“This Deep, Bloody American tragedy is now concluded... I have no more to say...”
— Bartolome de las Casas, 1552
Eyague Ortiz de Toledo stood in the fresh white sand and squinted from the beating sun. It was very hot in this new place, this new place that did not feel so new, and Eyague mused on the favor granted by the Providence he liked to call... well... he did not like to call it Dios as his compatriots blithely pronounced with the tension of spittle between their teeth. No, in his mind, quietly and to himself, Eyague preferred to call it El Verdadero. The True. And the True had been kind to Eyague, through a false form, as it often takes, of inequity and iniquity to bear. His compatriots, throughout the whole of the nearly two-month voyage, had relentlessly teased and derided and berated him for his complete lack of armor; not that most of them could afford real armor themselves. But Eyague had remained steadfast to the Word of the True and had, as he always had, the forbearance to turn the other cheek. Now, as he stood with relative comfort in his simple camisa and frayed, unsleeved doublet while the compania in which he’d been embedded, numbering fifty men or so, shifted and grunted beneath the oppression of their stylish leather and quilted cotton jackets, Eyague thought perhaps the True still looked upon his cheek with love.
At the head of the compania, Captain Francisco Cisneros de Hidalgo was droning along, disinterestedly reading from the parchment provided by The Old Man. The footmen and crossbowmen and harquebusiers impatiently listened, not seeing the purpose in the Captain’s tedious recitation. Eyague looked toward the sea where the lead carrack had anchored a bit beyond a few rocky islets. The Old Man was still on board, likely avoiding the sun for as long as possible since he genuinely was garbed in a full suit of splendid armor. The remaining eighteen vessels of the fleet, mostly caravels, had spread out along the coast, seeking safe anchor or harbor by the shore. Captain Cisneros droned on:
“Os certifico que con la ayuda de Dios entrare poderosamente contra vosotros y os hare Guerra por todos las partes y maneras que tuviere...”
The soldiers grumbled. Eyague, having read the parchment several times on the voyage, usually from boredom, knew at least that the Captain was soon coming to the end. With his right hand, he rubbed the soreness of his upper left arm and swallowed saliva, tasting blood. He distracted himself by taking in more of his surroundings – the palm trees that did not look so different from those in Seville; the forest-covered mountain range to the south.
“...y tomare vuestras personas y las de vuestras mujeres e hijos y los hare esclavos...”
What Eyague was not looking at, because he knew to do so would make his already churning stomach regurgitate its contents of dried cod and chickpeas, was the intended audience of the Captain’s declamation. He had glanced at the group of twenty or so people when he first set foot on shore, but had then quickly looked away. He knew he would have encountered them at some point, but he was not sure what to expect when he did. He had been told that they ate each other and that they desperately needed the Word of the True. His expectation, he supposed, was that they would look like demons, not like men and women smiling from the beach at children squealing in delight who ran up and down the pale sands playing chase with the tide. The Captain continued:
“...y os hare todos los males y danos que pudiere como... ah, shit...”
“Problem?” grunted one of the harquebusiers.
“What son of a shit-eating whore smudged the ink on this line?” said the Captain.
Eyague trained his eyes on the sand. Having handled the parchment of the Requeremiento so often, he knew he was the most likely culprit. The harquebusier gestured toward the people about a hundred varas ahead who still played with their children on the beach. “Captain, those savages have no idea what you are saying.”
The Captain stared down the harquebusier. “The will of God needs no translation.” And with that, he turned and faced the beachgoers once more. Four or five of the beachgoing men, lean and brown and naked, separated themselves from their group and, keeping their distance, observed the Spaniards. The names of these brown men have been lost in time – smudged out and forgotten. The name of their people is somewhat remembered, given that their people, like most people, simply referred to themselves as The People. But knowledge of the specific manner and place of articulation with which these people vocalized themselves as The People has also been forgotten. One of these brown men stepped forward, cupped his hands to his mouth, and in his forgotten speech called out, “Ay yo! You sound like a lisping parakeet, B! Any way you could talk normal, you know, like a man?”
The brown men guffawed. The Captain shook his head. “Stupid, savage gibberish.” The soldiers of the compania grumbled. And Eyague kept his eyes on the burning sand and fought back the cold shivers running up and down his spine. For when the brown man spoke, Eyague, due to some inexplicable means of witchcraft or devilry, had perfectly understood every. Single. Word.
The Captain called back to the brown men. “So, I can’t finish reading this sentence because some jackass made it illegible. But I remember the main idea. Basically, it says that since I have now informed you of the Christian truth, if you do not convert it is your fault, not our fault, that we kill you, steal your goods, and make slaves of your wives and children. Got it? Your fault.” The Captain held his palms up. “Not ours.”
The brown men laughed. Another called out. “C’mon man, we gonna get this firepit going, get this barbecue on. Come eat. We’ll figure each other out over a beer.”
Eyague trembled and his mouth went dry. He’d understood that as well. “Fire,” he croaked, “they only want...”
“And fire is all these children of the devil will get,” said the harquebusier.
“Okay,” shouted the Captain. “Last sentence.” He lifted the parchment. “And that we have said this to you and made this Requisition, we request the notary here present to give us his testimony in writing, and we ask the rest who are present that they should be witnesses of this Requisition.” He faced the compania. “You’re all witnesses. Good?”
The compania grumbled.
“I’m going to need a clear, verbal ‘yes’ from each...”
“YES!” the compania shouted.
“Good enough,” said the Captain. “Where’s the notary?”
Eyague raised a shaking hand and shuffled over. “Here, boss. I’m here.”
The Captain looked down on Eyague’s diminutive form hunched over in pain. “If you’re going to die of scurvy or whatever,” the Captain said, “please complete your notarial duty first and present your testimony in writing.”
“Yes, boss. Of course.”
“Yo, yo,” the first brown man called out. “Your homie there ain’t looking so hot. Come eat. We’ll get you some guayaba. Clear his ass right up.”
Eyague dry retched and repeated what he’d heard. “Need... guayaba...”
The soldiers chuckled. “What’s a guava?” one asked. “Probably the name of the ancient slut who took his virginity,” another answered. The soldiers laughed and moaned, “Aye, guava! Aye, guava!”
“Yeah man, that’s right!” the brown man beckoned to the Spaniards. “But you fucking up the pronunciation. Gua. Ya. Ba. Come eat some, it’ll make your man straight.”
Eyague shivered. The Captain sneered. “Will you please hurry up?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” Eyague knelt and placed on the sand his leather bag from which he withdrew the instruments of his profession: vellum, pendent seal, and a rare working fountain pen he had once accepted as payment from a Morisco. Eyague wrote:
“I, Eyague Ortiz de Toledo, the notary of this Requisition and numerary notary public of the city of Toledo, give faithful and true testimony of how the Captain Francisco Cisneros de Hidalgo, on this third day of July in the year of our Lord fifteen hundred and fourteen...”
Eyague’s writing hand shook violently. He would never finish the sentence he started. In fact, those would be the last words he ever wrote. The Captain stood over him. “Jesus Christ, you fucking Jew. You’re not getting paid by the hour.”
The soldiers within earshot laughed. Eyague laughed too. “Why are you laughing?” the Captain asked. Eyague would have liked to answer that more times than not these days, the categorization of one as a Jew seemed to be less a matter of documented genealogy than a matter of public opinion. It was even rumored, quietly of course, that The Old Man himself was a converso descended from those people. As for Eyague’s family line, it was unclear. He was certainly not aware of any relative who practiced the Jewish traditions; and truthfully, beyond his grandparents, either maternal or paternal, Eyague did not even know who his forebears were. But one thing was very clear, at least to those who chose to look, and that thing was this: their Lord, their Savior, the Truth and the Light – whose Holy Name the Captain had, in so many ways, just now profaned – was the Word made flesh and that flesh belonged to a Jew. A Jew who was not paid, but who paid, for the deliverance of this wicked domain through his enduring of unspeakable torment from the third hour of his last day to the ninth. Eyague laughed again. He faced the Captain, wanting to say these things, but all he could manage was a high-pitched squeal, followed by an unintelligible phrase best recreated as, “Goo goo ga ga gaaaa,” that was completed with a bilabial trill (otherwise known as blowing-air-and-probably-some-spit-through-one’s-lips-to-make-the-sound-of-a-fart).
“God damn it,” said the harquebusier. “This fucker of his own mother has gone mad. Captain, you have more than enough witnesses to corroborate the making of the Requisition.”
The Captain looked down at Eyague, raised a foot, and with his boot shoved Eyague aside. “Let’s go then,” he said and walked up the beach toward the naked, brown crowd. The compania marched behind.
Eyague lifted his face from the sand and watched the brown men cheer, gesturing for the Spaniards to keep coming. A child ran out of the sea, up the beach, and into the waiting arms of a woman who picked the child up and laughed, her bare breasts adorned with a yellow necklace that swayed with her hair in the breeze. Eyague retched and spit out blood and tears exploded from his eyes. “Ama,” he babbled, watching the woman touch her nose to the child’s as the Spaniards approached. “Amamama.” Then he passed out.
He awoke to the growling of the dogs. They must have brought the beasts in from the ships, he thought, and when he opened his eyes, Eyague did in fact view, from left to right, sky, sea, sand, then pack of mastiffs fighting over a meal. Eyague sat up. His legs weak, he crawled on all fours away from the dogs – those creatures always disturbed him. He was farther up along the beach than he was before, in the area where the crowd of naked savages were, and looking back west, where the sun now set, he had no recollection of having walked or crawled or dragged himself this distance up the shore. This was disconcerting. This was a new source of panic. But his panic over the blank space in his mind that disallowed him from remembering how he got this far up the beach; his panic over the darkness in his throat that rendered him unintelligible; his panic, with one thought, subsided. And that thought was of his cousin Diego and the words Diego had spoken under the bridge on the west bank of the river that day before Eyague set out for Seville. “God forgive me,” Diego had said, “but I think it is in these spaces of forgetting that magic is truly allowed to take hold.”
The dogs yipped and whined. “Get over it,” an unfamiliar voice snarled, “legs are always mine.” Eyague looked to the dogs and saw a man squatting with the beasts, taking of their meal with his bare hands. Everyone knew to never get between these dogs and their meal. This man was not everyone. The man stood and Eyague gasped. There were about fifteen hundred men on this expedition, and as such, there were many who Eyague would not have encountered before now. But there was no way this man was among that number. Firstly, he was a giant. Literally. With his inhuman size the whole of Spain, let alone The Old Man’s crew, would have known exactly who he was. Secondly, the man did not speak in Spanish. Nor did he speak in the language of the savages. His tongue was much older. The giant held a piece of meat toward Eyague. “Want some?” Eyague shook his head ‘no’. “Your loss,” the giant said, licking his fingers. “Tastes just like chicken.”
Eyague tried to speak, but all he could say was, “Ah ka,” and then another bilabial trill.
“Who am I?” the giant responded, understanding Eyague perfectly. “Stop playing the fool, I can see through your guise now.”
Eyague instinctively jumped to his feet, but his legs were too wobbly and he fell in the sand again. He looked at the dogs. The giant was gone. Eyague heard a wail. A harquebusier and one of the crossbowmen from his compania appeared, each holding something. The dogs stood. “Wait,” the harquebusier said sharply and the dogs grew quiet, watching the men.
“You first this time,” the harquebusier said to the crossbowman.
“Very well,” the crossbowman said and swung his arm and the brown thing he held wriggled and wailed. It was an infant, maybe six months old, and it screamed as the crossbowman swung it by the foot back and forth. “This one’s got a good weight to it,” the crossbowman said. He stepped forward, grunting with effort on the upswing and released the baby, who arced through the air screaming and landed with a sickening thud about ten varas ahead. “Wow,” said the harquebusier. The dogs hunched their shoulders. “Wait,” the harquebusier said to the dogs again, and the infant he held screamed as well.
“Beat that,” the crossbowman laughed.
The harquebusier swung his arm. “It’s squirming too much.”
The harquebusier grunted and let fly the baby, whose body contorted in the air. Eyague flinched at the same sickening thud. The dogs salivated.
“Fell a little short there,” said the crossbowman.
“Best three out of five?” asked the harquebusier.
“Let’s do it,” said the crossbowman.
The harquebusier turned to the dogs. “Go.”
The dogs shot through the sand to devour the broken infants. The crossbowman and the harquebusier walked away.
Eyague waited briefly. Though he had apparently forgotten how to speak Spanish, he still understood it when heard and had comprehended all that was said between the crossbowman and the harquebusier. He prayed for strength and managed to stand. He willed himself to walk. Keeping his distance, he followed the harquebusier and the crossbowman up the beach. Brown bodies, their heads and limbs and genitals shot through with lead balls and sundered from swords, littered the sand. Eyague convulsed. The harquebusier and the crossbowman turned south, onto a small path that led into the forest. Eyague followed. He tripped over a tree root and stumbled. He recovered and felt the sting of a mosquito bite. He slapped at the back of his neck and faltered forward until he came to a clearing. He smelled smoke. In the clearing was a village. A village of round, wooden, thatch-roof huts, most of which were now aflame. Eyague perspired. He heard screams, the crackling of burning wood, a harquebus report. By a collapsing home, a naked brown man with a hole in his head fell at the feet of the harquebusier. The crossbowman struggled with a woman. The harquebusier, reloading his weapon, walked over to help. “Not yet!” the crossbowmen said and smashed his fist into the woman’s face over and over and over again. The woman still stood. “That all you got?” Eyague heard her say through blood and broken teeth. “So fucking macha these women are,” the harquebusier said and drew his sword. “I said not yet,” said the crossbowman. “Relax,” said the harquebusier and with one swipe sliced off the woman’s left leg just below the knee. She fell, screaming and writhing in a growing pool of blood. “Now she’s on her back,” laughed the harquebusier. The crossbowman stood over her and lowered his trousers. “Turn around,” he said. “I don’t like being watched.”
Eyague stumbled away. A group of his fellow Spaniards rushed by, almost knocking him over. He came upon a hut, larger than the rest, which, though emitting smoke and screams, had not yet been set ablaze. Eyague entered. A sweet, acrid stench that Eyague had never smelled before, but upon inhaling nonetheless recognized, wafted into his nostrils from a crackling fire in a small pit dug in the earthen floor. The flames tinted the five people in the hut a hellish hue. Captain Francisco Cisneros de Hidalgo, with the assistance of a second crewman, held down the tied up legs of a savage whose arms were tied behind him as well. The savage’s feet were roasting over the pit. It was the smell of burning flesh that filled the home. The savage opened his mouth to speak, and his proclamation was understood by all. For what he said was:
A fourth man, decked out in full body armor, leaned over the captive savage and Eyague froze. It was The Old Man himself. Of course, no one ever called him The Old Man to his face, even if he was pushing seventy years of age. Having served, in his youth, the Crown of Castile, and having distinguished himself in his later years during the final campaigns of the Reconquista, acceptable nicknames for The Old Man included The Jouster, The Gallant, and The Lion of Bugia – but even these no crewman would dare utter in addressal. The safest and simplest thing to call The Old Man was Senor. The savage moaned and struggled to catch his breath as The Captain removed his feet from the flame. The Old Man tapped his finger on the small, dense pendant figure hanging from a necklace he held. Eyague recognized it as the necklace he saw on the woman at the beach before he passed out. At closer range, Eyague could now see that the pendant figure was stained with blood and sculpted in gold.
“Where do you keep these?” The Old Man asked the savage. “You must have more.”
“Please,” said the savage. “This cruelty is unnecessary. Like you, I am a person.”
“Cannibal,” said The Old Man. “You are a cannibal.”
“Yes! Person!” said the savage. “I am a person.”
“That’s right. You are a cannibal.”
“You understand! I am a person!”
“Cannibal. Savage cannibal.”
Eyague, understanding both men and wanting to help clarify what he realized was the development of a historical miscommunication, tried to speak but could only say, “An <bilabial trill> wah ha!” The Captain, only just then noticing him, turned and said, “What the hell are you doing here?” The Captain then said to The Old Man, “Apologies, Senor. This is the notary I’d mentioned before.”
“The one who lost his mind?” said The Old Man as he froze Eyague with his frigid glare.
“An <bilabial trill> wah ha!” Eyague repeated.
“Well,” said a distinctly feminine voice. “Not all of us.”
Eyague faced the woman, the fifth person in the hut, confused as to how he had not perceived her before. There were no women amongst the crew – certainly no dark-haired beauties with the olive skin and silken robes of Moorish princesses. The woman laughed and fixed her blazing green eyes on Eyague. “Yes,” she said, “I understood you. And no, we are not all human.” Eyague gaped in awe. The woman said, “You’re so deep under you don’t remember, do you?” Eyague stammered. The woman whispered Spanish into The Old Man’s ear, “He’s harmless. Stay focused.”
“He’s harmless,” The Old Man said to the Captain. “Stay focused.”
The Captain lifted the savage’s feet and drew them toward the pit. “No! Please!” said the savage. “I am a person! My name is _____ . I have a wife, her name is _____ . With her I have a boy and two girls, they are _____ , _____ , and _____ . I also have another wife, _____ . Actually, I have seventeen more wives. I swear I’m not a player I just crush –”
The savage screamed as the Captain held his feet over the fire. The Old Man tapped the gold pendant again. “I want more of this.”
“You’re asking about that? I don’t know man,” the savage moaned. “We probably snatched that off those fellows we drove into the mountains back in the day.”
The woman whispered into The Old Man’s ear. “He’s trying to tell you he took it from someone else.”
“I think he’s trying to tell us he took it from elsewhere. Where?” The Old Man brought his face close to the savage’s. “Where did you get this from?”
The savage faced the entrance to the hut. “The people in the mountains! We drove them off the beach and into the mountains!” He gurgled in agony then passed out. Eyague winced as he watched a pinkish ooze flow from the soles of the tortured man’s feet – it was his melting bone marrow. The Captain removed the savage’s feet from the fire and rested them beside the dug pit, then stepped to the hut entrance that framed a view of the forested mountain range. “I think he’s telling us,” said the Captain, “that the gold is, HEY!”
Eyague, in a moment of newfound strength and clarity of purpose, had leapt forward and snatched the gold from The Old Man’s grip, then bolted past the Captain and out the door. The Old Man shouted with the fury of an insomniac war god. “GET HIM!”
The woman only laughed. “Let loose the dogs,” she whispered.
“LET LOOSE THE DOGS!” The Old Man roared.
The Captain blinked. “Of course, Senor,” he said. “It’s just, the dogs have already been let loose. Do you mean to say –”
“SET THEM UPON THE NOTARY!”
“Yes, I thought that’s what you meant, I just wanted to be certain –”
“Yes, Senor. Right away.” The Captain turned to leave, but paused. “Senor, you referred to the dogs, surely you didn’t mean all of them?”
“WHY WOULD I...” The Old Man sighed and deflated. “Why would I set all of the dogs on one man, you fool?”
“Of course, Senor. I just didn’t want to assume, because, you know, that’s how miscommunication happens and –”
“Captain. Take two dogs, track down the notary, and bring back my gold.”
“Got it. So you want me to go with the dogs?”
“Understood. My apologies. I just wanted to make sure I followed your orders as intended.”
“The blame is mine, Captain. I got a little caught up in the heat of the moment and it felt really good and dramatic to roar ‘Let loose the dogs!’ But that wasn’t a very clear command.”
“No, Senor, the blame is mine. I should have more quickly discerned your intention. It was a good, dramatic proclamation though. Now that I know exactly what you mean, perhaps you’d like to say it again?”
“Actually, I’d like that very much.”
“At your pleasure, Senor.”
The Old Man took a deep breath and roared. “LET LOOSE THE...” But then he succumbed to a hacking cough. The woman rolled her eyes. “Goddamn it,” she muttered.
“Goddamn it,” The Old Man eked out between spluttering fits.
“Goddamn it,” said the Captain. “My deepest apologies. We’ll never now be able to recreate that moment of martial valor.”
“Goddamn it,” said the other crewman who had been helping with the torture of the savage and only then, for some reason, decided to speak.
“Just...” said The Old Man, who hacked and coughed a gob of phlegm from his throat, “... just go.”
Eyague crashed through the dense green growth of the strange forest. His body was confused. On the one hand, the trees were so lush and tall they formed a canopy at least fifty varas high that kept all in shade and cooled the land to a comfortable degree. On the other, the terrain was so steep and overlaid with thick understory it forced Eyague’s lungs to burn with each forward step. He heard the mastiffs bay from afar. A parakeet, brilliantly orange and red and green, alighted on a branch nearby and squawked – and even this avian cry, in Eyague’s ear, suddenly held meaning. He ran toward the bird and found that the shrubs and ferns in this area of the forest’s understory were of a height and structure that allowed him to lay perfectly concealed. “Ah ga ah ah,” he whispered to the bird. The parakeet chirped back then flew away.
“Come on man,” the Captain’s voice shouted in the distance. “The longer this takes, the more apt you are to lose your head.”
A mastiff growled, closer this time. Eyague, on his back, shifted in the attempt to lay deeper beneath the understory. He felt miniscule legs crawl upon his skin and, still clenching the gold he’d snatched from The Old Man’s hand, willed himself still.
“I vouched for you, asshole!” shouted the Captain, even closer. “And you repay my kindness with this embarrassment!”
Eyague kept himself from gagging, unsure if this reflex was a reaction to the pungent smell of the decomposing vegetation in which he lay, or to the Captain’s statement and its want for truth. Captain Francisco Cisneros de Hidalgo had not vouched for Eyague to join the expedition as its notary from kindness. He’d done so from the need to avoid embarrassment in the first place.
A year prior – as Eyague was completing his apprenticeship with his uncle, the notary public Juan Toledo de Medina – the Captain’s wife, Dona Quiteria, had paid Uncle Juan to document her refusal to join her husband Francisco in seeking formal legitimation of a boy named Simon. The couple had raised Simon with their own children since he had been abandoned on their doorstep as a baby. Francisco had actually sued his wife in the attempt to legally force her to join him in the legitimating process, and Dona Quiteria wanted her objection recorded and commissioned by a notary in case Francisco later forced her to sign any declarations under duress. Uncle Juan obliged. Eyague, his apprentice, in line to take over as successor to Juan’s notarial post, helped draw up the document. But, as Dona Quiteria provided her testimony, it became clear that she truly loved the boy Simon. Furthermore, all in Toledo knew that both Dona Quiteria and her husband were of old and established lineages; the resources that would be inherited by her own two children would in no way be reduced to paltriness if shared with a third. It was these inconsistencies that led Uncle Juan to venture forth halfway through Dona Quiteria’s testimony and ask: “Forgive me, Senora, I do not mean to question your virtue, and should my next words insult your unblemished honor, please understand that I would rather die a thousand deaths at the thousand points of a thousand swords held by a thousand Moros in a thousand...”
“Spit it out,” Dona Quiteria said, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
“Why not legitimate the boy? What exactly is the problem here?”
And that was how Eyague and his Uncle Juan learned that Simon was not really abandoned at Captain Francisco and Dona Quiteria’s door. He was an illegitimate child Francisco had had with one of his many mistresses.
(Cue the ‘Cries in Spanish’ meme... now.)
After Dona Quiteria left the notary’s office, her lips full of infinite thanks and her eyes full of infinite tears, Juan Toledo de Medina turned to his nephew and said: “And that, my boy, is why they tried to take this post from our family.” Eyague nodded, used, after many years – ten in fact – to the tone taken by Uncle Juan when he was preparing to impart a lesson steeped in relevant practicality.
You see, Eyague’s childhood, idyllic and unassuming, had consisted of receiving all the attention of his widowed mother, Juan’s sister, all the attention of his cousin Diego, Juan’s son, and all the attention of a nameless Providence which kept him blissfully unaware, as a child ought to be, of such terrible matters as forced expulsions and burnings at stakes while he spent the majority of his days playing with wooden swords and riding sticks up and down the banks of the Rio Tajo alongside Diego. Then, of course, these aforementioned attentions came to an end. It happened the year he and Diego both turned twelve. Diego, being the more articulate and philosophical of the two, was sent by his father to the newly established Monastery of San Juan de la Reyna, where he would devote his mind, body, and soul to the credos and precepts of the Word, the Light, and the Truth. Eyague, being the less dreamy and more straightforward, was deemed by his uncle as the appropriate heir to Juan’s notarial post. Juan was pleased with his decision, and initiated Eyague’s apprenticeship with fervent lectures on the art of survival. The authorities, Juan explained to the sensitive twelve-year-old boy, were kicking suspected Muslims and Jews out of the country. And that was if those people were lucky. If those people were not lucky, they got burned alive. And as terrible as this sounded, Juan would do his best to explain, such horrors and hysteria were still little more than subterfuge. Killing a few thousand people or evicting them, in and of itself, changes nothing. But taking their property? Stripping them of their titles and positions? Then redistributing such to those who, for whatever reason – be it the similarity in the words of their prayers, or the similarity in the shapes of their noses – were judged as more loyal to the will of the court? That was how power, whatever that means, was focused and maintained. “We are all tribal,” Juan told the boy. “You want to survive in this world? Know your tribe. And be true to it. Even when you have to pretend you are not.”
These lectures rattled the boy. They entered his dreams. One day, when he was fourteen, his uncle, noticing he was not his usual alert self as he copied a recently dictated will, gently asked him if anything was wrong.
“I have dreams,” said Eyague.
“Dreams are the oasis in the desert of this life,” said Juan.
“These are bad. I am burning.”
Juan fixed his dark eyes on the boy. “I will never let that happen to this family.”
“There are demons there.”
Juan laughed. “Then you are afraid of hell.”
Eyague stayed silent. Juan grinned. “My boy. There is nothing to fear of hell. As for demons? All they can do is whisper.”
Diego meanwhile, flourished in the monastery, and Eyague would smile as Juan shared the monks’ glowing reports. “This is wonderful,” Juan said after reading one such report when Eyague was sixteen. “They first tried to take this post from my father, forty years before you were even born. They are still trying, they will never stop suspecting us.” But through sagacity and persistence, Juan explained, he had convinced the monks of San Juan de la Reyna to employ him as one of their notaries before the monastery’s construction was even complete. Now, with his son accepted into their order and flourishing as such, the relationship with the monastery was solidified. “They’ll never be able to strip us of this office now,” Juan said with a grin. Eyague smiled as well, but only because he too was very, very proud of Diego.
“EYAGUE!” Captain Francisco Cisneros de Hidalgo shouted, jarring Eyague from the sensation of sinking into the forest understory. “The dogs will find you! They have your scent from the bag you left on the beach. If you can hear me, come out!”
Eyague closed his eyes, considering his surrender. The heavy body of one of the dogs smashed through the understory. It barked. “Wait,” he heard the Captain firmly command it. They could not have been more than a few varas away. The Captain’s steps came closer and he called out with annoyance, “The dogs know you’re here. The Old Man cares only for his gold. Give back the necklace and, HOLY MOTHER OF –”
Eyague’s eyes shot open at the bang of a harquebus’ report. He frantically touched his body, searching for any new holes with which he had not been born. There was a crashing commotion. The dogs snarled.
Then there was a bloodcurdling scream. (Which is in fact, a scientifically accurate cliché. The scream induced Eyague’s body to increase levels of the blood clotting protein coagulant factor VII; an evolutionary response preparing his body for the possibility of blood loss in a life-threatening cliffhanger-type situation.)
“Do you see now?” Uncle Juan had asked Eyague those moments after the weeping Dona Quiteria had exited their office a year ago. “Do you see now the power of the notary?” He tapped the parchment on which Eyague had been summarizing the Dona’s testimony. “This is what we hold, my boy,” Juan said, “we hold the truth.”
The blood-curdling scream decreased in both pitch and amplitude, its source quickly moving away. Eyague remained still, refusing to leave the cover of the understory. There was another whimper, then a snarl, but not a dog’s snarl – it was shorter and louder and resembled an amplified version of an alley cat’s hiss. Then there was a popping crunch, not unlike the cracking of a large walnut. The whimpering stopped. Eyague heard a roar.
Trembling, he slowly brought his upper body from beneath the cover of the ferns. He froze. Standing before him, with huge eyes the color of the golden pendant he still held in his fist, was yet another demon. This demon did not take human form like the others he had seen that day. It looked like a lion without a mane. Covered from head to tail in black spots, blood dribbled from its jaws. It was as big as a mastiff, and clearly the more powerful as one of the dogs lay dead at its feet. The other dog lay motionless nearby. The Captain was nowhere to be seen; that must have been him screaming as he made his escape. Eyague tried to speak. “Oool ak, oool ak!”
The lion-demon stared at him with the countenance of one suffering an irritating distraction. It turned and slowly walked away, tapping its tail against the green of the forest floor. Eyague watched, relieved at its departure. But the demon stopped, and without turning, continued to tap its tail. All creatures have body language, and Eyague clearly understood what this one was saying now. He stood and stared at the blood and brains oozing from the holes in the heads of the dogs. The demon set off again. Eyague followed.
“Are we Jews?” Eyague had blurted out the day before he left for Seville. Diego, sitting beside his cousin on the west bank of the Rio Tajo, gathered the fabric of his brown tunic about his knees and responded with a question of his own. “Do we know the truth?”
The elder friars, given the circumstances, had shown lenience and allowed Diego to spend the day with Eyague, who had met him in the morning outside the monastery, in the empty plaza, grinningly offering a bollo with jam. Diego first looked about to ensure no monks were watching – this was a delicacy for avowed mendicants who never ate breakfast – then happily took and munched on the sweet bun. They walked. Eyague had wanted to take the southerly path from the plaza, but Diego urged them west. They crossed the Puente San Martin and came to rest on tufts of grass before the river and by the arches of the masonry bridge. As they sat on the west bank it occurred to Eyague why Diego wanted to avoid the southerly path – it would have taken them by the abandoned sinagoga. Exasperated by the blanks and holes and silences, by the deep quietude of affairs talked around instead of talked about like a gaping abyss in the center of a whirlpool forcing the currents of his life to an unwanted destination, Eyague made a desperate, futile attempt to pull himself from the eddies of this maelstrom by way of a line attached directly to the matter at hand. So he asked the question. Then Diego asked the other question, “Do we know the truth?” Then Eyague responded to the question Diego posed in response to his question with yet another question: “Do we?”
“I would say we do,” said Diego. “And how can we be Jews, if we know the truth?”
“But do we, in fact, know the truth, Diego?”
Diego turned a laconic eye to the river. “I know you are upset with my father’s decision.”
“I was supposed to take over his office. Not get shipped off to the New World.”
Diego picked at a tuft of grass. “Brother Francis admonished us, while he still walked this earth, to not be upset over the taking of our offices any more than we would be upset by –”
“Do you know what he did?” Eyague cut him off. “To place me on this expedition, do you know what he did?”
Diego squinted from the sun.
“He blackmailed one of the captains,” said Eyague. “He told Francisco Cisneros that if I was not placed on this expedition he would publicize Dona Quiteria’s testimony about the bastard Simon.”
Diego nodded in silence.
“I asked your father, who I also consider my father,” said Eyague, “why he would violate the trust of the virtuous Dona Quiteria and potentially invoke her ire in doing so. Do you know what he said?”
“He laughed.” Eyague trembled with passion. “And he said, ‘What can she do? They may suspect us to be Jews, but they know with certitude that she is only a woman.’ ”
“Is this the way to treat people?” asked Eyague. “Is this the way of truth?”
“We have to survive.”
“Even if it causes the misery of others? Now that I am on this expedition, Dona Quiteria will be forced into legitimating the bastard. When she requests that your father produce her testimony, he will pretend he has no idea what she is talking about.”
“What else did my father say?”
“He told me to think of the glory it would bring our family name.”
Eyague was exasperated by his cousin’s silence. “I understand I must follow the will of our Lord and Savior. But is this the Divine Will or is it just the will of Uncle Juan?”
“All we can do,” said Diego, “is pray and seek to know. We are little boys. Lost in the forest. Begging for guidance. That is why Brother Francis named us the Order of Little Brothers.”
Eyague ignored his cousin’s pontification. “Be it the will of our Lord or the will of Uncle Juan, the question remains as to why? Why was I put through everything I was? The apprenticeship, the exams...” Eyague placed his head in his hands. “The exams. All those detailed questions on sales, rentals, proxies. All that, just to send me away?”
Diego stood and held out his hand. “You know why.”
“To bring honor to our family name? What name? Toledo? That’s not a name, that’s where we’re from. Our family has forgotten its true name.”
Diego patiently left his hand extended. Now Eyague was the one whose words swirled about a gaping abyss. “You know why,” Diego repeated.
Eyague looked up at his cousin. “You think Uncle...”
“Of course he knows,” said Diego, his face silhouetted from the morning sun. “He could have sent any one of our cousins to the monastery. Tomas, for example. That boy would make a much better monk than I.”
Eyague quivered with realization. “Uncle Juan didn’t do this to alleviate the suspicion of our heritage. He did this to separate...”
“He did it for both reasons,” said Diego.
“He is a monster.”
“He is a survivor. He is ensuring his family’s survival.”
“He is a demon.”
“Eyague,” Diego said, still holding out his hand, “fortune has granted us the blessing of one more day.”
“One last day.”
“Any day could be our last. Rejoice in that which you have been given.”
Eyague took his cousin’s hand. Diego pulled him to his feet. They looked about furtively and walked, hands still clasped, to the first arch of the San Martin Bridge. Beneath the arch, in the shadows against the masonry wall, they listened to the trembling river and wept as their mouths kissed and their breath fought to be the same air.
The lion-demon walked on.
Eyague followed, as he had been, for a length of days he’d already lost track of. He had no idea as to where the demon’s steps led. Of only two things could he be sure – one, if the demon wanted to kill him it would have done so already; and two, whatever challenges he’d face in the forested mountain range of this strange land paled in comparison to the hell on earth he’d watched his supposed compadres creating on shore. He touched the gold pendant of the necklace he wore, the one he’d snatched from the clutches of The Old Man. Eyague had run into the mountains, hoping to encounter whatever people the tortured savage had alluded to in his pained communication, hoping to warn them that Spain was coming and she was coming for their gold. His purpose, however, as it seemed to often be in his life, was hijacked by a stronger will – in this case the will of a lion-demon who Eyague was not so sure was a demon. It began to rain. Eyague coughed and spit out blood.
It rained often in these mountains and for this Eyague was grateful. Though the rain kept the clothes dangling on his bruised, emaciated frame uncomfortably damp, it also kept him hydrated. He stopped beneath a steady trickle of water falling from a thick group of leaves. The lion-demon waited. When Eyague had sated his thirst, they moved on.
They crossed another river, the lion-demon’s motion as graceful in water as it was on land. When Eyague’s feet touched forest floor again they traversed a steep decline. Then they entered a clearing and ascended once more.
It was only after the tenth step or so that Eyague processed why his current climb was easier than those he’d followed the lion-demon through before. They were scaling a staircase of stone. As the stairs continued, higher and higher above the forest floor, Eyague realized these steps could not be a natural occurrence and, touching the gold pendant, began to suspect that the lion-demon’s purpose was also his own.
This suspicion was verified as Eyague, drenched in rain and sweat and gasping for air, reached the top of the staircase. He followed the lion-demon on a stone path through a thicket, then froze as this thicket cleared. He tried his best to not faint from an overwhelming sense of awe. There were stone-paved terraces, well over a hundred, carved in the surrounding mountainsides. There were stone-paved roads and plazas and farms, stretching out as far as his eye could see and dotted with scores of thatch roof homes similar to those he’d observed in the village by the shore. And there were people. Roaming on the roads. Playing in the plazas. Farming on the farms. There had to be thousands of them. Tens of thousands. This was no village. This wasn’t even a city. This was a metropolis.
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There was the clack, clack of wood on wood, then there was a voice suffused with a weariness not to be confused with a lack of clarity.
Okay guys? Look, this marriage stuff is hard. Never, ever, was it meant to be easy. But nothing beautiful is. So take your time. Think on it some more. Really think. Then decide.
Eyague’s eyes fluttered open. He was on his back. Above him spanned a domed ceiling made of wooden rods and crossbeams formed from concentric circles, the highest and smallest of which was evenly divided into four quadrants by a cross. Had the Savior, the Son, the Word made flesh already made Himself known in this New yet Old and certainly unrenowned World? Eyague turned his head. He saw a man garbed in a white tunic and pants and a white cap not unlike those Eyague knew to be worn by the Muslims and the Jews, except the cap was shortly pointed. The man escorted a younger male and female, also dressed in white, to the entrance.
“Check in with me next week sometime. Cool?”
The couple nodded in gratitude. The man leaned his head outside. “Who’s next? Come on in.” He re-entered, followed by two younger men who shyly smiled and sat on wooden stools across from him. “Now last time, I asked you both to meditate on...”
He was interrupted by a moan from Eyague, whose mouth felt as if it were aflame.
“Someone’s cranky when awake,” said the man. “Guys, so sorry. Can we reschedule for later today? Or tomorrow?” He pointed to Eyague. “Dealing with a bit of an unprecedented situation here.”
The two young men glanced in Eyague’s direction and nodded in understanding. They left. The man approached Eyague, carrying a thin wooden stick and a thin wooden gourd. “Hey, Little Brother,” the man said, his taut brown skin crinkling about his eyes.
Eyague sat up. The man squatted beside him.
“Sorry about all the people in and out. Today’s normally my pre-marital counseling appointments and I wasn’t expecting you to wake up yet.”
“Kuwapee?!” said Eyague.
“Oh,” said the man. “You speak that language.”
“The first language. Your spirit is very old.”
“Where am I?” Eyague repeated his first question in the first language.
The man raised his hands toward the ceiling. “You’re in the world-house.”
Eyague then realized he was sitting in the center of a drawn circle, divided by a cross, directly below the same shape at the top of the ceiling. “You understand me?” Eyague asked in the first language.
“I’m a little out of practice, but I can pick up what you’re putting down.”
“We’re all born knowing the first language. Most forget. I am One of the Sun, and I was trained to be so since the moment of my birth. So yeah, I didn’t forget.”
“I have forgotten,” said Eyague.
“How to speak my language.”
“You’re not forgetting anything,” said the man. “You’re remembering everything.”
“Is that why I can understand everyone else’s language?”
“If you can understand the first language, you can understand every language.”
“Like the people on the beach,” Eyague said, forlorn. “I understood them.”
“Yeah, let’s talk about them,” the man said with caution. He pointed to the pendant Eyague still wore. “Did they give you that?”
“They are dead,” said Eyague.
The man froze. “What do you mean, ‘they’? Like, all of them?”
The man stayed silent, awaiting further explanation.
“My brothers,” said Eyague, “have come from a far-away place, across the sea.” He held up the pendant. “They want more of this. And they will burn and rape and murder you to get it.”
The man smiled sadly. “Oh, Little Brothers. Still so angry at Mother for sending you to your room.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was a nice room,” said the man. “She let you keep all your toys.”
“Do you understand what I have said to you?”
“Absolutely,” said the man.
“Then how can you be so calm?”
The man stood and fell deep in silent thought. “Let’s take a walk,” he finally said.
Eyague rose painfully to his feet.
“And while we’re walking,” said the man, “I want you to tell me all you remember about the beginning of the world.”
The man and Eyague slowly walked up and down the stone paths and stairwells that traversed the city. Eyague spoke, and the man, meditatively dipping his thin wooden stick into his thin wooden gourd over and over before pulling it out and sucking on it, listened. They passed through a densely populated area of round houses from which men and women, barefoot and clad in simple white clothes, cleaned and tidied the streets while their children ran in and out of the surrounding forest in play. The men and women, dark brown with long, black, coarse hair, smiled at the man in acknowledgment and eyed Eyague with caution. Insects chirped. Birds cawed. Eyague paused and complained of the pain in his mouth. The man pulled a leaf from the shrubbery lining their path. “Chew on this,” he said. Eyague did, and in short time felt better. They kept walking.
Eyague spoke to the man of the beginning of the world, happy to detail all that he knew. Was this not the true reason Rex Catholicissimus sent ships to find these lands? To educate these people? To reveal to them the Light of the Word of the True? Eyague spoke of the Light and the separation of the Waters. The first six days. The Sabbath. The Garden. The Expulsion. The man listened quietly, at times closing his eyes and sucking on his wooden stick. When Eyague finished, they came to a tree by a creek, from the branches of which hung several gold pendants like the one Eyague wore. Eyague felt pride. He had informed the man of the beginning of the Way and the Truth. And the man had understood.
Eyague expected the man to look upon him now with gratitude and with discernment; or at the very least with some form of muted veneration. But the man looked at Eyague with only a pained and patient smile. “Poor Little Brothers,” he said. “You guys really have issues with women now.”
Eyague stared at the man, agape. That was not the response he expected.
“I mean, I get it,” said the man. “Mom got pissed at you, told you to stay in your room. All that time not being allowed to go out and play, yeah, you’d be pretty distrustful of women.”
Eyague stammered wordlessly.
“The problem,” said the man, “is that Little Brother still hasn’t acknowledged what he did to make Mom so pissed. And like all bad little children, instead of admitting what he did and apologizing so Mom can forgive him, Little Brother created a story. A story based mostly in truth, but all twisted up to make it sound like what happened to Little Brother was not his fault and that he’s not in the wrong when he always was.”
“You must mean the original sin?” Eyague stammered. “But we, we acknowledge that Adam and Eve ate from...”
“Oh, please,” the man laughed, “that nonsense about the tree, what did you call it?”
“The Tree of Knowledge of Good and –”
“Yeah, that. Mother never forbid you from any tree, man. And Mother very clearly taught us, all of us, what was good and what was evil. But Little Brother went and did evil anyway. And it wasn’t because Little Sister told him to. That whole part of your story’s a lie.”
“It is not a lie!” said Eyague. “It is the Word of the True!”
The man sat on the ground by the creek and beckoned to Eyague. Eyague sat beside him.
“You ever seen a child lie so much he begins to believe his own lies?” the man asked.
Eyague stared at the creek and angrily trembled.
“Here’s the deal,” said the man. “You’re dying.”
Eyague listened to the burbling water. “I know.”
“If I had met you earlier, I could have helped you. Some guayaba would have cleared you right up. But, you’re too far along now.”
Eyague picked up a stone. “Put that back,” the man gently chided. Eyague did. “That was the bad news,” said the man. “Would you like the good?”
“You’re not exactly who you think you are,” said the man.
“How can I not be me?”
“I can see you’re the rebirth of a very, very old soul. And for some reason, I do not know what, that soul needs to be freed. But it needs to learn the truth first, otherwise it would not have brought you here, to us, the Big Brothers you left out of your story in the beginning.”
“You’re saying Adam had an older brother?”
“Brothers. And Sisters. Lots of them.”
“If eating from the tree was not Adam’s original sin, what was?”
“Funny,” said the man, “we never knew exactly. That specific incident was lost in time. But after hearing your version of the story, I now have a theory.” The man dipped his thin wooden stick into the gourd then sucked on it. “Would you like to hear my theory?”
“I think you little assholes just didn’t want to do your chores.”
Eyague raised his eyebrows. The man laughed. “Yup, you didn’t want to do any work.”
Eyague bristled. “My people are known for their work. Their productivity. Their exploration in all matters of...”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do they really work? Or do they work at making others work for them? Think deeply on this.”
Eyague fell silent.
“I thought so,” said the man. “My educated guess, based on the bits and pieces of your version of the story that sound true, is that you were lazy. You wanted to run and frolic all over the Garden and just have fun. And there is a time for that. But this...” the man swept his hands to encompass the creek and stones, the shrubs, the palms, the paths, the terraces, the low clouds hovering by the surrounding mountainsides, “...it takes work to take care of this.”
The man set down his stick and gourd then reached for the pendant around Eyague’s neck. “Do you mind?” he asked. Eyague shook his head. The man took the pendant and stood. “Listening to what you remember, and comparing it to what we remember, it sounds like Little Brother was perfectly content figuring out how to make his Elder Brothers take care of the Garden for him. And Mother got angry and said, ‘Take all your toys and go to your room. If you’re not going to help clean and live in filth, do it there.’ And instead of coming out of his room and saying, ‘Sorry Mom, I’ll do better,’ he stayed inside and grew angry and created a story in which Mother was erased, everything was Little Sister’s fault, and his Elder Brothers became invisible men.”
The man squatted and dipped the gold pendant in the creek, washing off its crust of caked blood. “And now Little Brother has come, to find Elder Brother and make Elder Brother do his work for him again. But now he is angrier and even more violent.” The man shook his head. “Did they really kill all those people on the beach?”
“The children too?” The man’s voice broke.
Eyague nodded once more.
The man clutched his chest and forced himself to stand. “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.” He stepped past Eyague, to the tree with the hanging pendants. “And I don’t say that lightly. Those people on the beach really were our worst enemies.”
“You’re not the same people?” said Eyague.
“Heck no,” said the man, drawing in air to make his voice boom. “WE. ARE. THE PEOPLE OF THE JAGUAR.”
Eyague cocked an eyebrow. “What’s a jaguar?”
“Oh, it’s...” The man stretched out his hands to indicate something large, then brought his two index fingers to point down from his upper lip. He growled.
The man sighed. “Kind of a like a cat. Way bigger though. Much more frightening.”
Eyague’s eyes lit up. “Like a lion!”
“What’s a lion?”
Eyague took a different tack. “Does it have spots?”
“That’s the creature I followed here!”
The man looked up at the tree with the gold pendants. “You weren’t following that jaguar. He was following you.” He sighed and hung the pendant he took from Eyague onto the tree. “Little Brother has found his way out of his room and back into the Garden. He’ll eventually find all his Elder Brothers, and force them to work so he can bleed more of this from Mother’s body.” He touched the dangling pendant.
“Gold,” said Eyague.
“Blood,” said the man, still touching the pendant. “This is Mother’s blood. That’s why when we find it we hang it from places like these. To remind us where the points of intersection are. The places where the spirit-paths we stalk, as the Jaguar stalks through the forest...” The man brought the tips of his fingers together. “...meet. And these paths are Mother’s veins, carrying her blood through all the nine worlds.”
“Nine worlds?” Eyague muttered.
The man continued, patiently. “Everything started in Mother’s mind. In her imagination. And what she imagined was an egg.”
Eyague shivered. The man noticed this and nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “She imagined this egg. Then she laid it upright. We, people, are in its yolk. There are four layers outside this yolk, so we have four layers above us and four layers below. You follow?”
“That’s why we have nine worlds. The four worlds above us, that’s where the sprit-beings are from, creatures from the worlds of Mother’s more raw imagination. They are generally nice and helpful and pretty kind. They like us, we like them, we keep it cool. Below us is also where spirit-beings are from. But the below-spirits are different. They don’t like us. They’re always trying to screw us over and manipulate us into doing shitty stuff.”
“Surely, you speak,” said Eyague, “of the circles of Heaven and Hell. Of the Angels and the Demons.”
“Call them what you want. But don’t call me Shirley. The important thing to realize is that the layers above and the layers below are actually the same layers. There’s no real separation between them. There’s no real difference between the sprits above or the spirits below, except for the choices they make, and how those choices influence us.”
“Our demons,” muttered Eyague, “are fallen angels. Jealous from the love given to humanity.”
“Heyyyy,” said the man. “Now that was useful information. We were never really sure why the spirits below were so mean to us. We suspected it was envy but we couldn’t be sure. Anywhosie. The point of all my rambling is this.” The man stared hard at Eyague. “I don’t think your soul is an everyday run-of-the-mill soul. I think yours is actually a spirit from one of the above worlds of Mother’s raw imagination. And you have a mission. I don’t know what. But given that Little Brother has found us, I’m guessing it has something to do with that.”
Eyague shivered again. The man smiled. “I’m glad we met. I wish more of the Little Brothers had spirits like yours. Then we could sit at a fire and just talk. Share our stories. Share what we remember. Help each other fill in the gaps of what we know about who we are and how we got here.” Though he smiled, the man’s eyes were sad. “We could have found other brothers and sisters, talked to them as well. We could have come up with a, oh I don’t know, a grand unified theory of everything. A grand unified story.”
Eyague looked at the ground. “They have no interest in your stories.”
“Not now,” said the man. “But they eventually will.”
“It will be too late by then.”
“Maybe,” said the man as he looked up again at the gold pendants dangling from the tree. “I had a dream once. Would you like to know my dream?”
“Please,” said Eyague.
“I saw a man. An odd-looking man. He looked a bit like me.” The man faced Eyague. “But he also looked a bit like you. And he too was a jaguar, stalking stories through the forests of time.” He faced the tree again. “He is here with us now, in this place of intersection. I see him in Mother’s imagination. He makes marks on wood that speak in people’s minds. He is stalking us. He is telling our story.” The man shook his head and chuckled. “And he’s getting most of the details wrong. But he is doing his best, and that’s all we can ask anyone to do.”
Eyague shivered once more.
“Now that you know the truth,” the man said, “are you ready to die?”
Eyague took a breath, then nodded with forced bravery. The man retrieved his stick and gourd from the ground by the creek. “Come along then.”
Eyague rose to his feet and followed.