How Strong Can a Flower Be? by Anna Marie Laforest
Xochiquetzal (Sho-chi-ket-sal) pulled the fine white marriage robe over her long blue tunic and signaled to her maid that she would return in a few minutes for the red arm-feathers and crystal face paste. The Aztec goddess, and Mother of all Flowers, wanted to check on her gardens this morning as usual, even though it was her wedding day. She passed through the celebration yard with its long tables, and continued on toward the main grounds. Everything seemed in order.
Several hammered silver pots of copal incense were burning already. The tables were decorated with a line of chrysocolla stones and yellow marigolds which reflected the gaiety of the bride, whose hair was bound with ribbons in her signature yellow and turquoise. The party favors were entwinements of silver containing a mélange of white rose and pink magnolias nestled in more chrysocolla. There were also small vials of chocolatl from the goddess’s beloved cacao beans. On one long table were animal and flower masks, piled up, ready for the dancing.
Xochiquetzal walked the geometric paths she’d long ago carved through her paradise gardens into the center of Tamoanchan, one of 13 Aztec heavens, past lemon budded bushes, past streams bordered with iris and clover, past the original rosa rigosa with its cache of wisdom, all the way to the center of the gardens, to the Flowering Tree of Life from which the mortals grew.
The sun was quite hot, but dozens of butterflies and hummingbirds flew ahead of Xochiquetzal, as they always did, their delicate wings fanning the heat away from her. One thing that was different today, though, was that the hard breeze of volcanic shards brought in by the Tamoanchan wind had ceased in honor of the wedding. Normally, Xochiquetzal, walking her gardens, is pelted with obsidian slivers that catch in her tunic and are raked by her long turquoise tail. But today she would marry Tlaloc, the god of water. Both god and goddess have asked their people to hold their confessions, which come in on the flashing shards, until tomorrow, and the people have obeyed.
Having reached the Tree of Life without a single knifelike sting, Xochiquetzal gave thanks to the god beyond gods, and sat on her bench under the tree for a moment of quiet breathing. She bent down and caressed a bloom or two near her feet, and they felt her blessing. Each bloom on the Tree of Life is a mad-stone of love, each a shadow-soul of life. Imagine the Gardener of All Flowers, tending the One Flowering Tree, while green hummingbirds glisten above her, her slender hands infusing papery buds with beauty, compassion, and cyclical strength, turning them into the blossoms humans are. She does this not from her maker’s mind but as direct gift, and she smiles as she blesses each soul, skipping over none.
Today the mortals have listened. Today she need not spend time absolving crimes or interceding for the several guilts of humankind. She took another deep breath. After a little while, her pet ocelot padded over from the denser vegetation in the south garden and rubbed against her leg. This dwarf leopard with his yellow-marigold fur and dark spots is the goddess’s pet of pets. A nocturnal animal, he keeps watch over her sleep. Many are the gods who desire Xochiquetzal, and some are not beyond ideas of kidnapping her.
“Hi pet, what are you doing awake in the morning?” she asked, and skritched his head between his ears.
He looked at her with adoring eyes, but said. “Brace yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I came to warn you to brace yourself for what may come.”
“What is that? What may come? Tlaloc is a good god to marry, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is good.”
“Then what may come?”
“Just brace yourself.”
“This is the new world, my pet, not Egypt. You don’t have to act like a sphinx. Tell me.”
“Yes, well, our old ‘friend’ Tez has been circling your palace of flowers for several nights now. He sneaks closer and closer to your bedroom.”
Tezcatlipoca was the sun god who was making it so hot this day, and who had been, in earlier days, perhaps the most ardent pursuer of the goddess.
“But surely you’ve warned him off. And he knows I am marrying Tlaloc.”
“Yes, I’ve warned him.”
The ocelot held up one paw to show Xochiquetzal where bits of Tez’s gold tunic still clung to his claws.
“But he changes form pretty fast. Last night he changed into an armadillo before I knew it.”
Here he held up another paw and showed claws that had been bent by Tez’s armor.
“Oh, my poor pet,” the goddess crooned. She plucked some aloe and manzanita and squeezed them onto the animal’s paw, which immediately became whole.
“Thank you,” he said. And then, “But brace yourself.”
“Will he try to upset the wedding ceremony?”
“I don’t think he’ll risk that. He would look bad to everyone else. I think he’ll try a subterfuge.”
“Like what? I’m not going to marry an armadillo!”
They both laughed.
“No, but he’ll change form in some way, I’m sure of it. He’s been practicing.”
Xochiquetzal sighed. “Let’s just sit here quietly for a few more minutes and breathe.”
Finally, after patting each limb of her Tree of Life, to reassure the mortals that she would always be with them, no matter what, the goddess hugged her pet and told him to go back to bed and rest up, for protecting her and her groom during the wedding night to come.
“Okay,” said the ocelot, “and please remember that your divine roots are stronger than his, so… if you have to, strike first.”
The goddess held her hands to her head in exasperation, but agreed.
Back in her palace chambers, Xochiquetzal washed her face in fresh water infused with marigolds, and let her maid help her with the red arm-feathers and the crushed crystal wedding make-up. Her bridesmaids arrived in patterned gowns dyed blue from clay, purple from snails, and red from insects that lived in cacti. Each woman had very long hair bound in thick ribbons.
Her mother arrived, looking totally exhausted. “Daughter,” she said. “There weren’t any knives in the breeze today around your palace of flowers. How did you keep the mortals from flinging their sins at you?”
“Mother, I keep telling you, they send me their confessions, not their sins.” Her mother was a moon goddess, and an old-fashioned sin-eater, and many feared her, including the sun-god Tez.
“You must stop offering to eat their sins,” Xochiquetzal continued. “It’s outdated, and not good for you or for them. Just absolve them, offer them flower remedies, and keep on going.”
“You and your flower remedies,” her mother scoffed. “You think everything is sweetness and light.”
“No I don’t. But flowers are powerful medicine, and love and light is what will succeed in the end.”
“Oh, you give me a headache, you and your modern ideas.”
“It’s very hot out today, mother. I’ll have the maid get you some tomatillos and lime.”
After that everything went along nicely; one of the bridesmaids said she saw Tez sitting calmly at one of the back tables, looking like himself, with his gold necklace, gold watch, and spiked hair. When the groom asked him to turn the temperature down a little, for the sake of the guests, the sun god pulled his hat down further over his face and did so.
Now the maid of honor lifted an enormous peacock-feather headdress onto the bride’s head, and all the bridal party cheered as she ventured forward. Because there were mortals attending the wedding as well as minor gods and goddesses, Tlaloc and Xochiquetzal had arranged to read their vows in front of a priest, to show good form. Xochiquetzal, always full of gaiety, now glowed with lightness and fun. Her groom, the water god, was so struck with her naturalness and beauty, that his eyes teared up considerably, and by the time his bride reached him at the front of the celebration tables, he was standing in a puddle of salt-water.
Xochiquetzal barely heard the vows she spoke, but as Tlaloc started repeating his, she heard a voice near her head, “Brace yourself.” She looked around but saw nothing and no one out of place. “Brace yourself!” She looked up and she looked down, but saw nothing. Her pet’s voice was now as loud as if he were actually there, next to her ear. “Brace yourself - now!”
Xochiquetzal cleared her head of all the wedding excitement and looked clearly at Tlaloc and the priest. Tlaloc was enraptured, going through the vows, but the vows he recited were more than a little odd, “forever we vow to dissolve our union,” – what? She looked at the priest and forced her eyes to be very clear. His head looked like a priest. His middle looked like a priest. But his legs, his legs were long and wavy like a mirage on a sun-hot desert, or like an incomplete transformation by a less experienced shape-shifter – it was Tez! And who knows what he had had them vow.
“Strike first!” shouted her ocelot telepathically. “Strike now!”
She held her bouquet of white roses and yellow marigolds in front of her middle like a shield, and pointed her long, lovely arm straight at Tez – “How dare you!” she shouted, and turned him into a scorpion. Stunned, his legs still wavy, he scurried around in unsteady arachnid-footing for a while before stepping out of his gold necklace and retreating to the gardens.
The goddess knew that none of her beloved flowers would aid him - they would stay true to her, and his transformation would stick. She knew that Tez’s eldest child would now have to take on the necklace of sun god, which the boy, scrubbed and dressed for the day in white linen, which accentuated his newly spiked hair, was only too glad to do. But she also knew that the scorpion in her garden would eventually find a way to take revenge.
One of the other priests finished the ceremony that day, witnessing their real vows. And over the years Xohiquetzal and Tlaloc’s sacred marriage was good for the flowers and good for the people. Tlaloc, who was rapidly learning about the flowers, now had a much better idea about when to make it rain, and his high emotionality, though it kept his eyes wet, endeared him to the mortals, who felt calmer knowing that a god as well as a goddess could empathize with them. And that resulted in fewer pleas coming in on the hard splinters that flew in the wind for the goddess to catch in her tunic and rake up with her great turquoise tail.
Xochitquetzal, in consultation with the Tree of Life, developed more ways to heal with flowers, and she taught new dances with new masks and ribbons, marigolds and beads.
Her pet ocelot kept close guard for the next few hundred years, but there was no sign of the scorpion.
Then one day there appeared near the gardens a great lake that had never been there before. Above the lake, in a willow tree, sat Tlaloc, who had been there most of the night before.
“What are you doing?” asked the ocelot, who found him there.
“My heel suddenly hurt so much, I came out here to cry from the pain. I didn’t want to send so much rain down on the mortals. The lake looks okay here, right?”
“Yes, the lake is good. But brace yourself.”
“I suspect Tez is returning to exact his revenge.”
“I don’t know yet. But brace yourself.”
The next day Tlaloc’s whole body was wracked in stinging pain and numbness, and he cried so hard that he could not keep his tears from spilling over into the land of the mortals, creating a small flood. Xochiquetzal and her ocelot and the hummingbirds and the butterflies made healing flower remedies as fast as they could, buzzing around him, applying essences and pastes - but Tez the scorpion was faster still, stinging the water god over and over until his tears created the greatest flood on the earth.
Now the people cried out, and all of them drowned in the great flood, but Xochiquetzal, who had promised at the Tree of Life to never forsake her beloved humans, quickly turned them into fishes, dolphins, and whales so that they could live, in the meantime, in the water. Her husband Tlaloc dissolved himself into the oceans to keep the fish-people safe until another eon should come, and on earth it was the beginning of the age of Pisces.
The goddess looked down at the central lands and saw that one human had survived, and he was floating in a hollow birch log with nothing but water for miles around him. His clothes were torn, his muscles had struggled, attempting to save others, and now he lay exhausted and burnt from the raw sun.
She ran through her gardens and collected grapes, berries, and nuts, piling them high into the lap of her robes. She ran to the drooping Tree of Life and plucked the shadow of the man’s soul and carried it carefully down to the bark to revive him.
“I thought you were a mirage, but you are a miracle,” said the man two days later, as they steered the hollow log toward the top of a hill that was peeking out from receding waters and that would be called Culhuacan.
“I am the lady of the flowers,” she simply said. “And together you and I will bring back the human race.”
A few yards from the hill, Xochiquetzal noticed a scrawly shadow on the edge of the birch log, and she saw that it was the soul of the scorpion, hanging on.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she said as she leaned over to flick him overboard.
“Oh powerful Xochiquetzal,” said Tez as he went into the water. “I swear we shall meet again, for I have stung the man in this boat, and my poison will be in the veins of all your children.”
“Very diluted, though,” said the botanically-minded lady of the flowers.
“Then I will concentrate on the leaders, the priests.”
“Not all of them.”
“The ones I claim will be strong.”
“I will conquer even those, with roses.” And with that, she pushed him into the waves where he finally drowned.
Xochiquetzal and Coxcoxtic, for that was the surviving Nahua’s name, had many, many children and thus began the Aztec age of the fifth Sun, re-populated after the great flood.
“Cox” taught the children how to build and explore and be fully human, while the goddess taught them how to plant and dance and understand the flowers, which were their shadow souls.
“Listen to the truth in your deepest heart which, too, will one day fade,” she told them. “Yet, like my butterflies, I promise you will be reborn.”
At first the human children were mute, but Xochiquetzal called down the glistening birds from the sky above the Tree of Life to teach them to speak, and they all learned differently, depending on which species of bird they listened to, and thus the various languages of the world were born. The children grew and traveled with their children to different parts of the land and they flourished. Mother Xochiquetzal taught them pre-flood-style music and crafts, textiles, baking with chocolate -- and the Mesoamerican culture was restored.
And Xochiquetzal became their queen of reflection, beauty, poignancy. She also taught them to pray to her without sending the hard obsidian shards on the breeze.
~ ~ ~
Xochiquetzal sat on her wooden bench under the Tree of Life in the center of her gardens and surveyed the earth. It was several hundred years since she had rolled up her sleeves and taught the new people how to plant maize and cacao, cook, and dance. It had been long since she herself had danced alongside the heavily muscled mortal named Cox, and even longer since her wedding day to the old water god Tlaloc. She had become mother to all the humans after the flood, and her water god was still keeping watch over the fish-people who had prayed to her before the flood. She and Tlaloc met often on the gulf side of the land, and compared notes. If there were no fishermen, artists, or warriors about, they would indulge in a long embrace.
She sighed now, in her garden, and stretched out along the wooden bench.
“What are you doing out here, so late in the afternoon?” asked the ocelot, licking his marigold fur.
“Just breathing. Why? Should I brace myself for something?”
“Oh, not really. I am beginning to see the ebb and flow over the ages.” He stretched himself in a long slow cat stretch.
“But I sense the sting of our old “friend” the scorpion somewhere down there. In a high priest, I think. The Spanish have been taking over the Nahua for a couple hundred years, and the missionary priests are the front guard.”
“Yes, Tez said he’d come back as a priest.”
“The native women are not allowed to be in crafts guilds anymore, or to earn their own money, as they did before. Some are chained to their looms and their textiles are exported, and they do not receive the money. They are losing hope.”
“Yes, I know from their prayers they are losing hope.”
“Dear lady of the flowers, it may be time to –“
It was December 9, 1531, and a peasant named Juan Diego walked up the slopes of a hill in Tepeyac and saw a young woman in a pale tunic and turquoise mantle surrounded by stars and marigolds, and backlit by a very bright sun. She spoke gently to him in Nahuatl, and he removed his cloak for her to sit upon a rock.
Diego often walked along this hill, which was known as an ancient dwelling place of an Aztec goddess, but he never knew why he was drawn to it. Now he recognized her in that déjà vu sense that dislocates time, and she recognized him by his muscled arms and can-do caring-ness for humanity. She handed him his soul-petal from the Tree of Life.
“Juan Diego, will you build a church in honor of me, on these slopes?”
“My lady, I will, but the bishop must approve, or it will be torn down.”
“Yes, it is crucial to involve the archbishop.”
“My lady, things do not go well for our daughters these days –“
“That is why we will build the church. We will bring back some balance for the women.”
“Go to the bishop. He will detain you for three days. Do not protest. I have much to do for three days.”
They spoke of many other things. Diego bowed his head and went to the Spanish archbishop, who bound him in a stall with the horses.
For three days Our Lady of the Flowers stayed with the Nahua women weavers, painters, and potters and re-introduced them to the skills of economy and independence of their ancestors. She showed them a more efficient way to make and use paints and dyes. She showed them how to organize in guilds, and how to speak to military generals in their language. She taught the women strong medicine and self-defense. She gave them many flower-remedies and taught them the healing secrets of the saguaro cactus, the angelica buds, and even of the dandelions. She taught them to bind their long hair with ribbons, a sign of self-respect and gaiety.
The women saw how she loved them and cared for them, and they cried out,
“At last, She is here!”
She promised them a church, a sanctuary, where no conquering powers would bother them, and where they could get in touch with their flowering souls.
On the third day, December 12, Juan Diego returned to the slopes to tell the lady that the archbishop Zumarraga required a sign to prove her identity. The lady smiled and led Diego to the top of the hill where white roses had sprung into bloom. Now, it was unusual for roses to bloom in December, especially on a barren hilltop in the hot Mexican sun, but what was more unusual was that these roses were Castilian, not native to this area at all, but native to the archbishop’s Spain. The lady arranged the roses in Diego’s tilma, the over-tunic he used as a carry-all, and told him to return to Zumarraga.
“Will we meet again, dear lady?”
“Over and over, dear mortal. And I will always take care of you.”
Archbishop Zumarraga raised an eyebrow as Juan Diego returned that afternoon, roses brimming out of the front of his cloak and tumbling onto the office floor. Diego shook the cloak as giant blossoms, the kind Zumarraga’s abuela had grown in her garden in Spain, made a stack at least five feet high.
The archbishop’s knees became wavy, as though the part of his DNA that held him up had suddenly leaked from his legs. He fell to the floor. Diego ran over to help, but the priest jumped away from him, as best as his uncoordinated muscles would let him. Now Diego saw that the archbishop’s eye was not on the stack of roses, but on the front of his tilma. He looked down and saw an amazement of color blazing from his chest. He slid the tilma off over his head and turned it around.
There, as though painted by the sun, was the very image of his lady. She wore the blue-green mantle of Divine Mother, a Nahua pregnancy sash, and a nahui-ollin, symbol of the shifting of the cosmic age. Emanating from her image like a body-halo were sun-drenched, spiny agave leaves.
“Oh, see, archbishop, is she not the Queen of Mexico!”
The priest was shielding his eyes with one hand and rubbing his wavy legs with the other.
“You shall have your church,” he whispered.
Xochiquetzal’s name comes from two Náhuatl words: Xochitl for flower, and Quetzal for feathers.
English words of Nahuatl origin include "avocado," "chili,” "chocolate,” "coyote,” and "tomato.”
Spanish versions as well as Nahua versions of the Lady of Guadalupe story exist. Juan Diego’s illuminated tilma has been preserved in the church that was built to honor his Lady. The Basilica of Guadalupe,in Mexico City, is one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world, especially around December 12.