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De Orbe Novo.

Behind the red trees, I saw them. That led down toward the sweet sea, through heliconia and amaryllis, broad-leafed and thick, the twisted vines, the stands of palmetto,

I saw these ill-mapped travellers, their barnacled ships, the masts sea-loosened, the cordage spent, and I turned and ran.



* * *

A hawk's bell. A red


for gold. A looking-glass for gold.

Always for GOLD.

Who can speak to them?

* * *

I watched them mouth bitterly the beetle and dog, pith, roots and horses. The chigger and black fly made deep welts rise, in piraguas and balsas against the currents they poled, water casks broken, abandoned, islanded, fevers of the swamp chilled their bloated bodies, from brackish waters drank while in the bush the bushmaster waited. Mutiny they committed on this mutinous terrain.

I ran through the high dense land, the gley, the riverside vines and lianas, - see how my plait came undone. Through tall scrub palms, over ash and cinders, their bearded bodies weighted by casques and cuirasses, with lombards and muskets, they followed, their feet trampling the black leaf mold. How was I to do? The stone mace, my spear, palm-wood, flint-edged, bucklers of tapir the bow and arrow failed.

* * *

Would they tell us if the stars and moon lose their brightness? Will the heavens ever fall? Stop in their course? What causes darkness and cold?

Why not light and heat always? Where does the soul go after it leaves the body?

Did they fall from the heavens like the flight of the arrow? The curve of the rainbow?

Why do so few want so much gold? How can Christ be both man and god? a mother and a virgin?

I opened my eyes and asked these questions, wet, my hands moist in the hot-bone air, my waist circled by water, the baptism complete.

* * *

They answered with warm toil and hard words, prayers and chains.

Borne of horse and oxen, these emissaries of light gave us God's news, taught us the heavenly ways of the Lord. Twice-ruled, I in thrall listened of Kings and Popes, of Hell's torments, and our Salvation and I did my head bow in life's prayer to defeat kindred spirits, sloth and indolence, idleness and vice, - thus saved, yes, saved, from myself, was that our Lord? we did sing Ave Marias, a Pater Noster, the Salve and Credo even as our vices stronger, amazed, sin overtook us.

Stocks and stones in my heart, fastened by my heathenish flesh. I stirred tyranny against God till they stubborned my heart, - and thus:

Boots squelching in the mud, poniards raking the flesh, an overseer goading, goading moving the column for them to pay their tithes and tributes. No gold in golden Veragua to palm their fingering hands. A booty for them our bodies to lucre and hoe and prod our hands into the turning soil for wine and vinegar through rain and mud to mine for silver the argentine path a bone-clad tribute to our Lord.

We wore the ROYAL IRON thus:

And, oft, the bone-fire roared while the

turkey vulture circled,

circled, waiting for

maize and blood.

* * *

Our crops, after idols, the shad and mamey, were theirs, - they spoke of hungry mouths manioc, manioc, for the poor man, of God, the cross and virgin. Their holiness we should worship, - HER.

We listen. What voices?

WE COMMAND that no FREE INDIAN be taken to Pearl FISHERIES under pain of death. WHATSOEVER person shall KILL, or WOUND, or lay INJURIOUS hands on any INDIAN, or take from him his WIFE or DAUGHTER, or do other violence or injury, be punished conformably to the LAWS OF THESE KINGDOMS.

* * *

We listen.


I am widowed and cannot sing.


A bone sticks in my throat.


My tongue worms to thee.


My eyes fetch nothing.

We listen.


I am widowed, - yet I shall always clad my body, cherish a quinto for our Lords.

Fires for plantains. Charity.

Charity limes a sweltering heart.

My words will not STAY in PLICE. My words,

turn, turn,

o holy mother, most mary, guide of the erring and consoler of the afflicted, I hold a vespered cup, - hollow be thy name, thy singdom come, thy willdom done.

The Holy Mary is NOT GOD.

* * *

What life? My lungs burned. A pain ribbed my side. Spit and blood I vomited as my throat hacked at the dry wind.

Hoarse and feverish, I listened to the blood-rattle of my loosened jaw and I did not like what I heard.

(From the shoal Jesus rose and whispered, "Believe in me and you shall be saved.")

Ill winds in the air, the sands washed in the holy blood from the sea of blighted ships.

(And Jesus, as he died, said, "Listen to me now, all you who believe in my truth, in the truth of our dead fathers, THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED INCORRUPTIBLE.")

Skunks in my mind, stench-filled, ill, the fevers, then spots, shaking my rawboned thoughts as my heart burned, blistered, broke, my mouth swelled to the swelling point.

In the highlands, a golden frog croaked its hoarse death song into my still ear.

Beneath the light, a ruttish priest spun wool, stood, and said he would wash my feet in the blood of our waters.

A hooded friar raised his head and said, "Come, come to me, my sons and daughters. Leave all behind. Come, come, come to me."

This plague across the land, death's simple blow - theirs

to come, come, come to what life? The broken pestle, the cracked mortar, the still quern? - Few but them survived the murderous reign of the Lord in the sheep yard of the dead - and if, if a word. A word. I mouthed words for them, theirs, a word for them. They should eat their gold. Maize, dear heavenly, your grace, we thank you for this meal. Jesus chains for us. I would feign for him. I will whip my tongue for its mutiny, pinion my vermined heart. My world retreats. Of stone and wind, our gods. Of maize, my bones. I am thin like the walking stick. Like the wing's quill, I hover.

A strangeness lumbers over me.

I feel the tinge of new clothes.

* * *

Was it their God? Or was it the way the moon turtled across the skies one night on a deserted windward road that I, I, amongst many, survived?

* * *

From the ocean swell of our death,

in the wave wash,

we speak to you who know not what death is

of the waning of the orchid, a canker on the rose,

the cut pejibaye trees, the empty cays,

turtles dead on a spindrift shore, and fifteen men buried deep in the chest of a dead land.

Pray for us in the hour of our death.

* * *

On a wet stone, I cut pink mangoes and toss the peels to a hungry dog.

My world retreats. I taste the sulfur bitters in my mouth.

* * *

Blind now, the spirit stirs only slightly in the hot rains.

I chew on a Spanish castellano, drink the chocolate drink, teach them the secret paths of the hummingbird.

* * *

I will hide in the beak of the macaw.

Pray for us in this the hour of our death.

* * *

... and let them be quiet, IN ORDER that they may be the better able to MULTIPLY and be instructed in the matters of our holy Catholic faith...

* * *

I cannot RUN like the lizard across water.

* * *

Through the valley of God, there is no sun and moon. I stare upwards and fritter beyond all measure. Axe gods to bearded glory. I have shriven a beakbird. Who will breech my birth, celt the turning soil? I will wed the blessed mother and mix a potent: pray, turn, turn again, pray, the soiled cloth of a Franciscan, the eyeteeth of the jaguar, crossbeads and bones. Mix a potent. Dewlap and marigolds. Orchid and turtle. Ague and ocelot, mix a potent and even, I, -

a soulless parrot,

will live.

* * *

What voices?

the thrush and tanager?

listen, listen,

to the whistling ocarina, the silence and wind.
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Author:Vargas, Juan Carlos
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jun 22, 1991
Next Article:This happy breed of men.

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