Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky

author: David Bowles

illustrators: Christian and Ramon Cardenas (“LxsDos”)

Cinco Puntos Press, 2018

grades 7-up (Mexican, Mesoamerican)


In the US schools, Mexican history and the cultures and belief systems of the Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica—if taught at all—are generally relegated to a paragraph or two, and fraught with egregious historical and cultural erasures. Here’s a typical example:


Quetzalcoatl was a deity-king, kind-hearted (he didn’t believe in human sacrifice) and wise (he was said to have invented the Aztec calendar, books, and writing). The people’s affection for Quetzalcoatl made the rival gods jealous. They acted together to trick him. One day the Evil One went into Quetzalcoatl’s palace holding a mirror. When Quetzalcoatl looked in it, instead of his own reflection, he saw a bearded, long-faced person. He knew that if his people saw him like that, they would be terrified. He had no choice but to leave. He went down to the seashore with his servants and made a raft of serpents. He told his servants that he would leave them, too. The servants wept, but Quetzalcoatl told them not to grieve. He promised that one day he would return and be their king again. Then he sailed away in the direction of the rising sun. (1)


Here is a deconstruction of the paragraph, above:


• His actual name was “Ce-Acatl” (first name, “One Reed”), “Topiltzin” (“our beloved prince,” what the people of Tollan and the rest of the Toltec Empire called him), “Quetzalcoatl” (his title, probably from the Toltecs). 


• Quetzalcoatl was Toltec, not Aztec; so, of course, he did not “invent” the “Aztec calendar, books, or writing.” 


• There was no rival-god-jealousy or tricking. Throughout the reign of Quetzalcoatl, his twin brother and principle rival, Tezcatlipoca, along with the other priests, had lost power and were angered by the elimination of human sacrifice.


• Calling Tezcatlipoca the “Evil One” is a cultural erasure, since Mesoamerican religions didn’t and don’t pit good versus evil. Rather, the struggle was and is between chaos and order.


• Quetzalcoatl did see his own reflection in the mirror. He had been so dedicated to worship and rule that he had not noticed that he was aging. Understanding himself to be mortal and weak, he worried that people would despise him. 


• Before he sailed away “in the direction of the rising sun,” Quetzalcoatl spent years traveling through Mesoamerica, founding new cities, and teaching people respect for the gods and to avoid human sacrifice. Then he left, promising to return.


All this is to say that these traditional stories from Mesoamerica are not simplistic. Unlike European “fairy tales,” they do not pit “good” against “evil.” Rather, they are complex. They are about the struggles between chaos and order—the struggles to find balance.


With Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico, David Bowles, scholar, historian, linguist, storyteller, Chicano activist—and damn good writer—sets out to correct the record. And he does. All of it. As the well-used idioms go, he pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned. 


On the stunning cover, executed by “LxsDos’” (Christian and Ramon Cardenas, “street artists from El Paso”)—together on a pen-and-ink drawn, digitally colored, textured dark-blue background representing the cosmos, the dark heart of sky—sit the Dual Gods, the complementary halves, Ometeotl. In the Nahua language, they are lovingly called “the grandparents,” each half enjoying the company of its other half. Surrounded by the feathered serpent, Ometeotl dreams “a vast world and multi-tiered sky, peopled with creatures so diverse and wonderful that the very thought of them brought joy to our grandparents’ hearts.”


Lxs Dos created the interior illustrations with pen and ink on paper. They play around with imagery, and each is symbolic of the contents of a chapter and a hint of what is to follow. And they are all gorgeous. In “The Fifth Age and the Reign of Demigods,” for instance, readers will see an Indigenous woman, kneeling over a large metlatl to grind up—not corn, which is an essential life metaphor, but skeletons. Over her right shoulder flits a tiny butterfly and over her left shoulder, a hummingbird hovers. Both are signs of rebirth and life. It is the Fifth Age, remember? “The present era. Our time.” This Indigenous woman—the Divine Mother—is creating, from the old bones, a new and better race of people. 



In Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, every story is a treasure that younger readers (and adults alike) will enjoy reading and rereading—as each reading becomes a new and exciting experience. Each story in a theme (“The First Three Ages of the World,” “The Fourth Age and the Hero Twins,” “The Fifth Age and the Reign of Demigods,” “The Toltecs and the Rise of Civilization,” “Tales of the Maya,” “Aztecs Ascendant” and finally, “Conquest and Courage”) naturally follows the one before, and each section begins with a thoughtful “convocation”—helpful for adult readers, and accessible to younger readers as well—that introduces the theme and discusses the content. The “convocations,” David Bowles told me, are what he feels thinking about his children and grandchildren down the road, whom he loves so much that he wants these stories to be part of their lives. He imagines himself sitting on a mesquite stump, he said, “sharing stories and songs and trying to be whole.”

Bowles’ renditions of these traditional stories—which he translated from the fragmented oral and written mythologies of “pre-Columbian” Mexico and seamlessly pieced together—will enable readers of today to understand and appreciate both the stories themselves, their contexts, and their places and functions in history.


For instance: In most, if not all, children’s books about “La Llorona,” she is a vain, self-centered (Indigenous) young woman who, after marrying a wealthy Spanish nobleman and bearing two children, finds out that he has been cheating on her. So, in a fit of jealousy and rage, she drowns her children, and from then on, loudly mourns them: “¡Mis hijos!” she screams for eternity, “¡Mis hijos!” And Mexican children of today listen for her at night, and are frightened. 


But according to Bowles, there is much more to the story. “Lloronas” were a common occurrence in Nauhua lore, he says. In “The Anguish of Citlalli” (pp. 256-261), the Xoxchimilca woman bravely chose the only option available to her: to surrender her beloved children to the water rather than to surrender them to the horrors of colonialism. Although the Maya held out for a century or so, there was no place for the Nauhua people to go. 


In more contemporary history, this is not a unique occurrence, either. The “Llorona” story reminds me of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, in which a family of formerly-enslaved people in Cincinnati is haunted by the ghost of Margaret Garner, who had killed her young daughter and attempted to kill her other children to spare them from being returned to slavery. (2)


Writing a complex yet accessible book such as Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky must have been a tough thing to accomplish. It involved familiarity with the historia and cuentos of what is now referred to as Mesoamerica, finding the fragments and pulling the translations together—and for each one, folding in the historical and political texture and finding the right voice. 


Perhaps most importantly, rather than focusing on the colonizers, the traditional stories here center Indigeneity. “The most we can hope for,” David Bowles told me, “is to center Indigenous lives, especially those stories of women that have not been told. We are heirs to the stories—last convocation.” 


“This is work we need to do as a community. We need to bring our history together in affirming ways. Every time there are chaos and destruction, a wave of creation follows. We cannot forget, we cannot allow it to be erased. We need to keep it alive.”


Every school in the Americas, at least, should have copies of Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky—and teach from it. It’s an invaluable resource, and is highly, highly recommended.


—Beverly Slapin

(published 6/8/2021)


[Note: Muchísimas gracias a mi amigo y colega, David Bowles, por su gran amabilidad y generosidad. I want to thank David Bowles for his kindness, generosity, and dedication to all the grandparents and their children.]


Footnotes:

  1. Yellowhorn, Eldon, and Kathy Lowinger, What the Eagle Sees: Indigenous Stories of Rebellion and Renewal. Toronto: Annick Press (2019), p. 18.
  2. Morrison, Toni, Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1987).


Francisco X. Stork's Second Chance: An Interview


Authors don’t often get second chances. When a book is published, it’s published, with all its reviews—the good, the bad, and the mixed. Francisco X. Stork is a happy exception. This past May, his novel On the Hook came out from Scholastic, to great acclaim, including on this site (lynmillerlachmann.com). This 2021 book for teen readers is a reimagining of his 2006 YA novel Behind the Eyes. Today, Francisco visits the blog to talk about how his writing has evolved over the past 15 years and what has changed in Hector’s story from then to now. In addition to Behind the Eyes and On the Hook, Francisco X. Stork is the author of the YA novels Marcelo in the Real World (2009), The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (2010), Irises (2012), The Memory of Light (2016), Disappeared (2017, and Illegal: A Disappeared Novel (2020).



LML: You’ve talked about how you rethought and rewrote your earlier YA novel, Behind the Eyes, to turn it into On the Hook. How did that original story come about?


FXS: I wrote Behind the Eyes (some fifteen years ago) when my son and daughter were teenagers. They were living a comfortable life in the suburbs of Boston, headed to good colleges, and I wanted them to see a different side of life, so I wrote about Hector, a young man growing up poor and afraid in the housing projects of El Paso. Hector’s story was based on my own story growing up in El Paso. I lived in the same housing projects that are depicted in the novel and, like Hector, I lived with fear of getting noticed.




Why did you choose to rewrite an old, out of print book rather than leaving it behind completely?


I really love Behind the Eyes. I’m very proud of the book that opened the doors for me to the world of young adult literature. There is no doubt in my mind that it is the best book I could have written at the time. But a few years after it was published, I began to see that there was untapped potential in Hector’s story. Hector’s story was not reaching some of the young men who were caught in a cycle of hatred and violence. I am grateful to Arthur Levine who saw what I saw and gave me the opportunity recreate Hector’s story.



How did the novel change in the course of your rewrite? How much of the change had to do with your development as a writer and how much with changes in the outside world?


On the Hook takes some of the existing characters and settings and turns them into a new story. The characters that remain, while they retain their old names, are different, more complex and more real. It is no longer just Hector’s story, but it is also the story of Hector’s antagonist, Joey. There are relationships that were not there before like the friendship between Hector and Azi. Most of all, Hector’s character and actions are a balance of interiority and agency that was only possible for me to create after many years of writing, after the publication of six other novels. I hope also that I am wiser than I was fifteen years ago! I know for sure that I am more acquainted with the debilitating and destructive effects of hatred (both in myself and in society) than I was then.



How might On the Hook speak more to young readers today? What do you want them to take away from this book?


Hector’s story is a current story. It reflects the way that hatred has become prevalent and even considered “normal” in today’s world. I hope that the book becomes a meditation on violence and hatred, on how it grows and how we might see a way to take the energy of anger and hatred and put it into the hard task of finding common ground with others.



What’s next for your writing? Do you have plans to stay with young adult fiction or move into another category or genre?


I am working on a young adult novel now that will come out late next year. I’m switching gears a little and writing a love story. I don’t have any ideas for any fiction work after that. I’m open to writing another young adult novel if the inspiration comes. I’m happy writing about and for young people and am not interested in writing adult fiction. In the back of my mind there is the seed of an idea about writing a book about the practice of writing for young writers. So, maybe.



Thank you! I look forward to the new novel!



Lyn Miller-Lachmann


(Lyn originally interviewed Francisco X. Stork for her blog, lynmillerlachmann.com. Thank you, Lyn, for permission to share this interview on De Colores (decoloresreviews.blogspot.com.).