Sunday, January 12, 2014

River (Pt. XVII)

Jonah holds forth:

El Cocodrillo led them up a muddy switchback that climbed from the bottom lands into the wooded hills. After him came Eligius, disarmed and despondent. The tatterdemalion mob, hooting and chattering like a band of unruly monkeys, followed.

"Given what you've no doubt heard about me, I can't blame you for being afraid,"
said Cocodrillo. He waved his arms as he spoke, the plume on his hat bobbing in time with his stride. "They'll have told you I'm a cutthroat and a warlock and that I've sold my soul to the Devil." He shrugged. "I know well enough what is said about me.

Eligius said nothing. His mind was on the hearth in the manor and Lupe's firm and loving hand, and forlorn, gentle Dolores.

Cocodrillo continued. "Whatever you've heard, I can assure you that my reputation surpasses my reach. If I had done but half of what they say I would be the greatest man in the New World. Never mind the Aztec priest-kings or Guayana Capac in his hidden stone palace. But truth is merely a notion, yes? Tell me, Eligius, what do you believe?

Eligius was too dispirited to answer.

Cocodrillo leaned forward against the steepening slope. "Let me ask you," he said, " have you heard of La Seca?" 

The name brought Eligius's heart to his throat. The name was part of the Cocodrillo legend. Eligius had first heard it mentioned in a whispered conversation between Lupe and Maximo, shortly after Maximo had returned from a voyage to Caracas. The half-heard mumblings between them suggested that La Seca was a remote fishing village on the island of Dominica. La Seca's people, mostly indigenous, were good Catholics and proud Spanish citizens. Because of this, the story went, when El Cocodrillo's barque, La Deriva, appeared one day in the little harbor, the good people had immediately dispatched a messenger to Grenada to inform the Spanish garrison of the whereabouts of the Carribean's most notorious buccaneer. Luck was not with the people though. The treachery was discovered and El Cocodrillo, in a diabolic fury, unleashed his crew upon the village. When Eligius  asked Maximo about the story later that day, the normally blunt Maximo replied, "If it must be that you learn of such things, so be it. But as I love you, hijo, you will not learn of them from me." 

Later, in the stockyard, Eligius inquired about the story from the slaves. 

It was said that Cocodrillo's men, the very men that were at that moment, following the boy up the slope, had each stocked himself with powder and shot, disembarked from their dinghies, and strolled up from the beach to the village, as casual as Sunday church-goers. The mayor of La Seca and a delegation of elders came forth to greet the men and plead for clemency. These, the pirates killed with a ragged volley. From there, they went to the threshold of each dwelling. Any men or boys they found were shot out of hand. Those who resisted were dragged into the village square, bound hand and foot, and left to lie in the scorching sun. Most of the women and children had fled to the church, where the village priest led them in exhortations to the Blessed Virgin for deliverance. They found none. The corsairs set fire to the church then lined up to form a gauntlet outside the narthex. To save powder, they wielded clubs and mattocks. When the flames grew and engulfed the little church, some inside ran out to escape the infernal heat. These, the crew fell upon, beating them until they fell, and then beating them further. It was said that the children, caught between the flames and the pitiless cudgels, gave up shrieking and huddled, solemn and silent, to await whichever demise would claim them. 

When the flame-engulfed church collapsed on the last of the refugees, the pirates turned again to the prisoners in the square: some dozen boys and young men. These they blinded, driving dirks into their eyes. Their bonds were cut and the sailors at last embarked again on their landing boats to return to La Deriva. The survivors were left to wander blindly among the ruins of their home, to stumble upon the corpses of those they had loved, to spend the last of their days grieving and contemplating the final images of their vision.

Eligius saw that Cocodrillo yet waited for an answer. He swallowed down the pain and fear in his breast. "I know of La Seca," he said.

Cocodrillo's smile was thin and touched with sadness. He cast his eyes toward the ground between them. "And do you believe what they say?" he asked.

Eligius, seeing Cocodrillo's lack of surety and sensing, anyway, that his own fate was out of his hands, felt a surge of defiance. "Is it true?" he asked.

"Truth," Cocodrillo scoffed. Behind him, Eligius heard low, mocking laughter from the vagabond horde.

Cocodrillo shook his head, then turned and continued up the slope. "The governor and his soldiers seek me out," he said. "They seek me so they might inflict their tortures upon me, to hold me to account for my many sins. And if one day I am brought to their justice, I will readily confess to whatever charges they lay upon me. But I tell you this, hijo:  no matter what infernal torments they put upon me, I will never confess that I sold my soul to any fiend in the hope of some reward. You seek truth. Well, know this: Though they torture me with their red glowing irons, I will howl to the heavens. Whatever role I have played in the cosmic drama, I never chose it. I have only played the part God thrust upon me."

The path rose steadily. Above them, the crowns of the hills seemed to glow in the sunlight.

After a time, the trail reached a rocky shelf from which one could espy all the lands that lay below them. Cocodrillo paused and turned toward Eligius. "Let us take see what we can see," he said.

Cocodrillo walked out to the edge of the rock outcropping and produced a spyglass from inside his jacket. He extended it to its full length and aimed it down at the flat fields below. He squinted through one eye, looking back along the stream that ran to the Fuentes estate. 
Eligius watched, but made no move to follow. 

Cocodrillo was a while in his inspection. But then he nodded, as if seeing in the topography some confirmation of a sad belief. He turned and extended the spyglass, eyepiece toward Eligius. "Your lesson continues," he said. "Come see."

Eligius did not move. Behind him, the vagabond horde tittered. "Too frightened to move, he is..." "Like a rat in the owl's shadow..."

Cocodrillo silenced them with a stern glance. "Come, lad, have a look," he said. He shook the spyglass at Eligius. 

Some force pushed at Eligius. He found himself stepping forward toward where Cocodrillo crouched on the rock outcropping. The spyglass hung in the space between them until Eligius's hand, seemingly of its own volition, reached out and took it.

 Cocodrillo pointed to a place along the dark ribbon of stream in the forest below. "There," he said.

Eligius held the spyglass to his eye and looked toward where Cocodrillo pointed. At first, he saw only forest, but as he watched he began to notice movement. Birds flitted among the canopy and a breeze stirred the foliage. Then, he noticed something else. People were making their way along the stream, the same way he had come earlier. A band of men moving with purpose and determination. "Papa," he gasped.

Cocodrillo whispered in his ear. "Soon enough, you will know for yourself. About choosing. About choices."

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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