Why We Will Never Know Paradise
By Chris Pearce
Once, there was a valley, nestled between the tallest mountains that were deep in the darkest jungle and surrounded by the most treacherous river. But even though the lands that surrounded the valley were more fearsome and more dangerous than any other in the world, the valley itself was the most beautiful land in the world, a land that the gods themselves had surely set aside for those few men who could reach it. In the valley, the heat of the jungle faded away, and the sky was always cool and clear, and the flowers bloomed bright and the ground was so fertile that all a farmer had to do to grow food was drop the seeds onto the ground.
But no one lived in the valley. No man lived in the valley, at least. Because this place was a gift from the gods to men, there were those who sought to take it away. There would always be those who hated both gods and men, and would seek to sow strife between the two. And of all these beasts—Heart-ripper and Eye-gouger, First Death and Knife-in-back—none hated men and gods as much as Bleached Bone Woman.
She had counted herself among their number once, in the time before creation was made; before Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent and Tezcatlipoca, the Enemy of Both Sides had destroyed it and created it again. But for whatever reason, they no longer counted her among their number, and she no longer counted herself as one of them. No one recalls exactly what happened, or even what kind of goddess she was before. She may have been a Tzitzimime, the demon-gods that counted the stars as their number and tried eternally to murder the son. She may have been a daughter of Mictlan, the lord of the dead. I don’t know, and she doesn’t know, and the gods don’t know. When the world is destroyed, this sort of minor detail tends to be forgotten. But what everyone knew was that she was no longer a goddess, and when she had fallen from Acopa, the Thirteenth Heaven, she had claimed for herself the most beautiful spot of land on the planet, the only place in the world where the Feathered Serpent and the Enemy of Both Sides had ever truly worked together.
Now, the gods had told men about this special valley that had been made just for them, and had told them of the monstrous woman who now dwelled there. And naturally, as what happens when stories like this are told to men, heroes attempted to free the valley. Tecolotl and Ocelotl tried.
And at first they succeeded. Though they did not journey through the jungle together, each journey was much like the other. Their journeys were filled with the sort of heroics that rival the legends of even the gods.
On his journey, Ocelotl wrestled with the great snake that carved the river in the earth, whose shaking caused the treachery of the river. This snake had been born from the sea demon whose body had made the world, and from his tongue to his tail he was miles long. But Ocelotl had wrestled the serpent to the ground, and strangled him, and from his body had formed the longest river in the world.
Tecolotl had found, deep in the jungle, the Woman With the Jaguar’s Tongue, who controlled the jungle’s flora and fauna with her foul tongue. She had sworn that she would never know the touch of men, and that any man who came into her abode would be murdered. And Tecolotl seduced the demoness, before he slit her throat.
One by one they faced the obstacles that had been placed before them, and one by one the obstacles were overcome. Their feats were so incredible that any who heard of them were sure they would succeed. Their feats were so mighty that the birds themselves could not help themselves but to fly to the civilized lands and tell the people of each brother’s journey. They flattened mountains, changed the course of rivers, and tore down the mighty jungles that choked the land around the valley. And so they came to the valley, first Ocelotl, and then Tecolotl, each thinking that he would be the one to kill Bleached Bone Woman and give paradise to mankind.
They did not succeed. Ocelotl was strong, and he had thought to either intimidate Bleached Bone Woman with his strength, or failing that to slay her with his obsidian weapons, of which he was quite skilled. Bleached Bone Woman had laughed as his obsidian sword shattered on her leg, and his spear lodged itself in her ribs, doing her no harm. Ocelotl was made into a shawl, of which Bleached Bone Woman would often adorn herself with when she climbed to the tops of the mountain in the valley in order to mock the gods. Such weak heroes they sent her, after all, and they deserved to be mocked.
Tecolotl was sneaky, being able to creep in the darkness unseen even by the predators of the jungle who saw all that went on in the night. He often would creep into the huts of pretty girls, for he was as handsome as he was stealthy, and he thought that he would defeat Bleached Bone Woman by sneaking up on her when she was sleeping, or failing that seduce her and then kill her. He had pretty teeth, and Bleached Bone woman made them into the finest jewelry that ever could be made out of the human body.
And as these two heroes failed, both gods and men resigned themselves to the fact that this valley would go unclaimed.
But not everyone agrees with the gods, as Bleached Bone Woman herself had proven. There was a girl, little Nicualli. Tecolotl and Ocelotl had been her brothers, and she had expected them to kill Bleached Bone Woman and claim the valley for men and gods. She had expected this, and when it did not come to pass, she went to Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, who had created the valley in the only moment were they had not quarreled with one another. Now Quetzalcoatl, who is called the Feathered Serpent, and Tezcatlipoca, who is called the Enemy of Both Sides, were fighting when Nicualli came to see them, and they did not stop fighting even when they granted her audience.
The Feathered Serpent said: “Cleverness and beauty could not defeat her. How could you, when you are just a girl without brothers, a father, or a husband?”
The Enemy of Both Sides said: “Strength and treachery could not defeat her. How could you, when you are just a girl without brothers, a father, or a husband?”
But Nicualli insisted. The two gods argued, as they argued about everything. The Feathered Serpent, who despised violence and prized peace, did not want her to go, for he did not want to see any more blood wasted on the lost paradise. But the Enemy of Both Sides, who loved violence and demanded that blood be spilled in his name, wished to see her go, if only so she could join her brothers. Eventually, the Feathered Serpent relented, and she was told the way to paradise.
Before she left, the two gods each spoke to her alone.
The Feathered Serpent said: “Bleached Bone Woman is strong, stronger than any man and certainly stronger than a girl. The only way you will conquer her is through stealth and cleverness. But however you seek to defeat her, do not listen to the words of Tezcatlipoca, for his advice will lead to ruin. He delights in destruction, and does not care who loses in a fight.”
The Enemy of Both Sides said: “Bleached Bone Woman is old, as old as Quetzalcoatl and I. So she is wise, and will expect any trick that you could come up with. Arm yourself with swords and spears, and don the jaguar armor, for this is the only way that you can hope to defeat her. But however you seek to fight her, do not listen to the words of Quetzalcoatl, for his advice will surely lead to your bloody and gruesome death. He is a fool, and tries to ignore that blood is the fuel of our world.”
Nicualli’s journey was not the hero’s journey that her brothers had endured. The rivers had been calmed, for Tecolotl had soothed the spirits that dwelled within them. The jungle was not so treacherous, for Ocelotl had torn away every tree that slowed his walk by even a second. All the challenges that a hero would have been expected to face were gone. And Nicualli was glad at this, for she had feared the journey through the jungle more than she feared the challenged that lay in the valley.
So Nicualli went to the valley, armed with all the gifts of the gods. She found Bleached Bone Woman there, digging flowers out of the ground and burying them deep in the earth. Her name, Nicualli found was apt as it sounded. She was nothing but bones, a skeleton too big for any body, wearing a shawl made from one brother’s skin and a necklace made from the other’s brother’s teeth. And on her head was a headdress made from the whitest of cotton, interwoven with more skill than Nicualli had ever seen. The headdress must have been from when Bleached Bone Woman had been a goddess, Nicualli thought. So she swallowed her fear, and approached the demoness.
“What are you doing, Bleached Bone Woman,” asked Nicualli. “Do you not like the flowers here? Are they not bright and beautiful, and do you not love to gaze at them, since you have no one to speak with here in the valley?”
“No,” said Bleached Bone Woman, who continued with her work. “They are the works of the gods, and as I hate the gods, I hate them. And since this valley is mine, I will do with it as I please.”
“But are not the flowers beautiful, for do not the gods create beautiful things?” asked Nicualli, who sat down by Bleached Bone Woman.
“No!” shrieked Bleached Bone Woman, who now doubled the pace of her work. “The gods do not create beautiful things. They only steal, and claim the things that others make as their own. This valley was mine, for I created it.”
This was a lie. Nicualli knew it, and Bleached Bone Woman knew it, and anyone who had heard it that day would have known it.
“True. You should be able to shape your valley as you wish,” said Nicualli. And she rose to her feet, and began to pluck flowers from the ground and bury them in the earth.
“What are you doing?” asked Bleached Bone Woman, who stopped in her task and stared out at Nicualli from her empty eye sockets.
“It is your valley, and I wish to help you make it the way you see fit,” answered Nicualli, who continued with her task uninterrupted. Bleached Bone Woman continued to stare at her, and then returned to her task.
And so they spent the day plucking the petals off of flowers, and taking the juiciest, ripest fruits from the trees, and smashing them on the ground, and damming the streams as best they could. And as they did so, Bleached Bone Woman had Nicualli do less and less, and she herself did less and less. She left a few flowers unplucked, and fruits unsmashed, and streams undammed. She told Nicualli about the time when she had been a goddess, before the world had been destroyed and created again. She showed her where the tastiest fruits grew, and let her eat a few, and she made a garland of flowers for her hair.
And at last Bleached Bone Woman took little Nicualli to the place she most treasured in the valley. This was a lake, she said, deeper and cooler than any other lake in all of creation. No one knew what was at the bottom of the lake, even she herself, for she could not swim. But still the lake was beautiful, more beautiful than anything in the valley, and the water was fresher than any in the world, so much so that a single drop could satisfy any thirst.
She took Nicualli to the valley, and she let her frolic on the shore, while she found a rock to lay down her head upon and rest. And as she did so, Nicualli thought. Bleached Bone Woman had killed her brothers, and the gods expected her to kill her. And she wanted to, not for her brothers, but for all men, for this valley was meant to know the tread of men’s feet. And, more than even this selfless desire, she wanted this valley for herself, for she had known the pain of loss. She did not want to lose this most precious of places, no matter what action she had to take. So she hardened her heart, and so she resolved herself for what she must do, and she pushed Bleached Bone Woman into the lake.
As the water touched her bones, she screamed, cursing at Nicualli for her treachery. But even as her bones sank, she knew that Nicualli would not have what she wanted. For Bleached Bone Woman had lied; she did know what was at the bottom of the lake. It was a great wellspring, from which all the waters in the world had once been brought forth, and though it did not have as much water as it had once, there was still a flood there, only held back by a single rock. That the waters of creation dwelled here was the reason that such a place could come to be in the first place. So Bleached Bone Woman pulled out the rock, and the waters of creation flowed forth, drowning the valley and Nicualli in but a moment. And Bleached Bone Woman still lives in the lake, with Ocelotl’s skin and Tecolotl’s teeth and Nicualli’s corpse, and she rages against the day that Nicualli chose to betray her.
And that is why we will never know paradise.
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Chris Pearce is an aspiring writer; this is his first published work of fiction. A poem he wrote has appeared in Sanitarium Magazine. His current whereabouts are unknown.
I think the core of the fantasy genre is hope. Fantasy is stereotyped as a backwards looking genre, and while it isn't geared to the future the way scifi is, the sense of a light holding back darkness, no matter how small the light or how terrible the darkness, has always been central to the appeal of fantasy, at least to me.