Tuesday, July 30, 2013

River (Pt. VIII)

"Hello and good day, everyone! Welcome to the Rose City!" Jonah's voice boomed out across the concrete. Some two dozen people sat at the tables near the food cart and another dozen or so were nearby on the esplanade and the sound drew their attention. Eddie and Flo, seated on the bench, turned away from the river to look.

Costumed like a pirate, with a frilly white blouse, a tricorner hat, breeches, knee socks and buckled, black leather shoes, Jonah stood tall. He had removed the trunk from the rickshaw and stood atop it, towering over the loosely assembled crowd. His face was done up to appear grizzled and unshaven.

"And what a lovely day it is!" he bellowed. "Who says that Portland is all rain and drizzle? A day like today, when the sun is so proud, is a day to see things clearly. It's a day to take note of where the currents of life have carried you." He surveyed his audience, taking in the bemused, interested expressions.

("What is he up to?" Flo asked. Eddie shrugged.)

"Where is everyone from?" he continued. He pointed to a man seated at one of the tables --a paunchy middle-aged man with thin hair and sagging shoulders, a handsome middle-aged woman seated at his side. "You, sir! Where do you call home?"

"Seattle!" came the reply.

"Seattle!" Jonah said. "One of the few places in the lower forty-eight that gets less sunshine than Portland." He winked. "My sympathies." He pointed to another spectator; a pretty young woman in polka-dot sun dress and sandals. "How about you?"

"Eugene, Oregon."

"From Eugene! Upriver!" Jonah said. "Carried downstream by the mighty Willamette! Hang on, sister! The ride has only begun." He cast his gaze at Flo. "How about you? Where are you from?"

Flo looked down and said nothing.

"Come now. Don't be shy," Jonah said. "Where are you from, sister?"

"She's from nowhere," Eddie said. 

Jonah's face was a mask of disappointment and surprise. "Nowhere?" he asked. "Imagine that." He pulled at his chin. "Nowhere." Then he shook his head, as if to clear it of puzzling thoughts.

"In any case, I can see we've got some adventurous spirits among us." He cast a quick glance at Eddie. "All to the good. Who doesn't love adventure? In my experience, adventurers come in two types. Those who go out to seek their fortunes and those who seek to escape from the fortunes thrust upon them."

Jonah struck a pose. He stood on one foot and crossed his knee with the other foot in a figure-four. He held one arm across his middle and one hand to his chin. He squatted as if he were seated on an invisible stool. For all appearances, he was sitting on empty space.

("How does he do that?" Flo whispered. "It's just practice is all," Eddie said doubtfully.)

"When I look out on this crowd," Jonah continued, "I'm reminded of Eligius and how he discovered his fortune in the days when the Caribbean Sea was a wild and adventuresome place. You all know the story, yes?" Jonah straightened and cast about, looking for acknowledgment. Blank faces.

"No! Really?" Jonah asked, astonished. "No one in this crowd of adventurers knows the story of Eligius, the pirate's son? I simply can't believe it." He cast about in disbelief, then seemed to accept the truth of it. "Well, if you'll indulge me, I'll remedy that." He glanced at Eddie and chanced a conspiratorial wink.

"Listen closely, if you will," Jonah said. "There is a lesson here for everyone." He stood with his feet apart and his chest pushed out, one arm across his breast.

Eligius, the Pirate's Son

Long ago, in the days when oceans were bigger than they are today, when men still sailed in masted wooden ships and measured their positions by gazing at the stars, a childless woman found a baby in a basket on the banks of a muddy stream in Puerto Rico. 

The woman's name was Guadalupe and she was a kindly woman and good, from a noble family of pure Spanish blood. Such was her nature that, even as a child, those who knew her agreed that Guadalupe was born to be a mother. 

Guadalupe was the wife of Máximo Fuentes, the most important merchant in all of San Juan, who made his fortune through hard work and discipline.

In those days, Puerto Rico was the key to Spain's American empire. Spanish fleets, laden with gold and spices, would make San Juan their final port of call before the long voyage eastward across the Atlantic. 

Máximo came to San Juan from Spain early in his life. He received an inheritance from his blue-blooded father and set out for the New World, determined to carve his own fortune. He purchased land not far from the settlement and with no more than a dozen slaves, cleared and tilled a full labor of land, just off the road to Bayamón. From the newly-won land, Máximo grew yams and squash and raised cattle to sell to the fleets and the Spanish garrison at the harbor. Over the years, his business and his reputation grew; and when finally, after he was a well-established and respected citizen in San Juan, he sent word back to his family in Grenada, arrangements were made and the political match-making of Spanish nobility dictated that Guadalupe, the daughter of an allied family, sail westward for a life in the New World.  

When Guadalupe debarked, he was waiting at the dock, dressed in a threadbare and hopelessly passé suit for which he would have been mocked in the courts of Spain. But Guadalupe was not a woman to dwell on such matters. Rather, it was the look of grim determination on her groom's face, a look tinged with resignation and despair that gave her pause. Is this what the frontier has in store for me then? she wondered. Very well. I am strong, in faith, if nothing else.

Their marriage and their life together was arduous. It was not easy, in those days, to live on the outskirts of the empire. And if the thing that grew between them was not exactly love, they respected and appreciated each other enough to make life tolerable. In the early years of their marriage, although they tried, and although their wealth and influence in San Juan grew, God did not see fit to bless them with a child.

After several years of barrenness, the Fuentes' hopes for a child slowly faded. Máximo spent more of his time away on business, selling his salted beef to other Caribbean settlements, everywhere from Haiti to Cuba. Guadalupe kept herself busy running the household, overseeing the work of a full staff of servant women and arranging for the care and upkeep of the slaves who tended the land. 

Guadalupe had been in the new world for ten years on the day that she spied the basket resting on the muddy stream bank. Máximo was away on an extended trip, having sailed to Veracruz to negotiate a contract for a new cash crop. (Back in Spain, the aristocrats had taken to wearing purple and demand for indigo was such that even the cautious Máximo was attracted by the thought of mountainous profit.)

Guadalupe was making her routine circuit of the farm, when she saw it. A woven basket like those that she saw the local women carry to market in San Juan. Curiosity, nourished by the ennui of a gentlewoman's life, caused her to approach and peer inside. 

Within, dark, solemn eyes set in a cherubic face calmly beheld her. Guadalupe was astonished to discover a baby, wrapped in swaddling folds.

When she saw the child she was nearly overcome. Why would a baby be alone in a basket on the steam bank that bordered her husband's estate? Surely the mother must be nearby.

Guadalupe took the basket and laid it higher up the bank, away from the water. Then she looked around. But she could not see far. On the stream's far bank, the forest was thick in shadow; silk-cotton and candle-wood defeated the sunlight. She feared to leave the child, but she stood on the bank and called out into the darkness. "¿Hola? Is anyone there?"

For a moment she thought she could hear rustling and her heart stopped. She sensed movement in the shadows and might have heard human voices, but no one or nothing revealed itself. 

She called out again, but the darkness swallowed her lonesome cry.

Guadalupe returned to the basket, unwrapped the child and took it in her arms. It was a boy with long arms and legs and brown skin. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the child save an ink-stain birthmark on its breast, directly over its heart, in the shape of a sirena, one of the fabled fish-women that lured men to watery death on the high seas.

No matter how the child had come nor whom it belonged to, Guadalupe could not leave it to fend for itself. No Christian would. So she lay the child in the basket and took it with her back to the manor. 

She did not yet dare to hope that the child was a gift from God.

To be continued...

Read Part I here.Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

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