The Plumed Serpent

by D. H. Lawrence

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Kate Leslie is the widow of an Irish patriot. Restless after her husband’s death, she moves to Mexico with Owen Rhys, her American cousin. Mexico, however, oppresses Kate. Dark and secretive, the arid land weighs upon her spirit like a sense of doom. She sees it as a country of poverty, brutality, and bloodshed.

Owen and one of his friends take her to a bullfight. It is a distressing experience, for to her the ritual of death is like modern Mexico, vulgar and cruel, without muster or passion. She is unable to endure the spectacle and the reek of warm blood and announces that she is returning alone to the hotel. A downpour of rain begins as she is leaving the arena, and she is forced to wait in the exit tunnel with a crowd whose speech and gestures fill her with alarm. She is rescued from her predicament by a small, authoritative man in uniform who introduces himself as General Cipriano Viedma. A Mexican Indian, he is impassive and withdrawn yet vitally alert. They talk while waiting for the automobile he had summoned to take Kate to her hotel, and she feels unaccountably drawn to him.

Mrs. Norris, the widow of a former English ambassador, invites Kate and Owen to her house for tea the next day. The general and his friend, Don Ramón Carrasco, are among the guests. Don Ramón is a landowner and a distinguished scholar. There are reports of a strange happening near his estate at Sayula. A naked man is supposed to have risen from the Lake of Sayula and tell the villagers that Quetzalcoatl and the old gods of Mexico are soon to return to Earth. Don Ramón promised an investigation. The story appeals to Kate’s Celtic imagination; she wants to go to Sayula to see the lake from which the Aztec gods are to be reborn.

Kate and Owen dine with Ramón before his return to Sayula. The guests talk about Mexican politics and the happening at the lake. One impassioned young man declares that only a great miracle, like the return of Quetzalcoatl, could save Mexico. Cipriano seldom speaks but sits, his eyes black and unfathomable, looking from Kate to his host. After dinner, he and Kate walk in the garden. In the darkness, she feels that he is a man of strange, almost primitive potency and impulses.

When Owen returns to the United States, Kate decides to go to Sayula for a time. There she finds an old Spanish house that pleases her. With the house comes a servant, Juana, and her two sons and two daughters. Kate likes the house and its surroundings, and she rents it for an indefinite stay.

The people of Sayula are restless and filled with a spirit Kate has not seen elsewhere in Mexico. One night, she hears drums beating in the village plaza. Men naked to the waist are distributing leaflets printed with a hymn to Quetzalcoatl. Later, the peons begin to dance to the savage and insistent rhythms of the drums. In the torchlight, the dance looks like a ritual out of old, almost forgotten times, a ritual people remember in their blood rather than in their minds. Some people say that Don Ramón is behind the new cult of Quetzalcoatl that is springing up.

Several weeks after Kate arrives in Sayula, Don Ramón and his wife, Doña Carlota, come to call. Doña Carlota is devoutly pious and eager to be friendly. When Kate visits Jamiltepec, Don Ramón’s hacienda, she finds soldiers guarding the gates. A drum is beating in the patio. Doña...

(This entire section contains 1202 words.)

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Carlota hates the sound and tells Kate that she is afraid because her husband is involved in the business of Quetzalcoatl. She confides that he wishes to become a god, the reincarnation of the Plumed Serpent that the Aztecs had worshiped. Cipriano arrives at the hacienda for supper. That night there is a dance in the patio. Don Ramón promises that the reborn gods will bring new life to the country. The rains begin, ending the hot, dry season.

Refusing to witness her husband’s heresies, as she calls them, Doña Carlota returns to Mexico City. Meanwhile, the work of the men of Quetzalcoatl continues. During one of his visits, Cipriano asks Kate to marry him, but she puts him off. Don Ramón continues to write and publish his hymns to Quetzalcoatl. Cipriano’s soldiers distribute them. After he is denounced by the clergy, Don Ramón has the holy images removed from the church at Sayula and burned.

One day a group of Don Ramón’s political and religious enemies, disguised as bandits, attacks Jamiltepec and tries to assassinate Don Ramón. Kate happens to be at the hacienda when the raiders appear; she kills one of the attackers and saves Don Ramón’s life after he had been seriously wounded. Afterward, she stays much to herself, afraid of her own disturbed emotions; but she is being drawn slowly toward the dark, powerful forces of primitive awareness and power that she finds in Don Ramón and Cipriano. The general believes himself to be the living Huitzilopochtli, god of war. Fascinated and repelled, Kate yields to his masculine dominance. Don Ramón marries them with pagan rites, and Kate becomes Malintzi, bride of the red-knifed god of battles.

When Don Ramón reopens the church, which he had converted into a sanctuary of the old Aztec gods, Doña Carlota protests against his blasphemy. Overcome by hysteria and fear of his implacable will, she suffers a stroke and dies a short time later. Meanwhile, Cipriano has been spreading the new doctrines among his soldiers. On an appointed night, he is declared the living Huitzilopochtli, god of the knife. In the rites of his assumption, he sacrifices three of the prisoners captured after the attack on Don Ramón some weeks before.

Don Ramón marries again. His bride is Teresa, daughter of a dead landowner of Jalisco. Watching Teresa’s passive, female submission to her husband, Kate begins to fear the dark potency, the upsurge of blood with which Don Ramón and Cipriano are arousing all Mexico. Men wearing the white-and-blue serapes of Quetzalcoatl and the red-and-black serapes of Huitzilopochtli are seen everywhere. When the Church excommunicates the leaders, revolt breaks out. The president of Mexico declares the Church outlawed, and the faith of Quetzalcoatl becomes the official religion of the republic. Kate views these happenings with a sense of horror. The pride and strength of the old gods seems to menace her spirit and her womanhood. She decides to return to Ireland.

In the end, however, Kate cannot leave. Cipriano’s attraction is stronger than her European sensibility and her will. Afraid of his violence but awed by the strength of a spirit stronger than her own, she feels wanted but not needed. The need, she realizes, is her own, not Cipriano’s. He has revealed to her the deep, dark, hot life of the senses and the blood, and she is trapped in his primitive world. She can never escape.