Excerpt from The Bend of the River

Malintze hugged her legs close as a cold blast of wind tore through the mountain pass, prompting a bout of howling and cursing from the teteo. Their loud protests warmed her about as much as her thin woolen hose, but it did provide some validation. During the first few hours of the march, the teteo had been merry as children and spent practically every minute extolling the beauty of the land. They marveled over giant felines that could tread water like a dog, dragonflies that zipped by with the speed of arrows, four-legged river animals with plated skin, trees that reached thrice as high as any mast… but that was in the lowlands. 

Thereafter, the route gave way to highlands dominated by an enormous rocky mountain range stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. During the first day of the ascent, the teteo refused to give voice to their pain and, had it not been for their continuous grunting and panting, Malintze might have forgotten their presence altogether.

Come evening, the army encamped on a large plateau, but none of her traveling companions made mention of the stunning view. The lowlands were visible in every direction for countless long-runs, as well as the beach where Fort Veracruz had been erected and the bay where Cortés scuttled the fleet. Nevertheless, the weary marchers appeared to only be concerned with the monstrously steep trail that seemed to ascend all the way to that place the teteo called Heaven.

Come morning, the marching began anew, and she joined the long procession of teteo, Totonacs, soldiers, and slaves moving up the trail. A suffocating silence hung over the group, and there were few sounds other than labored breathing and muttered curses. She had grown used to the teteo blurting out every little thing that came to mind—Malintze now knew exactly how much a feline pelt would fetch back in Spain and how long it would take to convert a copse of pine trees to lumber—so their failure to remark on the rigors of the march was jarring. Surely they also noticed the sharp rocks that stabbed through leather soles, the miserable chill brought on by the thin air that gave her such terrible headaches. 

The temperature had to be the worst aspect of the climb. Never in all her life had she been so cold. She wrapped herself in every layer she could find but that was not enough to keep the shivers away. Judging by the dreary expressions of the porters and the slaves, they were just as ill-prepared for the drop in temperature. Even the teteo were struggling with the cold, despite their thick cotton armor and their familiarity with that strange season called winter, a time when lakes froze over and the skies rained ice. Not so long ago, those stories about winter seemed ridiculous. Now she wondered if she might see some of those wonders for herself.

Malintze buried her chin in her chest and rubbed her frozen arms. Tired as she was, she hoped the march would soon resume. Stillness brought on a cold that no amount of layering could protect her from. As much as her back ached from marching, she knew she could not stay seated more than a few minutes.

I would give anything for some hot pepper soup. A soup so hot it could warm not only her mouth, not only her face, but her entire body. She looked for ingredients but saw only rocks, shrubs, and trees. She shook her head and bit her lip in frustration. 

A teotl sat down next to her and offered his canteen. Armor covered so much of his body that it took her a moment to recognize the figure as Cortés. Malintze wrapped her layers tighter rather than reaching for the canteen. “Too cold… to take out arms,” she said in Spanish.

Cortés nodded. “Tilt your head back so I can pour.” She did as commanded but watched with some trepidation as he clicked open the container. “You don’t have to drink it, but it will warm you.”

She nodded. Cortés brought the canteen to her lips, slowly tipping it upwards so she could drink at her own leisure. The taste—first sweet, then sour—was so startling she almost spat it out. A combination of exhaustion and thirst was all that stopped her.

When Cortés pulled the canteen away, she was tempted to ask for more. Then the effects became more pronounced, and she decided against it. She suppressed a burp, and her eyes widened in a mixture of surprise and embarrassment.

“What was that?” she asked in an awed voice.

“We call it wine.” Cortés leaned back, looking very pleased. He propped himself up on an elbow and stroked his chin. His stubby fingernails disappeared into the dark curls of his beard. What would happen if he stopped shaving altogether? His sharp chin and his pale cheeks would probably disappear from view completely, followed afterward by his creased, vellum-thin lips.

Malintze cleared her throat. “Your wine does the same as our octli—but the taste. It’s as if it…”

“Came from a different world?”

She nodded half-heartedly and wiped her mouth on the blanket, surprised but grateful the droplets had not frozen to her lips. 

“Still adjusting to the cold?”

She nodded again and flashed him a small smile.

“Such a pretty smile,” Cortés said. “But hidden behind so much pain.”

Malintze gazed at the ground. A strand of hair dangled in front of her face, still damp from the morning fog, and she blew it aside with a small gust of air.

“The Totonacs say our march will take us to places even colder,” Cortés continued. “I know not to trust all the Totonacs, the Fat Chief promised me an army of thousands and delivered me a sorry lot of half a thousand instead, but I think they are telling the truth this time.” 

Malintze tried wiggling her toes. It felt as if she were trying to shift stone. “This cold causes me unpleasantness. I hope we start marching soon.”

Cortés chuckled under his breath. “What’s the name of that mountain?” He pointed southwest to a massive protrusion of rock that stabbed into the sky like a white-tipped spearhead.

“Citlaltepetl,” Malintze answered.

Cortés looked at her expectantly.

“It means Star-Mountain.”

Cortés arched his brow.

“Sometimes the mountain becomes angry and throws boulders all the way to the stars,” she explained.

He turned his gaze back toward Citlaltepetl. “We have star-mountains in the Old World also. We call them volcanoes there. But we don’t have anything half as big as that in my country.” 

Malintze nodded and rocked back and forth for warmth. She wondered if she would ever see his country, if she even wanted to see his country. She honestly did not know, just as she did not know how to feel about Cortés. She admired his tenacity and ambition, but they caused her no small amount of angst and alarm.

“That mountain is very pretty, like you,” he said. “I would refer to that mountain by your namesake, but certain men would take offense. A shame that beauty must always stir up strife.”

Malintze rubbed her arms and tried to stop her teeth from chattering. 

“God as my witness, that is the most magnificent mountain I have ever seen,” he added. “However, I would be none surprised if we came across greater beauties during our march. This land never ceases to amaze.”

“What do you mean namesake?” Malintze asked.

Cortés stared at her with a blank expression.

“You said you would refer to mountain by my namesake—”

“I would name the mountain after you,” he said.

Malintze blinked and took a moment to gather her thoughts. “It is not yours to name,” she said.

“Why not?”

“It already has a name.”

“And this means I cannot give it a new name? Caesar and Alexander would beg to differ. I suspect that some great man probably looked at this mountain and gave it the name you know. Long ago there may have been a different name in a different tongue for this very same mountain.”

Malintze furrowed her brow. “I do not know of Caesar and Alexander.”

“They are great men who conquered vast territories and won many vassals.”

Malintze nodded. She wondered if there were any places in the world where men were not idolized for wreaking destruction, a place where women did not have to form a bond with cutthroats to rise above bondage. “They are like Ahuitzotl and Motecuhzoma then,” she replied. “When Caesar and Alexander conquered, did they not leave territory the same?”

“Heavens no. They named nearly everything they saw after themselves. Or those dear to them.”

Malintze’s chest tightened. “The mountain already has name.” She drew her legs in to conserve warmth. “Remember, the Mexica are the conquerors of the One World.”

Cortés smiled. “For now.”

The Bend of the River will be released later this year. Be sure to check back in for more details.

Malintzin’s Choices

By the time I read Malintzin’s Choices, I already knew that I was going to write a historical novel about the Spanish-Mexica war. I picked up the book not so much because I liked the cover or because I knew the author but because I knew I wanted to read a book about Malintzin. I’m glad I picked up Townsend’s book and I consider it to be one of the best history books I’ve ever read. 

Considering my strong interest in the Spanish-Mexica war, I will be publishing the second installment in the Tenochtitlan Trilogy later this year and wrote my undergraduate history on the subject, I figure this type of praise may be easy to brush off. After all, nobody would be surprised to learn that a francophile enjoys macarons. But if I am going to be completely honest, I really didn’t know much about the Spanish-Mexica war (better known to the general public as the conquest of Mexico) prior to reading this book. 

The thing is, I thought I did. After all, I had learned about the event in my AP world history class as well as my intro to world history class at GWU. My knowledge of the conflict was admittedly shallow but I was quite familiar with the legend that Cortes was perceived as a returning god. The idea that Cortes could return the exact same year the god was fated to return, and that he even shared a similar complexion, was incredible to me and almost Shakespearian. As it turns out, this great coincidence is more fiction than fact and Townsend makes a convincing argument that Cortes, like the Spaniards before and after him, were not perceived as gods. Those interested in the particulars of this argument ought to read the book and can expect to learn a great deal by doing so.

In all honesty, I did not expect a book about a long-dead translator to delve so deeply into Mesoamerican theology or the politicization of history, but that’s part of what makes the book so great. It’s so much more than a biography–it’s a reflection on how we study the past and which narratives get prioritized. History books, the good ones at least, ought to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons, and I suspect Malintzin’s Choices has done that for a great many readers.

Townsend’s interests can be admittedly niche, I have yet to meet the layman who can expound at length upon the complex political alliances of central Mexico in the early 16th century, but even readers who do not have a strong interest in the Spanish-Mexica war will find much to enjoy in this book. Townsend’s prose is both engaging and insightful, investing her book with the type of energy and wit more typical of fiction than non-fiction. I strongly recommend the book to readers interested in women’s history, Amerindian history, or historiography, and I look forward to reading more of her work.