Tzompantli
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Thus said the Sons of Umayya to Karcist Maitham and his flock: "You are aberrations upon the face of the Earth. You are shayāṭīn whose filth offends the Prophet. You defile the flesh and corrupt the spirit. We will break your bones, cast your spirits into the void and bury your names in the desert so that you become less than whispers, less than the dream of a forgetful dreamer."

And Maitham wept, for he knew his people were not warriors, but simple shepherds of the flesh, and surely they would all perish. So he went out into the sands and threw his arms out to the heavens. He implored salvation, and he was answered.


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My mother always made sure to let me know I was unwanted. Every look she gave me – every glint in her shadowed, baggy eyes – spoke the words she dared not scream, the wish of many sleepless nights where she drowned in bitter waters: It should have been you. I knew she longed to smother me in my sleep, or to take my neck between her hands and squeeze until my faced turned red and my eyes bulged out of my sockets like spoilt fruit about to burst. This was her sole desire until the day she died.

I cannot say that I blame her. I resented her abuse, of course – and I still do – but with age comes change, and I have grown to understand that she acted not out of hatred, but out of grief. The beatings and the screaming, the humiliations, and even her forceful crafting of my flesh into shapes most agonizing were the actions of a desperate woman whose hopes had been crushed by fate, by the unfathomable loom the gods wove. She was lashing out, spitting through cracked lips at the powers behind the veil, clawing at the incarnate reminder of her powerlessness – at me, her second-born son.

It should have been you.

My mother was half-mad, but she was right: it should have been me. That is what I was born for, the sole purpose behind my existence. I was the doomed child, the son marked by the light of the evening star. Instead, they claimed my brother, and the blood of the firstborn drowned us all.



Maitham dreamt of a city made of midnight on a distant land across the sea. The people there danced around a mound of searing light, around a celestial womb heavy with child. Joyous, they pranced around in abandoned frenzy, their throats chanting in a tongue so alien that Maitham thought it must be the language of the gods.

Then one of the dancers – whose eyes were like a serpent's – took to his lips a conch shell and breathed the wind into it, and all movement stopped at his call.

"My name is Precious Serpent," the god said to the Karcist. "You have prayed, and we have answered. This we offer you: a path across the waters and a land where you will prosper under the sun."

"And what would you have from us in exchange?" Maitham asked, for he knew the gods never gave anything freely.

Another one of the dancers stepped forth, and he was beautiful and terrible to behold, for his yellow, sickly skin hanged loose from his mutilated flesh, and his steps left behind bloodied footprints. The god was flayed and wore himself – his own flayed skin – the way a priest wears his robes. His breath was plague and sickness, but in his wake new life bloomed.

"You are a weak people, so I will show you the ways of war. You fear death, so I will teach you to embrace it as rebirth. You thirst and you hunger, so you shall partake of my flesh," said the Flayed God. "I am childless, so you will bear me a son."



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Long ago, my blood swore an oath, and my flesh was bound to honor it. We were led across the sea in times long forgotten by a faith that was not our own, called forth by gods alien and unfathomable. Precious Serpent taught us the tongue of the land, and we mingled with the peoples who had come before. In time, we were as one, indistinguishable but by our secret covenant with the Flayed One, forever marked by the debt we owed.

Two by two, the sons of Maitham come into the world – one joyous, one full of woe; one anointed in love, the other one destined for slaughter. So it has been, so it will be. In exchange, the land provides its boon in both monsoon and drought, in times of peace and in the shadow of war. We water the land with our children's blood to reap the life that was promised to us.

I never once questioned this faith, this pact. How could I? All second-born sons in my family were given to the child to honor our agreement: my father's younger sibling, and his uncle before him, had been sacrificed before the child's cradle, and so on and so forth since the times before the cross had claimed dominion over the land of maize. This was all I knew; this was all I was ever destined for.

Fate was never the source of any animosity between Alfredo and me. The order of our birth was not either's fault, but the inscrutable design of the forces beyond. We were as any ordinary pair of brothers, with all that implies. I remember squabbles and disagreements, screaming and complaining to our mother – but also wide smiles and sunny days spent chasing each other through fields of corn and rye. I remember sitting together at the table with our parents and giving thanks to our ancestors for the food their sacrifice provided, and then sneaking out together to gaze into the depths of the night sky. I also recall tender moments when we held each other against the world, times when we would swear to never let go, to embrace our fate and stand proud as children of Ion. We would be together forever, we knew, even if we could never see or speak to each other again.

Alfredo understood that we each were special, my purpose no less glorious than his: he was to one day procreate and continue the cycle with his own children, and I was to become the very soil where they would play and love and thrive for all time. In our own way, we would both pave the path for a new generation, for the survival of our people and the legacy of Maitham. I may not be long for this world, but I knew that my brother would honor my memory, and that my name would forever be inscribed in flesh of his descendants.



The Karcist Maitham crafted a womb within himself and dreamt the Flayed God whose name was Xipe Totec. The dreamer and the dreamt became one, and by break of dawn the Karcist knew that his sacrifice – the first of many to come – had begun its long, agonizing path to completion.

He thanked the teotl – the gods who had led him and his people through the mouth of the ocean and into the fertile forests of this unknown land: he thanked Precious Serpent for his teachings and his light. He thanked Smoking Mirror for hiding their arrival in the mantle of night. And he thanked Our Lord the Flayed One for the new skins his flock now wore amongst the peoples of the land, for the new faces they presented to the world.

Maitham and his people built their humble village on a hill overlooking a great valley, and they hid the god's temple deep beneath the earth, where not even his other faithful would ever gaze upon it.

"One day, our time upon the Earth will end," the Flayed One had foreseen. "Our idols will be sundered, and our temples will be laid to waste. Men will come across the sea as you have, and their swords and crosses will strike down all who worship us. We will be cut off from mankind until the Fifth Sun dies, and no longer will you receive our blessings. But my son will be with you, and I shall protect you through him. This is my promise to you, for our bargain is Law."

And Maitham carved within the subterranean temple a great chamber where the teotl's child would be born in darkness: a cradle and a cage for the god gestating in his entrails. He sat down with his hands on his belly and felt their son grow.


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I read in our sacred texts that when Maitham's flock first heard his revelation, they had rebelled in protest: they feared straying from the teachings of our Ozi̮rmok, for Ion had taught that gods must not be worshipped or served, but devoured so that the people may become free through the shaping of their own flesh. In time, however, they came to see the truth in their Karcist's word and understood that they were not to serve the Flayed One, but to walk besides him as equals. The god devoured us and our blood to maintain his hold upon the Earth, yes, but we also devoured him: we ate the crops which were his renewed skin, the fruits and grains that we tore from his tender flesh. Ours was not servitude, but a partnership, a symbiosis. We needed each other to remain upon this world, for without him we would starve, and without us the god would have no child.

Thus, I knew that it was my fate not to die and be consumed into oblivion, but to transcend as part of something greater. This was the first lesson I was taught, from the moment I could understand my parents to the day I was brought before the black altar of volcanic rock: I would be sacrificed to the god's child, and as he fed on my flesh, I would become part of the sacred cycle of death and rebirth that fed both the people and the gods. I would be one with the divine child, and through me he would renew the earth for another generation to prosper. I would become him.

Then came the tenth winter after our birth. Hand in hand with our mother, my brother and I descended the stairs to the place beneath the house our forefathers built. We ventured into the darkness below the earth – the temple of the god – and gazed upon the divine child in all his glory. As my mother placed me on the cold slab, I felt its irregularities caressing my skin like the edges of knives, thin cuts bleeding in ecstatic expectation. I knew that the child's single eye looked deep into my heart, that he saw my devotion to my people and my willingness to give myself up for them.

The god incarnate slithered his way out of his cradle, his tender flesh quivering as the air bit and scourged him, for he was flayed like his father before him. Tendrils as thick as columns dragged his great mass forward, struggling like a newborn to push himself through the stone threshold beyond which it had been conceived. He was magnificent, a red mass of holy flesh whose mortified form dripped with the blood that kept our land fertile, our covenant with the divine made manifest. Trembling with anticipation, my limbs numb and my heart willing, I closed my eyes and awaited our union.

But it never came. I was not chosen – and as Alfredo's screams filled the chamber, I knew that my disgrace had been sealed.


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My brother's death scarred my family and my people. For days our cries tore at the temple walls, begging futilely for the return of the claimed child. My mother clawed open her breast and banged her bloodied flesh against the igneous slab, wailing inconsolably and biting anyone who tried reasoning with her. My father could only weep for us in silence.

Grief gave way to confusion as our elders tried to understand such an unprecedented tragedy, for never in the centuries before had the divine child demanded the flesh of a firstborn. Our community had survived the arrival of the Spaniards and the plagues that followed, yet it seemed about to break under the weight of the god's choice. Why had he chosen my brother? And why had I been rejected? These two questions – sides of the same bitter coin – once haunted me deep into the early hours of morning. I often think of Alfredo's tortured eyes, of the phantom of betrayal in the last look we shared before the god rent his body to shreds. It almost seemed like he was begging. It should have been you.

In the end, I believe that there is no answer that could ever satisfy mortal men. Perhaps the god had never chosen a firstborn before because he had simply not fancied it. What are rituals, if not force of habit? Gods are capricious creatures, ruled by laws beyond the comprehension of their followers, free from the bondage of good and evil. They can be enticed and chained by rituals and ceremonies, yes, but their unfathomable deceit remains the same. There is no comprehending the reasons behind the divine child's actions, and I have slept better at night knowing that there is no use in knowing the truth. I was rejected, and nothing can change my fate.

But my poor mother – dragged down by grief – succumbed to the unsolvable riddle. For months she drifted numbly on the verge of starvation, unwilling to eat or accept any other kindness given to us by the Flayed One's child. She grew ill, but even as she withered, she pushed away all help. She wanted something that had been taken from her, something that could never be given back. She wished to die and become one with the soil, with the son that had been ripped from her arms, but still her body clung on to an acrid half-life. And in her broken heart made fertile by pain and sorrow, in the pulsing depths of despair, the seed of hate grew roots.



Maitham grew weak and bloated. The child within him was a ravenous thing who wished to break free, to burst from his mortal father's flesh and feed upon the world. The Karcist felt that the end had come, for he would be the first sacrifice given to his son's voracious appetite. He had done everything he could, and it was now time for all things to stop at last.

The child, born of no woman, would be Maitham's final legacy, a price paid in his own blood – and in the blood of countless children not yet born – for the safety and prosperity of the people. The newborn god would be a mere vessel for his father's immortal essence: he would know only hunger and pain, a twisted life for a mindless monstrosity whose sole existence threatened to tear open the fabric of the cosmos. Such had been the agreement, the covenant that bound man and god forever.

Maitham felt the agony of teeth tearing at him from within and closed his eyes at last. His entrails burst open: one life ended, and new life drew its first breath.



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When I turned eleven, my mother locked herself in her room and screamed for hours. Her cries drove themselves into my ears like rusty nails, scraping my nerves with unbearable pain. When she finally stopped, her voice was but a rasp, and her face bled profusely: she had tried to tear off her own skin with her fingernails. I dared not to look at her, but she grabbed my head with hands like talons and forced me to gaze at her. She uttered no words, for she had spent them all in mourning, but her dripping blood spelled out her hatred for me. I spent the rest of the day cleaning my mother's scarlet tears off my skin and clothes.

When I turned thirteen, my mother dragged me into the shack behind our house and chained me by the neck, forcing me to stand on a wooden bucket far too small to hold me. She dug her hands into my flesh and tore at my ribs, fashioning one of them into a blade for her wicked work. Scream again, she said as I wheezed in agony, and I will open you from throat to groin. She cut the skin on my chest and drew blood. I winced, but I did not make a noise. She drove in the blade again, this time on my face, and again I refused to scream. Once more, a new cut on my belly; I did not break the silence.

Knife. Cut. Silence.

Knife. Cut. Silence

My father left us before I turned fifteen. He could bear his guilt and shame no longer, and he chose to drown at sea when his boat capsized during a storm. I do not blame him for it – I would have done the same to escape the brand of infamy that had taken hold of my family's name. In a way, I believe that is what I did in the end.

Years went by. My mother grew old and senile, caring little for her own wellbeing and allowing her body – which she had once crafted into a beauty that seemed eternal – to wallow and suffer the ravages of age. She even stopped screaming at me, and no longer did she try to mutilate me by blade or magic. Still, her presence loomed over my every waking hour. Day after day I fed and cleaned after her, taking in her steely gaze and enduring the tense silence she perpetuated between us. I knew the hatred that continued to fester in her heart, and I much preferred that she kept most of it to herself.

One night, as I put her to bed, she spoke with a hoarse voice and beckoned me to her side. You are a child of disgrace, of misfortune, she said. You were born to die, yet you persist. Have you ever wondered why? It is because gods are spiteful creatures, little more than mercurial children who break their toys and paint the sun with our blood. I gave birth to satiate them, to honor the bargain I was born into – that we were all born into – but you were an unworthy sacrifice, and I an unworthy mother. We are both unwanted, Pablo, by men and gods alike.

That was many years ago. I have contented myself with a quiet life spent helping my community, and I have started a family of my own; to my relief, people do not look at us with either fear or pity, and so my tragedy goes unmentioned – if I am still cursed in their eyes, no one dares to say so. The divine child took not my first or second-born son, but a daughter fresh from her mother's womb. The people no longer ask why, and simply honor their part of the bargain: a child for a child, our fertile flesh for the god's own. We have accepted that the divine child's whims are his own, and there is no rhyme or reason to how it imparts punishment or recompense.

I am old now, and I often think about how my life will end, and what shall become of my mortal remains. I would like to be buried in the fields next to my wife, next to those friends who have long departed. There, my body will nurture the soil and bring forth new life into the world, a new generation who will thrive under the sun as was promised to Maitham.

But I know that is not how it will end for me. On nights with no moon I dream of endings and beginnings, of silent screams beneath the earth. I hear my mother crying out in hatred and horror as I carry her limp body to the altar of igneous stone. It is a mercy, I tell myself. Here the pain ends for both of us. I watch him consume her, bones splintering into thorns that pierce through her and into her, sinews stretched until they tear like old fabric, organs crushed into unrecognizable black bile. And all the while, she screams my brother's name.

I have visited the god's abode many times after to gaze deep into his single eye. Sometimes, I see in it a glimmer of wrath, a brief flash of burning hate: those who the divine child devours become part of him, just like he becomes part of us. One day I will step into his maw, into the embrace of the Flayed One. I know I am awaited, deep within the god's immortal flesh – they want me dead, but I am wanted at last.

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