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Excerpt from Chapter 1
BY THE COCK THAT CREW FOR OUR HOLY APOSTLE ST. PETER, BY THE bronze horse of Toledo and the six bishops of Valladolid, I swear that all I put down here is the truth. There is nothing else but the truth in this fateful story.
On an April morning of bright skies, after days of gentle rain, I was rousted from dreams with the point of a Toledo blade. It was a friendly jab Don Luis gave me, but meaningful nonetheless.
"Father Medina," said Don Luis, "has broken two of his legs. Had he more than two, the good father would have broken them also."
"How?" I blurted out. "Where?"
"No matter how and where. The legs are broken and I need two more to take their place. Sturdy legs. Yours, Julián Escobar. I need them today."
Dazed, I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
"Why me?" I stammered. "There are others. Father Expoleta, for one."
"Father Expoleta is old and, like the old, very set in his thoughts."
"But, sir," I said.
"Everything is arranged."
"But, sir," I repeated, staggering into my woolen shortclothes. "How can I take the place of Father Medina? He is a priest, while I am only a seminarian. I am ignorant of God's ways. I have barely begun my studies."
"Your studies can continue in the New World. On the island of
"But my teachers are here," I protested. "My books are here. My friends. My mother. The cathedral of Seville, where I was baptized. The village of Arroyo, where I was born and wish to serve God. All are here, sir."
"God resides everywhere. Not here alone, but in the New World also. Even among the savages, who have never heard of Him. Among them especially. It will be your privilege to bring them His love."
"Your duty as a Christian, I should say."
"Yes, because you will have power over them. These dark people will stand in awe of you, tall and fair haired as you are. Your voice will charm them as well. And your words, though they do lean toward the Latinate, will cast a spell upon them."
"But the words I speak are Spanish."
"Words are words. It is the sound of words that alerts the mind and soothes the heart. Not so much the words themselves."
As I brushed my hair, glancing in the mirror that hung beside my bunk, I was astonished to see my openmouthed face.
"Not to mention your talents as a musician," Don Luis said. "The gittern, which you play sweetly, like an archangel. Like Gabriel himself."
I began to quibble. "Gabriel does not play the gittern. He plays a horn."
"I see you standing there in the jungle, surrounded by savage hundreds."
From the tone of his voice, I think he did see me standing in the jungle surrounded by savages.
"I hear your voice. I hear the sweet notes of your gittern dropping like honey. You will save many souls. Hundreds, thousands, far more than you ever will save here."
I continued my quibbling, meanwhile summoning the courage to face him down. "I lack clothes for the expedition. Where do I get them?" I said.
"Use those of Father Medina, he of the two broken legs, who fell into an open cesspool while walking along in broad daylight, reading. Reading causes many misfortunes."
"He is half my size."
"We are not going to a fiesta."
"But, sir, I am awkward on a horse."
"True enough. Therefore, like your beloved Saint Francis, you will walk."
"I become seasick," I said.
"How do you know? In all your sixteen years, you have never set foot upon the deck of a ship."
"Just standing on the shore and watching the waves come and go makes my stomach churn."
Don Luis squinted his eyes. It was his manner of smiling. He smiled easily. He could squint his eyes as he stuck a sword smack into your gizzard. Then he sur prised me by touching my shoulder. Although he was only twenty-seven, it was a fatherly hand he laid upon me.
"You are so absorbed in your studies," he said, "I doubt you have heard about the island granted to me by my cousin."
"I have heard."
"Do you know that it is twenty leagues in length and a full nine leagues in width?"
I nodded. For the past ten months, since the day the grant was made, there had been much talk about it in our village. In the last month, since Don Luis bought the caravel Santa Margarita, the countryside talked of little else. And the people of Seville knew about it, too. Carts and mules loaded with dried peas, salted fish and beef, oatmeal, firkins of flour, brown biscuits, white biscuits, and casks of wine left the Arroyo farms every week and clattered through the streets on their way to the river dock.
"You know," Don Luis continued, "that the island of Buenaventura has thousands of hectares of rich land, where, it is said, anything will grow. You only need to drop a seed on the earth and jump out of the way. Also, trees filled with all kinds of fabulous fruit never served here in Spain."
"And gold. The Indians pluck it with their fingers from the common ground they tread upon."
"Yes, I have heard this. Likewise that these savages make necklaces of gold so heavy it takes a strong man to wear one."
"And bowls of gold they eat gruel from."
"You will be a rich man," I said, without envy. "Richer than you are now. You will rival the king in riches."
I walked to the door and looked out. It was a beautiful morning. A silvery mist lay over the new-plowed fields. Far off, the spires of Seville caught the first rays of the sun. Birds were singing. I turned around to face Don Luis.
He slipped his sword in its sheath. He smiled. "We leave Arroyo at noon," he said. "We sail from Seville tomorrow at dawn."
I was silent, summoning the courage to speak my mind. It was not easy. Don Luis was a young man ac customed to being obeyed. He had done much for me. When my father had fallen mortally ill, he had forgiven my mother the family debts. Though she was in poor health and could work but little, he kept her on as a servant in his household. It was he who had made it possible for me to attend the seminary of St. Jude.
"I am honored that you wish me to go to the New World, but my ties are here," I said, repeating myself. "My companions, my school, and the people I hope to serve someday."
Don Luis smiled. "The village of Arroyo," he said, "which you wish to serve, possesses 192 inhabitants. Added to this number are the 107 who work for me, making a total of 299. In New Spain, on the island of Buenaventura, according to what I am told, there are more than two thousand Indians. These are savages who have never heard of God. Who are fated to die without ever knowing Him." A very devout Christian, Don Luis paused to cross himself. "The people of our village need you," he went on, "but the savages of Buenaventura need you more. It is clear to me where your duty lies."
"But I'm not a priest. I still have two years of study."
"You can continue your studies in New Spain. The bishop of Burgos is my close friend. It was through his influence that I was granted the encomienda. He will ar range this through the church in Hispaniola. What is more, once he takes you under his wing, once you have established yourself as a powerful saver of souls, opportunities you never dreamed of will come your way. You will not be stuck in the village of Arroyo for the rest of your lifebaptizing babies, marrying the young, burying the old. This I promise you: one day you your self will become a bishop. As powerful as the bishop of Burgos."
Looking back now, years after that spring morning, I realize it was then, at the very moment when Don Luis spoke these words and I clearly saw before me a world of service I had never dreamed of before, that I made my decision.