In the indigo twilight of dawn, we traverse the vast square of the Ciudadela, seven disciples and a Guru where once clamored a hundred thousand. Solemn as judges, we ascend the Adosada Platform and descend the narrow railed stairways behind it, taking our seats on the last step of the bottom level. Rising before us in the purple air is the western façade of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Feathered-serpent heads flank the temple stairway at thirteen-step intervals. More serpents, open-mouthed, leap out of the temple’s receding tiers, accompanied by images of Tlaloc, fierce in his abstract mask. Reliefs of undulating snakes fill the spaces beneath the heads of the gods. It is six thirty in the morning. We are alone. Silence needs no injunction.
Our Guru stands at the barrier beyond which visitors must not pass. Behind him the temple steps hurry steeply to the sky. Suddenly, shafts of sunlight cleave heaven from earth. The winter solstice has commenced. Behind us, daylight illuminates the platform’s top tier. Bright shapes edge down the cataract of stone. When light reaches our Guru’s face, he turns towards us, raises his arms, and tilts his face skywards. We bow our heads. He clears his throat and addresses the heavens.
“Great Mother! Great Goddess! Universal One! We come to you from the sacred precincts of Tenochtitlan!” Sunlight bathes his shoulders and falls like a mantle across his chest. He prays at length. Later, none of us can recall the middle of the prayer. Each time we try, we get lost in the labyrinth of words. But we all remember the final invocation: “As we surrender to you, as our souls stretch taut on the chacmool of devotion, as we imbibe the divine balché of this sacred air—Eternal Mother, transport us beyond ourselves! Remove the boundaries of our minds!”
When he is finished, we open our eyes. Like so many serpents ourselves, we stick out our tongues and taste the sacred air of Teotihuacan. We remain motionless for a while. Then we retrieve our tongues, imbibing the intoxicating spirit of the place. For seven minutes we stare straight ahead, expectant and focused, until our Guru palms each of us on the forehead and pronounces a stentorian benediction over us.
“At this intersection of origins and culminations; at this time of cosmic alignments and conjunctions; at this moment when the celestial spheres reach their fulcrum; in this place where time itself began; in this place where the children of men were made; in this place where the gods themselves were born—go forth, each of you to the encounter!”
He turns, springs over the handrail, and starts to climb the stairway between the feathered serpents. As his sandaled feet ascend the mottled steps, we turn and climb back up the Adosada Platform. We have long prepared for this occasion. Now we must become separate. Converse with no-one. Listen to the language of the wind. Find our own thoroughfares through the citadel of time.
I approach the Quetzalcoatl Quadrangle as though I am embarking on a voyage. Like a mariner, I train my instruments of perception. For hours I scan the ancient cityscape. My mind prostrates itself before the harmonies and symmetries of Teotihuacan. Above me, monumental and evanescent, morning clouds coagulate into ideographic glyphs. Occult wisdom whispers on the solstitial breeze. I contemplate the stately forms of talud-tablero construction. Platforms and stairways. Stairways and platforms. Tiers and inclines. Angles and planes. The jagged and the straight. Caught in glimpses, my companions flit like apparitions across the vistas. Tiny as an insect, one starts to scale the highest pyramid. I fall into a trance of architected awe. Everywhere I see pattern. Rhythm and recurrence. In the vast prospects of the ageless city I shrink. All are children before the Temple of the Sun.
After a while my reverence becomes tactile. Wandering along the Avenue of the Dead, I touch the temple stones one by one. My fingertips read the brail of ancient tools. With flat palms I sound the mass of great blocks. At the north end of the Avenue of the Dead, on a wall inside a small covered recess, I discover a miraculously preserved mural. A headless puma. I admire the captured energy of the beast. Its surging musculature. Its great curled claws. Somehow I seem to see the picture with ancient eyes.
I arc across the Plaza of the Moon towards the Tepantitla Palace. Once inside, I am transfixed by its murals. Before an image of the Great Mother, I halt. I am motionless as a statue. A paragon of contemplation. I overcome an impulse to fall on my knees. I count the goddess’s five fangs over and over. Carefully, I study the spider dangling over her head. I spend a long time scrutinizing the green bird singing on a branch of the world tree sprouting from the goddess’s head.
Then—for an even longer time—I stare at the picture beneath the goddess. The Mountain Stream Mural. The space around its magic mountain is crowded with free-floating human forms. Discontinuous scenes of Teotihuacano life. I am enthralled by the tiny shapes. Some figures are represented in the act of speech. Curled like serpentine tongues and tantalizingly blank, speech scrolls issue from their open mouths and spiral into shapes resembling question marks. One figure stands on top of the blue mountain and orates. He seems to be speaking to me. Transported into the mural’s world, I become one with the devotees of Tlaloc. A zephyr blows through the temple and echoes lightly around its stone chambers. It feels like the breath of many beasts.
Later I find myself climbing the stairway to the Temple of the Moon. Standing alone on the platform at the top of the pyramid’s first tier, I turn and survey the grandeur of Teotihuacan. At the bottom of the steps is the Plaza of the Moon. In its center stands a large square altar. Off to my left—even more massive than the structure on which I stand—the Pyramid of the Sun rises immensely from its base and recedes mathematically to its peak. A geometrical mountain. In a vision, I see the original Temple of the Sun, its roof resting on the heads of gigantic stone warriors. To the right of the great pyramid, between counterposed rows of smaller temples, the Calzada de Los Muertos shoots arrow-straight towards the horizon, where five volcanic cones bite into the sky like huge pointed teeth. From this angle of vision, the Avenue of the Dead looks like the most magnificent street in the world. The street to end all streets. A street for the ages.
But an uncanny occurrence startles me out of my reverie. A large black dog appears at my side. Until now, I have seen no living animal in Teotihuacan. The dog circles me thrice and runs behind me, scurrying along a step-back of the pyramid. Before disappearing, it stops and looks back at me. Its red tongue hangs out. Its onyx eyes bore into mine. Then it lopes around an angle of the structure and is gone.
I turn to climb to the pyramid’s higher levels. As I mount the stairs, layers of selfhood, like plates of clanging armor, seem to fall from me. Each step upward is an increment of transformation. At the next plane, I stop and turn around again. Far below me in the Plaza of the Moon, I see a figure in a jaguar headdress dancing on the altar. A great wheel of celebrants encircles him, turning slowly as the acolytes orbit the Priest of the Sun. I hear the rhythmic heart-like throb of drums.
I climb to the highest platform of the pyramid and walk over to its farthest edge. I kick off my sandals and stand on the ultimate block. My toes curl around and grip the sharp stone edge. Death yawns at my feet. I see the prospects before me with mind new-made. My I-ness recedes completely. My head falls back. My arms rise into the air like great outstretched wings. My mouth falls open and a voice not my own pours from my throat and coils into the diaphanous air of noon:
“Great God of the Morning Star! Bringer of corn! Master of the spear-hurling owl! Inventor of speech! Emperor of the Seven Winds! Lord of the Four Underworlds! Conqueror of Mictlan! You who are bright as the sun—return! You who are fair as the moon—return! You whose mercy is broad as the Avenue of the Dead—return! Like a jewel-eyed jaguar leaping in the darkness of this world—come, even so come now, Lord Quetzalcoatl!”