Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas’s “T’la-yub’s Head,” translated by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and first published in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s and Paula R. Stiles’s 2015 She Walks in Shadows anthology. Spoilers ahead.
“There remains a door which we must watch because we are the key.”
T’la-yub rematerializes in the amphitheater head first, vomiting with a death rattle. Her arched body follows. Her luminous vapor turns to flesh and collapses. Her long black hair, sticks to her face, painted red and black. “What did I do wrong this time, Tonantzin?” she screams.
There’s no answer. She grips the amulet in her left hand until it bleeds. Then she says words that sound as if they come from a very deep place. Her body turns to blue light, then nothing.
In flashback (I think, or maybe not), Grandmother slips into prophetic trances under the influence of the sacred pulque drink. The gods tell her that she and T’la-yub must journey far north to the Mictlan, place of the dead, where their families lived before Quetzalcoatl created humanity. There T’la-yub will hear the gods speak with their forked tongues, learn the hidden words of duality and how to change shape. She will be lady, spectre, goddess.
It is a terrible prophecy, but T’la-yub agrees to go. She feels certain Grandmother will die at journey’s end and need someone to prepare her body. They leave their house unlocked, free their animals, for they know no one returns from Mictlan, alive or dead.
For countless moons they walk unknown paths, to arrive at the entrance to the underground kingdom, the door of their family. Grandmother dies the next day. T’la-yub prepares her body and kills a red dog to serve as Grandmother’s guide to the land of the dead. On the fourth day, she lights the funeral pyre.
Grandmother owned an amulet made of metal that fell from beyond the stars, a scorching rock. The gods had dictated how the metal was to be carved. Now, though Grandmother knew she would die without the amulet, she has given it to T’la-yub. T’la-yub believes Grandmother knew everything because of her visions. The gods, however, don’t speak to T’la-yub. They won’t tell her what she’s doing wrong.
The scars the amulet has left on her hand are healing into a circular callus. The amulet is dark green, engraved on one side with a great serpent, on the other with a strange creature agitating eight arms. Why has Grandmother left her alone, to make conjurings she can’t comprehend?
During the four years it takes the dead to descend through the nine lands of the underworld to the abode of the lords of death, some forget their identities. They become specters without will, slaves. They guard the entrance to what are called amphitheaters, though they are nothing more than “the place with blinding gray mist and obsidian wind that mutilates the dead.”
In the amphitheater, T’la-yub is confronted by a woman wearing a skirt of snakes and a necklace of human hands and hearts. Her nails are sharp claws. She says she is Tonantzin, Mother of All. T’la-yub recognizes her as Coatlicue, mother of the moon and stars. The woman adds that the ancient people called her Yig, for she’s also father—herein lies the mystery of duality.
A neither-dead-nor-alive slave decapitates the woman with an obsidian knife. Reeking black liquid spouts from the woman’s neck, then two great serpents to take the place of her head. They explain that to make a whole, you need two parts, as in life and death, the surface and the underworld. Their daughter T’la-yub has done nothing wrong. The body also is formed of duality. Now T’la-yub must find a red-haired man to serve as her crimson dog, to guide her on the journey of death.
T’la-yub begins the journey still alive, descending under Coatlicue’s protection. Learning that the art of dematerialization is the instrument of duality, she finally understands Grandmother’s vision. The two gods on her amulet are one. All things function in pairs. She paints half her face red, half black. She dresses in a skirt of snakes and a feather headdress—she is Cihuacoatl, serpent woman. She’s also Mictecacihuatl, lady of the dead.
They drag her into the amphitheater, last step before the abode of the gods. Wind cuts her cheeks. Her back arches, her mouth tastes of vomit, but she pronounces the words from the deep, from the thousand-tongued gods not of this world. All turns blue.
By night the decapitated body of T’la-yub guards the door of her ancestors. In dreams she presents herself to Grandmother’s ashes. “In the eternity of the mound, the time of dreams is not the same as the time of death.” Time is also different in the principal chamber of Mictlan. There is eternally a new head in the skull-racks of the lords of death, a head with hair writhing like tentacles, with red-and-black lips that sing to receive the dead. T’la-yub’s head kisses them like a mother and cradles them in the bed where the sun sleeps.
There she opens her eyes, “the stellar eyes of Mictlantecuhtli. They see everything and see themselves in them. The light of the stars is born and extinguished in that same instant.”
What’s Cyclopean: “Obsidian wind” is an… evocative… description. Ow.
The Degenerate Dutch: García-Rosas, to put it mildly, knows a lot more about Native American nations than either Lovecraft or Zealia Bishop.
Mythos Making: Coatlicue is mapped to Yig, Mictlán to the under-earth realm of the K’n-yan. And T’la-yub gets a much more interesting ending, and a much more interesting identity, than she did in “The Mound.”
Libronomicon: No books this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: No madness, though many visions.
If you know your Aztec mythology, you’ll have read this week’s story with an advantage over those of us who are largely (and regrettably) ignorant of this vast lore-trove. I read through “T’la-yub’s Head” a couple times without looking up all those mysterious names, muddling along on context, but I also highlighted the names for future Googling. The future is now past, one of those dualities with which T’la-yub must struggle, and the story’s gained much resonance and richness for my modest effort.
Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, was about the only name I recognized off the bat. His partner in creating the current race of humanity is Cihuacoatl, Snake-Woman, a prominent motherhood and fertility goddess. Miclantecuhtli is the god of the dead and king of Mictlan, the Aztecs’ nine-leveled underworld; Mictecacihuatl is his wife, literally the “lady of the dead.” Coatlicue, Serpent-Skirt, is an earth-mother goddess generally represented as an old woman. She gets to call herself Tonantzin as that’s a title given to Aztec mother goddesses in general.
Among the treasures found in Tenochtitlan (the ancient Aztec city-state now part of Mexico City) was an enormous basalt statue of Coatlicue in the manifestation García-Rosas describes: clad in a skirt of intertwined snakes and sporting a necklace of human hands and hearts, two coral snakes substituting for her head, her fingers and toes armed with formidable claws. The most interesting tidbit I read about Coatlicue is that she’s associated with “star-demons” called tzitzimime. The Aztecs believed these star-demons would devour all humanity if the sun ever failed to rise. No wonder the Aztecs fed Huitzilopochtli the hearts and blood of ritually sacrificed humans so that the Sun God could go on fending off darkness and the tzitzimime. You really can’t run a society if everyone gets eaten. Getting eaten by star-demons sounds particularly unpleasant. Not only are they monstrous, they’re extraterrestrial monsters, foreigners, the really-not-us—and how often we’ve seen the kind of scare-capital Lovecraft and friends can make from the like!
Pulque is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey (agave) plant. It’s described as a milky, viscous, sour-yeasty fluid. I’ll pass. Many among the indigenous peoples of Mexico who brewed pulque were also obliged to pass, since it was a ritual drink reserved for certain festivals and certain persons. Among the privileged were priests and rulers and sacrificial victims; more pertinent for “T’la-yub’s Head,” elderly women were also allowed pulque, hence Grandmother got to drink it and chat with the gods.
T’la-yub probably wished Grandmother would have abstained, not that her tranceless sobriety would have changed T’la-yub’s fate as I read it. Like Kincaid’s “My Mother,” it’s (very) short-form prose with the complex density of poetry. “My Mother” wasn’t short on challenging structural shifts. “Head” outdoes “Mother” in these and in the ambiguity of its timeline. I’m not sure if the opening section occurs before or after T’la-yub’s journey to Mictlan as described in the following sections. T’la-yub cuts her hand with the amulet in the opening. A couple sections later, in an apparent flashback, she notes that her amulet-wound has healed to a callous. Which came first, the wound or the scar? Or is this a question as unanswerable as the one about the chicken and the egg? Chicken and egg, wound and scar, aren’t these more of the dualities that are all? Like past and present, present and future. Dualities imply the cyclical, or as characters are fond of saying in Battlestar Galactica: “This has all happened before. This will all happen again.”
That T’la-yub’s ordeal repeats is implied in her cry to Coatlicue: What has she done wrong this time? Another clue: The first-described journey with Grandmother appears to take place in the time of the Aztecs, when their capital Tenochtitlan was still “great.” But Coatlicue tells T’la-yub to begin her descent to Mictlan by procuring a red-headed, red-bearded man as ghost-guide. Who can this be—what’s the link to the mother-story, Lovecraft and Bishop’s “The Mound”? I didn’t think the man could be Zamacona. Reviewing “Mound,” I found reference to one of the wannabe looters of the hummock, an Ed Clay who went there with his brother Walker in 1920, only to disappear. Walker never came back. Ed did, but his “strawberry-colored” hair and beard had turned “albino-white.”
The Aztecs created tzompantli, racks for the public display of the skulls of captured warriors and other sacrificial victims. Mictlan’s lords of death also maintain tzompantli, in which there is eternally a new head. It is T’la-Yub’s, I take it, ever freshly harvested and made a mother-goddess for the souls arrived home at last. Meanwhile T’la-yub’s headless body is “upstairs,” eternally guarding the door of her ancestors.
Which ancestors, though? Lovecraft and Bishop’s T’la-yub is unambiguously one of the K’n-yan people, whereas García-Rosas’ T’la-yub appears to be a surface-dwelling human, one of the indigenous Nahuas. This makes sense, as García-Rosas recasts “Mound’s” Lovecraftian Mythos as Aztec mythology. But remember, the underworld and the surface world are dualities, two that make one. So, too, the people of the underworld and the people of the surface? So, too, the lores of the Aztecs and Lovecraft? [RE: Plus, Grandmother implies that they’re of some earlier, pre-human species. I think…]
One face of T’la-yub’s amulet features a great serpent, presumably Quetzalcoatl. The other face features a strange octopoid creature, presumably Cthulhu. In the end (or one of the ends), T’la-yub realizes the two gods “exist as one.”
I find the idea at once terrifying and comforting, which is fine, just another duality.
This week’s selection had unexpected synchrony with my current recreational reading: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s own Gods of Jade and Shadow, in which one of the Lords of the Aztec underworld drags a mortal woman around Mexico on a quest to reclaim his throne. There is much about the underworld, its nine levels, and all the unpleasant things that can happen to mortals who mess with the gods. García-Rosas, who’s new to me, also appears from her website to be playing in familiar deific territory here—in fact, she seems to have something of a specialty in Aztec/Mythos crossovers.
Which makes for a fascinating intersection. “The Mound,” a Lovecraft/Bishop collaboration, has an anthropology problem. Their collaboration resulted in a more organized racism than Lovecraft’s standard run-in-circles-scream-and-shout terror of non-Anglos, and so included both vaguely recognizable-as-human Wichita (even if they talked in Up-Goer-Five) and the extra-fun scholarly division of all cultures along the inevitable path from Savage to Civilized to Decadent. So while the K’n-yan weren’t strictly meant to be Native themselves (they’re the decadent ones), they’re still ripe for a monster-reclaiming story.
It’s an intriguing sort of reclaiming—not trying to fit a more complex truth into the same basic story, but mythologizing the core of that story and adding meaning to it. Elements of “The Mound” are dropped entirely, and others are transformed. Which is appropriate for the K’n-yan, I suppose. The amphitheaters are no longer home to secular, torture-laden entertainment, but sites for Mictlán’s hazardous transformation of the dead. (Perhaps also their destruction, if they don’t know the right words. Mictlán’s doesn’t seem like an easy place to have a long afterlife.) Zamacona becomes even more of an afterthought in T’la-Yub’s story than she was in his, a convenient sacrifice to kick off her apotheosis. [ETA: Anne has now convinced me that it’s not even him. So less than an afterthought, even better.] And her headless punishment becomes instead a powerful, predestined fate—while her head holds separate court as an even greater power.
I am not operating in terribly familiar territory here—I know a little about the Aztec pantheon, including probably several things that are wrong, and am quite sure that I’m missing things. Which is a pity, because I suspect the various deities that are combined, the particular phrases used to mark transformation, are doing a lot. But the glimpses are thought-provoking.
“The art of dematerialization is the instrument of duality,” teaches Coatlicue. So we get two contrasting things that are the same thing, whether gods or body parts. And perhaps, also, stories? Two interpretations of a woman with transformative powers taking a hazardous journey and becoming transformed. Two pantheons mapped onto each other for a story of gods that can be cruel and kind, dangerous and generous. Two authors, both in the original collaboration/revision and in the different sort of collaboration that is translation.
I appreciate this kind of duality, that both births stars and extinguishes them. It seems to invite an embrace of contradiction—something necessary to much deconstructed cosmic horror. We work with stories that were meant to slice us like obsidian blades, and keep working with them despite the pain and the scars and the risk of getting it wrong. And—sometimes—we turn them into instruments of power and healing.
Next week, we delve back into some very early cosmic horror of the “things man was not meant to know” variety with Leonid Andreyev’s “Lazarus.” We’re also looking for film/show suggestions for our fast-approaching 300th post—though if the streaming stars align, we might forgo our usual obscure animation options in favor of Lovecraft Country. Stay tuned!
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.