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A densely layered journey into the dark heart of the American Dream that spans continents and centuries
In Bradford Morrow?s debut novel, lightning-tongued mercenary Peter Krieger travels to Nicaragua to kidnap a man who may be a 480-year-old former conquistador?and therefore could hold the secret to immortality. When Krieger attempts to sell his captive to a reclusive scientist in upstate New York, he sets off on a globe-spanning expedition, in which he encounters an enormous ...
A densely layered journey into the dark heart of the American Dream that spans continents and centuries
In Bradford Morrow’s debut novel, lightning-tongued mercenary Peter Krieger travels to Nicaragua to kidnap a man who may be a 480-year-old former conquistador—and therefore could hold the secret to immortality. When Krieger attempts to sell his captive to a reclusive scientist in upstate New York, he sets off on a globe-spanning expedition, in which he encounters an enormous cast of idealists, crackpots, and revolutionaries. And his one-time lover, Hannah Burden, who raises cattle in an illegal loft ranch in Manhattan, still stands between him and his nefarious, astonishing ambitions. A rousingly hilarious, yet tragic epic about the dark side of the American Dream, Come Sunday is fueled by Morrow’s captivating style, breadth of reference, and depth of insight, and spins old myths of the New World into unexpected and haunting forms.
The History of It
THERE WAS A crackle, like air tearing. It issued from the long, low valley where an orchid-shaped burst rose away into twilight, warm, and the crescent of faint climbing moon tangled with jungle. The flower collapsed into smoke. Afterward it was dissolved by rivers, waterfalls, and breezes.
Undisturbed, the man continued with his dictation. Even as he spoke the fighting could be heard below, for it had crept up here past the border. He paced the dirt yard, tending to his own magnificent slowness, each step creating a diffusion of rumplings and wrinkles across his suit, and read aloud from his notes. Dusky sun through the trees beaded the wide dome of his head, ran across his cheeks, into his eyes. Opposite the moon—itself some mineral flower, a single petal viewed from the side—it played through his thinned bluish hair as a fresh series of fanning blasts broke over the saddle ridge out behind. Quiet. For a moment too long, more quiet. Then a deafening barrage, but farther away, and he finally paused to listen, against his own will really, against some sense of discretion in the face of habit's ruin. He identified weapons and the general movement of the troops (moronic children) and felt assured that again tonight the fire would not find its way up to his poor bolsón, his pocket in the midst of the struggle—this group of unguarded adobe houses pitched together at angles that conformed to the rugged terrain covered in brazil wood, wild groves of lemon and orange, cacao festooned with air plants.
When first he had come here the buildings were abandoned by all but a family of monkeys. The clay tile roof of one had fallen in and lay inside a shell of rotting stucco overgrown with vines. With the help of his brother the compound was made habitable. The man lived here in the hope that a turn of fortune would soon take place. He was safe, but he was in exile. Gone was the epoch of comfort when his parents owned plantations spread up and down the resplendent coffee-bearing mountains back in the district of Jinotega. After the government fell the family dispersed in fear to different countries, and the control they'd held over the region for many decades was abrogated by the junta. For four and a half years he had subsisted at the outskirts of El Paraiso north past Nueva Segovia and the homeland, suspended in a limbo from which he tried to solve the problem of how to reclaim his property and assume once more the traditional and, he believed, rightful powers which attend land owned by men. Never would he be at peace with such poverty. Even the kites and hawks that soared in circles on the thermals mocked the one who lived there, so abject, under the crumbling roofs. Still, despite the difficulties of his present state, he managed to remain fat.
All the while the idea had festered. It was all in the letter, all prologue, background for the sales pitch. Would it come through as they had intended?
"Where words are gathered together today,
uttered with care, or stuttered in disarray,
a sales pitch is found not far away—"
Krieger had said that. Krieger, of course. Inevitably Krieger, thought the fat man: white-lipped, disheveled, restless Krieger. He was there, too, and had been watching as the exile's daughter, tongue caught at the corner of her mouth, took down what her father had put together from two sources, history and whimsy. Takes a lot of truth to tell a lie—another Kriegerism.
Meantime rhythmical popping, then nothing. Had someone died? The coming coffee harvest, like religious holidays, could impede the progress of battle. This is why the mountains had been swarming with boys and girls, young warriors running through mined fields, falling down the steep rows of spent cornstalks, dying these recent weeks. Every side was pressing for victory, though none seemed to be at hand for anyone. The fat man, who knew this, leaned against the whitewashed wall and began once more to work on the letter which Krieger would later take to Danlí and mail with other prospectuses and what they referred to as the epistles.
"Let's give it another try, let's ignore them, shall we? so then, Dear Owen Berkeley, your letter to hand, for which very many thanks."
Krieger allowed himself a little disavowing laugh, eyes down, knuckles of one hand pressed to his mouth; he hitched up his pants. Could use a new belt, cheap alligator, the brass plating tarnished and chipping away.
"What," asked the fat man.
Krieger mimicked the other's deeper voice, "Dear Berkeley, your letter to hand?"
"So what kind of line is that—to hand? Letters don't come to hand anymore, except in expensive finishing schools—you sound like somebody's goddamn polo pony sitting down to tea and tomato sandwiches."
The other daubed the back of his neck with the sheaf of notes, and continued, as if Krieger had not spoken at all, "It was in the mouth of the Black River, whose fresh waters still wash into the salt waves near Trujillo, that the tall-browed, melancholy-eyed, half-blind Columbus, on his fourth and final voyage, El Alto Viaje, as it's known, landed for the first time in Central America, 1502. This was as close as the mighty explorer would ever come to that great country of yours north up the continent."
"Insert," Krieger interrupted. He had come up to the thatched veranda. "That great country of yours where every October the air is filled with apple cider and baseball injuries and the kiddies singing In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue and the kiddies stand up and look out the windows with their lazy little beady little eyes into the gold and red trees and begin reciting how the three boats, the Niña the Pinta the Santa Maria, with those pretty Maltese crosses painted in red on their little Vacuform plastic sails passed proud behind the shadow of the Statue of Liberty straight into the Potomac where Columbus was quickly elected first President. He was a good President, too, made many wondrous discoveries such as The earth is round not flat, so your schoolteachers will tell you whereas in fact he calculated that it was shaped like a pear, and attached to the bulge of this pear was a large mountain shaped precisely like a woman's breast—"
"—on the cosmic nipple of which the Terrestrial Paradise was located, a theory which naturally gave Ferdinand and Isabella reason to pause, wonder what the hell kind of operation the Spanish royalty was subsidizing out there in the land of Oz. I mean, clearly this wasn't Kansas anymore was it, Toto?"
Eyes grown darker, the girl looked away to where an iguana slept, long, black-green, its shabby headcrest blown like a tired pennant in the breeze, lying along the wall where a puff of dust kicked up under the stone Krieger had tossed at it. A sow caked in red mud crossed the clearing unaccosted, stumbled on its skinny, hoary legs down into a thicket canopied by leaves in a dense shade. Several more stones casually were lobbed to tumble innocent into bougainvillea beside the speckled lizard that remained oblivious to the game.
"How did you know that? about the earthly paradise?"
Krieger was gathering rocks along the wall.
"I want you to stay out of my room, Krieger, understood? and watch your language around Perdita."
The iguana had vanished before the girl pared a finer point on her pencil with a shard of glass and licked the lead, and she saw her father again draw the manuscript across the back of his neck. Loose-limbed, Krieger strolled to the smaller house, where he had put up; he had been down here not quite a week and it was time for him to leave. In Danlí, the small town due north which had a road that led to the capital, he would go about getting the supplies needed, and also make the purchase neither his colleague nor anyone else would know about until much later. Afterward, he would undertake the difficult ride back out southeast into the remotest and most pristine range; there he would meet Lupi. Behind him he could hear the fat man clear his throat, moist gurgling, and proceed with his dictation. Krieger smirked and thought, Chingadero. Fucker.
"During his earlier voyages Columbus succeeded in discovering most of the major islands that constitute the West Indies Antilles, and had set anchor in the Gulf of Paria to claim Venezuela, but never had he landed on the continent so far north, nor would he walk on mainland so close to what would eventually become the United States. Having pierced the Caribbean archipelago by early summer 1502, his small flotilla of four ships, caravels manned by a hundred forty hands, men and boys, had come upon the Spanish-claimed island of Hispaniola at June's end.
"Seeing that his largest caravel was damaged and in need of refitting and repair, and that his provisions were low, Columbus sent a boat ashore requesting permission to enter the harbor so that he could stock his fleet with fresh supplies, mend the ships, and sit out in port the hurricane that he predicted was coming up from South America. But the governor of Hispaniola, Don Nicolás de Ovando, refused him this request for a number of reasons that for our purposes we need not go into, and so Columbus was forced to anchor on the island's lee side to wait out the storm.
"The hurricane fell with a fury over the island. Everything was chaos.
All the caravels but his own were blown out as helpless tatters into the chocolate sea. Ovando's fleet was also destroyed. But true to the Spaniard in himself (one realizes Columbus was Italian, but it was, I would like to suggest, his Spaniard's heart that saw him through his troubles) he did not give up. A second fleet was recruited at Azua and by mid-July he set once more a westward course, this time for Jamaica.
"Under full sail they threaded the shoals in Jardín de la Reyna, the Queen's Garden, named during an earlier expedition in the honor of Isabella, and were carried over the high, dull bowl of salt water midway between the Cayman Isles and what is known as the Rosilind Bank until the small island of Guanaja (or Bonacca, as it is called) was sighted from the crow's nest. It was here that he learned from an old Indian of a great unbroken stretch of land just a short distance farther west. From the description this Indian gave him, using sign language and tracing maps in the sand, Columbus assumed the grand empire of the Khan, or China itself, was finally at hand. There was great excitement on board the ships—only forty miles of water lay between them and China?
"They set out for the coast. But more disappointment was to come. The waves were too high for the fleet to make an anchorage. After sailing within sight of its shores they were forced to steer as far south as the fifteenth parallel, to where Nicaragua's border now lies, Cabo Gracias a Dios, yet still discovered no safe place to moor. By now the crew was exhausted, even mutinous; the ship's hulls were full of sea worms' holes and taking on water; supplies were running low again. Columbus ordered them to tack back on a north-northeast heading up the coast and, in heavy green breakers churned up by a winter storm, they finally came upon an embouchure, the mouth of a calm river, where they cast anchors, and marveled at the reflected shadows of flocks of birds that raced under the clouds. The foliage was rich and various, the soil was of a black-red. Columbus commanded his men to begin building. And so it came to pass that this, the first Spanish settlement in the American continent, was christened Belém. What a sight it must have been. By spring, their huts dotted the shoreline, and smoke of fried fish went up into the air. Because the windswept coast—which extended up toward Punta Castilla and back to Laguna de Guaymoreto where the Aguán River drains into the Caribbean—because it had been so difficult of access and was bounded by such deep, wild waters, this country which Columbus had claimed for Spain was called Honduras, or The Depths.
"Belém, as we know, was not destined to survive for very long. The settlers argued with the natives. A cacique (local chieftain) was taken prisoner, but he soon escaped, mustered together an army of natives, and returned to destroy the village. Unprepared to defend themselves, Columbus's men fled for the ships. One caravel ran aground a sandbar and had to be abandoned under the shower of spears; the others escaped to Cuba. And so it was that Columbus's dream of leaving his sons an estate in the New World was not to be realized. He made passage back to Spain, where he died three years later, destitute and brokenhearted."
The fat one paused here, glanced around to see if Krieger was anywhere nearby, leaned over and kissed his daughter on the head. She squinted up at him. His face was thick in all its elements, lips, nose, black doughy skin under the eyes. His shirt was missing a button. He returned the squint, teasing, and thought, Her arms are lovely brown like her mother's but thin as bamboo. He searched his pockets for a match, found a half-smoked corn cigarette, lit it, went on with the epistle.
"Two decades passed before the first permanent Spanish settlement appeared on the Honduran coast. That was in 1524. The famous conquistador Hernando Cortés"—the names he spelled out for her from the encyclopedia he had used as a crib—"who'd already defeated Montezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, now the site of Mexico City, heard rumors of empires south of Guatemala whose wealth in gold, silver, and opals was inestimable. According to traveling merchants, gold was so common that Jicaques fishermen used gold weights for their nets. South too they said was where the fabled fountain of youth ran. Endless wealth. Eternal youth. The two deliria of those Europeans who'd come to the New World in the dawn of the sixteenth century. Cortés was not immune to them, these dreams, but who could be? He dispatched his most trusted lieutenant, a man whose name was Olid, to set up a colony in Honduras—an armed outpost where conquistadors loyal to himself might come appropriate these riches.
"Under the command of Olid these settlers set sail. Their flotilla hugged the coast around the Yucatán Peninsula down through the Gulf of Honduras. They enjoyed fair weather during their passage and after some weeks came into the bay, Bahía de Omoa, where they landed and found a sufficiency of fish and game, groves of bananas, and fertile soil for crops, a protected inlet, immediate fresh water feeding down away from a stream. Here Olid halted and ordered his men to cut trees, make a clearing, begin building a settlement they called Naco. What would happen in Naco those first months even the prophetic and wary Cortés could not have predicted. Who could have guessed that Olid would suddenly decide to make a bid for his own independence, to excuse himself from the universe and against all odds establish himself as the prince of his own distant land?
"As a soldier Olid had been well known to Cortés. Having joined Cortés in the earliest stages of conquest (the same time as Pedro de Alvarado, Alonso de Avila, Juan Velásquez, Alonso Hernández, Gonzalo de Sandoval, and other famous hidalgos), Olid had proved himself to be a courageous and intelligent officer. Spanish insurrectionaries who in 1521 had plotted to murder Cortés and take over rule of Mexico knew that Cristóbal de Olid would also have to be murdered for their scheme to succeed. This is how faithful an officer he was.
"But Olid's temptation was too great to suppress. Cortés seemed so far away, so preoccupied with maintaining rule over the immense empire of Mexico that he would never bother to come to Honduras to reassert his authority. So, as those first huts were erected in Naco, it occurred to Olid he might begin to secure the allegiance of his men by showing himself to be very generous and equitable. Each man was apportioned a tract of land of his own. Gold was discovered in the local rivers and was stockpiled. Crops were planted. Local tribesmen were befriended and native women taken into the compound. Soon enough, even the plans to send forth an expedition to discover the Atlantic-Pacific passage (which if successful would make them all rich) were scuttled. Here was all that was needed. Olid met with little opposition. He was a beneficent dictator. His colony thrived. Like the lotus eaters his men lost interest in any kind of reality beyond the comforts of this land where they'd arrived.
"Now then, news of Olid's seditious behavior reached Cortés through Indian traders. It was inevitable he would find out, inevitable he would take swift action. Under Captain Francisco de Las Casas a caravel of soldiers was sent to Honduras with orders to locate Olid and place him under arrest. Their ship ran into heavy seas in the last leg of its journey and was shipwrecked on the coast near Naco. Las Casas and his crew were easily captured by Olid. When reports of this misfortune reached Cortés it became obvious that he himself would have to right matters. Contrary to what Olid had predicted, Cortés dropped everything he was doing and gathered together an army to reestablish dominion in Honduras. It would turn out to be the hardest march he ever undertook, over the rugged mountains of southern Mexico and Guatemala.
Excerpted from Come Sunday by Bradford Morrow. Copyright © 1988 Bradford Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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