This story begins at kilometre zero of the Gran Canal del Desagüe, but it could also begin much earlier because Indra was not the first person to see monsters in the Valley of Mexico’s hydrologic cartography. In the first half of the seventeenth century, a Dutch spy working in New Spain noticed that the lakes, rivers, and streams of the region formed the shape of the Beast of the Revelation.
It was during the Twelve Years’ Truce, an interval of peace in the middle of the bloody Eighty Years’ War, which culminated in 1648 with the independence of the Netherlands from the yoke of the Spanish Crown. King Felipe III hired the Dutch engineer Adrian Boot to travel to Mexico to inspect the drainage projects in the Valley of Mexico, which since 1607 were under the direction of a wise and enigmatic foreigner named Enrico Martínez.
At that time in Amsterdam an impressive fan-shaped system of canals was being constructed, which to this day earns the city its nickname “the Venice of the North.” With this prodigious example of cohabitation between an urban area and water, it made sense to think that a Dutch engineer might offer a useful second opinion, or even a new solution to the floods which assaulted Mexico City, a capital of stone built on top of a shimmering lake.
Felipe III was known as The Pious, and he was too trusting to suspect that Adrian Boot was a secret agent working for the separatist Protestants and Dutch pirates. He ordered that the engineer be paid the high sum of 100 ducats per month starting from July 1613. Boot arrived in Mexico in September 1614. On 17 November he visited the drainage works for the first time, which he dismissed (“they’re worthless,” he said) for being onerous and filled with technical defects. The ambitious drainage project consisted of a giant open-air slash cut into the ground and an enormous tunnel through the mountains that would drain all the lakes of the Valley of Mexico until they were completely dry.
Boot proposed preserving the lakes as a strategy to avoid wet soil and protect the buildings, like they had done in Amsterdam. A dam could be built that would contain the water of the lakes directly adjacent to the viceregal capital and the causeways leading to and from it; stone canals could be opened for urban navigation; working locks could be installed with technology to expel the excess water and use it in the irrigation of farmland. In this way Mexico City could be “the master and the servant of the water.”
The engineer made up a map of his vision for the hydrologic monster of the Valley of Mexico, known today thanks to the traveller Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri, who copied and published it in Naples in 1700 under the title “Hydragraphicamelo Mexicano rappresentato nelle sue Lacune,” for its clear resemblance to a camel’s silhouette. Boot, however, saw in this shape the Beast of the Revelation.
On 15 July 1637, with strained eyes, spit gathering at the corners of his mouth, and an armful of papers, maps, and notebooks, Boot burst into a governmental meeting to show his satanic discovery to the functionaries present.
He opened the map on a table and, pointing out certain aspects, explained that Lake Chalco was the head and the neck of the creature; Lake Mexico the stomach; the four western rivers its legs; the rivers of Texcoco and Papalotan formed wings; San Cristóbal and Xaltocan lakes became the tail; the rivers Tlalmanalco and Tepeapulco were the horns.
“What we can’t discern clearly is the drool coming from the Beast’s mouth,” he said, turning to the functionaries who, slack-jawed, were beginning to consider the possibility that the Dutchman was right.
Disturbed and nervous, but satisfied with his work, Boot put the map away and opened a notebook in which there were a series of esoteric calculations. Showing the gathered members of the government, he explained how he had assigned numbers to the initials of the ten Aztec kings and, adding them together, arrived at 666.
With a creaking, wavering voice that contained both the authority of the clairvoyant and the terror of the condemned, he warned them: Mexicans were living in the heart of the Beast and if they followed through with their plan of draining the basin, she would take her vengeance and destroy them all.
It was this troubling behaviour from Boot which caused the authorities to definitively reject his plan and inspired the Inquisition to convict him on 17 September 1637 of the double accusation of heresy and espionage. The authorities would later arrive at his house, confiscate his belongings, and incarcerate him in the Colegio de la Compañía de Jesús until 19 April 1638, the date he was liberated and the last time he was ever seen. No one knows if he died in Mexico or if he tricked his way past the Imperial guards and returned home to Holland or if he killed himself or if, through some strange phenomenon, he shrunk himself like the lakes until he ceased to exist.
No story begins at an identifiable point in time. Finding the beginning of something is as impossible as finding its end; things survive, like echoes or reflections: transported by light, the images of everything that has existed are travelling through the cosmos, like the shimmer of extinct stars.
Below a gigantic asphalt tombstone, brining the cement of buildings and baring their surface in shallow excavations, the dried-up lakes of the Valley of Mexico still splash around in their stubborn mud. Will the final moment come, the end point of history, the small or the big event after which there won’t be even a drop, a word or even a spark, no insinuation of any ripple or creek or orbit or glimmer: nothing?
Indra asked himself this question in the solitude of his room as he contemplated suicide, the only way, maybe, of finding finality, summoning it, entering—exiting—the void, the zero, total inexistence.
But death, even death inflicted by one’s own hand, is a false end, because it supposes that life depends on one’s own existence. Alarmist discourses about the end of the world are dishonest because their primary concern is the (perhaps inevitable) fact that humans will go extinct. They don’t take into account—it doesn’t bother them—that a variety of exciting new organisms will emerge from the miasma of apocalyptic catastrophe. Life will continue to metastasize when the cancer has killed humans, as it did after the disappearance of the dinosaurs, even though some claim they still exist: with a root in phylogeny, some scientists insist that dinosaurs still exist in bird-form. Cryptozoologists like Gary Campbell have faith in the continued existence of plesiosaurs—reptilian dinosaurs.
Even if things do come to an end, it’s important to recognize that they don’t end when we think they do, but much much later, after a process that’s too long to be understood. To “disappear” doesn’t mean to stop existing; it means to move to an unknown place, to get lost in the intricate alleyways of the world, to languish in its crannies.
Adrian Boot was last seen on 19 April 1638. There are no later records. Not even in the extensive archives of the Dutch West Indies Company, for which Boot was working as a spy. But it would be untrue to say, as many have said, that he died on that date. To say that someone or something, anyone, any living thing, monster, or species is dead without having irrefutable proof of that fact is to commit homicide in your mind.
Many suspect that Boot went crazy. It’s easy to imagine him having a mental crisis upon his release from isolation at the Colegio de la Compañía de Jesús. In a moment of lucidity, signing the forms assuring his freedom and then, delirious, throwing himself into the lake-bound city streets and wandering for some indeterminate amount of time on the shores. Climbing the hills (in Tenayo? or Tacubaya?) and, from high up, looking for the contours of the Beast in the bodies of water. Seeing it move, wake up; hearing it grunt. Having decided not to return to his homeland, taking residence in some cave and adopting the appearance of a beggar.
Transformed by grime, the elements, and lunacy, thousands of people continue living when others have proclaimed them dead. A Wakefield in every absent or “disappeared” person. Wakefield, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character who, claiming to go on a voyage, said goodbye to his wife and rented a room a few streets over where he stayed hidden for twenty years until one night, after his name had been erased from memory, he quietly returned home and spent the rest of his life alongside his wife, who never begrudged him his disappearance.
There’s nothing you can do when that which you’ve left for dead reappears: sadness, hope, cancer, dinosaurs, the water in a valley that has been violently drained for centuries, forgotten memories, the temples of an ancient civilization, the inevitable beginning when you think everything has ended. Stories don’t begin at a specific point. Nor do they end. They just keep the tea warm for whoever might come back home tonight.
Indra knew that Ixtab could never return because he had watched her go, flushed away like a goldfish in a toilet bowl. He felt that he had abandoned her, not the other way around. He had watched her leave and was incapable of joining her on the dark journey filled with magical thresholds. First the drain, then asphyxiation, and then rot.
Ixtab’s story didn’t end with the jump—it continued, flowing through rivers that were unknown to Indra. He often imagined her corpse floating through the toxic foam of the river Tula, the vultures’ bite marks in her broken skin. Maybe it had met up with other bodies, swollen and bluish, floating in some whirlpool as if at a silent, dark pool party.
These thoughts gave him nightmares. He dreamed that he was in a country whose rivers were filled with dead bodies, floating in the current like logs. Deserts, jungles, steppes, forests, and rocky valleys all traversed by this hydrological system, overflowing with cadavers. But the dead bodies weren’t completely dead, they were sleeping zombies and he, Indra, was a spy who was sent to keep tabs on their behaviour and to stay as quiet as possible in order not to wake them. His job entailed floating along with them, from the frozen mountains, through the deltas and mangroves, until they arrived at the sea, where boats manned by living people cut through the waves, searching for the spies which they had sent to the land of the zombies. When they finally found one of their own, they pulled them up out of the water, fed them, bathed them, healed them, and asked that they write up a document detailing the causes and the consequences of the zombie phenomenon.
One fine day, after weeks of floating on the ocean, Indra saw a ship approaching him, but instead of feeling relieved he became anxious because he had spent his entire mission looking for the body of his dead girlfriend amongst the thousands of other bodies without finding her and he didn’t want to leave without holding her. Determined, he swam away from the boat, away from salvation. He swam with such strength that very soon the boat was just a tiny dot disappearing on the horizon. Indra stayed there in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by the sleeping undead who could, at any moment, open their eyes.
Waking up from these dreams, Indra felt bereft and sore, as if he had just swum for kilometres through thick seaweed. He remembered that it had been months since he left his room, since he had visited anyone—like a caged animal. his muscles, atrophied and depressed, cried out for some activity. “It’d be a good idea to go out, get tired, sweat, even feel some pain, especially if I want to be prepared to hike the length of the Gran Canal.”
This was how he decided to begin making nocturnal expeditions on his bicycle, urban journeys ever farther and more exhausting and sometimes so much so that the thoughts of suicide left his mind. But returning to his room, with the sun almost rising, possessed by terrible images of the dark city, the idea returned to him and the nightmares came back because nightmares, like monsters, don’t disappear, something which Indra knew well.