Bryan D. Price ~ The Conquest of New Spain

He was hun­gry for news. It was cold and he was read­ing Wittgenstein. Wondering if a weed was a tree. If all hous­es were hous­es. If he, in fact, was him­self. Some peo­ple had been avoid­ing him. Refusing his entreaties. Leaving him in the lurch. The world owed him noth­ing. These peo­ple were not his friends. Friends, he thought, had noth­ing to do with it. He would keep read­ing. Keep being cold. This was a sto­ry, he thought, not a poem. It was decid­ed­ly not a poem, but a nar­ra­tive that changes over time. Or a frame that gets added to lit­tle by lit­tle until it is no longer a frame but some­thing else he wouldn’t dare to call the house of soli­tude. It was cold and the dog licked her paws and he found a receipt in the book he was read­ing. The book was pur­chased at Moe’s on May 18, 2001. It was $1.62 with tax. In 2001 the sales tax was appar­ent­ly eight-per­cent in Berkeley. The day was Friday, the time 1:32 PM. He knew he left Berkeley lat­er that year. He was in Pittsburgh on September 11th. He was work­ing in a Squirrel Hill Starbucks that morn­ing. He always worked the morn­ing shift. He was old­er than the oth­ers by a year or two, but at that age it made a big dif­fer­ence. People kept com­ing in with more and more grotesque tales of burn­ing and destroyed build­ings. He didn’t believe it until he got home and turned on the tele­vi­sion. He still can’t bear to watch that footage. These peo­ple, he thought, these so-called friends could get in touch and tell him where he stood. They could at least do that. Why, he thought, did he buy The Conquest of New Spain at Moe’s on Telegraph Avenue in late spring, 2001. He was tak­ing cours­es at the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege (called Vista then). He was try­ing to bet­ter him­self. Trying to build up his intel­lect. Women, he thought, pre­ferred intel­lec­tu­al men. Women, he thought, would like him more if he talked to them about Montezuma and Cortes and the peo­ple of Tzompantzinco. Women, he thought, would let him gaze into their eyes if either he knew a thing or two about the past or saw him car­ry­ing around a black Penguin Classics pock­et­book with a Zapotec fig­ure on the cov­er. It wasn’t the kind of thing a dil­letante would be seen car­ry­ing. He was always think­ing about women then. Not sex, but women. Not women, but com­pan­ion­ship and mutu­al affec­tion. He want­ed to sleep with them. Not sleep with as a euphemism for sex, but actu­al­ly slum­ber togeth­er and wake up in the same bed with. He remem­bered two or three of them. He remem­bered tiki bars and bars with old license plates and can­dy wrap­pers and busi­ness cards nailed to the walls. He remem­bered drink­ing scotch and soda and going out­side to smoke. And if it was rain­ing, he remem­bered smok­ing beneath awnings or eaves and look­ing at the rain fall in sheets. Those were hap­py times. Times with no begin­ning or end, which is to say inno­cent times. He noticed how the sky had no clouds in it. He could see two old­er women hug­ging right out­side his win­dow. Were they friends? Sisters? He had no idea but they were either gen­uine­ly hap­py to have seen each oth­er or gen­uine­ly sad to see each oth­er go. They clung to each oth­er, reluc­tant to part. One of them watched the oth­er get into a blue car. Pittsburgh was cold the win­ter after 9/11. Much cold­er than any­thing he’d ever expe­ri­enced. The steps froze and he slipped and fell after a night of heavy drink­ing. They had a fight, a falling out. The snow didn’t melt for months. They lived on the top floor of a three sto­ry house. The man who lived on the ground floor had a bumper stick­er on his car that depict­ed Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes uri­nat­ing on the words Bin Laden. In Pittsburgh he would fre­quent a ceme­tery so mas­sive that huge thor­ough­fares were allowed to go through it. There were deer and corpses in the ground, some of whom had been born in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. The deer would leap and run and eat leaves with heavy aque­ous eyes that, if he had a cam­era, he would have tak­en pic­tures of. It was wood­ed and had great stone crypts with yel­low moss grow­ing on them that made him think of pet­ro­glyphs. When did he switch from Wittgenstein to Bernal Diaz. Why did he have these books out. Why was he look­ing through them. Was he read­ing them or just being with them. He thought at one point they’d call and let him know if he was up or down. He was down and out. They didn’t need to tell him, but he want­ed to hear it from them, hear their voic­es, the catch­es in their throats. He want­ed to hear them breath­ing in silent sad­ness on the oth­er end of the line. He want­ed to be con­soled. No one con­soled any­body any­more. Nobody cared. Everybody seemed to think that even the most min­i­mal con­cil­ia­to­ry ges­tures were signs of weak­ness. There was, he thought, no more kind­ness left in the world. The Wittgenstein was pur­chased at a thrift store in Long Beach twen­ty-some­thing years after 9/11. It was a dol­lar. He bought it along with a book about J. Edgar Hoover. He liked apho­risms or the idea of apho­risms. There was some­thing attrac­tive about sen­tences or para­graphs that were self-con­tained. That were part of a larg­er whole, but not explic­it­ly or sequen­tial­ly inte­grat­ed as it is with unnum­bered para­graphs designed to inter­pen­e­trate or flow into one anoth­er. He liked the idea of not going in order, of there being no order. When peo­ple leave you high and dry they don’t always know what they’re doing to you or how you’ll take it. They’re think­ing about their chil­dren or their children’s chil­dren. Or their gar­dens. Not their gar­dens but their yards which need to be weed­ed or mowed or oth­er­wise tend­ed to. They’re think­ing about their own lives. Their own inner-lives. They’re plan­ning trips or orga­niz­ing the details of a loved-one’s death. They’re sit­ting with the mor­ti­cian in his lit­tle office watch­ing the wind whip the sand across the high­way. He watched a crow land on his car and eat what looked like a piece of cake but was prob­a­bly some­thing else. He won­dered if it was bad luck to have a crow land on your car, even if it might be eat­ing cake. Crows gath­ered on his street because there was a dump­ster near­by. For some rea­son he couldn’t imag­ine crows being female, they all seemed male to him. Perhaps it was because crows seemed hos­tile in their move­ments. Or the way in which they seemed to bring to mind death and killing After a long peri­od of lis­ten­ing to the wind chimes and feel­ing the sun on his feet, he looked at the book and real­ized what it real­ly was. It was some kind of totem. A thing that was a book but also some­thing more than a book. It was small and smooth and soft. It was pli­able or mal­leable in a way that gave him great tac­tile plea­sure. It wasn’t dry and falling apart like his copies of Crime and Punishment or Of Plymouth Plantation whose pages would scat­ter and break apart like leaves if he were to open them. It had the qual­i­ty of aging with­out ever threat­en­ing to dis­ap­pear. There was a warmth to it as an object that he could not describe, though he knew the sub­ject mat­ter could be cold in its depic­tion of vio­lent con­quest. He opened it, and as if see­ing it for the first time, there was a name and date inscribed on the inside of the first page—Mirielle Broucke, 1986. She had used blue ink, this Mirielle, that in the light of day looked more roy­al blue than navy. More blue-blue than blue-black. When he looked her up he was sur­prised to find that she was a pro­fes­sor of elec­tri­cal and com­put­er engi­neer­ing at the University of Toronto. It was the right Mirielle Broucke. He knew this because, accord­ing to Wikipedia, she had got­ten a Masters-Degree from Berkeley in 1987. Originally she was from Texas. Her father was a Belgian immi­grant who taught engi­neer­ing at the University of Texas. What, he won­dered, did this engi­neer want with Bernal Diaz. She must have got­ten rid of it when she moved to Toronto. Another cold north­ern city. Her book was now his. They shared some­thing, a kind of link or kin­ship. A link or kin­ship that, because of her sig­na­ture in roy­al blue ink, could nev­er be bro­ken. She was stuck with him or the ghost of him. And he was stuck with her name writ­ten in a child­like script that made his heart hurt. It did make him a lit­tle sad that she didn’t find the same totemic qual­i­ty in the book. That she would have turned her back on it and sold it to Moe’s for sev­en­ty-five or eighty cents. It made him like her slight­ly less. This book had come with him to Pittsburgh and then to San Francisco, where he moved between three sep­a­rate rooms or apart­ments (one by the beach, anoth­er in the Tenderloin, and yet anoth­er in low­er Nob Hill). And then to Claremont and San Diego. It had been with him through thick and thin. For one rea­son or anoth­er, he trea­sured this book. And then it occurred to him that there was a rift between him and her. A minor one that may, in the end, become major. He was a human­ist and (accord­ing to Wikipedia) she had sum­mer jobs with General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin. Warmongers, he thought. No dif­fer­ent from Bernal Diaz and Cortez the Killer. Perhaps some­one at General Dynamics bought the book for her and said, look through this and behold the most advanced weapon­ry the six­teenth cen­tu­ry had to offer. Dogs and hors­es and iron and gun­pow­der. Maybe, for a cer­tain kind of per­son, it went with Machiavelli and Lao Tzu and Marcus Aurelius. And then he noticed how she didn’t under­line a thing. Not a sin­gle pas­sage or sen­tence. Every time he opened it though, it was to the same page, 219, the last sen­tence of which he’d read hun­dreds of times. It went, “So, with luck on our side, we bold­ly entered the city of Tenochtitlan or Mexico on 8 November in the year of our lord, 1519.” It must, he thought, have been some kind of sign. A call to be patient with the uni­verse, or else defen­sive against encroach­ments. Someone or thing telling him that the world is a cru­el and dan­ger­ous place. That we have no idea what is com­ing from beyond the sky or clouds. That we are not the pro­tec­torate of vast oceans or inhos­pitable jun­gles. That even gods might be evil and call for our mis­er­able sub­mis­sion to their awe­some pow­er. That a knock on the door may bring a thou­sand diverse things, one or two of which may be death or destruction.


Bryan D. Price is the author of A Plea for Secular Gods: Elegies (What Books, 2023) His sto­ries and poems have appeared or are forth­com­ing in Santa Monica Review, Diagram, American Chordata, Mississippi Review, Boulevard, and else­where. He lives in San Diego, California.