By Kimberly T.
Author's note: This story was my contribution to the Gargoyles Anthology that was published and printed for the 2008 Gathering of the Gargoyles in Chicago. Standard disclaimers and acknowledgments apply. Cover art, which was also in the 2008 Anthology, is by Asatira (asatira dot deviantart dot com)
Guatemala, 8th century A.D.; 9 Baktuns 15 Katuns by the Mayan Long Count calendar
Kukulcan the gargoyle delivered a freshly-killed tapir to the rookery for the hatchlings' dinner, accepted the thanks of the rookery keepers, then went over to the cave where he kept his ceremonial clothing; a giant feathered headdress and an elaborately jeweled pectoral collar and breastplate, that draped over his shoulders and hung down his chest. Keeping one hand on the headdress to hold it in place, he launched out over the rainforest, faintly hearing the sounds of monkeys in the trees as he glided towards the stepped pyramid visible on the horizon.
This new world had been surreal to him at first, but now he accepted it all as normal. Indeed, now it was almost surreal when he thought of his homeland… and of how, at roughly this time last year, he'd been the most miserable gargoyle in the world.
In the clan he'd come from, everyone had feathered wings, and nearly everyone had resembled an animal of some sort. But most of them had resembled mammals such as lions, horses or boars, or birds like eagles; he'd been the only one left who resembled a snake.
His rookery keepers had told him that centuries ago, to resemble a snake would not have been a hardship. The Druids had held snakes as almost sacred creatures; living in constant, intimate contact with Mother Earth, they'd been regarded as symbols of fertility and earthly wisdom. But then the Christians had come along, and they thought all snakes were evil creatures, just because of something that one snake—just one!—had done to the first woman in their creation myth.
His clan had managed to survive being surrounded by humans by persuading the locals that they were actually sort-of earthbound angels, instead of demons in the night that needed to be smashed by day. They were angels that had been consigned to protecting the earth during its darkest hours because, resembling animals, they didn't merit as high a position in the Heavenly Host as did angels resembling humans. (Humans would accept almost any story as long as it reassured them that they were the most important creatures of all.)
But the humans just refused to accept a snake-like angel, an angel that looked horrifyingly evil in their eyes, so when snake-like gargoyles hatched in a rookery clutch, they were stuck inside the rookery and away from human eyes for pretty much all their lives. With almost no opportunities to glide and hunt and prove their worth to the clan, few snake-like gargoyles ever found mates, and fewer of them hatched in every rookery generation. Which was probably a good thing for the clan overall, but it was absolutely miserable to be one of the few… probably the last ever, in his case.
As the most different-looking of them all, he'd had to endure being taunted and called 'no-legs' by his rookery brothers and sisters whenever their keepers weren't listening in. And when they'd been taken out to try their wings and begin gliding, he'd been kept in the rookery. Years after everyone else had become accomplished gliders and started their warrior training, he'd had to beg and plead for a chance just to use the wings he'd been hatched with. The clan leader had finally said he could be allowed to learn to glide, but only after all the humans had gone to sleep on the three nights of the new moon, when the sky was darkest, and he had to be back inside the rookery long before dawn.
And he'd never even tried courting one of his rookery sisters for a mate. What would he have had to offer them? He'd finally learned how to glide, by diligently practicing under an elder's watchful eye every new moon, but he'd never been allowed to hunt, let alone learn how to fight and protect the clan. Everyone had told him that his duty was to stay in the rookery as a rookery keeper, just as every snake-bodied gargoyle before him had been a rookery keeper, but he hadn't been very good at that either.
He'd never developed the Keeper's Eye, that talent that other keepers had for detecting trouble brewing before it happened; he'd nearly always been surprised by the accidents that happened and fights that broke out among the hatchlings. After the last fight that had gotten out of hand before he could stop it, had cost one hatchling an eye from his brother's reckless talon, he hadn't even been trusted to mind them by himself anymore. After that, there had always been some other keeper in there with him. And what female would have been impressed with a male who couldn't bring her a courting gift, not even a lousy rabbit, and couldn't even do his rookery keeper duties right?
Finally, he just hadn't been able to take it anymore; couldn't take always being an object of pity or scorn. When the new moon had come around again, he'd gone off for his monthly glide… went north and straight for the edge of the clan's territory, and just kept on going.
He'd been told that there was another gargoyle clan living far to the north, though no one had heard from them in nearly four generations. A clan that had claimed a territory of dense forest bordered by high-cliffed shores on one side, and kept it for themselves, despite the humans spreading everywhere like moss on a fallen log. A clan that dealt with humans as little as possible, instead of trying to forge an alliance with them; surely they'd find a place for him on their perches! He'd known he could hunt and be a good provider for that clan if they just gave him a chance to learn.
But first he'd had to find that other clan, and stay alive in the process. Something that had proved harder than he'd thought… with no training in hunting, he hadn't been able to catch enough to eat, and in desperation had resorted to stealing small livestock from human farms he'd passed while traveling north. And nearly every theft of chickens or sheep came with a price paid in pain; he'd been bitten by a guard dog, gotten an arrow stuck in his tail, nearly been impaled by a pitchfork…
Fourteen nights after leaving his clan, he'd curled up on a grassy hillock by the light of the full moon, in plain sight of a village, and just lay there without moving. He hadn't eaten in three nights, and he'd been so desperately lonely and miserable… He'd decided that if the humans found him by day and killed him in his sleep, at least it would put an end to his misery.
And then an elderly bearded human had come along, prodded him with a staff and said cheerfully, "There you are! You're nearly half a league off, you know. You were supposed to be resting on that hillock over there," as he pointed off to the west.
In the state he'd been in, starvation and depression dulling his wits, he hadn't even thought to question why this human was being nice to him instead of killing him. Why the human had given him food and drink—and for that matter, how he'd pulled a full roasted pig out of a small carrysack—and sat with him until nearly dawn.
Finally, near dawn, he'd recovered enough of his wits to figure out that the human was a wizard. And he'd felt compelled to ask the human why he was being so kind to someone who looked like—but wasn't really, he swore!-a creature of evil.
The wizard had snorted and said, "Not everyone in this wide world thinks ill of your appearance, young gargoyle. Now, the sun is nearly up here, which means it should be fully down there… time to go to your new home, young gargoyle. The same vision that led me to you, told me that your destiny lies far from here. Keep an open mind when you get there, and—oh, almost forgot. Open wide," and when he'd obediently opened wide, had popped an acorn into his mouth and then closed it firmly. "Keep that in your mouth but don't start chewing it until you get to where you're going; it will give you knowledge of the language being spoken to you. And now to summon your ride… a chariot of winds!"
And the elderly human had chanted something, and suddenly the mightiest wind he'd ever felt had swept him up off the hillock and into the sky. And he'd been spun around, and end over end, and around and around again until he'd nearly lost the acorn and all that delicious roast pig he'd eaten, but he'd grimly hung on to both for what seemed like hours, until the winds began to lessen enough for him to finally stabilize in the air and look down…
The land beneath him had been unlike any place he'd ever even heard of in the rookery tales. The trees and plants were so different, the human houses in the city below were different-and so were the humans he could see! Their skin was a different color, and the clothes they were wearing…
Clothes that were being blown off them, along with several of the weapons they were brandishing, by the same winds that had brought him there. Their torches had already been blown out, but the full moon's light—how had it become the middle of the night again?—Had let him see what was going on plainly enough. The humans had been shouting and looking around wildly, and some of them had been running for shelter. But a few of them had still been hanging onto a captive, one that had been bound hand and foot—and wing! The humans had captured a gargoyle! And judging by that dais they'd been dragging him towards, stained all over with dried blood, they'd been planning to kill him!
Not if he could help it! The winds had suddenly ceased and he'd dropped out of the sky, but he'd been able to get his wings out and turn that fall into a steep, controlled dive. He'd swooped down on the captors, not roaring because he'd still had that acorn in his mouth, but a terrifying roar hadn't been needed; the humans had scattered at the mere sight of him, leaving their captive behind. He'd quickly slashed the captive's bonds, while the other gargoyle had gabbled something incomprehensible at him. He'd started chewing the acorn, and the gabble had become words: "…come from?"
"From a great distance away, and I'm here to save you," he'd said after swallowing. "Is your clan nearby? Can we reach your perches before sunrise?"
"My clan? We—look out!" the gargoyle had cried, pointing behind him.
He'd whipped around to see a full twenty human warriors headed their way, several of them with torches and all of them armed, with spears and swords and other weapons. They had been running full-tilt into the clearing—
And then the front rank had seen him by the light of their torches, and stopped so suddenly they'd almost been impaled by the warriors behind them.
"Kukulcan!" "Kukulcan!" "God of the Winds!" "Kukulcan!" And suddenly the humans had all been down on their knees and some even flat on their faces, and he hadn't so much as laid a talon on them.
Not being one to sniff a gifted rabbit carcass for freshness, he'd taken the opportunity to urge his new friend over to a nearby tree. The gargoyle had clambered up with him slithering right behind, and they'd launched from the treetop with the humans still crying out below them, "KUKULCAN!"
The gargoyle's clan had been three leagues away, making their home in a steep cliff face. At first they'd doubted that he really was a gargoyle, with his feathered wings and lack of legs. But they'd still welcomed him with open arms, with many thanks and praise for having saved one of their own.
After an impromptu welcome feast, they'd told him of their trouble with the humans. Roughly a century ago, the humans had decided to build first a village, and then an entire city, just inside their hunting territory. Up until recently the policy had been 'live and let live'; the humans hadn't had that much impact on the local game, there was still plenty for all, and they hadn't come near the cliff where the gargoyles kept their rookery.
But lately the humans had been making trouble; felling more trees and clearing more fields in the direction of the cliff face, and with their increased numbers, taking more and more of the local game. The clan feared that the humans intended to expand their territory to completely take over the gargoyles' territory… and to treat the gargoyles as they treated other human tribes that they conquered; making slaves and sacrifices of them.
So far, no human had dared to come too close to their cliffs; they were too steep to climb without talons. But one gargoyle gliding over the city had reported that the humans seemed to be making some very long devices, like two logs tied together with many branches between them. They had no word for such devices, but the stranger among them could give them a word: ladders. Ladders that, from the descriptions given by the young gargoyle he'd saved, were being built nearly a hundred feet long; tall enough when upright to reach the clan's perches and rookery. The young gargoyle had been scouting, hoping to learn more of the humans' plans, but been surprised and taken captive.
After he'd explained to the clan what ladders were used for and the implications, there was grim talk about what should be done next. It was clear now that the humans meant to slaughter them, but they had not yet decided on a definite course of action—whether to leave their perches for new territory, or attack and kill all the humans first-when the sun had risen.
And when the sun had set again, everyone had been bewildered to see a huge pile of food and flowers set at the bottom of the cliff, with twenty humans all kneeling in a circle around the pile.
Since they hadn't killed him the night before, he'd volunteered to go down and talk to the humans, to ask why they were there. And he'd been astonished to find out that the food and flowers were offerings for him—Kukulcan, their god of the winds, who had obviously come down from the gods' home to show them that they shouldn't make war on the gargoyles. So they were very sorry for what they'd done and been planning, the ladders had all been chopped up and burned, and they'd brought enough food to feed the gargoyles too if Kukulcan wished it, and would he please not summon any more terrible winds to punish them by flattening half the houses in the city?
So Kukulcan he'd become, and that was the name everyone called him now, even the gargoyles. They treasured him now as their liaison with the humans, who asked him for favors on a regular basis; usually asking him to talk to Chac or Ixchel or one of the other gods, to bring water for the crops or ensure an easy childbirth or whatever.
Every time, Kukulcan reminded them that he could only 'pass on their requests'; he could not command the other gods, as only almighty Itzamna could command them all to cease their eternal squabbling and run the world in an orderly manner (which He very rarely did.) But they seemed content with his just 'passing on' their prayers… and when whatever they'd been asking for really happened, well, the offerings just poured in. After the first uinal of hearing requests, he'd taken to gliding to the top of the city's temple every evening and in the hours before dawn, just so the humans wouldn't keep trekking out to bother the gargoyles every night.
This life was much, much better than the life he'd left behind! The only thing that could make it even better yet would be having a mate at last. And there was a lovely female gargoyle he was interested in, a beauty with ruby-red skin and a lustrous black mane… but she was being courted by three other males of the clan, and he hesitated to try courting her too; memories of the callous taunting little 'no-legs' had received still lingered.
That lovely female was in his thoughts when he glided to the temple in the hour before dawn, and saw his human friend Xan-Ahpo waiting for him at the temple's apex. Although 'friend' might be too strong a word; 'ally' was probably better. Xan-Ahpo was a priest-mage, a canny and ruthless individual, who had no problem with cutting the hearts out of sacrificial victims. Xan-Ahpo had given Kukulcan some cold grim moments several months ago, when he'd stated that he knew Kukulcan was just a gargoyle, not a god wearing flesh. "But that will stay between us," Xan-Ahpo had said with a glint in his eye. "The other city-states are paying us more respect, now that we have a god visiting us regularly. And those Toltecs up north have been taking over Zapotec territories, and might someday threaten the Mayan empire, even if for now they're content to trade with us. It's best to deal with them from a position of strength—and what could be stronger than having a living god on your side?"
Kukulcan remembered those words as he glided in for a landing by torchlight, coiling his tail to stand upright enough to look Xan-Ahpo in the eyes. Eyes that had heavy bags under them; Xan-Ahpo had been working himself to exhaustion lately, on some secret magical project that had lasted at least two uinal so far.
After Kukulcan had accepted the usual offering of cacao drink and honey-sweetened maize cakes, Xan-Ahpo dismissed his attendants. Once they were alone, Xan-Ahpo said, "The king has asked me to ask you once more, to grace us with your presence by day so that you can preside in the flesh over some of our ceremonies. He also requests your presence at the upcoming trade agreement with a delegation from the Aztecs, a small tribe up north with some resources we want; they've heard of you now and are wondering if you're their god Quetzalcoatl. It would be a great advantage in negotiations if they were to become convinced that you're their god as well, but visibly on our side."
Kukulcan sighed. "And you can tell the king once more, that so long as the winds whisper to me that there is even one person in the city who bears ill will towards the gargoyles in his heart and wishes to destroy them, I will stay stone with them by day, granting my protection to the children of the winds. Unless you've thought of an even more convincing story to give him?"
"No, I haven't, and the king is getting seriously annoyed. He's already had sacrificed two advisors and the general who came up with the idea of ladders, along with anyone who'd publicly endorsed the idea of making war upon the gargoyles, and his spies haven't found anyone else to execute lately. The only one left who'd been in favor of the war is the king himself. And while he's done two personal bloodlettings for you already, so far he's rather oddly refused to have his own heart taken for an offering," Xan-Ahpo finished dryly.
Kukulcan swallowed hard. That was the worst part about the story that Xan-Ahpo himself had concocted, to explain Kukulcan's gargoyle-like behavior. So long as the king wanted to see him in flesh by day, and he stayed in stone by day, more humans kept dying bloody deaths. Kukulcan wasn't really that fond of humans, given how he'd grown up, but he still didn't like to see them ritually murdered.
Then Xan-Ahpo grinned. "But I may have a solution for the dilemma after all. Come see what I've been working on these last few uinal."
Curious, Kukulcan followed him inside the temple, to see a work of art lying on a table. A representation of the sun with its rays gently waving like snake tails, and given a face with its mouth open as if to shout a battle-cry. The sun-face was wrought in gold and inlaid in its eyes and cheeks with four precious and semi-precious stones; sapphire, jade, obsidian and turquoise. The work of art was almost as big as Kukulcan's head, but he accepted Xan-Ahpo's word that it was actually an amulet, made to be worn.
"Designed to give a very special sort of protection to the wearer," Xan-Ahpo said with a smile. "Specifically, protection from the rays of the sun itself."
Kukulcan stared at Xan-Ahpo, then at the amulet. "Are you saying… you think this will stop my turning to stone by day?"
"I believe so, yes. And it's ready for testing, if you're willing to stay here today for that purpose."
And so, instead of returning to the clan, Kukulcan stayed at the temple when dawn came. When he felt that sunrise was fast approaching, he picked up the large gold amulet and went outside, facing east. He coiled his tail around him in a stable pose, his usual habit just before turning to stone; then he took a deep breath, held the amulet up high, and waited.
And the sky grew lighter…
And something bright gold, very bright gold, started to come up from behind the horizon…
And for the very first time in his life—in any gargoyle's life!—Kukulcan watched the sun rise
And it was glorious.
And when he could look at it no longer, he stared at the surrounding landscape, waiting for the purple after-images to fade from his vision. Everything looked so different by daylight… it was like a whole new world again!
Xan-Ahpo came to stand beside him with the widest smile he'd ever seen. "Well?"
Kukulcan was so stunned that all he could say was "It works!"
Xan-Ahpo snorted, though his smile stayed in place. "Well, of course it works, after all the magical labor and sacrifice I put into it! What do you think of daylight, my friend?"
"It's… beautiful. So bright, but so beautiful…"
Xan-Ahpo nodded. "Now, shall we go see the king together?"
Kukulcan paused. "Uh… how are we going to hide this?" as he brandished the amulet. "It's so big that it's sure to draw the attention of everyone looking at me. We could tell them that I thought it was such a fine gift that I decided to stay awake by day after all, but someone's going to figure out the connection between a sun amulet and my being awake in sunlight… and there goes the story of my choosing to turn to stone by day, instead of having no natural control over it. And once they stop believing that, this whole illusion of godhood will crumble to gravel." Which Kukulcan would have welcomed for his own sake; he hated having to lie, even to humans, on a nightly basis. But without Kukulcan's 'divine protection', the clan would likely be in danger once more.
"Mmmnn." Xan-Ahpo scowled. "You have a point there."
"Can you make one of these in a much smaller size; something I could wear on a necklace? If it's strung and surrounded with red feathers and other decorations, such as a golden jaguar-head and a little gold ear of corn, it will be much less noticeable and there won't be an obvious connection."
Xan-Ahpo shook his head, his scowl deepening. "I put too much into making this amulet; it would take another fifty years of collecting magical resources to make another amulet powerful enough to protect you from the sun. Why, just finding a flawless sapphire large enough to make that eye," as he pointed at the left eye of the amulet… then paused, and acquired a thoughtful expression. "Large enough to make that eye, with some fair-sized fragments left over. Hmmm. The magical Law of Contagion dictates that what's done to an object can affect a piece of that object even after being separated from it. If I can magically attune one of those sapphire fragments to the sapphire eye…"
Five nights later, Kukulcan waited for dawn at the temple again; this time without his headdress, and with a pendant of sapphire strung about his neck. With everything else he was wearing, the pendant was hardly noticeable… but its effect on him was very noticeable, as once more he saw the sun rising in all its glory.
"Excellent! Now let's see if the other three work," Xan-Ahpo said, holding three other necklaces in his hand; at Kukulcan's request, he'd also made pendants from fragments of the other three precious stones in the amulet. Kukulcan obligingly bent his neck to Xan-Ahpo, who reached up to carefully lift the sapphire necklace off—
And Kukulcan's world went dark and still—
And then it was bright again, and he was looking down at a pendant of obsidian dangling from his neck—
Then all was black and still—
And then bright, and he was wearing the jade—
And then black and still again—
And now it was bright again, and he was wearing the turquoise—
And then he was lying limply on the floor, having collapsed into his own coils, and puking his guts out onto the temple stones.
"Kukulcan? Are you all right? I thought these were working fine," Xan-Ahpo said worriedly, grasping him under the arms and trying to pull him back upright again.
"Ooohhhh… Th-they work fine, but I think that was too many changes, too close together," Kukulcan groaned. "My head… I feel like I drank four pitchers' worth of pulque all at once!"
Xan-Ahpo winced in sympathy, then sighed. "So we'll have to wait until tomorrow to present you to the king by daylight; we can't afford for him to see you at less than your best. Another delay…"
"But only one day and night of delay," Kukulcan gasped. "T-tell the king that I'm almost convinced, and he doesn't have to sacrifice anybody else, just wait a bit longer… Ooohhhh. T-take the pendant off me, please; I really need to sleep in stone, right now!"
Xan-Ahpo obliged him, and the world went blessedly dark and still once more.
That night, after reassuring Xan-Ahpo that he felt just fine and after dealing with the evening's supplicants and prayer requests, he head for the clan with the sapphire pendant strung around his neck and the other three clutched in his hands. Xan-Ahpo had agreed that his idea for the other three pendants was sound; it wouldn't hurt at all for the Mayans' living god to be accompanied by gargoyles during the day, as further 'proof' of his godly powers. And gargoyles being such fearsome-looking creatures, having them as visible allies at the negotiating tables would impress the Toltecs and Zapotecs as well.
For Xan-Ahpo it was all about power and appearances, but for Kukulcan, it was about companionship. He had a strong hunch that he'd be doing a lot of sleeping-in-flesh at night now; it was for the good of the clan, but it would still mean much less time with his own kind, unless he brought other gargoyles into the daylight with him. And he knew just who to give the other pendants to…
Since gargoyles have their own power structures to observe, Kukulcan gave the jade pendant to the clan's leader. And the turquoise pendant went to the leader's mate, who was also the second-in-command. After he explained what the pendants were for, he left the pair delightedly speculating about what it would be like to stay flesh by day, while he went out and hunted down a nice fat tapir. After hunting the tapir, he picked a bouquet of flowers, and brought them both back to the clan.
Dawn was an hour away when he found the lovely crimson female in a clearing, playing a game of toss-stones with one of her suitors, while another one sat nearby playing a flute for her benefit. But he boldly slithered up, lay the tapir and the flowers at her feet, and said softly, "Lovely red one, I think you are both brave and beautiful, and I wish to court you for a mate. Will you allow me to court you?"
The two males scowled thunderously at him, while the female arched a brow ridge at him before smiling indulgently. "I will allow it… but I will make my own choice, when the time comes."
"Of course," he agreed; it was always the female's choice. "And now I would give you one more courting gift," as he held out the obsidian pendant. "Would you wear this, even if only for tonight?"
"For tonight," she agreed, as he placed it in her hand; the obsidian glinted in the moonlight like her lustrous black mane. She hung it around her neck, and Kukulcan couldn't help grinning. He'd keep the pendant's magical properties a secret for the moment; he wanted the sight of her first sunrise to be a surprise for her. A glorious surprise indeed!
He was sure that once she experienced the world by day and saw how beautiful it was, she'd want to keep the pendant and keep experiencing the day with him. Spending more time with him, and less with her other suitors… and if he properly courted her the whole while, she'd probably choose him for a mate before the next solstice!
Yes, his life was very good indeed. And it was about to get better…
Cacao – a bittersweet drink made from ground-up cocoa beans
Pulque – an alcoholic beverage made from fermented sap of the maguey plant
Uinal – mayan 'month', twenty days long