The Noble Savages

By Andrew Sharp

“It’s miserable,” the knight said. This seemed logical. It was about noon, 85 degrees or so with no breeze, and he was completely encased in steel armor that must have felt like a frying pan after hours in the sun. He was trying to chew on a greasy leg of lamb, but his visor kept slipping down. Sweat rolled down his face and disappeared down somewhere inside the armor, where it was free to go wherever it wanted.

“Hot as hell,” the knight said.

“What is hell?” I asked.

“Where bad English go after they die,” he said. “Fire. They burn up I think. I’m a little hazy on it myself. You’ll have to ask one of the elders. Anyway, it can’t be any worse than this.”
His costume looked authentically English, and he had the characteristic low cheekbones and pale skin of his race. The effect was so genuine that he looked perfectly capable of getting on a horse and using his long sword — currently leaning up against the water fountain — had an Army company come sweeping in just then.

I asked him how he got into doing the knight act, and he said he was born on the reservation. He got a college degree and worked in a city a few hours away but he liked to come back and reconnect with his heritage and catch up with his friends.

At that point Emerald came back and dragged me off to look at some displays.

I’m not sure why I went to the English fair in the first place. Mostly because of Emerald, who is a little weird but balances that out with being very good looking and fun to be around. One of her many interests is a fascination with English culture, which complements her enthusiasm for weird Eastern religious ideas. She feels they are simple and noble.

I’m not interested in the simple and noble religion but I like history too, especially in the right company. I had never thought much about the indigenous people here in New Mexico — there aren’t many of them left anyway. Nobody in my family ever went to a fair. I only remember my dad talking about the natives once, after a riot way up in the mountains on one of the smaller reservations. He scoffed at their outburst and said they should move on, quit trying to hang onto their dying culture, quit being alcoholics and join the modern world, that it’s not 1490 any more. My dad isn’t very politically correct but I guess most people would agree with him, although probably with more tact. What happened, happened, and feeling guilty isn’t going to bring the old times back.

I wished the knight luck surviving the heat, and Emerald and I wandered through the display stalls. There were rolls of old-fashioned linen and wool cloth, and weaving displays, and pottery stands, and a man with an impressive collection of antique iron tools.

Most of the stalls weren’t selling traditional items at all but cheap miniature replicas, little sword toothpicks and miniature knight statues like the ones you see guarding the entrance to people’s driveways, and shirts with coats of arms on them, and chess sets, and keychains with crosses.

We had to push through the crowds of tourists, who were kicking up a lot of dust and all seemed to be shouting to each other. It was very slow going. There were a few people covered from head to toe in flowing gowns, and these were supposedly the natives, although some of them had suspiciously dark skin. The English style seemed to have been built heavily around the gown theme. It was either a robe that covered every inch of skin and then some, or, bizarrely, men wearing close-fitting tights that left little to the imagination.

You had to talk loudly to be heard, because it wasn’t just the people shouting; they were having a livestock sale of some kind with native English animals like pigs and sheep, and they were bleating and squealing like there was a riot going on. The dust they were contributing to the cloud had too many overtones of feces for my taste. I hate to say it, but I see where the old stereotype of the English being dirty and undisciplined comes from. They seemed completely unbothered by all the chaos and sweat and manure.

The smell of the English animals once they reached the cooking stage was much more pleasant, and, I thought, refreshingly more quiet. We bought a leg of lamb to split and it was good, if a little basic. Just a hunk of meat on a bone, without a lot of spices added. Emerald bought a dense pudding of some kind that I tried one bite of. One bite was enough. She ate it all and pretended to enjoy it.

Judging from the available fare the English had a mostly bland and simple diet back then, with some basic meats and smoked cod and lots of heavy, grain-based foods. Now, like everyone else, they’ve adapted their cooking to foods the settlers brought, like potatoes and tomatoes and chocolate.

Emerald had the connoisseur’s scorn of the baubles on sale for the tourists, but was absorbed with the genuine displays and delighted by the acrobats and jugglers who set up in more spacious areas.

I was interested too when we stopped to watch the archers. According to their legends, which Emerald shared with me in detail, the English archers of old could shoot 100 yards or more, so accurately, it seems, that they would routinely shoot one arrow and then split it in half with their next one. Their skill seemed to have fallen off somewhat in modern times, and their first arrows had nothing to fear from later arrivals. But I was impressed with the strength it obviously took for the archers to pull back bows that were as tall as the archers themselves, and the power of the arrows as they buzzed off to the distant targets demanded attention. I would not have liked to have been in the suit of chain mail one archer was shooting at. Maybe their technology was more sophisticated than we realize now.

We were also both intrigued by the display case we found when we moved on from the archery exhibition, which had a few scraps of manuscripts and books. The woman in charge of the display, not an English herself but a professor from a local university, told us the scraps were extremely valuable and rare. Most of them were copies of the originals, she said, made by a few visionary priests who had tried to preserve some of the history and lore even as the rest of the conquerors and settlers had burned all they could find.

“But why did they burn them?” Emerald demanded, shocked.
The professor shook her head. “They saw them as dangerous lies, religious heresy. Also, they wanted to destroy the culture of the natives so they would be easier to enslave. It was a tragedy.”

“They thought they were so much better,” Emerald said. “Unbelievable.”

Emerald seemed to be forgetting that she was one of the conquerors herself. I could see why an archeologist or a professor might get upset about some ancient books being lost, but there were a lot of scrolls burned in the sack of Mexico City, too. These things happened before our more enlightened modern times. The world would keep on turning without some old English folk tales. I refrained from pointing this out to Emerald because I didn’t want to get into a long argument or be called a racist.

I dragged Emerald away from her mutual indignation fest with the professor to go see an exhibition of medieval farming. She was still grouchy when we got there, but she cheered up quickly as we watched a poor man dressed in rags trying to break up packed soil with a “plow” pulled by a team of oxen. The plow was more of a pointed stick with an iron point. The man looked like he was working about as hard as the oxen, and he didn’t have a great view while he did it, either.

Emerald explained to me how simple and environmentally friendly it was, without any artificial fertilizers, and how the peasants only grew what they needed to live in simple, small plots of land, which they farmed together. This built strong communities, she said, not like our disjointed society today with its industrial agriculture.
I was getting tired of this constant knocking of modern Western culture by now and I said it was no wonder they only grew what they needed, with that kind of brutal labor required to scratch up a little loose dirt, and they probably lived miserable lives and died young.

Emerald looked at me with sympathy. She explained that they weren’t afraid of hard work, they loved it, and they got strong and healthy from the exercise. I looked dubiously at the man struggling with the plow. He did not look like a man who was loving what he did and getting healthier doing it. He looked like a man who needed a tractor.

Before we left Emerald wanted to see one of their religious rituals. She dragged me over to the ruined temple, where, the program informed us, there would be a genuine religious ceremony held by indigenous practitioners who still “practiced a simple and beautiful faith, in harmony with god and their environment.” This was just the kind of mystical stuff that Emerald loved. For her, a religious idea only had to be Eastern in origin and it was profound.
The crumbling walls and pillars of the temple cut sharp shadows out of the afternoon sun across the lawn where a large crowd of tourists was gathered around a few natives and their priest and a collection of idols.

The priest, dressed in the obligatory flowing robe, this one of appropriate religious soberness, began chanting in a language that the program informed me was not English, but a more ancient sacred language used for religious rites. It was a little like our veneration of the Toltecs, I thought.

The priest sprinkled some water and read out of a book, and then said some more sacred words, and then several of the natives started singing a wild, pagan kind of music. I might have been unimpressed anywhere else but standing there among the old stones the music had an ancient weight, an almost dangerous power as if we could hear the voice of the English god, mourning. I glanced at Emerald and her eyes were partly closed and she was swaying a little. I realized I had let myself get sucked into the mood and scolded myself for my superstition.

After the music the proceedings went on with a lot of prayers and incantations and burning of incense. The priest did a little ceremony with some bread and wine and hand waving, which I had trouble following. At this point, for the benefit of us outsiders, he explained in Mexican that the supreme deity was now physically present in the bread and wine. From what I could understand, the natives were going to partake in his power by eating the deity. I almost laughed at the absurdity. They combine all the gods into one supergod, and then, they put him in a piece of bread and eat him. They must think they were turning into little mini-gods themselves. But after I thought about it, it struck me that the ceremony had its similarities with the ritual cannibalism we used to do centuries ago, and was even more like our ritual eating of meat as a stand-in for the human sacrifice now. Just different ways of trying to access the power and keep the universe balanced.

They wrapped it up with another song and then the crowd got noisy again and went off to buy some keychains.

I had to admit that it had been an interesting day, probably good for me. It almost seemed like a shame that this culture had been reduced to little pockets of survivors stuck between the past and the modern world, on tiny reservations. Despite the burst of cultural color in the re-enactments, it’s mostly all gone, boiled down into souvenirs, stories about bows and arrows, and old ax heads that turn up when they plow the fields.

We were back in England City by evening. I dropped Emerald off at her house, drove to my building and took the elevator up to my 11th floor apartment. I had a wonderful hot shower and relaxed on a soft couch with a bottle of pulque, with the air conditioning helping me forget the summer heat. Out my window I could see the busy downtown with trains running through and headlights making square patterns through the streets, and the Great Pyramid looming up over everything.
Despite the mistakes, I couldn’t wish that New Mexico had never existed or that we lived in some kind of primitive natural state.

The progress of history is inevitable.

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