Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

The Law of Love
By Laura Esquivel

Chapter One

                   I am drunk, crying, filled with grief,
                   Thinking, speaking,
                   And this I find inside:
                   May I never die,
                   May I never disappear.
                   There, where there is no death,
                   There, where death is conquered,
                   Let it be there that I go.  
                   May I never die,
                   May I never disappear.

Ms. "Cantares mexicanos," fol. 17 v. Nezahualcoyotl Trece Poetas del Mundo Azteca Miguel Leon-Portilla

When do the dead die? When they are forgotten. When does a city disappear? When it no longer exists in the memory of those who lived there. And when does love cease? When one begins to love anew. Of this there is no doubt.

That is why Hernan Cortes decided to construct a new city upon the ruins of the ancient Tenochtitlan. The time it took him to size up the situation was the same that it takes a firmly gripped sword to pierce the skin of the chest and reach the center of the heart: one second. But in time of battle, a split second can mean escaping the sword or being run through by it.

During the conquest of Mexico, only those who could react in an instant survived, those who so feared death that they placed all their instincts, all their reflexes, all their senses, at the service of that fear. Terror became the command center for all their actions. Located just behind the navel, it received before the brain all the sensations perceived by smell, sight, touch, hearing, and taste. These were processed in milliseconds and forwarded to the brain, along with a precise course of action. All this lasted no more than the one second essential for survival.

As rapidly as the Conquistadors' bodies were acquiring the ability to react, new senses were also evolving. They learned to anticipate an attack from the rear, smell blood before it was spilled, sense a betrayal before the first word was uttered, and, above all, to see into the future as well as the keenest oracle. This was why, on the very day Cortes saw an Indian sounding a conch in front of the remains of an ancient pyramid, he knew he could not leave the city in ruins. It would have been like leaving a monument to the grandeur of the Aztecs. Sooner or later, nostalgia would have prompted the Indians to regroup in an attempt to regain their city. There was no time to lose. He had to obliterate all trace of the great Tenochtitlan from Aztec memory. He had to construct a new city before it was too late.

What Cortes did not take into account was that stones contain a truth beyond what the eye manages to see. They possess a force of their own that is not seen but felt, a force that cannot be constrained by a house or church. None of Cortes's newly acquired senses was fine-tuned enough to perceive this force. It was too subtle. Invisibility granted it absolute mobility, allowing it to swirl silently about the heights of the pyramids without being noticed. Some were aware of its effects, but didn't know what to attribute them to. The most severe case was that of Rodrigo Diaz, one of Cortes's valiant captains. As he and his companions proceeded to demolish the pyramids, he could never have imagined the consequences of his fateful contact with the stones. Even if someone had warned Rodrigo that those stones were powerful enough to change his life, he would not have believed it, for his beliefs never went beyond what he could grasp with his hands. When he was told there was one pyramid where the Indians used to conduct pagan ceremonies honoring some sort of goddess of love, he laughed. Not for a moment did he allow that any such goddess could exist, let alone that the pyramid could have a sacred function. Everyone agreed with him; they decided it was not even worth bothering to erect a church there. Without further thought, Cortes offered Rodrigo the site where the pyramid stood, so that he could build his house upon it.

Rodrigo was a happy man. He had earned the right to this parcel of land by his achievements on the battlefield and by his fierceness in hacking off arms, noses, ears, and heads. By his own hand he had dispatched approximately two hundred Indians, so he did not have to wait long for his reward: a generous tract of land bordering one of the four canals running through the city, the one that in time would become the road to Tacuba. Rodrigo's ambition made him dream of erecting his house in a grander spot--even on the ruins of the Great Temple--but he was forced to content himself with this more modest site since there were already plans to build a cathedral where that temple once stood. However, as compensation for his plot not being located within the select circle of houses the captains were building in the center of the city as witness to the birth of New Spain, he was granted an encomienda; that is, along with the land, ownership of fifty Indians, among whom was Citlali.

Citlali was descended from a noble family of Tenochtitlan. From childhood she had received a privileged upbringing, so her bearing reflected no trace of submission but, rather, great pride verging on defiance. The graceful swaying of her broad hips charged the atmosphere with sensuality, spreading ripples of air in widening circles. This energy displacement was much like the waves generated when a stone is dropped suddenly into a calm lake.

Rodrigo sensed Citlali's approach at a hundred yards. He had survived the Conquest for good reason: he possessed an acute ability to detect movements outside the ordinary. Interrupting his activity, he tried to pinpoint the danger. From the heights of the pyramid he commanded a view of everything in its vicinity. Immediately he focused on the line of Indians approaching his property. In the lead came Citlali. Rodrigo instantly realized that the movement that had so disturbed him emanated from Citlali's hips. He was completely disarmed. This was a challenge he did not know how to confront, and so he fell captive to the spell of her hips. All this happened as his hands were engaged in the effort of moving the stone that had formed the apex of the Pyramid of Love. But before he could do so there was a moment for the powerful energy generated by the pyramid to circulate through his veins. It was a lightning current, a blinding flash that made him see Citlali not as the simple Indian servant that she appeared to be, but rather, as the Goddess of Love herself.

Never had Rodrigo desired anyone so greatly, much less an Indian woman. He could not have explained what came over him. He hurriedly finished dislodging the stone and awaited her arrival. As soon as she drew near him, he could no longer restrain himself; he ordered all the other Indians off to install themselves at the rear of the property and right there, in the heart of what had once been the temple, he raped her.

Citlali, her face motionless and her eyes wide open, regarded her image reflected in Rodrigo's green eyes. Green, green, the color of the sea that she had seen once as a child. The sea which still brought fear to her. Long ago she had sensed the enormous destructive power latent in each wave. From the moment she had learned that the white-skinned men would come from beyond the boundless waters, she had lived in terror. If they possessed the power to dominate the sea, surely it meant that they carried inside them an equal capacity for destruction. And she had not been mistaken. The sea had arrived to destroy all of her world. She felt its furious pounding inside her. Not even the weight of the heavens above Rodrigo's shoulders could halt the frenzied movement of that sea. Deep within her its salty waves burned like fire, and its battering made her dizzy and nauseous. Rodrigo entered her body the same way he made his way through life: with the luxury of violence.

He had arrived some time earlier, during one of the battles that preceded the fall of the great Tenochtitlan, on the very day that Citlali had given birth to her son. As a result of her noble lineage, Citlali had been closely attended despite the fierce battle her people were waging against the Spanish. Her son had arrived in this world to the sounds of defeat, to the groans of a dying Tenochtitlan. The midwife who attended her, trying somehow to compensate for the child's untimely arrival, begged the Gods to provide him with good fortune. The Gods must have foreseen that the child's best fate lay not on this earth, for when the midwife handed the baby to Citlali to embrace, the mother held him in her arms for the first and last time. Just then Rodrigo, having killed the guards of the royal palace, burst in on her, wrested the newborn from her hands, and dashed him to the ground. Seizing Citlali by the hair, he dragged her a short distance away and stabbed her. He cut off the arm the midwife raised against him, and as a final gesture, set fire to the palace.

O that we might decide at what moment to die. Citlali would have chosen to die that very day, the day her husband, her son, her home, her city, all died. O that her eyes had never witnessed the great Tenochtitlan robed in desolation. O that her ears had never rung with the silence of the conches. O that the earth she walked upon had not responded with the dull echoes of sand. O that the air had not been heavy with the odor of olives. O that her body had never felt another so loathsome inside itself, and O that Rodrigo in leaving had taken with him the smell of the sea.

And now, as Rodrigo rose and was adjusting his clothing, Citlali begged the Gods for the strength to live until the day that this man should repent for having profaned not only her, but the Goddess of Love. For he could not have committed a greater outrage than to violate her on such a sacred site. Citlali was sure that the Goddess must be greatly offended. The force she had felt circulating inside her, urged on by Rodrigo's savage appetite, in no way resembled the energy of love. It was a brutal force she had never known before. Once, when the pyramid was still standing, Citlali had participated in a ceremony on its heights that had produced an entirely different effect. Perhaps this difference stemmed from the fact that the pyramid was now truncated and lacked its highest point, so that amorous energy swirled about madly without any order. Poor Goddess of Love! Surely she felt as humiliated and profaned as her devoted follower Citlali, and surely she not only authorized, but eagerly awaited, the hour of their revenge.

Citlali decided that the best means of accomplishing this was to vent her rage upon someone Rodrigo loved. That was why she was delighted to learn one day that a Spanish lady would soon be arriving to wed Rodrigo. Citlali surmised that if Rodrigo was planning to marry, it must be because he was in love. She did not know that he was doing so only to fulfill one of the requirements of the encomienda. This specified that to combat idolatry the encomendero was obliged to begin constructing a church on his lands within six months from the date of receiving the royal grant; he was also to erect and inhabit a residence within eighteen months, and to transport his wife there or marry within the same period. Therefore, as soon as construction was sufficiently advanced for the house to be occupied, Rodrigo sent to Spain for Dona Isabel de Gongora, to make her his wife. The marriage took place immediately, and Citlali was placed in the lady's service as a maid in waiting. Their first encounter was neither agreeable nor disagreeable. It simply never occurred.

For a meeting to take place, two people must come together in the same space, but neither of these women inhabited the same house. Isabel continued to live in Spain, Citlali in Tenochtitlan. They had no way of ever meeting, much less communicating, for they did not speak the same language. Neither of them could recognize herself in the eyes of the other. Neither of the two shared a common landscape. Neither of the two could understand what the other said. And this was not a matter of comprehension, it was a matter of the heart, for that is where words acquire their true meaning. And the hearts of both were closed.

To Isabel, Tlatelolco was a filthy place swarming with Indians, where she was forced to go for supplies and where it was nearly impossible to find saffron or olive oil. For Citlali, Tlatelolco was the place she had most loved to visit as a child, not only because there she could savor a wealth of smells, colors, and sounds, but because there she could witness a marvelous spectacle: a mall all the children called Teo, but whose real name was Teocuicani or "Divine Singer," would dance small gods on the palm of his hand. These clay gods he had shaped would speak, wage war, and sing in the voices of conches, rattles, birds, rain, thunder, all of which poured forth from the prodigious vocal cords of this man. Citlali could not hear the word "Tlatelolco" without those images springing to mind, just as the sound of the word "Spain" threw a shroud of indifference over her soul.

For Isabel it was just the opposite: Spain was the most beautiful place she knew; Spain, the richest in meaning. It was the grass of the plains, where countless times she had lain observing the sky; it was the winds off the sea that chased the clouds till they scattered across the mountain peaks. It was laughter, music, wine, wild horses, bread hot from the oven, sheets spread out in the sun to dry, the solitude of the plain, its silence. And within this solitude and this silence, made even deeper by the sound of the waves and of cicadas, Isabel had a thousand times imagined her ideal love. Spain meant the sun, heat, and love. For Citlali, Spain was the place where Rodrigo had learned how to kill.

This great difference in associations stemmed from their great difference in experience. Isabel would have to have lived a long time in Tenochtitlan to know what it meant to say ahuehuetl, to know how, after participating in a ceremony in its honor, one felt to rest beneath its shade. Citlali would have to have been born in Spain to know how it felt to sit among olive trees gazing at flocks of sheep. Isabel would have to have grown up with a tortilla in her hand not to be offended by its dank smell. Citlali would have to have been suckled in a place filled with the aroma of fresh-baked bread in order to delight in its taste. And both women would have to have been born with less arrogance to be able to set aside all that separated them and to discover the many things they had in common.

They walked on the same paths, were warmed by the same sun, were awakened by the same birds, were caressed by the same hands and kissed by the same lips; yet they found not a single point of contact, not even in Rodrigo. While Isabel saw in Rodrigo the man she had dreamed of long ago in Spain, Citlali saw only her son's murderer. Neither of the two saw him as he really was, for Rodrigo was not easy to fathom. Two people lived inside him. He had but one tongue, yet it slipped into the mouths of Citlali and Isabel in very different ways. He had but one voice, yet its tones were like a caress to one and an assault to the other. He had but one pair of green eyes, yet for one they resembled a warm, tranquil sea; for the other, a sea that was restless and violent. This sea nonetheless generated life in the wombs of Isabel and Citlali indiscriminately. However, while Isabel awaited the arrival of her son with great joy, Citlali did so with horror. She aborted the fetus as she had done each time she became pregnant by Rodrigo. She could not stand the idea of bringing a being into the world that was half Indian, half Spanish. She did not believe it could harbor two such distinct natures and live in peace. It would be like condemning her child to live constantly at war with himself, fixing him forever at a crossroads, and that could never be called living.

Rodrigo himself knew this better than anyone. He had to divide his body into two separate Rodrigos. Each fought for control of his heart, which would completely change according to which of the sides was winning. To Isabel he behaved like a gentle breeze; but with Citlali, his unrestrained passion, stubborn desire, scorching lust, all caused him to act like a male in rut. He pursued her constantly; he besieged her, he lay in ambush for her, he cornered her; yet every day she seemed farther away.

During the Conquest, his sensory acuity had enabled him to survive; now it was killing him. He couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, couldn't think of anything except losing himself in Citlali's body. Now he lived only to detect the sensuous swaying of her hips in the air. No movement she made, however slight, went unnoticed by Rodrigo: he would sense it immediately, and a searing urgency would impel him to become one with its source, to unburden himself between those legs, to fall down with Citlali no matter where, to mount her day and night, trying to find relief. No day went by that he did not accost her repeatedly. His body needed a rest. He could not take any more. Not even at night could he find respite, for the moment she turned over on her straw mat, the movement of her hips created waves that swept over him with the force of a powerful groundswell. He would rise from his bed and rush like an arrow straight for Citlali.

Rodrigo thought there was no better way to show his love for Citlali; yet, Citlali never took it that way. She suffered his assaults with great stoicism, but never responded to his passion. Her soul remained unknown to him. Only once did she attempt to communicate something to him, to ask him a favor; unfortunately, on that one occasion Rodrigo could do nothing to satisfy her wish.

That evening Citlali had been watering the flowers along the balconies when she spotted a group of people dragging along a madman whose hands had been cut off. Her heart froze when she saw it was Teo, who had made the clay gods dance on his hands in the market of Tlatelolco when she was a girl. Driven mad during the Conquest, he had been discovered wandering about, singing and dancing his clay gods before crowds of children. Now he was being brought before the Viceroy, who was dining at Rodrigo's home, so that his fate could be determined. They had already cut off his hands to make sure he would never again disobey the royal edict forbidding clay idols. As soon as the Viceroy heard the case, he determined they must also cut out this madman's tongue, for he was known to incite rebellion with his stirring words in Nahuatl.

With her eyes Citlali begged Rodrigo to be merciful with Teo, but Rodrigo was caught between the sword and the wall. The Viceroy had come to visit him because there had been alarming reports that Rodrigo was becoming too lenient with the Indians of his encomienda; his neighbors had also witnessed him treating Citlali with uncommon indulgence. The Viceroy had subtly threatened to strip Rodrigo of his Indians, along with the other honors and privileges he had won during the Conquest. So now Rodrigo could not speak in favor of the Indian, because by doing so he would risk being accused of encouraging idolatry among the natives, an offense severe enough to retract the encomienda, and the last thing Rodrigo wanted to risk was losing Citlali. So he lowered his gaze and pretended not to have seen the entreaty in her eyes.

Citlali never forgave him for this. She spoke not another word to him for the rest of her life, and shut herself off forever inside her own world.

And so the house was left inhabited by beings who never communicated with one another. They were beings incapable of seeing each other, hearing each other, loving each other; they were beings who rejected each other in the belief that they belonged to very different cultures. They never discovered the true reason for this rejection. It remained unseen, issuing from the subterranean forces of the stones that had formed the Temple of Love and those of the house later built upon it: from the vexation of the pyramid, which was only awaiting the proper moment to shake off those alien stones and thereby regain its equilibrium.

Citlali's plight was similar to that of the pyramids, with the exception that, for her, regaining her former equilibrium meant not shaking off stones but seeking a means of revenge. Fortunately for her, she did not have long to wait. Isabel gave birth to a beautiful golden-haired boy. Citlali never left her side during the delivery, and as soon as the baby was delivered into the midwife's hands, Citlali took it in her arms to present to Rodrigo; then, pretending to trip, she let the child fall. He died instantly, and as he fell to the ground Citlali's lifelines fell from her hands with him.

Her time on earth was now marked in the air, among Isabel's wails and laments; it no longer belonged to her. In the confusion of the moment, Rodrigo dragged Citlali from the room by her hair, thus removing her from the scene before anyone else had time to react. He could not allow someone else's hand to harm her. Only he himself could give her a worthy death. There was no escape for Citlali, that much he knew; but he also realized that this body he had so often held, this body that he knew so well, that he had longed for and kissed so many times, merited a loving death. With great sorrow Rodrigo drew his dagger and, just as he had seen the Aztec priests do during human sacrifices, he split open Citlali's chest and took her heart in his hand, kissing it repeatedly before finally ripping it out and hurling it far away. It happened so quickly that Citlali did not experience the least suffering. Her face reflected great tranquillity and her soul at last could rest in peace, for she had wrought her revenge. But what she never realized was that her revenge lay not in having murdered the infant but in having committed an act warranting death. For it was by her own death that she finally achieved what she had so longed for after that first encounter with Rodrigo: that he be made to howl in pain.

Isabel died at almost the same time as Citlali, convinced that Rodrigo had gone mad at the sight of his dead son and so had brutally murdered Citlali. That is what was whispered in her ear; that was all they told her. For there was no need to tell a dying woman that immediately after her husband had killed Citlali, he had killed himself.

                   Can it be that this earth is our only abode? 
                   I know nothing but suffering, for only in anguish
                      do we live.

Will my flesh be sown anew In my father and my mother? Will I yet take shape as an ear of corn? Will I throb once again in fruit? I weep: no one is here; they have been left orphans. Is it true we still live In that region where all are united? Do our hearts, perhaps, believe it so?

Ms. "Cantares mexicanos," fol. 13 v. Nezahualcoyotl Trece Poetas del Mundo Azteca Miguel Leon-Portilla

© 1996 Laura Esquivel

Crown

Back to the top