Full novel: Approximately 99,860 words
YANGA: NEVER A SLAVE!
Phyllis C. Koppel
Editor: Jennifer Quinlan
Historical Editorial Services, Ltd.
6420 Toney Lane
Spotsylvania, VA 22553
After years of deadly combat, my ancient body is at peace in a room where disparate cultures live harmoniously. My home is well-appointed with the latest wooden furniture one can purchase in New Spain and it’s decorated with the spiritual images of my native Africa. Dipping a quill into the ink bottle to write my life story, I struggle where to start; here in the freed autonomous municipality of San Lorenzo de los Negros, in the mid-1600's or, in Atebubu where I was royalty, before becoming a slave to the Spanish Armada.
When I was born, the world was going through turbulent times but, I knew nothing of this in my little mountain village in Ghana, where my life ran as prescribed by the gods. I was preparing to become the prince of the Brong Bara tribe at the same time a pair of English rogue pirates, Captains Hawkins and Drake were starting a business of their own that would change the world, and my life, forever. A half-century later, what the gods had prescribed for me wasn’t to lead a small village in Africa, but to become the first person to defy the formidable Spanish Empire and win.
With a clay mug brimming with hot chocolate—a pinch of salt and chile sprinkled atop—I touch the parchment with the plume’s tip and mess the first letter right off the bat. I take a long sip of the elixir of gods, its brown richness filling me with life, and write; Worth the Fight; an account of one man’s life. My hand is rickety and the penmanship shaky, it may even be too late to start this tale, but I’m compelled to warn others after me, to tell them to stand their ground, that it is worth the anguish of opposing an empire. My heart guides the words that pour out, messy and crooked, full of hope and expectation, but my head knows that I am mere happenstance. Can my small rebellion, at the crossroads between the demise of ancient civilizations and the birth of slavery in the Americas, do anything to stop the trade frenzy of intercontinental human trade to come?
SECTION I – 1569 – 1572
ROOTS – the first four years
In the West African village of Atebubu in Ghana, rain was a blessing. When it came, the villagers rejoiced and ran out of their mud huts, carrying clay vessels, laughing and gathering the precious liquid. It was a time for celebration.
On the day that I was to be crowned, Prince Gaspar Yanga, a descendant of the tribe of Brong Bara, at the dawn of the 16th moon year of my life, I thought my fortune had doubled when the blessing of rain fell. On that humid summer day, in the Christian calendar of 1569, the blessing was my curse. It took over forty-four years to be crowned, in entirely a different land.
The day for me to become Prince of the Ghana people of Atebubu had been prescribed by my ancestors, many moons before. From birth, there were special teacher grooming me for this day. Raised by wise men who introduced me to cultures and other parts of the world far from the small village of Atebubu, they taught me to read and write in three languages which looked nothing like one another.
From the Moor scholars, I learned the basic disciplines and stories of how the Moors conquered Spain and built an illustrious city, with places of knowledge and learning; a place lit at night by thousands of oil lamps lining leagues of paved roads. From the masters who were decedents of the Ghana Empire, the arts of commerce and trade and how to move merchandise north to Europe were imparted. From the Arab teachers, I learned poetry and literature and how everything connects to a spiritual leader. From the Jewish merchants, who seldom passed through Atebubu, I learned that they were not that different from the Arabs, although both claimed to be enemies since time immemorial. From the Chinese doctors, how our bodies function and the forces which exist amongst us all were taught to me.
The day of my Coronation was the culmination of all I had learned. It was the day my body, life force, and divine spirit should have united to become one, to transition into manhood and to become the strength needed to lead a people. The rain falling helped to blend all these ingredients together. I knew The Most High, Nyame, was looking upon me. Looking down upon this village tucked away between the bottom of the mountain and the ocean.
Acquiring the knowledge of the world demanded great effort and dedication, and this left little time for social interaction, especially with women who were always outside, tending the fields or running after children. The wise men that educated me knew this and made my Coronation day coincide with my wedding day. Deciding which girl from the village would be my wife was a matter of great secrecy to me.
As the day approached, five contenders came to me. I felt awkward in their company. As the girls were presented to me, my eyes noticed one. She was not the plumpest or the strongest. She did not sing the loudest nor did she recite the longest story but, she had something that made me stir. Her skin was like an early sunset, and her fair features were crowned by hair the colour of hay. The lightness of her features made her shine amongst the rest. Her bright eyes burned into my heart.
Soon after meeting Sunshine, visitors from far away came to celebrate my Coronation. Under the ceremonial tents, we gathered. Long mats lined the dirt ground, and tasty sweet and savory dishes from places near and far were on offer.
My Moor visitors brought texts depicting Mohammad's life, painstakingly illustrated in gold-leaf and filigree. From my Ghana masters, instruments made from calabash and gourds were gifted; the sounds they made were stirring and came from the inner self. The Chinese doctors brought herbs, leaves, ligaments and ointments.
We gathered in the heart of the village, an empty circular space surrounded by a small cluster of thatched-roof huts which in turn, was surrounded by a larger cluster of huts. We drank a concoction for the deities and men adorned themselves with feathers from the Turaco bird. The prescribed time came.
“Yanga, are you ready to meet your master spirit?”
“I am, venerable elder, Ngomo.”
“And, are you ready to receive the juice from the kwashi plant?”
“I am.” My knees felt weak.
“The bulb of the kwashi will be squeezed into your inner eye. To do this, an incision on your skull will be made, and when the first drops of the juice touch your head, your inner eye will awaken.”
The moment the sharp obsidian knife would pierce my head was tattooed in my brain. The incision would be small, but the mere thought made my head light. The drums began to roar. Louder. Increasing my frenzy.
“Are you ready?”
Words did not form upon my tongue. I saw the elder’s hand rise high, sharp glass heading straight for my skull—
“—Wait! Please for more strong drink…”
The elder didn’t heed my request. A hand came down. A tug of a tuft of hair, and I felt a strange sensation in my fingers, like everything inside of me ran on waves of fire. My flesh tickled and was alive and numb at the same time.
As the effect of the Kwashi juice blanketed my senses, I soared toward the eagle that carried the blessing of rain to my Coronation and, as time crawled by, the spirit eagle brought me back to my village and offered the gift of Sunshine.
Wearing nothing but a ceremonial wedding necklace, she looked more beautiful than ever with her hair the colour of gold resting on her skin the colour of honey. I envisioned us flying on the back of a majestic bird, toward the sun, and smiled because the wise men had read my heart. Embracing my bride-to-be, the Kwashi made me feel as if we were floating in a bubble of warmth.
”Atrápenlos! Atrápenlos!” I heard a harsh noise. “Trap them!” exploded in my head. Certain this was on account of the kwashi juice, when the sun went dark and clanking sounds were all around me, I heard someone shriek. People pushed, then pulled. Clap! went an iron around my wrist and clap! sealed the other. In a blur of men shouting, boots stomping, cloth flowing, feathers on hats and swords in fists flying, my brain spun.
My head was threaded through a wooden plank that connected me to three other men. The pale-skinned invaders wove chains around our ankles. I tried to squirm, but nothing moved. Tried to scream, but no sound came from my mouth. Moans. Groans. Cries obliterated everything, and I stood immobile as a pale man approached Sunshine and I watched the unimaginable.
“Qué bonita señorita!” He clutched her breast with one rough hand, pulled her closer to his pointy dark beard. She flinched. He tightened the wedding necklace around her neck with his other hand. “Blanca? Negra? Muy Buena!” he exhaled fire into her terrified face. He pulled her closer.
“Yo soy, Capitán Pedro González de Herrera,” he nearly swallowed her with his words. “Y tú, bonita?” He slammed Sunshine against the tree behind. She tried to scream, but he covered her mouth with his hand. She bit him.
“All demonio!” he frothed at the mouth and pulled his pants down. He raped Sunshine hard. The more she resisted, the harder his thrust. With my head knotted to three other men in a plank, there was no power in me. On the day when my rise to lead my people, I felt lost.
All around me foreigners were busy rounding the healthy and able, kicking our children like insignificant cockroaches. The deafening thunder didn't do anything to stop González de Herrera's insatiable appetite. His men dragged the village's wives and daughters into their galleons as trophies of conquest, and still, the captain could not quench his needs. Sunshine stopped struggling. She went limp, but the white man did not stop pounding her body.
My voice came from deep inside. Over the wooden chokehold, my yells for him to stop, my pleads for Sunshine’s life were met with a whip on my bare back. My instinct was to snatch the whip and tie it around the pale man’s neck, but chained to the plank, there was nothing anybody could do. I was forced to walk away from the village, down the dirt path toward the beach. Whips slashed left and right without regard. Behind me, González de Herrera's men had set my village aflame. I was glad I could not look back, because my bride’s body was consumed by fire.
I understood some of what these strangers said, because their language was not dissimilar to the language spoken by my Moor teachers. Not everything the strangers said was understood, but what they spoke stemmed from hatred in their hearts.
I was shoved into one of the many tall ships on the beach, and I was forced to wait on the upper deck with men that I did not know, also chained to planks. Spanish flinty-eyed sailors with spiked mustaches examined us like cattle, from head to toe, nodding at the tallest and strongest like myself, shaking their head at others.
The hours crawled like years under the hot sun. I examined my surroundings trying to understand what was happening. There were ropes that ran like waterfalls from the masts, and they were neatly wrapped onto iron hooks. Everything was unknown to me. At once destined to be crowned Prince and to marry, and then on a boat understanding nothing. The wise men that taught me had not prepared me for this.
I dug deep into my spirit self, asked master Ngomo for guidance, but his mind had moved on to the next level of awareness and could not communicate with him. Deeper, I delved into myself and found the lesson I needed, observing, assessing the crowded top deck of the vessel, I saw docility amongst men who ought to be outraged. Empty spirits behind eyes that should be burning with fire, and asked myself, why? How could this be happening?
On the deck, there were men who spat at the captain and others who pulled at their chains. Calculating who would resist and who would submit, who would see the end of the journey and who, in desperation, would jump overboard to face a liquid death, my mind remained occupied.
González de Herrera approached me.
“What a calamitous long face you bear, big boy! Miss your señorita, do you?” His laugh sounded like a lion’s roar in the wind and I resisted spitting between his beady eyes. My legs felt like water thinking of the girl I got to call my bride-to-be, Sunshine.
He whipped my back with a leather strap. “She was good…sooo good.” He circled my wounded body, poking here and there. “You’ll be first to go down the hold, big man.”
He glowered, showing his teeth like a wild animal about to attack.
He shoved me down wooden stairs that led to a holding deck not high enough for me to stand, for two levels were created with wooden boards where only one should exist. One by one, the men were lowered into the deck and chained to the wood railing, one facing up and another one down.
“You! Calamitous idiot, I’m speaking to you!” González de Herrera called to the sailor chaining us. My Latin lessons with the Moor teachers aided me in this desolate moment for, I understood some of what this man said. “You are too big!” He pushed a shorter, smaller sailor down the stairwell. “Let him take over! He’ll be able to crawl above the bodies with ease and chain them faster than you.”
The task of securing us to the foot rail still took hours.
A day out at sea and sailing conditions became appalling. Excrement and the smell of urine began to mix with rotting matter to produce air so thick it made one’s stomach cringe. Even the rats looked sick. I heard a man whimpering.
“Cease that,” the man next to him said. “Stop!”
The sniveling came from a frail man, not far from me, who began to suck the toe in front of him.
“By my salvation,” the sobbing man said once he had let go of his neighbour’s toe. “I cannot stand this! What will be our fate?” He went back to the toe, like a baby to his mama’s bosom
“Stop sucking my toe! Mark my words, you swine, or else…” The man spat on the crying man’s toes.
From the deck above, a sailor came half way down the stairs. Upon us, he rained lashes with his whip.
“Silencio! No speaking! No moving!” The whip blanketed us, slashing me across the cheek.
A rivulet of blood trickled down my neck, shoulder blade, and my arm before drying. The lower deck quieted. With silence pounding my thoughts, I realized we had to survive the pale sailors but, we also had to survive one another. If we could not, he light-skinned devils would sell us, like goats for slaughter, as the Romans had fed the Jews to the lions. My eyes shut to stop a tear from falling. The tall Spanish ship pitched at irregular intervals over the maddening ocean. As we were squeezed above the hold and below the ship's deck like kernels inside a tightly wrapped corn husk, our tempers began to run short.
As prince-in-waiting, I was trained to look beyond what met the eye, to anticipate my people's needs. This is how my nation would be happy and healthy. In Atebubu, our community lived by fair rule. We worked hard, and the village prospered, and people lived long, content lives, but here, shackled to the foot irons in the middle deck of a galleon, with no more than five feet of headroom to move, I knew that not many would see the other side of this journey. On my side on the wooden plank, time crawled like an injured but that’s lost its wings.
It took only a day at sea to learn about my fellow captives. While entire villages were rounded up, people from the same village were dispersed onto different vessels so that very few knew one another. I thought someone from my village was there, but when the man turned to look at me, there was no recognition.
To my right was the short, round and noisy Bapoto from Senegal, who snored throughout the night and kept awake the hundred or so men squeezed into this inferno. At night, his dreams revealed a soul, not at ease. He mumbled about something he regretted. Bapoto knew about not being free; he had told us that his people owned slaves. His physical appearance betrayed his age. He was close to my age, but his belly hung low over his loincloth, and his long curly hair was unkempt. He was the type of person that would not accept our fate without a raucous fight. He’d be counted in my army of resistance.
To his right, Olamide lay rigid as a mighty Baobab tree. I could see his hollow cheeks across Bapoto’s toes. Olamide’s big teeth gave him a ghostly appearance. He said he had struggled to understand his destiny, for he was not meant to be on this boat.
"I am a Christian!" Olamide said that night, which meant nothing to most of the men in the hold. "I speak Portuguese! I sailed from Africa as a free man…this was not destined to happen to me!"
Bapoto scoffed. "Pray, and the reason for sucking on my toe…is this also not in your destiny? Stop being a prating girl!"
Olamide told us that when he was a mere boy of ten years, he had sailed to Portugal with his family to work for a prominent family, the Garridos of Lisbon. Olamide and his family lived remained a decade until the patriarch of the family died. Olamide's family moved back to Africa, where they had lived a prosperous life. Until the day the pale men marched into his village in Senegambia.
"We cannot allow these hard-bitten, rugged men to take our freedom." Olamide barely moved a muscle when he talked. "In my village, my name means ‘Salvation has Arrived, ' and I have conducted my life accordingly. We cannot let them make slaves of us." From his closed eyes, tears blended into the sweat over his etched features
"The spirits will dictate our destiny, Olamide, but we must seek our salvation." I beheld the hellish conditions around us; our body odour wrapped around the stench of feces making the air putrid. I wanted to heave. Swallowing hard, the words regurgitated from my mouth. "We must remain quiet and keep our grumbling down.
We had not been on the big water longer than a day when three Spanish sailors brought down half-filled bowls of grub. One by one, we were forced to eat the tasteless mush. With hands chained in front of him, Bapoto managed to take hold of a sailor’s wrist as he bent to feed him.
“Aye, why don’t you bring the food that you eat instead of this muck?” Bapoto’s Senegalese language sounded rough and the sailor's pale skin turned lighter than dawn's early rays. He dropped the half-filled bowls of grub and flew up the stairs. The other two followed. Minutes later, six sailors came down. They crawled over our bodies. They hit us with their fists and slapped men unconscious. Their cold hands were on every part of my body. The stinging was unbearable. When the men crawled out of the hold, it was plain to see that on their hands, they wore a cloth covered in sharp shards of glass.
We were quiet for hours. Bapoto broke the silence by spitting next to Olamide’s feet. “Nothing is going to save us if we remain stiff as wood down here, Yanga. We must fight back! I would rather throw myself into a raging ocean than bow my head before these men!” He yanked the chains around his arms making a terrible clang, threatening to bring back the men above deck.
“Quiet!” I demanded. “We cannot afford any more lashings. We have to think and start planning. Once on land, there will be opportunities for escape. There are more of us on the galleon than what we see here.”
Suffocating in the fetid air of the middle deck, I began to pick my soldiers from the slaves: men who had defied the pale sailors; men who had refused to eat the bland food shoved at them; people who, despite their seasickness, stood with pride when whipped. They would be my allies, and together, nobody could break us. We would never be slaves.
The knowledge needed to learn about my surroundings was gathered in the two weeks we’d been at sea. During the daily half hour that we were allowed for fresh air and exercise, from my walks above deck, I observed that El Almirante was a vessel about 30 body-lengths long and nine wide. It had three masts, two decks and I at least three dozen cannons. Deep in the galleon's belly, she carried large amounts of cargo and weapons. She did not look easy to maneuver.
From listening to the soldiers speak in Castilian, Olamide had gathered that our fleet numbered thirteen tall ships and two smaller boats called, naos. Spanish passengers and special cargo sailed on these, although Olamide could not ascertain what this special cargo was. There were the even smaller craft, the pataches that were used to communicate between the ships of the fleet and to distribute food among the convoy.
There was plenty of food to move between the ships, for the Spanish soldiers ate well. Olamide had overheard González de Herrera tell a soldier that if they did not eat Iberian food during the voyage, they would become just like the Indians. According to one soldier, this was the captain’s reason for the fleet carrying so many heads of cattle, almonds, rice, olive oil and wine, to eat like an Iberian. I wondered who the Indians were, and why the Spanish did not want to become like them.
"The soldiers must have been indigent paupers before taking to the sea," Olamide said to me. "I hear them comment on all the food they eat and how each day's meal would be what they would eat in a month. Many complain that the trip has cost them all they have got. Their speech is uncouth."
I knew not how Spanish sailors were selected, and cared even less how they spoke, but observing the strength and discipline of these men left much to be desired. Their makeshift dress was distressful; each wore what they pleased and did not take pride in their appearance. Judging by their looks, these men looked as if they came from gangs of hooligans and ruffians. The only one who commanded a presence was the loathsome captain.
The rogue sailors showed their ill-breathing most when they were in the company of a woman they called, Shanika. The beautification marks on her arm identified her to be from the Yoruba tribe, but she was well versed in the ways of the Spanish. Younger than me by perhaps a year and the colour of Acajou Mahogany, she possessed a solid build and dark, deep eyes. She wore richly decorated clothing. Around her neck, she wore a big ornament that looked like a walnut, all bunched up in a thin cloth with many little holes. On her feet, she wore uncomfortable looking cork shoes. The Yoruban woman taunted the sailors by lifting her frilly skirts to her knee and by mimicking the sounds of the words the sailors pronounced. Shanika seemed to speak Castilian well. Although she appeared to be part of the crew, she also showed concern for the male slaves onboard. When we got a beating harshly, she often appeared from nowhere to distract our aggressors with her haunting smile and handsome body. The crew would look at her with starving eyes, and she would return a coquettish smile, lowering her gaze, well aware of her powers.
“She’s a good woman,” Olamide said to me.
“I would not know.”
“She asked a pale man to let us eat sitting up instead of lying on our side and she also asked him to give us two exercise periods instead of one.”
“She seemed to have some command of the ship.”
The following morning, Shanika left a piece of parchment with my bowl of food. Something was written on it. With my chained hands, I passed the parchment to Olamide.
“Buenos dias = Good morning,” Olamide read. “Me llamo = My name is…. She is teaching you Castilian, Yanga.”
It was so, that on each day of the unimaginable sail, we got to learn the language of my captors. Shackled, with little movement for the body, my mind worked harder, learning all we could, desperately trying to understand the tongue of my enemy.
Nearly four moon cycles into our voyage, we were marching in circles on the upper deck, when a storm gained strength. With the crew busy keeping the ship afloat, I had the opportunity to break ranks and observe Shanika in action. She was talking to an elegant white man who wore a red frock and tights. He had on long black boots and a wide-brimmed hat topped with a plume.
She called him, Pedro.
Closer to where the couple sat protected from the storm, the man said something to her and pointed to his heart. “Mi amor,” his thin lips drew a long smile. She repeated the word pointing to her heart. “Mo ni fe," she replied, the words the Yoruba people use to indicate love. There was an ease in how this African woman mingled with the Spanish sailor; she was wise in the ways of our captors.
A burst of pain stung my back, and then the wet leather whip lashed twice more.
"What does your big black eye spy, you calamitous savage?" González de Herrera's voice roared next to the sailor who imparted the lashing. "Are you envious of Señor Pedro de Moya, because he has a black mistress? Have you already forgotten about your lovely bride-to-be?" His laugh had thundered in my ear. Drenched from the storm, I was hustled down to the middle deck with the others. The humidity intensified the stench below. A soldier fastened me to the foot irons.
“A fool you make of yourself, Yanga, for looking at that traitor!” Bapoto spat blood as he twisted next to me. “The Yoruban woman wants only to save herself. It is clear as air!” Bapoto’s voice rose above the din of the strengthening storm.
Grinding his long teeth, Olamide said, “Hush! I think she knows what we will face when we reach land. If you had one, you of all people would be the first one to use your punani to get out of the fate that awaits us.”
My instinct was to arbitrate between the arguing men, but the rolling of the ocean and the crashing of wind silenced us. A sudden gust tilted the vessel. There was a loud crash on the side of the galleon. A small crack splintered into a gap when a flying mast, from another ship, hit us at point blank, affording fresh air and some light into the otherwise dark hold in which we were kept.
The hatch door flew open with the wind. Sailors were running as our vessel lurched port and starboard. We swayed with the motion left and right. On a sudden dive, my body flew off the plank. I would have hit the iron grating above where it not for the chains that restrained me.
Something cricked as the hatch slammed shut again. I plummeted to the plank and felt something crack. It wasn't one of my bones although everything inside me felt shattered. In the thrust, my body shifted, and the lock that was on the side of my ankle now was at the bottom, hurting under the pressure of my weight.
Trying to twist my ankle to turn the clamp, it would not budge. I bent the clamp just enough to bang it against the wooden floor. The lock broke open after only a few bangs. The chain slid off my arms with ease, it was made poorly with many gaps between the links.
He did not respond. His eyes were shut; there was fear in his etched features. I pulled and pried at the lock on his ankles with my freed hand, to no avail. One of his eyelids flew open and stared at me.
“You cannot break the lock, big man, Yanga. Your weight broke the lock with all that thrusting back there. I’m going to be sick.”
"These chains look big, but they are not strong."
“By my salvation, I do believe the sea has dulled your brain. These chains are made to restrain us. They are designed to keep us like this, not like the wild lions on a hunt that we ought to be.”
The lock did not budge on second attempt. With my hands-free, I squirmed and wiggled until my ankles were freed from the shackles. The sea raged, and the rain lashed in flat sheets as the fury of the gods descended upon the Spanish fleet.
Crawling like a dog because every part of my body felt cramped, I lifted the hatch door only a little. The sailors would be busy waging battle against the storm. Shanika was holding on to a mast, shouting Pedro de Moya’s name. She caught me looking at her from the deck below.
“Get down, you fool! Can’t you see our ship sails through a hurricane?” Vertical walls of salt water whipped around her sturdy figure.
Finding my bravery, I climbed the stairs to the top deck. “You must help unchain the men below! I can’t let them drown!”
She turned to me with desperate eyes. “Those men are better off dead. You don’t know what awaits them in Vera Cruz! Let them drown quietly with their gods.”
The wind roared above our heads; it sounded like a mighty cheetah flying through the blackened skies. Shanika shrieked when she saw her gallant Spanish friend board a small patache. He is trying to salvage the ship that carries the treasured provisions. All for wine and olive oil! Pedro! He is mad! A lunatic! Her shouts were drowned in the strong winds.
She made a quick jerky movement with her hand. She moved from one side of her chest to the other, and her fingers ended at her lips with a kiss. In a split second, the ship was in the tight squeeze of a massive wave. Without thought for safety or my intense distrust of the ocean, I scooped Shanika off the wooden deck to prevent her from being swept in the surge. She had been so distracted looking for her lover, that she did not notice the wave coming.
Moments later, we saw de Moya scramble into the galleon closest to us. Shanika shouted, "al diablo, Pedro!” and stumbled, banging into objects on her way to the sleeping quarters. “I’m tired of this madness!” She was not addressing me, although I was the only one at her side. She pushed forward. “The sole concern for money. Possessions! The lack of respect for human life! Tired of it all! You!”
Now she was talking to me. I listened.
“What’s your name?”
“Yanga. Gaspar Yanga.”
She struggled with a door. From deep within her frock's pocket she pulled a thin, shiny piece of metal, pried it into the frame and opened the door. She rushed to a piece of furniture, opened its wooden doors, and then she slammed them shut.
“Where are they?” she said over and over as she picked objects, looked under them and discarded them before looking under something else. She went through the small room with the same furry as the hurricane above. “Where? Think like him! Think!”
She ran her fingers under the thick bed covering. "Yes, here!"
She stood with arms akimbo, deep in thought.
“Let’s do it! Help me turn over this mattress. Let us free your men from these barbarians! Bet you were well fed this morning, right?”
“Yes. I was surprised at the amount of breakfast we got. How do you know?”
She motioned for me to pick one end of the heavy bedding. When we flipped the bedcovering, she found the keys. A broad smile crossed her face and she looked away, as if in a trance.
"It's done on purpose. The colonists want you to look healthy coming off the boat. These loathsome men think only about riches, nothing else. You must escape the cruelty of the Spaniards. Let us go down. This madness must stop!"
Shanika grabbed my hand and hurried down the hatch. She closed the door above her. The hold was not dark like it always was. Light and now water entered from the opening that the flying mast had made earlier. The hole on the vessel’s broadside allowed water to fill the bilge below and there was more water pouring through the floorboard.
“Get us out!” Bapoto cried, “Get me out!” He squirmed wildly without thought, for the chains held him in place. “Help!” he yelled into the air. “My eyes sting with this briny water. Help! I should die fighting a mighty lion, not shackled and pickled in sea water. Get me out of here!” he spat and clanged the chains.
Praying to himself, Olamide kicked the noisy Bapoto. "Hush, you fool! If you opened your damn eyes, you would know that Yanga is free. He can help us."
“Indeed…” I clanked the ring of keys Shanika handed me and started to find which key fit into which lock.
"Pedro is a man of method," Shanika said taking the second ring of keys. "All we have to do is find the first one to open, and the keys following will open each lock."
With all the locks opened, we still had to act with caution. “Stay as you are. Don’t move!” I ordered.
“Fie, a madman you are! We shall drown!” Bapoto was not at ease.
“We must pretend we are still locked up! Stay.”
The wind spirits lashed the fleet until, in an instant, the world around us became quiet. The winds subsided, the ocean was calm, and from the gash on the galleon's broadside, I saw we were in the middle of a tower of clouds; the sky above was angry and dark.
“Why has everything gone quiet?”
"We are in the eye," Shanika did not stop opening locks and did not explain of which eye she spoke.
The hatch door lifted. There was just enough time to jump back into my place next to Olamide. I did not see where Shanika went. González de Herrera inspected the middle deck.
“Al demonio!” he growled. "We arrive in port amidst a hurricane, and now, I have to worry about calamitous savages drowning or, worse, trying to escape? What next, I ask, what next?"
From the stairwell, he sprinkled wine that had turned into vinegar into our eyes. “Listen to me you filthy rogues, if you try to escape, I will personally come back and make sure to add fire to the vinegar!” He laughed and slammed the hatch door closed. Evil was born from inside him.
Shanika crawled from under the stairs where she had hidden. “Are you mad? What are your plans?”
“We cannot do anything trapped in this ship. What do you know about the new land? Is it anything like Africa?”
Shanika smiled. "I have accompanied Pedro on four trips across the ocean, and I know the land well. Pedro is not like the others in the fleet. Most of these so-called sailors are not fit for sea or land. They are hooligans, privateers, men looking for fortune and adventure. We bring slaves and provisions to Vera Cruz and, on our way back, we carry ébano wood, sugar, gold and silver to King Phillip the Second in Spain. It is a dirty business because many suffer, but it is lucrative beyond belief. In Vera Cruz, the land is different than from where we come. Plants are different. Birds, animals, and fruits are different, but the land provides same as she does back home; you need to understand her personality. You have the spirit of a runaway slave, a Cimarrón. Good luck but, I must return to the top deck. If someone finds me down here, they will make my life more miserable than a slave's."
After she had left, I said, "Listen everyone. Until we are close to land, we pretend to be strapped. There are mountains in the distance; we are not far. With all the commotion of the weather, nobody will be thinking of giving us exercise today. Remain quiet and listen for my command."
In the eye of the hurricane, the stillness around me was unnerving. Having sailed through thunder that agitated my sensibilities and having flown through water that soaked me through. Motionless in an uncomprehending silence, I had no way of knowing what had transpired above, but sensed things were amiss. Absent were the Spanish sing-song names that were called out loud and the pitter-patter of footsteps on the wood grilles above, the ones we had stared at for the past season in this suffocating inferno.
“This calm makes me suspicious,” I said. “Because my village is near the sea, I fear the winds have not lost their strength yet. Let us pray this is not so.”
Olamide huffed, and Bapoto snarled because, back home, storms did not cease instantaneously, they petered out. However, this was the ocean, and she was an entirely different creature.
The congestion in the low and cramped middle deck had helped us weather the hurricane fairly well. There was little room for us to be thrust back and forth. As the ship rose on the left, the men lying on the right side felt the pressure of men bearing down on them, but as soon the ship tilted right, the process reversed. The chains around us kept us in place, even after the locks were opened.
Bapoto clanged the unlocked chains.
"I care not about the temperament or the eye of the ocean, Yanga! Tolerate this, I can no longer. I must move to another place, for I am not lying next to…him!" Bapoto pointed with his round chin at the man to his right who did not move. "Death has clutched him for a day, at least. I am not to lie next to the deceased!" Although his rounded body made him appear older, Bapoto was about my age, but he acted like a child of five.
"Others have lain next to the dead during our voyage, why can't you?" Bapoto's vanity irritated me, for it had been twenty men so far that had not survived the journey. "The doctor will soon come to count the dead…stay still you fool! He will not notice the opened locks, but everything must be as it was before!"
Soon after we sailed out of Africa, a doctor had lifted the hatch and asked us to raise a chained arm. He took count. He sent sailors down the hold who wrapped their faces in red cloths to protect against the pestilential stench and hauled the bodies of those who did not raise their chained arm. He did so every day.
Olamide howled like a woman giving birth. "By my salvation, we must get out of here, Yanga!" He lifted his long rigid body to a seated position.
“The doctor will remember where you lie,” I warned. “If he sees an empty spot where there should be none, he’ll alert the crew.”
The trap door opened but it was not the doctor. Shanika lowered herself into our quarters. In the middle of the hurricane, she seemed ridiculous wearing her impossible Spanish garb. I tried to imagine her wearing the colourful patterned clothing women in my village wore. She sat at the end of my plank and looked at the locks on our shackles.
"They do not show signs of tampering. You have done an excellent job of obscuring your intent." Her eyes shone.
“What is happening outside?”
“We have encountered enemy vessels in our port. On account that pirates are everywhere, the captain has to ensure that the unauthorized ships are not here to loot everything we have brought. It’s another delay in your favour.”
“What will happen when we get to land? Tell me so that I might be able to devise a successful escape route.”
"Vera Cruz is a pestilent, hot and humid town, filled with mosquitoes and human insects. The adventurers who followed Cortez never cared to settle the new land. Instead, they came with high hopes of making a quick fortune and to go back and spend back in Spain. They never planned to stay. What they found was a weak governance that paid a pittance to its army and provided little support. Many spent their last Royal on sailing across the Atlantic and now live in squalor in town. There is no order and avarice rules."
“This means little to me. Tell me, is the land dry or wet? Are there places we can hide?”
“If we survive the backend of the hurricane…" Shanika bent close to me, the scent of rosewater wafted up my nostrils. Whispering in my ear, she explained the process. Through the grating above our heads, the skies had darkened further.
“I must go,” Shanika rushed to the stairwell.
Another swell, so high it seemed intent on kissing the angry sky, nearly toppled Shanika back to me. Struggling against the wind that was picking up again, she closed the hatch, and my inner eye imagined her above deck, sliding into her lover's quarters unnoticed, awaiting the second part of the storm.
The woman’s determination and caring were something to marvel. Whenever she had the opportunity, Shanika had braved the pestilent conditions of the middle hold to spend time with us, and to teach me all she knew about the Spanish. She warned me of what was coming next before leaving. She left the hatch open to give us some fresh air. This also allowed me to see what was happening above.
I spoke to the men in the hold. "Shanika tells me the terrain near the port where we will anchor is mountainous and lush with vegetation. There will be places aplenty to hide in the jungle, but first, we must escape the buyers."
The men’s attention was mine. As prescribed leader of the village of Atebubu in Ghana, scholars taught me how to speak with authority. I expected this was evident to these men who were pent up like sheep in a fold.
"Before we walk on land, we will anchor at a port where the Spanish merchants will clamber into the ship to choose their slaves. They will tie a rope around those they wish to purchase," deliberately omitting the part Shanika described as being, ‘worse than slaughter day in the markets back home.'
"We must find the opportune time to run before they tie us with their lassos. Shanika advised we should be docile, or we will get lashed…to break us into slavery. We must wait for the right moment, and when you hear me call, we scramble our way up the mountains.” Eyes brightened in the hold. “In the wild, we will learn to survive freely!" A great roar of approval erupted.
“That is all I dream of,” Bapoto confessed. “The worst thing a person can endure is slavery. My own slave suffered unimaginable horrors when I was a child. I demanded he bring a cup of water from the river half a day away, even when mother’s water jug was full. I made a mess in the hut just to see him sweat, and when it came to his feeding I made sure the victuals were worse than what I fed the dogs. I cannot live with this memory! I was born above that station!”
“Our fate is in the hands of the gods.”
When the sea woke again, her fury was ready to swallow the entire Spanish fleet alive. Through the opened hatch, the wind howl. The galleons pitched left and right. The masts of other vessels shook in the tempest. With all the sails playing a game of swords in the wind, my fear was we’d quickly sink. Disappear forever.
My stomach grumbled. Men began to get sick on top of one another. Between the bilious expulsions of tired men's entrails filled with fine food from our special breakfast, and the pounding of the waves that made the planks buckle, a queasy feeling crept up my throat. The planks threatened to splinter. The rumbling got louder. It resonated in my ears and in my heartbeat.
It was impossible to listen to the wind with the noise abovedeck. The Spaniards were clamoring in a panic. Through the slats in the wooden floor, boots rushed from one side of the vessel to the other. There was no logic to their swift movements.
With the commotion above deck and the howling and the thundering in my brain, I realized that what sounded like the back end of the hurricane was not that at all. Flying off other vessels in our fleet, two masts came tumbling down on the upper deck followed by waves of flowing sails. Boots scampered this way and that.
“What are we waiting for?” Bapoto demanded. “Mark my words, the Spanish will fight until the end of time. Our time is now!”
Olamide shrieked. "By my salvation! Time for what? Do you not sense how rough the ocean is? We are safer on board."
Nowhere was safe. Risking a lashing, I removed the chains from my arms and legs and crawled to take a peek through the hole on the galleon's broadside. Sails and flags fluttered madly in the wind. The swells threatened to overturn our vessel.
With the sailors distracted, I climbed to the hatch to see what was happening. A sailor was shouting through a copper speaking trumpet, trying to communicate with the galleons anchored at port. He was ordering them to get out. The captain ordered to prepare the cannons.
González de Herrera looked eviler than ever. “I shall start a war with the calamitous English if those galleons are not out of our port immediately! Prepare to cannonade our way into our port!” His fingers shook in the wind.
“We must allow the vessels proper time, sir,” a sailor pointed out.
"Do you know who those ruffians are?" the captain picked the sailor by his shirt and brought him close to his pointy nose. "Privateers, buccaneers, pirates, financed by the Queen of England to topple our trading routes right under our noses. To loot all that we have brought across the sea. No señor! I will not allow that to happen to our King!”
Sails and flags fluttered madly in the gales. The swells threatened to overturn our galleon, like had other vessels in the fleet. The sea was covered with shattered ships. Closing the hatch over my head, in the cramped middle deck, I knew every man’s courage was being tested.
“Jump!” The men did not move, pretending to be locked to the shackles. “This ship will be rubble soon! Clear the middle of the hold! Masts are flying in the wind.” I was frantic.
The men freed themselves and shuffled toward the edges of the cramped deck, clearing the center in case a loose mast landed on us and crushed the upper deck over our bodies. Men shivered and cowered into themselves, overcome by their fear.
"Run! Make the hole larger so we can scramble out of here! It's our only chance!" I knew this meant suicide for those who could not swim, but we were close to shore, and it was worth the risk. Between the lashing winds, the roaring seas, and the enemy ships at port, González de Herrera was not thinking about us.
“Let’s do it!” I encouraged the others, “we are already dead!”
Olamide smiled, “My destiny is to live a long life! My gods are with us today!”
A great tumult ensued, but only a few men rushed from the edges of the hold, ready to jump into the violent sea; most needed coaxing.
“Hurry!” I said. “The Spaniards are busy trying to save the galleon! We will swim toward the mountains. They are not far.” My voice was drowned by the din around us, but the message was understood.
Bapoto's rounded physique could not get through the small opening, so he tore the wood apart making room for himself. A few brave men followed and jumped into the salty water, but a hesitant group trailed behind. When they saw the deep ocean heaving, as if nothing was holding her to the center of the earth, they wavered. Some looked up to the heavens, knowing that soon they would meet their makers, and others cowered in the dark corners of the ship, unable to jump to a certain death. Some did not move from the floor at all. Instead, they curled up like woodlice, accepting their final demise.
A squall rocked the boat up, down and sideways all at once. Through the broken slats, dozens of men were swept away from the upper deck and swallowed by the ocean. I held back until the last man willing to tempt fate jumped out of the cracked opening. With muscles twitching, ready to leap into the raging sea, I prepared for the fight of my life.
Shanika flashed through my head wondering if she’d be clutching on to the bed where she and the Spaniard slept, full of fear, uncertain of her future if Pedro de Moya lost his life.
A loud crack sent the Spanish sailors scurrying in all directions. Not being able to leave her here, I opened the hatch and crawled to the upper deck unnoticed, shouting her name with every door I opened.
“Shanika! Shanika! We must escape!” With rain pounding around me, masts snapping and sails ripping, “Shaniiika!”
“Qué pasa?” a sailor demanded. Accepting a lashing was coming to me, I attempted to stand erect, proud and ready for the whip; prepared to show him that it would take more than a beating to make me succumb, but the Spaniard ran past me, to a group of men shouting. Clearly, the second part of the hurricane was not over; this was to my advantage.
I tried another door, but it closed. “Come out! This galleon is about to split! We will swim to shore! It’s not far.”
Shanika opened the door and threw herself into my chest, sobbing uncontrollably. "Pedro is such a fool! Surely, he will die trying to save the merchandise. I cannot understand him!"
The galleon lurched as if a gust of wind had scooped us out of the water and tossed us into the air like a toy. Shanika shrieked.
“Let’s get out of here!” I howled. “I’ll help you swim to shore!”
“I can’t let the women and children drown! We must unshackle them!”
From Pedro de Moya’s sleeping quarters, she got a set of keys like the ones we used to open our locks earlier. “Help me!”
We lurched aft as Shanika held on to me. She opened a hatch that led to another part of the middle deck that was not visible to us. Naked and chained, women wailed or cried silently; they all looked as frightened as child lost in the jungle.
We unlocked their chains and directed them to the upper deck. Some refused to move, terrified of the ocean’s temper, but others ran, giddy with the sensation of free movement. There were also five young children who clung to their mothers in absolute terror.
“Take the women and children to the men’s hold. There, they can crawl out of the ship! The sailors are scattered and distracted but, you must hurry!” I said.
"Follow me!" The naked women and children obeyed Shanika showing excitement, relief, and terror, all at the same time.
“There is another hold where the men have been held on the other side of the ship. The hurricane has ripped our escape route!”
The women cheered and giggled but they were confused. Crouching behind fallen sails and scattered boxes so as not to be discovered by the warring sailors in the upper deck, they crept down the stairwell into the men’s hold. Following behind, almost in an instant, there were cheers as women found their men or a child found a father.
When one woman found out her husband had already jumped, she howled and jumped in, head first.
“Now that I’ve found you, I don’t want to jump,” another woman told her man.
“We must jump. To live freely together. We will never be together as slaves!”
Placing their hands one on top of the another, my arm prodded them. “Jump to your freedom. To your future, jump now!”
The woman took a big breath, and they jumped into the dark, raging waters.
When the last person had volunteered to jump through the jagged wooden hole, I scooped Shanika with my arms and flung her into the fury of the lashing ocean. Diving into the swirling water behind her, my hand found Shanika’s; in the wet darkness we embraced and swam with her under my arm. The pull of her clothes forced me to swim harder, heavier and slower.
“Take off my skirts!” she shouted through the clap of waves around my ears.
Watching her through salty water, her eyes were shut as she gasped for air.
“Take them off!” As if on cue, we ripped her gown off, struggled with her fitted kirtle, and finally, managed to set her free. Wearing only a chemise, she began to swim with me.
From the heaving ocean, no mountains could be seen. We followed the waves presumably to shore. The salt stung my eyes, and my lungs worked hard, but the thought of land nearby kept me going.
Debris rushed past us. From the destroyed ships floated an arm here and a foot there. I tried to avoid disjointed body parts and jars of olive oil. The waters started to calm as the hurricane passed us. I looked back. Some of the Spanish galleons in our fleet were sinking and others were reduced to pieces of broken wood bobbing in the ocean. Two of the enemy vessels had met the same fate. We prayed for the slaves that were left behind in the Spanish galleon, too frightened to jump into the water.
“Careful!” Shanika managed to gurgle.
We ducked under the salty water to allow a great wave to sweep above us. The ocean water got warmer. Soon it was shallow. I felt the sand under our feet as the storm, after raging for hours, settled. We washed ashore along with barrels of wine, debris, and bodies. On the wet sand, we sat, holding onto each other for strength as we surveyed our surroundings, the warm sea water rushing in past us.
Moments transpired where nothing made sense, where my brain stopped sorting the messages it received; suspended moments devoid of feelings, thoughts or beliefs. Moments where I looked at the utter devastation in a land unknown and felt nothing. There was no joy or sorrow, wet or dry, hunger or satisfaction; this was an after-world familiar and unknown at the same time.
Shanika and I walked along the windy beach, lost. She seemed to walk with purpose, but I wandered not comprehending the implications of what we had done. The sound of others snapped me from my daze.
“There’s a child!” Shanika ran toward the little boy who had just tumbled onto the sand. “Are you alright?” She hugged the little boy. Moments later, a desperate woman emerged from the sea wailing. When she saw her little boy safe in Shanika’s arms, the woman fainted on the sand.
“We must hide,” Shanika said. “Before the merchants come looking for their slaves! Let’s make sure we gather all survivors. We need to head up the mountain.”
We quickened our pace. “The weather has kept the buyers away. Now that it is clearing, they will descend like hungry wolves. They will inspect the flotilla. Assess the damage. When they discover the devastation and loss of their merchandise, their anger will be intense.”
Ripping off what remained of her soaked chemise, Shanika pointed south and began to march along the shore. With the little fellow in my arms, his mother too weak to carry him, I followed instinctively, not knowing where to go.
As we walked, stripped of our clothing and our dignity, we met survivors scrambling out of the ocean, exhausted. Others, we met already on shore, further down the beach.
"By my salvation!" I had heard Olamide's familiar shriek before I saw him pulling Bapoto's fat body from the lapping waves. "You nearly didn't make it back there! I am destined to help you lose some of that excess blubber, my friend. Get up!"
I joined the long and thin Olamide and helped him drag Bapoto’s fatigued body from the water.
“Arghh!” Bapoto spat on the sand. “Mark my words, this life is not for me.”
A wave crashed at our feet carrying an older woman’s body tangled in sea netting and debris.
“Ekua!” shouted an elderly man who was walking behind me. “That’s my wife!”
The old man freed the woman from the nets and ropes.
"Thank goodness!" she got up, dusting wet, sticky sand off her wrinkled body. "I thought those ropes would drag me right to the bottom of the sea! There are still many moons in me." She hugged her husband for a very long time. In our weakened state, the reunion of a man and wife who had not known they were traveling together aboard El Almirante felt like a celebration.
The women and children closest to me began to slap their bodies as if it was a drum, thanking the gods for this joyous moment. The men followed, and the rhythm resonated off the mountains engulfed the beach and kissed the bay. We followed Shanika down the beach, picking survivors as we found them and soon, we were a group of twenty-four men, eighteen women, and five children. The body-drumming continued until we arrived at the end of the beach, and the beginning of a path up the mountain.
"This is paradise, do you not agree?" Olamide interrupted my stupor. "What shall our plans be?" His walk had exuded confidence. I realized that he had begun to imagine his life as a free person in this land. "Yanga, we must try to negotiate with the Spaniards; to see if we can befriend one another." He shook his thin body as if ruffling sticky feathers off his dark skin. He looked at me expecting an answer.
“We must remain single-minded, Olamide. We fled because we will never be slaves. How can you be thinking about befriending the men who put us in chains? That will never be.”
“There it is,” Shanika shouted, “Boca del Rio! From here, we walk along the river up to the mountains! The first range is easy to access. From there, we will be able to see the entire bay. We’ll see what is left of the galleons and we will be able to see when the Spanish come looking for their loot. Believe me, it will be gruesome.”
Turning toward the undulating mountains, we began to walk the river's edge. The slope was steady, and I hiked in silence for a very long time, churning hundreds of thoughts in my mind. The wind and waves behind me pounded as loudly as my heart, throbbing with every step, faster and faster.
“Where do you think you’re going, big man?”
“Don’t know,” I admitted to Shanika.
“So, why do you walk past me?”
Without protest from me, she led the way. As leader of my people, walking at the front came naturally for me. I only walked side by side with my father while he was alive, and then alone when he passed to the afterworld in my tenth year. Following was not in my constitution but, at the age of sixteen, I had a lot of learning to do in this new land.
Shanika was clearly not in need of saving and my suspicions began to rise. She enjoyed the protection of the Spanish.
“Why are you helping me?”
“It is you who flung me off the galleon, remember, big man?”
“I thought the galleon was about to sink and I couldn’t let you sink. What will happen to us now?”
"I will show you where to hide, and then, I'll return to the capital of Vera Cruz, Xalapa looking for Pedro, if he survived. If it was up to me Yanga, I'd run. Run from here back to Africa, to the ones you truly love. That choice was taken from me when I was barely twelve; when the Spanish burnt my village and took us for slaves. Sailing to the new world, Mother was fierce about keeping her family together, and would not allow the wicked González de Herrera to separate us. He raped mother in front of me, dragged her to the upper deck and hung her on a mast until her body was pock-marked with seagull bites. Then, González de Herrera turned to me. He held me by the feet and dunked my head in a cauldron of sea water, until I felt that I was about to inhale salt water and drown. As I coughed my lungs, he would have raped me had Pedro de Moya not interrupted."
“Slow down Shanika…you confuse me.” The Spanish names rolled off her tongue like marbles from a torn bag. “Your lover raped your mother?”
Shanika looked as disoriented as me. “No Yanga…they are two different men! The older one, Pedro González de Herrera is a monster. He has enemies everywhere but my lord, Pedro de Moya, he is different; he cares and possesses a soft Spanish heart. With him, I can be of help to you.”
After more than an hour walking, near the top of the first hill, Shanika stopped at a clearing in the path and sat on a large rock. “This is a third of the way to your hideout. We will climb for another two hours but, we can rest here for a while.”
From the tip of the lookout point, I surveyed the land below. It was as if we were midway between ocean and sky, with a view all the way to Africa, were it not for the present cloudy conditions. The clearing where we stood was about three men high and only a few cubits away from the devastation below, which was evident. Only two ships still floated.
Broken masts, jars and ripped sails littered the coastline. The weather had not cleared and already hundreds of men began to descend from the mountains onto the beach. They came on horses or sat on top of planks carried by Africans; all carried the same weapon, a long rope full of shards of glass to tie their slaves.
The men waded into the ocean in their buckled shoes and stockings. They scrambled aboard the sinking ship that brought us here and jostled for their slaves on the upper deck. They tied the ones who had been unable to jump out of the galleon into rolls of six men and then, the buyers rolled the human logs into the ocean. The glass shards on the jute cut right through the slaves’ skin. The Spaniards rolled the men and women into the ocean. In the water, the tightly wrapped log of men and females did not fare so poorly, but when they were dragged on to the rugged rocky coast, their skin tore off. Soon, rivulets of blood ran down the sand and mixed into the ocean water.
On the beach, they were chained and shackled into rows. The men and women were lashed, beaten, kicked and spat on even though none had disobeyed their captors.
“Wretched men!” Bapoto shouted.
“Hush! We do not know how sound carries in this land. They may hear us.”
“It is best not to look,” Shanika said, her back to the ocean.
“I wonder why they dress so?" Olamide asked as if anybody cared. "These rogues wear rags! Doesn't their king provide for them?"
From the close distance at which I observed the Spanish merchants, I observed their strange clothing. A mixed lot, they wore cloths of various colours on their body and pointy helmets that did not seem to fit correctly on their heads. Their hair was long and straight, and their mustaches curled up in a point by their cheeks.
I saw two brown tents moving. They were two Spaniards dressed in long brown gowns and sandals. They seemed to be admonishing the merchants that so cruelly fought for their slaves.
The ill-dressed men in long brown tents, tried to give the slaves that had gone up for auction clothing and shoes, but the captors refused to dress their slaves. The men in brown robes distributed small books which the merchants took and kept for themselves. There was kindness in these two men, whereas the men looking for slaves were harsh and virulent.
"Where will the Spaniards take the males and females?" I asked Shanika.
“To Xalapa. It is there where they will be sold for a fair price, but the merchants will be furious. They expected more slaves and the ones left behind are weak. We must ascend further into the jungle. Soon they will begin to hunt for us."
The Spaniards took their slaves into the hills, they walked in a long line of black and white, snaking from the shore to a path that vanished into the mountains. A wall of humid air choked me making it hard to breathe, but I was glad for the fog, for it cloaked us from our enemy and obscured the carnage left behind.
The blood in my veins ran hotter when I thought about the cruel treatment my brethren were receiving. I thought of myself as a reasonable man, but the manner in which the Spanish merchants had treated other humans was despicable. How do they sleep at night?
Shanika said, “You must comprehend the will of the Spanish. They are a determined lot, mad with the promise of riches, crazed by their new power. When a Spaniard wants something, he will walk a desert to get it and, believe me, they want these men as much as they want their gold and silver. Don’t try something stupid; it will make it worse for all of you.”
Shanika's voice was like a lullaby to my ears, not because of what she was saying, but because of her voice, smooth as a sweet melody, invited me into a land I could imagine and measure only by what I knew back home.
“Precious!” Olamide batted his long eyelashes. “We run for our lives but, we must look at our surroundings as well. The land is beautiful!”
I took a moment to look around. With the ocean's fury calmed, I began to imagine this place under a bright sky. The beach was long, and it was skirted by three tiers of hills which turned into mountains, successively ascending higher and higher the further away they were. The ground was lush with many shades of green, some so light and translucent they appeared nearly yellow, and some so deep they easily passed as black. The bay was protected by several islands in an ocean that to me, looked misplaced because in my land, the ocean extended to the west, but here the bay spread east. The sand under my feet felt familiar, as did the saltiness in the water. Nothing else was familiar.
“The Spanish want to live here…so do I! But neeeever as a slave.” Olamide spoke with a lightness not befitting our situation. I wondered how he could be so jovial while I worried about how long it would take the Spanish monsters to start hunting for us.
"I will come out of the jungle one day and blend with the Spanish!" he promised. "I will wear their soft clothing and work alongside them, live in comradeship, so that one day I may become part of this land. One day Yanga, you shall be calling me, Juan Garrido."
“Olamide, settle down,” Shanika said. “If you plan to join the Spanish in combat, you will have to appear fierce, and those large puppy eyes aren’t going to win you any warrior favours.”
“Shanika darling,” Olamide bowed and touched her toes, “I am not known as Salvation has arrived for naught! In this land,” he turned to those gathered, “in this land, call me Juan Olamide Garrido!” a dazzling white grin flashed across his sculpted face.
“You would not last a minute against the rugged, beady-eyed Spanish!” a man in the crowd challenged.
“Yeah! They have iron weapons…they would squash you like a fly!” said another.
Olamide smiled. “My teeth look as if I could eat a Spaniard in a mouthful for breakfast, do they not? Surely, I can scare a few of them, if I tried?”
I laughed. An honest belly laugh—something I had not done in weeks. Everyone laughed, and the response of the crowd seemed to please Olamide Garrido, as he now wished to be named. His character which was all at once vulnerable and proud at the same time. He worried about appearances, how he would dress and how he'd talk. He was concerned about his own name, even under these circumstances.
“Oh joy, I can prove it! I could capture a few Spaniards…” Olamide batted his eyelashes, “…by their hearts." Some men whistled, as if they had seen a pretty woman pass by, others grunted. Olamide laughed a joyous sound under a never-ending light drizzle. With great exaggeration, he sighed.
People laughed, but I worried. As the swells had lifted and dumped the galleon during our voyage so had Olamide's moods. Unable to accept his future as a slave, he was allowing his inner goddess to take command, to seep into his body so he needn't face reality. Olamide grew frail during our voyage; his high cheekbones accentuated and his eyes hollowed, yet his body remained strong. Unlike others who perished at sea, it wasn't his body that weakened but his temperament. As a group, I knew we needed a little merriment, so I did nothing to dissuade Olamide's ways.
Further up the cordillera, the land appeared impenetrable as the vegetation quickly turned from shrubs into a rainforest and day into dark. It was a moonless night, the type where shadows and background melted into the darkness, where suddenly, out of profound silence, every creature came alive, banging, bawling, belching or braying. A cacophony of chirping, clucking, crowing and crunching began to circle me in the dark. The foreign sounds made me cringe. With every hawk, holler, hoot and howl, and for every snap, snarl, squawk or squeal a different part of my body tightened, expecting the worst. It was a cold, damp and fearful night. A night where I did not know where my next meal would come from, or what it would consist of, but it was also a night of immense joy, for we remained free in a land surrounded by peril. We were in a land where, if caught, death loomed around every tree trunk.
Dew drops tickled my nose, waking me from a fretful sleep. Under the setting moon, people who walked together yesterday, slept under trees neither of us recognized. The earth on which we laid felt humid, the temperature cooler than back home and I knew we were breathing foreign air.
I got up before anybody else and saw how happy Ekua and her husband Kojo seemed, sleeping next to one another, under a bush they never dreamt they would see. The women and children slept with Shanika and Bapoto, and Olamide slept head to toe, as if we still sailed in El Almirante.
The pre-dawn mist covered the bay like a blanket. From here, there was nothing but trees that I could not name. Some looked similar to ones back home, but here, nothing looked the same. Disorientation took hold of me. I knew I should do something but didn't know what. Back home, I would have woken everybody and got on with tasks that needed to be done. Here, what was there to do?
“Did you see anybody?” Shanika yawned almost making me jump out of my skin.
“No, did you?”
She did not answer. Instead, she asked, "Did you hear anything?" I shook my head. "Good."
Shanika woke the others and asked us to gather around her. The sun began to peek through the canopy of large shiny leaves, creating a dance of rays on the path we stood. The air was moist and musty. A chorus of birds chirped a melody that echoed down the cordillera. She helped the women gather large leaves to put around their bodies more for protection from scratches rather than for modesty, I presumed. Dressed so, the women created a colourful group. Osumare, the most flamboyant of the girls, had wrapped palm fronds on her head that made her look like a parrot. She pranced around squawking, Hi all! Hi, all! Shaking the palm fronds on her head. Zuri, a lithe young girl, probably no more than fourteen, wrapped herself in a large brown elephant leaf which nearly looked like a traditional dress from back home. Tamoya wrapped herself in sadness, for she had born a child aboard the galleon, but the creature did not survive. She held her empty belly as if she missed the baby she carried until recently.
The men followed suit and we found leaves to cover our bodies. Decorated in nature’s best, a certain giddiness filled the group’s mood. Although we carried on as if we were mature adults, most of us had not reached our second decade of life.
Shanika indicated west and up where a majestic mountain loomed, as magnificent as Mount Kilimanjaro.
“There is a long way to walk to reach the cave that watches over the volcano the people from here call, Citlaltépetl. We will climb and descend three hills before reaching a valley that surrounds the volcano. Close to the top of the tallest cordillera, there is a cave which served as a refuge for the Huastecas. Pedro and I have been there. It is there where you can hide and make your temporary home."
I looked up at the impressive caprice of nature; a tall cone in the middle of a vast valley, surrounded by mountain ranges which seemed to be bowing to the great volcano. The sun's power began to burn the night's dew dry, and the terrain before me cleared, beautiful and soft like a satisfied woman.
“Why does the volcano have such a strange name?” I asked Shanika.
“Citlaltépetl is the mountain’s native name—”
"Who are the residents that call it so?"
"There is much you need to learn about this place, Yanga. Before the Spanish arrived half a century ago, there were many people in the land, but I will speak only of the ones called the Huastecas. The Nahuas and the Mayans fought to conquer this land, and both wanted to capture the Huastecas. We are going to a remote place which allowed the Huastecas to remain free, without conforming to either of the warrior nations."
Osumare, a woman with a manner of speech all her own, began to shake animatedly, gurgling, spitting and mimicking the names Shanika pronounced. “Wash Tekas! Now Wha! Me fathers, what mad names you call out? How you come about this knowledge, anyhow?” she eyed Shanika with suspicion.
Osumare reminded me of girls in my village, always proud, cocky, never believing anything on the spot. From the moment Shanika and I freed the women and children from the hold, Osumare had behaved as if she was the queen of the ship. She was the woman who jumped, head first, into the eddying water, howling. Many men had gone before her, departing the ship in the same manner; they held their nose, looked at the foreboding sky and jumped feet first into the fury. Not Osumare. She had scrambled through the sharp wood shards of the hole in the hull with enthusiasm. Grazing her skin, she dove into the turbulent water, shouting her victory cry. She had less than a couple of beats to take a breath before plunging into the ocean. Despite her bravery, she never found the husband she sought, but this did not seem to dampen her enthusiasm.
Shanika said, “I’ve learned plenty during my four voyages to this land. By the time Pedro and I started sailing here, many of New Spain’s indigenous people were dead.” She looked up at the volcano whose top seemed as if draped in a white wedding cloak.
With the morning dew lifted and the sun high in the sky, the bay below was visible. My heart tightened as I saw the remains yesterday’s storm. Shattered wood floated amongst bodies half eaten by sharks. Dismembered parts washed on the beach. Vultures circled the remains and pecked at our sailing mates. A dark river of blood ran into the sea. Osumare cursed in several African languages and cried for the injustice before us.
Tugging at her palm fronds, she said, “Me fathers up in the after world! Who will avenge our brethren’s death? Why is this happening?”
"Pedro's people care only about themselves," Shanika said. "I have stopped trying to understand their thinking. Phillip the Second, the King of Spain, wanted the Mayans dead, because he could not bring himself to enslave people in their own land."
“But, does the King not know about what the merchants do in this land? Does he not know that he is endorsing African slavery?”
“The Spanish are not enslaving you in Africa, your own territory. Apparently, the King has a soft spot for that.”
Nothing made sense to me but, there would be plenty of time to figure out these details. Right now, we had more pressing matters at hand.
"What is nice to hunt in this land?" I said to Shanika. "I am hungry."
She turned to the group. “Let’s get moving everybody! I cannot stay away too long, for I need to look for Pedro. We’ll pick berries on the way up.”
I walked between two worlds, floating between the heavenly and the demonic, between the civilized and the untamed, not understanding a thing in this new world, especially Shanika who pretended to care about us but cohabitated with the enemy, no matter how soft-hearted she said he was.
“What are your intentions?” I broke the silence that had fallen over us as we walked up a mountain full of fruits and plants we could not recognize.
She focused on me, “What do you mean?”
“How do you plan to help us, if you mingle with our enemy?”
"I ‘mingle' with Pedro. He is not your enemy! He is a man of influence with the Spanish Court, and he can help your plight, but for that, I must be at his side for he is also a man who possesses a severe jealous nature."
González de Herrera wanted my head the moment we jumped off galleon, but now, a jealous Spaniard might also want to skin me if he suspected his mistress and I had got too close. “Will you be alright? Does Pedro treat you well?”
"I will be safe, but you must remain invisible in the jungle. The land seems vast, but the Spanish have outposts everywhere. Escaping their vigilance will be difficult. I will show you what you can eat. This hill and the volcano, which the Spaniards call Pico de Orizaba, have plenty to offer."
Along the way, Shanika pointed out edible plants. The land provided a diverse feast of new delicacies. She gave us a sour, small yellow fruit she called guava and another, woodier tasting, called sapote. She dug into plants to find many varieties of beans and sweet potatoes she called camote. She stopped in front of a weedy green plant and smiled.
“And this one here is called epazote, and the fungus on that corn is called huitlacoche!” It was evident Shanika delighted in the mastery of the tongue-twisting names. "All can be eaten raw, but they are tastier boiled. New Spain also has many things we know back home. Some of the new provisions need help to make them palatable; you will have to learn about the spices."
The tunnel of vines and bushes we walked through made me feel safe, like an ant walking protected by a giant leaf, although the lush vegetation also made the place look dark. There were tall palm trees, their trunks skinny like Olamide, crowned with leaves that looked like a bird’s tuft and there were other woody trees so tall they seemed to disappear into the clouds.
The air was dense, humid and the ground moist. Green moss covered tree trunks, tiny drops fell off leaves, and everything was wet. Birds with a hundred songs chirped and insects buzzed a thousand tunes. Together, trees, plants, men and women, perspired under the humid canopy.
In the jungle’s penumbra, after three hours of crawling over rocky ridges and of tiptoeing on the edge of high mountains, our group of nearly 50 people came to a steep ridge where long ivy rivulets dripped from the higher ground. They obscured the entrance to an enormous cave. I saw the humidity rising from the marshy ground, dissipating in the awning of leaves and branches above my head. It all lent this spot a sense of mystery. I wondered how this cave came to be. It was masterfully disguised. All the edible plants Shanika pointed out along the way were here in abundance.
“Where are we? What is this place?” I asked Shanika.
She shook her head. “When I first came to this land ten years prior, the Spanish wanted the Huastecas dead. I saw how my own lover bartered unfairly with the native population, squeezing them dry and, at first, not feeling a drop of remorse but, with each successive trip we made, he softened at the inhumanity perpetrated on the people who lived here first. He befriended their chief who showed us this hiding place. Pedro has been fighting for their cause ever since; he is a good man, don’t let his bad temper fool you. He complains about being King Phillip’s puppet because he sympathizes with your cause. He doesn’t want to see Africans as slaves.”
“If de Moya knows about this place, he could tell González de Herrera!” A sense of panic crept through my body.
“Calm, he would not do that. If he survived, likely he is busy selling the merchandise he managed to salvage from the wreckage and will not be thinking about you or me, or anything, until he has finished counting his money and assessing the gains. No need to worry; you will be safe here.”
“You do not seem too worried about his well-being.”
“Pedro is like a cat. I have seen him tempt each one of his lives every time that we have sailed to New Spain.”
She pulled the vines apart. The interior of the cave revealed an opening four or five times the height of a man and a little narrower. Tall walls of brown earth led into a darkness that seemed to come from the Earth’s core. Shanika led us inside where the air was cooler and damper than outside the cave. My feet sloshed through mud. Water dripped on my head and shoulders, and it tickled as it trickled down. The cobwebs were thick. The vegetation had taken over large parts of the cave. There were clay plates, vessels, beads, hearthstones and broken pots everywhere. Wooden sticks, covered in soot, were apparently used as torches, and small animal bones littered the muddy ground. I could only see a few measures into the cave; the rest was as dark as the unknown.
“When the sun is opposite the entrance, you’ll be able to see all the way to the back—it goes in quite a way,” Shanika said.
“Where are the people who ate the animals and used those pots to cook them? Why have they abandoned this place?” I feared an evil spirit had cast a spell on the cave.
“Most of the Huastecas got sick and died. Some of them thought they were dying of bad luck, because one of their stories predicted their downfall and they felt this was their destiny. Those who did not die from disease, left this refuge and walked straight into slavery and the colonists’ hands. Today, only a few survive.”
Shanika walked further into the cave and vanished in the dark, but her silky voice echoing off the walls guided me and the rest who followed blindly. I moved further in, closer to her voice with great trepidation. At the entrance, the cave was high, but could feel the space between the ceiling and my head becoming smaller and the walls narrowing, even if I could not see this. It made me feel oppressed. Squeezed.
“Follow me, me, me! There is a hidden exit into the garden…arden…” Shanika’s voice became quieter the further apart we were. I quickened my pace in the thick, dark, soupy air of the inner cave.
Then, something happened to me. The deeper we went into the cave, the less vulnerable I felt. Nobody could find me here. In the darkness, everything was possible. This was like hiding in the Earth’s belly.
“We are almost there, ere…”
Following the echo of her voice. The sweet sounds took several turns. I stooped when she told me to and crawled on my knees when there was no room to crouch. There was a long trail of humans behind me, attempting what I could hardly do.
“We are here.” Suddenly, Shanika was in front of me. The others piled behind in the dark. Up close, there was a small opening in the cave’s wall, no larger than the one we jumped off the galleon.
“Through here. This is the way to the secret garden.”
I squeezed from the darkness of the cave into bright light. My eyes stung. People dusted their bodies as they crawled out of the cave’s cocoon and squinted at their surroundings. Although we had not traversed much space inside the cave, the vegetation on this side of the ridge was different. Here, the trees had leaves as thin as bone needles. The land was layered in terraces for cultivation and a waterfall kept nearly everything wet.
“Are we to stay here forever?” I asked.
The thought of living deep in the jungle, away from other people and far from the sea terrified me, although this place could provide for all our needs.
“This will be your livelihood as long as it need be,” Shanika said, “that is up to you. Here you can plant maize, avocado, squash and tomatillos. There are many edible flowers that grow wild but can also be cultivated. You might find some Yucca root, and that is very good so don’t throw it out—”
“Hold on there! What’s Youka root? How are we to dig for roots, if we do not know what to look for?”
She rolled her eyes. “You really have lots to learn.” She led me to a large, angry looking plant that pointed sharp thorns in all directions. “Stay away from this plant. It is also called Yucca, but you won’t get anything out of this. Some people think they can make intoxicating drink from the bulbous middle of this thorny monster. Its mere appearance says, stay away to me but, plants as this attract the curious.”
She moved toward a plant I easily recognized as cassava by its long sturdy leaves. “This is also Yucca, but I bet you know this plant from back home.”
“Of course, I do. It’s cassava.”
Here it is called, Yucca, and if you are familiar with this plant, it grows very well in this climate and soil. Everything grows like magic in this fertile valley.”
The land was terraced with one tier above me and four terraces cascading below. There was plenty of flatland to plant and build many huts. Beyond the layered fields of cultivation, two mountain chains away, the snowy tip of the mighty volcano with the funny name peeked above the ridges, as if it were our only observer.
“The Mayans say that on certain nights, you can see Venus kiss the mighty Citlaltépetl’s crater, but I’ve never seen it,” Shanika said.
A sudden sense of mistrust trapped me. This place could be perfect for us, but it could also be a trap. Stuck up here, we were easy prey, for we were like babes in the arms of a foreign mother.
“I want to show you where you could start your gardens; soon, crawling through the cave will become second nature. I was scared the first time Pedro brought me here. I held on to his goose belly jacket so hard that the lace on his cuffs crushed beyond repair.” Shanika gave a small laugh. “We can go to the front now, I must leave. You are on your own now but, I will try to visit from time to time. On donkey, the hike takes only an hour, and it can be easily done in a day.”
At the top of the path that led to the cave, she turned back to us, “Live off the land and remain invisible. The Spanish surely will be looking for you, but they will not come this far up the cordillera. Mostly, the colonists are a band of cowards, afraid of the jungle’s darkness. They have outpost everywhere however, so from now on, you are snakes, unnoticed until you hear a sound. Then, you bite and stay free!”
Her figure swayed down the mountain and I could not keep my eyes off her. She was a lone moving in the lush vegetation, looking for her loved one. The earth rumbled. I tried to ignore this, suspecting it might be my youthful yearnings, but the earth shook again. Shanika was too far down the path to see her reaction.
Later, with the help of the hot, sinking sun, I started a small fire by rubbing dry twigs we had picked up from deep in the cave. We gathered around the fire, our bellies full of new flavours and our hearts full of new expectations and we told stories by the flickering flames; tales as old as our ancestors, yet adventures that did not compare to the one in which we found ourselves presently. The start of our second night was one of uncertainty in a dangerous land but, in the cave, I felt protected.
The following morning, upon waking before anybody else, my head was in a whirlwind of thoughts. Had the earth trembled all night? Was my imagination taking the best of me? There was no way for me to tell if it had been my nerves or if the ground indeed moved. I was in turmoil. Everything became questionable; my ability to lead strangers in a foreign land and even Shanika’s motives were suspect. Until now, she had led the way, because I knew not what to do. Now, there is a need for me to step in and lead my people, my family but I don’t know how. They want to know what happens next; wish I knew.
The lush valley awoke with the sound of hundreds of birds, monkeys and water running. It was a beautiful spot and one I intended to make my home. Further, toward the tall volcano with the complicated name there was a tiny plume of smoke escaping its top. It was as if the snow that covered the tip had become a fountain, something I had never seen before. The earth trembled again. This time, the shaking was harder.
“What was that?” Olamide shrieked from inside the cave, waking everybody. Some of the children began to cry.
“Me fathers!” Osumare came out skipping, her hands up in the air. “The land here jump up, jump up. Is this normal you think, Yanga?”
“I should hope not. What kind of land would this be if it rumbled all the time?”
“Mark my words, Yanga, do something we must,” Bapoto came to my side, huffing. “I think the land is about to swallow us alive and that woman who lives with the Spaniards knew it. She put us here for that purpose.”
“What silliness do you speak of? Her intentions are true but I don’t know—”
The land shook so hard it made me jump. A ferocious clap came from the volcano, and the strong smell of Sulphur reached my nostrils.
“That thing is about to blow up!” I shouted. “Everybody! Back into the cave!”
“Safer we might be outside. What if the cave crumbles with the shaking? Buried alive, I do not wish to be!”
A mighty roar came from the earth, shaking and rumbling. Across the valley, hot lava rocks and black smoke spewed into the sky.
“Get in the cave. We’ll fry out here!”
With everyone inside the cave, from a small gap in the foliage of the hidden entrance I saw lava begin to flow, moving quickly toward the opposite side of the volcano; this rendered us safe from its path. The heat began to rise.
“We cannot do anything but remain inside,” I said. “Tamoya! Take the children and go deeper into the cave. Ash might reach the entrance and they should not breathe this. Olamide! Take the women and line the walls. If need be, you can climb to get out of harm’s way. Bapoto! With the help of the other men, let’s gather loose boulders by the entrance. We can barricade ourselves as a last resort.”
With everything done, we waited. Day turned into night under the volcanic dust and it remained pitch dark, inside and outside the cave, for two more days. We were stunned by what we had gone through, and terrorized by what was happening now, because nobody moved for a very long time. Not even the children.
My stomach began to rumble. The satisfied feeling that I had had around the fire the night before was a distant memory and now my belly cramped and contracted in its emptiness. My head felt light. My limbs heavy with the lack of movement.
From deep inside the cave, I heard Tamoya telling the children a story but, I could not make out the muffled words. The lullaby nature of the rhyming sounds calmed my spirit and made the wait more bearable. As the ash piled outside, little animals began to run into the cave seeking shelter.
“What was that?!” someone shouted in the dark. “It felt like the rats that crawled over me on the galleon.”
“I felt something too,” Olamide said. “Shhh…I can catch it.” There was a loud squeal, but I wasn’t sure if it came from Olamide or not. “It’s a squirrel!”
“Give me that, lest you turn the animal into your pet!” Bapoto said.
This time, the squeal came definitely from the animal followed, by the sound of bones cracking.
In the darkness, the next few minutes were agonizing. Bapoto grunted and growled, he sounded like a madman frothing at the mouth. The thought of him skinning the animal with his bare hands crossed my mind, but he had probably found a sharp stone to do it. I heard him drink. More grunting and then chewing.
“Who wants meat?”
People crawled toward his voice, saying me, me, me, and the squirrel was gone. Soon, more squirrels rushed into the cave as did hares and some type of large lizard which tasted like fowl.
All the while, ash continued to rain outside. It crept through the vines and into the cave making everything feel sooty. It travelled into my nose and settled on my tongue. The earth had stopped rumbling and lava rocks no longer flew to the sky, but the ash did not clear. It settled everywhere.
The five children in our band were terrified by everything around them. The perpetual night outside, the darkness inside, the sounds and the smells. They clung close to their mamas or the women taking care of them, whimpering and hungry for they did not eat raw meat and their malnourished mamas did not produce milk. Tamoya was the only woman with milk in her breasts, since her own child did not have enough time upon this Earth to drink. The sadness that had wrapped around her lifted as she gladly nursed the children, although the oldest was nearly five. I heard her cooing the young ones as if they were all her own.
In times of terror girls get talking, or at least that is how it was in my village, and it was proving to be so here as well, for Osumare spoke incessantly. In the darkness, she told the band about her children, and her life back home, and what she did to pass time. When she had run out of things to say, she spoke nonsense. It was as if her voice echoing in the cave gave her comfort, but all it gave me was a headache.
“Enough,” Tamoya said. “I do declare that all this talking is going to dry me from the inside out. Doesn’t all this talking parch your tongue, missy? I say that if we don’t start planting something to eat around here, I soon won’t be able to nurse any longer.”
I patted my foot down on the ground creating an invisible dust storm in the darkness of the cave to remind people of what it was like outside. They started to cough. “We must wait. Ash is still falling. We have to remain in the cave.”
This news was not welcomed.
“What if the cave is haunted?” demanded someone. “I heard howling last night. I am not staying in a cave full of spirits!”
“What if the gods want this place for themselves?” somebody else shouted. “We will be eaten alive at their next banquet.” Cold shivers ran down my back.
“Tamoya is right,” I said. “Our priority is to make this land arable. As soon as we can, we will bury this ash in the ground and get rid of the weeds. We will start by clearing the land closest to the cave with caution; we don’t want to disturb any bad luck…or too much ash.”
It was everywhere.
When the ash settled, the sun bore through the darkness like a worm through mud. I crawled in the dank cave, toward the secret exit at the back. It was my first time venturing outside in two days. I trod lightly to prevent the powder on the ground from stinging my eyes and getting into my nostrils. I moved like a spirit in a ghostly world.
Outside the cave, we stood in silence, awed by the scene before us. Prior to the eruption, this land was green and lush, paradise, according to Olamide. Now, it looked as if it were made out of chalk. We stood motionless for a very long time, hours perhaps, stunned.
Looking at the landscape accomplished nothing. “It is time to clear the land. We will start working on this garden and move down the terraces. I am confident the land will prove fertile, because she is fed by the falls and the warmth of the sun.”
I spoke as I did back home, with authority, not questioning if people held faith in me or not, for I knew they needed my guidance. “We will be protected here. Let us start by weeding.”
The valley below was covered in white powder lending it a magical feel and, although the air was still gritty, we were raring to get started. From the ledge of a sloping terrace, I waved my arms over my head, to bless the land above and below. Behind me, a steep cliff above the cave made it feel as if we were cradled in Mother Nature’s palms and in front of me, a deep valley was cloaked in white.
Osumare said, “For tilling the land, I can show you how to make a hoe with what we got here.”
For moons to come, we formed groups and planted seeds that we found, taking into consideration what Shanika had told us about the vegetation on the way up the mountain. I wondered what luck had befell upon her, if her lover made it alive, and if he had saved the wine and olive oil that he so valued. I wondered about the colonists; how long would their manhunt take before they found us? Shaking my head to rid it of such thoughts, I concentrated on casting the seeds.
The entire band was involved, for two sennites, in a job that back home was solely relegated to the women. Here, the men cleared the rows that the women planted and then, the children patted the earth down. I started to pile broken tree limbs for building huts.
It was hard work because we lacked food for all. As days passed, it was difficult to hunt for small animals for the sweltering heat kept them in hiding. We worked hungry but never thirsty. The waterfall provided drinking water and refreshment after a hot and sweaty day’s work. Slowly, we began to fashion our home-cave into something livable and almost enjoyable.
From vines, the women platted sleeping mats and baskets. We became adept at taking what we found, even if we did not understand it, and making it into something we needed, or something that brought some joy to our situation.
Around the fire at nights, I tried to forget that we were surrounded by predators—animal and human—ready to hunt us down.
We learned, during the next few months, that those imagined predators were real and all around us. Often, while tending to our fields, I would hear the singsong pitter-patter of Castilian spoken in the distance. The Spaniards were looking for us daily. They were never close to the cave, but they were out there, at the edges of the jungle, looking.
The sound of their angry voices was terrifying but, the Spanish colonists never seemed to venture into the jungle. It was as if her dark secrets and scents scared them, as if she held a barrier against them.
During surveillance missions of the area around the cave, I had grown used to hearing the Spaniards shouting and barking in a language that had begun to settle in my brain. With understanding came confidence, but at night, the sounds were entirely different.
The gardens were still young seedlings, and this was an invitation for monkeys and mongoose to feast on our hard work. This kept me up at night. I’d lie at the edge of the cave, ready to pounce on any creature that had found its way to our food.
One night, I heard a low growl and felt the ground rumble a little. I thought the volcano was about to erupt again when something growled again. It was definitely not coming from the earth.
Outside, the moon was new and there was little light to see by. The ash left behind by the volcano’s eruption had soaked into the earth by the daily rains and now, everything grew once again. Green and big. Large leaves swayed in the breeze causing sounds I’d never heard, and vines draped from the jungle’s canopy dangling like snakes, upside down. Something scratched the ground.
Two large feline golden eyes came out of the shadows and stared straight into mine. I froze. The large cat cocked its head and growled low. Blood ran cold in my veins. I thought the cat was a leopard, but its spots were all wrong and this animal was much larger, and more muscular. Its jaw could eat a man. Moments passed and neither of us moved. He sniffed. I held my breath.
Not finding what he was looking for, the large feline bound across the cornfield seedlings, destroyed them, and crept back into the jungle with a mighty roar which sounded like a leopard’s snarl, but louder. This animal was no leopard, for his spots were unlike what I knew them to be. This animal’s spots were like little flowers. That was the only soft thing about this beast.
I tried to follow the cat with my eyes. He headed toward the Rio Blanco. In the dark, it was hard to follow the slinking figure, but I was certain he sat in a shallow bank in the river; right in the water! Leopards back home do not like water much. Whatever manner of cat it was, he had destroyed our cornfield. Hours of work gone to naught in two swift seconds.
Our predators were not always large, magnificent beasts. Small, insignificant insects were also a hazard. I had seen how the poor Zuri had suffered due to a mosquito bite that went bilious. There was all manner of insects in the rainforest. At dawn and dusk the air was thick with a buzzing that lasted for hours. Because her hair and skin were the colour of honey, the bugs were particularly attracted to Zuri. I didn’t understand why; she was so gaunt, it seemed she’d have no blood in her at all. Whatever amount of blood in her was some critter’s dinner and that left the poor girl feverish for weeks.
Other predators were perceived, because we did not understand their significance. At the far end of the farthest terrace on the mountain—a terrace that appeared never to have been cultivated before—stood a giant pole covered in vines. I thought of it as a pole, for no tree could grow that tall. This monster was the height of 15 men and it shot straight into the sky. I had seen something, a contraption of some sort, covered in weeds on the ground near the pole, but none of us had dared to near the monstrosity during the six moon cycles we had been here. Nothing made sense and left it alone, but the pole caused nightmares amongst some of us.
One night, Bapoto’s fretful sleep reverberated through the cave, waking me from a deep rest. No, no! He repeated. Pole! Giant pole! He kicked and turned over and kicked again. No! Pole! Although the significance of his dream remained a mystery, I understood that the menace we felt in the shadow of the giant pole was real.
Our fears and misgivings set aside, Shanika, who had not returned yet as promised, had been right about this place; the land provided in abundance. There were many small animals we cooked using the clay pots left behind by the people before us, and there were fruit trees of many varieties. Being cautious, I had not ventured too far from the cave, but we did put temporary lookout posts atop tall trees to protect us from invasion. Through a series of mishaps, followed by small victories and relapses, we moved forward.
Four full seasons had gone by since I first heard Bapoto’s troubled sleep when Osumare came running to me, hands flaying above her head like a madwoman’s.
“Something’s coming up the path! Me think it’s Shanika but my eyes can’t see that far down. Hurry!” She was as impatient as a young child.
“Let’s go find out. Are you sure it’s not the Spaniards?”
“I can recognize them, don’t you worry. Me think it’s the woman.”
Shanika had not come to visit since she had left us nearly a year earlier. I was certain that she had abandoned us, forgotten about us after leaving us in the midst of plenty. Something was climbing the mountain, but, if it was a person, he or she was not walking.
As the figure neared the midpoint where we had stopped to see the savagery of the Spaniards after the hurricane in San Juan de Ulúa, I recognized that it was Shanika, wearing Spanish clothes aplenty and riding atop what looked like a domesticated ass.
The feeling of rage felt that first day, seeing the carnage in the bay, still burned in my veins as if it had happened yesterday. During our first year in the new land, we began to conduct nightly patrols to gather information about our enemy and I had many chances to hear Spanish soldiers talk about the inhuman conditions in which my African brethren were kept. The colonists had plans to bring thousands more slaves to New Spain. Seeing Shanika, memories of being yanked from my village came flooding in; the horror in Sunshine’s face when González de Herrera penetrated her, the empty eyes of the men that sailed with me from Africa, men and women rolled into a human log—
“—Greetings! I see you have not been idle,” Shanika said, yanking me from my thoughts. She dismounted the donkey she rode. “Glad you listened to what I said about the plants around here!”
“I thank the gods for your safe return, my dear Shanika! Tell me, what has become of you amongst the Spaniards? We have so much to talk about.” I took her hand and we walked to the enormous tree that stood on the uppermost terrace. It was under its shadow that we had started to build our grass huts, overlooking the entire valley.
“A great Ahuehuete,” Shanika said, sitting under the big tree’s canopy.
“A great, Wawa which?”
“That is the name of this tree; it is an Ahuehuete tree.” She looked around our village, nodding at what she saw. It had taken many full moons and finally, we were finished erecting our huts and eating hall. “I see you are managing here, good. I have brought something you do not know you need but will be enormously helpful in your new lives.”
People started to gather around us as word got out that Shanika was visiting.
“Of our new lives, what do you know?” Bapoto spat, malice seeping through his lips. “You drop us in a haunted cave and then leave us to fight our own daemons. Full of spirits this cave is, and you knew it. Now, you prance into our lives again, demanding to know how goes. What are your motives?”
Had I not interceded, Bapoto would have ran Shanika over with his misplaced anger. He had never trusted her, this was plain to see.
“Let us gather around the fire and speak with a clear heart,” I said, for there was much we needed to learn.
In honour of Shanika’s visit, we kindled the fire early to sit down and tell our stories. Olamide and the girls were delighted with her ridiculous dress that imprisoned the body and with the ornaments she wore around the neck and ears. Shanika held the frilly collar on her neck.
“Phew! I love these millstone ruffs but one thing, they’re not fit for the humidity of this land.” She ripped the ridiculous thing off and kept on the lace at her wrists, her long sleeves and two highly decorated skirts that came down to the floor. I could not imagine how she managed up the hill wearing that armour.
“Go on! Take the rest off!” Osumare called. “You look hot like a roasting piglet!” Everyone laughed.
“You are right. Up here, these make no sense at all.” She took off the conical skirts and long-sleeved top, tossed the rich fabrics to the side and settled cross-legged by the fire in her linen chemise.
“Ah. That’s better! You have no idea how uncomfortable Spanish clothes can be! And I skipped the corset today…” she giggled. Her musical sounds wafted down the valley, making the birds happier. “I don’t want to look like a twelve-year old girl…that contraption squeezes the nights and days out of us ladies.” She admired the girls in our band who had started to combine some of the land’s liking for overdressing with their jungle fashion. “I bet Osumare is behind some of these designs…they are marvelous!” We all clapped except Bapoto who stood outside the circle, observing.
“Shanika, please bring news of what fate befell the men that brought us to such mysterious land.”
“They are nothing but a bunch of lucky drunk sailors with bondage on their mind. Pedro de Moya survived the storm, as I expected he would, and managed to save the wine and olive oil from the galleon. As a reward, King Phillip the second sent a generous quittance.” She smiled shyly, “We have been living like royalty in Xalapa for the past year.”
“Why haven’t you come sooner?” I demanded.
“Pedro is a very jealous man. He does not allow me to roam freely and I cannot tell him where I intend to go. I had to wait for the right time. Today is the winter solstice and it is the start of a very important Christian celebration. In town, everybody lights bonfires to signal the start of the season. Continuous celebrations are the order of the day until the Spanish go to the cathedral to pray. Then everything is quiet just before the grand party next to a tree all lit up with tiny candles. Another week of celebrations ensues followed by a bigger party to mark a new year. This one usually wrecks people’s senses for a couple of days so, I can remain with you nearly a sennight before Pedro sobers up and discovers I have not been by his side.”
Shanika related stories about life in a town hidden from our view. “In Xalapa, you are becoming famous, Yanga. When we jumped from the galleon, that was a big insult to González de Herrera, and now he drags your name like scum around town. Because he cannot find you, his rage grows stronger. He is often seen ranting in the town square about his next plan to find you. He calls you, el negro rebelde, and promises the populace to capture and make you his slave, once again.
“I was never his slave!”
She spoke of the Spaniards’ customs and of their language, insisting we learn as much Castilian as we could. We knew some phrases, words we heard the soldiers speak, but we needed more. She taught us useful phrases that insulted the colonists’ mothers.
“Who says the enemy does not exist amongst ourselves?” Bapoto asked from the edge of the gathering. “Warn us to remain vigilant at all times you do, because outposts the Spaniards have everywhere, yet it was you who dropped us in this cave full of spirits.”
“Don’t bother about the people before you Bapoto,” she said again. “They are all dead. The Huastecas got sick and died and now, very few remain alive. You must look ahead not backward.”
“I am told, in my slumber, about the spirits in this cave. Are we to live like bats forevermore?” He turned away in a huff, grumbling all the way to the edge of the jungle.
Shanika entertained us by the bonfire. At times, I allowed her voice to lull me into a mellow stupor as her melody mingled with the sounds of the jungle but, mostly, I listened closely for clues about our enemies, trying to discover their vulnerabilities.
“Let me show you what I have brought!” Shanika scrambled deep into the Spanish frocks she had tossed aside and brought out a satchel full of minute specks. “These are tobacco seeds.”
“What is tobacco?”
“A plant that will be good for trade.”
“We have planted all our fields, except for one in which an enormous pole, we know not what purpose it served, sits on, and another that a large leopard-like cat destroyed when he jumped on top of the seedlings some moons back.”
“Use that field to plant this. Tobacco is different. You do not plant it for nourishment, you plant it to sell. A large cat you said?”
“Yes. A strange looking leopard. I thought it might eat me but, he went away without incident other than jumping over the corn seedlings.”
“It was a jaguar. They won’t eat you, but they are dangerous. Don’t let them panic and they’ll usually go their way.”
“What is this tobacco good for?” I asked.
“The leaves are dried and rolled into small spools, lit and inhaled. It is all the rage with the colonists, and now the Spaniards have begun to acquire a taste for the leaf. This is not for your consumption; something that smells as foul as tobacco cannot be good for you. The seeds need to lay on top of the soil to germinate so water the soil well first, and then lay the seeds on top. It takes about 4 months for the plant to fully grow and then you’ll have to cure the leaves by hanging them to dry. I’ll show you what to do when the time arrives.”
I heard a loud explosion beyond the jungle. I panicked. A bright light lit the sky. “What was that?”
Shanika laughed. “Happy New Year! That is the sound of gunpowder crammed into bamboo sticks. The colonists ignite the powder and can achieve thunder and lightning when they do it right. They have to get the right mixture, but when they do, the results are brilliant. This is how they bring in the New Year, with a blast.”
“I thought they might have been under attack.”
From the top of the cordillera, by the fire, we sat in awe as we heard the popping and saw the sudden bursts of light in the sky that followed.
“I will have to leave in the morning,” Shanika said. “The celebrations are done and Pedro is bound to be back home. If he wakes with the effects of alcohol still in his head, he’ll be confused and will wonder if I’ve been by his side all along.” She giggled.
Although Shanika giggled a lot, as did the other girls in the band, the sound had always irked me. Giggling was the sound of childhood. It was true that we were all still young, but in this land, we had to be grown up. Because of my upbringing, I had a maturity the rest did not and I could not wait until the rest caught up.
During her time here, Shanika slept atop leaves Osumare and Tamoya had spread out for her and she helped with cooking over the open fire. She blended with the group nicely, but she never missed an opportunity to tell me that a life in the wild was not for her. When she rode down the mountain on top of her burro, I wondered when I’d see her again.
One day, several full moons after Shanika had left warning me about the Spanish outposts, a band of men and I wandered from the cave into the rough terrain of the jungle beyond where we had been before. We were in search of food. We had been here going on to two years and the small animals we roasted were not enough to feed us adequately; we were looking for something larger.
We hiked uninterrupted far enough to reach close to the volcano’s truncated top and to observe the damage the eruption had caused on the other side, visible, even after so much time. Nearly two years after it had erupted, the land remained a wasteland. I thanked my gods for sparing us from death by brimstone and fire.
“Hush. Something’s out there.”
“All I hear is our feet crunching the dry ground. What do you think you heard?” Olamide said.
“Aye, I hear something, I do too,” Bapoto said. “Over there! Behind those bushes.”
From where we stood, the land looked like two different tales. On my left, the earth was razed to a flattened rubble. To my right, the trees and shrubs grew in vibrant greens, and those grew twice their normal size. The plants Bapoto pointed to were unfamiliar to me, but they stood the height of two men with leaves so thick it was hard to see through them.
“Behind that bush someone stands,” Bapoto insisted. “And a Spaniard, he is not.”
I strained my eyes to see, but I could not be sure. A vague silhouette hid through the leaves; at times it seemed clearly a man, an African like me, but at others, I was certain it was the dappled sunlight that created the shadows.
“He moved…” I whispered certain it was a man.
In my mind, many manners in which I would attack a Spaniard had played out, but never had accounted for another African. Not knowing if he was foe or ally, knowing not if he had seen us, I motioned the others to crouch behind me.
“We should try talking to him,” Olamide said. “He must be a runaway like us.”
Bapoto said. “Must you always be a diplomat? Mark my words, attack we must. In a land of enemies we live, and we cannot afford to make a mistake.”
“Hush you two! I will approach the stranger myself. Stay behind in hiding. If necessary attack, but only if he attacks first.”
My heart pounded walking across the small meadow toward the shadow behind the bushes. The man seemed not to have noticed me, for his stance did not change.
“Na nga def! Salaam! Hola!” I said hello in three languages, hoping for a peaceful greeting. Instead, the stranger leapt the height of a man and ran into the rainforest, leaving the small animal he was skinning behind.
I looked left then right but saw nobody. I ran to the clearing, but nobody moved. I started a war dance to see if someone would heed the call, to no avail.
“Come!” I gathered my band. “We have been left a present to eat!”
Bapoto, Olamide and I finished skinning the agouti and cut the fresh meat into pieces.
“How are we to carry this bloody meat back to the cave?” Olamide asked.
Plucking the large elephant leaves that Osumare used for her dresses, I said, “We can carry the bundles in these.”
We picked the large leaves off the ground and wrapped the meat into neat packages. I felt a wisp of air fly past my face when a lance landed next to me.
“We are under attack!”
Picking all the packages of meat that fit into the fold of the leaf, I ran with stealth, trying to avoid an invisible enemy. More lances flew from an unidentifiable source.
“Al demonio!” I shouted, and more lances flew in the air. A lance speared one of my men, right through the heart, killing him in an instant. “Let’s get him out of here!”
Behind me, the men hunting us neared, but they were not Spaniards, for they spoke in a different tongue; one that I understood as it sounded like an offshoot of my own language. I was not sure if this was good or not. Glad that González de Herrera had not found us, I was not happy with the idea that there were more enemies out there, invisible and unknown.
I never found out who those men were, but this did not deter me from returning to the jungle in search of food.
One day, when Olamide, Bapoto and I went hunting for tapir and agouti, we encountered another band of runaways. They were near the volcano’s base. We were searching the waters of the Rio Blanco hoping to find a tapir drinking, when behind me, an unfamiliar voice said, “You are a stranger here. I have not seen you before. What do you carry for trade?”
I looked behind me and saw a man similar to me in height and build. Instinctively, I squeezed the sharpened obsidian weapon in my loincloth, but loosened my grip. We stared at one another, not saying a word, for what seemed an eternity. The man’s sincere smile made me relax.
“What’s your trade?” His manner was rushed and impatient. “I have silver. What is your trade and where is your Palenque?”
“Your village. Your abode. Where do you live?”
My heart filled with mistrust. This stranger asked too many questions and acted too familiar.
“We are in search of agouti—”
“I did not ask you what’s for dinner. I asked, where do you come from, and what’s your trade? I see you’re green. My name is Madef, elected leader of the Cimarrones de la Costa de Oro.”
“I am, Gaspar Yanga.”
“You must identify yourself further. Are you leader or follower? From which Cimarrón band do you hail from?”
“I am the unofficial leader of a band that escaped from the Spaniards who captured us in Africa.”
Madef laughed. “What a long-winded way of saying you are a Cimarrón. What’s your trade?”
“It’s not ready.”
“What is it?”
“We are growing tobacco but, the leaves are not ready to be plucked and dried. We do not have much as this is our first crop.”
“I think we can do commerce, your band, and mine. We shall meet in this place again, in three moon cycles when your tobacco is ready. I do trade with other metallurgists and shall bring what you’ll need. I do spices as well.” He motioned his band of nearly twenty men to carry on their way.
Back at the cave, I wondered why Shanika had never mentioned others like Madef. She was full of suggestions about where to find what we needed, how to get more clothes, what to grow in our fields, where to get weapons, and how to fashion our own, but she had never mentioned trade with other Cimarrones. She told me that the Spaniards moved from city to city over something she called, El Camino Real, and she had suggested this might be a good place to raid their caravans. I had not met Madef at the time but, it seems that there are more Cimarrones running around the mountains than Spaniards. Making this man’s alliance I hoped something would transpire to distinguish me as a leader.
When the tobacco was ready, plucked and dried, we headed to the meeting place to trade with Madef. We waited a day and then, the next three, but saw neither him or his band. I had been so anxious to get something new for myself, that the silliness of the situation had escaped me. Madef’s raspy voice howled into the chilled air. Several of his men rushed me, took my sack of tobacco and disappeared into the jungle with it. Chasing them was hard, I could see nothing but trees and, they vanished with my leaves.
Although I had not found the thing that would distinguish me as head, our little settlement in the shadow of the cave was coming along well. Fields were planted, small huts erected, and people were busy making what they needed to carry on. I saw Osumare feverishly hollowing a large calabash to make it into a water-carrier, for the garden she tended was in full sunshine, and her plot of land was a thirsty one. Olamide found polishing stones enjoyable although, what he made of them was of no use other than for decoration. He created necklaces and pendants and made hanging fringes out of small pebbles. People explored and found out what they were good at, and what they enjoyed doing.
As the head, I oversaw many things, but I something was still missing to differentiate myself, and ideas were contemplated, despite my disastrous encounter with Madef’s gang of hooligans.
To acquire what was needed, I went in search of, El Camino Real. As unofficial leader of my band it was plainly apparent; to show others, outside of my group, that I was the head, I would need something to identify me. Apart from Madef’s people, we had not seen other bands of Cimarrones, but had heard of them. Olamide had explained that, El Camino Real meant, ‘The King’s Road,’ and I was in pursuit of royal objects to enhance my stature in the Palenque.
I asked Bapoto and Olamide to come with me. We skirted the volcano to explore the valley beyond. We moved quietly from tree trunk to tree trunk. At times, we climbed and swung from the branches when we thought the Spaniards might be close. Bapoto moved with ease, whereas I was riddled by nerves. I felt that colonist's eyes were spying on me and I felt that Cimarrones were following me. The trees had ears and eyes. The ground absorbed every one of my intentions. I was never alone, surrounded by invisible enemies that wanted nothing more than to see me dead; I felt uneasy.
Not far from the edge of the scorched land, we came to a hidden lake, where birds of many colours and sizes gathered, where flowers scented the air and where the water was full of white turtles and giant manatees. Trees of many varieties lined the lake and provided shade and fruit. Having paused to take a drink, small animals scattered when we approached. The path to get here was treacherous as it was overgrown with vines and it skirted low cliffs on tight bends. I was surprised to find such a mysterious land of wonder, so close to where we lived.
“Behold such wonders of nature,” Bapoto circled his arms in the air. “If our cave’s gardens are a place fit for gods, as Olamide seems to believe, then this plot must be the place where the gods reside.”
The lake and its surroundings looked as if the sky god Nzame had chosen this spot to create his home on Earth. We neared the waters and watched as a playful group of six manatees glided through the water, slowly powering their massive bodies with their tails, and every so often, poking their nose and nostrils out of the water to breathe. I stood in awe of these giants of the water, observing their movements, lost in my thoughts.
“Weapons we must bring,” Bapoto broke the silence. “A fine drum can be stretched with the hides of the sea cow. Mark my words; their slowness, makes the sea cows easy prey.”
I was taken aback. “Bapoto! How do you propose to hunt such a colossal beast? They are far too beautiful to become drums, as necessary as drums are,” I conceded.
“Nay, much more than drums, Yanga. Crush the bones, and we shall make a paste suitable for healing. We shall extract oil for cooking. For my people in Senegal, these are our ways. We are beset with the gift of sea cow hunting.” Bapoto’s smile was proud and confident, but I suspected this was a front for his true fears.
“My people call them manatees, and we allow them to swim freely in our rivers. Let us consider why we have wandered so far from the cave and attend to the matter; we are in search of the King’s Road.”
Beyond the manatee lagoon, the vegetation became thicker and harder to penetrate. Tall trees knotted together made giant walls of trunks, creating obstacles that had to be skirted. Everything was alive. The air was alive with mosquitoes, and the winds carried pestilence. The earth was alive with scorpions, tarantulas and fire ants; even the trees were alive with snakes disguised as branches and as leaves that felt like fire when touched.
Crawling under low-lying branches, I noticed a few stones peeking from the muddy sop.
“Look Bapoto! Do you think this might be the King’s Road?”
We removed the top mud and saw other stones that were buried. I tried looking beyond, sought to detect a passageway in the midst of the jungle, to no avail. Here, the trees were less dense but taller, and they formed a canopy that blocked most of the light. In the shadow of the rainforest, we followed the stones until the trail began to climb the cordillera.
“This must be the road,” I said to Bapoto. “How do they manage to travel over such treacherous and slippery conditions?” In my head, I tried to see different ways of accomplishing such a task. So engrossed in my thinking was I, that I did not hear a thing until Bapoto shouted, “On the alert!”
I turned. Two Spanish soldiers pointed something that looked like a sharp ax at my shoulder.
“Bet you never felt a halberd pierce your flesh before. Have you, dirty Cimarrón?” The tallest and ugliest of the two said to me in a raw voice.
The other soldier pointed his weapon at my leg. It was sharp enough to chop me into slivers. Moments passed like an eternity. Sounds were interrupted. Shapes faded. Later, more soldiers carrying three vicious dogs, frothing at the mouth, barking, blood in their eyes. The hellish beasts were held back by a mere thin jute rope. I looked for Bapoto and Olamide, but I could not see them.
“Mátalo!” a soldier howled, “Kill him!”
I bolted and ran like a jaguar. I fled farther into the jungle; away from the cave, into thicker vegetation. The nearing dogs behind me growled, fueling my speed. My heart pounded out of my chest. My breath was labored. I sprinted into the woods and out of sight.
When I could run no farther, and when I could not hear dogs behind me, I sat on the mossy ground to catch my breath. Next to me, grew the cactus Shanika had called, peyote. She had told me that the Huastecas chewed the bulbous tops for strength and stamina. I picked a dry bulb from the ground and brought it up to my mouth tentatively. The bulb appeared to have no thorns. When my teeth bit into the light green bulb, and I nearly spat the fleshy substance, for it was the bitterest thing ever to enter my mouth.
I felt light and heard everything in the jungle. Every bird and every monkey; worms and the fire ants. I was fortified; my heart began to slow down and to pump harder, prompting me to continue running.
I sped through thickets of leaves, some soft and some prickly, running between twisted tree trunks and large shrubs. I ran up the banks of the Río Blanco. There, the marshy ground would cover my footprints, and I raced up the mountainside, feeling as if I could fly to the sky.
Time ran, and at the same stayed still. It was as if time did not pass. Looking down the valley, on the other side was our cave. I looked for it, hidden under the canopy, but could not see it. I searched for our crop lands but saw none. We were invisible in the jungle and that was the right place for our Palenque to stay.
The dogs were within earshot again. The barks seemed as if coming from inside, the sounds bouncing in my veins and brain. I sprinted. Looking back to gage the distance. There were no mongrels, but they were close. I turned to run faster but stopped in an instant at the edge of a cliff. Below, the raging river carried everything in its flow. If I jumped, I would be dead long before my body reached the white water.
There was nowhere to go. Behind me, the rabid dogs came into sight. I fended myself with a large branch broken off a tree. The ferocious beasts barked, tails and ears twitching for my throat. Two colonists, wearing boots and helmets, joined their dogs. Their vexed expressions promised a lashing, but instead, they laughed at my pitiful state.
“Qué pasa?” they howled. “Can’t find where to hide, dirty pig?”
“A-l D-e-m-o-n-i-o” I slurred my words. It was as if each letter crawled out of my tongue and somersaulted on my lips.
The soldiers got closer. Pointed their weapons at my head and heart.
My brain swirled. I saw my body leaping into flight, like a great eagle, swooping beyond the jungle’s canopy and into the sky, to the after-world. I lifted my arms and felt shaky, woozy. In my throbbing head, one phrase repeated itself: dead men can’t fight the enemy. Dead people can’t fight the enemy.
The power of the peyote root crept up my legs. The stamina Shanika mentioned was restored to my extremities. I saw colours swirling in the air and the colonists’ faces melting into the swirl. My muscles twitched. My hand reached for a hanging vine, not far from the soldiers and the dogs, tugging it to make sure of its strength. I had no room to run to take flight. All I could do was climb straight up and try to swing. With the dogs tugging at the vine and the soldiers slinging lances, I swayed, and I swung, and I swayed again and again until there was enough momentum to fly over and past my tormentors. I climbed the vine to the jungle’s canopy and moved over the treetops with speed. Then, as quickly as the rush of stamina came, it disappeared. Then, darkness.
I woke up tied and lying on the ground, six spears pointed at me, in what appeared to be a small cave unable to move. Wounds that I did not remember getting, protested with sharp pangs of pain. Behind the spear-wielding savages, a girl a little younger than myself, was shouting. It was not Castilian.
She motioned the young men to lower their weapons. She crouched near my face. She repeated what she had said before, a little less aggressively, but it still sounded like hotchpotch to me.
“Whichele whachala huahaka…whichele whachala huakaka,” she said in a shrill voice. She was looking into my eyes as if trying to understand my thoughts. I smiled, tentatively, and she pulled away. A shy smile crossed her face. “Hablas Castellano?” she said.
This time, my smile was full, shaking my head, pretending I did not understand the language of the Spaniards, to see if she’d reveal something about her people. I was still not sure if they were friend or foe. She smiled back and winked.
She was not a beautiful girl, but she was handsome, pleasant to look at. Her round face was framed by long hair the colour of midnight, platted at the back. Atop her head, she wore a crown made of yellow flowers.
She pointed for me to crawl out of the small cave. It was awkward with my arms and legs tied, but I got out. My head was hammering, my mind nearly blank. How had I got into this hole? Who were these people? Where did the dogs go? And, why did my body ache all over?
When the men helped me to my feet, they did not untie my legs and arms. I was in a clearing in the jungle, in an established village.
“Soy Nacho,” a young brown boy of about thirteen said to me, pointing at his chest. “Y tú?” He waited for an answer to the question, but all I could do was shake my head. “Soy Nacho…tu amigo!” He made a gesture as if offering me his spear, despite my bound hands. His large black eyes bore into mine, smiling. I smiled back.
Although he appeared to be the youngest of the lot, he spoke to the others with authority. A mere child, Nacho tumbled quick words out of his mouth, pointing left, right and up, way up. The young men put their weapons on the ground and scattered in different directions. Nacho and the girl remained at either side of me.
“Soy Nacho, El Volador!” He neared me, opening his arms, flapping them as if he were a bird about to take flight. When he cocked his head left as if asking if I understood, I smiled and bobbed my head. “El Volador.” His straight, black hair bounced above his brown bony shoulders.
The young girl with the flower crown poked my ribs and looked at me. She was much shorter than I had expected. She looked down at my legs and up again, nodding. I tensed. She smiled and poked harder into my muscles. She walked around me, touching, poking and slapping my moist skin. I was sweating, and I was confused.
She raised her right arm and hit my chest gently. “Soy Huaji!” She repeated the phrase many times until I tried to mimic her.
“So -yua-hi.,” I attempted.
“No! YO soy Huaji. Tú?” She threw her arms up in the air and turned in circles. “Huaji, Huaji!” she repeated pointing at her chest. She poked my chest again.
“Yanga…” I offered, “Gaspar Yanga!” leaving out the part about my land and my people were because, in this new land, nothing applied.
Huaji’s black slit eyes travelled my body; I felt strangely excited by her look. I shook that thought out of my head, because for all I knew, she might be studying my suitability for becoming a sacrifice.
Nacho helped to loosen the ropes around my arms and legs. His small hands were soft, not the hands of a warrior yet, his voice was that of a commander. He and Huaji led me through a part of the jungle that I had not explored. The haze in my head was still present. I fully understood the danger; my heart would be offered to the Nahua gods. From the many stories Shanika had told me about the indigenous people of this land, the story of human sacrifice was the one that had stuck the most in my mind.
I knew nothing of Bapoto’s fate or of Olamide’s. If they had managed to dupe the Spaniards and their dogs, they would have been able to inform the rest about my capture; then there would be a glimmer of hope for my survival but if they did not escape…
“Bienvenido!” an old man wearing many beaded necklaces said from a rounded rock on top of what seemed to be a cave similar to ours. Nacho, the woman and I joined him and sat on a lower level by his side. She smiled and giggled, but I was tormented. What were they planning to do with me? The old man and the woman spoke a language amongst themselves unknown to me, but when the leader addressed me, he was talking in Castilian. I pretended to understand nothing.
On the galleon, sometimes people had to speak by using only gestures, and a few or my attempts looked like the samara seed pod of a tree; my arms flew, whipped and lashed in the wind in similar manner trying to communicate with gestures.
“Amigo!” The old man’s arms whirled in the air with similar enthusiasm.
“Ngamiko!” I repeated with a broad smile, my arms thrashing in circles hoping not to become that night’s dinner.
“Amigo Bueno! Colonistas malos!!” I thought the old man was about to take flight using his arms alone as wings, although there was kindness in his voice. Continuing this apparent game of repeating Castilian sounds as if I did not understand bought me time while deciding if the old man’s voice sounded soft or menacing. For all I knew, he could have been measuring the size of my heart to cut out as food for his gods.
“Hazteca?” I tried to find out if they were the people that sacrificed humans. “Sí?”
“Aztecas puercos!” the woman with the funny name shouted, although she was sitting right beside me. “Aztecas y los Españoles!” Her arm pounded the soft ground.
The old man had not taken his gaze off me nor had he stopped smiling. From his demeanor, it appeared as if he liked me. I also got the sense that he had heard of me before but found this improbable. When he spoke to the girl and the young boy in their language, I heard something that sounded like Llanga said many times. Each time the old man said the word, his and her eyes travelled toward me.
Motioning to go with her, the woman got up. We walked to a clearing where men were busy tending a fire under a great cauldron that hung from two tree trunks. There was boiling oil in the cauldron. I hesitated. My stomach sunk to my toes. Was I going in there?”
Next, to the cauldron, a wild boar hung skinned, his blood still dripping to the ground. It was as if I was watching my fate right in front of me. I could not walk. Two men tore the beast’s skin into pieces and lowered the flesh into the boiling oil. The sizzling produced an intoxicating aroma and moments later, the fried skin was pulled from the oil and set to cool. Children ran out their huts following the delicious scent.
“Calma!” the girl said to them. “There is chicharrón for all! Nacho! Get the limes.”
She sprinkled lime juice on the skin and parceled out the pieces of fried flesh to the children, as they sang, “Huaji! Huaji! Huaji!”
When all the children were fed, she approached me. "Chicharrón para tí, de Huaji." I looked at the golden fried skin she offered and decided it was better to try it than to be it. An explosion occurred in my mouth. A mix of crunching and acid and hot spice all together made my tongue dance. The woman laughed at my expression, and I smiled with a not.
"Hablo Castallano" I confessed, "Un poco."
From that moment, Huaji did not stop talking to me. She wanted to know everything about me. "If you are a prince," she said, "where do your ancestors come from?" After I had told her, she wanted to know about their ancestry, as if she were a scholar on African lineage.
"Tell me about your people, the Huastecas. You have a long history in this continent."
She told me stories about the Spanish soldiers and how easy it was to taunt them, either with false promises of sexual pleasures or simply by hurling insults about their mothers. "This," she said, "makes their skin boil, just like the chicharrón." I laughed at her joke and realized how easy it was to be with this young girl.
"Tell me Huaji, how did I get here? All I remember is facing the Spaniards and their dogs."
She told me that I had passed out, on account of the peyote. The Spanish soldiers were alarmed as González de Herrera's explicit command had been to bring you alive. As they discussed what to do next, two of her men swooped me off the ground and carried me back to her village. Her people lost the Spaniards in the jungle with ease.
The second day there, I learned more about the Huasteca people. The Nahuas were their enemies, as were the Spaniards. I began to relax amongst these friendly people and did not fear for my life, as they demonstrated nothing but warm hospitality.
“Buenos Días!” Huaji woke me from a deep slumber, a week after my arrival in her village. “Come, we bring the gift of chocolatl on the first rays of the dawn.”
Huaji led me to a large throne made of tree branches and stones. It looked majestic as the fire of torches lighted it at either side. The sun had risen low behind the cordillera, but the jungle was still dark. Only the sun’s crown was visible in the sky.
Three young girls, wearing a loose blanket tied at their chest, came to Huaji and me carrying small clay vessels filled with a thick, brown liquid. They gave a container to the old chief, then one to me and one to Huaji, who was smiling at me.
“Chocolatl caliente con sal y chile,” she said in a sweet voice. “Bébe!”
She encouraged me to drink the brown liquid, hot and aromatic, but I hesitated. The chief and Huaji took a long sip of the hot liquid and appeared happier when they were done. Not only did their lips smile but so did their eyes. Their bodies smiled as well.
“Bébe!” the old man repeated pointing at the hot liquid in my hands.
Tentatively, I brought the clay vessel to my lips. The smell was unfamiliar but not disagreeable. However, the look of this offering made me queasy.
“Bébe!” they both encouraged once again. Closing my eyes and holding my breath, I brought the hot liquid to my lips and gulped quickly, hoping for no lingering aftertaste.
Without expecting it, I said, “Ahhh…”
“Buen chocolatl,” the old man said. The liquid tasted like juice from the gods; it was a drink fit for Kings.
“Con sal y chile,” the old man said, fanning his hand over his blowing lips. “Muy Bueno!”
Huaji demonstrated how the drink was made, using beans she called cacao. As she crushed the beans with a rounded stone, the shape of her breasts pushed against the blanket-like dress she wore. I wanted to make this girl my own. I wanted to touch her round brown body even if she might sacrifice me to her gods. The chocolatl had caused in me a giddy, thoughtless folly, and it was unquenchable. For over a sennite, I remained in that euphoric state, recovering from my wounds. Spending time with Huaji was not only enjoyable and comfortable, but it was also educational.
One day, when she was demonstrating how to make sandals out of the fibers of a plant unknown to me, the old man eyed me, as a father does when protecting his young daughter. I lowered my gaze, for he had read my thoughts. Taking off a green bead necklace, the old man said, “Para tí.” He placed the necklace around my neck and smiled. “Es buena suerte. For your good luck.”
On the ground, he drew a stick man wearing a helmet. The branch he used to draw the figure moved quickly over the dusty ground, depicting how the helmeted men destroyed his people. He drew bigger stick figures, with curly hair, and these bigger stick figures fought the helmets and beat them to the ground.
“A la líbertad! La líbertad!” the old man cried out loud. “La líbertad!” He pointed at me as if I had anything to do with what he spoke.
The frenzy in his cry made me worry again. Perhaps they were waiting before sacrificing me? Huaji offered me a basket with corked jugs of chocolatl and an array of vegetables and fruits.
“Para tí,” she gestured, and she shooed me away as if telling me ‘go home.'
I got up slowly, uncertain if I had understood her meaning correctly.
“Anda!” the young Nacho urged. “Andale! Adios.” He flapped his slender arms. This time, not like a bird's wings, but like a woman sweeping chickens away, shooing me away. He pointed in the direction of the setting sun and, with his hands up in the air, he traced an arch in the shape of a cave. I feared beaing a human sacrifice, but these gentle people were allowing me to return to my cave, with the godly gift of chocolatl.
I swung from the vines with free abandon. Not only had I managed to escape the Spaniards and made friends with the Huastecas, but I was also returning home bearing gifts. This was certain to enhance my standing in the Palenque. I thought of Huaji, her round brown body, and her fiery spirit, and realized my heart had not stopped thumping for her since I left her village before sunset; now the penumbra began to encroach the jungle.
Atop of a tree, I got my bearings. The cordillera’s outline and jagged ridges had been guiding me for the past three years, always showing me the way back home. This outline did not correspond to what I knew.
I followed the vegetation to the mountain’s peak, to get a better view. At the top, was a chain of mountains connected to the other with a tightly woven bridge made out of branches and jute. The swinging overpass seemed strong and I crawled across, hoping the jute would not give under my weight. If it did, I’d go swinging over a broad valley of tall trees and bush. Making my way across the bridge with caution, I was surprised to see that the bridge skirted a very tall tree that had been stripped bare. The tree trunk grew taller than the bridge, past any other tree in the area. I started to see how the bridge might be used not only to get from one mountain to the next but to get to this tall tree also. The bridge was used as a levy to get to the tree and to cut its branches down. The trunk was as high as fifteen men.
Faint voices come from below, Spanish voices. Never out of danger, no matter how high atop the cordillera, I scuttled to the other side of the valley, and from there, the familiar jagged edge of the mountains kissed the dusk. Huaji's settlement was across the valley from our cave. Her scent wafted past me.
Back home, Kojo and Ekua were on the first terrace, enlarging their hut. With each season that had passed, we had worked hard to make our shelter stronger and more permanent. The first grass huts we built served the purpose for a year. Passing storms and the high sun, quickly disintegrated our building materials and we had to find new ways of building. We used bamboo as the bones of our structures, and jute made out of cacti leaves to tie them together. Ekua had platted palm fronds to cover the openings that were left to let air and light to come in. A few new grass huts on the terraces below indicated more new people had joined our settlement. Having been away made me realize that in the past three-year cycles, we had grown to a small village.
“Soon, there won’t be enough room to build more huts,” I joked with the old couple as I emerged from the cave’s hidden passage.
“Yanga! You are alive!” Ekua ran to embrace me. “Come everybody! Come! Yanga has returned, alive!”
A great commotion ensued with people running from all directions to meet me. They shouted my name and called the others to come out. As the crowd around me got bigger, my heart did not settle, until I saw that Olamide and Bapoto were here. They offered me an embrace.
“Excellent well and glad you have returned alive,” Bapoto said.
“Glad to see both of you alive! What happened? All I remember is looking for the King's Road, and when I woke, you were gone."
Bapoto eyed me suspiciously. “The Spaniard and their dogs, do you not recall them? Surely you do not come bearing gifts from that incompetent crew of Spanish privateers that cornered us?” He eyed the bundles.
“What happened? How did you escape?”
"I know not how or where you vanished, Yanga. When the Spaniards discovered us, I bolted past the privateers and their dogs. When Olamide saw that they nearly fainted with freight, he jumped in front of them, making all manner of noises, which sent the soldiers down the mountain promptly. I know not what emboldened me after that. I rushed to the colonists. The poor bastards shouted, ‘the Spanish Kingdom does not compensate us enough for this’ and that ‘no decent Spaniard should be made to suffer such terror.’ Bapoto laughed then, stopped in an instant. “Pray, do not tell me the gifts you bear are from those charlatans?”
“Not from the Spaniards, no! I met a noble and honourable people, the Huastecas. Shanika had spoken about them in the past. A tribe of indigenous people rescued me from the clutches of the colonists and their dogs." Those gathered began to form a circle and sat to listen to my tale. I knew that if I had lost any rank in the Palenque during my absence, this was my opportunity to show myself as the great leader everyone expected me to be.
“Imagine,” I stood in the center of the gathering, putting on my performer’s voice. “Running from a pack of rabid dogs. There must have been twenty of them, hastening straight for my jugular. I ran through the jungle with the pack at my heels, getting bitten, mauled. I kicked the beasts off my leg and ran to the top of the trees. The Spanish barbarians caught up to their dogs and began to fly lances at me. Two lances speared my leg and arm. I plucked them out of my body and sent them straight back at the Spaniards, but their iron breastplates protected them from my attack…”
I continued the story in this manner, recounting my encounter with the Spaniards by the Rio Blanco, but enhancing all the parts, I did not recall seeing people's reactions to my presumed bravery, filled me with pride.
"From the trees, I hurled cut-off branches and insults at the Spaniards below. The group of perhaps, forty, maybe even sixty soldiers and as many dogs, were forced to retreat by my attack."
When it came to tell about Huaji and her people, the story remained vague.
"Chasing the Spaniards away, I met a band of residents who also consider the Spaniards their enemy. An alliance with them would benefit us greatly. The Huastecas know many things we must learn, and they also hide from the slave masters.”
“Sorry to ask but, are those the people who gave you this necklace?" Zuri's voice was a mere whisper, and I had to get closer to hear her. She rubbed the glass beads with delight. “You have been absent for two weeks. Everybody was worried, and we feared the worst. Even the children felt your absence, and I do believe, you ought to reassure them. Maybe you can give them the beads to play with?” She looked at me with wide eyes. Her small face was framed by a growing golden halo of hair which was threatening to drown the tiny girl. "That way, they’ll know everything is as it should be.”
“Yes Zuri, the necklace was a gift from the native people, but it is not a toy. The Huastecas promised me this necklace has magical powers.”
Olamide came between us, an enormous smile plastered on his chiseled face. “Ever since we got here, I have felt that what we wear and how we decorate ourselves, is the only way to distinguish ourselves now, oh joy; I have proof! A magical necklace.”
People laughed, but without conviction, for they were not sure if what I spoke was the truth or not.
“See here?” Olamide pointed at what looked like a leather floppy hat. “I made this from the hide that Bapoto hunted for us the other day. All I am waiting for is to catch one of those wild peacocks to pluck a plume and put it right here!" The delight in his voice was infectious, yet anger swelled in my belly.
Olamide had proved very handy in the clothing realm as he never tired of experimenting with different leaf fibers to create functional robes we could wear to work and for leisure. He had directed a group of ten women in the sewing of the garments, and he had some of the older children attach the various decorations he thought were essential to the pieces. The addition of manatee hides to his arsenal was not to my liking.
I turned to Bapoto. “Did you return to the lagoon?”
“Accompanied, of course,” he said full of pride. “Five men it took to skin the beast. Now, as you will, we have pelts to cover our huts and skins to stretch our drums. One for you, Yanga, I have already crafted.”
The anger in my heart melted, for the leader of a tribe must get the first drum to call council. With drum in hand, I felt proud to be part of this disparate band of people who had been forced together by circumstance to fight a common enemy.
Months went by where the obsession for chocolatl clouded my rational thought. After four seasons in the land. All the grass huts we had erected when we arrived, were gone and the villagers were busy building stronger and more permanent abodes, using stones and manatee hides. While people updated their homes, I was busy conjuring ways of getting more chocolatl.
I began to visit Huaji’s people more often, but each time I arrived at her people’s cave, the old man demanded more and more from me in exchange for chocolat.
At first, his requests were practical, ‘move the barrel of hay from one side of the field to the other,' or, ‘carry a vessel of water from the river to the planting areas,' but with time, his requests became ridiculous. ‘Push a cart-full of beeswax up the steep hill,’ apparently simply to see me sweat, or, ‘Drag a sack-full of sand from the beach up to the Palenque.’
The tasks completed, the old man would examine my body and smile. He would slap my muscles and smile at Huaji. She smiled back approvingly.
“Take my young daughter,” he told me one day. “She will be a good wife to you, and together, you will bring strong, healthy babies to our world. Take her and three cacao beans.”
I gulped. I had looked at the old man's daughter with lustful eyes, and I had thought of her plump brown body with desire but, these thoughts were meant to stay in my head. Now, this old man was offering his daughter and, I did not know what to say.
I didn’t have to say a thing. Huaji took my hand and led me to her hut where a metate was laid and soft cloth piled on top. She loosened the blanket around her chest and allowed it to fall to the ground.
“Tonight, big man, I am yours.” She moved closer to me and removed my loincloth.
Panic ran through my veins. Thoughts of Sunshine flooded my head. Exhilaration besieged me. Huaji’s lovemaking was active, forceful and vibrant. She made sure her needs were fulfilled and then did all she had to satisfy me. It was a night of wonder and excitement and the ultimate act culminated with a calabash full of the delightful elixir, chocolatl.
Instead of feeling satisfied, this only left me wanting more; I needed an abundant supply of cacao beans and sugar cane to make my own. We would have to plant chile to add the bolster needed and we would have to find large cauldrons in which to whip the intoxicating drink.
Measures had to be taken. I had something that the Huastecas didn’t and that the Spaniards craved; our tobacco leaves would give me leverage to negotiate for chocolatl.
There were many Huasteca ways that I did not understand. Their idea of marriage was most baffling. It would be many moons before I could live with her, for there were preparations she had to do, there were chants she had to learn and, there was a particular practice that she had to master before a ceremony could take place. For three moon cycles, I had to be content with visiting her. On a full moon night, Huaji and I rested on a metate, like we had so many times before but, she was unquiet.
Move your large body! Can’t you see you are running me out of the metate, imbecile?”
“This mat is not woven for two people, Huaji. What do you want me to do?” I said in Castilian.
“Go to sleep and stop moving around.” She turned around and began to snore. I knew she was pretending.
Lately, every time we were intimate seemed to pull us apart; our encounters were full of confusion and ill will and the act got me no closer to the heavenly potion her people had so freely offered in the beginning. I had moved earth and boulders for her leader, but still, it wasn’t enough to get more chocolatl.
We were indeed different people, Huaji and I. She possessed a different sense of what a woman ought to do to please a man. Many times that night, she protested that according to a goddess she called Tlazolteotl, this was not the right time for her and, should she wake with child, the baby would come out an imbecile.
“What do you mean Huaji?” I caressed her silky black hair. “Our bodies feel warm together, no?” By now, the singsong contortions of the Castilian language did not seem that impenetrable to me and we communicated well when our waters flowed in the same direction.
“It’s not that Yaya,” she cuddled closer to me and used her secret name for me. “Huasteca girls, we have our ways and don’t sleep with a man only for pleasure. Our nation is in danger. Every day, we see new oppressors appear, new diseases come to our land, more and more of our children are born without life. Women know what we must do, and that is how come we have our ways. Our ways are Tlazolteotl’s ways too.”
At that moment, I cared not about ‘lazo’ or ‘totl’ or whether it would ever be possible to live with this woman in peace. The magic of the chocolatl drink, combined with her glowing skin the same colour as the elixir filled me with desire. If we spawned an imbecile, so be it.
The following morning, Huaji warned me, “When the colonists came to disrupt everything in this land, they demanded we pay taxes, and we paid the tax so that they would leave us alone. They left us to our resources, but we still cannot own the land in which we were born. This is what the Viceroys think is fair trade.”
"I don't understand. You belong to the land you were born, how is it that the Spaniards have held over your land?"
Huaji picked objects around her, without any purpose, and began to fling them left and right. "You have SO much to learn still! For your people, Yaya, there is nothing on your side. The Inquisition sees you as heretics because you are slaves who outwitted your rightful masters. Escaped slaves are bound to burn at the stake—or worse.” She lowered her head and muttered, "Just be careful in the jungle, listen to what She has to say to you and follow Her intuition. You will always come out if you listen to the forest."
"I will Huaji; I shall. Take care of yourself and your people, especially the old man; he looks as if he is about to take flight into the afterworld."
“The gods have assured us that, for now, we shall run in tune with the planets, a good thing for all.”
To return to the cave, I climbed a tree trunk to the jungle’s canopy and from there, swung from vine to vine. I planned where to plant the three cacao seeds the old man gave me and dreamt of how to start my chocolatl production. This would help my Palenque prosper. Our first tobacco crop was a wasted effort. Once we could not sell it to Madef, I did not know what to do with the leaves. With time, they dried out and turned into a crisp that vanished in the wind. Shanika found a buyer for our second crop. She said that because the man was a true Iberian, he was exporting the leaves to Spain and this was good for us, as this would increase the demand. The addition of chocolatl to our offerings would net a silver mine. I took hold of a branch and jumped to the next tree.
I wondered what Huaji meant when she had said that the women in her village knew what to do about her people's survival. Swinging to the next treetop, I conjured ways in which her tribe and mine could live together and learn from one another. I stretched to take hold of another branch, but it cracked and gave way. I seized another branch, just before falling out of the tree. Recovering, I continued to swing from tree to tree.
I thought of how glad Olamide and Osumare would be when they got hold of the different materials Huaji’s people used in their clothing. I smiled when I thought of Shanika coming to visit one day and finding a Palenque twice as big, full of brown and black people, drinking chocolatl and selling tobacco when—
“Al demónio!” My heart sank at the sound of the familiar voice. A lance landed on the branch from where I hung.
“Es Yanga! Idiotas, captúrenlo!” the sound of Capitán González de Herrera’s voice made me feel heavy and terrified. He ordered his infantry of brutes to capture me. “By God’s bones, I want this heretic alive!”
Trapped, there was nothing to do. There was a thick knot of branches further ahead, but I’d have to swing past two branches before reaching them, and González de Herrera's men were right under me. My heart sunk to my stomach. “Are you all a bunch of sissies? Capture him!”
The soldiers looked up at me, holding tight on to a vine, starting to swing left and right to see if I could reach the branches to hide. The men below did nothing.
“Shoot at him, idiots! Do something!” González de Herrera pointed his weapon at me. His harquebus let out a roar, but his shot flew far past me. I kept swinging, roaring with all my might and flung the vine from which I hung in wild circles. Some of the soldiers fled, others knelt and crossed their bodies frantically with one hand, sweating and whispering to themselves.
“Lord! Why me? Get up, you good-for-nothings, get up!”
The captain shouted at the soldiers, he flung sticks and stones, but his soldiers' response was the same; it was as if the soldiers frozen with fear. I howled.
“Load your muskets, calamitous girls! Loose them!”
Before the petrified men were able to load their weapons, I grabbed a vine and flew to the next treetop. González de Herrera flung his sword toward me. It sliced through the vine like a hot twig through shea butter, landing me into the enemy’s hands.
“Puercos! Malditos!” I hurled insults at my captors. “Go to hell!”
During the past four years, I had learned from observation and from what Huaji and Shanika confirmed; the Spanish Armada was able to withstand many perils, both at sea and on land, but if someone dared to insult their standing in society, the hurler of insults was as good as dead.
González de Herrera neared me with squinting eyes. “Your clumsy dark face has haunted me for many a moon Yanga….” he hissed. “From the day I entered your village and took your woman you have haunted me. You defied me on the galleon by jumping, and now you have managed to elude me for years but, no more amigo. You are mine! I always knew you were alive.”
He flaunted his cape and smiled. “I have been dreaming about this day. By God’s bones, you were lucky to escape, El Almirante but your luck is about to evaporate into the thick air of the jungle.”
He paused and curtsied, "But, lest I forget, the King of Spain owes you a heartfelt note of gratitude. After that unfortunate mischance when you, and the ones you cajoled, jumped out of the galleon like the monkeys you all are, we were summoned to place nets around our fleet to prevent other fools such as yourselves from escaping by jumping into the sea." His dark, beady eyes penetrated mine. "Do you want to know what our prudent King Phillip the Second has in store for you?" His laughter hooted into the jungle.
Knowing this was the worst thing I could do, I spat on his pointy beard and shouted, “Al carajo!”