Thursday, March 1, 2012

Eden, part II

Musa had prospered. Throughout the homelands, he learned at his father's side the way of the stars, and the paths of the spirits of the sky. He was taught how to find the direction of Mecca no matter of where he may find himself, to pray daily, and one day know the path to follow for his holy journey of Hajj.

Yet these days, he walked little but south and west, further away from the holy city with each step. Musa never lost direction, and always learned the ways of the land... an anthill here, a sinkhole there, a wolves tracks in the forest. These were all the same in the plains, the desert, and even the sea-lands in the far north, but these new silent lands beyond-the-western-sea best resembled those of the south. He had never seen the kingdom of Kongo, but he knew a slave in Elmina from the deep forests of the south were the stars were strange.

It was the stars he feared the most in this land. Each night, he looked for his familiar patterns, and each night throughout the journey in the jungled hills, the pole star sank closer to the northern horizon, while unknown pattens grew in the south. When the north star disappeared, Musa knew that he would at last be lost. Perhaps this is where the world did end.

Until that day came, the Spaniards would not know that Musa was anything less than their tracker, their leader in the forests. Since penetrating the interior, Musa's skill became more evident by the day, and in the last weeks, he rose from a porter to often leading the party in search of... whatever Colon had told them to.

The Admiral's fanaticism had worsened, according to the older sailors (who all long begrudged the mountains), and the crown's placing total control of the Western Islands in the hands of Colon had tied his madness to a dangerous amount of power.

Admiral Colon's first westward voyages brought passports and greetings to the great kings of India and Cathay to cement Spain's power over the Ocean Sea. However, while these remained a titular reason for fortress ports in la Navidad and la Isabella, Colon's mission had taken a religious zeal which frightened all his men. Musa's continued life was the product no more than an oversight of the priests at la Isabella, to whom he had shown enough knowledge of Moses and Jesus to avoid execution upon arrival (indeed, many unfortunate Jews, Mohammedans, and "false Christians" discovered the horrific fates of the Inquisition had followed the fervor across the sea).

Many of the first missions to the interior were disasters-- men were lost, cut down by disease, or simply stole themselves into the forest. Musa's own group had made three successful incursions, mapping rivers, distance to the mountain range, and the places to avoid. But the emissaries to the Great Khan eventually stopped when the Admiral told the men of their divine destiny: to find the land of Eden from which mankind had fallen.

"Through my holy work of finding this land," Colon had told his increasingly wary lieutenants "only then shall the Christ return to make Heaven and Earth whole-- to purge the blasphemers from the land and celebrate the true glory of the Lord."

And so, they set out to find the Garden of Eden.

The forest itself was unnerving in its peacefulness-- too quiet, too safe. The flies and mosquitoes were a perennial irritant, and disease was always a danger, but this land had a curious lack of beasts-- another forest would hold the cackling of monkeys, or a cat stalking the men at night, but the crew had yet to see anything larger than a parrot. In addition to the West, the Empty Lands, and Eden, some had come to calling these the Mountains of Birds, for lack of any other creature present.

The mountains themselves were not difficult-- the Basques boasted of higher peaks in their homeland. Running parallel to the coast-- west, and then veering southwest, the peaks were largely forests plagued by daily rains of the tropics for which the Spaniards had no taste. Musa's path was bringing them generally south, away from their ad hoc port through what appeared to be a pass some thirty leagues from the shore. The forests were thick and unyielding to the mammalian trespassers, demanding that a foreguard of men hack at the branches and vines with swords (the hauberks long ago proved to be useless in close quarters).

While many pushed on through the brush under duty, some of fear, a small number did share the Admiral's fervent enthusiasm for their mission. It was these Believers who were the most insufferable; in adulation of Colon, they were his eyes during the rangings into the wild, making Musa suspicious of each movement at best, and nervous at worst. At times, he wondered as to his purpose in seeking out that which was beyond the mountains, since the Believers incessantly told of the gloried gardens in the high mountain peaks-- beyond these "foothills," the mountains would grow higher, and the air more pleasing.

"Mohammedan, come here!" one of the foreguard barked. While Musa was the effective leader of the expedition, the sailors gave him only a begrudging allegiance of necessity. Pushing through the narrow path cleared by the small party head of him, the sky opened, almost setting him back with the brightness of sunlight  upon exiting the canopied jungle. The forest had given way to a large pond, perhaps half of a league wide.

"Miguel, you've found a lake." Musa said disinterestedly. "It is a pretty one, yes, but we are looking for the mountain pass, not a fishing hole, my friend. Let's find a way around this, providing that you did not also discover a boat."

Miguel spit into the muddy soil. "I'm not your friend, Guinea-man. And we have already circled it while you and the other heathens plotted at our backs. The pass is now behind us."

Musa scanned the southwest horizon over the lake, embarrassed that he did not see that the land had stopped sloping. Behind to the forest, the tree cover gently sunk from an apparent peak which they had must have recently crossed.

"Very well-- this is likely the open lands for which you have been looking. We will make camp here, and if supplies are enough, push forward at the dawn."

"We will do no such thing by your orders," the Believer replied, now being joined by four companions "you may have gained our good Admiral's trust, but we know you for the snake you are. We push forward."

Musa knew the mistake of taking on the uncharted lands while the dusk approached, but for his leadership in the rangings, he was never permitted a blade larger than a small knife. The returning foreguard of zealots each carried at least one sword, and likely an unseen friend hid a crossbow.

The march continued through the night at a cripple's pace. When the evening rains began (a sad feature of the local climate), the small pathways which the team cut the forest turned to muddy rivers, causing every third man to fight to keep their well-worn boots. When they did stop, it was near midnight before a camp was ready, and before many men had time to close eyes, it seemed the time to strike and continue with the rising sun had come.

On the second day, Musa was bound at the wrists again. The Believers had little tolerance for daily prayers.

On the third day, the slope of the land plunged to the south. Now scaling down the opposite side of the mountain range, the supply chain to the now-distant beachhead had grown thin, causing many of the men to grumble that fishing at the pass-lake had not been a bad idea. Following a growing river which tumbled from their pond, more than once, a man had been swept down in the rapids, but for the most part, the southern ridge was simply miserable-- more rain, faster pace, and less-than-competent leaders. The forest silence remained.

Now following at the back of the van with the other porters, news of the discoveries at the front of the path were slow-coming. The last four days when the river turned into a swamp was the slower still. Most of the other slaves had come from lands which Musa had never heard of, let alone seen, and spoke little of the languages which he knew. Signal had seemed to come a few hours before sunset that the greater mass of the party had come to a halt, which to the relief of many sailors and slaves indicated an early rest for today's march. As the rest of the porters hurried to catch up to the body of the men to build camp for the evening, two soilders were running back to meet them.

Without words or struggle, they seized Musa as he dropped his parcels and raised bound wrists. Half-dragging, half-carrying the former guide ahead of the slowing party, men looked at him in confusion and frustration as he passed. The forest was beginning to open once more as the scent of the air abruptly changed. The swamps to his right had begun to open to a larger, clearer body of water when he realized that the great country of Eden would not be waiting. He stumbled and hobbled up a small hill as the men threw Musa over the top. The grasses sloped into open sand for the first time in a month where Miguel and two others waited.

The second Believer spoke first "You led us in a circle, you fool!"

Musa calmly looked up and then down the strand. "This is not the same ocean, friends. When we arrived, the sea was to the north-east, now it is south. Maybe it is your imagined country which is mistaken."

Someone behind him grumbled "I've had enough of this." For a moment, Musa was immediately considererd three questions: who said that? what was that ffft! sound? who punched me in the back?

He stumbled forward to the sea. Miguel and his friend smiled and said something in a language he did not know while he wondered if the blow to the small of his back caused his to release his bladder as he felt a warm liquid trickle down his legs.

The speakers are mumbling now... why are they so quiet? He fell to his knees and then onto his face. This is no lake, it tastes like the sea. Is this the same sea from home? The warm ocean water embraced Musa as he relaxed and rested into the tide.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Two months.

The Admiral's pressure had only increased since the discovery of the mainland-- a spit of hauntingly quiet forests stretching from east to west across the southern rim of the sea had been a sight both similar and unlike those of the little islands the first and second voyages found.

Musa counted the passage of the moon as they trekked, mapped, and survived what the Admiral and his fanatics were calling "Eden."

Like most of his brothers, Musa had simply been on the wrong side of a war on the other side of the sea. For most, this meant fleeing into the hinterlands between villages and living nomadically until the family disputes and property arguments had settled between. Musa's brothers and cousins had done this before in other skirmishes, but it was his foolishness to stumble over a hidden root during flight. The Oyo in pursuit captured the young solider hardly before he knew that he fumbled.

In raising arms against the king, he was sentenced to four years a slave. The work had been light (his overall purpose was that of a breathing war trophy), and family was never far away; his captors were captors, but fair in their treatment, and his contract would expire upon forty eight months of service.

Until he was traded to the Songhai.

And then the Mali.

And then the Akan.

And then to the ocean. Musa had never seen the sea before, but each trade brought his south and west, away from the mountains and the fields to the forests, swamps, and salt water. At the seaside town of Elmina, where he was handed to the Portuguese in a sale of twenty four other men. The first work was little different from those of previous captors, until they seamen brought him north. Ship-work was confusing, too fast-paced, too boring, and too dangerous for his taste, but he was saved as a watchman; the keen eyes which Musa's mother had given him, and his knowledge of the constellations (both the real ones and the sailors') earned him a post to navigate.

Seven years later, he was fairly certain that his bondage contact had been forgotten. Nonetheless, the shipmates to the west-islands were no different from other bondsmen-- they all hid from the Admiral's lash-man, they all starved and died together during the voyage, and they all dreamt of escaping to homes and families.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Admiral

The Almighty blesses those with True Vision with the curses of lesser men. Cristobal had known his calling was that to follow a path of true righteousness-- one's rise from the filthy mechanicals of Genoa to having his own lordship in the islands beyond the Ocean Sea. He has survived plagues, wars, kings, and popes; he had courted no less than the warrior queen herself to fund his venture. A gamble, true, but he look on the noble's faces when he brought products from the islands to court was worth the years or torments, turn-downs, and snickers. Colon has conquered the sea; soon enough, his fiefdom would extend from the Empty Islands to Zipangu and Cathay, which from his own calculations lay no further than two hundred leagues more through the Warm Seas.

Soon, he would fulfill his name-- the Christ-bearer-- and his destiny. Cristobal's part in the Lord's grand plan of the world was no less than to be an actor whose fate would be to free mankind from heathenry and begin the glorious paradise of Heaven on Earth.

His own father couldn't even read.

The first voyage was half-full of criminals, Jews, and Mohamodans, with treachery hidden in each pair of sullen eyes. In his own quarters, Cristobal kept doubles of all of his logs to throw-off the prying eyes of the thieves on deck, even as much as lying about the date (the fools knew no difference); it was a wonder that the first voyage to the Indies was completed without a dagger in his back. the only thing the animals in the hold knew was violence, and he did not hesitate to remind them of this--several crewmembers necessitated a reminder of their place daily, and six required either direct execution or abandonment.

Even the crown had sentenced him to the floating deathtraps-- hardly enough supplies, munitions, or competent sailors to complete a journey to the Canaries, let alone the new lands. This only fueled Colon's drive-- all saints suffered at the hands of both their enemies and friends. His was a holy mission, no less. He will walk the righteous path and complete the Lord's work.

Three years later, he surveyed his own lands in the Far East. Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor and Viceroy of the Indies-- hardly less than a kingly title of his own from his growing port of Santo Domingo. The third of his settlements-- founded by his son--  was now proving to be more successful than the storm-ravaged La Isabela and far enough away from the mutineers in La Navidad, served as an exceelnt center of administration.

But his bones ached for the sea itself-- the only command in which he felt truly confident was captaining a ship. The administration and counting copper pieces could easily be left to attendants and slaves, but the Admiral belonged on the waves.

Time was short for his great work. In less than five years' time, the last age of mankind would begin, wherein Christ's glory would return to the Earth, and all of mankind will strike down infidels and heathens to build a glorious, righteous empire. Yet, Colon's part in this great drama was not yet complete-- to bring the Word across the ocean to the Great Khan and his eastern kingdoms would seal the circuit of history. Upon taking the Holy Lands from the east, the power of the church would only grow, and with great allies the world over (perhaps even from the fabled lands of Prester John in the far north-east of the globe), the Jubilee of 1500th Year of the Lord will bring paradise to all men.

Failing God was not an option.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

 "And you have no suspicions?" a darted whisper shot in the Pinta's hold.
      "Two weeks since we left... no, abandoned half the men on that strand? Many were your friends as well as mine!"
     De Triana sighed, "The 'establishment' of that camp doesn't bother me half as much as the executions. Today was the tenth in as many days."
     The foundation of the Spanish "fortress" had been hasty at best. The large ship had been run onto the river head and consummately disassembled by nightfall. By the next dawn, the Admiral's "builders" had been brought ashore to aid in construction of La Navidad to find that the Painted Ship and the Nina had raised anchor before the area could be properly cleared.
     A return had been promised, with supplies, slaves, seeds, and women, but few on the shore or even the sea trusted such praise. The remaining two caught the eastward-blowing wind and returned again to sea.
     "Every mutineer, or even suspected sympathizer is on that shore." Alonso urged. "You have been wise to be quiet-- he grows more suspicious by the day. This morning, that wiry Ifriqiya boy was run through by the drunkard for mis-tying a rigging. Rodo, he tied the wrong knot, and that Genoan swine called it an attempt on his life... some nonsense of getting caught in the ropes."
      "If these pace continues, I doubt that any on this ship will see Seville again. The journey across took nine weeks, and the winds were with us. There will not be enough to man a ship even this size by the next full moon!"
      He spoke too loudly, above decks, they heard boots stomping the too-think planks over their heads, as if they had woken a beast. The gamble was on the quality of the wine. None of the crew knew where Colon had hidden his personal stores, but since the beginning of the return voyage, it was never far from his hand. The subtlety and guile of a tradesmen fell to the raw violence which Colon only accessed in his fits of rage through the autumn. It was possible, now that the Genoan's mind had begun to unravel-- seeking-out plots against him, talking to spirits whom only he could see. The man had become a caged, feral beast.

Friday, July 29, 2011

La Navidad

      Two months' sailing in the Far East. Colon squatted riggedly in the boat as six of the rowers pulled the small craft to the shallows of another island. This one had looked larger than most-- the coastline extended beyond the horizon both to the east and the west (from which the Santa Maria was pushed during the storm), but it was likely as worthless, the Admiral supposed.
      He had been expanding the search since the first of December-- the edge of discovery and novelty of uncharted lands began to wane for both himself and the crews; at the end of the bargain, the Crown had entrusted that this voyage would pay for itself in trade with the lands of the Great Khan upon reaching Cathay. As both a trader and a sailor, Colon was strained thin as neither venture could sustain itself much longer.
       There was likely another mutiny in the works, since the desperation began this month, he had personally killed four uprising leaders--"this was the price for manning a fleet with thieves and Jews." he had noted in his personal journal. Beyond beaches, trees, and fish, there had been now gold, no spices, and no men of any kind-- only the cacophony of the birds both day and night. Internally, Colon despaired, questioning the Almighty's love for his endeavor, and his own wisdom of the seas, ashamed to return to port empty-handed.
      He hopped off of he skiff, feeling his age with the motion which should have belonged to a man half his years. Do not falter, Christopher. Once the animals in the crew see your weakness of body and heart, they will strike you down. Suppressing a groan as his left ankle rolled in the mud, he strode to the beach, his hands empty. For the first islands, he came to each new shore gallantly holding the queen's colors, armed with a sword and a letter from the court to the eastern princes whom he expected to meet. Every new beach-head was a victory for Christ and Spain, with the wonder of the edge of the Earth on the eyes of every man who waded through the clear waters of the new lands.0
He still carried a sword-- and a hidden dagger-- but these were not for the defense against eastern barbarians to his front, but the rank sailors to his back. They will cut you in your sleep.

      This landing was muddier than most, owing to the swift-moving river two furlongs away, which had piqued his interest from the deck of the slowly-sinking flagship. Despite careful study of his scriptures, he could not understand the meaning of such punishment-- a storm of such incredible ferocity struck the small fleet yesterday on Christmas Eve, tossing the vessels as if they were children's toys in a pond. At the end, both smaller ships was relatively untouched, but the Santa Maria was struck with a broken mast, a slow and unfindable leak in the hull, and nine men claimed by the sea. Limping along the shoreline since midnight, he stopped the small flotilla at the river's head in the hope of finding signs of humanity.

      There were none. Colon knew the men would grumble behind his back for this; he felt the mutineers staring at his neck, the scum pawing at his cabin once he was killed. They would make haste for Spain, claiming that their valiant captain was lost on the journey west, but they--they--  the mighty sailors have found new lands and new riches. They would claim his titles and his heirs.

      "We strike the ship!" he called the the men pulling the skiff ashore. They looked at him quizzically, uncertain if the failed journey had finally driven the Admiral mad (one or two hoped he did as this fulfilled their 10 real gamble).

      "God has seen fit for this riverhead to be our landing! This shall be our first trading post for the great powers of the East, and you, my men shall live as kings in this new city, this new citadel of Christ in the Far West!" His gift for speech and salesmanship as the best inheritance of the Venetian trade.

      "We begin this Christmas day, with the ruins of our holy flagship to build our city, La Navidad."

      The men leaned on their knees, wondering at the sudden turn of their sullen captain. Those whose bets on his sanity weighed in the balance wondered if this was madness, folly, wisdom, or divine providence. Most just shrugged and prepared to return to the ship and run her aground.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"To his credit, the Admiral did choose the parallel of our course," Alonso defended while staring down the cross-staff. "I suppose that in the end, he would have taken the prize for himself anyway, Rodrigo."

Grumbling toward the islands the lookout kept his voice low, avoiding abandonment upon the Far Indies. "Colon is rotten to the core of his being-- and if we survive this journey, may God spit on him upon the return to Spain." Juan did not reply, carefully squinting at the sun's position through the apparatus.

They were now six weeks beyond the Canaries and four days after the night-time sighting of San Salvador. Since the landing the following morning, the Queen's colors were planted on the silent beachhead and brief explorations were made; San Salvador was an unsettling beauty of an island-- perhaps the pre-lapsarian Paradise of Genesis, but unexpectedly empty. Alonso himself had been on the first excursion and found little beyond the birds' calls and forest.

The island itself had been small-- all three ships had circled San Salvador twice before nightfall wherein the crews watched the shallow, blue sea rock the hazy horizon. The next five islands had been much of the same-- small, quiet, and devoid of man's touch. Nature's bounty was indeed overflowing in beast and bird and fish, but these sweltering Edens showed little to offer when the investors had been promised the wealth of Cipangu.

The curses to watching the big ship sink went unanswered. De Triana's hope had been to claim the King's prize to make the journey worthwhile. Much of the family had been lost in the purges of Seville, and the name had lost all but its noble history. Having shed the titles, this had been his only hope to retain the place of a Jew in the court, as had been their status under the now unspeakable Andalusian kingdom.

Alanso freed him from the self-pity "Did you notice that the birds now fly south? I think we ought to change course-- the rest of the Indias had ought to be a hundred miles or so that way."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

             Rodrigo had made the mistake the moment he walked to the dock. The prior weeks had been what he imagined the be Hell—rations would soon run low, the heat (regardless of the autumn) had become even more stufling since leaving the Azores, and he served under Beelzebub himself, the Admiral.
            The Admiral was a cruel man. Most ship’s captains would enforce the law of their floating fiefdom to maintain order and safety upon the sea, but Col√≥n had brought his shrwed, paranoia across the Ocean Sea with his “fleet.” Beatings, while not uncommon to enforce a ship’s discipline, savaged on sadatic brutality—many seamen privately wished for the merciful treatments their war-service compared to the mania of the journey.
            The Inquisition—a nightmare the likes of which agnels could not have forseen. The Marranos had changed their names, they had moved across nations, they had hid—but mostly died. The Beremejo name had been too well-known in the quarters of Seville as  Jewish family—too noble, too rich, too secure--- the new queen had seen to these families and their “support” for la Reconquista over the whole of Iberia.
            A “New Christian” was the polite term for his family now.
Last year’s Beremejo, this year’s la Triana. Survival had its costs. Hiding had its trials, but both Poseidon and the Admiral were merciless.
Worst of all, Rodrigo mused, was that the Genoan was an outright liar.
            The crow’s nest was the only area of peace Rodrigo would find on the Pinta. Under the light of only the stars and waxing moon, a man could be free with his thoughts to consider the world. The night watch was also a coveted post as the Admiral had promised ten silver to the first man to sight the Indias. Having seen a flock of birds perhaps ten leagues to the south—flying west—the other day, Rodrigo had told no one, and managed a second consecutive night at the top of La Pinta.
            In the pleasant coolness after midnight, Rodrigo saw a flicker in the distance. The half moon’s light on the great , choppy waters wassomething which one came well-acquanited to after the weeks at her whim, but this night’s was something entirely different on the horizon—shadows. Something which should not be in the south-west, in fact, was: a faint image of s shore breaking the monotony of the Ocean Sea.
            Rodrigo turned away from the sight to re-acquaint his eyes. Turning back, he blinked and squinted again, seeing an unmistakable umbridge on the horizon. Grinning at the thought of ten extra silver in his pocket on the return to Spain, he stopped himself from speaking for a moment to alert the crew; this moment—this island perhaps thirty leagues distant—was his and his alone. Juan Rodrigo Bermejo’s ephemeral kingdom.
            A sleepy Javier on the deck below was pulling up the knotted ropes to measure their speed as the Marrano shouted downward,
            “¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!”