Saturday, April 30, 2005

El tigre

Today I was reading in Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún's General history of the things of New Spain. Sahagún went to Mexico shortly after the conquest, and learned to speak Nahuatl. He employed native informants to encyclopedically describe their knowledge of a disappearing world. Much of what is known of pre-conquest Aztec religion and lifeways comes from Sahagún. He would ask questions of informants from three different towns, independently, and compare and collate the answers. This compendium became the so-called Florentine Codex, which has amazingly escaped destruction. Sahagún's separate translation into Spanish is what I have been reading. The Spanish is old-fashioned and sometimes obscure--he is translating and describing things that in many cases he has never himself seen.

So I have been reading about jaguars. My translation, with apologies:
The tigre (jaguar) stirs and moves in the mountains, and among the crags and cliffs, and also in the water, and they say it is prince and lord of the other animals, and is wise and circumspect, and has dainty habits like a cat, and never feels any fatigue, and loathes drinking water that is dirty or smells bad, and thinks highly of itself.
It is low to the ground and heavily built, and its tail is long, and its paws are thick and wide, and a thick neck; it has a big head, its ears are small, the snout thick, short, massive, and dark colored, and the nose greasy; it has a wide face, the eyes burn like coals; the fangs are big and thick, the front teeth small, delicate and sharpened, the molars wide at the top, and the mouth also is very wide. It has long sharp claws, pads on the forefeet and the hind feet, a pale chest, has spiky hair and as it grows it becomes spotted, and as the animal grows the talons and claws get bigger, and the teeth grow, and the fangs and the molars grow, and it growls, bites, tears and snaps off with the teeth, bellowing and growling, loud as a trumpet.
They say the white tigre is the chief of the other tigres, and is very white. Others are whitish with dark spots, and still others have light reddish-brown fur with black spots.
The characteristic of the tigre is, as it eats animals like deer and rabbits and such, it stays comfortable and doesn't labor, and takes good care of itself, and bathes; and at night it sees the animals it is going to hunt, and has very good vision even if it is very dark, and even if it should be foggy it can make out very small things.

The jaguar description reminded me of a story about my mother-in-law, whom I have mentioned in this blog before.

She lived in Belize for many years, and built, bought, and sold houses while she was there. Lois as she got older had become kind of migratory, like an offshore seabird, moving from one island on the long barrier reef to another. She built several houses, which she lived in briefly, and then sold for a profit, each house more remote from civilization than the one before it. She would spend about half the year in Austin, where she also bought and sold houses. She was a very restless woman. She married, and then divorced, a Belizean fisherman husband thirty years younger than she.
On one occasion, back in the United States for a while, Lois met some young guy who wanted to get away from it all for a few months, and since she herself was not planning to return to Belize immediately, she convinced him to rent the house she had just built on the far end of Ambergris Caye, a Belizean island, a house more than 20 miles from the village of San Pedro, the island's only settlement. It could only be reached by small boat, up the long narrow island toward Mexico and through a narrow passage in the reef, and out into the rough swells rolling in from the Gulf of Honduras for the last few miles. As always, her description of it was of a tropical paradise. And she believed it was. It's just that her idea of paradise was different from most. The guy rented it for two months or so, paid in advance. He bought a lot of expensive camping gear and off he went. No one heard anything more about him.

When Lois went down herself after a couple of months she found her house empty but all her renter's camping gear still there, apparently long abandoned. She walked a mile down the island and asked her nearest neighbor Francisco if he knew what had happened. He said the vacationer had arrived safely and set up his camp, but had come running by shortly before dawn the day after his arrival wearing only his undershorts, which was such bizarre behavior that Francisco's normally peaceful dog had rushed out and bitten the runner, who had nevertheless continued at top speed down the beach. That's the story anyway.

Francisco, curious, walked up to Lois's place and began investigating. Lois's house, like all houses on the island, was built on stilts. And, like most houses on the island, it was not built very substantially.

Francisco soon discovered the unmistakable signs that a jaguar had killed a duck under Lois's house. For the newly arrived vacationer, the sound of el tigre mauling and devouring a duck beneath a flimsy and open tropical beach hut with only rusted screens on the doors and windows, the big cat perhaps only inches below his air mattress, was no doubt terrifying. And according to Lois he had never been out of the United States ever before in his life. He had just arrived after a harrowing small-boat trip in heavy seas beyond the reef. No doubt, after the boat left and as it grew dark, he became aware of his total solitude in the jungle, just as the resonant snarly coughs in the blackness came closer, and then the jaguar crashed out of the night and seized the unlucky bird.
So the poor guy bolted. Having just read Sahagún's description of a jaguar I think I might have done the same.

Conflicting stories exist as to how the traveler got home--he must have had the presence of mind to take his plane ticket and money, at least, because he did get treated in San Pedro town for dogbite and abrasions gotten in the course of his heroic hike down the island. After that no one knows what he did.

In any case, Lois, true to form, sold his stuff. "He won't need it any more," she said.

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