The history of questions

Versión en castellano aquí


It’s getting cold in these mountains.

Ana María and mario have come with me to this exploration, 10 years before January’s sunrise.

Both of them just joined the guerrilla, and I, infantry liutenant then, had to teach me what others had taught me: to live in the mountains.

Yesterday, I saw old Antonio for the first time. We both lied. He told me that he was going to see his cornfield; me, that I was hunting. We both knew the other one was lying and we both knew that we knew.

I left Ana María in charge of the exploration and I went back close to the river to see if I could place in the map with the clisimetre a very high hill there was in front of me, and to see if I saw old Antonio again. He must have thought the same thing, because he appeared around the same spot we had bumped into each other before.

Like he did yesterday, old Antonio sits on the floor, charges from a huapac of green moss and starts rolling a cigarette. I sit in front of him and put on my pipe.
Old Antonio starts:
‘You’re not hunting’.

I answer: ‘And you’re not going to your cornfield’. Something makes me address him as ‘usted’, with respect, to this man of an undefined age and a face as leathery as the cedar’s skin, a man I see for the second time in my life.

Old Antonio smiles and adds: ‘I’ve heard about you. In the cattle routes it is said you’re bandits. In my village, people feel uneasy thinking you’re around here”.
‘And you, do you think we’re bandits?’, I ask. Old Antonio lets go a big spiral of smoke, coughs and shakes his head ‘no’. I feel encouraged and I ask him another question. ‘What do you think we are?’
‘I’d rather you tell me’, old Antonio answers, and stares into my eyes.
‘It’s a long story’, I say, and I start telling him about Zapata and Villa and the revolution and the land and injustice, hunger, ignorance, sickness and repression and everything. I finish with a ‘and then, we are the Zapatista Army of National liberation’. I wait for a signal in old Antonio’s face, who didn’t stop staring at me during my speech.
‘Tell me more about that Zapata’, he says, after some smoke and cough.
I start with Anenecuilco, y follow with the Plan of Ayala, the military campaign, the organization of the peoples, Chinameca’s betrayal. Old Antonio still looks at me as I finish my story.

‘It wasn’t like that’, he says. I look surprise, and I can’t but mumble: ‘No?’.’No’, old Antonio insists, ‘I’m going to tell you the real story of that Zapata’.

With tobacco and “doblador”, old Antonio starts a story that joins and mixes up old and new times, as the smoke of my pipe and his cigarette mix up.

‘Many stories ago, when the first gods, the ones who made the world, were stil hanging around at night, it is said there were two gods, Ik’al and Votán.
Two that were one. Turning one around you could see the other, turning the other you could see the one. They were opposites.

One was light as a morning in May by the river. The other was dark, as a cold night in a cave. They were the same. Both of them were one, because one made the other.
But they didn’t walk, those two gods that were one always stayed, without moving. ‘What do we do then?’, they asked. ‘A life like this, like we are, is sad’, the two that were one saddened in their being. ‘The night never ends’, Ik’al said. ‘The day never ends’, Voltán said. ‘Let’s walk’, the one that was two said. ‘How?’, the other asked. ‘Where to?’, the one asked. And they saw that they moved quite a lot, first to ask how, then to ask where. The one that were two was glad when they saw how much they moved. They wanted to move both at the same time and they couldnt. ‘How do we do it then?’. And first one did it and the the other, and they moved a little more and they realised that if one did it first and then the other, they could move, so they agreed that to move, first moved one and then the other, and they started moving and none remembers who moved first to start moving, because they were so glad they were moving. ‘What does it matter who did it first if we’re moving already’, the two gods who were the same said, and the laughed, and the first agreement was to danced and they danced, one step one, one step the other, and they danced for a while because they were glad to have found each other.
After, they got tired of dancing and looked for something to do, and they saw that the first question of ‘how to move?’ brought the answer of ‘together but separated in an agreement’, and the question didn’t matter because they realised they were already moving, and then another question came when they saw there were two paths: the first one was very short, and right there, and they could se that it ended very soon. And they liked so much the feeling of walking in their feed that they quickly said that they didn’t want to walk the short path and agreed to walk the long one. They were about to start walking it when the answer of what path to walk brought another question: ‘Where does this path lead to?’. They took a while to think the answer, and one suddenly came with the answer that only if they walked the long path they would know where it lead to, because right how they were they were never know.

So the one that was two said: ‘Let’s walk it, then’, and they started walking, first one, and then the other. And then they realised that it took a long time to walk the long path, and another question came: ‘How will we do to walk for a long time?’. And they thought for a while and then Ik’al said clearly that he didn’t know how to walk during the day, and Votán said that he was afraid to walk during the night, and they cried for a long time. After the long wining ended, they agreed and saw that Ik’al could walk during the night and Votán could walk during the day, so Ik’al walked Votán at night, and Votán walked Ik’al at daytime, and then they got the answer on how to walk all the time.
Since then, the gods walk with questions and never stop, never arrive and never go. And so true men and women learnt that questions serve to keep walking, not to stay still. And, since, then, true men and women ask in order to walk, to arrive they say goodbye and to leave they say hi. They’re never still’.

I stay biting the short mouthpiece of the pipe, waiting for old Antonio to keep going but he doesn’t look like he intends to.

Fearing to break something very important, I ask: ‘And Zapata?’

Old Antoni smiles: ‘You already learned that in order to know and to walk, you mast ask’. he coughs and lights up another cigarette that I don’t know when he rolled, and among the smoke that comes from his lips, the words fall like seeds to the ground:
‘That Zapata appeared here in the mountains. He wasn’t born, they say. He just appeared. They say he’s Ik’al and Votán that arrived here to stop in their long way and, to avoid frightening the good people, they became just one.
Because after walking together for that long a time, Ik’al and Votán learnt that they were the same and they could become just one during the day and the night, and when they arrived here they became one and named themselves Zapata, and Zapata said that he had arrived here and here he would find the answer of where the long path lead to, and he said sometimes he would be light and sometimes he would be darkness, but that he would be the same one, Votán Zapata and Ik’al Zapata, white Zapata and black Zapata, and that they were both the same path for true men and women.

Old antonio takes out of his backpack a little nylon back. Inside, there is very old picture, from 1910, of Emiliano Zapata.
In Zapata’s left hand there’s a sabre, by his waist.
In the right one, he has a carbine, two chinstraps cross his chest, and a black and white sash crosses it from left to right.
His feet are like he’s staying still or walking, and in his eyes something says ‘here I am’, or ‘here I go’.
There are two stairs. In one, that comes from the dark, you can see more zapatistas with dark-skinned faces, as if they came from de deep of something, in the other stairs, that is lighted, there’s no one, and you can see where it goes or where it comes from.

I would like if I said that I noticed all those detailes. It was old Antonio who told me about them.
Behind the picture you could read:

Gral. Emiliano Zapata, jefe del ejército suriano.

Gen. Emiliano Zapata, commander in chief of the southern army.

Le Général Emiliano Zapata, Chef de l’Armée du Sud.

  1. 1910. Photo by: Agustín V. Casasola.

Old Antonio says: ‘I’ve asked this picture many questions. That was how I arrived here’.
He caughs and throws the butt of the cigarette. He gives me the picture ‘Here’, he says, ‘so you lern to ask questions… and to walk’.

‘It is better to say goodbye when you arrive. That way, it’s not so painful when someone goes’, old Antonio says, waving his hand to say that he goes, that is, that he is coming.

Since then, old Antonio says hi with a ‘goodbye’ and says goodbye raising his hand and leaving with an ‘I’m coming’.

Excerpt from Stories of Old Antonio, by Subcomandante Marcos


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