From the author: This is an excerpt from a historical/magical realism novel, released in paperback and ebook editions December 17, that recently won the Endeavour Award. It tells the story of African slaves, shipwrecked on the jungle coast of 16th-century Ecuador, who allied with local indigenous people. Together, they outfought and out-thought Spanish conquistadors to preserve their freedom.
I was in the spirit house, meditating on breath. The men of the village were in the men's house, where Pidi had called a meeting to discuss something to do with the crops. The women were in the women's house, brewing corn beer and making jokes about each other's husbands and chil dren, but keeping an eye on the men's house across the central open space.
I did not go to the meeting; I was not a man. I did not go to where the women were gathered; I was not a woman. Besides, I knew that Pidi would come to me in due time. He was staunch for the proper ways of doing things, despite all that had befallen us and the other towns of the Nigua nation in the years since the Spaniards had passed through.
I returned to my meditation. I had been thinking about breath a great deal lately. Now it was time to consult my guide.
Under my predecessor Pallu's tutelage, I had learned how to control my breathing, to channel and focus the life force so as to perform acts that were impossible for the untutored unless they took the mushrooms called “the openers,” as the men did in some of their ceremonies. But the openers brought them only dreams—though sometimes those dreams could be of serious import—instead of truly opening the doors to the upper and lower worlds.
I could climb or descend into the other realms without openers, simply by regulating my breathing while repeating the secret words that Pallu had taught me after he took me into his keeping. After he prevented Manda, the father of Pidi, from dashing my infant head against a rock because of my ... discrepancy.
I had chosen today—the signs were auspicious—to go beyond meditating, to go down into the lower world and seek wisdom from my guide. Thus I was sitting cross-legged in the spirit house with my back straight as Pallu had long ago taught me. I fixed my vision on the central post, the axis between the upper and lower worlds, and took charge of my breathing, slowing it gradually, until my abdomen and chest would scarcely have shown movement had anyone been in the spirit house to see it.
The interior of the house grew brighter, one of the signs that I was becoming detached from the middle world. The blond wood of the axis post began to glow with a golden light, telling me that I was nearing the threshold of the channel to the upper world. I reached without looking for the small wooden bowl and took two small sips of the clarifying tea, then set it down and continued to concentrate on my breathing.
The tea began to work within me, opening the ways. I felt my pulse throbbing in the seven parts of my body. My torso became a great hollow tube, extending from my buttocks to the inside of my mouth, but I kept my lips tightly sealed to prevent my inner parts from rushing out; if I let them escape I knew it would take a long time to recover them. Gradually, the pressure ebbed away while the glow grew brighter and moved to envelop me, until my view of the spirit house was completely suffused by the light and I saw only gold, with the usual rim of blackness at the edge of my vision. The Old Deceivers hissed and chattered at me from the darkness, but I had long since ceased to give them any heed.
Motionless, I waited for the expanding light to absorb me completely. When I was sure I was surrounded by its warmth, I let a portion of my innermost self seep from one nostril and make contact. A lightness filled my chest and I felt as if I could float up to the thatch above me, to fly out the smoke hole and perch on the roof—it was a better perch than Pidi's for listening in. But I resisted the urge and called instead on the one who guarded and advised me.
She came, as always, in the form of a monkey eagle, her feathers grey above and pale below, showing bands of light and darkness as she spread her wings then closed them. I offered my own courtesy and a greeting. She turned her head and looked at me from one golden eye.
She did not speak; she never did. But I felt her presence within me and knew that she waited for me to begin the conversation. I spoke in my spirit voice that none but she would hear, “I have been thinking about breath. And life. And fire.”
The word mystery formed in my mind.
A great mystery, said my own voice, though I knew it was speaking for her, woven through the world.
Consider the wind, my inner voice said, and what it brings.
It was a thought that had already passed through my mind a number of times. The wind was like breath, but none knew where it came from, or where it went. Did something breathe the wind? If so, whose breath was it? Or did it breathe itself? These were old questions, never answered.
But the guardian had spoken of what the wind brought, which was a new consideration, and now I said, “What does it bring?"
The answer came not in words but in a sense of sudden motion. I was rising up as if I were a monkey seized in the eagle's claws, though I felt no pain and knew I would not be harmed; it was not the first time I had flown like this.
We climbed through the leafy canopy, as I had often seen such birds fly in the forest, their short, powerful wings finding holes and pathways among the branches. Then we were out in the open air and still rising. Far off to the east I could see the forested hills climbing to the blue mountains, obscured today by overcast. To the west was the sea, as grey as the sky, the line where one met the other made invisible by rain. We passed over the ruined town the old chief — Manda, Pidi's father—had led us away from in my childhood, when the spotted sickness came again. Then we flew on, out beyond the horizon, out to the deep sea where our men used to sail on balsa rafts, trading with towns three and four days’ sail away—towns that were all gone now.
We flew through rain and out into sun again. The water turned blue, marked with snails' trails of currents. But now, farther out, I saw something I had never seen, though I recognized it from descriptions I had heard: it was a ship of the Spaniards, rounded at one end and squared-off at the other, with tall posts from which great swatches of pale cloth hung motionless in a windless calm. Unlike a canoe, its hollow spaces were roofed over with wooden planks, and on them were the first Spaniards I had ever seen.
I saw them with the bird's eyes, sharper than any human's, and the image became even clearer as my guardian tipped one wing and glided down towards the scene. I saw that the Spaniards were of two sorts. There were many of the pale ones, like those who had come to our town wearing metal over their puffed-out clothing, carrying swords and the wood and iron things that smoked and shot deadly fire. How did they get fire into iron, I wondered, and my thoughts went along that path until my guardian returned my attention to what was beneath us.
As well as the pale men there were dark-skinned Spaniards, men and women, walking in a circle, each with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front. Hupuka and the other men who had been taken to carry burdens had spoken of these dark Spaniards. In the high country they were common. Some were labourers, grubbing and carrying, and not just for a period, as the Quechua speakers were forced to be for months at a time; the lowest of the dark Spaniards were worked all the time. But some were craftsmen and seemed to have some license to decide for themselves how their days would go, whereas a few others were no different from the pale Spaniards—these wore armour and carried weapons; they swaggered and caroused and beat the Quechua speakers, just like the others.
These circle-walkers were not the swaggering sort. They were clothed in tatters and went barefoot. And they were watched by pale Spaniards who held swords and spears and those terrible spear-axes our men had seen do murder. Two more Spaniards stood on a raised platform at the rear of the vessel, and these held long objects of wood and iron from each of which a thin trail of grey smoke rose into the air. That caught my attention, but my guide had other interests. She tipped a wing and slid lower through the air.
A pair of pale Spaniards were hauling buckets of water from the sea and throwing them on the circling dark ones, I supposed to clean and cool them. But that was not what my guardian wanted me to see.
As I looked where she looked, I saw a dark face glance up and stare right at me. He was not one of the circle-walkers, though. He was young, dressed in the padded, tightly fitted clothes that some of the paler ones wore, the sleeves ridiculously filled out. He wore shoes with squares of bright metal on them. I could see his eyes blinking as he sought to focus on me.
Now my guardian's gaze shifted again, and I saw another dark-skinned man, though this one was not looking up. This one was mature, had wielded power, and in his expression I saw rage and dignity mixed. Unlike the others, he had both hands on the man before him, and his wrists were circled by dark metal bands joined together. I knew that those hard eyes did not see the man in front of him but watched scenes that played out like shadows on the wall of his mind.
Once more my guide's attention moved on, and I found myself seeing the face of a woman who walked behind the angry man, her face still but her eyes no less deep in thought than the man whose shoulder lay under her hand.
Then we were spiralling up into the air, the ship shrinking like a toy. We flew towards the eastern clouds. The voice spoke in my mind again: what the wind brings.
A moment later, I was back in my body, the glow fading around me. I was shaking and chilled, as I often was after returning from the upper world, and my mouth was dry and foul from the tea. Near me was a calabash half-filled with corn beer. I took a mouthful, rinsed it around, and spat it through the gaps in the floor. Now I drank properly, my throat narrow and normal again.
I waited until the shivers subsided and rose, stiff in my joints for all I had still not yet seen thirty rainy seasons. I went to the door and descended to the open space.
Only a short time had passed. The men were still in their meeting. A rack of poles served as a ladder up to the door of the men's house. I waited at the bottom and made the gesture that courtesy required. I could see some of the men seated in the common space within, passing around a jug of beer. One of them glanced down and saw me.
“Expectation is here,” he announced.
I heard Pidi's voice say something, then the man near the door looked down at me and said, “You are not needed this time.”
I inclined my head and went back towards the spirit house. I had only briefly considered telling them about the ship and the pale and dark Spaniards. Clearly, the vision was important, but I would need to dwell upon it for some time before I could understand what it all meant. And what the wind was bringing us.
Today the sea is flat, stretching away to the west like a dancing floor of green marble, veined and figured, until it meets a line that does not really exist yet is strong enough to demarcate world from sky. Yesterday, the wind blew fitfully from the south and made the ocean dance to its arrhythmic medley. The heavily laden galleon tacked continually, making scant progress as it alternately slanted towards the dense, forested shore with its strip of white beach then turned and beat its way out to sea again.
But today La Virgen has scarcely moved a furlong since the offshore wind died in the morning watch, like the last breath of a dying man, leaving ... nothing. The sails hang inert, with not so much as a baby's fart to fill them. The expression is Mendoza's, speaking to Esquivel, the Basque mate, a moment ago. And now the stitched canvas actually billows a little backwards as the northbound current carries the galleon along against the resistance of the moist, dead air.
Alonso would like to know what is going on now as the captain and the Basque confer on the other side of the raised afterdeck, both of them staring fixedly at the south-western horizon. They must see something that eludes Alonso's unsailorly gaze, because some quality in the flat line has energized the two men. Mendoza is asking the mate a question, and Esquivel is tugging at the filthy ruff that rings his neck above the sweat-stained doublet. It is a habitual gesture; Alonso has seen him do it whenever the mate feels that responsibility is being thrust upon him. Esquivel will never be a captain, he thinks; he is a man always in need of someone to tell him what to do. He would make a good slave, Alonso is thinking, and then he turns the thought on its head and examines its other end. Does that mean that I am a bad slave, since I enjoy having a wider scope?
The captain has come to a decision, and now the mate is moving to carry out his superior's will. Esquivel is charged with energy now that the thinking has given way to doing. His shouts bring men running to the mid-deck, where La Virgen's two boats are tied down. Hands untie and loosen the ropes on one of the boats, and in seconds it is turned right side up, revealing the oars stored beneath the thwarts. More shouts, all in Spanish but in half a dozen accents —Genoese, Venetian, Greek, even red-bearded Irish—more ropes, more coordinated bustle, and the boat is efficiently lowered over the rail to sit lightly upon the sea. In even less time, the second boat is in the water, and seamen are jumping down, seizing the oars. They row towards the bow, where their shipmates cast heavy lines down to them to tie to cleats on the boats' transoms.
Soon, Alonso sees the two boats pull out ahead of the galleon, the men at the oars bending and straightening in a slow rhythm, the wooden blades biting into the green-marble water, the thick, corded hemp tight ening, spraying drops that sparkle in the sunlight as it lifts from the sea. Other seamen are brailing up the sails, and now La Virgen is turning, slowly, in a wide arc towards the open sea.
Alonso looks east to where a thin smear of green marks the unnamed land. Between the port city of Panama and the even newer port at Lima lies a realm of impenetrable jungle and muddy rivers that the Pizarro brothers have won from the barbarians for the glory of His Most Catholic Majesty, Philip of Spain. Alonso approaches Mendoza and says, "Señor Captain?"
Mendoza's back is to him. He looks south-west, squinting. “Señor Captain?"
One of Mendoza's shoulders twitches beneath the heavy cloth of his doublet, but he does not answer.
Alonso speaks softly. “Why are we turning north-west? My patrón was very clear. The cargo is needed urgently in Lima.”
Mendoza says something Alonso cannot hear, then half-turns his head and says, “A storm is coming. There is no shelter on this shore. We must have sea room.”
Alonso looks at the horizon then up to the sky, which is blue and innocent of clouds except for some high wisps far out to sea. He is not sure what to say, and so he says nothing. Things were clearer before they left Panama. La Virgen had been built for the Illescas in Nicaragua in the shipyards of the Gutierrez brothers, a trio of shipwrights from Seville brought to the New World by the Illescas family. Don Alonso, Alonso's patrón and namesake far away in Seville, had seen that whoever owned the ships would control trade to the new and growing southern markets.
The Gutierrezes established a shipyard on the western coast after hauling their tools and necessaries across the isthmus by mule and on the backs of Indios conscripted by a conquistador turned encomendero. Don Alvaro Illescas, eldest son of Don Alonso and manager of the family's trading establishment on the sugar island of Hispaniola, needed the galleon to take a mixed cargo south to the port at Lima. There the goods would be unloaded and carried up into the highlands, where the newly arrived viceroy was consolidating the Audiencia of Quito amid the spoils of the victory over the still-restless savages.
But two days before their intended departure, Don Alvaro had been struck by one of the fevers bred by the foul, damp air that hung over the raw city. He had called Alonso to his bedside, where he lay pale and sweating, while a priest who had training as a physician prepared to open a vein in his arm.
“Alonso,” he had said, “you are young, but you must see the cargo to Lima."
"I will do it, Don Alvaro."
“I will send a letter with you to Jorge Estebar, our factor. He will deal with the authorities. Besides, the cargo is all paid for."
“Very good, patrón.”
“But you must see it safely through. Sailors are thieves. Do not let them pilfer from us."
"I will not let them."
“And keep them away from the black women. They are not for the pleasure of Mendoza's sailors.”
“I will sleep in the hold."
"Good. If any give you trouble, tell Captain Mendoza. I have already spoken with him.”
The priest had cut the vein then, bringing a grunt from Don Alvaro and a spurt of thick blood that dripped from the elbow and into a wooden bowl that an attendant held, its inner surface stained dark. The sick man's face grew even more pallid. He reached with his unencumbered hand to take Alonso's, and the contrast of their skins, white over black, was stark. “Until you reach Lima, you are the House of Illescas. Act accordingly."
“I will not fail you or your father.”
Don Alvaro blinked, and it seemed to Alonso that he would say more. But then a kind of haze passed across the man's eyes. He sank more deeply into the soaked bedding, ripe and rank with the iron smell of his sweat. The priest-physician put the fingers of one hand to the patient's wrist, while the fingers of the other brusquely fluttered to shoo Alonso from the sickroom.
La Virgen moves sluggishly behind the straining boats. Mendoza still watches the western horizon, now dead ahead of the bow. Nicaragua's coastal galleons are made mostly of cedar, not like the hardwood ships built in Manila for the trans-Pacific trade. She rides lightly on the water even though she is heavily laden. When her sails are filled with wind, the ship progresses to the accompaniment of a concert of her own noises: creaks of stays, tympanies of snapping canvas, the rush and gurgle of bruised water along her sides. But in this calm, there is no sound save for the shouts of the coxswains in the towing boats, calling the rhythm of the stroke.
The heat is stifling, the air so thick with moisture that, with every indrawn breath, Alonso can feel its weight settle into his lungs. The six passengers —two merchants and their wives, a blacksmith, and a cordwainer—have come up from their cabins where they spend most of their days so as to avoid contact with the crew. Sailors are the lowest of the lowly, ranked down there with foreigners, and foreign sailors are doubly unacceptable. Alonso sees the passengers pull their sweat-soaked clothing away from their torsos, their faces red and dripping. The wife of one of the merchants wears a green gown stained dark down the back. Her husband notices Alonso and says something to his colleague. A brief glance in Alonso's direction, then both turn their backs and usher their wives farther forward.
Below decks, the stifling heat must be worse. Alonso crosses the aft deck and approaches the captain. “Señor Captain, we should bring the Africans up."
Alonso always refers to the twenty men and seven women as ‘Africans'. Don Alvaro and the crew of La Virgen usually call them the blacks, or *the slaves', or 'the Moors'. It is important to Alonso to make a distinc tion, to draw a line between him and the people below his feet: they are of Africa; he is of the House of Illescas. He does not know what the sailors call him. He does not mix with them, nor do they approach him.
The captain is watching the horizon again. “Not today.” Without taking his eyes from the horizon, Mendoza gestures towards the boats, full of his men, and says, “Who will watch them?
“Señor Captain,” he says again, “it is very hot."
“Let the blacks sweat. The storm will break the heat."
Alonso looks west. He sees no sign of a change in the weather. The high wisps of clouds are as faint as forgotten scars against the bland blue. He wants to argue with the captain, feels sure that Don Alvaro would not accept such a rebuff. But Don Alvaro is a hundred leagues to the north, and Alonso has already seen Mendoza order a one-eyed Greek sailor branded on the cheek for stealing from the food stores, blue smoke wreathing the end of the iron as the man screamed and fought a useless fight to escape the hands that held his head hard against the mainmast. Besides, it is not just the Africans Alonso is concerned for.
The merchants and their wives move farther towards the bow as Alonso descends the short stairway to the mid-deck. The main hatch is open, at least, though no air will be circulating in the sweltering space below. He stands at the top of the ladder, looking down into the darkness. The hold is a square of almost liquid blackness against the glare of light that freezes the deck. The smell of pigs' droppings rises, sharp and almost sweet. Usually he cleans the animals' pen while the Africans are on deck. He does not mind the noisome chore; indeed, the pigs are Alonso's pride. But he does not like to do it under the eyes of the Africans.
The hold is deep, and Alonso must descend to the lowest of three decks. For all it rules the deck above, the sunlight does not seem able to penetrate far. Alonso reaches the bottom of the ladder and stands in a twilight. He looks up, and now the hatch is so charged with brightness, he finds it almost strange to think he has just come from there. The glare brings water to the corners of his eyes. He has to suppress a sneeze.
The pigs rustle in their soiled straw, one of the flap-eared sows making throat sounds that combine a snuffle and a string of grunts. Their triangular pen, just forward from the ladder, is made of rough boards nailed to the ship's ribs and to a post that supports the deck above. There is no gate, because the animals will not leave their sanctu ary until La Virgen reaches La Portete. He strips off his much-patched doublet, rolls up the sleeves of his worn cotton shirt, and climbs over the top board. He reaches for the wooden pitchfork, nudging the animals with the toe of one brass-buckled shoe.
Usually they react to his arrival, rubbing against his shins, snuffling at his scent, talking to him in their throaty pig voices; but today the terrible heat, which fills the hold as if it could burst the ship's sides, has rendered them torpid. Still, as he always does before mucking out the piss-soaked straw and lumps of pale excrement, Alonso stoops to scratch the young boar behind his ears, the beast's bristles stiff under his fingers. The pig grumble-grunts in pleasure, and one of the sows lifts her nose and makes a sound that could almost be a word. From behind him, deeper in the aft part of the hold, he hears a man's angry voice, a woman's softer tones, the words indistinct. Alonso does not turn to look that way.
He has known the pigs since they were month-old shoats on Hispaniola. “These will be the first swine to reach the newly conquered territories,” Don Alvaro told him, “where they will breed multitudes. You are old enough now to have some responsibility, so these will be yours to care for on the journey. Feed them and keep them clean.”
"I will, patrón."
Don Alvaro quirked his mouth, as he did when he was about to say something that he didn't mean to be taken seriously. “Years from now, when the new lands are thick with swine, you can say that you were the father of their nation.”
Alonso smiled. From another man, it would have been mockery. But Don Alvaro was always kind to him, almost like an older brother. "Yes, patrón."
Now he scrapes the soiled straw to the edge of the pen, nudging the somnolent animals to move them, until the floor is clear. Then, with the side of a foot shod in the red leather shoes that were Don Alvaro's until they grew too scuffed and faded, he pushes the bedding under the lowest slat of the pen. He climbs out, goes towards the forward end of the hold, and returns with an armload of fresh straw, its dust tickling his nose, its sharp ends prickling the skin under his jaw. He throws the straw over the pen's top board, then makes two more trips until he is satisfied the animals are well provided for.
And, through all of this, eyes watch him from the shadows. Now Alonso must turn and make his way into the darker part of the hold, to the strong grid of thick, interlocking beams of timber. The beams extend from the floorboards to the joists that support the deck above, braced by iron brackets. Behind the barrier, the Africans sit or lie on the bare wood, as prostrated by heat as the pigs. Most are in their prime years, the men dressed in cast-off shirts and breeches, the women in simple cotton shifts, all of them barefoot.
Some of them watch him approach. Others sit with their heads bowed and their eyes on the wood between their feet. The older woman, Miriam, who sometimes smiles at Alonso, lies on her side, her knees drawn up and her brown hand beneath her cheek, her eyes closed. Anton, the one Don Alvaro warned Alonso about, sits where he always sits, beside the chequered bars, the back of his large head leaned against the ship's side, his eyes never leaving Alonso. As the young man nears the cage, Anton rises to his feet, a sudden burst of motion, surprisingly fast and smooth for such a big man. The fetters on his wrists and ankles clink unmusically.
“Stop," Anton says. “You are unclean."
Alonso's step falters, but he comes forward again, showing the light coloured palms of his hands. “No,” he says, “my hands did not touch the filth, only the fork and the buckets."
“The beasts are unclean, and you are unclean from touching them.” Then he says some words that Alonso does not understand, though the sound of them stirs a faint almost-memory. Somewhere, in the far back reaches of his mind, he must have heard words with that kind of rhythm. But he does not try to put flesh on the ghost; whatever it was, it is now all past and gone, nothing to do with Alonso Illescas, trusted by one of the great men of Seville, named for him at his confirmation. He focuses on the matter before him.
“The captain will not let you on deck today,” he says. “His men are in boats towing the ship. There is no one to watch you."
Miriam has sat up. “Our water is almost gone,” she says, “and the slop bucket is full.”
Alonso can smell the reek from the bucket where the Africans relieve themselves, even though it has a tight-fitting wooden top. Usually, one of the sailors brings it up on the same rope that hauls up the pigs' soiled straw.
"I will tend to it,” he says. "First wash your hands,” says Anton. “You are unclean.”
Alonso's impulse is to stand on his dignity, but Miriam's hands make a small motion, a gesture that combines with the expression on her face to ask him not to make an issue of the big man's words. Anton does not see the exchange. His head is reared back, his eyes fixed on Alonso.
The young man sees a solution. “Very well," he tells Miriam. “I will wash after I have dealt with the slops bucket.” He looks at Anton. “You do not mind if my unclean hands touch that, do you?"
The glare that comes back at him is so intense it strikes him almost as a physical blow. Alonso can see a rim of white all around Anton's brown irises, and the man's wide nostrils flare.
Discomfited, Alonso must look away. He hates me, he thinks, surprised at the depth of the ill will he sees in the man's aspect. He does not look at Anton again, nor at Miriam, but busies himself with the logistics of getting the slops bucket out of the Africans' enclosure without opening the gate. Don Alvaro made it clear, before the ship left Panama, that Alonso is never to open the heavy padlock that connects the chain that holds the door closed, unless armed men are in position, matches smouldering.
“Some of these slaves killed men and women on Hispaniola, cut their throats and opened their bellies," the patrón said. But, though some of the ringleaders of the slave revolt were made examples of, burned with hot irons and whipped to tatters with lead-weighted cats, the rank and file were too many, and too valuable, to waste; a healthy slave is worth four hundred pesos in Lima. They would be shipped to the newly conquered lands, where it would do them no good to run away; the savages would catch them and kill them as if they were true Spaniards. In Peru, the former rebels who had fired the sugarcane fields of Hispaniola would go into the mines and work to repay the cost of transporting and feeding them. They would go into the cracks in the ground where the Indios had dug for silver and gold, and they would never come out.
“Bring the bucket over to the hatch,” Alonso tells Miriam, not looking at Anton.
Miriam and a thin woman with a corded neck— Alonso thinks her name is Juana-push the full bucket across the deck to where a portion of the latticework of beams is hinged so that it can swing out and upwards. Miriam keeps one hand on the top of the bucket, so that it cannot come loose and splash filth on them. Alonso kneels and fetches from inside his shirt a set of keys that hang from a cord around his neck. He takes the smaller of two similar keys and unlocks the padlock that secures the hatch's latch to a stout iron ring countersunk into the decking. He lifts the wood out of the way, and the two women shove the bucket though the gap.
A moment later the slops bucket is clear of the gap, and Alonso closes and relocks the hatch. For the next few minutes, he occupies himself with his chores, getting a rope, fastening it to the tub that contains the pigs' straw, climbing the ladder, and hauling the tub onto the deck. The container is heavy but he enjoys the physical effort, enjoys being usefully employed, having nothing to think about but pulling hand over hand, leaning out to make sure the rim of the tub does not strike the edge of the hatch and cause the contents to tip. He empties the straw over the side, noting that he does not have to check for wind to know which side of the ship to go to—the air is as still as death, except for the faintest breath from forward as La Virgen creeps over the featureless sea to the coordinated splash of oars.
Alonso returns the tub to its place, squares away the fork, then leans over the top of the pen, his belly pressing with painful pleasure on the top board, and gives the pigs a last round of ear-scratching affection. He turns towards the Africans' enclosure, and again Anton's glare strikes him as an almost physical blow. Alonso drops his eyes to the slop bucket and does not look up again until he has its weight in his grip and he is walking bent-legged to set it under the hatch. Then comes the business of tying the rope and climbing the ladder, and the even more careful hand-over-handing that brings the bucket onto the mid-deck.
Again he concentrates on correctly carrying out the task. The bucket must go, lidless, over the side to sink into the green and lose its contents, then be hauled back up, emptied of seawater and, if necessary, plunged back in again until it is clean. Alonso has seen it done by a sailor and imitates the procedure perfectly.
As he hauls the bucket out of the sea for the third time, and his examination finds it clean, he feels a stronger stir of air across his cheek, cooling the sweat on his neck. He turns towards the galleon's bow and the air comes fresher, a breeze that is even now growing strong enough to be called a wind. The men in the boats are rowing back towards the ship. Others on the foredeck are hauling in the dripping cables, walking them into coils, while the Basque mate shouts orders from the mid-deck, urging more speed as he disparages the men's mothers for their choices of mating partners.
One of the boats clumps alongside, bringing a fresh spate of profanity from the mate as Alonso takes the sea-scoured slops bucket below. He leaves it beside the grid of timbers, then goes to the scuttle—a barrel of fresh water lashed to a strong post forward in the hold — ladles water into a shallow bowl, and makes an ostentatious show of laving his hands and forearms.
From above his head comes the thud of bare heels on wood, more shouts from Esquivel, the clatter of the boats being brought aboard and stowed. Captain Mendoza's voice says something Alonso cannot make out, though the tone bespeaks urgency. From the scuttle, the young man fills a tarred leather bucket—not the one he used to water the pigs and carries it to the enclosure. The Africans have their own wooden cup to drink from, taking turns.
Under the continued assault of Anton's eyes, Alonso unlocks the hatch and passes the water bucket through to Miriam. The others are stirring now, hands reaching for the cup. Alonso pushes the slops bucket through the opening then relocks it.
“What about food?” says Miriam. Her voice is soft, the question empty of any note of demand. A lyrical accent sits behind the Spanish words, like a face behind a half-slipped mask.
"I will see about it,” Alonso says. The Africans are fed corn bread in the mornings and gruel in the evenings. But the supplies that were supposed to last them to Lima are running low. The bad winds and currents have kept them north of the Rio Esmeraldas, a long way from their destination. Alonso has heard the captain talking about putting in to one of the small bays along the shore to get food and water from the barbarians.
A sudden downdraft of cool air comes through the hatch, cutting through the womblike swelter of the hold. At the same time, the deck tilts. Alonso automatically compensates for the motion, as he has done ever since Don Alvaro brought him aboard an Illescas ship tied near the family's river house in Seville and told him on the first day out on the Atlantic that he had a seaman's legs.
Anton also shifts his balance. The wooden cup has come around to him, but he pauses with the water halfway to his lips, and his eyes leave Alonso and go to the square of light high overhead. It is not so bright now. The glare is muted, then it comes back in full brightness—but only for a moment before it dims again. From above come more shouts and thudding footsteps, and now there are new sounds: the creaking of ropes and stays, the snap of canvas.
Anton is listening, his eyes moving back and forth as if to follow the motions of crewmen moving about on the deck above, as if he can see through the multiple barriers of wood. The African's gaze returns to Alonso, not full of anger and outrage now, but still hard. When he speaks, his accent is stronger than Miriam's, and he makes no attempt to disguise that he is issuing Alonso an order, and that the big man has given orders before.
“Boy, when the storm comes, you will be down here. With us."
Alonso finds he is nodding his head, responding to the ring of com mand, but he recollects himself. “Don Alvaro has made me responsible
for you," he says. “I will do as he would wish. And I am not a boy."
Anton's expression dismisses the rationale. "You just be here," he says.
Alonso makes no response. His unthinking deference to Anton makes him vaguely guilty, as if he has betrayed Don Alvaro and the House of Illescas. He turns and leaves the Africans, climbs the ladder to the deck. His midday chores finished, it is time for him to eat—hot beans and cornbread, the sour wine that the sailors drink, maybe some cheese today if he can find a piece that hasn't gone mouldy.
But when he puts his head out of the hatch he sees no queue of hungry men, bowls and mugs in hand. The passengers have fled to their cabins beneath the aftcastle. The decks and rigging are flurries of motion, hands and bare toes gripping tarred ropes as sailors swarm above, set ting free the topmost sails, half-reefed. Other men are lashing down the two boats, now returned to their places on the mid-deck. Another gang comes, carrying the double-canvas-sheeted cover for the main hatch, and they do not stop to give Alonso time to go back down the ladder. He ducks his head as they position the cloth over the hole, and hears their hands moving at speed to fasten the loops of rope that line its edges to cleats set in the deck's planking. Almost no light comes through the canvas. Alonso hears a shout of anger from below, followed by startled squeals from the pigs. He descends, deck after deck.
The descent is dangerous. The ship has begun to buck like an out raged mule. It plunges and falls, and every few moments the hull sustains a blow as if from a giant's hammer. He arrives on the lower deck, where the pigs scent him and make noises he takes for friendship. He gropes his way to where he knows flint and steel and tinder wait behind a board nailed to the inner hull. There is a stub of a tallow candle and eventually he has it lit. He sees the pigs rustling in their pen and makes noises to soothe them. The Africans are only eyes against the darkness and the sound of someone retching from seasickness.
He hears Anton's voice, harsh, anger conquering fear. "What is happening?"
"A sudden storm. The wind is pushing us hard.” “Which way?"
Alonso has to think. “Back the way we came. The wind is always against us."
Anton makes a noise deep in his throat, a thinking sound. “Is there enough food?” he asks. “What about water?"
“I don't know. The captain does not like to talk to me.” "Make him!” "How?"
“This ship belongs to the Illescas. He is a hireling. You are the family's man aboard.” Anton pauses, then says, “Man," again, as if to himself, as if it is a near absurdity.
Alonso has turned away to put the candle stub into a bracket so he can find where he stored his rolled-up bedding. "What does it matter to you?” he says, over his shoulder.
"It matters," Anton says. “Find out and tell me."
Alonso has had enough. He blows out the candle, and stretches out on his unrolled pallet.
Anton's voice comes from the darkness. “Do as I tell you, boy. Speak to him."
“Maybe I will speak to the captain about having you whipped.” "Be careful, boy. There was a house slave on Hispaniola —”
Miriam speaks. “Enough,” she says. “Alonso will speak to the captain because he has sworn to look after us.”
Anton grunts, but Alonso speaks over him. “That is true. Now let us just try to get through the storm. Sufficient unto the day — ”
Now it is Anton's turn to drown him out. “There was a priest who would come to the plantation and fill our ears with false scripture. Do you know what I said to him?" When Alonso does not reply, the harsh voice from the darkness says, “Allahu akbar!"
“I am going to try to sleep.” Alonso says. He lays a folded blanket over his head but he can still hear the contempt in Anton's laugh.
Alonso does sleep after a while, even dreams, but the tossing of La Virgen wakes him. The dream runs away like a trickle of water into dry earth, leaving only a darkness: the shape of something he cannot grasp. He strains for it, but there is only the sense of coming out of light and into gloom, and a voice speaking softly. He can almost recapture the words, for they were words, though now they are only sounds in his mind. They drew him towards comforting warmth, a room, a roof, a woman's hand reaching towards him.
The pigs stir and snuffle nearby, and their sounds mingle with the fading syllables in his dreamer's ear. Perhaps that is all it was, the animals making their noises, his mind weaving them into a fantasy.
The deck is hard and still in motion under him. Sleep seems to have retreated to a distance, a long swim back. He refolds the blanket into a pillow for his head and lies looking up into the blackness above him. Anton's voice comes out of memory: This ship belongs to the Illescas ... You are the family's man aboard.
He has been given the Illescas name, christened Alonso after the head of the family. But he is not really one of them. If he were, the captain and the crew would bow their heads when he came on deck, would address him as vuestra merced—your grace—and answer his questions with respect in their voices.
And yet he is not one of the crew, either, though he sails with them and has responsibilities here between the decks. He does not speak as they do; he frames his words in a good Castilian accent while they use the slippery consonants of the docks and the odd patois of the sea: a language of their own, fashioned from half a dozen dialects of seagoing Spaniards and mixed with the purely foreign vocabulary of Basques and Greeks and Italians. He suspects that, in his hearing, the sailors make themselves deliberately unintelligible, putting up a barrier of argot to keep him outside their world, ever the stranger at their gate.
Yet neither is he one of the Africans. They are even more strange than the sailors, though his child's eyes must have seen the same sights as they have. Alonso has been told that he was born in Cabo Verde, the Portuguese slave-trading entrepot off the west coast of Africa. Don Alvaro has told him of how he was bought as a little boy, how his name then was Enrique, and how he did not speak all the time he was on the ship that brought him to Seville, nor for months after—until one day it was as if a door had opened in his mind, and he began talking in simple Spanish
From then on, he ceased to be a kind of family pet. Don Alonso had come and looked at him, towering over him in the doorway of the kitchen where Enrique slept by the fire. “We will make him a good Christian,” the man had said, lamplight from the hallway making a halo about his head.
There had been tutors, even a fencing master. Little Alonso had read books, mastered a merchant's mathematics, learned weights and measures and all the ways the goods in which the Illescas dealt ought to look, feel, smell, and taste. For two years, he had accompanied Don Alvaro everywhere, carrying a tablet of smooth wood and a stick of hard, dry charcoal to make notes of anything the young master told him to record.
And yet, and yet ... he did not eat with the family but with the servants in the kitchen. He did not speak before he was spoken to. He walked a step behind and kept his mind on the business of the Illescas.
He is a functionary, well treated but entitled to the name he bears only on sufferance. He was raised to his anomalous position by grace and affection, but he knows he will keep it by being useful. He does not mind the requirement; he enjoys being useful. It is his place.
But it is a place unique to him. He is neither a Spanish merchant nor a sailor nor an African. Nor is he Enrique nor whoever he was before he stopped speaking whatever language he spoke with his mother, whom he does not remember save as a fleeting memory of a dream: a voice, a hand, a curve of a cheek in the dimness beyond the low doorway, always fading as he seeks to recapture it.
Publishers blurb: In the mid 1500s shipwrecked African slaves melded with the indigenous peoples of coastal Ecuador and together they fought the Spanish colonial power to a standstill, to remain independent for centuries. The novel carries a flavor of South American magical realism tradition into a grand historical epic. Both sweeping and intimate, it is a delight to read from beginning to end.
Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.