Sunday, September 14, 2014

River (Pt. XVIII)

Sweat has washed away most of the makeup. Muddy runnels stripe Jonah's face. But the story is moving on its own now:

The trail climbed higher yet, switching back and forth across the face of the rise until it let out onto a shelf of land --a level place about the area of a barnyard. Here the ground was barren of foliage and the bare dirt packed firm by the traffic of many feet. Scattered about were clusters of tents --the salvaged canvas of lost ships. A large stone-ringed fire pit, several paces across, marked the center of the clearing. Within the ring, low-burning flames glowed orange-yellow, like iridescent jewels. The boles of fallen trees were arranged around the fire pit. For sitting, Eligius reckoned.

A hunch-backed crone tended the fire. Hat-less and balding, she wore a drab, moth-eaten shawl. A crooked hand protruded from her mantle, turning a spit that impaled a fleshy mass over the flames. Eligius experienced a long moment of horror before he realized that the corpse was a butchered pig.

El Cocodrilo, at the boy's side, spoke. "Welcome," he said. He swept off his hat and bowed before the boy. The tip of his plume brushed at the dirt. "Forgive the lack of comfort, but such economies are necessary when one is away from home. Perhaps one day I will take you aboard La Sirena. I assure you the accommodations there are more agreeable."

The vagabond crew came forward and swept past them, saying nothing --neither to each other nor to their captain --moving with haste and purpose. El Cocodrilo spoke urgently as they passed, "Quickly, now, compañeros. Our guests are not far behind."

Eligius saw that, though many of the pirates were undoubtedly mad --the slavering, rat-faced marinero with eyes that weren't right, the hulking, shirtless black man with the scarred face --there was yet method in their actions. Some rummaged among the tents, producing a hodgepodge of weapons --cutlasses, belaying pins, lances, here and there a musket. Others brought forth scarecrow figures fashioned from brush and animal hides, which they placed at various points around the camp.

Cocodrilo stood, feet apart, hands on his hips, overseeing the activity. 

"What are you going to do with me?" Eligius asked.

Cocodrilo shook his head. "Do?, he said. "Nothing! You will choose your own fate. "

Eligius remembered the glint of the sun reflected on brass as he stood on the overlook with Cocodrilo's spyglass. He imagined Maximo at the head of a troop of soldiers and hidalgos, hastening toward them.

El Cocodrilo spoke again. "Today is a fateful day. Word of my presence reached the governor several days ago, you see. He learned that I have encamped here on the highlands and, believing an opportunity had arisen, has spent the last several days mustering the hidalgos and preparing his soldiers. Even now, they approach, hoping to take us unaware. Your father--" El Cocodrilo placed an emphasis on the word that Eligius found puzzling "--is among them, of course."

"But how did you know to find me?" Eligius asked.

El Cocodrilo shook his head. "It was no scheme of mine that brought us together. But fortune sometimes smiles on the wicked as well as the righteous."

Eligius cursed himself for his foolhardiness. In his zeal to prove himself to Maximo, he had walked into the hands of the scourge of all good Spaniards.

El Cocodrilo seemed to read his thoughts. "You should consider yourself fortunate, lad. You've been placed at a fulcrum, a fork in the great river. Together, you, I, and the man you call your father shall bear witness to the birthing of a future that will endure forever. But enough for now. My guests will be here soon. I must prepare a proper greeting for them." Cocodrilo smiled, turned away, and strode toward the back of the shelf, leaving Eligius standing, forlorn, among the bustle.

The corsairs continued their preparations. Those with muskets filled powder-horns from a barrel near the back of the camp. Some concealed themselves in the woods along the trail. Others positioned themselves at points around the camp. 

Cocodrilo ducked into a tent and then emerged carrying a heavy musket. He made his way to the back of the camp, where was a small rise before the mouth of a narrow ravine that led further up into the high wooded areas above the shelf. The camp dogs, suddenly unified in purpose, trotted behind him.

When Cocodrilo reached the top of the rise, he mounted the musket on a stand and sighted down the barrel. The dogs were sat at his feet, ears cocked and peering toward where he pointed the musket. Eligius understood that from that vantage Cocodrilo could see the place where the trail emerged on the plateau. Anyone coming up from the lowlands must pass within the sites of the weapon.

Underneath all the commotion, Eligius became aware of a persistent scratching sound, like wasp feet scratching on paper. He took his eyes away from Cocodrilo to see if he could find its source. 

The old crone stood near him, turning the spit. Her eyes were pale and watery. Her mouth trembled and moved and Eligius realized she laughing. She leered at him, making clawing motions with her free hand. "Ven aquí, chico," she said.

With no other earthly idea of what he should do, Eligius approached and sat on a crate near the fire. The old woman gazed at him, her soft mouth forming a ghastly, toothless smile. "Mira, el Cocodrilo," she rasped. Eligius turned his gaze to where Cocodrilo peered down the barrel of his gun. "He can become as a stone," she said. "I have seen him stand thus, in blazing heat, waiting for a wild pig to wander into his sights. The sun was high in the sky when he first took aim. It rested on the treetops when finally he pulled the trigger." She looked at Eligius, gauging his comprehension. "His shot dropped the pig, stone cold dead." She continued: "He is not like other men. He has powers. He sees what will come better than what has been. He is aware of others before they are aware of him. Do you doubt? ¡Verdad! Those who know him best, know this is true. If you turn your eyes to him, you will find that already he is watching you."

Eligius shook his head. He cast a covert glance toward where the Crocodile stood atop the rise. He had not moved; his head was lowered to the barrel of his weapon. But Eligius saw a glint of light from the shadow beneath the broad brim of the hat. Cocodrilo was indeed watching him.

The crone cackled. "Whatever is to happen here today, I tell you now that I wish you no harm. Far from it." Eligius turned his eyes to her and she nodded. "Time is short, but there is much you can learn from me that you may find helpful in the moments to come." Fat dripped into the flames; the fire hissed.

"To you, I am a stranger," the old woman said. "But it is not so. These knobby hands that you see now turning this spit were the first to hold you when you entered this world. I pulled you from your mother's womb and held you to me as you bawled." 

Eligius said nothing, but the doubt and fear in his heart swelled. The crone eyed him closely. "That woman --Maximo's wife at the hacienda --she has never told you the story of how she found you? She has never told you the truth about your origins? It may be that she does not know the truth. But, if that is so, it is only because she has not sought for it. It lays heavily about her and about you, thick as the mud on the banks of the stream where first she found you."

Eligius's heart was in his throat, but he did his best to summon the commanding tone he had heard Maximo use with the slaves. "What is this nonsense you speak, woman?" he asked.

"On your breast, there is a mark, shaped like a woman with the tail of a fish," the old woman said.

Eligius's hand rose to his breast. How could this old woman possibly know of his birthmark?

The crone coughed a laugh, like the bark of an old dog.   "I saw that marking when I wrapped you in swaddling clothes and handed you to your mother."

"My mother?" 

She nodded. "Your mother. The woman whom you know as Dolores. The servant woman who has cared for you all these years. I delivered you from her womb these fifteen years ago."

"Dolores?" Eligius said. "Dolores is my mother?"

"Your mother and my daughter," the woman cackled.

"What do you say?" Eligius asked, incredulous. "But --that would make you my--"

"--grandmother," the woman said. "Tu abuela."

Eligius's head swam. "But what about Lupe and Maximo?" he asked.

"No son tus padres. But you knew that already."

Eligius looked around. The camp was full of motion. A hulking leather-faced man hurried past Eligius, a crossbow in his hands. Across the clearing, another man, one side of his face a slab of scar tissue, arranged a scarecrow figure behind a barrel. 

Eligius cast his eye up to the top of the rise. El Cocodrilo was no longer sighting down the barrel of the musket, but looking directly at the boy, an amused smile on his face. It seemed clear to Eligius that the Spaniards who followed them would walk into an ambush. He could imagine them laboring up the trail, Maximo urging them on. It seemed unlikely that any of them could survive.

The crone spoke, seeming to answer his thoughts. "Maximo is driven by a great force. His very being pushes him toward us. It is the force of blood. It is true, as I say, that Maximo is not your father. But still you carry his blood. 

"Maximo came here, to this land, as a young man of incredible strength. His days he spent clearing land, building fences, digging irrigation channels. But the daylight hours were not enough to expend his strength. In the night time, he was still full alive with purpose. In the years before his bride arrived from Spain, he knew women. One of those was a young beauty from a village that lay not far from here."

Eligius looked at the old woman. Her face was craggy and lined. Her hair thin and white. Her mouth was soft and her lips wagged. It was hard to imagine that she had ever been beautiful. But his heart perceived the truth of her words.

"We dallied for a long, carefree summer. Our nights were spent together in a shelter in the clearing where is now his grand hacienda. It was there, under canvas and mosquito netting where we conceived our daughter. 

"When I discovered that I was with child I told Maximo of my condition. I brought the news to him knowing that things would be different. Maximo was a man who believed he might create his own destiny. His fate could not be hampered by a young Indian woman and a bastard child. On the night I told him, I vowed I would never again return to the little clearing where our love had lived. It is a vow I have kept." The old woman sighed.

"You should know, hijo, that this is the way. There is a great current that moves all things. There is no resisting. We only float along. That is what the tides that took Maximo away have taught me."

Eligius saw Cocodrilo making his way back toward them. The pirate grinned broadly. His own musket rested near the stand at the top of the rise, waiting for his return. In his hands he held the Maximo's musket --the musket that Eligius had taken from the hacienda in the faraway morning.

But Eligius had another question for the crone. "Who, then, is my father?"

She cast him a sour glance and Eligius felt foolish.

"Do you see how it will be?" asked Cocodrilo. He stood before the boy, grinning, grasping the musket with both hands.

The scene unfolded in Eligius's mind. He had an image of Maximo clutching his breast, confusion and pain on his face, a red stain spreading across his shirt.

Cocodrilo set Maximo's musket against a cask and hung the powder horn over the barrel. "When the time comes, you will know what to do... hijo." He peered intently at the boy. 

"Will you spare Maximo?" Eligius asked. 

Cocodrilo laughed. "Would he spare me?"

A silent moment hung between them. Then he spoke again. "When the hidalgos and the soldiers come up the trail, they will see the camp. When they assault the camp, they must leave the trail there." He pointed to the place where the trail emerged onto the plateau. "The fourth man to emerge will be my target. Not the first, nor the second, nor the third. The fourth man. So, you see, Maximo's fate is entirely his own to choose.

Eligius was silent.

"When I fire, the men will set upon them from both sides and I will loose the dogs. The battle will be over before it is properly joined."

Eligius felt weak. He gasped. "Father..."

Cocodrilo frowned and he peered closely into the boy's face. The he stiffened and his face grew hard. He nodded once, turned, and made his way back up the rise. Maximo's musket still leaned on the cask.

The crone's laugh was a rustling breeze. "Mira," she said, nodding toward the musket. "He gives you a choice."

"A choice?"

"Come, help me," the old woman said. She wrapped her hands in the folds of her shawl, indicating that Eligius should likewise protect his hands. "Let us take this to the table," she said. Together they lifted the spit from the fire, the old woman at one end, the boy at the other, and carried it to a block table where were carving knives and cleavers. "I must prepare this feast for the victors."

"For Cocodrilo and his men?" asked Eligius.

"For them or for the hidalgos. One side will be victorious, the other will be vanquished. It makes no difference. I cook. I care not who eats."

Eligius glanced at Maximo's flint-lock musket, the powder horn hanging off the barrel. Then he looked up to the top of the rise where el Cocodrilo sat, watching him. "You mentioned a choice..." he said.

A cloud of flies gathered above the steaming meat. The crone waved at them ineffectually.  "El Cocodrilo told you his plan for the battle. He stands in plain sight, aiming his weapon where Maximo must pass. He returns your weapon to you. Are you blind?"

Eligius stared at the woman, his grandmother, uncomprehending.

"Already I told you," she said. "He is not like other men." She turned away from him and took up a carving knife. "I have work to do," she said.

Eligius stood dumbfounded. The possibilities before him began to take shape. The Spaniards could not be far away. Each moment brought them closer to the jaws of the trap.

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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