Initially she stuck to the script, and the objections I could have raised seemed minor, or at least no worse than could be expected of your average history channel documentary. They were:
- No they didn't. I think the term was popularised by William Prescott in 1843, although he probably got it from the guy who wrote that earlier history, Clavijero or whatever his name was.
- They weren't, because the stem is metz- so you still have the tz- left over, which is why People from the Heart of the Century Plant makes a lot more sense, quite aside from Mexitli, from whom the name is derived, translating as Maguey Hare.
- The serpent heads represent the blood resulting from her beheading, the act of sacrifice, and subsequent regeneration to a lesser extent. You're not supposed to take it literally.
- No they didn't.
- So where did that eighth tribe come from?
'Excuse me,' some woman sat near the front interjected with a hand in the air. 'Might I ask a question?'
'Well, I'm a writer, but I'm unfamiliar with this word you use - cosmogony,' she pronounced it with a hard g, like in mahogany.
Our hostess provided a definition of cosmogony for our writer, and I vowed I would use a variation on this line myself at some point. I'm a writer, and I was wondering do you have these in a smaller size?, or I'm a writer, so yes, I believe I shall have fries with that.
After about twenty minutes of this I began to lose confidence in it getting any better. The story, such as it was, was narrated with reference to illustrations and passages of text projected upon the screen, passages of text we probably could have read for ourselves; and the woman was a lousy speaker, mumbling, pausing in awkward places, and employing what sounded like a fairly doubtful pronunciation for most of the names involved. Her monologue had the quality and rhythm of someone nervously popping their way through a roll of bubble wrap, and at the twenty minute mark, she somehow found a way to make it worse.
'The snake is a symbol of wisdom throughout many cultures,' she began as images of Greek and Hindu Gods appeared on the screen. I tried to recall how this idea might have been reflected in the Valley of Mexico prior to the fifteenth century, where the serpent symbolised many things - renewal, generation, and the earth in particular, but nothing specifically to do with wisdom. This was generic new-age landfill, and our hostess may as well have segued into a summary of the early years of ZZ Top for all that it had to do with her subject. Then a statue of Bochica appeared on the screen, the latest in a succession of Gods of conspicuously non-Mexican derivation. Bochica hailed from Colombia, our hostess told us. He had been a white man with a beard.
'I've had about enough,' I muttered.
My wife's expression confirmed that we were of one mind. We shuffled from our seats and padded as quickly and quietly as we could towards the door, hunched over as though dodging bullets.
I know nothing of Bochica, but recognised the motif of the wise white God and his beard appearing in the fresh-faced land of the Indians many years before Columbus, usually with some sort of prophecy about how ships will one day arrive and bring word of Baby Jesus and everything will be like really awesome, yeah? Roughly the same story is told of Quetzalcoatl in Mexico, and people get so carried away with it that no-one really cares that the story appeared in no indigenous record until some fifty or so years after the conquest, the event it supposedly foretold. The legend is interesting in terms of the criteria by which history was once recorded and how its principal function was often to explain the present, but as mythology it's dog shit. Nevertheless, it is still trotted out from time to time by people who should know better, gushing BBC television presenter Michael Wood for one, and now our speaker, our expert.
We raced across the parking lot.
Bess looked at her watch. 'We might be able to make the Arrow of Light, after all.'
We were there in five minutes, entering a silent hall as awkwardly as we had left the previous venue. We found seats at the back. The boys - eleven or twelve of them - stood on the stage at the front, each with a parent. Junior was with his father. The proceedings were orchestrated by one of the Scoutmasters, Mike Osterhage who, by peculiar coincidence, is also a popular weatherman for our local San Antonio television network. It still catches me out when I see him on the screen, smiling as he predicts another week of not much rain. There's the dad of that 1950s kid, I think to myself, surprised as usual.
Mike's boy is Junior's age, also a scout, and he too is on the stage. He's older and taller now, but he was an impressively cute kid a few years back, freckles, big grin and a military haircut, just like the American children I'd seen on television when I was his age. He always looked happy, like he'd sold enough copies of Grit to friends and neighbours to buy that life-size monster ghost, guaranteed to obey his every command, with enough small change left over for a propeller beanie and some Popeye comics. He now looks older, more serious, but they all look serious.
A drum begins to beat and another kid emerges from a door just behind us. He is wearing a feather headdress and assorted robes of vague Native American design. He walks slowly to the centre of the room and makes a show of addressing the four cardinal directions.
The Arrow of Light, as I later come to appreciate, is a lengthy and fairly elaborate ceremony serving to reiterate the core values of the Scouting movement, and for what it may be worth, these core values seem mostly noble. The performance appears perhaps hokey, and is undoubtedly a dubious appropriation of Native American lore in many respects; but as we watch, it dawns on me that this is at least truer to the older histories of this continent than the testimony of the woman for whom the serpent is a symbol of wisdom, purely because she finds it comforting to join the dots between disparate theologies. I would rather have the hokum which means something real to those involved, than the version which has been recycled as a relaxation tape for the benefit of an audience which wants nothing more than a spectacle by which to keep itself distracted for an hour or so.
After the ceremony, the children all begin to bounce around, having been artificially induced to stand still for far too long. Junior refuses to let us take photographs of him in his uniform, maintaining the face he always pulls when there's a camera in sight - a variation on the expressions Don Martin once drew in the pages of Mad magazine. He acknowledges that we were here to watch him, yelps a few times for good measure, and then runs off to join the other kids, all stuffing their faces with complementary cupcakes served from a table at the rear of the hall.