HEART OF TASHYAS



HEART OF TASHYAS,  by Raphael Ordonez

 

 

Carvajal paint

 

Light-headed from hunger and sun-smitten, the vagabond conquistador Francisco Carvajal y Lopez eyed the rattlesnake with something more than indifference. The insistent buzz of its tail filled the still, sultry air.

A few bits of armor and three blades  —  a poniard, a rapier, and a sturdy falchion  —  were all that remained to him from the wreck upon Isla Blanca. Otherwise he wore raiment of his own devising  —  a cotton shirt, a breechclout of the same material, a long-skirted leather jacket belted at the waist with snakeskin, and sandals woven from grass fibers. An amulet of his mother’s making  —  his own umbilical cord coiled in a turtle-shaped pouch  —  hung from his neck.

Carefully, he used his foot to flip over one of the rocks that littered the sandy clearing. In that country, he had learned never to put his hands where he couldn’t see them. Spying no scorpions, he slowly bent down, took up the stone, and straightened.

The snake ducked its head forward, glaring at the conquistador. Its tail beat still more loudly, the voice of the noonday demon squatting over the plain.

Carvajal lobbed the rock in a lazy arc. It sailed upward, as though in no great hurry, then descended, landing upon the triangular head with a sickening crunch, killing the snake on impact. Even then the rattles did not fall silent, but they did beat with less enthusiasm as the sinuous body, a speckled dun with black diamonds, writhed its death-dance. Gradually, the maddening whine of the locusts in the thorny thickets round about reclaimed full sway over Carvajal’s ears.

Stinging sweat seeped into his eyes. He mopped his brow and looked up at the lone peak to whose base he had just fought his way. A volcanic outcrop, its isolation gave it an eminence beyond its small size. From its barren crown, slopes of red-gray boulders tumbled past thickets of prickly pear, yucca, and thorn to a circular base. Its summit would afford a good view.

Surely, Carvajal thought, the city of gold could not be far off now.

But, first things first. He strode over to the still-wriggling snake, set his sandal upon its neck, and decapitated it with one stroke of his falchion. A fetid stench filled the air  —  the snake, it seemed, had dined recently. But after years among the tribes of the Tashyan coastal plains, he was not one to be squeamish. He slung the body over his shoulder and began his ascent of the peak.

For two weeks he had pushed through this prickly hell, weaving his way around impenetrable acacia thickets, mocked by the land’s vernal splendor. White-gold tufts nodded like snow upon waving guajillo boughs; blossoms of deeper gold merged with the bristling verdure of drooping huisache trees; tiny yellow blooms graced the smooth-skinned, pale green branches of the palo verde. But he was after something less transient.

A wandering band of Coahuiltecans had told him of a great cacique who reigned over many tribes of their kin in the mountains to the west. Their awed account made this chieftain almost a god, gold-crowned, the possessor of illimitable riches. Carvajal liked a great many things, but he loved only gold; gold, that is, and the belated recognition gold would buy him in Borinquén, the isle of his birth, which the Hispanians called Puerto Rico.

The spring air grew sweet and mild as he climbed above the sprawling thickets. Spikes of scarlet-tinged white blossoms crowned the yuccas that crowded upon the boulder heaps, but he had to take care lest he impale himself on their murderous daggers. The rolling badlands unveiled themselves to east and south as a patchwork of green, gray-green, white-gold, and saffron. Big white cumuli drifted like airborne mountains over the plain.

He grumbled as he climbed, fingering a set of rosary beads made from fish bones. “O Holy Mother of God,” he said, “you have ever been my friend. When I set sail under Don Narváez to find gold in the land of flowers and crocodiles, I besought you to grant me three chests of gold. Only three!

“And when we found ourselves far from the sea, in the village of Apalachen, beset by enemies, in a trap to which our perfidious guides had led us, I told you that two chests would be acceptable, provided we escaped with our hides. And we did escape, slaughtering the enemy with great slaughter, forced to batten upon our horses, yes, but whole and sound ourselves, save for my poor friend Esquivel, who died with an arrow through his throat.

“Later, when our rafts were swept out to sea by the Río del Espíritu Santo, I prayed to you with tears in my eyes, and gave up yet another chest. And then, after our shipwreck, and years as the unwilling guest of the coastal tribes, I told you that I would be satisfied with but one small coffer of gold, such as might set me up with a plantation in Cayey, if only I could escape from their clutches. And I alone of all my party  —  so far as I know, alone of all our expedition  —  have survived to a precarious freedom. So I thank you, O Most Sweet Virgin.”

He reached the crown of the peak and paused in his orisons to survey the land. East and south the counterpane of gold and green rolled away to the hazy horizon. An escarpment of blue hills ran across the north. He turned to the west. A dense elm forest grew right up to the hill’s foot, hiding, he felt certain, another river. Beyond this the land continued as before, but at the edge of sight he glimpsed what might be the high white bluffs of a larger river, and, beyond that, bleak, gray-green badlands. There, if his guides had spoken truly, lay the gold he’d sought so many years.

“Since then I have gone up and down this accursed land of Tashyas, O Queen of Heaven, with not even a grain to show for it. Now, guided by the words of those whom you put in my path, I have strayed far from the sea, into a forsaken country where the people go naked and eat the dung of wild beasts when there is nothing more to be had.”

He spun slowly as he said this, taking in the view all at once. A thin plume of smoke trailed up from a forested area to the northwest, beyond the elm thickets. Seized by a sudden inspiration, he went on:

“And therefore, O House of Gold, when I go to visit yonder tribe tomorrow, and share in the feast of tunas they are bound to be celebrating  —  for such is the season  —  and I ask them what they know of this great cacique, I pray that they might guide me truly, yes, and that my hopes be not dashed yet again. And I tell you this.” He held up his brown fist. “Grant me a nugget of gold no bigger than this, O Tower of David, and I shall cease to trouble you forever, and bless you all the days of my life.” He crossed himself with the crucifix on his bone rosary and kissed it.

The sun declined toward the west. There were still several hours before nightfall, but building a fire big enough to roast his snake would take time, and he wanted the flames extinguished before the stars came out. Though the hilltop was exposed, he appreciated the relative safety from jaguars it afforded. He set about his preparations at once.

 

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Eight years of wandering Tashyas, the land that lay between the Río del Espíritu Santo in the northeast and the Río de las Palmas in the south, had toasted Francisco Carvajal y Lopez a deep golden brown, but he had been dark to begin with, as his alias  —  El Moreno  —  implied. Begotten by a landowner upon a slave, the grandson of a peninsular nobleman, a Berber princess of the Canarias, a West African laborer, and a Taíno wisewoman, Carvajal’s mixed blood made him a man of no people.

He had the fierce, rolling eyes and flaring nostrils of his mother, slave and mistress of slaves, Yoruba priestess, curandera to the high-born, but the structure of his face and his great red beard were his father’s. His life on the margins had prepared him for his trials in Tashyas, where so many of his comrades had perished miserably from exposure, disease, or violence.

He descended the hill at dawn, hoping to hack a path to the river before the day grew too hot. The spring air was cool and sweet, but he well knew how stifling the thickets would soon become. Hazy clouds drifted low over the land, soon to dissolve in the sun.

Following the forest’s edge northward, he reflected on the land’s inhospitality and the misery of its people, who to his mind eked out a marginal existence, dwelling in no fixed abode, subsisting on snakes, lizards, spiders, ant eggs, roots, mesquite beans, and seeds picked from dung, and suffering from continual thirst. In the east, where water was more abundant, swarms of mosquitoes necessitated expedients worse than the bites of the insects themselves.

His keen eye picked out a path into the wood. From the nibbled appearance of the cactus pads he guessed it a javelina trail. Anything good enough for peccaries was good enough for Francisco Carvajal y Lopez. He pushed his way into the thicket. The ground dropped until he found himself at the muddy banks of a narrow river. He refilled his gourds and splashed across, finding the stream only waist-deep. The forest thinned on the far side, and he soon emerged into the open.

The land was grassier here, and as he went northward he found himself among groves of gigantic live oaks whose trunks were ten feet or more in diameter. Many had branches broader than most trees, that dipped down to rest on the earth before continuing their upward sweep. Blooming yuccas and cacti heavy with purple tunas stood in the sward. Green jays with blue heads flitted among the glossy leaves.

He came upon the encampment in a broad glade sprinkled with golden flowers. A ring of huts surrounded a fire pit. Baskets of tunas sat in the open. Not a person was to be seen.

Carvajal strode up to the fire of set purpose, slung down his accoutrements, and sat cross-legged before the pit. Knowing displays of fear and covetousness to be equally unwise, he took a sip of his own water and ate a bite of snake flesh, looking about with a calm, indifferent air.

He became aware of silent feet approaching from behind, but continued to gaze unconcernedly into the distance. A half-circle of unseen eyes burned on the back of his head. He took another bite. “Greetings,” he said. Then, almost as an afterthought: “I come in peace. I am called Moreno.”

An old man with a pot belly and long gray locks sidled into view, wearing nothing but a leather loincloth and a necklace of snail shells. He took a place across the pit from Carvajal. The others came around diffidently, ranging themselves to his right and his left. Carvajal saw old men and old women and children, but no young adults. Most curious, he mused.

“We are called the Guequisales,” said the old man. “I am Arracú. What is it you want, mighty warrior?”

“I come from the rising of the sun, where I sojourned among the Cutalculches,” said Carvajal. “I did mighty deeds of magic among them, healing the sick and raising the dead.” The people whispered to one another. Apparently, as he had hoped, word of his powers had preceded him. “They told me of a great cacique in the west. I have come so far only to see if tales speak truly.”

The people looked at each other. With downcast eyes, Arracú said, “He is indeed a mighty cacique, with coyote-men of the hill country who carry out his every order.”

“Perhaps some of his orders have touched the Guequisales.”

“It is not well to speak of it,” the old man said resentfully.

“In the land of my fathers,” said Carvajal, “a cacique’s might is measured by the amount of this in his possession.” He held up the single escudo that remained to him. It served as his example of gold, for he had found that the Tashyan peoples had no word for it. “What say you?”

Arracú snorted contemptuously. “The yellow stone cannot make a man mighty.”

“No,” said Carvajal, “and neither do the spots on the jaguar’s pelt make him the most dangerous of cats. And yet by this is he known. Think. Has this great cacique vessels or ornaments of the yellow stone about him?”

“No,” cried Arracú petulantly. “Nothing. Nothing! Why would he want it? It cannot be eaten. It cannot be drunk. It cannot heal the sick, and it cannot bring the dead back to life.”

Carvajal swore under his breath and silently complained to the Blessed Virgin. He was beginning to think that the tribes’ stories of fabulous treasures just over the next rise were only a ruse to get rid of him.

Arracú must have guessed his guest’s consternation, for a cunning look stole into his face, and he said, “I do know where one ornament of the yellow stone is to be found.”

Pretending indifference, Carvajal replied, “Where?”

“Once, many years ago, a young sister and brother came among the Guequisales from another place. They had white skin and spoke a strange tongue. The young man was slain with arrows. He died praying over the ornament of which I speak.” Arracú put his arms together in the shape of a cross.

“A crucifix, eh?” Carvajal muttered to himself.

“The girl became a servant to the Guequisales. After some time she, too, was slain with arrows. They left her in a thicket not far from this place. A year passed and then another year. Then hunters visited that same thicket, and found the girl just as they had left her, with arrows sticking out of her body as though she had just died. No beast had touched her. Her flesh was still white and smooth. Thinking then that she must be a child of the sun, they laid her reverently in a cave. She remains there to this day, clutching the ornament of yellow stone.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Many years.”

Carvajal shifted impatiently. The Coahuiltecans had no concept of numeration beyond one and many. “Did these things happen in your time?”

“They were memories in my father’s father’s time.”

Carvajal dismissed this. Vasco da Gama had discovered the New World only in the previous generation, and the siblings must surely have come from Hispania, Lusia, or Galia. The incorruptibility of the girl’s body he also discounted. But in other respects the story sounded likely enough. “This ornament,” he asked, “how large is it?”

Arracú showed him with his hand. About as much gold as would fit in the shape of his fist, Carvajal reflected. The Virgin had taken him at his word.

Carefully, he said, “I am curious about this ornament, as we have similar things in the land of my fathers. May I see it?”

“Certainly, O warrior,” said Arracú, narrowing his eyes. “First, I have a favor to ask of you.”

“You may ask your favor, but I know not whether I shall perform it.”

“And you may ask to see the child of the sun, but I know not whether I remember the way.”

“Well?”

“The great cacique in the land of the sun’s setting demands gifts of all the peoples hereabouts. But, as you see, we have hardly enough for ourselves, and our women work from before dawn until after dusk without rest. So we refused. In return he sent his bold hill warriors to bear away our young people, killing some of us as they did so. Now they gather food for him, not us.” Here Arracú began to weep. “Without our young people we shall die, for we have no women to roast our roots and scrape our skins, no men to hunt for armadillos or rabbits.”

“And you want me to single-handedly throw down this cacique and bring back your tribesmen,” said Carvajal, stroking his beard. “What if I refuse?”

“Then the grief that clouds my mind will no doubt lead me astray when I try to take you to the child of the sun,” the old man said. “And, even if my daughter and our other people are returned, but the cacique remains in the land of the living, then my great trepidation will similarly cloud my mind.”

Mother Most Devious, thought Carvajal. Out loud, he said: “Very well, old man. I will slay the great cacique and return your people, and you shall show me the child of the sun.”

Arracú nodded. “But before this pact be sealed, it must be witnessed by the Watcher. If the Watcher approves, you shall drink the juice of the tuna with us today, and depart on the morrow.”

“Is this Watcher here with you now?”

“The Watcher sleeps in the Blue Hole. Come.”

Carvajal followed Arracú northeast out of the glade. The giant oaks were left behind as soil gave way to caliche. Thickets of guajillo, softened by white-gold tufts, became more profuse as they mounted a low rise. Then the ground dropped into a dell whose depths were screened from view by a circle of sprawling huisache. Carvajal accompanied his guide through this golden rampart.

They emerged into a dream-vision of azure and yellow, a circular pool so profoundly blue it seemed the paint-pot from which the blazing, cloudless sky had been tinted, beset on all sides by blooming verdure whose saffron-laden boughs drooped low over the surface, diffusing their sleepy perfume through the dell. Yellow skippers and white motes danced in the warm stillness, while locusts sang languorously from the dusk of their thickets.

Carvajal found himself maneuvered onto a slab of limestone that protruded over the water. Peering into the depths, he perceived only a bottomless blue abyss. Something lurked there, watchful yet slumberous, like a sleeping god mindful of him in its dreams. It was a bad place, sickly-sweet and suborning, haunted by a nameless awareness that had no face, yet smiled, a presence more inimical to man than evil could ever be. He had found the navel of all that stagnant land.

Arracú’s hand touched his shoulder. He started and turned. The entire tribe stood back among the knobby black trunks of the huisache, and he saw in their eyes that the Watcher had accepted him. For a fleeting moment he wondered what might have happened if it had not. Then he followed the Guequisales out of the dell and back to their camp.

The rest of that day was spent in the feast of tunas. They drank the sweet juice from pits dug in the earth, for they had no vessels. Carvajal practiced the art of healing by blowing upon the victims of injury and disease. They claimed relief from their maladies, danced late into the night, and fell asleep one by one around the fire.

Then the denizens of the brush crept up to the camp. Armadillos, and screech owls, and horned owls, and nighthawks, and gentle round-eyed ringtails, and jackrabbits, and raccoons, and red coatis, and coyotes, and ocelots, and beavers from the river, and night herons, and the opossum with her young on her back: all these came to gaze with curious eyes upon the man from another world. And not these alone, but fierce beasts of the wild: the jaguar, the black bear, the mountain lion, the buffalo, the ground sloth, came to behold Carvajal in the firelight and moonbeams.

And Carvajal dreamed dreams wrought by the red mescal beans of his hosts, and departed before dawn the next morning.

 

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The line of bluffs he had seen from the hilltop did mark a great river. He emerged from the screen of scrub high over its banks at mid-morning. Though the broad expanse of white gravel appeared dry, he knew from experience that water still flowed beneath its bed, and, looking carefully, he descried a blue-green pool in a hollow. Thither he made his way. As he bathed he wondered if he had found the Río de las Palmas.

Beyond the far banks the land rose to a rolling, treeless country of sweeping vistas. He had left the coastal plains behind at last. The soil was shallow and rocky, and acacia gave way here and there to gray-green cenizo in purple bloom. The hills receded from view in the north, but now a long green ridge paralleled his course in the south.

From time to time he glimpsed towering herds of what appeared to be humpless camels. He had heard of the vicuña and llama and guanaco in the golden empires of the south, and surmised that these might be their kin. The problem of transport had gnawed at his mind throughout his quest for gold, and now he supposed he might have found a solution. He also passed herds of javelina and deer. At evening on the first day he came face-to-face with a great coyote in a grassy field. It was gray and utterly hairless  —  diseased, he thought  —  but also powerfully muscled. After one look at him it trotted in the opposite direction.

Space in Tashyas seemed made of different stuff than what he had known in Borinquén. There, a day’s journey might take a man from the beach, across tilled coastlands, through rain forests where the treefrog called coquí sang, to cool, misty heights; here, it seemed that a man could travel a lifetime without a change in scenery. Hard though Carvajal pushed himself, he seemed to make little progress.

On the afternoon of the second day he descended to a creek in an oak-shaded valley. To his disappointment, he found the bed as dry as a bone. The atmosphere was heavy, hot, and still. He had learned to regard such days as harbingers of bad weather. Thirst gnawed at his soul, even as stinging sweat streamed down his face, doing nothing to cool him in air so humid. He sat on a shelf to rest before beginning the weary task of extracting water from a prickly pear.

The slightest click of a claw on stone alerted his instincts to danger. Without thinking, he dropped to his knees, drew his falchion, and slashed upward. In that one sweeping cut he disemboweled the gigantic hairless coyote that had sprung silently at his back. The creature  —  it might have been the very one he’d seen the day before  —  dropped to the gravel in a gout of blood.

Carvajal rose and stepped over to prod it with his toe. That was a mistake. Something slammed into his shoulders and threw him to his knees. All at once he was at the center of a whirlwind of gray skin, bared teeth, and red maws. Though bewildered by the ferocity of animals usually so cowardly, he fought like a madman, striking off the forepaw of one and nearly decapitating a second. The pack leader, a snow-white beast with ruby-red ears and eyes, paced back and forth on the periphery, baring its glistening teeth.

In the end there were simply too many for one blade to handle. The coyotes forced him backward to the earth. Instead of having his throat torn out, however, he found himself held down by naked warriors with black hair and smooth, grayish skin. The coyotes were gone, and Carvajal’s wounds bore the tooth-marks of men, not dogs. One of the warriors stood a little to the side, nursing the stump of his severed arm.

The leader strode into view. He bore the features of a plains warrior, as did the others, but Carvajal had never seen skin so lily-white, nor hair so deep a crimson. The warrior grinned, running his red tongue over teeth that still had something of the fang about them. But his eyes were as blank as two pebbles.

“Who are you?” Carvajal grunted in Coahuilteco.

Speaking haltingly, as though unfamiliar with the tongue, the warrior replied: “I am Red Cloud. We will take you to the great cacique, who seeks such as you. You killed my brothers. You will die hard.”

“If your great cacique permits it,” said Carvajal.

Red Cloud uttered a command. The warriors holding Carvajal flipped him onto his stomach and disarmed him. They pulled his wrists back and bound them with his snakeskin belt. Two warriors lifted him to his feet and flanked him. A third stepped back with his blades. They moved out, driving him south along the creek bed.

Carvajal eyed his captors, Arracú’s “hill warriors.” That epithet signified no more than that they came from the north, for the Guequisales were ignorant of all that lay beyond the annual circuit of their wanderings. Carvajal guessed that the warriors actually came from the seas of grass, where itinerant tribes hunted buffalo around the fabled city of Quivira.

They left the creek when it no longer served and set out toward the high ridge, which sloped toward them in velvety, gray-green folds sprinkled with yuccas mitered like antediluvian kings. The sun dropped toward the west. As they neared the summit of a high saddle, they overtook a band of Coahuiltecans laden with heavy burdens, who hailed them with eager, frightened shouts. The plains warriors ignored them contemptuously.

“That was not very polite,” Carvajal observed in Hispanian. In response he received a vicious jab in the ribs. “I am counting the number of times you do that, my friend,” he said, earning another blow.

He caught Red Cloud looking at him. The utter lack of affect in the warrior’s eyes sickened him for reasons he could not have explained. Here, surely, was one who had sold his soul, if such a thing were possible. Being a man of simple impulses, Carvajal hated whatever disturbed him. “O Holy Mother of God,” he muttered, “if I have my way, that one will be the first to feel the bite of my blade.”

The view opened up again beyond the crest of the ridge. The land lay in great parallel folds that descended by stages toward the northwestern limit of the golden thorn plain. The warriors led him into a long valley, dropping into dusk while rosy fingers still touched the sky. Night fell. Stars came out in swarms.

Rounding a gentle bend, they came upon the largest gathering of men Carvajal had seen in years. Fires twinkled amid whole villages of flimsy huts that fanned out from a high fold in the southern slope, where a rough stone staircase, half natural and half man-made, ascended to a level space occupied by a beehive house of grass thatch. Coahuiltecan youths labored on earthworks by torchlight, under the watchful eyes of the gray warriors, while old men and old women bore baskets of gathered foodstuffs to a booth.

All work ceased as the laborers, ignoring the canes laid cruelly across their backs, turned to gape at the brown man from another world. Carvajal grinned wolfishly at them. The warriors drove him to the base of the rough steps and up the hill.

They passed a band of youths digging out an agave root by torchlight. One young woman held herself a little apart from the rest. She appraised Carvajal with eyes that were large and dark and warm. Perhaps it was only her resemblance to Arracú, but Carvajal felt something resound in his soul when he saw her, as though a bell had been struck with a mallet. But the warriors drove him on.

Toward the top he began to stagger as if grown suddenly weary, forcing his captors to drag him. As they reached the hut’s entrance they shoved his head down to push him through. At that instant the snakeskin, which he’d worked loose, fell from his wrists. He took the warriors that flanked him each by the nape of the neck and slammed their skulls together. Both dropped to the earth, stunned.

He bounded to the one who bore his blades and struck him down with the brown maul of his fist. But, as he bent to take up his falchion, he found his head yanked back by the hair and a stone knife laid against his throat.

A man’s voice called out from the hut. Red Cloud, whose hand held the knife, replied in the same tongue, and then, in Coahuilteco, said: “Come.” He pushed Carvajal inside and forced him to his knees, head bent, on the earthen floor. Sweat started from Carvajal’s brow, for a fire smoldered in a ring of stones, making the hut stiflingly hot and smoky. At a word from the voice, Red Cloud released him and stepped back to the entrance.

“Who are you, son of slaves,” the voice said, this time in a heavily accented Hispanian, “to disturb my peaceable kingdom?”

Carvajal raised his eyes in amazement. A white man sat before him, reclining in a throne of buffalo hide and horns. Greasy locks of flaxen hair framed his face. His heavy-lidded eyes bulged with madness, and his frown was so exaggerated that Carvajal took it at first as intended for comic effect. He wore no beard but hadn’t shaved in days. His cloth garments were tattered and dirty, as were his fingernails. A tall helmet of tarnished metal sat askew on his brow. In place of a scepter he held an arquebus with a flared muzzle. A stone axe leaned against the chair. A soiled white banner with a gold fleur-de-lis adorned the wall behind.

“So,” growled Carvajal, “the great cacique is a Galican deserter. I hadn’t heard that you dogs were on the continent.”

“Unlike you, mulatto, I am no deserter, but the leader and sole survivor of our expedition.”

“What became of your companions? I see blood on your hands.”

That took the Galican aback. “They were executed for treason to the crown. How do you know of it?”

“It was the way your eyes shifted as you spoke.”

The Galican bit off a dirty fingernail, took it in his fingers, sniffed it, and flicked it away. “They wanted to turn back,” he said. “Our destiny had not been attained yet. They refused to listen. So trials were held, and judgments were handed down.”

“And have you attained your destiny now?”

“I have gone as far as I could, which is more than they could say, mulatto.”

“And whither were you bound?”

“Deeper in. I sought the jungle empires of the south, but ran aground in these accursed badlands. So be it. Here I am a king, and shall be a god.

“There is an insect here which the people call the  —  how would you say it?  —  the chinche, the midnight kisser. It feasts on the sleeper’s blood during the night, and imparts the sickness called chagas, which enlarges the heart, and ends only with death.

Jesú, but it is hot. I must have the fire to keep off mosquitoes.” (Carvajal had not seen a mosquito in weeks.) “They began to plague me in the cypress swamps of the east. One summer night there is enough to make a man an atheist. Ach! Have you tried to sleep on a night such as tonight? It is misery. That is the true midnight kisser, and the sickness it imparts is madness.

“This is a land that breeds madness even as the rains breed mosquitoes. Insanity is the only sane response. In the north I crossed a river that runs red like blood. High up in a tree beside it I saw a caravel such as the Lusians use. Tattered sails still clung to its masts.”

“A flood left it there,” said Carvajal.

“A flood high enough to do that would cover all Tashyas, mulatto. And how could it have come there, where no white man, and certainly no Lusian, had ever been? No. There is no explanation.”

“Well, what of it?” Carvajal growled.

“I am that caravel. And so are you.”

“I know how I got here, dog of a Galican, just as I know what I’m looking for.”

“You mean you thirst after the tears of the sun, as they call it in the Empire of Birú. You will find no tears of that sort here, mulatto.”

“My friends call me El Moreno,” said Carvajal.

“And what do your enemies call you?”

“El Moreno.”

“My name is Jean Guerín. There is no gold within a thousand miles of here, Moreno, but that will not stop you from looking, just as the obsidian sword of Montezuma did not frighten Hernán Cortés away. But even as Cortés glutted the bloodthirsty gods of Méshico-Tenochtitlan with his still-palpitating heart, so will you be devoured by these blank spaces on the map. Gold is only your excuse to keep worming your way deeper. Even if you did find it, do you think you would really go back? All Hispanians are dicers at heart, and that is not the dicer’s way.”

“Perhaps I have a reason to go back.”

“You want to buy eminence, eh? You think noble blood can be had for gold. Or perhaps you would buy some relatives their freedom? Your mother, eh? You see, Moreno, I have my own sudden insights.”

“So you think,” Carvajal said. “You don’t know my mother.”

The Galican waved his hand. “But even if your mother and all your various brothers and sisters  —  you have a great many, I doubt not, and of a great many complexions  —  were depending on your return for their very survival, you would still go on. On and on, up the river of madness, until you run aground in some miserable mire, far beyond any hope of extraction, and perish like an insect.”

“Does that still work?” Carvajal asked, eyeing the arquebus.

Guerín set it in his lap. “Find out.”

Carvajal jerked his head toward Red Cloud. “Does it work on them?”

“They are terrified of it, as you well know, my friend,” said Guerín. “I found them beyond the river of blood. Red Cloud, whose unlawful traffic with dread elder things made him as you see him, had been cast out by his tribe. We came upon him starving in the wilderness with other placeless young men, and took them on as porters.”

“They took you on, you mean,” said Carvajal. “I see it all now. They must have been helpful in your trials and judgments.”

“They are coyotes, as you have seen, and I am their jaguar.”

Carvajal didn’t bother to suppress his scornful laugh. “That one there is a jaguar,” he said. “You are more like a rabid fox.”

“And you,” hissed Guerín, “are the stray mongrel who noses through garbage. Don’t you know that no one ever cares about half-breeds, mulatto? History ignores them. If a history were to be written of your expedition, you would be what you have called yourself  —  the nameless Moreno  —  and nothing more. You are neither one thing nor the other: neither white nor black, neither master nor slave. You are nothing, and no man can trust you closer than he can kick you.

“A nation remains great only so long as distinctions are preserved. Mixtures breed instability. That is this new world’s true purpose: to serve as a vast void on the earth where those without place or purpose can cast their seed as they will. As the miserable droves come hither, the old nations will be purified of dross.”

“No doubt some relatives are glad to have you gone, at any rate,” said Carvajal.

“What would you know of it? You have never even been to Hispania, where they would laugh you to scorn, or kick you, like the mongrel you are. I have my coyotes out looking for shipwrecks like you. Yes, I heard of the miserable end of the Narváez expedition, and I knew one of you would come along sooner or later. I seek sharers in the glory of this new kingdom I am establishing. Think of it. You could win more than your half-breed’s place in history.”

Visions rose before Carvajal’s mind’s eye. Why not? he thought. Why settle for mere gold? Why not seize all Tashyas in one bold stroke? As overlord, his would be all the gold, and all else beside. Here was a seat already established for his reign. Guerín would be no obstacle. A few days would suffice to supplant him.

Evening locusts droned miserably in the thickets outside. Sweat dripped into his eyes.

“What do you have in mind?” he said thickly.

Guerín went on enthusiastically and somewhat incoherently. He would establish a city on a hill, a light shining in the darkness of Tashyas. To the peoples of Tashyas he desired to be a god-hero, like Quetzalcoatl in the south, teaching them, or possibly, he let fall once or twice, exterminating them. Carvajal hardly listened. His mind was on his own golden dreams.

No more would he be the nameless Moreno. When men spoke the name of Francisco Carvajal y Lopez, they would do it, if not with deference, then at least not with indifference. The terrifying anonymity of his life would be at an end.

A small thing broke the spell. A fat fly that had been circling lazily around the hut landed on Guerín’s lower lip. And Guerín ate it. He ate it, and kept talking, as though nothing had happened. All at once, Carvajal knew that his vision was nothing more than a fever-dream. There would be no golden empire of Tashyas. He, a vagabond half-breed, would never be a leader of any kind, let alone a king. Mother of God! He felt sick to his stomach.

Then he recalled, as one waking from a deep sleep, the motionless Red Cloud standing behind him. How much had the warrior guessed of their conversation? With sudden clarity, he knew that his continued presence would not be tolerated, that the coyote-men of the north had plans of their own. Guerín was not the one with whom he had to deal at all.

“Pardon me,” he said, interrupting the flow of Guerín’s speech. “I must decline your offer.”

The Galican shut his mouth, taken aback, then shrugged. “I’m sorry to find you so pusillanimous. We might have done great things together. But blood will out, as they say. So”  —  he glanced at his tattered nails  —  “I shall kill you instead.”

For a moment all was still. A gust of wind shook the grass hut. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Guerín bent calmly down, took a stick from the fire, and lit the fuse on his gun.

“Aren’t you even going to ask why I came here to see you?” asked Carvajal, disoriented and reckless. Pungent smoke from the match cord filled the air.

“You? Came to see me?”

“I was looking for you when your coyotes found me.”

“Why?” Hissing and popping, the fuse continued to burn.

“I am a hired assassin. I seek your blood, dog of a Galican.”

“You lie.”

“I’ve just come from the Guequisale tribe, which has little cause to love you. They promised me a cross of gold in exchange for your head.”

The Galican glanced at Red Cloud. Carvajal sensed movement at his back. Quick as a rattlesnake, he darted to one side. The arquebus went off with a deafening boom and a cloud of smoke, tearing a hole in the wall. The sudden thunder seemed to cow the pale warrior. Ignoring Guerín, Carvajal seized the stone axe, wheeled, and struck out. Red Cloud writhed aside, and the descending blow, aimed at his pate, fell instead upon his shoulder, carving a scarlet gash in his white flesh. Without the slightest noise of dismay, he turned and vanished into the night.

Carvajal spun to face Guerín, who was still trying to reload the arquebus. The Galican’s dissipated body was no match for his vagabond strength. He wrested the gun from Guerín’s hands and struck him a blow in the temple with its butt. Guerín collapsed.

No warrior had showed his face since Red Cloud’s retreat. Carvajal guessed that Guerín had made sure his underlings didn’t know the time it took to reload the gun. He bent down at Guerín’s side, pulled his head back, and looked into his mad eyes. His own mind adrift in a miasma of smoke and sickness, he began speaking with an almost dreamy gentleness.

“Those of pure blood are apt to extol its virtues,” he said, “for in that they see the preservation of their unearned ascendency. But a man is a man, dog of a Galican. You are quite right that I have no race. All fear me and hate me because I owe allegiance to no tribe but my own, of which I am the sole member. Before I stood waist-high beside my mother, I had been taught by kicks and blows never to call myself a Hispanian to the Hispanians, a Taíno to the Taínos. My own sire beat me when I called him my father.

“I was schooled in hate and self-sufficiency from infancy, but it was a good schooling, for I have survived in Tashyas where so many pure-bloods have perished miserably. I must kill you now, but do not suppose it is because I resent your taunts. I’ve heard worse. If I hadn’t been promised gold, I might have let you go.”

He lifted the axe and brought its blade down on Guerín’s neck. The edge was sharp, and it took only five blows to sever the head completely. He rose, seized a brand, and set fire to the grass wall. Still no one had appeared at the door. He used the axe to chop a hole through the back wall. In a chest behind the throne he found a powder horn, match cord, and bullets. With these under his arm, the axe thrust through his breechclout, the Galican’s head in his left hand, and the arquebus in his right, he stepped through the hole he had made and circled to the front.

Flames licked up the outside of the hut now. At the sight of Carvajal, bloody and fire-lit, with their master’s head swinging at his side, the gathered warriors scattered in all directions, leaving his blades and snakeskin on the ground. He stepped to the edge of the platform and looked down.

“The great cacique is slain,” he cried, holding the head out for all to see. “I have seized his thunder. Anyone who opposes me will feel its fire. I have come only for the Guequisales, having been sent by their wise old man, Arracú. The rest of you may go where you will.”

The group of youths he had passed on the stair emerged from the darkness, standing in a crescent below him. The girl stretched herself at his feet. He bent down and lifted her up. Their eyes met.

At that instant the floodgates of heaven opened. The front that had swept down from the north emptied its torrents on the encampment. Brown rivulets ran down the slope and filled the dry creek bed at its foot. Huge hailstones came crashing to the earth, resounding like cannon fire, lacerating the Coahuiltecans, shredding their flimsy huts, and erasing the very memory of Jean Guerín, the great cacique of Galia, from Tashyas.

 

#

&&

Disbelief and then unbridled levity greeted the return of the Guequisale youth. From noon until midnight the people feasted and danced around the Galican’s head, which Carvajal had stuck on a pole. Carvajal watched with some pleasure but refrained from participating, sitting cross-legged under a tree at a distance. The girl Yacasole, Arracú’s daughter, never strayed far from his side.

One other man held himself aloof: a youth named Dacate, who stood at the opposite edge of the glade, eyeing his rescuer disconsolately. Once he had been Yacasole’s favorite.

As the revelers dropped off to sleep around the fire pit  —  the air had remained cool and crisp since the passage of the front  —  Carvajal took the opportunity to remind Arracú of their pact.

The old man nodded. “In the morning my daughter will take you to the child of the sun.”

The pair left the encampment as the sun rose. Most of the people  —  Arracú included  —  were still asleep. Carvajal carried the arquebus more for safekeeping than because he saw a need for it on their journey.

Yacasole led him northward, out of the place of giant oaks, keeping the Blue Hole to their right. Though nearly naked, the girl walked like a queen among subjects. The acacias had no power to catch her hair or scratch her coppery skin. Her eyes danced whenever Carvajal had to disentangle himself, but she did not laugh. Coahuiltecans never laughed. He tried to engage her in conversation, but she remained shyly reserved.

They crossed the river and came into a plain sprinkled with oak groves, each an island in a lake of grass. The rain had brought up paintbrushes and bluebonnets. She led him to a group of three giants whose dense canopy came down almost to the ground around the perimeter, forming a solid wall with the impenetrable undergrowth. Bending almost double, Carvajal followed the girl through a gap like a cave.

The interior was a circular hall with a domed ceiling upheld by three columns. Drifts of glossy brown leaves carpeted the floor. The space between the trunks sloped down like a funnel, but it was not until the pair were almost on top of it that Carvajal realized he stood at the brink of a deep, though narrow, natural well.

Yacasole bounded lightly down into darkness, not deigning to use her hands on the almost vertical walls. Carvajal followed more ponderously, maneuvering his body down the shaft after leaving his weapons and armor at the mouth. At the bottom he found himself stepping into a heap of stones and debris.

“Here we must light a fire,” said the girl. “The child of the sun lies deeper within, through there.” She pointed to a crack whose tumbled floor sloped down into darkness at a gentler incline.

A short while later, Carvajal rose to his feet with a flaming brand, and they went on. At first the air was heavy with the musty odor of bat guano, but this fell behind after they passed a side passage, which led, Carvajal surmised, to a system with another opening. They came into a long, tall chamber whose walls to right and left reflected the torchlight but whose ceiling and far end remained shrouded in darkness. A ridge of fallen blocks ran down the center, forming a kind of causeway from the entrance. The air was cool and damp and very still.

Yacasole led the way along the ridge. A natural reredos came into view athwart their path, a towering flowstone formation, banded yellow, orange, red, and white, flanked by immense stalagmites like temples of the sun in miniature. “There,” she whispered, pointing to a hollow fenced in by a fairy forest of dark brown pagodas at the base of the formation. Carvajal stepped diffidently forward and looked down.

How long the girl had lain there he could not say, but the droplets that fell from the unseen ceiling like rain from a forest roof had had time to shroud her body in a translucent white shell. Even the arrows that protruded from her naked form had been coated with a layer of stone like milky ice. Whatever the body’s age, however, Carvajal saw that Arracú had spoken truly concerning its incorruption. The girl’s form, clearly visible through the thin veil, was astonishingly beautiful.

She lay curled on her side, facing the reredos, her upper arm clutching at her breast, her lower elbow folded under her head and nearly hidden by the dark cascade of her hair. The shafts passing in and out of her flesh made Carvajal think of pictures he had seen of the old martyrs. Circling to the side, he found her face obscured by an impurity. The hand at her breast clutched a golden cross.

Though accustomed to thinking of gold in purely metric terms, even Carvajal’s unpracticed eye knew that here was something worth far more as an object of rare workmanship than as precious metal melted down and cast into so many bars. It bore neither jewel nor enamel nor corpus of carved ivory. A strange bas relief adorned its flat surface. Bending low down over it, careful to touch nothing, he saw what he took for depictions of religious rites.

One thing awoke an echo in the recesses of his memory, though he could not place the connection: while the lower shaft and the crossbeam were similar to those in the crosses he had seen all his life, a narrow loop formed the top of the ornament. It gave him a fearful sense of vertigo, as though he were looking at an antediluvian relic. Had some nameless early saints tried to escape the great persecutions by flying over the sea?

Yacasole had come up beside him now. “How will you take it from her hand?” she asked.

“I won’t,” he said thickly. “I receive your father’s gift with gratitude, but I am not the one to disturb the child of the sun in her sleep.”

“Perhaps Arracú will grant you another gift in its place, then,” she said.

“Perhaps. Let us go from here.”

 

#

&&

They returned over the plain. On such a spring day it was easy to concede that the land had its good points. The soil, rich in places, might be cultivated without much difficulty. Carvajal knew that such a possibility had never so much as occurred to the Coahuiltecans. But the success of Guerín and his coyote-men showed the people dangerously susceptible to outside influence. Irreparable harm might already have been done to the western tribes.

One day, he felt certain, other Hispanians or Galicans would come among the Guequisales. An agrarian people with settled habits would fare far better under the incursion than a tribe of opportunistic gatherers. He reflected on the history of the Taínos, his grandmother’s people, with bitterness. Perhaps, he thought, he would put the lie to at least part of Guerín’s predictions, and settle down among the Guequisales as their medicine man.

Almost unconsciously, Yacasole took his arm in hers. Her skin was delicate for one who lived in the wild, and the tenderness of the gesture filled Carvajal with feelings that he had thought long dead.

They reached the place of giant oaks in the middle of the afternoon. Even from a distance they could sense something wrong. The air, grown still and warm again, seethed with menace; the bright sun, the singing insects, the very profusion of life and growth seemed tainted with something rotten. Without voicing their unease they went forward cautiously.

The Guequisales stood in a tight band around the smoldering fire, surrounded by a pack of giant coyotes. The snow-white leader limped on a foreleg that resembled a shriveled human arm. Several of the people had already been torn limb from limb. Arracú lay on the green sward, open-eyed, with his throat ripped out. The tooth-marks on his neck were a man’s.

Carvajal clapped his hand over Yacasole’s mouth and pulled her behind a tree. He got down on one knee, hastily gathered some tinder, and built a small fire. Yacasole, calm now, remained at his side. Sweat poured down his face. He cursed himself for not having foreseen this reprisal. Every so often a scream told him that another Guequisale had been dragged away from the group.

He loaded the arquebus and lit the match cord. Swiftly, he stepped out from behind the tree, took aim, and fired. The ball struck a coyote in the head, spattering its mates with brains and blood. The others wheeled, looking for the shooter, but Carvajal had already hidden himself. He reloaded and stepped out again. This time he aimed at Red Cloud. The bullet went astray, but struck a coyote at Red Cloud’s side.

Now they saw the puff of smoke. They charged him. He had just time enough to reload and fire once more. The shot went wide, but the thunder proved more than the coyotes could take, and they turned as a pack to make their escape. With a wild whoop he followed them, out of the place of oaks, up and over the rise, and down toward the Blue Hole.

He fired twice more as the coyotes neared the golden rampart, killing one. They vanished into the thicket. He slung the gun over his shoulder and ran on, falchion in hand. As he neared the ring of huisache he saw a thing that stopped him in his tracks.

A stalk taller than the tallest tree rose slowly from the center of the dell, a curling cone of suppurating yellow florets that unfurled itself like the fiddlehead of a growing fern. The clustered crimson tendrils that radiated from its sticky buds terminated each in a glistening globule of viscid mucus, reminding him of the sundews he had seen in the eastern swamps.

He hesitated for a second, then pursued his quarry into the thicket. The warriors who remained alive, some still in coyote form and some changed back into men, ran madly around the muddy shore. The florets spurted streams of white ichor that stiffened into long, ropelike tendrils. Writhing with a volition of their own, they whipped through the air, seeking their hapless prey. Each warrior found himself seized by a soft but implacable lariat, lifted off his feet, and drawn into the sticky embrace of the florets to wriggle like an insect caught in sap.

Carvajal stood rooted in place at the shore, hypnotized by the same silent music that had maddened the coyote-men. Red Cloud, in human form again, with his left arm dangling from his riven shoulder, alone remained unaffected, and eluded the Watcher longer than the rest.

He spied the conquistador and charged him with a furious whoop. Carvajal brought his sword up, ready to strike, but Red Cloud shot past him. Too late, Carvajal realized that Yacasole had followed him into the dell. Red Cloud seized her at the same instant a wriggling tendril found him at last, and he was drawn to the stalk with the struggling girl, as he had designed.

Now that all the warriors had been captured, the Watcher ceased its hypnotic song and began withdrawing into the blue abyss. Carvajal, released from his invisible bonds, took his blade in his teeth, dove into the pool, and swam to the rugose stalk. He was soon among the soft branches from which the sticky buds protruded. The Watcher continued to sink. The water touched his feet again, slid up his body, and rose past his head.

Down, deeper down it bore him, curling in a cloud of bubbles released from air pockets and the lungs of the screaming coyote-men. Carvajal worked his way through the florets, using his buoyancy to climb. He found Red Cloud and Yacasole and hacked through the buds that held them. As a trio they began to rise.

A battle amid bubbles began. Red Cloud, though unarmed, was the stronger of the two, and as lithe and as slippery as an devilfish, despite his wounded shoulder. Carvajal’s clothes proved a dangerous encumbrance, for they gave his opponent an easy purchase. Red Cloud twisted Carvajal’s arm in such a way as to send the falchion spinning from his hand. After Carvajal had wasted his energy in a few blows of nightmarish ineffectualness, the pale warrior succeeded in straddling his shoulders. Carvajal felt the strong white thighs tighten around his neck. Already his lungs were screaming for air. Now his vision began to vanish in clouds of sparks.

And then, miraculously, he felt his sword pressed into his hand. Yacasole had caught it. With his last ounce of strength he aimed a killing stroke. He missed. A small but strong hand took the sword away again. A black cloud of blood spurted into the blue darkness. The pale legs relaxed.

Carvajal took hold of the girl’s hand and kicked upward, pushing off Red Cloud’s body. An instant later they broke through the surface, gasping and spluttering. He hauled her out onto the limestone slab, where they both lay prostrate, coughing up water. After some minutes he got slowly to his feet. The girl clung to his ankles. The sword lay beside her.

The entire tribe stood in a half-circle under the golden shade of the huisache. One by one they prostrated themselves on the sandy earth. Thinking at first that they bowed to him, he put his hands up in remonstrance, but then he knew: they adulated the Watcher in the pool.

The land, or that which lay beneath the land, had cultivated the Guequisales as surely as he had wanted them to cultivate melons and squash. For them, life in a world without the Watcher would be a desolation unimaginable. And, for all his half-pagan ways, Carvajal could never live with it. The palpable evil of the coyote-men, which he thought he understood, seemed almost friendly beside such an appalling custody. He knew now that the land had opened to receive him, much as the viscid florets had received the coyote-men. But, touching the turtle amulet at his neck, he repudiated that embrace.

He gazed down at the bedraggled girl who had saved his life. A chasm had yawned between them.

A soft splash brought him around. Red Cloud’s body had bobbed to the surface. It rolled onto its back, looking into the limitless sky with eyes scarcely less alive than Carvajal had last seen them, then sank again to rise no more. He felt curiously ambivalent. A man must have a soul to be well-hated, he reflected.

“Moreno!” a voice called.

He turned. The youth called Dacate had raised his face from the earth.

“What is it?” Carvajal asked.

“Last night I heard Arracú talk of your desire for the yellow stone.”

“Yes?”

“During my time among the tribes of the great cacique, I learned of a land in the sun’s setting, a place of deep canyons above a great river. A people of great power once dwelt there, who lived in caves like cliff swallows, and left images painted in all the colors of the earth. They are said to have possessed great treasures. Their spirits guard their ancient dwellings, but surely one such as yourself need fear no ghosts.”

Carvajal nodded. Without another word he disentangled himself from Yacasole’s arms, went past the kneeling Guequisales, and stepped out of their lives forever. He knew what Dacate was doing, and accepted it as his fate.

He recalled now what had tugged at his memory before the tomb of the sun-child. The ornament was no cross of the padres, but a crux ansata or ankh, known to the ancients through Egypt, where it was a symbol of life. His mother had told him of such relics. They came from Atlantis, some of whose diaspora settled on the Nile at their continent’s foundering, fleeing Powers akin to the Watcher in the Blue Hole, bearing the wisdom bestowed upon them by a translunary god. Others among its children must have sought refuge in the New World. Whence Arracú’s story had come he could not guess. Had the Guequisales circled the Tashyan badlands for so many ages?

Despite his love of gold, Francisco Carvajal y Lopez knew that such relics were not for him, and so left behind a king’s ransom in that cave in Tashyas, going on to seek his fortune among the painted canyons of the west.

 

 

______________________________________________________________

Raphael Ordoñez is a mildly autistic writer and circuit-riding college professor residing in the southwest Texas hinterlands, eighty miles from the nearest bookstore. His short stories have appeared in several magazines, and his paleozoic adventure fantasy novels, Dragonfly and The King of Nightspore’s Crown, the first two in a planned tetralogy, are available from Hythloday House. He lives in a rickety old house with his wife and three children, within sight of the grave of a famous gunfighter, and blogs about fantasy, writing, art, and logic at Cosmic Antipodes (raphordo.blogspot.com).


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