The Plumed Serpent of Los Angeles
Daniel A. Olivas
Being good Mexicans I know your parents taught you that although Columbus came from Italy, the Spanish crown commissioned his voyage to El Nuevo Mundo and so his three ships sailed under a Spanish flag. And then, a bit later, Spanish conquistadors and missionaries with names like Hernando Cortés and Friar Bartolomé de las Casas and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca came and, as that son-of-a-bitch Cromwell did to the Irish, the Spanish liberated the native people of their "barbarian" pagan beliefs and gave them Catholicism. Or so the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries thought.
For, as we say in Spanish: La zorra mudará los dientes mas no las mientes. A fox might lose its teeth, but not its nature. So, although the Spanish banished the old Aztec gods so that the people had to worship in churches, they forgot to ask the gods if they wanted to leave. In other words, because the Spanish forgot their manners, the old Aztec gods hung around and did what they could to play mischief with the lives of the Mestizos -- the new people of mixed Spanish and Indian blood -- so that the Mestizos would never forget who were the true ruling powers of the land.
The same is true in Ireland: the ancient gods still rumble through the night or pop up on a Spring morning and cause mischief on that beautiful green island. I know this because when I was much younger I hitchhiked through most of that wonderful island (I stayed in Southern Ireland because I was too cowardly to deal with the shooting up north!) and on more than one occasion I saw the mischief of the old Celtic gods. Little things, sometimes. Like when I was having beer at a pub in Galway on the western coast -- a nice pint of Guinness -- and I looked up at the wall by the dart board and saw a painting. It was a typical painting of Ireland's patron saints: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother Robert and the Pope. Well, right as I was staring at the painting, admiring its workmanship, in a blink the painting changed! Now, instead of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother Robert and the Pope, I saw, clear as day, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother Robert and MUHAMMAD ALI! The greatest boxer who ever entered a ring! Float like a mariposa, sting like an abeja! I looked around the pub and no one else was looking and I wanted to yell ˇchingada! but I just stood there with the pint of Guinness in my hand and my mouth hanging open. But there he was, clear as an Arizona morning, Muhammad Ali, the former Mr. Cassius Marcellas Clay, smiling that little sly smile of his and looking at me with that twinkle in his eyes that he used to have -- before he got sick and started shaking -- you know, when he used to appear on the Mike Douglas Show, and teased Mike something bad because it looked like Mike Douglas didn’t know how to act around Black folk. Anyway, the magical transformation of that painting on that pub's wall in Galway, that, my amigos, was the work of a pinche Irish god!
Well, the old Aztec gods are just as bad. No, worse! ˇAy Dios mío! Don’t get me wrong. They won’t kill or anything. But their idea of a joke can sometimes include a little physical and emotional pain. And they don’t care who their next victim is. So, when the Spanish came the old gods went underground and hid during the daylight; but when it got dark they came back up to play their tricks on the Mestizos and Indians. This is where my story begins: the most pissed off Aztec god was, who else, Quetzalcoatl. He was the greatest – just like Ali -- absolutely the greatest, and he ruled the Aztecs and the Toltecs with an iron fist. His fame continued even into the twentieth century when D. H. Lawrence -- one of my favorite writers; you know, he’s buried in Taos, New Mexico -- wrote a novel and called it "Quetzalcoatl" but his publishers were worried that with such a strange title the book wouldn't sell so they changed it to "The Plumed Serpent." Because that’s what Quetzalcoatl is -- a snake with many beautiful feathers surrounding his face. He was the solar god and, as you know, probably the greatest god the Americas have ever known.
Now Quetzi -- as his friends called him because, let’s face it, even for gods "Quetzalcoatl" is quite a mouthfull -- Quetzi was a grouchy son-of-a-bitch because, well, you would be too if you were a great god and then the Spanish told your people to worship Jesus Christ and they do -- can you believe it? -- they do! This Jesus, fumed Quetzi -- He doesn’t require human sacrifices! Hell, he let HIMSELF be sacrificed! What kind of god does that! And then, to top it off, other people, pale people, come and take over the land you once ruled.
Now most of the other Aztec gods took on human form the way you would if you were in their position. Gods with names like Huitzilopochtli, Chalchihuitlicue and Tlacahuepan became José, María and Hernán. They looked at the human population and found the best looking examples of humanity that they could. Sometimes they mixed and matched different features -- but they chose good looking hombres y damas and transmuted into these beautiful people! The best looking faces and legs and arms and man-oh-Manischewitz! They were the best-looking Mexicans you ever saw with skin as smooth and brown as polished Indian pottery with raven-black hair that glistened in the sun! And, at night, only at night, well after midnight, they changed back into their original forms and flew through Mexico and played their evil tricks on the poor unsuspecting, Jesus-worshipping Mestizos and Indians.
But Quetzi was so angry that he left Tenochtitlán -- you know, Mexico City -- and wandered without purpose for almost three hundred years. He eventually headed north until he found a little one-room hut far from his home in a place that would eventually be called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de la Porciuncula, now known simply as "Los Angeles." You see, he had suffered greatly once before and this latest insult was too much for him to bear. It is a painful and embarrassing story but you must know it to understand why Quetzi could not live in his home of Tenochtitlán anymore. Centuries before the Spanish came, the god Tezcatlipoca disguised himself as a great hairy spider and offered Quetzi his very first taste of pulque which -- as I’m sure you know -- is much stronger than tequila. Ay! That shit will get you borracho! And Quetzi loved the feeling he got from the pulque and drank so much that, in a drunken heat, he had his way with his sister, Quetzalpetlatl! The shame of it! So, Quetzi banished himself and wandered the land for many generations.
But this Spanish conquest thing, that was too much for Quetzi to stomach. So, as I said, Quetzi left Tenochtitlán and eventually ended up in old Los Angeles living in a little adobe hut. And, in his disgust, instead of choosing a beautiful body to transmute into, Quezti borrowed the looks of the first person he saw after the Spanish banned the Aztec religion. Unfortunately, the first person he laid his eyes on was a broken down old borrachín who was bald as a mango with a large pot of a belly that hung below his belt. But Quetzi’s anger blinded him so that he didn't care.
Anyway, one day poor old Quetzi left his little adobe hut to look for something to eat. Yes, he now suffered from hunger of the human type. He headed to the little hut owned by this vieja, an old Mestizo woman who bartered with anyone who wanted good Mexican comida and who had something she might want. But as he scrambled down some rocks to avoid taking the long way on the foot-worn dirt road, the stupid Aztec god tripped on his own feet and landed with a THUMP! right in the scrubby bushes. You see, that drunkard Quetzi turned into had these goddamn big Godzilla-like feet. So it was easy to trip just walking. But anyway, Quetzi trips and lands hard and he’s stunned and sits there for a few moments trying to get his head to stop spinning.
Suddenly he notices a woman standing over him. A beautiful woman! And for a moment Quetzi’s bitterness and grouchiness melt away and for a second or two he feels a little joy in his rock of a heart.
"Quetzalcoatl?" the woman said.
Goddamn! Quetzi thought. This beautiful human knows my name!
"Quetzalcoatl?" the woman said again, this time with urgency in her voice. Before he could answer, the woman said: "We need you. We need you now!"
"Who?" said Quetzi, rubbing his nalgas as he stood up with the help of the beautiful woman.
"We do. The old Aztec gods. We need you!"
And at that moment Quetzi recognized the beautiful woman’s eyes. The rest of her face he did not know, but he knew the eyes of his sister, Quetzalpetlatl, the one he had disgraced so many years before. He suddenly grew angry and said: "Go to hell!" and dusted himself off and got onto the main dirt road. But she followed him.
"Please, oh great Quetzalcoatl! Our way of life is being threatened and we need all the power of the old days to survive, to win! Please don't run from me!" The beautiful woman had great tears falling from her eyes as she ran by Quetzi’s side.
Quetzi suddenly stopped and turned to the beautiful woman. His face burned a deep red and he sputtered: "Where were my compañeros and compañeras when the Spanish came to banish us? Huh? Where?"
Quetzalpetlatl looked down, ashamed. Quetzi continued: "You did not fight then, did you? I asked you all to fight but you goddamn cowards just hid and let Jesus and Mary and Joseph and all those pinche saints replace us! You cowards! Leave me be! Do I look like a pendejo to you?" And with that, Quetzi started to walk with a quick gait kicking up dust and rocks.
Quetzalpetlatl thought for a moment and, in a panic, she said: "If we win, you can rule all of us again! I promise!"
And this, my friends, made Quetzi stop and think. Oh, to be the highest god again! Could he even remember how it felt? Quetzi looked out to the clear Los Angeles sky. His eyes trained on a hawk circling in the eastern horizon.
Quetzalpetlatl saw that her brother considered the possibilities. So, to up the ante she added: "And I will forgive you, and you will no longer carry shame in your heart."
Oh, joy! thought Quetzi. Can I have it all again? Is it possible? But it has to be done the right way. So Quetzi said: "Let’s go and get some food, mi hermana, and talk about what is needed."
So they went to the little hut owned by the old Mestizo woman to get something to eat. Quetzi’s sister offered the vieja beautiful stones and in exchange received two wooden platters of pollo in a thick mole sauce and a large, steaming pile of corn tortillas wrapped in a moist towel. They found a nice place to sit under a large pine tree so Quetzi could learn what was afoot.
Quetzi's sister explained that the Christian god of evil, Satan, had decided to set up shop in the various cities and towns of the Americas. Satan, being legion, sent parts of himself throughout the land to lay the foundation for a revolution to displace Jesus and rule the human race. But in order to topple Christianity he also had to purge the land of the Aztec gods. A clean slate he wanted. A complete coup. And the first place Satan was going to go was to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de la Porciuncula. You see, Satan loves irony and what better place to begin than a pueblo named after Jesus’ mother. As I told you, Satan is legion so he sent the female part of himself, La Diabla, to plan the war against the old Aztec gods. La Diabla, it was learned, found a little cave in Malibu by the ocean and there she plotted.
"So," said Quetzi as he wiped mole from his round face with his already filthy sleeve, "all we have to do is kill La Diabla. Right?"
His sister thought for a moment and said, "No, La Diabla cannot be killed. But she can be weakened. She can be taught a lesson. La Diabla can be seduced." As she said this last thing she looked down and blushed a dark red-brown.
"Ah," said Quetzi, purposely ignoring his sister’s embarassment. "We must be clever." He laughed. "Why don't we pull that pulque trick Tezcatlipoca pulled on me all those years ago and get La Diabla muy borracha!" Quetzi let out a big laugh and then a loud fart not caring because after all he had lived as an anchorite in his little hut for so long that his manners were atrocious.
"Perhaps," said Quetzalpetlatl covering her nose as nonchalantly as possible. "But we must get you in shape first."
Quetzi looked down at himself and saw what she meant. He had chosen a poor example of a human form. But he felt needed again and said: "I'll do whatever you need me to do!"
So it began on that day. Quetzalpetlatl became her brother’s personal trainer. She made Quetzi run and eat small meals and lift large stones in the heat of the desert day and stop drinking booze. And at the end of two months Quetzi’s belly grew flat and strong and his face burned a nice healthy brown and his arms and legs developed bands of pulsating muscles. And, my friends, while they were getting Quetzi in shape they started to develop a plan, step-by-step, always trying to remember La Diabla’s psychology.
In getting Quetzi in shape his sister couldn’t do anything about his bald head -- he was a total pelón! But Quetzi allowed his beard to grow and his sister then trimmed it into a fine mustache and goatee. Quetzalpetlatl helped her brother find beautiful clothes to show off his new physique. She stood him in front of a mirror in his little hut and they both admired his new physical power. And poor Quetzalpetlatl felt ashamed because she admired her brother in all his manliness. But she shook herself from within and said: "You are now ready to seduce La Diabla and save us!"
As I’ve told you, La Diabla cannot be killed but her power can be limited, tied in knots. And she loves bargains. It’s funny. La Diabla is vicious and evil but she always keeps a bargain. The trick, though, is to lure her into a bargain that will backfire and, to do that, you have to rely on her greatest failing: her pride. Remember, pride led Satan to be cast from heaven in the first place. And as they say in America, you can't teach an old dog new tricks! So they hatched a plan where Quetzi would challenge La Diabla to a duel, of sorts. A duel of gods. If La Diabla won, the Aztec gods would leave this world without protest. But if Quetzi prevailed, La Diabla would leave the Americas forever and use the rest of the world for her playground.
But first Quetzi had to go to Malibu where La Diabla lived. His sister bargained for a great stallion and a fine saddle and Quetzi prepared for his twenty-six mile trek to the coast. When all was prepared, Quetzalpetlatl helped Quetzi mount the magnificent horse. She said, "I love you, my brother."
"And I you," said Quetzi proudly as he dug his spurs into the horse and headed west.
Now the Chumash Indians still lived by the beach and, indeed, they named it "umalido" which means "where the surf is loud" which eventually became "Malibu." As Quetzi came within a few miles of La Diabla’s cave, the Chumash looked up from their daily lives and stared in amazement at the striking figure cut by the newly minted hero-to-be. As he neared La Diabla’s home, Quetzi’s nostrils filled with the stench of evil and his horse became skittish.
"There, there, my beauty," said Quetzi in a soothing voice as he patted his horse’s muscular neck. "All will be well." And the horse slowly calmed and continued its march towards the profane shelter. When they reached the mouth of the cave, Quetzi could see nothing but black. He dismounted and pulled a lantern from the side of his saddle and lit it. Slowly, wary of the rocky ground, Quetzi entered the cave. He walked, one foot gently placed in front of the other, for almost an hour. What the hell am I doing? he thought. What will become of me? The darkness of the cave almost swallowed the flickering light of the lantern. What will become of me?
Suddenly Quetzi stopped with a crunch of gravel under his boots. He sensed a presence though no figure appeared.
"What took you so long?" said an unseen woman.
The skin on Quetzi’s bald head danced with fear. He sucked in as much air as possible and said: "It is I, the great Quetzalcoatl! Come out so that I may see you, Diabla!" Only silence answered him. Ay, poor Quetzi! What had he gotten himself into? But no response came so he continued to walk deeper into the cave. After walking for ten minutes he stopped and called out again: "It is I, the great Quetzalcoatl! Come out so that I may see you, Diabla!"
This time he got his wish. Without a sound La Diabla appeared before Quetzi. I cannot describe her other than to say that Quetzi’s eyes had never rested upon a creature more beautiful and seductive. He could not speak.
"Oh, great Quetzalcoatl, please, come and share a drink with me. I am honored to be in the presence of such a great god." And with that a grand oak table appeared before Quetzi. The table groaned with great bottles of pulque, large baskets of fruit, a roast pig and many other delicacies. Quetzi’s eyes focused on the pulque and he grew frightened as he remembered how he was made a fool of by the god Tezcatlipoca who disguised himself as a spider and offered Quetzi his first taste of alcohol. But his mouth watered as he remembered the feel of booze in his mouth and the wonderful burning sensation it made as it flowed down his throat and into his belly. Quetzi shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment to clear his mind of all temptation.
"No," said Quetzi in a strong voice. "I am here to offer you a bargain."
"No," said La Diabla. "You must accept my hospitality and only then will I hear you out."
So they sat down, Quetzi on one end of the table and La Diabla at the other. I am still a great god, he thought. I can hold my liquor. I will not fail to present my bargain. They ate and drank in silence with both keeping sharp eyes on each other. Finally, after an hour of this, La Diabla said: "So, what is the purpose of this visit?" As she said this she could see that Quetzi was getting loose with the pulque. La Diabla smiled a noxious smile and waited for a response.
That poor son-of-a-bitch Quetzi! He hadn’t had a drink in months and now the pulque softened his resolve and made him think corrupt thoughts as his eyes perused La Diabla’s unblemished and enticing brown skin. He shook his head again and reminded himself of his noble mission. Quetzi cleared his throat of the phlegm that pulque tends to invite from most men's throats and said: "No, I'd rather hear from you first."
La Diabla continued to smile. "Well, oh magnificent Quetzalcoatl, you no doubt have heard of my plan to rid this world of the old gods. Otherwise why would you be here?"
"Go on," he said.
La Diabla leaned forward and began: "I am sickened by the puny efforts of your hermanos and hermanas to maintain a presence in this land. They are beyond irrelevant and they do nothing more than cause a low level of nausea to permeate my very essence."
"If we are so little, why do you care?" Quetzi made a good point with this question and he rocked his head back and forth to show that he was still in command.
La Diabla leaned forward even more and the oak table creaked. She hissed: "Because as long as the Mestizos and Indians know you're still here -- and they do know because of the stupid pranks you fallen gods do at night -- I cannot fully rule."
Good answer, thought Quetzi. And as La Diabla spoke, Quetzi allowed his eyes to drink further of her beauty. His heart beat strong within his chest and his groin flushed with the warmth of lecherous blood. What should he do? Could he forsake his fellow gods and cut a bargain to save himself and perhaps bring him a little closer to this beautiful creature? He kept still and let La Diabla continue.
"So, great Quetzalcoatl, I offer you a bargain: Do not stand in my way and, in exchange, you may have a role under my reign."
Quetzi thought for a moment. Since the conquistadors had come and banished the Aztec gods he had lived less than a life. If he rejected La Diabla’s offer and followed through with his plan to help his brothers and sisters, maybe he could rule again. And didn’t he owe it to his sister after the way he defiled her long ago? But what if he failed? He could be destroyed by this powerful dark deity of Christianity. Maybe he could save himself and get a little power to enjoy life again! Quetzi looked into La Diabla’s eyes. He could lose himself in those eyes! Screw the others! What did they ever do for him? They never even visited him before this whole mess started. Screw them and his sister!
"I accept your bargain!" and he drank up another large goblet of pulque.
La Diabla laughed and walked over to Quetzi and said: "Let us walk to the outside world and start!"
So they left the cave arm in arm and went to the shore on the sand and stood facing east. The late summer smogless sky gleamed a blue that no longer exists and cool wind from the ocean blew hard and clean. La Diabla touched Quetzi’s sleeve and within a breath they were standing in the Santa Ana Canyon by the northeastern desert. She lifted her hands to her mouth and screamed a mute scream and, at that very second, Quetzi saw the true power of this god. La Diabla emitted a hot, relentless wind that began as a mere breeze but then erupted into a torrent of withering heat. La Diabla blew and blew and blew for precisely three hours and Quetzi stood there without the power to move, for he was in awe.
And the too-beautiful Mexicans who were once great Aztec gods could not withstand La Diabla’s wind. They withered and their human forms died within those three hours. Their souls rose up and went to a place beyond the moon far from their earthly home. La Diabla was now supreme!
La Diabla kept her bargain with our friend Quetzi. She let him live different lives throughout the centuries to bring his own brand of misery to the human race. He began as a banker, then a governor, lawyer, movie producer, editor, mass murderer, literary agent, plumber, and right now, as I speak, he is the owner of a major league baseball team. Quetzi never got very close to La Diabla, but his dating life was full and, so far, Quetzi has walked down the aisle at least a dozen times.
And our other friend, La Diabla, is doing her best to strangle our world in her own way. But because of her paranoia, and despite killing all the old gods except Quetzi, she still blows the Santa Ana Winds -- the devil winds, as we call them today -- to make certain that the former great gods of the Aztecs will never rise again.
Is there a moral to this story? Not really. There is an old Mexican dicho that says: Si se muere el perro, se acaba la rabia. If the dog dies, the rabies will be gone. But, my friends, I promise you this: The dog is not dead. She is alive and well in a little town called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de la Porciuncula.
© 1999 Daniel A. Olivas
Daniel A. Olivas grew up near downtown Los Angeles between Koreatown and Pico-Union. He has a degree in English literature from Stanford University and a law degree from UCLA Law School. He is currently a Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice, where he practices environmental and land use law. He has written numerous articles on land use and civil procedure for the Los Angeles Daily Journal. He was also editor-in-chief of the UCLA Chicano Law Review. His short fiction has appeared, or will appear, in various paper and web literary journals including THEMA, RiverSedge, Sparks, Octavo, The Writer's Quill and The Sidewalk's End.