Our Little Aztec Cousin of Long Ago - C. V. Winlow

A Boy at School

Coyotl sat on a straw mat in front of his teacher and practiced writing. But even as he mixed the paints before him in little shallow bowls of earthenware, and dipped his brush in the color, his thoughts were elsewhere.

He and the other students, all boys of about his own age, were writing on leaves of paper made of the pressed pulp of the maguey bush. They were practicing the simplified drawings which the Aztecs used for writing. Rabbits, leaves of corn, bundles of reeds, a man seated—all these pictures meant words, as written in different combinations—to the Aztecs. Writing by means of pictures which everyone understands, as we all understand letters, is called hieroglyphic, or picture, writing.

There was no use hurrying, or wishing to be through with the lessons, and gone, because in the Aztec schools the boys lived with the priests, in a special building inside the great pyramid—temple or church, and they were not allowed to return to their parents again for many years—until all their schooling had been completed.

The priests of the temples were wise men, and they had much to teach their pupils.

The priests of the Aztecs, besides administering services and sacrifices to their Gods, and devotion by means of eternal fires, and prayers, were students of the stars that revolved overhead in the black night. They knew arithmetic, and the sciences that tell about the earth, and animals, and plants. They knew the history of the Aztec nation, and they knew its system of government, and the rules of manners by which a good citizen should conduct himself.

All these things they taught the boys entrusted to their care in the temple schools. They also taught them the feast days, and the days made sacred to certain divinities, for the Aztecs had many Gods. And they instructed their pupils in how to make offerings of flowers and fruits at the altars, and how to feed the sacred fires at other altars, so that at no time would the Gods be neglected or made angry by lack of devotion.

Coyotl had been in the school five years. He had entered the school when he was six, a small, slender, brown-skinned boy, with dark intelligent eyes under his smooth black eyebrows, and a thick lock of purply-black hair that fell down over his forehead. u

It was in his seventh year that his father and mother and little sister had died in a plague, He had no one now. Probably he would some day become a priest himself. He did not know. And yet, though he was devoted to his Gods, especially to Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, who was the God of flowers and agriculture, and of water and the air, he did not want to be a priest. Adventure called to him. He longed to be free to roam the country over, to explore the great city of Mexico which lay outside the temple walls, and which he could see only from the great altar of the main temple where the sacred fire burned night and day.

The schoolroom where Coyotl sat was made of heavy stones, of a gray color, with an occasional stone of a pinkish-cream mixed in with the others. The stone floor was covered with a reed mat, on which were painted designs with a brilliant red paint that Coyotl knew was made by crushing the bodies of little insects. The ceiling of the room was made of wood and stone, and all the wooden beams were richly carved. Light streamed in through a window behind where the teacher sat on a cushion stuffed with bird's feathers.

The teacher, who was droning instructions to the boys, rocking comfortably to and fro as he sat, was wearing a dress of cotton cloth on which a design had been painted in purple dyes, and in his black hair he had twined a purple cord.

The boys wore white cotton garments, and simple sandals made of leather on their bare feet.

Coyotl heard the droning voice giving instructions. The teacher was calling out a list of words,—a kind of dictation—which the pupils were expected to write on their leaves of paper.

But Coyotl was dreaming of other things.

He was remembering the history lesson, and wishing that he had lived back in those adventurous days before the Aztecs had settled down into cities and established schools. He would have liked to be a soldier with the great army of the Emperor of the Aztecs, on that day when Mexico City was founded in the midst of the swampy land between the high mountains.

"It was after conquests and much traveling," the history teacher had told them, "that the armies of the Emperor came to a wide land of lakes and rivers. The mountains rose into the sky all around them like the edges of a bowl, and at their tips the fog clung in white steamy clouds.

"At the borders of a lake, suddenly the Emperor stopped and held up his hand. All were silent, for everyone saw what he saw. Sitting on the limb of a prickly pear tree was a great royal eagle, bearing in his talons a writhing serpent. The eagle sat with spread wings, ready for flight, and his outstretched wings were against the glow of the rising sun.

"The omen was so auspicious that the Emperor then and there gave offerings and prayers, and decided to found a city, to end his people's wanderings, and there to live."

Thinking of this, Coyotl started sketching—not what the teacher directed him to do,—but the form of a great black eagle, with out-stretched wings, and in his claws, a snake.

He was so absorbed in what he was thinking, and in the drawing he was making, that he did not notice the ominous calm which had fallen over the class. The teacher had raised his eyes, and had noticed that Coyotl was not paying attention.

While the boy continued his drawing, oblivious, the teacher got up off his cushion, and came to where Coyotl sat with his paints and leaves of paper. He was putting a glow of gold behind the black wings of the eagle—a glow to represent the rising sun.

"You have been wasting my time and yours," said the teacher quietly and Coyotl was so startled that his nervous hand spilled a little dish of ink. The purple liquid crept slowly along the reeds of the mat. And Coyotl felt his heart beating fast inside him, because the discipline at the school was strict indeed, and he knew that he would not be easily pardoned.

The teacher turned to the other pupils, who looked at Coyotl with sympathetic eyes, but could not say a word to help or encourage him, for that would have been against rules.

"You will go to your rooms," said the teacher, and the boys began hastily gathering up their inks and paper. They tiptoed from the room, and Coyotl looked up at the teacher with miserable apologetic eyes.

"Go to your room now," said the teacher, "and in a little while I will come to you, and I will tell you what discipline I have decided to give you."

Coyotl picked up his things with trembling fingers. It had seemed a harmless enough thing to do, but he knew the rules. And the punishment was strict. If a boy in the priests' school broke discipline, he might even be sentenced to death, or sold into slavery. Montezuma, the great Emperor, wanted his subjects to be obedient, and the teaching began young.

Coyotl's room was a tiny cell, painted white inside, with a small window opening into one of the courts. He had there a bed of reeds, and a low bench made of wood, and on hooks in the wall hung his other cotton clothes.

He went to his room and sat down disconsolately. There was no one he could talk to; no one to whom he could whisper that "he hadn't meant any harm—he was only imagining. . . ."

A little before the sun went down, the teacher came to see him in his room. Coyotl immediately rose to his feet and offered the teacher his seat. Then, with hanging head, he awaited his sentence.

It didn't come at once, and the boy glanced at the teacher's face inquiringly. The teacher was looking at him kindly.

"I am not going to punish you, Coyotl," said the teacher. "You are a bright boy, and your drawing of the eagle was good. But I cannot let you fall into these habits of dreaming. You must stay up with me and tend the sacred fires, and pray until the morning. It is not your turn to watch the fires again so soon. You will be sleepy. This is your punishment.

"I will await you at the great fire on top of the main temple as soon as the first stars appear. Do not be late. You must be washed and clean, and wearing your sacrificial robes."

"I will be ready and I will not be late. And thank you," breathed Coyotl.

The teacher did not say another word, but as he left the little room, he dropped his hand forgivingly on the boy's dark head, and let it linger there a moment.