I would like to tell you a story, one I have told no one before. It is something that happened to me over 60 years ago, when I was just fifteen. Let me introduce myself firest. My name is Juan Jaime Domenech and my story concerns myself and my father, a surveyor like his father before him. His father, my grandfather, had left Spain to live and work in Mexico, and my father had stayed on after he died. I was intending to follow the same profession.
My story starts when my father was hired to survey an area in Mexico from the Gulf of Campeche, south across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, toward the southern Sierra Madre mountains. He felt the trip would be quite straight forward so he took me along with him: ‘To get a feel of the real thing,’ he told me.
We took a steamer from Veracruz and travelled south perhaps 100 miles to a small coastal town. There we made our final preparations. Father fixed the route of our survey, due south from the town, and drew it on a large map. The area around the town had been mapped but the interior on the map was blank. It just showed the highlands of the Mexican Plateau and the southern Sierra Madre mountains. It was this blank area we were to survey.
He pinned the map on a board in our hotel – the only hotel in the town – and let it be known that we wanted a team of porters to come with us on the survey. Early the following morning there were more than twenty men outside the hotel, all wanting to be part of the survey. Father selected twelve and began the last stages of our preparations.
Two days later we set off, my father and I carrying the survey equipment, our porters carrying our stores for a ten week trek. At first we followed the clearly marked trail leading south from the town, travelling through country that was wild and varied. Sometimes it was green and lush; then it would become rocky and dry – the hot sun reflecting from the barren rocks.
Our porters worked well and we made good time. Sometimes father stopped and made readings and notes but this was just to check the map details that existed. It was not part of our survey; he was just ensuring that we kept going due south.
By the end of the second week the trail had vanished and we were into the unchartered territory. Our measurement stops were now after each hour of trecking. At each stop my father set up his equipment and took readings from the four points of the compass. Temperature was checked and altitude calculated. He made notes of the type of country through which we had passed, and the plant and animal life we could see. At night when we made camp he would write up all the notes in his big survey journal while the porters prepared the meal.
We were into our third week when one of the porters came to see my father. He asked a simple, direct, question: ‘Señor, where are you leading us?’
When my father indicated the way ahead, still due south toward the rising mountains, the questioner became quite agitated.
‘Señor’, he said, ‘we are employed to follow you and work for you. To do as you wish of us. But we would prefer it if you would turn aside from this route you show us. If you do not, I fear, many will leave you and return to their homes.’
Father was surprised at this. It was totally against the Mexican Indian’s nature to threaten mutiny. ‘Why is that?’ he asked.
‘Señor Domenech, this route we follow will take us to the sacred Valley of Quetzacoatl. To approach the valley is to invoke the wrath of the great white god.’
My father did not laugh. Quetzacoatl was a powerful god of the Aztecs who reigned during the Golden Age before Hernán Cortés and his Spanish warriors had conquered the country. Quetzacoatl had disappeared leaving a promise to return. Father new the fear and respect for the god was bred deep in the Mexican Indians and that they would do nothing to risk the deity’s anger.
‘I understand’, he said. ‘My son and I will continue this part of the survey alone. You will all wait here for our return. Shall return within 14 days and then survey the area to the west of here.’
The Indian was pleased at father’s decision. Next morning they prepared our rations and stood and watched as we headed south.
On the second day of this part of our treck we started to climb through the foothills of the Sierra Madre. Father continued taking his readings after every hour and I prepared our evening meal while he wrote up his notes. It was the morning of our sixth day alone that we topped another scrub covered ridge and stopped in amazement.
Every other ridge we had topped had just presented us with another in the distance. This one presented us with a cultivated valley. Through a quirk of geology the valley had steeper sides than any others we had seen. Instead of being a dip between ridges it had a finite shape. The far side was a distinct wall of rock. To our left a small river rushed down a steep incline, almost as a waterfall, and then meandered gently across the flat valley floor to a lake that lay glistening in the sun away to our right. Along the banks of the river were neat fields. On each side of the river a white road wound through the fields, joining near a small bridge to become a single road leading into a village of white, flat topped Spanish style houses.
‘The Valley of Quetzacoatl’ I heard my father murmur.
It was then I noticed something else. Although the fields looked well-tended, there was no sign of movement anywhere in the valley. I mentioned it to my father. He shrugged his shoulders and looked up toward the sun. ‘The people will be taking siesta now. It will be warmer in the valley than it is here on the ridge. Come, let’s go down and see if we can meet the dwellers in Quetzacoatl’s valley’. With that he hitched his rucksack onto his shoulders and set off down the slope. After a few moments hesitation I followed him.
As we walked through the fields we could see stone-lined irrigation channels leading water from the river to every field. ‘This is the work of skilled men,’ father said as we walked. ‘No Indians I have known would do this.
’We turned a corner in the road and saw ahead of us a white cottage with Orange trees in the garden and a vine with bright yellow flowers growing all over the veranda. Almost as soon as we saw the cottage a man appeared in the doorway. As he looked around he saw us. For a long moment he stood still, then he went back into the cottage.
‘I have a feeling we shall soon find out what sort of people live in Quetzacoatl’s Valley Juan’, my father said unnecessarily. ‘Just stay calm. I have my rifle and pistol if we need them – just pray we don’t have to use them.’
We kept walking and were within twenty metres of the cottage when the man reappeared, closely followed by a second man. Father and I stopped in our tracks – both men were carrying guns.
‘Easy Juan’, my father warned.
But it wasn’t just the guns that caused us to stop – it was the men themselves. Both could have been stepping from the pages of a history book. They were short, stocky men with black, pointed beards. Each wore knee breeches and a white linen shirt open at the neck. One wore a broad red fabric belt; the other wore blue. On their feet were heavy leather shoes with large silver buckles. Neither wore a hat and their black hair was swept back and was just long enough to touch the collar.
As they walked toward us I saw their guns clearly, and each had a wisp of smoke coming from it. They were holding match-lock muskets. No one had used those since the middle of the seventeenth century!
They stopped and we faced each other – each pair unsure of the intentions of the other. My father was the first to act.
‘Buenos Dias, Señors’ he said, taking a step forward, his right hand held up, palm outward in the universal sign of peace.
Blue Belt started to lift his musket at father’s movement. Red Belt just eyed us both then returned the greeting. ‘Buenos Dias’.
‘You give us a strange welcome’, my father continued. ‘Are visitors always met in this way?’
The two men exchanged glances and muttered something to each other. Blue Belt nodded and stepped to one side, motioning with his match-lock that he wished us to walk through.
‘Better do as they wish Juan’ father said in a low voice. ‘I don’t know who is more surprised and nervous – them or us.’
I nodded. I was just too frightened to speak. The two men fell in behind us, guns still held ready for use. As we drew level with the cottage a voice from behind bade us stop. We stood in silence, then we both jumped as a single clear bugle note sounded from just behind us. The sound echoed and re-echoed around the valley. I turned to look and was just in time to see Blue Belt handing a silver bugle to an elderly woman dressed in clothes as dated as his.
He saw me looking and gestured with his musket. ‘Walk. Follow the road’. Their Spanish was unmistakable but very distinctive. It had a soft, lilting sound I had never heard before.
Father started to move. ‘Come on Juan. That was obviously a signal to the village. My guess is that there will be a reception committee waiting for us when we arrive.’
He was right. When we reached the village itself people lined the streets, watching as we walked ahead of the two men. The watchers all appeared to be men, and were dressed in the same dated style as our escorts. I also noticed that there were no children around. In any other village in Mexico a pavement gathering would bring children all around. But here, in this strange village of men with ancient muskets and old fashioned clothes, there were none to be seen.
As we entered the village our escorts from the cottage were replaced by two new men. Facing us when we reached the square in the middle of the village was a large, pitched roof, building with an impressive façade and a pair of huge carved doors. The doors were reached by a broad flight of snow white stone steps. On each side of each step stood a man wearing a shining metal breastplate and holding an ornate pike. They all stood to attention, facing forward, but I could sense their eyes were on us, watching our every step. At the top of the steps stood three men dressed in distinguished uniforms.
We reached the foot of the steps and the three men turned and went through the doors. Our new escorts motioned us up the steps, indicating we should follow the vanished dignitaries. As we entered the building both father and I stopped. After the bright sunlight the darkness inside seemed absolute. Our escorts obviously realised the difficulty and waited behind us. Slowly our eyes adjusted and we could see the three uniformed men sitting at a large table across the far end of the hall. From each end of their table extended longer, narrower tables. At each sat six men facing the centre of the three sided box. Our escort – Blue Belt – was among them. It was obviously a gathering of the village elders and councillors – and we were the cause.
The hall itself was cool and quiet. The high roof was supported by massive wooden beams. Narrow windows set high up the walls, at the very eves of the roof, let in light but not direct sunlight. The walls themselves were decorated with flags, standards and pennants, interspersed with polished breastplates and decorated armour. All were of sixteenth century design – guns from the time of Cortés.
I felt a nudge in my back and was pushed forward to stand with my father, facing the three men at the top table. They stood as we reached our appointed place. The men seated at the side tables followed their example and gave a stiff bow in our direction. All except the middle of the three at the top table then sat down. He remained standing and spoke to us.
‘Welcome Señors. We welcome you to our valley. I am told you are of our country. Is this true?’
‘We are Spanish,’ my father replied. ‘We have travelled here from Veracruz.’
‘Ah, the city of Cortés. We have stories of the city handed down from our forefathers.’ The man fell silent for a moment, then … ‘What is your name?’
‘Domenech. I am Jaime Domenech and this is my son, Juan.’
As my father announced our names a gasp came from all the men seated at the tables.
‘That is a true Spanish name señors. Have you and your family lived in the New World long?
‘My parents left Spain just after I was born. I have lived here in the country we call Mexico all my life,’ my father answered.
‘And what about your father’s ancestors?’ the man asked. ‘Where did they live?’
‘Many lived here in the Americas. Our family have always had close links with these lands. Two came to the New World with Cortés in 1517. One died in battle in 1521. The other also died, but later and we know not how. He commanded a troop of experienced soldiers into an unknown part of the Aztec empire. Nothing was ever heard of them again and they were presumed to have perished at the hands of the Indian warriors.’
The man’s face lit up. ‘You know your ancestors well señor.’
‘Our family have a long history. I am proud of that history,’ my father replied.
‘You should be Señor. You should be.’ The man stood there at the head of this strange gathering and nodded. ‘Yes, you should be proud,’ he repeated, almost to himself.
He fell silent. For a moment there was no sound in the hall. Then he turned and walked to the wall behind him. He stopped and stood against a large, light coloured panel in the centre of the wall. ‘Come Señor. Come here and learn the true story of your missing ancestor.’ He motioned for us to join him at the panel.
All the assembled village councillors stood as we walked round the tables to join the man.
‘Look,’ he said as we reached him. ‘Read and be proud of your ancestor.’ On it was carved, in sixteenth century Spanish, the story of the missing soldiers.
The stone panel told how the soldiers had been surprised and cut off by the Indians. They had spent many days defending themselves, always being forced toward the mountains. By sheer good fortune they had entered this valley and found, to their relief, that the Indians did not follow them. The valley was sacred to the Indian’s god Quetzacoatl.
The soldiers had decided to stay, recover from their long battle and wait for the Indians to go away. While they waited they built a chapel and carved their story on the stone we were now reading.
Father and I stood in silence. At the bottom of the panel was carved the name of the leader, Jaime Domenech, and the date – 1523.
It was the chief councillor who broke into our thoughts at last.
‘Now you know what happened to your ancestor. He did not die. He lived, and he and his men gave life to this valley, this village. The Indians did not go away. They camped outside the valley, making it impossible for Jaime Domenech and his soldiers to escape.’
Very soon they found that they did not want to escape. They liked the tranquillity of the valley. There were many Indian villages in the hills and mountains around. In time the Indian maidens came to the valley. The attraction of the strange fair skinned men overcame their fear of Quetzacoatl. In fact, they believed the newcomers were the children of Quetzacoatl, and they were pleased to come and live with them. They married the soldiers. More and more the Spanish and Indian bloods mixed. The children of these marriages were brought up in the traditions of old Spain. In time the population increased to over 600 souls.
‘Then the maidens stopped coming. The Indian tribes moved away. Slowly the numbers in the valley started to fall. We are now less than one hundred with few young men and no young women to continue our village. In a few more years our village will be empty; a home for ghosts and memories. It will be returned to Quetzacoatl. We had hoped that we would go without anyone ever knowing we had been here.
‘We are the first white men to visit this valley in all those years?’ My father’s voice was hushed.
The old man nodded. ‘Yes Señor. No man from Cortés’ force found the soldiers. The maidens that came never returned to their villages, so building on the fear of Quetzacoatl that kept the Indian warriors out. Everyone here can trace their ancestry to one of that first brave band; the band led by your ancestor Jaime Domenech.’
My father and I stood there silently, thinking about the life these people had led over the previous 400 years. At last my father spoke.
‘It is a strange story you tell, Señor. My son and I have many questions we would like to ask but that would be prying into your private history. You said you wished to leave this valley as you came, with no one knowing you have been here. We will respect that wish.’
He reached into the shoulder bag that lay at his feet. ‘All the notes I have made in coming to this valley of yours are in this book. I give it to you to do with as you wish. Your secret will remain safe with us. No one will ever find your valley because of us.’
With that, father handed his journal to the elder who took it with a smile.
‘Thank you’, was all he said.
We then left the valley, escorted by the same two men we first met. They took us past their cottage to the edge of the valley near where we had entered.
As we stood on the ridge looking back to the edge of the valley and the village my father turned to the two men.
‘One question, if I may, my friends. What is the name of your chief councillor; the man we have been talking with in the large hall?’
It was councillor Blue Belt who replied in that strange lilting tongue so like, and yet so unlike, our own.
‘His name, Señor, is Jaime Domenech. A direct descendent of the leader of the band of soldiers who first came to this valley. You and he are of the same family Señor.’