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Feast of the Ixiptla

by Cody Goodfellow


On the highest, holiest night in Tenochtitlan, it was unseemly for the people to be out in the streets celebrating, and the jaguar-priests feared that so much joy could only arouse the wrath of the god they honored.

At the head of the procession, flanked by his eight companions and four warriors, his four concubines and a horde of cheering spectators, the ixiptla of Tezcatlipoca capered and piped skirling plumes of languidly ecstatic song down the avenues and alleys of the imperial capital. Despite his obvious exhaustion, his suit of feathers and bells jingled a merry rhythm for the crowd to clap in time, and Ahuac, the high priest of the Smoking Mirror, noted with bored horror how they dared to look directly upon him, and hid their faces only when Ahuac marched past on the bed of crushed flower petals in the ixiptla’s wake.

Chosen from the prisoners taken in flowery combat with one of the neighboring cities, the ixiptla became the living vessel of Tezcatlipoca for a year. Showered with comforts such as the lords themselves could only covet, and bearing at the end of his reign the quetzal-plumed crown of the king himself, he paraded through the streets each night to remind the Mexica by whose grace they lived and prospered.

The ixiptla was a figure of dreadful authority, the god incarnate, and never so much as when he raged at his captors, cursed the Mexica, pleaded for his life or tried to escape. Tezcatlipoca was the arch-sorcerer, the Great Night who wrought the doom of Tula when the Toltecs denied him human flesh. In his palm danced the warrior god Huitzilopochtli, who drove the Mexica from nomadic poverty to lordship over an empire uniting the shattered Seven Tribes of Aztlan. But he was also the Smoking Mirror, god of deceit and contradiction, and lived to sow disaster among the gifts he brought, to remind the people that the world was unjust.

For his part, Ahuac was most displeased with this year’s ixiptla, and began to doubt the value of the entire ritual. This avatar of the god, a lewdly handsome captain from Tlacopan, confounded them. In battle, he had split thirty skulls before he was captured, yet under the raiment of Tezcatlipoca, he had become meek and mad as a village shaman. He was never seen to eat, yet he gave gifts of food from his robes, stolen from the lords’ banquets, for the poor. He blessed beggars and children, and gave them tiny toy jaguars carved from the walls of his luxuriant cell.

The people flocked to him tonight, and sang blasphemous songs begging for him to be spared, or at least shared out amongst the mob, and Ahuac waved the soldiers closer for fear they might lose their minds and take him.

He still harbored the hope that this year’s incarnation might grant him that moment of essential communion with the Smoking Mirror, and a momentary glimpse of the future, which the king so desperately craved and feared. But after months of fasting and bleeding and mutilating himself, of maguey thorns in his tongue and penis until he could taste or feel nothing, Ahuac simply lusted to cut out his heart, visions or no, and nearly drooled at the prospect of dividing his flesh among the lords of the city.

The ixiptla waved to the crowd, and a shower of corn and chocolate fell from his sleeve, inciting a stampede. His concubines clucked at his trickery, and wondered too loud how he had kept his flesh so robust, if he took no food for himself. His prowess with the women had shamed the legends of the god, himself, they crowed. His ritual companions hissed at the waste of such fine fare on the peasantry.

“Ah, my servants,” asked the ixiptla, “will my flesh be devoured only by the lords of the city, and by the king and all the priests?”

His companions laughed and sang in slurred monkey-chatters. “Only the finest will eat you, O lord.”

The black and gold-painted face of the ixiptla split in an unseemly white grin. “Then what will the poor have to eat? On what holy day will they have the honor of eating you, and so sharing in the gift of my flesh?”

When the last of the city lay behind them, they made their way through the crush of peasants to the waters of Tezcoco, where a canopied canoe awaited the ixiptla’s party. Behind the phallic water-dog mask of Xolotl, executioner of the gods to feed the sun, Ahuac gulped blood from his mangled tongue and forced himself through the prescribed sermon: on the midnight glory of Tezcatlipoca, on the vital symbolism of his final journey to the shrine of Tlapitzahuayan, where he shed his godhood and offered himself up for the holiday feast. He had to shout to be heard over the sounds of the people weeping.

The party made haste to the canoe, and Ahuac ordered the soldiers to harrow the crowds after someone shied a stone at him. The ixiptla climbed into the boat and took his place on the jaguar mat as if he had done this every year. As they pushed off, the rotted golden light of the moon dazzled the priest so he stumbled at the gunwale, and the ixiptla steadied him. Ahuac shrank away, sneering, “Glut yourself on their fickle worship, O Great Night, for you’ll find no such fare on your journey beneath the earth.”

The grin of the ixiptla was the moon multiplied. “But will I not rise to hear them again, as I do every year, for am I not your god?”

At the far shore, Ahuac saw that the crowds had already encircled the ancient shrine. The peasants swarmed the ixiptla as he set foot on the mud, and the priest’s heart faltered as he lost sight of him for a moment. But the living god gently pulled himself free and urged them back, taking his place in the ritual with a feverish glee. Ahuac thought he saw something pass from the crowd into his hands, and had him searched, but found nothing. No unclean blood must soil this holy ground, so Ahuac merely ordered the crowd beaten back, and cleared the path to the pyramid.

The ixiptla performed his part of the ritual well enough, breaking a reed flute on each step as he climbed towards Ahuac, who awaited him at the sanctuary atop the shrine. The priest was glad for the mask of Xolotl, for he feared what others might make of the look on his face as he beckoned the ixiptla up to the sacrificial stone.

There were no litanies to sing here, no sermons to waste on the shameless mob of children besieging the shrine. No mere words could brand them with the truth of what it meant to reach out to the gods; to them, a god was a clown bearing gifts. If the annual cycle of the ixiptla dragged on agonizingly, at least its culmination would be swift, the moment of ascension so eagerly anticipated would wash away all uncertainty.

As the ixiptla climbed the last step, legs trembling with fatigue, he murmured, “You must envy me, priest, for I shall go to the warrior’s paradise denied your kind.”

“I doubt it,” Ahuac answered, giving vent to all the gall of a lifetime. “I have communed with the heart’s blood of more men than you have in your city, and have tasted only fear of the black cloud that hides their faces. I think we have fallen from favor with our gods, and I cannot say whither your nagual will fly, when I let it loose. Most likely, it will merely rot in the bellies of the lords.”

“Then whence came the order of the god to raid Tlacopan, O my priest?”

“I gave it myself,” Ahuac made the mask grin, thinking this last would melt the ixiptla’s bravado, but he only nodded and smiled back.

The ixiptla meekly lay down on the altar, baring his chest to Ahuac’s obsidian blade. The priest noticed that the ixiptla’s flesh was indeed not so withered as he had expected, given that he took no food for a year. His lips and tongue were stained black, as if he’d eaten his face-paint.

The ixiptla laughed, sly eyes ensnaring Ahuac’s as he gagged on black foam. “I have not starved, all these months, my priest. I feasted on snakes and scorpions and poisonous frogs, which the poor gave to me in return for your fine food, and tonight, I have eaten enough to kill even your god. You Mexica are so chained to your rituals; you are more a slave than I. If you do not eat this flesh, your terrible lord will hurl earthquakes and plagues on the city… but this meat is death.”

The ixiptla shuddered, and bile leaked from his slack mouth, his muscles going to water beneath his painted skin. “Will you taste my name, priest? Will you savor my courage? My heart is a codex of venom. It holds all the future you need to see.”

“At last,” Ahuac hissed, “you reveal yourself.” The priest removed his mask and showed his face to the sacrifice. He raised the obsidian knife over the ixiptla and cracked his chest wide, as he had done it hundreds of times here and thousands in his dreams, ripped out his heart and held it up for the ixiptla to see.

Close before his clouding eyes, Ahuac bit into the beating heart and gorged himself on the envenomed blood. Choking now as it mingled with his own, Ahuac said, “Your name is Tezcatlipoca.”

Even as his own strength began to fail, Ahuac ordered the body of the ixiptla to be prepared for the feast.



Cody Goodfellow has written three novels: Radiant Dawn, Ravenous Dusk and Perfect Union, and a forthcoming story collection, Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static, Cemetery Dance and the anthologies Hot Blood 13 and Monstrous. With John Skipp, he has written one novel so far (Jake’s Wake) and their short jams have run in Shivers V, Hellboy: Oddest Jobs and Up Jumped The Devil, a collection of stories inspired by the music of Nick Cave. More at perilouspress.com and skippandgoodfellow.com.


Summer 2005