OZELOTL

by John Kratman

They whisper in the village that I am a madman and a drunkard. This, of course, makes me holy.
 
They bring me food and candles and ask for my blessing. Their eyes always linger on my father's blade.
 
It hangs on pegs above my hearth and three candles burn beneath it, making it glow with orange light. Its craftsmanship is without peer; the sons of my family have carried it for ten generations.
 
There shall be no more bearers for I am an old man now and a priest. My line shall die with me.
 
But not before I tell my tale.
 
What more can I say to you? I, Esteban de Avellaneda, Conquistador, noble man, Franciscan, swear to you on my honor and immortal soul that the words you are about to read are God's own truth.
 
The events leading up to my capture matter little. Suffice it to say that long ago, in my youth, I was knocked senseless and taken captive during Cortez's celebrated assault on the great city of 
Tenochtitlan.
 
I do not know how long I was unconscious, but I awoke face down, the pain in my head almost too much to bear.
 
"Ah, I see you are awake, Señor, good!" someone said, in terrible Spanish.
 
It took me a moment to focus my eyes. I was in some crude sort of cage shaped like an overturned bowl, constructed out of a type of wood I did not re cognize. It had no bottom of its own, but was held to the floor of the chamber by means of two pins made of wood, set just out of reach. The chamber about the cage was made of stone and a massive balcony opened out into the night. I shivered from the cold. I was naked.
 
"Don’t worry; it gets very warm in here during the day and dawn is  but a few hours away." There was an old man in the cage with me. I could not place his accent and his sun-baked body could have belonged to a man of any country. "Welcome to 
Mexico.  Allow me to introduce myself: I am Fray Mario Venda."
 
"You are a priest?"
 
"Yes. A Franciscan."


"Where am I?"
 
"In the city of 
Tenochtitlan, or Mexico if you prefer, in one of their blasphemous temples, my son. This particular one, I believe, is dedicated to t heir sun god." My eyes began to adjust to the darkness and I saw that he was a handsome man with eyes as blue as the heavens.
 
"I do not remember seeing you around the camp, Fray 
Venda."
 
"Nor would you. I was shipwrecked from a Portuguese ship months ago and enslaved by the natives of one of the outlying villages. I was recently sent here as tribute to the Emperor Montezuma. You are with the army outside the city?"


"Yes." I grasped the bars of the cage and sought to gain my bearings.
 
The chamber smelled abominably. There was a sound of dripping water and I looked about seeking its source in the shadows cast by the moon. There was a bloodstained altar at the far end of the room. Dark rivulets ran off it s surface and stained the floor. A brazier of some sort burned next to it, giving off black smoke. A grotesque sculpture of a demon dominated and defined an entire wall.
 
"They burn human hearts," said the friar, "many, many of them, may their pagan souls burn in eternal damnation."
 
"God preserve us." There was another cage before the brazier. It was covered with a blanket made of feathers whose colors I could not discern in the poor light.
 
Fray 
Venda followed my gaze. "Ozelotl," he said.
 
"Ozelotl?"
 
"It is a huge cat, my son, much like a lion. Very large, very ferocious."   As if to punctuate his sentence, a deep growl emanated from beneath the blanket. "The foul warlock worships it."
 
There were strange pelts nailed about the altar and I strained to see them. 
 
"Have courage, my son." The old priest put his hand on my shoulder and I realized just what kind of skins they were. They were of men.
 
I thought I recognized my young friend, Jorge de la Rosa, who had been beside me on the causeway prior to my capture. I had warned him before the battle to stay close and his faith in me had led to his death. Were it not for the dueling scar on his cheek I would never have known him. His poor face was stuck forever in a hideous howl.
 
I had failed him.
 
"Oh, Jorge." I put my face in my hands. It was a sad day for Señora de la Rosa, away in 
Castile, awaiting her son.
 
"You must save your tears, my son. Your friend has gone on to his just reward. Pray to God that He might grant you the same."
 
"Yes, Fray 
Venda, pray I will, but not for heaven. I will pray for our deliverance." I gathered some courage and wiped the tears from my eyes. "It would be an offense to God that we die in this evil place."
 
"Well said, Señor, may God bless you." He held out his hand and I clasped it. "But you have not even told me your name!"
 
"Señor Esteban de Avellaneda, at your service," I tried to summon some trace of the bravado I had felt before my capture. I looked about for some implement to cut through the strips of hide that held the flexible bars of wood together. There was nothing but scattered bones and the straw mats at the bottom of the cage.
 
I took one of the bones and snapped it under the weight of my foot. It shattered, leaving a sharp edge, smaller than a coin. I thought, perhaps, it might suffice to cut my way through the thick fibers that held our cage together. Fray 
Venda said the Ave Maria and hovered over me as I worked. It was very slow going.
 
Perhaps an hour had passed before the old priest gripped my shoulder with a quaking hand. "Señor Avellanenda! They are coming!"
 
"Steady, Honored Fray 
Venda!  Better to go out a civilized man than to show fear before these savages." I was afraid, though, and wished mightily for my father's sword.
 
My brave words were so much dust the next instant. I too began to quake with fear. Something had entered the room, a demon, stepped straight out of Hell. It was a repulsive devil, shaped vaguely like a man. Its hair was encrusted with blackened blood and decorated with what looked to be finger bones.
 
"Their papas," the priest spat on the ground. "Warlocks! Blasphemous idolaters!"
 
The good friar's bravery heartened me a bit, and I saw that it was no demon at all, but a mutilated man. His ears had been cut off, giving his head an odd, misshapen appearance. Dried blood covered his face completely, save for the whites around his eyes.
 
Four other savages, dressed in clean white robes, accompanied him. The papa piled herbs and bits of wood into the brazier and lit it with a torch. He began to chant and dance in front of the hideous demon statue, working himself until sweat poured from his brow, leaving a clean spot of flesh on his forehead. He then knelt before the statue and pointed at our cage, not looking in our direction. I prepared for the worst.
 
Two of the servitors fetched long poles that had loops of leather at their ends. The others removed the long wooden pegs that secured our cage to the floor and heaved it up and over, freeing us. Fray 
Venda screamed and clung to me. I pushed him away in terror, seeking some place to run.
 
It shames me to say it, but it is the truth: in all my years as a soldier, I had never been so frightened. Looking wildly about, I ran for the room's only exit. One of the men threw the leather thong about my neck and pushed me to the floor, twisting the pole and squeezing my throat shut. I rose to my knees and he released the pressure enough so I could gasp some air. 
 
They had Fray 
Venda with the other pole and were pushing him toward the altar and its horrible human skins, faces frozen forever in horror. They used the pole to pin him to the bloodstained rock. The tortured face of Jorge looked down on me, silently screaming.
 
The thong was drawn tight about my neck again and I jumped up seeking to relieve the pressure. My captor pushed me back toward the cage. It was draw n up again over me and my jailer throttled me with a quick jerk and tore the noose from about my head. I fell on my face, gasping for air. They replaced the pins that held the cage to the floor.
 
The second cage, still covered in its bizarre feathered cloak, stood in front of the altar, where Fray 
Venda cried out in Latin, "Pater noster! Pater noster, qui es in caelis: sanctificetur nomen tuum!"
 
He was bound with rope. His prayers turned to incoherent screams when they pulled the feathered cloak from atop the cage.
 
A huge cat, somewhat like a lion, but more compact and low to the ground, sat stoically within it. Its fur was covered in black rosettes and its bony head was shaped like a squashed cannon ball.
 
Its eyes flashed as it cast about the room and it opened its mouth and let loose one of the most awful noises I have ever heard.
 
Fray 
Venda shrieked. The blood encrusted demon man spoke a guttural chant and held a crude knife fashioned of black stone above his chest. The brazier next to the altar gave off a hideous smoke and the shadows it cast danced in strange patterns on the walls.
 
His cries spurred me to action. A quick look about the cage and I found my little shard of bone. The servitors had their backs to me and gazed at the altar spellbound, oblivious to my frantic attempt to escape.
 
Curious, I followed their gaze and saw that it was not the altar they watched, but the wall behind it. The shadows continued to twist and bend on the stone, forming the image of a bounding cat of shadow, first stalking a shadow man, and then rending him to pieces.
 
But it was some foul witchcraft; the true cat sat motionless in its cage.
 
Fray 
Venda's pitiful cries seemed to coincide with each swipe of the shadow cat's claws. It took longer than I imagined possible, but his pain mercifully ended. The evil priest removed his heart, wet and bloody, and threw it into the brazier.
 
"Rest in peace, Honored Fray 
Venda," I whispered.
 
Smoke poured from the sputtering brazier and passed into the cage of the stoic ozelotl. It blinked its huge eyes and settled shakily down on its belly. It let loose a great, lazy yawn and settled its head on its paws. It slept, bathed in the black smoke.
 
The unholy sorcerer stopped chanting. He approached the ozelotl and reached his hand into the cage, stroking its great head, oblivious to any danger. He chuckled and with a few terse and guttural commands to his servants, strode from the room.
 
They covered the cage that held the sleeping ozelotl with its feather cloak. One of them bent down and checked the pins that held its cage to the floor. The others untied Fray 
Venda's hands and feet and dragged him from the room, leaving a red trail from the altar to the door.
 
I thanked heaven for my reprieve and worked feverishly to cut through my cage. The bone was not much better than a fingernail, but it was all I had. My head began to swim and my entire body trembled. Lack of food and water was beginning to tell on me. I was certain I had very little time before they would come back for me.
 
In the end, the stress and hardship of my ordeal overwhelmed me. I fell in to an uneasy sleep after managing to cut two of the bar's bindings.
 
I dreamed that I was tied to the stone of the altar, black blood and flies covering my body. There was only the light of the sputtering brazier to se e by and the shadows about the room were a vast army of demons, coming to destroy me. I struggled against my bonds in terror, searching the moist chamber with my eyes for some means of escape.
 
There was a glint of light in the darkness. It became larger and more pronounced, until its brilliance filled the whole room.
 
I stopped my thrashings, thinking that perhaps I was dead and this was the door to the 
kingdom of Heaven. It reached a blinding crescendo but I could not shut my eyes against it. When the light became almost more than I could bear, it shrank to a miniature sun the size of a fist and split, becoming twin jewels so bright they were painful to look at. As it gradually receded, I saw that the light came from the eyes of a huge spotted cat that regarded me with regal tranquility.
 
"God keep you, my son," the ozelotl said, sitting down on the floor in front of me. On its last word the searing brilliance erupted once more and it was no longer the beast before me, but Fray 
Venda, as naked as a newborn babe.
 
"Fray 
Venda?"
 
"Yes, my son." His eyes were still those of a cat. "The foul sorcerer has bound me into this body, to serve him. When he binds enough souls to the cat it will do his evil bidding. You are to be the final sacrifice, Esteban. "
 
"Please, Fray 
Venda, I have not confessed my sins in many days and I would make an act of contrition before I die!"
 
"I cannot absolve you," he said, and another flash burned my eyes. Then it was not Fray 
Venda, but Jorge de la Rosa, his young face alight with the fire and passion of youth. "Esteban! Help me!  You told me you would take care of me!"
 
"Jorge!  I am sorry, Jorge!" He had been like a son to me.
 
"You must kill the papa, Esteban, you must release us!" A war drum began to beat in the distance, so loud I felt it in my chest. Jorge once more became the ozelotl and its eyes glowed with the fire of the brazier and spewed black clouds of smoke. "God will deliver you. Be wary tomorrow, and wait for your opportunity. Pray to the Virgin and remember: 'Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles'."  The ozelotl's eyes were doused like candles and the chamber was plunged into darkness, broken only by the ear-shattering sound of the drum. It rang in my ears after I woke.
 
The pain in my head was brutal, doubtless from lack of water. My dream faded quickly, but it gave me new hope and I prayed to God for another day of deliverance.
 
I attacked the strips that bound my cage together with renewed intensity and a strength born solely from my fear.
 
The ozelotl was quiet beneath its beautiful cloak of feathers, and I smiled at the thought of the Aztecs lifting the cage to discover a sun-eyed cat that spoke Spanish.
 
By dawn, four of the strips that bound the cage together were cut. The bone had crumbled from the strain and was so dull that I considered working the bindings with my teeth. The Aztec warlock would come for me soon.
 
When the fifth binding came loose I was able to pry the bars apart enough to snake my way through the cage, cutting and bruising my naked body as I pushed my way out. I rolled onto the stone floor, shaking with fear and chill.
 
I cast about the chamber, looking for my sword or some other weapon. There was a container of water near the altar and I drank it down greedily.
 
I cannot describe my happiness when I found my father's sword, still in its scabbard, before the statue of their demon. I considered the silent cage of the ozelotl, thinking that the blanket that covered it might serve as a wrapping for warmth.
 
I walked closer, fearful of what I might see underneath, but knowing that I must escape and quickly.
 
My hand trembled, but I reached out to take the cloak from the cage. The cloak was made from thousands of brightly colored feathers and even in my situation I could not help but admire it.
 
Perhaps that is why I did not hear them come into the chamber.
 
The noose was once more around my neck and I dropped my sword, clutching at the scrap of hide that was choking the life out of me. I was forced to the floor and onto my back, just out of reach of the ozelotl's cage.
 
Two of the men from the previous day, the servants, looked down at me, laughing at the ease with which they had caught me.
 
They kicked my sword away. I rolled about, seeking to escape, but I was not able to free my neck from the collar. I put my left hand down on the cage, feeling the pin that held it to the floor. I tore at it, thinking to at least try to stab the hideous warlock when he began to cut out my heart.
 
My captors saw through this easily, though, and one of them stamped on my hand, breaking bones and causing me to howl and drop the pin.
 
They pushed me toward the altar and I was forced down onto its blood-encrusted surface. They tied me down, just like they did to poor Fray 
Venda.

The sorcerer lit the brazier and began to chant his pagan spell, tracing signs on my chest, ignoring my cries to God for deliverance. He smelled abominably and even after having spent two days in the chamber I vomited from the smell of his putrid hair.
 
The cloak was removed from the cage and the ozelotl sat there, no different than it had been the day before. My dream had been nothing but a feeble hope of some deliverance that would not come. Soon, I would answer for my life before Almighty God.
 
The chanting and the stench, along with my fear, lulled me into a trance. I was aware of my surroundings, but I was not particularly afraid. The eye s of the ozelotl reflected the light of the brazier; they grew brighter and brighter as I watched them.
 
The dawn was creeping over the horizon and the chamber was filled with rose -colored sunlight. The rays hit my feet and moved quickly up my body. The warmth felt wonderful, despite my situation, and I prayed to the Virgin for an end to my suffering.
 
Beyond the balcony, a hawk cried out. It cast its shadow across me.  A portion of my dream returned to me; I remembered the words, ‘They will mount up with wings like eagles.’
 
This was like a shock of cold water; I slammed back into my situation with a hammering heart. The papa raised his crude knife over my chest and I heaved with all my might against my bonds.
 
God was truly with me. I felt the tether on my right arm snap, perhaps weakened by the grace of the Almighty.
 
The warlock grunted in surprise and I clouted him where his ear should have been. His hands flew to his head and I caught his stone knife as it fell.  I attempted to stab him with it, but he danced out of the way, shouting for his servants.
 
The knife cut through my bonds and I ran for the exit. My legs were still numb. The servants tried to wrap the leather collar around my neck, but I knocked it aside and ran inside its reach, seeking to stab them with the papa's knife. They stepped aside easily; my movements were rapidly becoming drunk, the strain and lack of food claiming me at last. One of them hit me in the shins with his staff, knocking me to the floor in front of the ozelotl's cage.
 
My good right hand reached out searching for the second pin, thinking to let the beast at them. I found the pin and pulled it out, leaving the ozelotlfree to simply push it out of the way.
 
The natives began to yell at one another in panicked voices. One of them scrambled to replace the pins and secure the cage.
 
He grabbed one up from where it had fallen and tried, with shaking fingers, to replace it. It fell from his grasp and the cat let out a roar, directly in his face. Urine ran down the man's leg and formed a puddle on the floor. He froze, staring into the eyes of the great beast.
 
Faster than my eyes could follow, the cat was up and under the cage, pouncing on him. It bit into his neck and raked his chest with its back claws. His screams lasted but a short moment.
 
Another servant ran for the exit and I swung my legs around and tripped him. He fell in a heap. The ozelotl bounded and landed on his back, breaking his bones like twigs. His cries, too, were brief.
 
The papa had backed into a corner and he knelt before the ozelotl, shouting increasingly desperate commands to it. It watched him for a moment, disinterested, and shifted its gaze to mine. The sun shone through the great open windows, lighting its eyes orange. It licked the blood from its muzzle and made a deep noise in its throat that sounded to me like satisfaction.
 
My first thought was to grab my blade and kill it, to release the souls of Jorge and Fray 
Venda. One gaze at the mangled bodies of the two servants convinced me I could not do it. My feet were rooted to the floor. I waited for it to pounce on me.
 
But it did not. It turned away and walked from the room, doubtless back to where it had come from. The souls of Jorge and Fray 
Venda went with it.
 
I retrieved my blade. Even in my weakened condition, I killed the papa easily. He was an old man under all that gore. I ran him through with a smile on my face.
 
"For Jorge," I said.
 
I found fruit, water, and solitude in an adjacent chamber. I took the papa's filthy clothes and tied the finger bones from his hair into my own. I smeared my face with his blood, until the color of my skin was concealed. I walked out of the temple, through the crowded streets, just one of many similarly clad pagans. No one tried to stop me from walking across the massive causeway. I paused in the middle, far from the savages and the Spaniards alike, and washed my body clean of blood. My countrymen would recognize me by the color my skin.
 
It would be many years before I hung my father's sword above the hearth and dedicated my life to God.
 
Still, every day, I light a candle for Fray 
Venda
 and Jorge de la Rosa. The third candle is for the spirit of the ozelotl.