Lord Tlacuache Brings Fire to Man
from Along the River: An Anthology of Voices from the Rio Grande Valley
Lord Tlacuache, the Great Opossum, ruled this land in ages past, when animals still spoke and mankind had not yet usurped the earth. He was a kindly king who governed by virtue of his clever mind, and nothing pleased him more than to see his subjects happy.
Tlacuache, in fact, once used his nimble hands to dig deep into a mature maguey plant and draw forth the delicious sap waiting within. Storing this aguamiel in gourds, he discovered fermentation, and the joy-bringing drink we call pulque was invented. Soon animals up and down his vast kingdom were producing the beverage, and in celebration Lord Tlacuache went on a binge, stumbling from cantina to cantina, leaving behind a meandering set of trails that eventually became the rivers of Mexico, including this, our Río Bravo.
Most creatures were content with the quiet ebb and flow of the world, safe and at ease within Lord Tlacuache’s broad demesne.
Except for men.
It was not enough that food aplenty was within Man’s grasp: he wanted more.
It was not enough that prey surrendered themselves to Man according to the natural order: Man wanted to cook his prey.
Man had discovered fire when lightning stuck and set a tree or two alight, but he was clumsy and greedy and stupid and could not keep the flame alive.
In vain Man rushed after the sun as it plunged each evening past the edge of the earth into Mictlán, the vast and daunting underworld. He hoped to catch a falling ray of heat to take back to his cave.
But all Man’s foolish plans came to naught, so in desperation he came before Lord Tlacuache.
“We are cold and our food is raw. Please help us, clever and revered opossum!”
“What happened to the fire you got from that burning tree?” Tlacuache asked.
“We fell asleep after drinking pulque and let the coals die out. Now we shiver and our stomachs ache.”
Tlacuache looked upon mankind and was moved to pity. He did not want a single one of his subjects to suffer or be unhappy. But obtaining fire was a terrifying task. He would be putting his very life at risk. Still, his heart yearned to bring Man joy, so he agreed.
“I will bring you fire, but you must take better care of it this time.”
Man bent his head in shamed reverence and swore to keep the flame alive.
Tlacuache first gathered his gourds of pulque and then set off toward the West, following the sun as it slipped down the sky. At the edge of the world, the brave lord of this land snuck quietly down the path the sun’s passing had left, using his tail and nimble hands to navigate the straitest patches, playing dead whenever a skeletal guardian of Mictlán happened to come along.
Soon he nearly caught up with the sun, but the flaming disk was accompanied by Xolotl, the massive, toothy hound of hell. Tlacuache had no desire to confront that growling psychopomp, so he stayed out of
sight, following the pair as they made their way deeper into the bowels of Mictlán.
Finally the sun reached the hearth of the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli, and Xolotl left to guide more souls to their final abode. The fire god began to tend to the needs of the sun, feeding its heat with wood and coal, giving it some needed rest.
As if he had been invited, Tlacuache scampered up to Xiuhtecuhtli and gave a little bow. “My Lord,” he intoned.
The fire god, who was also the patron of kings and brave warriors, looked surprised to see the opossum, but recognized him immediately.
“Tlacuache! What brings you to the depths of Mictlán, Lord of All Creatures? Did you suddenly die without my knowledge?”
“No, not at all! It’s just that your last visit was several years ago. I decided to wait no longer, but to call upon you here in your own abode. I’ve brought you some pulque from my own royal stores. I think you’ll find it quite tasty.”
“Pulque? Let me try some.”
And the two of them sat before the hearth and drank gourd after gourd. Soon the Xiuhtecuhtli, unaccustomed to the power of fermented aguamiel, succumbed to its effects and fell into a deep sleep, snoring contentedly.
A smile on his face, Tlacuache looked around for a bit of wood with which to carry fire back to Man. But the sun had devoured it all, so the clever opossum thought and thought until he realized what he would have to do.
Taking several more draughts of pulque to shore up his courage, he dipped his agile tail into the hearth, holding it still until the fur at its tip was blazing. Then, driven by pain and urgency, he rushed back up to the land of the living, passing the ascending sun and the spirits of warriors who guarded its rise to zenith. He reached the dwelling place of mankind and thrust his burning tail into a pile of dry wood, rekindling for his neediest subjects the flame they so desired.
Man wept for joy at the sight. He immediately set to feasting the greatness of his lord, dancing and singing hymns of praise to the magnificent, resourceful opossum.
Lord Tlacuache, nursing his now hairless tail, looked on the revelry with love and satisfaction. For now, Man was happy, and the loss of fur was a small price to pay to have brought that felicity to any creature.
The gods of the five suns soon discovered Tlacuache’s theft, and in anger they rushed to the opossum’s demesne, determined to end his meddlesome life.
But when they found him, he was already dead, stiff on his back, his bald tail cold as the grave.
Their anger spent, the gods muttered their mournful respects and returned to Mictlán.
And Lord Tlacuache, who had of course been playing dead the whole time, sat up and smiled at the sun.